Military history

Chapter 8

The False Science

Tell me how the Germans have trained you to fight Bonaparte by this new science you call ‘strategy.’

—Tolstoy, War and Peace

The miseries and privations associated with the Napoleonic Wars led to the development of an international peace movement. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this movement encouraged the formation of “peace societies” and the convening of humanitarian conferences. War was denounced as not only uncivilized, wasteful, and destructive, but also fundamentally irrational. In particular, it was an offense against economics. This was put most succinctly by John Stuart Mill in 1848: “It is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which act in natural opposition to it.” The eager proponents of free trade saw how this could create forms of international intercourse that would render resort to war self-evidently foolish as well as awful, producing a formidable combination of morality and utilitarianism.1

The British proponents of free trade might have thought this a far more efficient way of managing international affairs than one based on nationalism and war, with peace dependent on a tenuous balance of power. From the perspective of those less well placed, this appeared as a self-serving claim. The Prussian economist Friedrich List observed, in an argument that many still find compelling, that free trade would result in “a universal subjection of the less advanced nations to the supremacy of the predominant manufacturing, commercial, and naval power.”2 A far greater problem was to ignore the factor that had so stunned Clausewitz during his early military career, a force that “beggared all imagination.” The French Revolution had brought the people, with all their passion and fervor, to the fore. Napoleon had turned this into a source of his power, using it to develop his own personality cult and draw on popular enthusiasm to create an army with high morale and commitment, convinced of an inextricable, patriotic link between their own well-being and the success of the state. Clausewitz’s grasp of the significance of this new factor, which led him to make it part of his trinity, helped make his theory so durable. He understood the impact of popular passion on how wars were fought, by undermining attempts at restraint, and he recognized nationalism as a source of war. As France became seen as a threat, people elsewhere rallied behind their own flags. The people identified not with each other but with the nation. “Between two peoples,” Clausewitz observed, “there can be such tensions, such a mass of inflammable material.”3

This went against notions of progressive civility in international affairs and added a cautionary note to demands for greater democracy. It undermined the claims of liberal reformers that war was an elite conspiracy. The speed and ease with which a belligerent nationalism could be tapped could therefore come as a rude shock to the radical, anti-war free-marketeers. The Crimean War that began just after the century’s midway point demonstrated the strength of popular enthusiasm (even in Britain) for war-making. Not for the last time would liberal reformers find themselves caught between dispassionate utilitarianism and passionate democracy. This chapter discusses how this issue of war and politics was considered by two very distinctive personalities, neither of whom were liberals: the Russian writer Count Leo Tolstoy, who disputed that mass armies were ever truly controlled by their generals, and the German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, who explored to the full the possibilities and limitations of command.

Tolstoy and History

The experience of Crimea had a very personal impact on Leo Tolstoy, a young, aristocratic Russian officer posted to Sebastapol during the war. Tolstoy was attracted to the good life but preoccupied with religion. He began to acquire fame as a writer by sending commentaries back from the front. They were filled with his sharp observations of how individuals were caught up in the arbitrariness of conflict. Tolstoy witnessed Russian soldiers cut down by enemy fire and their bodies left behind as the army retreated. He became increasingly annoyed at the insensitivity and incompetence of Russia’s elite and explored how literature could express the experiences of the peasantry as well as the nobility. In 1863, he began six years of work that would lead to his masterpiece, War and Peace. Though a diligent researcher who studied documents, interviewed survivors, and walked around the battlegrounds of 1812, his approach was antipathetic to that of professional historians, just as it broke with conventions of fiction in its approach to plot. The book was, he explained, “what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” Part of the mixture, introduced during the book’s later revisions, included short essays challenging conventional views of history and, by extension, a Clausewitzian view of strategy.

Clausewitz represented much of what Tolstoy opposed. He even made a minor appearance in War and Peace. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (assumed to be representing Tolstoy’s views) overheard a conversation between two Germans, Adjutant General Wolzogen and Clausewitz. One said, “The war must be extended widely,” and the other agreed that “the only aim is to weaken the enemy, so of course one cannot take into account the loss of private individuals.” This left Andrei cross. The extension would be in an area where his father, son, and sister were staying. His judgment was scornful. Prussia had “yielded up all Europe to him [Napoleon], and have now come to teach us. Fine teachers!”4 Their theories were “not worth an empty eggshell.”

Tolstoy was hostile to the conceits of political leaders who mistakenly considered themselves to be in control of events, as well as historians who believed that they understood them. As even sympathetic readers found it hard to get to grips with his views—which were never likely to find much favor with political, military, or intellectual elites—it is not surprising that his ideas had no influence on the actual practice of strategy in his time. But Tolstoy’s wider political influence spread during the rest of the century and affected attempts to develop nonviolent strategies. His general critique had its echoes over the next century.

