AN EXAMINATION OF SOME NEW THEORIES OF WAR
by Spenser Wilkinson
EDITOR'S NOTE : This reading is a response to Basil Liddell Hart's book, The Remaking of Modern Armies (London: J. Murray, 1927). Spenser Wilkinson was from about 1895 to 1930 one of the most prominent military historians, journalists, educators, and strategic thinkers in Britain. Wilkinson was much more positive in his expressed view of Clausewitz than was Liddell Hart, but equally unimpressed with the strategic leadership shown in the Great War. He points out something that a number of later writer also noticed: that Liddell Hart's criticisms of Clausewitz themselves contain a great number of very thinly paraphrased Clausewitzian concepts. If you read Liddell Hart closely, you will probably see that Liddell Hart is less critical of Clausewitz than of Clausewitz's "disciples"—that is, his fundamental complaint is not about Clausewitz's ideas, which he clearly draws upon himself, but of the allegedly difficult way in which they were expressed and of his disciples' consequent misinterpretations of them. Wilkinson's title here is a double entendre, referring both to Liddell Hart's argument that bombing civilian cities with lethal poison gas was a legitimate act of war and to the proper treatment of such arguments.
Famed historian of the Napoleonic Wars John Hussey sent us a note in June 2019 regarding this article. He points out that Wilkinson's critique inevitably provoked a wordy and not entirely honest reply from BHLH (in AQ 15 (2) of Jan 1928, pp.396-401) running to nearly 2500 words. The editor sent this to SW, whose reply of under 600 words, pp.401-2, put down the Great Captain (i.e., Liddell Hart) in masterly fashion. The pernicious effect of BHLH's doctrines was gradually exposed in a long series of exchanges between him, 'Strategicus', and Sir James Edmonds in The Spectator weekly magazine starting in Feb 1940 about lessons of the Russo-Finnish war, culminating in May 1940 when the German offensive in France destroyed BHLH's fantasies on the inviolability of the Defensive. [As John Mearsheimer discusses in his book Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (Cornell University Press, 1988), Liddell Hart spent years working to revise the historical record so as to paint himself as a great prophet of developments in World War II (and blaming Clausewitz for the idea that the defense would always win—which is very far indeed from what Clausewitz meant when he described the inherently stronger character of the defensive form of operations.]
Hussey also notes that Wilkinson's title is taken from a pamphlet of 1657, "Killing No Murder," an attack on Oliver Cromwell's increasingly regal pretensions (see Charles Firth's The Last Years of the Protectorate, vol 1, p.228).
See also Wilkinson's article "Strategy in the Navy" (1909), a critique of the equally—but quite different—Clausewitzian, navalist Julian Stafford Corbett.
COPYRIGHT : This article originally appeared in Britain's Army Quarterly, v.15 (October 1927) a venerable but lively publication which until c.2000 still existed as Army Quarterly & Defence Journal. We have tried but failed to locate the publishers, and have finally decided to post this very interesting work pending permission from whoever holds the copyright. If you know the answer to that question, please inform the Clausewitz Homepage editor.
In his latest work, The Remaking of Modern Armies, Captain Liddell Hart takes up an idea which was thrown out many years ago by one of the most brilliant military writers of the last century, the late Baron von der Goltz. The author of The Nation in Arms suggested that perhaps one day the enormous armies produced by universal compulsory service would be replaced by small, highly-trained, quick-moving professional armies, and that at the head of such a force a new Alexander might emulate the exploits of his prototype. In Captain Liddell Hart's forecast the weapons of the army of the future are to be the bullet, the shell, and gas; the bullet to be fired by the machine gun or other automatic rifle, these arms and the gun to be wielded by men carried in tanks or analogous vehicles moving quickly and freely across the face of the country. Foot soldiers will be merely auxiliary to the tanks, and cavalry will be employed only for that close scouting which is beyond the power of the aeroplanes. These suggestions are attractively set forth and vigorously pressed. I have not the technical knowledge which would justify an independent opinion as to the mechanical details. They will certainly give the General Staff of the Army plenty to think about, for they cannot lightly be either accepted or rejected.
