Jomini and clausewitz

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Christopher Bassford

An edited version of a paper

presented to the 23rd Meeting of the
Consortium on Revolutionary Europe
at Georgia State University
26 February 1993. Copyright
Christopher Bassford.

Part of The Clausewitz Homepage




Fundamental Differences Between the Two Theorists

Their Interaction

Conclusions: The Return of Jomini



At least three important military theorists emerged from the experience of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon: The Austrian Archduke Charles; the Swiss writer Antoine-Henri Jomini; and the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz. The archduke has had very little influence in the United States or Great Britain, since his work was never translated into English.*1 The military-theoretical traditions founded by Jomini and Clausewitz, however, have very definitely had an impact on our military thinking.

Most frequently, Jomini is treated as being somehow the opposite of Clausewitz: military educators often hurl the epithets "Jominian" and "Clausewitzian" at one another as if those single words somehow summed up their opponents' fallacious world-views and defects of personal character. On the other hand, a number of thoughtful observers have considered the differences betweem Jomini and Clausewitz to be rather inconsequential. Alfred Thayer Mahan is a case in point. Mahan's father, military educator Dennis Hart Mahan, is generally considered to have been a devout Jominian, and so is his son (though in fact both were creative thinkers in their own right, and calling them "Jominians" is an unfair characterization). The younger Mahan eventually became familiar with Clausewitz,*2 calling him "one of the first of authorities." However, he found Clausewitz to be in essential agreement with Jomini in all significant respects,*3 so he continued to put forth his arguments in largely Jominian terminology.*4 The great British Clausewitzian Spenser Wilkinson thought that Mahan and Clausewitz were in general accord.*5 In Germany, Albrecht von Boguslawski also argued that Jomini and Clausewitz were saying the same thing. More recently, US Naval War College Professor Michael Handel has sought to reconcile the two theorists.*6

Thus Jomini and Clausewitz often appear either as opposites or as twins. As usual when we are given a choice between two such clear alternatives, neither really proves to be very useful and the truth lies somewhere else. In reality, Jomini and Clausewitz saw much the same things in war, but saw them through very different eyes. The similarities in their military ideas, which are indeed very great, stem from three sources:

1. A common historical interest in the campaigns of Frederick the Great
2. Long personal experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, albeit usually on different sides
3. They read each other's books.

Despite having these things in common, their approaches to military theory were fundamentally different, and the source of these differences can be found in their very different personalities.

This is not the place to delve terribly deeply into the arcane theoretical details of these two men's work. Instead, I want to focus on the sources of our modern-day confusion: Why is it that Jomini and Clausewitz look so radically different to some observers, yet so very similar to others? I will attribute this confusion to our frequent lack of sensitivity to the differences in the two men's experiences and personalities, and to the way in which they interacted over time. 


Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a professional soldier from the age of 12 to his death from Cholera--a disease he incurred on active duty--at the age of 51. He first saw combat in 1794 when he was 13. He experienced first-hand Prussia's disastrous military humiliation by Napoleon in 1806, was captured, and returned to Prussia a passionate military reformer. As a junior staff officer, he worked closely with the great Prussian military reformers Gerhard von Scharnhorst (who was his mentor) and August von Gneisenau (who became his friend and protector). In 1810, he was appointed military tutor to the crown prince, for whom he wrote (in 1812) a military treatise we call The Principles of War.*7 The same year, on a matter of high principle, he gave up his commission and joined the Russian army to fight Napoleon. He fought throughout the Russian campaign and on through the Wars of Liberation of 1813 and 1814. He was Prussian III Corps chief of staff during the campaign of 1815. It was Clausewitz's corps which--outnumbered two-to-one--held Grouchy's forces at Wavre, contributing decisively to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

Clausewitz had a reputation in the Prussian army as both an idealist and a superb staff officer, but he was considered temperamentally unsuitable for command. No hint of personal scandal attaches to Clausewitz, and his intellectual integrity was the driving force behind the ruthless examination of military-theoretical ideas that we find in his greatest book, On War. However, while he rose very high in the King's service, he was widely considered too open to liberal ideas to be altogether politically reliable. His ideas on war are heavily influenced by the mass popular warfare of the French Revolutionary period, and those ideas were uncomfortable to conservative aristocrats.

Clausewitz's relationship to Napoleon is often misunderstood. Although he is often called the "high-priest of Napoleon" (Liddell Hart's and J.F.C. Fuller's term for him), it is important to note that, in fact, Clausewitz represents not the ideas of Napoleon but rather those of his most capable opponent, the Prussian military reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst.