Making sense of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is no easy task. Indeed the erudition deployed by Isaiah Berlin in his attempt to do so was considered a small masterpiece in itself.5 Tolstoy deplored the “great man theory of history,” the idea that events were best explained by references to the wishes and decisions of individuals who through their position and special qualities were able to push events in one direction rather than another. His objection went beyond the normal complaint about such theories, that they underplayed the importance of broader economic, social, and political trends. Tolstoy appeared to distrust all theories that attempted to put the study of human affairs on a quasi-scientific basis by imposing abstract categories and assuming an inner rationality. General Pfühl would have attributed success to his theory of “oblique movement deduced by him from the history of Frederick the Great’s wars” but blamed failure on imperfect implementation.

Tolstoy stressed the “sum of men’s individual wills” rather than just those of the senior but ultimately deluded figures who believed that their decisions had significant effects. He saw a dualism in man, in whom could be found both an individual life—free in its own way—and a “swarm-life” by which he “inevitably obeys laws laid down for him,” living consciously for himself but also as an “unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historical, universal, aims of humanity.” Here Tolstoy joined those who sought to reconcile the ability of individuals to choose and act independently with a conviction that humanity as a whole was following a distinct path, whether set down by a divine hand, historical forces, collective emotions, or the logic of the marketplace. At some point in this reconciliation, Tolstoy supposed, individual possibilities would become submerged by the whole. The challenge in this philosophy was not to those low in the social structure but to those at the top, the elites who believed that they were making history.

One clear difficulty with this thesis, even when Tolstoy was telling the story, was that the leading actors on the political stage did make a difference, and their decisions had consequences. It would be odd to assert that European history would have been exactly the same had Napoleon not been born. Accepting that history could not be a pseudo-science did not require denying the possibility of systematic thought and conceptualization. It was also odd to use Napoleon’s performance at Borodino to debunk the great man theory of history. This was, as Gallie notes, “one of the strangest, least typical, of campaigns known to history,” yet Tolstoy uses it to make points of universal validity to be applied to matters far less strange and atypical.6 Tolstoy showed the emperor pretending to be master of events over which in practice he had no control. He was all bustle and activity, beguiled by an “artificial phantasm of life,” issuing orders of great precision too far from the battlefield to make a real difference: “none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on.” Instead, he played out a role as “representative of authority.” According to Tolstoy, he did this rather well. “He did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle, as he inclined to the most reasonable opinions, made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not get frightened or run away from the field of battle, but with great tact and military experience carried out his role of appearing to command calmly and with dignity.” The orders he sent out rarely made sense to those receiving them, and what he heard in return was often overtaken by events by the time it reached him. This was not, however, Napoleon’s problem that day: he was unwell and, unusually for him, uncertain about where to put his main effort. Then, when he had his opportunity to scatter the enemy, he lacked the reserve strength to take it. Tolstoy hardly chose this particular great man at the height of his power. When describing Napoleon at Austerlitz, Tolstoy recognized those qualities which made his contemporaries treat the emperor with awe and admiration, however grudging.

By contrast, Tolstoy was kind to Kutuzov, who was portrayed as having an inner wisdom despite his apparent stupidity, because he grasped the logic of the situation. When it came to knowledge of the supposed military sciences, Napoleon had the advantage over Kutuzov, but the Russian understood something deeper and more profound, and could see how the situation was bound to develop. Kutuzov told Prince Andrei that “time and patience are the strongest warriors.” The young man concluded that the old man could grasp “the inevitable march of events” and had the wisdom to avoid meddling. In this way, Kutuzov’s passivity during the battle reflected wisdom more than inertia, a reliance on the army’s spirit rather than a commander’s orders. The only time he issued an order was at the point of defeat. It was to prepare for a counterattack, impossible in the circumstances. The aim was to give heart to his men rather than convey a real intention. In Tolstoy’s account, the French offensive floundered because they lacked the moral force to press on, while the Russians had the moral force to resist.

