Book Review: After Clausewitz: German Military Thinkers Before the Great War


by Antulio J. Echevarria II

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000. Pp. 346. Notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN:0-7006-1071-5

If there is one era of military history that has been the subject of much stereotyping, it is that between the Wars of German Unification and the onset of World War I. Historians have often portrayed the period as one in which military thinking simply stopped, thus creating the conditions for the various disasters that befell European military establishments in 1914.

In After Clausewitz, Antulio Echevarria does a terrific job debunking this notion. He shows, in chapter after chapter, how German military thinkers seriously grappled with what the increasing range and lethality of weaponry would do to the battlefield of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They tried to figure out not only what the physical effects of improving weapons would be, but also what the psychological pressures of the “empty battlefield” would be on the men who would have to exist there. The ultimate issue that had to be dealt with, however, was how a commander could exercise some degree of control over a battlefield given the almost geometrical degree of tactical dispersion created by technological change.

Echevarria divides the era into two distinct periods. During the 1870s and 1880s, German military thinkers clearly recognized that the tactics that had proven costly but successful in 1866 and 1870-1871 were no longer sufficient in the face of improving small arms. How to deal with this evolved into two schools of thought, namely Normaltaktik (normal tactics) and Auftragstaktik (mission tactics). Although writers from both camps, especially Albrecht von Boguslawski and Sigismund von Schlichting, expressed their views rather strongly, Echevarria suggests that there was really broad agreement, and the differences in many ways were more nuanced than real.

Both schools of thought also had similar ideas about horse cavalry. While instances of successful mounted charges were noted, there was general agreement that the days of mounted combat were generally over. Most writers believed that cavalry could be employed on the battlefield in a dismounted role, with the American Civil War as the model to be followed. Cavalry would still have to perform the critical functions of screening and reconnaissance, as well as executing raids against operational and strategic targets.

The most problematic of the arms during the 1870s and 1880s remained the artillery. During this period, artillery remained beset by the same disadvantages that had hindered its offensive effectiveness during the 1860s. German thinkers during the 1870s suggested that the best way to employ artillery was in a counter-battery role to suppress defensive artillery. Once the enemy artillery had been beaten down, artillery could then be used to support the final stages of the infantry attack.

The critical period, argues Echevarria, was the 1890s. Technological improvements in both small-arms, including the introduction of the machine gun, but especially in the range and lethality of artillery, created a crisis in the conduct of war. The need for tactical dispersion combined with the lack of effective battlefield communications, made the tactical offensive problematic to say the least. One writer, the Polish banker named Jan Bloch, went so far as to claim in a lengthy work that war was now impossible.

Echevarria details the efforts of Wilhelmine military thinkers to deal with these issues. Military intellectuals such as Friedrich von Bernhardi, Colmar von der Goltz, and Alfred von Schlieffen, amongst others, devoted considerable effort to this problem. Ultimately a tactical synthesis was arrived at, based on a study of the Russo-Japanese War. These men believed that with sufficient numbers of well-trained infantry, artillery, and even cavalry, if used in proper combination, would be able to carry even a well-entrenched defensive position, preferably through a flank attack. Echevarria suggests that the decentralized nature of tra

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC Command & Staff College   

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