NOTE: This version of Carl von 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, though for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation.
LEFT: Recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776.
Superiority of Numbers
Strategy fixes the point where, the time when, and the numerical force with which the battle is to be fought. By this triple determination it has therefore a very essential influence on the issue of the combat. If tactics has fought the battle, if the result is over, let it be victory or defeat, strategy makes such use of it as can be made in accordance with the great object of the war. This object of the war is naturally often a very distant one, seldom does it lie quite close at hand. A series of other objects subordinate themselves to it as means. These objects, which are at the same time means to a higher object, may be practically of various kinds; even the ultimate aim of the whole war is a different one in every war. We shall make ourselves acquainted with these things according as we become acquainted with the separate objects which they come in contact with; and it is not our intention here to embrace the whole subject by a complete enumeration of them, even if that were possible. We therefore let the employment of the battle stand over for the present.
Even those things through which strategy has an influence on the issue of the combat, inasmuch as it establishes the same, to a certain extent decrees them, are not so simple that they can be embraced in one single view For as strategy appoints time, place and force, it can do so in practice in many ways, each of which influences in a different manner the result of the combat as well as its consequences. Therefore we shall only get acquainted with this also by degrees, that is, through the subjects which determine more closely the application.
If we strip the combat of all modifications which it may undergo according to its immediate purpose and the circumstances from which it proceeds, lastly if we set aside the valour of the troops, because that is a given quantity, then there remains only the bare conception of the combat, that is a combat without form, in which we distinguish nothing but the number of the combatants.
This number will therefore determine victory. Now from the number of things above deducted to get to this point, it is shown that the superiority in numbers in a battle is only one of the factors employed to produce victory; that therefore so far from having with the superiority in number obtained all, or even only the principal thing, we have perhaps got very little by it, according as the other circumstances which co-operate happen to be so, or so.
But this superiority has degrees, it it may be imagined, twofold, threefold or four times as many, etc., etc., and every one sees, that by increasing in this way, it must (at last) overpower everything else.
In such an aspect we grant, that the superiority in numbers is the most important factor in the result of a combat, only it must be sufficiently great to be a counterpoise to all the other co-operating circumstances. The direct result of this is, that the greatest possible number of troops should be brought into action at the decisive point.
Whether the troops thus brought are sufficient or not, we have then done in this respect all that our means allowed. This is the first principle in strategy, therefore in general as now stated, it is just as well suited for Greeks and Persians, or for Englishmen and Mahrattas, as for French and Germans. But we shall take a glance at our relations in Europe, as respects war, in order to arrive at some more definite idea on this subject.
Here we find armies much more like one another in equipment, organisation, and practical skill of every kind. There only remains still alternately a difference in the military virtue of armies, and in the talent of generals. If we go through the military history of modern Europe, we find no example of a Marathon.
Frederick the Great beat 80,000 Austrians at Leuthen with about 30,000 men, and at Rosbach with 25,000 some 50,000 allies; these are however the only instances of victories gained against an enemy double, or more than double in numbers. Charles XII., in the battle of Narva, we cannot well quote, the Russians were at that time hardly to be regarded as Europeans, also the principal circumstances even of the battle, are but too little known. Buonaparte had at Dresden 120,000 against 220,000, therefore not the double. At Collin, Frederick the Great did not succeed, with 30,000 against 50,000 Austrians, neither Buonaparte in the desperate battle of Leipsic, where he was 160,000 strong, against 280,000, the superiority therefore considerably less than double.
From this we may infer, that it is very difficult in the present state of Europe, for the most talented general to gain a victory over an enemy double his strength. Now if we see double numbers, such a weight in the scale against the greatest generals, we may be sure, that in ordinary cases, in small as well as great combats, an important superiority of numbers, but which need not be over two to one, will be sufficient to ensure the victory, however disadvantageous other circumstances may be. Certainly, we may imagine a defile which even tenfold would not suffice to force, but in such a case it can be no question of a battle at all.
We think therefore, that exactly in our relations, as well as in all similar ones, the superiority at the decisive point is a matter of capital importance, and that this subject, in the generality of cases, is decidedly the most important of all. The strength at the decisive point depends on the absolute strength of the army, and on skill in making use of it.