The man who did claim to interpret Napoleon to the military world was Antoine-Henri Jomini, later Baron de Jomini, a French-speaking Swiss (1779-1869).*8 Originally headed for a career in banking, young Jomini got carried away by the excitement of the French Revolution and joined the French army in 1798. He returned to business in Switzerland after the Peace of Amiens (1802), where he began writing on military subjects. His Traité de grande tactique was first published in 1803. He continually revised, enlarged, and reissued it into the 1850s.

Rejoining the army in 1804, Jomini was accepted as a volunteer staff member by Marshal Ney (who had loaned him the money to publish his Traité de grande tactique).*9 He served in the Austerlitz and Prussian campaigns, then in Spain. He finally received an actual staff commission in the French army at the behest of Napoleon a while after Austerlitz. He served for a while as chief of staff to his long-time mentor, Marshal Ney. Jomini's arrogance, irascibility, and naked ambition often led to friction with his fellows and eventually to a falling-out with Ney. Eventually, however, Jomini was promoted to brigadier general and given a succession of fairly responsible staff positions, mostly away from actual troops. Following his recovery from the rigors of the Russian campaign, he was reassigned to Ney in 1813. However, he was shortly thereafter arrested for sloppy staff work. His ambitions thwarted by real or imagined plots against himself, Jomini joined the Russian army in late 1813. He spent much of the remainder of his long career in the Russian service.

During his actual military career, "Jomini ... [had been] a very minor figure, seldom mentioned in orders or dispatches, practically ignored in the memoirs of the officers who had served with him."*10 Nonetheless, he became by far the best known military commentator of his day, and maintained that position through zealous self-promotion. His most famous work, Summary of the Art of War, was written, like Clausewitz's Principles of War, for a royal prince to whom he was military tutor. Although long since retired, he advised Czar Nicholas during the Crimean War and Napoleon III during his Italian campaigns. Even during Jomini's lifetime, however, there were many prominent military men who viewed Jomini with great skepticism. The Duke of Wellington considered him a pompous charlatan.*11

In his maturity, Jomini grew wary of the revolutionary passions that had originally inspired him to take up the sword himself. Perhaps his dependence on the czar, one of the most conservative rulers in Europe, had some influence on his attitude. It is one of the ironies of history that Clausewitz, an officer of the conservative king of Prussia, should be the one to base his theories on the most radical legacy of the revolutionary period, while Napoleon's own staff officer and interpreter, Jomini, should aim his theories at the professional officer corps of essentially eighteenth century­style armies.

Jomini's military writings are easy to unfairly caricature: they were characterized by a highly didactic and prescriptive approach, conveyed in an extensive geometric vocabulary of strategic lines, bases, and key points.*12 His fundamental prescription was simple: place superior power at the decisive point. In the theoretical work for which he gained early fame, chapter XXXV of the Traité de grande tactique, he constantly stressed the advantages of interior lines.

Jomini was no fool, however. His intelligence, facile pen, and actual experience of war made his writings a great deal more credible and useful than so brief a description can imply. Once he left Napoleon's service, he maintained himself and his reputation primarily through prose. His writing style--unlike Clausewitz's--reflected his constant search for an audience. He dealt at length with a number of practical subjects (logistics, seapower) that Clausewitz had largely ignored. Elements of his discussion (his remarks on Great Britain and seapower, for instance, and his sycophantic treatment of Austria's Archduke Charles) are clearly aimed at protecting his political position or expanding his readership. And, one might add, at minimizing Clausewitz's, for he clearly perceived the Prussian writer as his chief competitor. For Jomini, Clausewitz's death thirty-eight years prior to his own came as a piece of rare good fortune. 


Aside from their differing relationships to Napoleon, the fundamental differences between Clausewitz and Jomini are rooted in their differing concepts of the historical process and of the nature and role of military theory.

Clausewitz saw history in relative terms, rejecting absolute categories, standards, and values. The past had to be accepted on its own terms. The historian must attempt to enter into the mindsets and attitudes of any given period, the "spirit of the age." History was a dynamic process of change, driven by forces beyond the control and often beyond the comprehension of any individual or group. This historicism is particularly obvious in two key themes of On War that are missing in the 1812 Principles of War. These are the famous notion that "War is a continuation of politics with an admixture of other means" (i.e., organized violence) and the recognition that war can vary in its forms depending on the changing nature of policy and of the society within which it is waged.

In contrast, Jomini's view of history and of war was static and simplistic. He saw war as a "great drama," a stage for heroes and military geniuses whose talents were beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. He saw the revolutionary warfare in which he himself had participated as merely the technical near-perfection of a fundamentally unchanging phenomenon, to be modified only by superficial matters like the list of dramatis personae, technology, and transient political motivations. He drew his theoretical and practical prescriptions from his experiences in the Napoleonic wars. The purpose of his theory was to teach practical lessons to "officers of a superior grade."

