“Clausewitz: His Life and Work,” by Donald Stoker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 354 pages, $27.95 (cloth).
Carl von Clausewitz was 11 years old when he joined the Prussian army as a cadet (officer candidate) in 1792. He marched off to war the next year with his regiment against the French. He was too small to carry the regimental flag – one of the duties of an officer cadet – and only did it when the regiment was actually in combat.
After seeing action during the siege of Mainz and the subsequent retreat back to the Austrian frontier, he was promoted to lieutenant in 1795. From the beginning of his career, Clausewitz was determined to distinguish himself in battle. Ironically, his abilities as a staff officer kept him from leading troops in battle. Serving as chief of staff to Prussia’s two greatest generals of the period – Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August Neidhardt von Gneisenau – Clausewitz achieved a reputation as a gifted staff officer.
Clausewitz, however, achieved far greater fame than any of his superiors. He did it by the pen, not the sword. Shortly after his death in 1831, his writings, which ultimately comprised 10 volumes, were published. Books four through 10 were histories of various military campaigns, mostly about the Napoleonic Wars. The first three were the most important: his thoughts on the theory and nature of war and how it should be waged. “On War” would become the most influential book on warfare written in the past 2,400 years. It was a work based not only on his study of war, but also his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, something that has been overlooked by many of those writing about him and his work.
After the Prussian army had returned and the Peace of Basel had been signed with France, Clausewitz held a series of posts and steadily advanced in a variety of assignments. When Prussia re-entered the war with France in 1806, Clausewitz fought at the Battle of Auerstedt (part of the Battle of Jena) and served as part of the rear guard until his capture at Prenzlau. After his release he returned to Berlin, serving as a staff officer under Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and played a major role in rebuilding the Prussian army and creating the modern general staff.
In 1812, unhappy with the Prussian policy of supporting Napoleon, Clausewitz joined the Russian army and fought in the battles of Vitebsk, Smolensk, Borodino, Mozhaisk and Krymskoye, where he was wounded. In 1813, he served as chief of staff in the German Legion and fought at Lűtzen, Bautzen, Haynau and Schestedt. Finally in 1815, back in the Prussian army and promoted to colonel, he served as chief of staff to Gen. Johann von Thielmann, who commanded one of Blutcher’s corps, seeing action at Ligny, Wavre and in some skirmishes as the Prussian army marched on Paris.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Clausewitz held several staff positions. (The king had not forgiven him for leaving his service and joining the Russians in 1812). In 1818, Clausewitz was appointed head of the War Academy in Berlin and promoted to major general. He served in that position for the next 11 years.
He had plenty of time to think about his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars and a very large library at the academy at his disposal. He spent much of his time writing and, when he was at last able to return to a regular army unit, he packed up his writings in sealed envelopes and left a warning that “should this work be interrupted, what is found here is incomplete, open to misconceptions,” After a short service in command of an artillery brigade, he was selected as Gneisenau’s chief of staff during the Polish Revolution of 1831 and died of cholera.
“On War” was subsequently edited by his wife, Maria, and a staff officer and published between 1832 and 1838. For much of the 19th century, Clausewitz was primarily known as a military historian, who combined a detailed study of military campaigns with careful analysis and commentary of not only the military but also the political decisions that determined military actions.
Since World War I, however, “On War” has been viewed as his most important work. The concepts of war as a continuation of policy by other means, “the center of gravity” of the enemy being the most important objective, the importance of civil-military relations, the psychological concepts of war (fatigue, defeat, lack of sleep, surprise), the concept of absolute war and friction have become important ideas and are taught in all military schools today.
The author concludes: “Incomplete, unfinished, sprawling, sometimes contradictory, and more often as frustrating as it is endlessly rewarding, ‘On War’ nevertheless assured Clausewitz of a form of the immortality that he sought …. (It is) the greatest monument to military thought yet constructed.” (p. 281).
“Clausewitz: His Life and Work” is an excellent introduction to both the life of Clausewitz and his great work, “On War.” The last chapter, summarizing the ideas of Clausewitz’s magnum opus, is first rate. It is clear, concise and covers all of his major concepts. The other strength of the book is the emphasis on the role that Clausewitz’s experience in actual battles (most of them defeats and a lot of retreats) influenced his work. This is something that had been neglected by his earlier biographers.
— Reviewed by J. W. Thacker, Department of History, Western Kentucky University