In his central chapter entitled "The Napoleonic Fallacy," the author propounds a new theory of war and denounces "the orthodox schools" of military thought. He sets out to show that the Napoleonic doctrine of warfare is wrong and that to its acceptance by the General Staffs of the Great Powers is due the deplorable condition to which Europe has been reduced as the outcome of the late war. I have read this chapter with some perplexity, because what has hitherto attracted me to Captain Liddell Hart's writings is his grasp of what Napoleon, borrowing an expression from eighteenth-century French writers, called "the sublime parts of the art of war"; and what modern writers call its psychological aspect. My notion of orthodox doctrine is quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus [what is always, what is everywhere, what applies to everything]. It is the view of war obtained by observing that which is common to the practice of all the great captains, from Alexander to the elder Moltke, and I imagine that that is the theory of which Captain Liddell Hart is an apostle. If he means by orthodox the theories which from time to time have had a passing vogue in the schools of the modern General Staffs, I should be untroubled. I have watched such doctrines come and go. There was the bubble of the avantgarde générale, blown large by General Bonnal and pricked by General Colin. There was the doctrine of the offensive á outrance (offensive to the extreme), which possessed first the French and then the British General Staff on the eve of the war, with disastrous consequences. There was, as no one has better pointed out than Captain Liddell Hart, the reaction in France from the sound doctrines concerning dispersed order of the admirable French report on infantry tactics of 1875. This was an unhappy retransfer of faith from the bullet to the target. I should like to persuade Captain Liddell Hart that he is himself a disciple, in my sense, of the orthodox school, and that in this chapter he is propounding a paradox. It turns out that he is after that old will o' the wisp, victory without battles or bloodshed.
"When we take stock," he says, "of the appalling cost of the war in lives and money and our national exhaustion, we are surely justified in questioning whether the strategic aim and direction were sound." That is a proposition that no one will dispute.
Captain Liddell Hart describes as Napoleonic the belief "that the national object in war can only be gained by decisive battle and by the destruction of the main mass of the enemy's armed forces." He goes on: "the Great Powers have narrowed and distorted their whole conception of war; to this fundamental error is due the general state of financial, commercial, and moral decline and even bankruptcy to which the nations of Europe, in greater or lesser degree, are now reduced.... What was the object of our military strategy? The memoirs and despatches of the military leaders responsible for the formulation and execution of it reveal that it was the destruction of the enemy's armed forces in the main theatre of war. The attainment of this object took us over four years, cost this country nearly a million lives and an expenditure of roughly 5,000,000 a day."
On this I venture to point out that, although the most eminent soldiers thought the right plan would be to aim at the destruction of the enemy's armed forces in the main theatre of war, i.e. the German Armies on the Western Front, this plan was not consistently carried out. Instead, very large armies were sent to regions far away from the Western Front and devoted to campaigns in subsidiary theatres of war, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine and Macedonia. Moreover, the object of the destruction of the enemy's forces in the main theatre of war was not attained. The German Armies on the Western Front were not "destroyed." They conducted their retreat without overwhelming disaster until the Armistice, which was due, in some measure at least, to the naval blockade of Germany.
The long duration of the war and its excessive losses, which Captain Liddell Hart attributes to the plan of concentration on the Western Front, might therefore with equal reason be set down to the non-execution of that plan and to the dispersion of the Allied forces over many theatres of war.
Neither of these sweeping statements is adequate. Success and failure in war arise from a multitude of conditions which cannot be reduced under a single head. Jomini, discussing in October, 1866, the defeat of Austria by Prussia, wrote, "these astonishing successes were brought about by a combination of those general causes which influence the fate of Empires, in the first rank among which we may in this case place the neglect on one side of the principles of strategy and on the other side their application." During the first year of the late war the principles of strategy were persistently neglected, as they usually are by the Governments of a Coalition.