Accordingly, Jomini's aim was utilitarian and his tone didactic. His writing thus appealed more readily to military educators. His later work, Summary of the Art of War (Precis de l'Art de la Guerre, 1838), became, in various translations, popularizations, and commentaries, the premier military-educational text of the mid-nineteenth century.*13

Much of the contrast between Jomini and Clausewitz*14 can be traced to such philosophical factors--and to the frequent abridgement of On War, which makes it appear much more abstract than Jomini's work when in fact they often discussed the same practical subject matter. Despite his insistence that theory must be descriptive rather than prescriptive in nature, Clausewitz frequently provides instructive discussions of common military problems like contested river crossings, the defense of mountainous areas, etc


As the discussion so far has indicated, there were many parallels and many points of divergence in the personalities, military experiences, and underlying philosophies of these two men. There were also, however, some rather interesting points of intersection. Jomini and Clausewitz may have caught a glimpse of one another from opposite sides during the tragic crossing of the Beresina river during the French retreat from Moscow, but there is no evidence that they ever met. Nonetheless, they interacted intellectually, influencing one another's thinking over a long period of time.

When the young Clausewitz wrote his Principles of War (1812) for his student the Prussian crown prince, he seems to have been rather taken with Jomini and his argument about interior lines.

"In strategy,... the side that is surrounded by the enemy is better off than the side which surrounds its opponent, especially with equal or even weaker forces.... Colonel Jomini was right in this....*15

He also used a great deal of Jomini's geometric vocabulary of bases, lines, and points, and was, like Jomini, positive about the usefulness of mountains as defensive lines. Later, in On War, he would be quite skeptical on all these matters. The young Clausewitz also accepted Jomini's fundamental strategic theme: "The theory of warfare tries to discover how we may gain a preponderance of physical forces and material advantages at the decisive point." Even this early in his evolution, he then went on to stress something we think of as more typically Clausewitzian: "As this is not always possible, theory also teaches us to calculate moral factors: the likely mistakes of the enemy, the impression created by a daring action,... yes, even our own desperation."*16

Given twenty years to think about such matters, however, Clausewitz became extremely skeptical of Jomini. In On War, Clausewitz's sweeping critique of the state of military theory appears to have been aimed in large part at the Swiss:

It is only analytically that these attempts at theory can be called advances in the realm of truth; synthetically, in the rules and regulations they offer, they are absolutely useless.

They aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities.

They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects.

They consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.... Anything that could not be reached by the meager wisdom of such one-sided points of view was held to be beyond scientific control: it lay in the realm of genius, which rises above all rules.

Pity the soldier who is supposed to crawl among these scraps of rules, not good enough for genius, which genius can ignore, or laugh at. No; what genius does is the best rule, and theory can do no better than show how and why this should be the case.*17

These passages immediately follow Clausewitz's sneers at the "lopsided character" of the theory of interior lines, comments unquestionably directed at Jomini. As a result of these comments, some writers have claimed that Clausewitz was an advocate of concentric attacks, in contrast to Jomini's advocacy of "interior lines." In fact, Clausewitz spent more time discussing concentric operations in part simply because he felt that Jomini had already done so good a job explaining the opposite approach. The choice of either would depend, as always in Clausewitz's reasoning, on the specific situation.*18

These critical comments by Clausewitz are a source of much confusion. Anyone who reads Jomini's most famous work--and if you think few people actually read On War, there are even fewer who read the Summary--will notice quite readily that Clausewitz's remarks seem unduly harsh and misleading. Jomini's prefatory comments seem quite reasonable and entirely compatible with a Clausewitzian understanding of war, despite Jomini's personal barbs at Clausewitz. The frequently forgotten reason for this confusion is that Clausewitz's comments are aimed at Jomini's Traité de grande tactique and other early works. The Summary was written after Jomini had read On War--and after Clausewitz was safely dead. Clausewitz's comments therefore do not reflect Jomini's modifications to his earlier arguments, for the Summary contains many adjustments clearly attributable to On War's arguments. These include Jomini's comments on the importance of morale; the impossibility of fixed rules (save perhaps in tactics); the need to assign limits to the role of theory; skepticism of mathematical calculations (and a denial that Jomini's own work--despite all the geometrical terminology and diagrams--was based on math); the disclaimer of any belief that war is "a positive science"; and the clear differentiation between mere military knowledge and actual battlefield skill.*19

