Chris Bassford
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From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow., 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.


by Christopher Bassford[1]

The battle of Waterloo is undoubtedly one of the most interesting events of modern times, but the Duke entertains no hopes of ever seeing an account of all its details which shall be true."[2] Thus wrote the Duke of Wellington to a friend in 1816. Along the same lines, Wellington once pointed out that a battle was a social event, rather like a ball: full of interesting incidents that none of the participants could later put into anything like a firm chronological order, much less reconstruct into a coherent story.[3]

As practical historians, the editors of the present work are, of course, in full agreement with the Duke on one point. It is indeed impossible to recapture past events, even those in which we ourselves have participated, with anything approaching perfect fidelity.

Nonetheless, it is interesting and sometimes even useful to try. Though Wellington obviously knew the inherent imperfections of the genre, he himself was an avid reader of military history. It was only with regard to his own battles that he complained of historians' futile attempts to capture events on paper. "Surely," he said, "the details of the battle might have been left in the original official reports. Historians and commentators were not necessary."[4] In accordance with this attitude, it was Wellington's official policy not to endorse or make public reply to any of the vast number of studies of Waterloo published between 1815 and his death in 1852.[5] He did, however, utilize anonymous literary agents to attack treatments he considered particularly scurrilous or bombastic. His private secretary, Colonel John Gurwood, and his younger friend Francis Egerton, the Earl of Ellesmere, were the authors of numerous book reviews reflecting the Duke's annoyance. One such review, for example, attacked the famous Swiss military writer Antoine-Henri Jomini for his "pompous charlatanerie,"[6] even though Jomini was taking Wellington's side in the debate over Waterloo.[7] Jomini's chief offense, it seems, was his claim to understand the eternal, underlying rules governing warfare. Such theories were, in Wellington's view, "mere reveries," inherently useless.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that the single major exception to Wellington's refusal to enter personally into the debate over Waterloo came in response to another theorist's study of the Waterloo campaign. That theorist was the Prussian military philosopher, General Carl von Clausewitz.

Wellington and Clausewitz were men quite unalike in background and temperament. Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852) was born into a modestly influential if not particularly prosperous family, a younger son of an impoverished Irish lord. He was the consummate leader: a brilliant field commander with a taste for defensive tactics but a keen eye for offensive opportunities; a charismatic personality; a masterful organizer and manager; and a far-sighted strategist who knew well how to capitalize on assets like the Royal Navy and British financial resources. He was adept in alliance diplomacy, in managing multinational forces, and in dealing with the home government while winning victories in the field. First gaining prominence as a "sepoy general" in India, he waged a victorious five-year campaign to drive the French out of Portugal and Spain (1808-14) and won more victories in France itself before Napoleon's first abdication. Unlike most other senior Allied commanders, however, prior to Waterloo he had never confronted Bonaparte himself on the field of battle. Created Duke of Wellington in 1814, he crowned his military career with his victory over Napoleon the following year. Wellington's later ventures into domestic politics, however, including a two-year stint as prime minister (1828-30), were not successful. With his natural conservatism growing increasingly hidebound, Wellington's impact on government and especially on the army—of which he was appointed commander-in-chief in 1842—was unfortunate. The army's poor showing in the Crimean War (1853-56) is often blamed on his lingering influence.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was the youngest son of a poorly paid minor Prussian official with dubious claims to nobility. In contrast to Wellington, Clausewitz was reserved, shy, and intensely intellectual, a consummate staff officer in the great tradition of the Prussian/German general staff. Clausewitz entered the Prussian army before his twelfth birthday. He first saw combat as a thirteen year-old ensign in 1793, at the siege of Mainz. After Prussia withdrew from the wars of the French Revolution in 1795, he applied himself to his own education: beyond strictly military subjects, Clausewitz developed a wide-ranging set of interests in art, science, and education. So successful were his efforts that in 1801 he was able to gain admission to the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin (which would eventually evolve into the famous Kriegsakademie—the German War College). He quickly came to the attention of the new director, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a key figure in the Prussian state during the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars. Impressed by Clausewitz's ability, Scharnhorst became his sponsor, mentor, and close friend.[8] Clausewitz graduated at the top of his class in 1803 and was rewarded with the position of military adjutant to the young Prince August. This brought him into close contact with the royal family and with events at the very center of the Prussian state.