"Nothing," said Napoleon, "is more important in war than unity of command." But in 1914 the enunciation of this principle struck on deaf ears.
The most ardent advocate of dispersion will probably agree that the German invasion of France in 1914 had to be met in the theatre of war where it took place. Its initial success was admittedly due to two mistakes made by the Allies. "The art of war," said Napoleon, "has invariable principles, of which the main purpose is to guarantee armies against the mistakes of their leaders concerning the enemy's strength." The first of these principles is always to act with the whole of your forces. The French made the mistake of supposing that the Germans would not put reserve divisions in the first line, they therefore kept back their own reserve divisions and so were greatly outnumbered. The British Government instead of sending to France as many troops as possible, and as fast as possible, sent in the first instance only four divisions and kept back the Territorials. Moreover, the French plan of campaign was foredoomed; it failed to reckon with the most effective stroke open to the Germans, the march through Belgium, and counted upon an invasion of Alsace and Lorraine, which, even if successful, would not immediately threaten either the communications of the German Army or any vital point in Germany, and would still have to deal with the three great fortresses, Metz, Strassbourg and Mainz, while it was evident that a German victory on the Belgian frontier would directly threaten both Paris and the communications of the French Army in Alsace-Lorraine. It was in these first struggles, the battles along the frontier and the retreat, that the French suffered their heaviest losses.
The battle of the Marne, as has been shown by General Camon, was of the Napoleonic type. Napoleon's normal plan was first to engage the enemy along his whole front, then to attack one of his flanks by a detachment brought up by surprise. To meet this flank attack, the enemy must form a new front at a right angle to the end of his original front, thus withdrawing troops from some portion of his line between the attacked flank and the centre. Against the thus weakened point of the enemy's original front Napoleon then directed a decisive attack delivered by troops kept in reserve for the purpose. At the Marne the flank attack was delivered by Maunoury's Army. The gap produced was between the German First and Second Armies. At this gap the British Expeditionary Force was to strike. If a heavy enough blow had then been delivered, Camon thinks that the German Army would have been dislocated and would have had to retreat out of France. Perhaps the Expeditionary Force was not large enough to form the masse de rupture suggested by General Camon, but in any case the effect was not produced, as Sir John French had continued his retreat too far and started the advance from a line twelve to fifteen miles in rear of the position in which the French Commander-in-Chief expected it to be. A consequence of this delay was that the British troops reached the Aisne just an hour too late to be able to secure the position beyond the river before the German reinforcements came up. After that the fighting became stationary and many lives might have been spared if the Allies had made no serious attempt to break through the enemy's lines until they were in such strength as to ensure complete success.
The cardinal principle to be observed in the conduct of war is economy of force, which implies the concentration of effort at the decisive point, and, therefore, the reduction to a minimum of the forces to be used elsewhere. The British Government no sooner had its hands full of the war with Germany than it found itself, inevitably, at war with Turkey. At that time when Rumania, Bulgaria and Greece were neutral, Turkey could take no direct part in the European conflict. The most crushing defeat of the Turks would have no effect whatever on the campaign in France, though it would make possible the supply of the Russian Army by way of the Dardanelles. The worst the Turks could do would be to invade Egypt and to take possession of the oilfields of Lower Mesopotamia. It was thought that any military success of the Turks would have a disturbing effect upon the large Mahommedan population of India. The plan of the General Staff was to land a small army in the Gulf of Alexandretta, where it would hold a position astride of or controlling the Baghdad railway, thus cutting the Turkish Empire in two and rendering impracticable the dispatch of any Turkish troops from Asia Minor either to Egypt or to Mesopotamia. The Turks would be obliged to attack it but could not invest it, as it would always be supplied by sea and could, if necessary, be reinforced. This sound plan was adopted and General Birdwood's Corps was assembled in Egypt and was ready before the middle of February to be moved to Alexandretta. But at the last moment the movement was countermanded, I believe at the request of the French Government, and the Cabinet decided upon a naval attack on the forts of the Dardanelles, "with Constantinople as its ultimate objective." The committee which made this decision was not informed that the plan of an attack on the Dardanelles had been carefully and repeatedly considered in the strategical departments both of the War Office and of the Admiralty, and had in each case been ruled out as impracticable. Moreover, long experience had shown that ships are at a disadvantage in attacking forts, and Admiral Duckworth's expedition in 1806 had shown that a fleet without an army cannot take Constantinople.