Jomini acknowledged the truth of Clausewitz's strong connection between politics and war. The Summary is full of references to "politique"--the same term as Clausewitz's Politik. However, this similarity is hidden by the standard English translation, which substitutes the term "diplomacy"--i.e., only the politics that occurs between states, not that within them as well. One example of a direct borrowing from On War: "[T]he first care of a commander should be to agree with the head of the state upon the character of the war." Compare this with Clausewitz: "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature."*20

These direct but unacknowledged borrowings from On War convince many readers that the two theorists were thinking on parallel tracks. Simultaneously, the two writers' overt mutual insults tend to make other readers--those who are not familiar with both works--assume a basic contradiction in their views. However, Jomini's recognition of the validity of many of Clausewitz's points did not lead him to genuinely adopt Clausewitz's philosophy, for at least three reasons. First, he correctly distinguished his own work from Clausewitz's by pointing to its explicitly instructional (i.e., doctrinal) purposes. Despite his agreement that war was essentially a political act, he pointed to the practical implications of this different focus: "History at once political and military offers more attractions, but is also much more difficult to treat and does not accord easily with the didactic species...."

Second, and in common with a number of Clausewitz's later detractors, he found the Prussian's approach intellectually arrogant, overly metaphysical, and simply too damned difficult to digest. Jomini stressed simplicity and clarity over a "pretentious" search for deeper truths. Further, he objected to what he saw as Clausewitz's extreme skepticism ("incrédulité") of all military theory--save that in On War. For Clausewitz to reject Jomini's approach to theory while defending his own seemed somehow hypocritical.

Third, there was a strong personal element in Jomini's critique of Clausewitz. Clearly, he did on some level greatly admire Clausewitz's work. He regretted that the Prussian had not been able to read his own Summary, "persuaded that he would have rendered to it some justice." He was thus deeply wounded by the criticisms in On War. He expressed his bitterness in a number of sneers (e.g., "The works of Clausewitz have been incontestably useful, although it is often less by the ideas of the author than by the contrary ideas to which he gives birth") and in accusations of plagiarism ("There is not one of my reflections [on the campaign of 1799] which he has not repeated"). These insults, because they refer to the Prussian by name, have more meaning to readers unfamiliar with On War than do the Summary's concessions on theoretical issues. 


The significance of all this, aside from whatever antiquarian interest it may arouse, lies in certain recent attempts to revive Jomini. These attempts are part of a reaction against the predominance of Clausewitzian theory in this country since the Vietnam war. Over the years Clausewitz has periodically been declared obsolete, only to reemerge more influential than ever. Such arguments often focus on the problem of nuclear war, but it seems increasingly likely that it is the nuclear theorists, not Clausewitz, who have been rendered obsolescent.*21 There have also been complaints by military traditionalists about the excessive influence of "Clausewitz nuts" and by theoretical purists of the "the prostitution of Clausewitz since 1981, particularly in [the U.S. Army's] FM 100­5 and its various degenerate offspring."*22 Both complaints have some justification. The eclecticism of Anglo-Saxon military thought is rooted in the same spirit as the Latin warning, "Cave ab homine unius libri" ("Beware the man of one book"): a narrow reliance on Clausewitz is inconsistent with the philosopher's own teaching. On the other hand, using On War as a mere stockpile of juicy quotes in support of this doctrinal position or that is also an abuse.

In large part, however, criticism of the new Clausewitzianism is simply reaction. Would-be competitors have little choice but to seek to dislodge the Prussian philosopher from his post-Vietnam primacy. And, of course, some people are simply tired of hearing about this long-dead genius. As David Chandler has put it, "Clausewitz's airy Kantian generalizations have held sway long enough."*23 It is also possible that in a world seemingly freed of fundamental ideological (though obviously not nationalist) conflict, in a period in which some would seriously suppose an "end to History," Clausewitz's strife-driven world view might come to seem less relevant.*24 Chandler's suggestion that "Baron Antoine-Jomini's rival (and more prosaic) approach ... is under serious reconsideration" may be a symptom of such a trend--though one may well ask, "by whom?" Such a trend may be further encouraged by what seems to some--in forgetful retrospect--to have been the un-Clausewitzian "simplicity" of the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps the very Clausewitzian complexity of that war's aftermath will squelch the effort to renew Jomini's claim to Guru status.

My own argument is that most of what Jomini had to contribute that was of real value--which was a great deal--has long since been absorbed into the way we write practical doctrine. Clausewitz's contributions, on the other hand, have not.*25 Indeed, given the brilliance and subtlety of many of Clausewitz's concepts, it is hard to see how they could ever become the "conventional wisdom." Jomini is important in a purely historical sense. In cultivating our own understanding of war, past, present, and future, we must turn to Clausewitz. 

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