Clausewitzean Ideas of War and how they Relate to Present Conflicts

Clausewitzean Ideas of War and how they Relate to Present Conflicts

As I am getting ready to begin the final class for my MA and complete my Thesis I have been re-reading Clausewitz and his ideas and theory of War.  One of the things that that has struck me the most and made me realize how much Clausewitz is misunderstood is the way in which his most famous quote from the book about how “War is the continuation of policy by other means”[1] is completely taken out of context in most history.

If you read his book further, and I assume that most generals, staff chiefs, and even military historians have then it is clear that this quote is just a starting point given the numerous caveats and expansions on that simple statement in his theory.  Indeed, the very section that this quote heads explains what he means in a very concise and unambiguous manner; it is worth quoting in full. 

“We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.  What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means.  War in general, and the commander in any specific instance, is entitled to require that the trend and designs of policy shall not be inconsistent with these means.  That of course, is no small demand; but however much it may affect political aims in a given case, it will never do more than modify them.  The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.”[2] Continue reading

Learning a Language

I was thinking this morning about how important learning a second language is to good scholarship. It hit me because I was not required to learn a second language for my undergrad, I wish I had been. My chosen historical specialty is 18th – 19th century Prussian history. It is kind of hard to see how I could do any really good research without learning German and maybe French. Luckily, I am married to a German woman and had no choice but to learn German if I want to talk to any of my in-laws since most of them don’t speak a lick of English. How could I expect them too since they all live in Germany?
Learning German has stood me in good stead the longer I have been studying history and especially in conducting research for my thesis. I have made several trips to archives in Germany and Austria conducting research for my thesis and these trips would have been completely wasted with no knowledge of German. I probably would not have made them in the first place. Continue reading

Why Military History

I ran across this piece by Jay Luvaas again today and it got me thinking about why I like Military history and if it is a worthwhile pursuit.  My short answer is that I don’t know why I like it and yes it is.

The long answer is that I guess I like military history because war is the most extreme pursuit man engages in.  Extreme sports such as base jumping, free diving, mountain climbing, etc have nothing on the sheer rush and danger of engaging in the single most dangerous thing man has come up with; hunting our fellow man.  I have personally been to combat but I studied military history long before I joined the military.  I started reading military history in grade school and the first military history book I ever read was about D-day in 1944 and I still have it.

As to whether military history is worthwhile, I have to say yes here as well.  Weapons, equipment, and systems may change but one element has remained a constant throughout the history of war and that is men.  Men are at the heart of war and it men and their reactions to the stresses of combat and command that dominate the study of war.  I would even hazard to wager good money that a Roman Legionnaire would react the same way in combat today if given the same training as today’s soldiers and vice-versa.  The study of war is at heart the study of human nature in its most elemental form.  There are lessons to be learned from the way Crassus fought at Carrhae that are relevant on the modern battlefield because the nature of men has not changed to nearly the degree that the nature of the weapons we employ has.  That is why I believe that the study of military history is still relevant and why it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Dreyse Needle Gun

One of the most consistent features of accounts of the German Wars of Unification are the assertions that the Prussian possession of the Dreyse Needle Gun was decisive in and of itself because of its impact on Prussian tactical formation and the flexibility it gave the average infantryman.

Dreyse Needle-Gun at the J.M. Davis Gun Museum, Claremore, Oklahoma

Make no mistake, the Dreyse was a technological marvel for its time, it indeed gave the Prussians tactical flexibility and radically increased their rate of fire when compared to muzzleloader equipped armies of the time.  The tactical innovations it allowed were few but important.  Perhaps the single most important innovation it allowed was that it allowed the infantry to reload from the prone of lying down position.  It also allowed the infantry to carry more ammunition as part of his basic load and made possible marching fire or the ability for infantry to fire and reload while on the march.

Reloading from the prone did several things the most important of which is it reduced the infantryman’s vulnerability to incoming fire.  A not unimportant consideration when engagement ranges were rarely greater than 100 meters.  Prussian infantry could carry more ammunition in the form of cartridges but this advantage was largely mitigated by their ability to fir more rapidly thus making a larger ammunition supply a necessity.  The ability to engage in marching fire was also tactically very important because the use of marching fire did not allow the enemy a respite from fire while infantry was on the move as was the case when muzzleloader equipped infantry had to stop to reload.  The last and most talked about innovation was rate of fire.  Dreyse equipped infantry could fire 6-7 shots per minute compared to the 3 or more commonly 2 shots per minute of muzzleloader.  These are the advantages.

As a weapon the Dreyse also had a few distinct disadvantages over contemporary muzzleloaders.  First, and perhaps the biggest is that the Dreyse had, at best, an imperfect seal in the breech that allowed the hot gases from firing to escaper and flare into the face of the shooter.  This is at a minimum distracting and can even injure the shooter.  This is important because this defect caused most Prussian infantry to fire from the hip to avoid getting hot gases in their face during combat.  Anyone who has any experience of marksmanship can appreciate the disastrous effect this tendency had on the quality of Prussian marksmanship in combat.  In combat during the Danish, Seven Weeks’, and Franco-Prussian Wars the Prussian infantry did not inflict significant casualties on the enemy from rifle fire until they were in extreme close range because of the horrible marksmanship imposed by their preferred firing method.

The second disadvantage of the Dreyse was its firing pin.  The Dreyse was called the Needle-gun for a reason.  Its firing pin was almost 6 inches long and shaped like a needle; hence the name Needle-Gun.  The issue with the firing pin is that it was very fragile and tended to break during combat or sustained use thus making the Dreyse a very innovative club.

Dreyse ‘needle’ firing pin

Lastly, the Dreyse was generally lacking in the accuracy department for those times when long-distance fire were possible.  The Lorenz rifle used by the Austrians at Königgrätz was accurate out to roughly 800 meters while the Prussians with the Dreyse were lucky to hit anything past about 250 meters even when they held the rifle properly.

In conclusion, while the Dreyse was definitely an innovative weapon and a harbinger of what the future of military arms would be; it was not the revolutionary development that some historians would make it out to be.  A balanced look at the Dreyse shows that just as any other military firearm, it has its advantages and drawbacks.  The art of using any gun is the doctrine developed to exploit its strengths and minimize its weaknesses.  The Prussians did this rather well in 1866 but in 1870-1871 the Dreyse was outclassed and it was only the superiority of Prussian artillery that allowed them to achieve tactical victories against the French Chassepot.