The War Council was persuaded to sanction this operation by a list of the advantages which its success would bring; it would cut the Turkish Army in two, it would give us control of Constantinople, it would bring Bulgaria to our side, it would open the way to Russia and to the Danube, and it would be equivalent to a successful campaign with the New Armies. In short, the War Council counted its chickens before they were hatched. The one pertinent question was whether the means available were suitable and adequate for the purpose. The War Cabinet reckoned without the Turkish Army.
Another strategical blunder, another case of the waste of forces, was Mesopotamia. Jomini, the first exponent of the Napoleonic theory, wrote," There occur in almost all campaigns military enterprises undertaken to meet political views, often very important, but often by no means rational, which strategically speaking lead to serious mistakes rather than to useful operations . . . the political objectives adopted in the course of a campaign ought to accord with the principles of strategy, and if not to be postponed until after the decisive victory." Baghdad, at the time when the Government ordered General Townsend to endeavour to take that place, was a political objective; the Government thought that its capture would have a salutary influence on Indian feeling and that it was very desirable to have a victory somewhere. But General Townsend held that it could not be successfully carried out with the force at his disposal. There was therefore no probability of the victory which the Government desired, and the Government apparently neglected to consider the political effect of defeat. No doubt General Townsend's opinion was suppressed, so that the fault was not entirely the Government's, but the Government well understood that in any case large reinforcements would be necessary and must have been aware that those reinforcements could not be supplied in a reasonable time. Thus General Townsend's force and the forces employed in the vain attempts to relieve him were needlessly thrown away.
I have reviewed the events of the first year of the war in order to show that the excessive sacrifices of life, far from being due to the intention of defeating the Germans on the western Front, must be attributed to the violation of elementary strategical principles. Has Captain Liddell Hart forgotten that of 750,000 British dead during the whole war no less than 235,000 (almost a third) fell in the four secondary theatres of war, the Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika, and that the total number of troops employed in these theatres was no less than 1,628,ooo combatants, or, if non-combatants be included, 2,118,000? He would probably admit that some part of Europe's post-war troubles are due as much to mistakes in the peace treaties as to errors in the conduct of the war.
The doctrine which Captain Liddell Hart denounces as erroneous and mischievous, and which he calls Napoleonic, is attributed by him not to Napoleon himself but to "his great German expositor, Carl von Clausewitz." The classical interpreter of Napoleon's methods was not Clausewitz, but one of Napoleon's generals, Jomini. Clausewitz is the representative of the ideas not of Napoleon, but of his chief German adversaries, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. He explicitly disclaims the intention to formulate a system or to give rules or precepts for the guidance of generals; what he tried to do was to think out the nature of war both in its general aspect and in its various phases.
He begins by asking what is war? It is, he says, action by force for the purpose of compelling the enemy to do our will. Force is the means; to constrain the enemy's will is the object. To attain that object we must disarm the enemy; this is the military aim. The enemy will meet force by force, so that if we are to overpower him we must grapple with his strength. This consists in his armed forces, his country with its population, and his allies. The natural order would be first to destroy his armed forces and then to conquer his country in which otherwise he might raise up fresh forces. But the war will not be ended until the enemy's will has been overcome, that is, until his Government and his allies have signed a treaty of peace or his people have made their submission. By the destruction of the enemy's armed forces is meant putting them into a condition in which they cannot continue to fight—the word "destruction" being understood not merely in a physical but rather in a moral sense.
