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 IX

Attack of Defensive Positions

IN the book on the defence, it has been sufficiently explained how far defensive positions can compel the assailant either to attack them, or to give up his advance. Only those which can effect this are subservient to our object, and suited to wear out or neutralise the forces of the aggressor, either wholly or in part, and in so far the attack can do nothing against such positions, that is to say, there are no means at its disposal by which to counter-balance this advantage. But defensive positions are not all really of this kind. If the assailant sees he can pursue his object without attacking such a position, it would be an error to make the attack; if he cannot follow out his object, then it is a question whether he cannot manœuvre the enemy out of his position by threatening his flank. It is only if such means are ineffectual, that a commander determines on the attack of a good position, and then an attack directed against one side, always in general presents the less difficulty; but the choice of the side must depend on the position and direction of the mutual lines of retreat, consequently, on the threatening the enemy's retreat, and covering our own. Between these two objects a competition may arise, in which case the first is entitled to the preference, as it is of an offensive nature; therefore homogeneous with the attack, whilst the other is of a defensive character. But it is certain, and may be regarded as a truth of the first importance, that to attack an enemy thoroughly inured to war, in a good position, is a critical thing. No doubt instances are not wanting of such battles, and of successful ones too, as Torgau, Wagram (we do not say Dresden, because we cannot call the enemy there quite aguerried); but upon the whole, the danger is small, and it vanishes altogether, opposed to the infinite number of cases in which we have seen the most resolute commanders make their bow before such positions. (Torres Vedras.)

We must not, however, confuse the subject now before us with ordinary battles. Most battles are real "rencontres," in which one party certainly occupies a position, but one which has not been prepared.