NOTE: This version of Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the  standard translation today.


Chapter VI

General Disposition of an Army

BETWEEN the moment of the first assembling of military forces, and that of the solution arrived at maturity when strategy has brought the army to the decisive point, and each particular part has had its position and rôle pointed out by tactics, there is in most cases a long interval; it is the same between one decisive catastrophe and another.

Formerly these intervals in a certain measure did not belong to war at all. Take for example the manner in which Luxemburg encamped and marched. We single out this general because he is celebrated for his camps and marches, and therefore may be considered a representative general of his period, and from the Histoire de la Flandre militaire, we know more about him than about other generals of the time.

The camp was regularly pitched with its rear close to a river, or morass, or a deep valley, which in the present day would be considered madness. The direction in which the enemy lay had so little to do with determining the front of the army, that cases are very common in which the rear was towards the enemy and the front towards their own country. This now unheard of mode of proceeding is perfectly unintelligible, unless we suppose that in the choice of camps the convenience of the troops was the chief, indeed almost the only consideration, and therefore look upon the state of being in camp as a state outside of the action of war, a kind of withdrawal behind the scenes, where one is quite at ease. The practice of always resting the rear upon some obstacle may be reckoned the only measure of security which was then taken, of course, in the sense of the mode of conducting war in that day, for such a measure was quite inconsistent with the possibility of being compelled to fight in that position. But there was little reason for apprehension on that score, because the battles generally depended on a kind of mutual understanding, like a duel, in which the parties repair to a convenient rendezvous. As armies, partly on account of their numerous cavalry, which in the decline of its splendour was still regarded, particularly by the French, as the principal arm, partly on account of the unwieldy organisation of their order of battle, could not fight in every description of country, an army in a close broken country was as it were under the protection of a neutral territory, and as it could itself make but little use of broken ground, therefore, it was deemed preferable to go to meet an enemy seeking battle. We know, indeed, that Luxemburg's battles at Fleurus, Stienkirk, and Neerwinden, were conceived in a different spirit; but this spirit had only just then under this great general freed itself from the old method, and it had not yet reacted on the method of encampment. Alterations in the art of war originate always in matters of a decisive nature, and then lead by degrees to modifications in other things. The expression il va à la guerre, used in reference to a partizan setting out to watch the enemy, shows how little the state of an army in camp was considered to be a state of real warfare.

It was not much otherwise with the marches, for the artillery then separated itself completely from the rest of the army, in order to take advantage of better and more secure roads, and the cavalry on the wings generally took the right alternately, that each might have in turn its share of the honour of marching on the right.

At present (that is, chiefly since the Silesian wars) the situation out of battle is so thoroughly influenced by its connection with battle that the two states are in intimate correlation, and the one can no longer be completely imagined without the other. Formerly in a campaign the battle was the real weapon, the situation at other times only the handle—the former the steel blade, the other the wooden haft glued to it, the whole therefore composed of heterogeneous parts,—now the battle is the edge, the situation out of the battle the back of the blade, the whole to be looked upon as metal completely welded together, in which it is impossible any longer to distinguish where the steel ends and the iron begins.

This state in war outside of the battle is now partly regulated by the organisation and regulations with which the army comes prepared from a state of peace, partly by the tactical and strategic arrangements of the moment. The three situations in which an army may be placed are in quarters, on a march, or in camp. All three belong as much to tactics as to strategy, and these two branches, bordering on each other here in many ways, often seem to, or actually do, incorporate themselves with each other, so that many dispositions may be looked upon at the same time as both tactical and strategic.

We shall treat of these three situations of an army outside of the combat in a general way, before any special objects come into connection with them; but we must, first of all, consider the general disposition of the forces, because that is a superior and more comprehensive measure, determining as respects camps, cantonments, and marches.

If we look at the disposition of the forces in a general way, that is, leaving out of sight any special object, we can only imagine it as a unit, that is, as a whole, intended to fight all together, for any deviation from this simplest form would imply a special object. Thus arises, therefore, the conception of an army, let it be small or large.

Further, when there is an absence of any special end, there only remains as the sole object the preservation of the army itself, which of course includes its security. That the army shall be able to exist without inconvenience, and that it shall be able to concentrate without difficulty for the purpose of fighting, are, therefore, the two requisite conditions. From these result, as desirable, the following points more immediately applying to subjects concerning the existence and security of the army.

1. Facility of subsistence.

2. Facility of providing shelter for the troops.

3. Security of the rear.

4. An open country in front.

5. The position itself in a broken country.

6. Strategic points d'appui.

7. A suitable distribution of the troops.

Our elucidation of these several points is as follows:

The first two lead us to seek out cultivated districts, and great towns and roads. They determine measures in general rather than in particular.

In the chapter on lines of communication will be found what we mean by security of the rear. The first and most important point in this respect is that the centre of the position should be at a right angle with the principal line of retreat adjoining the position.

Respecting the fourth point, an army certainly cannot look over an expanse of country in its front as it overlooks the space directly before it when in a tactical position for battle. But the strategic eyes are the advanced guard, scouts and patrols sent forward, spies, etc., etc., and the service will naturally be easier for these in an open than in an intersected country. The fifth point is merely the reverse of the fourth.