Tolstoy’s contempt for the “new science” of strategy was a warning against the “erroneous idea that the command which precedes the event causes the event.” Though thousands of commands would be issued, historians focused only on the few executed that were consistent with events while forgetting “the others that were not executed because they could not be.”7 This was a challenge to a strategic approach that generated plans and issued orders for actions that could affect few of the many factors in play and was based on ignorance about the actual state of affairs. Tolstoy described chaotic deliberations in July 1812, when Russian commanders wondered how to cope with the advancing Napoleon. At issue was whether to abandon the camp at Drissa. For one general, the problem was that the camp had a river behind it; for another, that was what constituted its value. Prince Andrei listened to the cacophony of voices and opinions and all these “surmises, plans, refutations, and shouts” and concluded that “there is not and cannot be any science of war, and that therefore there can be no such thing as a military genius.” In these matters, the conditions and circumstances were unknown and could not be defined. Not enough was understood about the strength of Russian or French forces. All depended “on innumerable conditions, the significance of which is determined at a particular moment which arrives no one knows when.” The attribution of genius to military men reflected no more than the pomp and power with which they were invested, and the sycophants who flattered them. Not only were there no special qualities that made for a good commander, but a commander seemed to function most effectively without “the highest and best human attributes—love, poetry, tenderness, and philosophic inquiring doubt.” The success of military action depended not on such people but rather “on the man in the ranks who shouts, ‘We are lost!’ or who shouts, ‘Hurrah!’ ”8

Battle was inherently confusing, and there was unlikely to be a clear link between orders as cause and actions as effect. But part of strategy was to understand what battle could and could not achieve. In this regard, Russia’s fate was determined by strategy as much as any elemental forces beyond human comprehension. As Lieven notes, Tolstoy failed to credit the clarity of the Tsar’s strategy and the extent to which events unfolded according to plan, as the Tsar anticipated. Nonetheless, more than “all the history books ever written,” War and Peace shaped popular perceptions of Napoleon’s defeat. “By denying any rational direction of events in 1812 by human actors and implying that military professionalism was a German disease Tolstoy feeds rather easily into Western interpretations of 1812 which blame snow or chance for French defeat.”9 It was one thing to acknowledge that military organizations would not always be responsive to the demands of the center. Orders would be misinterpreted; intelligence would be faulty; original campaign plans would need to be modified and at times supplanted. It was entirely different to insist that commands could never be effectual and change the course of a battle or to deny the potential of leadership; the relevance of intelligence, advice, and orders; and the influence of professional experience, training, and competence. Perhaps for Tolstoy, developing his anarchist philosophy, less important than whether some were able to shape events more than others was whether they should ever be able to do so. In objecting to the very idea of the exercise of power, the arrogance of those who claimed to control the lives of others, he sought to minimize its impact.

The issue for Tolstoy was not that events lacked causes but that there were so many. Historians picked the most obvious and thus missed out on so many more. As Berlin put it, “No theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”10 One sympathetic interpreter has sought to show how Tolstoy effectively punctured the pretensions of not only the philosophers of his time but also subsequent social scientists who took advantage of hindsight by seeking only evidence or a singular factor that supported their theories and ignoring anything contradictory. Historians also focused on decisive moments, but such moments were rare because outcomes were the produce of many separate moments, each containing its own contingent possibilities. Their explanations missed significant aspects that remained hidden from view while giving undue prominence to others. This is why historical interpretations were regularly challenged and revised. On this basis, Gary Morson identified with Tolstoy’s belief that true understanding only existed in the present and events were decided “on the instant.” This is why Kutuzov’s best advice before the battle was to get a good night’s sleep: immediate attentiveness to unfolding possibilities was going to be more valuable than forward planning.11

Salutary warnings about the limits to central control or grand theory were one thing; suggestions that everything came down to small, immediate decisions—as if some were no more important than others and past decisions had no consequences whatsoever for those which came later—were quite another. Historians might struggle to capture the totality of the processes they sought to explain, but there was always a possibility of reinterpretations. Historians looked to the past, while strategists addressed the future. The challenge was how to respond in unpredictable situations in which only certain factors were subject to influence but something still had to be done, such that inaction was also a portentous decision. With the benefit of hindsight, the historian might see how it all might have been different. But choices had to be made at the time in the face of unknowns. Most seriously, there was a fundamental contradiction in this line of argument. Under the charge of irrelevance, the generals and their theories were left off the hook, perhaps looking foolish but no longer dangerous. If they were relevant they should be answerable for their follies.

Von Moltke

The year after War and Peace was published there was a fateful demonstration of the strategist’s art that showed how consequential it could be, as well as its limitations. The occasion was the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and the commanding figure was Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke. Von Moltke was a self-proclaimed follower of Clausewitz and one of his most effective promoters. He was even a student at the Prussian War College when the master was in charge. Although the two do not appear to have met, Clausewitz marked von Moltke’s report “exemplary.” Von Moltke read On War after it appeared in limited circulation in 1832.12 He was born in the nineteenth century’s first year and lived until its ninety-first. He was chief of staff of the Prussian army for thirty years and can claim to be one of the century’s greatest and most successful military strategists.