Unlike Wellington prior to Waterloo, Clausewitz saw battle—several times—against Napoleon himself. Prussia's forces were shattered in humiliating defeats at Jena and Auerstädt in 1806, and Clausewitz was captured. When he returned from a comfortable internment with his prince in 1808, he joined energetically with Scharnhorst and others in a reform movement aimed at restructuring both Prussian society and the army in preparation for what he felt to be an inevitable new struggle with the French. Though no revolutionary himself, he recognized that Prussia would have to modernize and liberalize its society if it were to compete with revolutionary France. He remained deeply involved in events in Berlin, becoming military tutor to the Crown Prince in 1810. In 1812, however, Prussia, by force of circumstances allied to France, agreed to provide an army corps to assist in the invasion of Russia. Along with a number of other officers, Clausewitz therefore resigned from the Prussian service and accepted a commission in the Russian army in order to continue the resistance to Napoleon. There, Clausewitz participated in the drawn-out Russian retreat and fought in the slaughterhouse battle at Borodino. He witnessed the disastrous French retreat from Moscow, including the catastrophic crossing of the Beresina river. Crossing behind the French lines on a covert mission, he then played a key role in negotiating the "Convention of Tauroggen." This negotiation brought about the defection of General H.D.L. Yorck von Wartenburg's Prussian corps from the French army. That action led eventually to the entry of Prussia into the anti-Napoleon coalition and, after some delay, to Clausewitz's reinstatement and promotion to colonel in the Prussian army. Clausewitz participated in many key events of the War of Liberation (1813-1814). However, bad luck, the King's lingering resentment over his actions in 1812-13, and suspicions concerning his political liberalism prevented him from obtaining any significant command.

During the Waterloo campaign, Clausewitz served as chief of staff of the Prussian 3rd Corps, commanded by General J.A. von Thielmann. The corps fought at Ligny, successfully extricating itself from the Prussian defeat there. Then—outnumbered two to one—it played a crucial if often uncelebrated rear-guard action at Wavre, which prevented Marshal Grouchy's detached forces from rejoining Napoleon at Waterloo.[9]

In 1818, Clausewitz was promoted to general and became administrative head of the war college in Berlin. He spent his abundant leisure time writing studies of various campaigns and preparing his magnum opus on military theory, Vom Kriege (in English, On War). In the emergency of 1830-31, when revolutions in Paris and Poland seemed to presage a new general European war, he was appointed chief of staff of the field army, which was sent to the Polish border under Field Marshal August Neidhardt von Gneisenau. Although war was averted, Clausewitz remained in the east, organizing a sanitary cordon to stop the spread of a cholera epidemic from Poland. When Gneisenau died of the disease in August 1831, Clausewitz took command of the army but, “once the danger of serious fighting had passed,”[10] he was replaced by the inexperienced but politically more palatable Field Marshal Karl Friedrich von dem Knesebeck. Somewhat depressed by this turn of events, he returned home, immediately fell ill with cholera himself, and died in November 1831. His many unfinished manuscripts, including those constituting On War, were later published in ten volumes of collected works. These were assembled and edited by his wife, Marie von Clausewitz. Marie considerably outranked her husband socially (she was born an imperial countess) and shared a famously deep intellectual partnership with him—accounting for the fact, extremely surprising in the 19th century, that a woman wrote the preface to the Western world’s greatest work of military theory.

Clausewitz wrote his campaign studies, not as formal histories for publication, but rather as a means for developing, testing, and refining his ideas in the laboratory of actual events. The Campaign of 1815, though often referred to as a “history,” does not attempt to provide a comprehensive narrative of events. Rather, it is a strategic analysis focusing on key strategic-  and operational-level issues in the sequence in which they arose. It is subtitled "Strategic Overview of the Campaign of 1815" and treats the campaign as a whole—the Battle of Waterloo was simply one very prominent episode. It was probably the most sophisticated of Clausewitz's campaign studies in terms of its relationship to his maturing theories.[11] He wrote it between 1827 and 1830, and used material from it in teaching the Crown Prince.[12] It was published in 1835 as the eighth volume of Clausewitz's collected works.[13]