Strategical points d'appui differ from tactical in these two respects, that the army need not be in immediate contact with them, and that, on the other hand, they must be of greater extent. The cause of this is that, according to the nature of the thing, the relations to time and space in which strategy moves are generally on a greater scale than those of tactics. If, therefore, an army posts itself at a distance of a mile from the sea coast or the banks of a great river, it leans strategically on these obstacles, for the enemy cannot make use of such a space as this to effect a strategic turning movement. Within its narrow limits he cannot adventure on marches miles in length, occupying days and weeks. On the other hand, in strategy, a lake of several miles in circumference is hardly to be looked upon as an obstacle; in its proceedings, a few miles to the right or left are not of much consequence. Fortresses will become strategic points d'appui, according as they are large, and afford a wide sphere of action for offensive combinations.

The disposition of the army in separate masses may be done with a view either to special objects and requirements, or to those of a general nature; here we can only speak of the latter.

The first general necessity is to push forward the advanced guard and the other troops required to watch the enemy.

The second is that, with very large armies, the reserves are usually placed several miles in rear, and consequently occupy a separate position.

Lastly, the covering of both wings of an army usually requires a separate disposition of particular corps.

By this covering it is not at all meant that a portion of the army is to be detached to defend the space round its wings, in order to prevent the enemy from approaching these weak points, as they are called: who would then defend the wings of these flanking corps? This kind of idea, which is so common, is complete nonsense. The wings of an army are in themselves not weak points of an army for this reason, that the enemy also has wings, and cannot menace ours without placing his own in jeopardy. It is only if circumstances are unequal, if the enemy's army is larger than ours, if his lines of communication are more secure (see Lines of Communication), it is only then that the wings become weak parts; but of these special cases we are not now speaking, therefore, neither of a case in which a flanking corps is appointed in connection with other combinations to defend effectually the space on our wings, for that no longer belongs to the category of general dispositions.

But although the wings are not particularly weak parts still they are particularly important, because here, on account of flanking movements the defence is not so simple as in front, measures are more complicated and require more time and preparation. For this reason it is necessary in the majority of cases to protect the wings specially against unforeseen enterprises on the part of the enemy, and this is done by placing stronger masses on the wings than would be required for mere purposes of observation. To press heavily these masses, even if they oppose no very serious resistance, more time is required, and the stronger they are the more the enemy must develop his forces and his intentions, and by that means the object of the measure is attained; what is to be done further depends on the particular plans of the moment. We may therefore regard corps placed on the wings as lateral advanced guards, intended to retard the advance of the enemy through the space beyond our wings and give us time to make dispositions to counteract his movement.

If these corps are to fall back on the main body and the latter is not to make a backward movement at the same time, then it follows of itself that they must not be in the same line with the front of the main body, but thrown out somewhat forwards, because when a retreat is to be made, even without being preceded by a serious engagement, they should not retreat directly on the side of the position.

From these reasons of a subjective nature, as they relate to the inner organisation of an army, there arises a natural system of disposition, composed of four or five parts according as the reserve remains with the main body or not.

As the subsistence and shelter of the troops partly decide the choice of a position in general, so also they contribute to a disposition in separate divisions. The attention which they demand comes into consideration along with the other considerations above mentioned; and we seek to satisfy the one without prejudice to the other. In most cases, by the division of an army into five separate corps, the difficulties of subsistence and quartering will be overcome, and no great alteration will afterwards be required on their account.

We have still to cast a glance at the distances at which these separated corps may be allowed to be placed, if we are to retain in view the advantage of mutual support, and, therefore, of concentrating for battle. On this subject we remind our readers of what is said in the chapters on the duration and decision of the combat, according to which no absolute distance, but only the most general, as it were, average rules can be given, because absolute and relative strength of arms and country have a great influence.

The distance of the advanced guard is the easiest to fix, as in retreating it falls back on the main body of the army, and, therefore, may be at all events at a distance of a long day's march without incurring the risk of being obliged to fight an independent battle. But it should not be sent further in advance than the security of the army requires, because the further it has to fall back the more it suffers.

Respecting corps on the flanks, as we have already said, the combat of an ordinary division of 8000 to 10,000 men usually lasts for several hours, even for half a day before it is decided; on that account, therefore, there need be no hesitation in placing such a division at a distance of some leagues or one or two miles, and for the same reason, corps of three or four divisions may be detached a day's march or a distance of three or four miles.

From this natural and general disposition of the main body, in four or five divisions at particular distances, a certain method has arisen of dividing an army in a mechanical manner whenever there are no strong special reasons against this ordinary method.

But although we assume that each of these distinct parts of an army shall be competent to undertake an independent combat, and it may be obliged to engage in one, it does not therefore by any means follow that the real object of fractioning an army is that the parts should fight separately; the necessity for this distribution of the army is mostly only a condition of existence imposed by time. If the enemy approaches our position to try the fate of a general action, the strategic period is over, everything concentrates itself into the one moment of the battle, and therewith terminates and vanishes the object of the distribution of the army. As soon as the battle commences, considerations about quarters and subsistence are suspended; the observation of the enemy before our front and on our flanks has fulfilled the purpose of checking his advance by a partial resistance, and now all resolves itself into the one great unit—the great battle. The best criterion of skill in the disposition of an army lies in the proof that the distribution has been considered merely as a condition, as a necessary evil, but that united action in battle has been considered the object of the disposition.