Although born into the nobility, his family was poor. His army career began at the age of 11 when he was sent to cadet school in Denmark. Cultured and well read, he would have been classed as a liberal humanist until the revolutions of 1848 caused him to move abruptly to the right and become a tough patriot and uncompromising anti-socialist. He became chief of staff in 1857 and created the system that set the standards for military professionalism for the next hundred years. He addressed all aspects of military organization, armament, training, and logistics. The first war in which he made his mark was one against the Danes in 1864, but it was the campaigns that led to German unification under Prussia and the supplanting of France as the strongest power in Europe that made his name.

Von Moltke wrote little about strategy. Gunther Rothenberg describes him as a “grammarian” who “engaged in very little abstract speculation.”13 His most important contributions, which were written before and after his most spectacular success in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, betray the influence of Clausewitz. Yet in two critical respects he moved beyond Clausewitz and the Napoleonic model. By the 1860s far more could be done with armies than had been possible at the start of the century, as a result of the arrival of the railways as well as improved road networks. Von Moltke was unusually alert to the logistical potential of these developments, appreciating what could be achieved once it was possible to move mass armies with relative ease. He also recognized the potential for deadlock if both sides mobilized large human reserves and a war carried on without either side quite being able to bring it to a conclusion.

The second factor influencing von Moltke’s approach was that he internalized Clausewitz’s dictum about war being a continuation of politics. He happily served his monarch and less happily shared influence with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He acquired as a result a sense of the uncertain fit between political ends and military means, but also of the possibilities of limited war and the value of allies. While, a la Clausewitz, he believed the object of war was to “implement the government’s policy by force,” he grumbled that politicians (read Bismarck) might demand more from war than it could realistically deliver. Once objectives were set, it was up to the military to realize them. “Political considerations can be taken into account only as long as they do not make demands that are militarily improper or impossible.” Yet if some ends could not be met, a dialogue between the military and political spheres was unavoidable: they could not work in splendid isolation from each other, one setting the ends and the other the means. This was evident in von Moltke’s definition of victory: “the highest goal attainable with available means.” His attitude toward battle was close to that of Clausewitz, but firmer in his conviction that victory was the best means to decide a war.

The victory in the decision by arms is the most important moment in war. Only victory breaks the enemy will and compels him to submit to our own. Neither the occupation of territory nor the capturing of fortified places, but only the destruction of the enemy fighting-power will, as a rule, decide. This is thus the primary objective of operations.

This did not really help with wars fought for limited objectives when the effort required to destroy the enemy fighting power would not be commensurate.

More innovative in von Moltke’s approach to strategy was his refusal to be locked into any system or plan. He was responsible for the famous observation that “no plan survived contact with the enemy.” He told his commanders that war could not be “conducted on a green table” and was prepared to delegate authority so that they could respond to situations as they found them rather than how the high command expected them to be. He distrusted generalities and fixed precepts. The important thing was to keep the objective in view while accepting the need for “practical adaptation.” He was wary of abstractions and attempts to establish general principles. For von Moltke, strategy was instead a “free, practical, artistic activity” and a “system of expediencies.”14 The choice of strategy might be based on common sense: the test of character was to find this in situations of extreme stress. Because of Prussia’s challenging strategic position, there was always a risk of others joining in once a war had begun. Victory therefore had to be swift and conclusive, and that meant there was no option but to get on the offensive as soon as possible. At the same time, von Moltke was conscious of developing battlefield conditions, in particular the impact of increasingly deadly firepower, so he was also anxious to avoid frontal assaults. Although he saw strategy as playing on the unpredictable aspects of conflicts and the unexpected opportunities this could create, at this point the task was handed over to tactics as strategy became “silent.” In this he took a different view from Clausewitz, who saw the completion of battle as a task for strategy. Von Moltke saw the tactical task as conceptually simple—destroying as much of the enemy force as possible—but practically challenging, which was why his preparations for battle were meticulous. Once battle was done strategy came back into play.15

His approach, described as “strategic envelopment,” was based on concentrating superior forces faster than the enemy and came to be a feature of German strategy thereafter. As with Napoleon and Clausewitz before him, von Moltke was in no doubt about the importance of numbers. Prior to war, size could be bolstered through coalition, and one of the consequences of the war of 1866 with Austria was to acquire allies among the smaller German states. During war, superior force could be brought to bear at a particular point, irrespective of the broader balance of power. To achieve this it was necessary to mobilize quickly, and this was the area where careful planning could make a difference. Under von Moltke, the general staff, which had long had a role in Prussian military preparations, was expanded and elevated. It became not only the source but also the custodian of military plans, responsible for design and then execution.