As a theorist, Clausewitz distinguished carefully between the role of the historian and that of the military critic, even though he recognized that the two roles often went together. He maintained that historical research proper has nothing to do with either theory or criticism; it is the discovery, interpretation, and arrangement of “equivocal facts,” subject to differing interpretations. Interpretation is analysis, not research. Critical analysis is the tracing of effects back to their causes. Criticism proper is the investigation and evaluation of actions taken, the consideration of alternative courses of action (i.e., a counter-factual or alternative-history approach), the realm of praise and censure. In such evaluation, actions must be analyzed not only on their own level (i.e., tactical, strategic, political) but also as they interact at other levels. Theory provides the framework for analysis and judgement.

Clausewitz employed this approach in The Campaign of 1815. Despite the fact that he had participated in the campaign himself, his discussion is detached and impersonal. The only exception to this detachment is his obvious animosity towards Napoleon. This animosity stems not only from his personal political passions but also from his irritation as an analyst with what he regarded as the Emperor's systematic distortion of the record. In general, Clausewitz had great professional respect for Bonaparte's military skills, so much so that he has often been called—erroneously—the "high priest of Napoleon."[14] In reality, Clausewitz was the exponent not of Napoleon but rather of the most capable among the men who defeated him, especially Scharnhorst. His professional respect for Napoleon is naturally not so evident in his discussion of a campaign marked by such serious mistakes on the Emperor's part.

Around 1839, Wellington's friend Cecil Cope Jenkinson, third Lord Liverpool, was introduced to Clausewitz's collected works by a German friend.[15] Liverpool (1784-1851) was the younger brother of the Tory prime minister in office between 1812 and 1827. He had spent time as a youth in the Royal Navy, served as attaché at Vienna, and fought in the Austrian army at Austerlitz. Afterwards he entered Parliament, joined the cabinet in 1807, and became under-secretary of state for war and the colonies in 1809. Liverpool was initially interested only in Clausewitz’s study of the campaign of 1812 in Russia, especially in Clausewitz's role in General Yorck's defection. He then grew absorbed in the philosopher's other works, and became quite enthusiastic about the theoretical arguments contained in On War. Wellington, however, was concerned only with Clausewitz's discussion of the Waterloo campaign, particularly his analysis of Marshal Grouchy's operations.[16] It was Liverpool who provided the Duke with a rough, partial manuscript translation of The Campaign of 1815, which was never designed for publication but still exists in Southampton University Library's collection of Wellington's papers.[17] At the urging of Liverpool, Gurwood, and Ellesmere, Wellington formally replied to Clausewitz's analysis in a memorandum dated 24 September 1842. He did not intend that his memorandum be made public, but his son nonetheless published it in 1863.

It is difficult to characterize the Duke's personal attitude towards Clausewitz. He went into Liverpool's translation extremely skeptical of—even hostile to—historians in general and military theorists in particular. Despite his own interest in ascertaining the facts about Grouchy's activities, he abhorred the "critical morality" that leads historians like Clausewitz to pursue awkward truths when these might cause political frictions at home or inflame relations among allies. There’s nothing particularly reprehensible in these attitudes. Wellington was, after all, a soldier and a policy maker, not an academic. His values had to be essentially political in character. But he also overtly rejected Clausewitz's critical method, which involves not only establishing what actually did happen but also comparing it with alternative courses of action at various key points: "It is useless to speculate upon supposed military movements which were never made, and operations which never took place, or the objects of the several chiefs of Generals opposed to each other." That attitude cannot be explained by Wellington’s professional role, because taking such alternatives into account is inherent in strategy making. On the other hand, Wellington's treatment of Clausewitz, while self-justifying and argumentative, is not disrespectful. His comments contain none of the vitriol that his literary agents routinely heaped on writers who offended him (and those agents sought actively to discourage Wellington from being too cantankerous in his treatment of Clausewitz). He credits Clausewitz with a good understanding of the relationship between politics and military operations, even while disputing his understanding of British policy in 1815. He grudgingly accepts Clausewitz's critical characterization of the Allied armies' dispositions prior to the start of operations—while pointing out that everything worked out well anyway.

