Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1841) and Antoine-Henri Jomini (1779-1869) are two military strategists who wrote prolifically on how war should be understood, designed and executed. They developed their respective theories based on their experiences of the Napoleonic wars. Principles outlined in both of their writings – most notably Clausewitz’s On War and Jomini’s The Art of War – have had a profound influence on war strategy that extends far beyond their time. World War I (WWI) was of a different “character” than the Napoleonic Wars (because of advanced weapon technology, industrialization and the massive scale) yet we are able to observe how embedded both theorists’ ideas had become in the military psyche by the turn of the century. Their theories are not mutually exclusive – rather, the purpose of this paper is to set forth an argument concerning which of the two theorists, Jomini or Clausewitz, could best characterize the nature of WWI. The main difference in their theories can be summarized as follows: Clausewitz emphasizes the role of politics and recommends limited warfare by attrition, while Jomini emphasizes the role of strategic maneuvering and recommends absolute war through quick, decisive attacks. I argue that the Clausewitzian theory is best suited as a framework for understanding the events of WWI for two reasons: (1) the central role of politics in shaping states’ war strategy and (2) the gradual, rather than quick and decisive, way in which battles were won and lost – especially considering the trench warfare that took place on the Western front.
How Politics Shaped the War
Clausewitz is known, above all, for his well-cited phrase “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. In fact, he was critical of his own writing for having not emphasized this point enough throughout the discourse of his work. It is the thread that weaves his theory together. Clausewitz believed strongly that war should only be conducted when diplomacy is seen to have failed, and that military objectives are always political in nature. This means constant change and uncertainty due to the fluidity of the political and moral (psychological) factors upon which war is built. The effect of such factors is evident in WWI – politics served as the catalyst for many of the key events that became decisive points in the war.
First, Germany’s declaration of war against Serbia was justified based on a previously established political alliance, which later became the Triple Entente. Germany had entered the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungry in 1879: a defensive alliance established by Otto von Mismark as a way to preserve peace, knowing that Russia would not go to war against both empires. It has been suggested that Germany’s intentions were in fact European domination and they used their alliance with Austria-Hungary as an excuse to pursue regional hegemony through war, desiring a war with France in particular. However, this may be a dangerous misconception and an overdramatized reading of history based on the typical characterization of Germans as somehow “war-loving”. Instead, it is likely that Germany did not expect Russia to intervene on the behalf of Serbia and did not predict a war of such great scale. In line with Clausewitzian theory, Germany’s declaration of war had the stated diplomatic purpose of maintaining its alliance with Austria-Hungry, thus quelling the threat of Russian ambitions. There is reason to believe that the war was not about gaining territory or completely annihilating the enemy (which would fall in line with Jomini’s perspective). This can be observed in Germany’s invasion of Belgium, for example, which had the objective not of seizing Belgian land but rather of gaining free passage to France, in order to accomplish Germany’s specific and limited political aims.
Second, Russia’s culminating point was motivated principally by political factors – the Bolshevik Revolution had just taken place, Lenin came into power, and the focus of the government shifted from the international stage to domestic affairs.
Third, the involvement of the United States toward the end occurred due to a complex mixture of political and moral (psychological) considerations and its strategy operated accordingly. The U.S. theater of war developed over a concern about unrestricted submarine warfare (Germany’s U-boat campaign and sinking of ships without warning from 1915-1917), Germany’s incitement of Mexican antagonism toward the U.S. (the Zimmerman telegram), German atrocities in Belgium (1914), the notion of fighting for democracy expressed through a domestic propaganda campaign, a need to maintain financial ties to British, and the lobbying of war profiteers. This is exemplifies how “action is subject to such a multitude of conditions and considerations” – a fundamentally Clausewitzian idea.
War of Attrition
Furthermore, Clausewitz disagreed with the popular military assumption that politicians would always be willing and eager to approve plans for intense military offensives – instead, he suggested that states naturally hesitate to use total force. He writes, “It is contrary to human nature to make an extreme effort, and the tendency therefore is always to plead that a decision may be possible later on… Warfare thus eludes the strict theoretical requirement that extremes of force be applied.” This contradicts Jominian theory that one must set out to annihilate the enemy through a concentrated effort at one given point. Clausewitz suggests that political leaders instead prefer to feel their way forward by observing how the opponent responds and then reformulating tactics accordingly. War, for Clausewitz, is a tit-for-tat process with political aims in mind, which undoubtedly characterizes the nature of WWI, especially in the Western front theater of war.
The war on the Western front was slow: Germany had to divide its attention between the East and the West and had an enemy with a formidable army on each side. Here, the Jominian practice of dedicating all of one’s force toward one strategic point could not work. True, they attempted the Schlieffen Plan, which was supposed to quickly demoralize and destroy the French army in a Jominian fashion, but failed. What resulted instead was prolonged trench warfare, drawn out battles, where both sides feared the high casualty risk that new weapons posed, especially machine guns. And across the long Eastern front, German forces spread out and confronted Russian forces (who were superior in numbers but suffered logistic and communication failures) in a series of battles that were “tit-for-tat” in nature.
World War I was revolutionary in many senses, including that it effectively challenged Jominian assumptions about warfare. As written in John Shy’s essay on Jomini, “The Great War shattered many things, and none more than military theory. After the horrors and fiascos of trench warfare, the very idea of “military science” seemed laughable… Modern weapons, the total mobilization of economies and societies… seemed to make nonsense of his preoccupations with lines of operations and little diagrams of strategic maneuvers.” Therefore, because of the trench warfare that dominated the Western theater of war and the many complex, politically-linked motivations, World War I can be summarized best by Clausewitz.
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