This, says Clausewitz, is the theory of war in the abstract; what it would be if all the world were always guided by pure logic; it is war fought out to a finish—absolute war. The reality comes very far short of it. In practice the State which finds itself outmatched agrees to its adversary's terms long before its strength is exhausted. It is induced to do so by two considerations, either because it sees little or no prospect of turning the scales in its own favour, or that the price of success will be too great. To produce one or both of these frames of mind, the adversary need not make the extreme effort required for crushing blows. Once he has proved his superior strength he will have shown that the prospect of a change of luck is small, and he can raise for his opponent the price of success by wearing him out, by occupying parts of his territory, not with a view to annexation, but merely to injure the weaker side, or may use any other means of damaging him. All these are military aims, but in every case the military means is fighting—battle. From an enemy ready to fight nothing can be gained except by fighting. The paramount military aim, the destruction of the enemy's armed forces, has for its obvious counterpart the preservation of our own.
This being the theory of Clauseswitz, what is according to Captain Liddell Hart the true doctrine to be contrasted with it? I give it in his own words: "The aim of a nation in war is to subdue the enemy's will to resist, with the least possible human and economic loss itself . . . our goal in war can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will . . . all such acts as defeat in the field, propaganda, blockade, diplomacy, or attack on the centres of government and population are seen to be but means to that end; we are free to weigh the respective merits of each, and to choose whichever is most suitable and most economic, i.e. that which will gain the goal with the minimum disruption of our national life during and after the war.... The destruction of the enemy's armed forces is but a means—and not necessarily an inevitable or infallible one—to the attainment of the real objective."
With the best will in the world I fail to see that this is anything more than a repetition of Clausewitz.
It was the delusion of Clausewitz, says Captain Liddell Hart, that the armed forces themselves were the real objective. "From this false assumption it was the natural sequence that the combatant troops who composed the armies should be regarded as the objective to strike. Thus mechanical butchery became the essence of war, and to kill if possible more of the enemy troops than your own side loses was the sum total of this military creed."
Nothing in the volumes of Clausewitz justifies this misinterpretation of his meaning, for he explains most carefully that the destruction of the enemy's armed forces neither means killing more of his men than are lost by the victor nor mechanical butchery. He means by it demoralizing his army, dislocating the military organism so that it cannot work. In short, he means what is ordinarily called a decisive victory. No army was ever more effectively destroyed in the military sense than that which surrendered to Napoleon at Ulm, or those that surrendered to the King of Prussia at Sedan or to Prince Frederic Charles at Metz. Yet in each of these Armies only a percentage had been killed or wounded when the mass of them became prisoners of war.
Clausewitz had seen in his own lifetime Napoleon handling ever-increasing forces with ruthless logic, and striking down with crushing blows one great State after another. He had also seen Napoleon wear out in Russia his largest Army, and had then watched the Allies turn to the attack and with overwhelming forces gradually destroy what was left of Napoleon's Army until he, too, was struck down and crushed. Here, thought Clausewitz, was some approach to the logical or absolute type of war. He did not know whether future wars would have the same intensity, the same tremendous development of force, but he thought that its peculiar character was due to its being a conflict of nations rather than merely of courts and cabinets, that any war of nations would probably also be of the same type and that in such a war the military aim of each side would probably be to strike down and to disarm the adversary. If that were the aim of one side, it would necessarily also be the aim of the other. How, then, should such a war be conducted? What must be the plan of the commander whose aim should be to strike down the adversary and to dictate his terms? His answer was that if you are to overpower the enemy, you must concentrate your action as much as possible, and you must act as quickly as possible. This is in general terms an account of the method of the great invaders, not only of Napoleon, but also of Hannibal and of Alexander.
Captain Liddell Hart tells us that neither Napoleon nor Clausewitz understood the business, and he gives his view of the right method. A commander should be guided by the analogy of a boxing-match. "A boxer who uses his intelligence aims to strike a single decisive blow as early as possible against some vital point—the chin or solar plexus—which will instantaneously paralyse his opponent's resistance." This is no doubt neatly put, yet what else is it but Clausewitz—or Napoleon—in a nutshell? The doctrine which Captain Liddell Hart expounds as true is indistinguishable from that which he denounces.