Von Moltke’s most radical innovation as a commander, which went against the textbooks of the time, was to divide his army so that both parts could be kept supplied until they would combine for the battle (“march divided; strike united”). The risks were that they might be caught separately and be overwhelmed, or brought together too quickly, thus putting a strain on supplies. In the 1866 war with Austria he used the railways to get his troops into position first, even though Austria had been the first to mobilize. Observers were staggered when he allowed his two armies to be separated by some one hundred miles. If the Austrian commanders had been more alert, this could have proved disastrous for von Moltke. In the end, the Austrians were caught by two armies arriving from different directions.

This victory set up a war with France for which von Moltke prepared carefully. This time he divided his army into three, giving him maximum flexibility so he could react quickly as the French plan became apparent. He kept his options open until it was time to strike.

It is even better if the forces can be moved on the day of the battle from separate points against the battlefield itself. In other words, if the operations can be directed in such a manner that the last brief march from different directions leads to the front and into the flank of the enemy, then the strategy has achieved the best that it is able to achieve, and great results must follow.

This could not, however, be guaranteed. Factors of space and time might be calculated, but not the variables where decision-making would also depend upon “the outcome of previous minor battles, on the weather, on false news; in brief, on all that is called chance and luck in human affairs.”16Concentrate too early or too late and it might be impossible to recover.

In the critical war with France in 1870, von Moltke’s victory was complete, at least in terms of the conventional phase of the war. He caught out the French army first in Metz on August 18 and then two weeks later at Sedan. Not all of his commanders followed the plan, but their lapses were more than compensated for by the numerous mistakes and outdated methods of the French side. Although the French army was defeated after seven weeks, the war was not over. Irregular and regular forces came together in France to form a government of national defense. This was a vivid demonstration of how political victory did not always follow automatically from battlefield victory. As the Germans moved toward Paris, von Moltke was aware of the potential vulnerability of extended lines of communication and the continuing ability of the French navy to keep the country supplied. There was an argument with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck over whether to bombard Paris. Von Moltke was worried this would only stiffen French resistance and preferred a siege. Bismarck worried that a slow conclusion to the campaign might prompt Britain and Austria to enter the war on France’s side. The Kaiser agreed with his chancellor and the bombardment began in January 1871. The French government lacked the stomach for a fight and began to negotiate. It was still not over, for then there was a popular revolt, in the form of the Paris Commune. An improvised, irregular army animated by popular passions but lacking in discipline appalled von Moltke.17 Nor was he much pleased with losing the debate over strategy. Bismarck had confessed, to his “shame,” that he had never read Clausewitz, but he had a clear view on the continuing role of politics once war had begun. “To fix and limit the objects to be attained by the war, and to advise the monarch in respect of them, is and remains during the war just as before it a political function, and the manner in which these questions are solved cannot be without influence on the conduct of the war.”18 Von Moltke accepted that the aims of war were determined by policy. Once fighting began, however, the military must be given a free hand: “strategy” must be “fully independent of policy.” This belief went back to the formation of the Prussian general staff after the defeat at Jena in 1806, in order to guard against princely incompetence. Von Moltke judged this role to be as essential as ever. Surround a commander in the field with “independent and negative counselors” and nothing would ever get done. “They will present every difficulty, they will have foreseen all eventualities; they will always be right; they will defeat every positive idea because they have none of their own. These counselors are the spoilers; they negate the Army leader.”19 There was an unavoidable tension at the heart of von Moltke’s position. It was illuminated by his reported conversation with crown prince Frederick William at the height of the crisis. Von Moltke explained that after Paris was taken the army would “push forward into the south of France in order to finally break the enemy’s power.” When asked about the risks of Prussian strength being exhausted so that battles could no longer be won, he denied the possibility. “We must always win battles. We must throw France completely to the ground.” Then “we can dictate the kind of peace we want.” “What if,” wondered the crown prince, “we ourselves bleed to death in the process?” Von Moltke replied: “We shall not bleed to death and, if we do, we shall have got peace in return.” He was then asked whether he was informed about the current political situation, as this “might perhaps make such a course seem unwise.” “No,” the field marshal replied, “I have only to concern myself with military matters.”20

Out of these highly charged debates emerged a concept of crucial importance for subsequent military thought. Stressing his delegated powers from the Kaiser to issue operational commands, von Moltke identified the operational level of war as the one within which the commander must expect no political interference. The episode over Paris might have just demonstrated the fantasy of this political exclusion, but for commanders in the field this became an article of faith, essential to the proper and successful implementation of strategy.

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