The first rule is therefore to enter the field with an army as strong as possible. This sounds very like a common place, but still is really not so.
In order to show that for a long time the strength of forces was by no means regarded as a chief point, we need only observe, that in most, and even in the most detailed histories of the wars, in the eighteenth century, the strength of the armies is either not given at all, or only incidentally, and in no case is any special value laid upon it. Tempelhof in his history of the Seven Years' War is the earliest writer who gives it regularly, but at the same time he does it only very superficially.
Even Massenbach, in his manifold critical observations on the Prussian campaigns of 1793-94 in the Vosges, talks a great deal about hills and valleys, roads and footpaths, but does not say a syllable about mutual strength.
Another proof lies in a wonderful notion which haunted the heads of many critical historians, according to which there was a certain size of an army which was the best, a normal strength, beyond which the forces in excess were burdensome rather then serviceable.1
Lastly, there are a number of instances to be found, in which all the available forces were not really brought into the battle, or into the war, because the superiority of numbers was not considered to have that importance which in the nature of things belongs to it.
If we are thoroughly penetrated with the conviction that with a considerable superiority of numbers everything possible is to be effected, then it cannot fail that this clear conviction reacts on the preparations for the war, so as to make us appear in the field with as many troops as possible, and either to give us ourselves the superiority, or at least to guard against the enemy obtaining it. So much for what concerns the absolute force with which the war is to be conducted.
The measure of this absolute force is determined by the government; and although with this determination the real action of war commences, and it forms an essential part of the strategy of the war, still in most cases the general who is to command these forces in the war must regard their absolute strength as a given quantity, whether it be that he has had no voice in fixing it, or that circumstances prevented a sufficient expansion being given to it.
There remains nothing, therefore, where an absolute superiority is not attainable, but to produce a relative one at the decisive point, by making skilful use of what we have.
The calculation of space and time appears as the most essential thing to this end, and this has caused that subject to be regarded as one which embraces nearly the whole art of using military forces. Indeed, some have gone so far as to ascribe to great strategists and tacticians a mental organ peculiarly adapted to this point.
But the calculation of time and space, although it lies universally at the foundation of strategy, and is to a certain extent its daily bread, is still neither the most difficult, nor the most decisive one.
If we take an unprejudiced glance at military history, we shall find that the instances in which mistakes in such a calculation have proved the cause of serious losses are very rare, at least in strategy. But if the conception of a skilful combination of time and space is fully to account for every instance of a resolute and active commander beating several separate opponents with one and the same army (Frederick the Great, Buonaparte), then we perplex ourselves unnecessarily with conventional language. For the sake of clearness and the profitable use of conceptions, it is necessary that things should always be called by their right names.
The right appreciation of their opponents (Daun, Schwartzenburg), the audacity to leave for a short space of time a small force only before them, energy in forced marches, boldness in sudden attacks, the intensified activity which great souls acquire in the moment of danger, these are the grounds of such victories; and what have these to do with the ability to make an exact calculation of two such simple things as time and space?
But even this ricochetting play of forces, "when the victories at Rosbach and Montmirail give the impulse to victories at Leuthen and Montereau," to which great generals on the defensive have often trusted, is still, if we would be clear and exact, only a rare occurrence in history.
Much more frequently the relative superiority—that is, the skilful assemblage of superior forces at the decisive point—has its foundation in the right appreciation of those points, in the judicious direction which by that means has been given to the forces from the very first, and in the resolution required to sacrifice the unimportant to the advantage of the important—that is, to keep the forces concentrated in an overpowering mass. In this, Frederick the Great and Buonaparte are particularly characteristic.
We think we have now allotted to the superiority in numbers the importance which belongs to it; it is to be regarded as the fundamental idea, always to be aimed at before all and as far as possible.
But to regard it on this account as a necessary condition of victory, would be a complete misconception of our exposition; in the conclusion to be drawn from it there lies much rather nothing more than the value which should attach to numerical strength in the combat. If that strength is made as great as possible, then the maxim is satisfied; a review of the total relations must then decide whether or not the combat is to be avoided for want of sufficient force.
1Tempelhof and Montalembert are the first we recollect as examples—the first in a passage of his first part, page 148, the other in his correspondence relative to the plan of operations of the Russians in 1759.