It seems strange that after advocating what may be called the "knock-out blow" Captain Liddell Hart should object to battle as superfluous. He quotes the Marshal Saxe, "I am not in favour of giving battle ... I am even convinced that a clever general can wage war his whole life without being compelled to do so." He contrasts this with Napoleon's letter to Soult (10th of October, 1806), in which he writes, "There is nothing I desire so much as a battle," and Captain Liddell Hart remarks, "the one wants to avoid battle his whole life and the other demands it at the first opportunity." Here he has been misled by his master, Clausewitz, who thought that the generals of the eighteenth century avoided battles for reasons of State, and sought, therefore, to gain their ends by other means. In this there is an element of truth, but it is not the real explanation of the apparent hesitations of eighteenth-century warfare. The modes of fighting are always conditioned by the weapons and by the structure of armies. From the earliest times until the end of the eighteenth century armies were solid masses covering only a tiny space in the vast theatre of war. An army took a long time to form in order of battle, so long that during the process an enemy who preferred not to fight could march away. Marlborough's correspondence is full of complaints of the difficulty of inducing the enemy to accept battle.
Marshal Saxe, who ranks as a great general because he won three famous battles beginning with Fontenoy, wrote in his "Reveries" a chapter on the qualities that the commander of an army ought to have. Among them are: "The art of providing subsistence for his army and of sparing it; of so posting himself that he cannot be compelled to fight except when he wishes." He goes on to say: "I am not for battles, especially at the beginning of a war, and I am persuaded that a clever general might make war all his life without being compelled to fight one. Nothing reduces the enemy so much and advances matters more than this plan. You must constantly fight actions and wear down the enemy little by little ... but for all that I do not pretend to say that when you find the chance of crushing the enemy you ought not to attack him nor to take advantage of any false moves he may make; what I mean is that you can make war without leaving anything to chance ... when you do give battle you must know how to profit by your victory, and, above all, must not be satisfied with merely remaining master of the field." [Editor's note: Meaning that a victory must be followed up with a (necessarily bloody) pursuit.]
Napoleon held precisely the same view. You ought not to give battle, he said, unless you can count on the odds being seven to three in your favour. Writing to Joubert (17th of February, 1797), he instructs him to retreat from position to position, and says, "to act otherwise would not be to make war, of which the art, when ones forces are inferior, consists in nothing but gaining time." The letter to Soult, quoted by Captain Liddell Hart, was written four days before the battle of Jena and a few days after Napoleon had explained to Soult that with 200,000 men in the shape of a battalion square there would be no risk in attacking in any direction an enemy whose force was half his own.
The adoption of the divisional system, by which an army was divided into a number of bodies, which could be spread out over the country for movement and drawn together for battle, made it possible to force a battle upon an unwilling enemy. This change had taken place between the time of Frederick and that of Napoleon.
Captain Liddell Hart continues his historical examples to show how mistaken are the writers of the Napoleonic school and how wrong is the orthodox doctrine. He approves of the generalship of Scipio Africanus. Hannibal defeated army after army in Italy, but could not take Rome, having neither sufficient numbers nor a siege train, and for years he was worn down by Fabius, who would not accept battle. Scipio, instead of attacking Hannibal in Italy, took his Army to Africa where it threatened Carthage. This brought about the recall of Hannibal with the remnant of his Army from Italy to protect the Carthaginian capital. Scipio had gained over to the Roman side the master of the Numidian cavalry upon which Hannibal had previously relied, and Hannibal was outmatched in cavalry, in the then conditions the decisive arm. Accordingly, at Zama, Hannibal's Army was destroyed—in this case destroyed may be taken literally—and Scipio could then besiege Carthage without interference. Scipio was acting on the plan of Clausewitz, who pointed out that in a war in which the aim is the overthrow of the enemy the surest way to find his main force is to march on the enemy's capital.