In all likelihood, Wellington went on record in response to Clausewitz, not because of any great personal interest or irritation, but because of the hectoring of his friends and assistants. More important than Wellington's own motives, therefore, are those of Ellesmere, Liverpool, and Gurwood in choosing Clausewitz as the catalyst for their efforts. These men were anxious to get the aging hero to leave some definitive public statement of his views on the battle. The group's interest in Clausewitz's ideas was positive, however, and deeper than merely in using him to prod Wellington to write. In June 1842, Egerton, reviewing a biography of Marshal Blücher, referred to "the remarks of a very able Prussian critic of the [1815] campaign, the late General Clausewitz."[18] As Gurwood made clear when urging the Duke to read Liverpool's translation, they felt that Clausewitz was also an honest writer seeking the truth, rather than one with a personal or national ax to grind. In September 1842, Egerton wrote that “He seems to me free from national prejudices & nonsense.” Liverpool probably provided Wellington with Clausewitz's lengthy discussion of the Battle of Ligny in order to demonstrate to him, before he came to the remarks on the battle at Waterloo itself, that the Prussian writer was detached and as critical of his own army's operations as of the British and French. Liverpool was so intrigued by Clausewitz's great theoretical book, On War, that he offered to translate it for the Duke—an offer Wellington naturally refused. In 1843, Egerton went on to translate and anonymously publish Clausewitz's study The Campaign of 1812 in Russia.[19] Wellington himself remained sufficiently interested in Clausewitz's views to discuss the latter book in some detail with Egerton.[20] Overall, then, we must conclude that the whole group, Wellington included, found Clausewitz's work to be of very substantial merit.

Nonetheless, Wellington clearly misunderstood Clausewitz's arguments concerning Waterloo in at least one important respect, and that misunderstanding has had a lasting negative impact on Clausewitz's reputation in Britain. Wellington believed that Clausewitz's criticism of the disposition of his forces prior to the start of the campaign was rooted in the idea that the Allied armies, based on some general principle, should have sought a "great battle" with Napoleon. Wellington saw no value in seeking such a "great battle ... even under the hypothesis that the result would have been a great victory." His object was the preservation of the Allied forces in Belgium for use in crushing Napoleon through actions coordinated with the other Allied armies, most of which had not yet arrived in the theater of war. Because of the Alliance's sheer numerical superiority, this would have been a far more sure strategy—and less costly in its result. The moral effect of a defeat, on the other hand, might have imperiled the entire Allied cause. Despite what Wellington acknowledged as Clausewitz's political sophistication, his supposed desire for decisive battle did not, in this case, accord with the policy of the Alliance or of the British government.

Wellington's broad reasoning was sound, but he had missed Clausewitz's point. Rather than making a general principle of the need to seek decisive battle, Clausewitz was making a very specific point about Napoleon. His analysis was based both on the French emperor's habitual behavior and on the particular strategic situation in 1815. Napoleon did not orient his operations on the seizure of geographic points but on his enemy's army, which he characteristically sought to destroy in a decisive engagement. This was especially necessary in 1815, given Napoleon's political situation. In Clausewitz's view, therefore, Wellington need not have worried about being prepared to cover all of the various avenues on which Napoleon might advance: Wherever the Allied armies stood was where Napoleon would go. The Duke therefore should have sought to concentrate his forces in preparation for the "lightning bolt" that Napoleon would inevitably hurl against him, rather than scattering his forces to protect all key locations and potential avenues of advance. It was thus Napoleon, not Clausewitz, who sought to impose a decisive battle on the Allied armies. And, of course, he succeeded in doing precisely that.

The result of Wellington's misunderstanding has been an enduring belief among many British writers—most of them quite unaware of its origins with Wellington—that Clausewitz's theories about war are based on the quest for a "decisive battle." In fact, while Clausewitz argued that combat is what distinguishes war from politics in general, and he clearly preferred decisive strategies to aimless puttering about, there is no indication that he believed in fighting "great battles" for their own sake or that wars were likely to be resolved in a single great blow. Wellington and Clausewitz were simply talking past one another on this issue.

