General Karl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, 1780-1831

General Karl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian general, most famous for his studies of military theory, largely published after his death in 1831.

Clausewitz was born at Burg near Magdeburg in 1780. His family was originally from Poland, but his father had briefly served in the army of Frederick the Great before becoming a Prussian civil servant. In 1792 Clausewitz joined the Prussian army, serving as a cadet (Gefreiterkorporal) in Prince Ferdinand's Infantry Regiment no.34, right at the start of the Wars of the French revolution.

Clausewitz first saw combat on the Rhine front of 1793-94. He took part in the siege of Mainz as an ensign, and was promoted to lieutenant in 1795. However in the same year Prussia withdrew from the war, limiting his chances of active service.

In 1801-1803 Clausewitz studied at the Military Academy in Berlin. One of his tutors was Scharnhorst, the future military reformer, who became a valuable supporter and friend. It was Scharnhorst who suggested his appointment as personal tutor and aide to Crown Prince August of Prussia in 1805.

In 1806 Clausewitz served as a staff officer during the disastrous Jena-Auerstädt campaign. He was present at Auerstädt, and surrendered with the remnant of the army commanded by Prince Hohenlohe. He then spent ten months interned in France with Crown Prince August.

In April 1808 Clausewitz returned to the Prussian army, at first at the royal court in exile from Berlin at Königsberg. He was promoted to full captain, and helped Scharnhorst and Gneisenau reform the Prussian army. In 1809 he worked at the Prussian War Ministry. In July 1810 he moved to the General Staff, and in August he was promoted to major.

In October 1810 Scharnhorst helped him gain an appointment as a tutor at the Military Academy in Berlin. He also served as the personal military tutor to Crown Prince August. Many of his later military theories can be seen during this period of teaching.

In 1812 Prussia was forced into an alliance with France, and to take part in the invasion of Russia. Like several other officers Clausewitz resigned from the army in disgust, and he then entered the Russian army at a lieutenant colonel. His initial task was to try and raise a unit from German prisoners of war, but this project was delayed. Clausewitz was appointed as an aide to the Württemberg General Karl von Pfuel, who had previous served on the Prussian General Staff. After Pfuel resigned, Clausewitz moved to the staff of Count Pahlen.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

During the campaign of 1812 Clausewitz fought at Vitebsk, Smolensk and Borodino. He was then made chief of staff to the garrison of Riga, which was then commanded by Graf Esen. Clausewitz didn't reach Riga, and instead in November 1812 joined the staff of General Wittgenstein, who commanded part of the Russian army on the northern flank of the retreating French Grande Armée. 

The Prussian contingent, under General Yorck, was also operating on the northern flank, under Marshal Macdonald. As Macdonald retreated west, Wittgenstein attempted to isolate the Prussians. Clausewitz was part of the vanguard of the column pursuing the Prussians, and once they were cut off was placed in charge of the delegation that successfully negotiated the Convention of Tauroggen (30 December 1812). Yorck agreed to make his corps neutral, and withdrew from the fighting. This helped trigger a general uprising across northern Germany, although at first the Prussian court condemned Yorck's actions.

In 1813 Clausewitz was posted as a Russian liaison officer at Prussian HQ, but Frederick William III refused to let him back into the Prussian army, as punishment for leaving the Prussian army in the previous year. Clausewitz was greatly affected during this period by the death of Scharnhorst, who died after a wound he suffered at Lützen became infected.

Clausewitz was worried by the summer armistice that split the German campaign of 1813 into two halves. When the fighting resumed, he attempted to get a post on the staff of Blücher's Army of Silesia but he was passed over in favour of General Philipp Friedrich von Müffling.

Clausewitz spent the rest of 1813 and the campaign of 1814 serving with the Russo-German Legion, the unit he was originally appointed to raise in 1812. In 1813 this legion was part of Wallmoden's corps, itself part of Bernadotte's Army of the North. Wallmoden had a mixed force, mainly made up of levies or recent volunteers, with a small core of regular troops. It was used on the campaign around Hamburg. During this period Clausewitz commanded at the Action of the Göhrde (16 September 1813), a minor Allied victory in which a French force under General Marc-Nicolas-Louis Pécheux was forced to retreat into Hamburg.

After the battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) Bernadotte's army advanced into the Netherlands, to support a revolt in favour of the Prince of Orange. Clausewitz was finally transferred to Blücher's HQ, although still as a member of the Russian army. He remained there until the end of the French campaign.

Clausewitz finally returned to the Prussian army after Napoleon's escape from Elbe. He was appointed a full colonel on the Prussian General Staff at the end of March 1815, and in the next month became chief of staff to Johann Freiherr von Thielmann's III Corps. In this role he fought at Ligny (16 June 1815) and at Wavre (18 June 1815), where Thielmann's corps helped prevent Grouchy moving to Waterloo.

After the war Prussia was give a new province on the Lower Rhine. Thielmann was placed in charge of the Military District of the Lower Rhine, with Clausewitz as his chief of staff. The new district was based around Coblenz on the Rhine. Clausewitz held this role from 1815 until 1818.

In May 1818 Clausewitz returned to Berlin and became head of administration of the War Academy, a task that bored him. He was promoted to major general in the same year, and held his post at the War Academy until 1830. During this period Clausewitz produced most of his writings, although they remained unpublished during his lifetime.

In August 1830 he was appointed inspector of the 2nd Artillery District, based at Breslau in Silesia, a post he gained through the support of his old pupil Prince August, the commander of the Prussian artillery. In March 1831 he was appointed as chief of staff to Gneisenau's army of observation on the Polish frontier, raised to observe a revolt in Russian occupied Poland. This posting would prove to be fatal to both men. Gneisenau died of cholera on 23 August 1831. Clausewitz returned to Breslau, where he too died of cholera, on 18 November 1831. 

Clausewitz is now most famous for his writings, which became the basis of most military thinking for the next century and a half.

His best known work is On War (Vom Kriege), in which he stated that 'war is nothing more than a continuation of politics by other means', meaning that any military strategy had to match a valid political aim. The later German leader Bismarck certainly understood this idea, and his wars of German unification (in particular the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War) had clear limited aims (even if he wasn't able to stick to them in 1871). Others have used it to justify using conflict, rather missing the point. His original text made it clear that the political leadership had to retain control of the direction of a war, while later editions were altered to reverse that, and it was this exclusive military control of the direction of wars that became the norm in Germany.

Clausewitz also saw the 'wars of the people', with mass participation, would become the norm, and would be much more destructive than most eighteenth century wars, which had more limited aims and smaller armies.  However he didn't advocate 'Total War' and instead suggested that there would be two types of wars - those aiming at limited objectives and those aiming at rendering the enemy defenceless, in which case their main field army would be the main target.

One of the reasons his work has remained influential for so long was that he didn't attempt to set down a prescriptive set of rules of strategy (unlike most military writers of the period), and so his general conclusions remained valid even as the nature of warfare changed.

A ten volume military history (Hinterlassene Werke über Krieg und Kriegsführung or 'Leftover works on war and warfare) was published between 1832 and 1837, but isn't as well known as On War. His history of the Russian campaign (The Campaign of 1812 in Russia), first published in 1843, is better known.

Clausewitz was very influential for the next century and a half, although not all of his followers really understood his arguments, or at least the conclusions of the arguments in which he debated the issues.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 December 2016), General Karl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, 1780-1831 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_clausewitz.html

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