Nineteenth-Century Military Theory-Clausewitz and de Jomini

Napoleon on Military Education Napoleon was a great believer in a formal military education and, unlike most of his contemporaries, believed that it went beyond the mechanics of laying guns or building fortifications. Whereas most nations were content to focus on the technical skills in their service schools, Napoleon stated: “Tactics, the evolutions, the science of the engineer and of the artillerist can be learned in treatises, much like geometry, but the higher art of war is acquired only through the study of history of the wars and battles of the Great Captains, and from experience.” The formal study of military history thus became a central theme in the service academies of the empire.

HIS695160 Helmuth Carl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, 1898 (oil on canvas) by Lenbach, Franz Seraph von (1836-1904); 85.5×69.5 cm; Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Germany; ( Helmuth Carl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)
); © DHM; German, out of copyright

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891), chief of the Prussian General Staff during 1857-1888, organized and oversaw the German triumph over France. His preparations for war in the late 1860s, which gave the Prussian army strategic and tactical command methods to fight on broad fronts, enabled Prussia and its German allies to mobilize with an unprecedented speed and efficiency in the war with France. This combined with superior tactics and artillery provided an advantage that the French could not overcome. Von Moltke also oversaw actual field operations, including the siege of Paris. His clashes with Bismarck about the actual role of the civilian leadership in wartime offered a foreshadowing of far more serious civil-military clashes among German leaders during World War I.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, military theorists attempted to unlock the secrets of Napoleon’s success and to understand the nature of war in light of the changes that those years had wrought. If Napoleon’s genius could be understood, it was hoped, it could be emulated, and future generals could achieve the same victories. Explanations for Napoleon’s success came to be broadly divided into two groups, whose leading theorists were Antoine-Henri de Jomini (1779-1869) and Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).

Jomini, born in Switzerland, served in Napoleon’s army as a staff officer under French Marshal Michel Ney from 1802 until 1813, when he defected to the Russian army and was given the rank of lieutenant general prior to the Battle of Leipzig. Jomini’s theories on war were distilled in his most famous work, Précis de l’Art de la Guerre (Summary on the Art of War), published in 1838, although his ideas had changed little from his first writings on military strategy in 1803. He argued that wars could be explained rationally and that they could be understood by a simple formula that he felt was derived from Napoleon’s methods of warfare. The key to victory was offensive action to combine superior forces against weaker enemy forces at a decisive point. For Jomini, war was a scientific enterprise best understood on scientific principles. Such a focus excluded social, political, and logistical factors and also ignored the human component of war, such as the potential for human error. For Jomini, war was a limited exercise that would be decided by simple decisive actions in battle. Thus, any country could match Napoleon’s success simply by adopting his methods on the battlefield. Jomini’s theories had an appeal to the conservative states that reasserted themselves after 1815, as they were eager to learn the secrets of Napoleon’s military success without having to also adopt the social and political changes that the French Revolution had set in motion.

Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who, after a series of Prussian defeats at the hands of Napoleon, was a leading reformer of the Prussian army between 1807 and 1811. When King Fredrick William III of Prussia bowed to Napoleon’s demands for assistance with his invasion of Russia, Clausewitz and other reformers resigned their commissions to assist the Russians. After aiding the liberation of Prussia, Clausewitz was made the director of the Prussian war academy, a post he held until 1830, a year before his death in 1831. His most famous work, Vom Kriege (On War), was published posthumously by his widow in 1832.

Clausewitz’s theories were in many ways fundamentally opposed to those of Jomini. Whereas Jomini narrowly focused on the battlefield, Clausewitz argued that war could not be separated from social, political, and cultural factors. No longer could war be the exclusive preserve of a narrow band of professionals. The Napoleonic Wars had shown that war would now involve the common people of the country as well through nationalist enthusiasm and mass recruitment. Since war now had a greater capacity for escalation and involved entire populations clashing with each other, it was imperative that political leaders enter into war with specific objectives. War itself was not to be seen as an end but rather as the means to the achievement of political goals. Moreover, in contrast to Jomini’s scientific and rational principles, Clausewitz emphasized modern war’s chaotic nature. Wars and battles were uncertain and unpredictable and were waged by men who were subject to the full range of human flaws, to say nothing of the fog of war itself. Thus the morale of soldiers and officers was vital in order to push forward to victory despite the human errors and confusion that could occur on the battlefield. According to Clausewitz, although war should only be entered into with specific objectives, once it began it had to be waged thoroughly and ruthlessly. The enemy’s armies had to be confronted and destroyed, the enemy’s capital occupied, and its government and people brought to their knees. In essence, modern warfare involved unlimited means to limited ends.

In the first decades after the Napoleonic Wars, Jomini’s theories held sway over military strategists, influencing the generalship in such conflicts as the American Civil War. However, the string of Prussian victories in the late 1860s and early 1870s, culminating in the triumph over France in 1870-1871, saw the emergence of Clausewitz. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), the Prussian chief of the General Staff and the architect of Prussia’s victories, had been a student of Clausewitz at the Prussian war academy and had adopted Clausewitz’s theories in his strategies and in his reorganization of the Prussian army. By training officers to think independently and to act as they felt appropriate to further the overall strategic aim, each element of the army would be able to coordinate actions without explicit direction from the high command. This decentralization of the command structure was a means by which the disorder of the battlefield could be overcome. The other major powers were eager to unlock the key of the Prussian victories and turned to Clausewitz’s theories on war. Thus since the 1870s Jomini’s theories have been almost entirely forgotten, while Clausewitz has remained at the forefront of thinking on war into the twenty-first century.

Bibliography Gat, Azar. The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century. Oxford, UK: Claren- don, 1992. Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1976.


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