It is intriguing, however, that Wellington, who—along with most British soldiers of the 19th century and later—sneered at the very idea of a "theory of war," should nonetheless have made such a clear theoretical argument about the relationship between policy and military strategy: “The historian [i.e., Clausewitz] shows in more than one passage of his History that he is not insensible of the military and political value of good moral impressions resulting from military operations.” Wellington’s comments sound, in fact, very much like Clausewitz's famous line in On War that "War is the continuation of politics by other means." The great strength of Clausewitz's analytical approach is in fact to demonstrate the impact of political concerns at what many or most military historians would consider to be purely operational or even tactical levels. Wellington's response to his study of 1815 likewise engages political concerns, to great effect.

It is also revealing that Wellington's circle should have been so interested in Clausewitz. In fact, 19th-century British writers on military affairs were quite respectful of Clausewitz, even when disputing his conclusions or complaining of the mental effort required to read his major work. It was only after the disasters of World War I that Clausewitz became the object of British hostility, largely because some writers came to blame the influence of Clausewitz's theories for the grotesque slaughter on the Western Front. That accusation was based on a misunderstanding of On War's arguments—fostered in no small part by Wellington's misinterpretation of Clausewitz's Campaign of 1815—as well as on a great exaggeration of the degree to which Clausewitz's ideas had actually been accepted by pre-war European military thinkers.[21] Unfortunately, these misperceptions and others long made an unthinking (and unreading) hostility to Clausewitz common among many British military writers. This hostility resulted in a great deal of foolishness, well captured in a comment by the otherwise sensible Brigadier Peter Young: "For those who would perceive the art of war, the cool, historical analysis of past operations is a more reliable lantern than all the philosophizing of von Clausewitz and his disciples."[22] The "cool analysis of operations" is, in fact, and as the present work demonstrates, what Clausewitz's "philosophizing" is all about.

Wellington's exchange with Clausewitz was well known in the 19th century.[23] For some reason, however, it fell into obscurity in the 20th, so much so that some prominent British military historians expressed astonishment to us when informed of its existence. Even though Wellington's memorandum is one of only two major discussions by the battle's victor, and despite the fact that Clausewitz was a prominent witness and participant in the campaign, neither source is widely quoted in studies in the English language. For example, Jac Weller, Wellington at Waterloo (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967), makes an obscure reference to Clausewitz's assessment and the Duke's response, but does not discuss it. John Keegan's discussion of Waterloo in The Face of Battle (New York: Dorset, 1976) makes no reference to Clausewitz at all. Clausewitz is mentioned in David Chandler's Waterloo: The Hundred Days (London: Osprey, 1980), but only in vague general reference to the theories contained in On War. The same is true of Paddy Griffith, ed., Wellington as Commander: The Iron Duke's Generalship (Sussex: Antony Bird Publications, 1985). Neville Thompson, Wellington after Waterloo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986) makes no reference to the exchange. In a remark that may reveal one cause for the exchange's eclipse, Weller noted in his bibliography that "Germans who have written about the campaign are too much interested in pleading their own causes." In fact, Clausewitz went out of his way to absolve Wellington of accusations that he had failed to honor his pledge to support the Prussians at Ligny. Egerton, as noted above, felt that Clausewitz lacked national prejudices.[24] Wellington, in turn, was happy to note the decisive Prussian contribution to his victory. It seems that many modern writers are not so accommodating—a legacy of 1914, not 1815.

While these larger theoretical and historical issues are important (in fact, profound), for most readers the value of the exchange between Wellington and Clausewitz will lie in its arguments about the battle itself. The present book offers readers the opportunity to understand for themselves the divergent views of two highly experienced Napoleonic-era soldiers, both of them participants—albeit at different levels of command—in one of the most famous and important military campaigns in history. The utterly pragmatic Wellington, victorious commander at Waterloo, is widely viewed as the greatest general in Britain's long history. The theoretically-inclined Clausewitz, at the time of Waterloo a well respected but relatively junior Prussian staff officer, is generally regarded today as the greatest of all Western military thinkers. Both were intimately familiar with the context and with key personalities and events of the Waterloo campaign. Each put much effort years afterwards into struggling to grasp the whole. Neither fully succeeded. By studying the exchange between them, we can become participants in their struggle for a fuller understanding of what remains, indeed, "undoubtedly one of the most interesting events of modern times."

Christopher Bassford
April 2010


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