Next we are told that in l814 when the Allies at last marched upon Paris while Napoleon turned eastward to attack the communications of the German Armies, Paris was a "moral objective" while Napoleon was aiming at the destruction of the enemy's main armed forces! But Napoleon's Army was too weak to produce any effect.
Lastly: "In 1870 the German objective was Paris, and while in pursuit of it the French Army fell into their hands. In I914 the German objective was the French Army, and in the pursuit of this object they missed both it and Paris." This is surely a misleading account. The German objective in 1870, as in 1914, was the French Army, with a view after its defeat to a march on Paris. The contrast, therefore, is not between the objectives, but between success and failure—the difference being due to the different qualities of Germany's adversaries in the two wars.
Finally, we come to the new theory which is to supersede those of Clausewitz and of Jomini and to improve on the practice of Napoleon. According to Captain Liddell Hart the possible means to be employed besides the destruction of the enemy's military power (which it seems that, after all his denunciation, Captain Liddell Hart does not abandon) are the control of communications and of the industrial resources, the occupation of the centre or centres of government and population (all these are included in Clausewitz's enumeration under the "country"), the capture and overthrow of individuals who are the mainspring of the opposing policy, and the intimidation of the people by methods of terrorism.
It is fairly obvious that, if an enemy with a very large army invades your country, you must either collect a very large army to meet him or must submit to his invasion. Captain Liddell Hart thinks he has found a way of escape from this dilemma; he will rely on tanks and aircraft. He tells us that in 1918 Colonel Fuller proposed "to launch a fleet of light fast tanks, under cover of a general offensive, which should pass through the German lines, and neglecting the fighting troops, aim straight for the command and communication centres in rear of the Front. By the annihilation of these the disorganization and capitulation of the combatant units were visualized." This scheme was, however, not actually attempted. A plan of this kind might perhaps have been carried out in 1918 when the tanks were a novelty, but as, according to Captain Liddell Hart, tanks will be the principal arm of future armies this plan will hardly be practicable in the next war, because the fleet of light fast tanks will immediately be met by the enemy's tanks which they will not be able to neglect and pass by.
Then comes Captain Liddell Hart's great idea: "Aircraft enables us to jump over the army which shields the enemy's government, industry, and people, and so strike direct at the seat of the opposing will and policy.... Imagine for a moment London, Manchester, Birmingham, and half a dozen other great centres simultaneously attacked. The business localities and Fleet Street wrecked, Whitehall a heap of ruins, the slum districts maddened into the impulse to break loose and maraud, the railways and factories destroyed. Would not the general will to resist vanish, and what use would be the still determined fractions of the nation, without organization and central direction? Victory in air-war will lie with whichever side first gains the moral objective....
"Chemistry can now give us non-lethal gases which may overcome the hostile resistance, and spread panic, for a period long enough to reap the fruits of victory, but without the lasting evils of killing or destruction of property....
"A swift and sudden blow of this nature inflicts a social injury far less than when spread over a number of years."
This, then, is the new method of warfare, in which instead of fighting the enemy's armed forces our own armed forces are to attack the enemy's whole population, assumed to be defenceless. The scheme rests entirely upon a number of assumptions which are very far from being proved. I venture to doubt whether it is practicable, whether it is economical, and whether it would produce the result aimed at, the immediate surrender of the enemy. The only experience we have to guide us is that of the late war. The Germans made altogether fifty-one airship and fifty-two aeroplane raids on this country. No munition factory of any importance, no government office, no vital centre of communication was destroyed. The total number of persons killed was 1,413. So far from frightening our people into submission, the air raids only increased their determination to fight the war to a finish. Would the result have been different if the destruction and loss of life had been ten times as great? I venture to doubt it. Would it have been comparable to that which would have resulted from decisive victories at sea and on land? Supposing that at Jutland the Germans had crushed Jellicoe's Fleet as Nelson crushed that of Villeneuve at Trafalgar, and that Ludendorff had compelled Haig's Army to surrender as Moltke compelled MacMahon's Army to surrender at Sedan. What hope should we then have had of winning the war?
