Carl von Clausewitz. Napoleon's 1796 Italian Campaign. Translated and edited by Nicholas Murray and Christopher Pringle. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 314 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2675-5; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-2676-2.
Reviewed by Doina Georgeta Harsanyi (Central Michigan University)
Published on H-War (August, 2021)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
“A dead Prussian haunts the Pentagon, the White House and Capitol Hill. Lately, he’s been in those Senate hearings on the Persian Gulf crisis, swaggering among the experts, whispering in their ears, seizing their tongues, making them parrot the ideas of a book from another century.” So wrote Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach at the height of the Gulf War crisis, frustrated with the US military brass’s reliance on theories and musings penned in another time, in another place, on wars that to his mind in no way resembled contemporary conflicts reliant on sophisticated technology and even more sophisticated propaganda contests. Yet no lesser a figure than Colin Powell turned to Clausewitz for counsel on what went wrong in Vietnam and how to regroup for present-day warfare—that is, the kind of wars he would be responsible for as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later, secretary of state. Clausewitz’s relevance, Powell found, stemmed from his clear breakdown of the interplay between military skill, government objectives, and the army’s morale, the latter dependent on public support. Take one element of this trinity out, and the ensemble will collapse. Thinking of war in this way was as worthwhile at the end of the twentieth century as it was at the beginning of nineteenth, whether armies fought with bayonets or Tomahawk cruise missiles, precisely because war, then as now, goes beyond matters of strategy, intelligence gathering, and weaponry. Humanizing and complicating war in this way made Clausewitz a household name, one of the few theorists to enjoy widespread name recognition outside of professional military circles, although he is often more quoted than read; few of those who would readily recite a number of his aphorisms—beginning, of course, with “war is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means”—have read his massive On War (752 pages in the American translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret).
At 314 pages (including the appendix and bibliography), Napoleon’s 1796 Campaign is less intimidating and easier to pick up and read cover to cover. Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign (1796-97) revealed to Europe the young general who changed the methods of war and forced the military establishment outside France, and especially in Clausewitz’s Prussia, to rethink their doctrines. The account of this astonishing series of battles, written after he finished the bulk of the work for On War, presented an opportunity to test philosophical considerations and theoretical models against the concrete operations in Italy, still fresh in many minds at the time of writing (around 1830-32).
Clausewitz set himself the task of building a holistic view of the campaign: the opening paragraph finds fault with Antoine-Henri Jomini’s narrative of the same events, published between 1819 and 1824, for ignoring the Austrian side and generally lacking clarity and precision. To remedy these flaws, Clausewitz made every effort to present as full a description as possible of both French and Austrian movements, decisions, and motivations. The result is, as the editors/translators note in the foreword: “an exercise in the appropriate use of limited resources”—considering that Clausewitz did not have access to Austrian archival documents and other sources historians are accustomed to consulting today. Yet he used available material to infer each side’s thinking and explain why the twenty-six-year-old Bonaparte prevailed so spectacularly over seasoned generals commanding well-equipped and -trained armies. The key ingredient for French success is singled out even before the narrative begins, in the overview of the two armies’ organization and positioning on the terrain:
Thus, if one assesses the situation and the resulting morale and combat power of both armies with common sense, it is clear that more might be expected from a hungry, ragged, passionately excited mob greedy for the fleshpots of Italy—as one may characterize the French army—then from the downtrodden, unthinking, unaware Austrian mercenaries with no interest in the past, present, or future. We say this not to express praise or blame, still less to impugn national character, but rather to seek the causes of events in the naked facts of the situation. (p. 14)
We identify here one of the elements of the trinity: morale and its source, public support. Pressing the point further, Clausewitz draws a contrast between the charismatic, eager, fearless Bonaparte and Austria’s seventy-two-year-old General Beaulieu, capable but cautious (after a lifetime of “box-ticking”) and nobody’s idea of an inspiring trailblazer. Did this affect the second important element of competence and military valor? The observations following each battle analysis directly or indirectly make the point that it did. For instance, the two campaigns and the siege of Mantua (July 7, 1796-February 2, 1797) present opportunities for showing how creative leadership should contend with textbook prescriptions. Austrian commander Wurmser made one mistake after another, the most critical one being the failure to follow the tactical rule of “the simplest plan”: to advance down the Adige valley with his entire force and deviate from the plan only if compelled by unforeseen circumstances (p. 135). Instead, Wurmser divided his forces up front and misunderstood the terrain, thus making it easier for Bonaparte to move around and defeat every army sent to help relieve the siege. As a result, Austrians held on to a position of no great strategic importance and executed, at the last moment, a hopeless sortie that served no other purpose, Clausewitz surmises, than assuaging the shame Wurmser felt for hiding in the fortress. But honor and pride are no substitute for clear thinking: “In war, as we have said, the first resort should always be the simplest option, and each step away from that must have a clear and specific reason. But to the strategists of this time, this sequence of ideas is something quite foreign. They always start with the most complex, and thus all their reasoning is likewise so complex that one can find in it neither beginning nor end” (p. 137). Compare this with Bonaparte, whose reasoning on the same occasion was “indisputably, one of the most beautiful examples in the history of warfare” (p. 137). Unlike Wurmser, he chose the simplest solutions, avoided half measures, and bid his time, mindful to not take unreasonable risks, all the more impressive since he had not yet established his own doctrine: “rather, it was as if he lived from hand to mouth on his own talented intuitions” (p. 138). Therefore, Bonaparte intuitively proved the soundness of the simplest option theory by conceiving a clear plan that he followed consistently.