The next war, it is asserted, will begin by a race between the aerial fleets, each of which, evading the other, will try by bombardment to crush the spirit of the hostile nation. Success will come to the side which first strikes its blow. But this, for Great Britain, is a hopeless prospect, as it is quite certain that no British Government will take the initiative in making war.
Another fundamental assumption is that there is no means of defence against aerial attack. No doubt until quite recently the authorities of the Air Force have expressed the view that the aeroplane is an offensive and not a defensive weapon, that it is impossible to prevent hostile machines from crossing the line because the sky is too large to defend; and that there can never be in the air that sure line of defence for an island nation which a powerful fleet constitutes at sea. We do not yet know how far this opinion has been modified by the recent aerial manaeuvres of which the object was to try the possibility of the defence of London against air raids. During the late war the anti-aircraft gun had not time to develop its powers, but I am sure that the artillery has not yet said its last word on the subject, nor have the defensive possibilities of chemistry and electricity been fully explored. The moment that anything approaching an effective defence against air raids has been devised the whole theory falls to the ground, for it depends entirely on the suddenness and the swiftness of the destruction contemplated.
Captain Liddell Hart admits that terrorism, "even if temporarily successful, usually reacts amongst civilized nations to the detriment of the aggressor—by stimulating the will to resist, or by so outraging the ethical code of other nations as to cause their intervention."
Here Captain Liddell Hart is following Clausewitz, who pointed out that, if the wars of civilized nations are much less cruel and destructive than those of savages, the cause is to be found in the social condition of the States, both in themselves and in their relation to one another. This touches the root of the matter.
What is the most valuable element in our national life? What the best Englishmen most prize is their English character, a certain standard of conduct to which we try to conform. In accordance with this standard we regulate the discipline of our Army and Navy in war. We forbid plunder, we forbid the murder of unarmed persons, we protect the women and children. Why? Because we feel that if we allowed these things we should degrade our own character. We think that to allow our soldiers and sailors to act like savages would be the moral suicide of our nation. That seems to me sufficient reason for doubting the wisdom of those who advocate projects involving the promiscuous slaughter of a population which they assume will be defenceless. I have yet to learn how such a method, even if it should prove practicable, can be reconciled either with the British character or the cause of civilization.
Clausewitz never asks the question why a State goes to war? He was a soldier, the servant of an absolute monarch. The cause of the quarrel was not his concern, though he very emphatically points out that the energy with which a Government can carry on a war depends on the degree to which the cause appeals to its people. The cause, therefore, far from being irrelevant, is vital. Captain Liddell Hart, following Sir Reginald Custance, writes: "If the citizens of a nation were asked what should be the general aim of the national policy, they would reply, in tenor if not in exact words, that it should be such as to guarantee them an `honourable, prosperous and secure existence.'"
If Captain Liddell Hart had worked out the trains of thought of Clausewitz and of Sir Reginald Custance, he must have hit upon the true explanation of the terrible sacrifices of the late war. That the losses were much greater than was necessary has already been made sufficiently clear, but that they would in any case be very great was evident from the nature of the quarrel.
The German people were told, and believed, that their security was in danger, and that self-preservation required them to attack and to strike down France and Russia. They did not realize that by this action they threatened the security of most of their neighbours. Thus came about a war of which the object—security—appealed to the heart and soul of every nation concerned. No doubt the price was high, as it was bound to be, but the goods were delivered.
The history of wars has usually been written by soldiers interested mainly in the military operations and by historians seeking their political causes and consequences. Each modestly refrains from trespassing on the domain of the other. That is perhaps why the last word about war has seldom been uttered. It is that on the whole and in the long run the right prevails.
*Support Clausewitz.com by making all of your Amazon purchases through the Amazon/Clausewitz.com connection!
US • UK • France • Germany