Throughout the narrative, Clausewitz does not hide his admiration for the French general’s daring and creativity, but he also notes, in school-master fashion, when intuition failed the young prodigy, as happened during operations at Arcole (November 2-17, 1796), in between the two campaigns for Mantua. There, Bonaparte misjudged the conditions of each battle, and because he did not care to heed well-established rules for attack and defense, this entire campaign consisted in incomprehensible spur-of-the-moment maneuvers “contrary to the most basic tactical principles” (p. 199). Fortunately for him, the actions of his Austrian opponents—about whom Clausewitz rarely has anything good to say—were even more incoherent, to the point of earning the withering label “reprehensible.” Crucially, though, despite confusion and missteps on both sides, Bonaparte’s tenacity and bravery, in conjunction with his soldiers’ enthusiasm (which Clausewitz calls “moral superiority”) tipped the balance and the French claimed another victory. In short, there are times when morale and valor are more important to success than well-reasoned plans, with the caveat that everybody is not Bonaparte: “Woe to the less distinguished general who dared to attempt such an operation and failed” (p. 199).
As for the third factor, the politics–war nexus, Clausewitz presents the 1796 Italian campaign as a study in the unintended consequences of political confusion. The instructions of the French Directory were too vague to guide Bonaparte, who thus felt no compunction to follow his own course, which in the end worked to the satisfaction of both army and government. On the Austrian side, the bewildered government fumbled throughout the campaign and never made sufficiently clear that it wanted to restore its dominant position in Italy. This, Clausewitz concludes, explains why Austrian senior officers repeatedly failed to pursue the overwhelming force principle, the only one that could have secured them success under the circumstances, demonstrating that bad politics and bad strategy are indeed intertwined. The concluding chapter offers a thorough unpacking of the political calculations accompanying French and Austrian military operations ahead of the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 17, 1797), which will delight readers looking for more direct reflections on “politics by other means.”
Military historians and army officers will find much to enjoy in this theoretician’s take on a well-known sequence of events. Like all of Clausewitz’s writings, the book will draw a wide audience who might skip the details on weaponry and troops placement to mull over the philosophical meditations on the phenomenon of war as a complete, many-sided human enterprise. The narrative is rich in perceptive insights into the dilemmas of commanders schooled in theories of war but confronted with unexpected circumstances and unpredictable opponents; shrewd, often humorous, remarks on how intense emotions—fear, pride, restlessness—and the unavoidable fog of war keep thwarting plans conceived in calm offices away from the battlefield; meditations on human greatness and human failings, or on the part chance and blind natural forces play in war, as in any human endeavor. The excellent critical apparatus of this edition goes a long way to help readers grasp the continuing relevance of this unusual writer. Richly researched footnotes place Clausewitz’s considerations on the first Italian campaign in the larger context of his work, with references to On War alongside nineteenth-century controversies around his theories. Very illuminating also are the brief discussions of contemporary tactical thinking compared with Clausewitz’s outlook—the publisher must be commended for opting for footnotes instead of endnotes. The entire work is a treat for military specialists and lay readers alike and ensures that the “dead Prussian” will continue to fascinate and whisper in many ears, for many years to come.
. Joel Achenbach, “War and the Cult of Clausewitz,” Washington Post, December 6, 1990.
. “A beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries,” wrote Powell upon reading On War. As quoted in Hew Strachan, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2007), 2.
. Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).
. “But to ensure success, if one is not aware of any moral superiority of one’s own, a significant numerical superiority is required, and if one is forced to acknowledge the moral superiority of the enemy, one must outnumber him twofold” (p. 255).
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Doina Georgeta Harsanyi. Review of Clausewitz, Carl von, Napoleon's 1796 Italian Campaign.
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