Monday, January 6, 2014

A Clausewitzian View of the Current Conscription Debate in the US - Part II

In order to understand Carl von Clausewitz's views of conscription we need to start with the debacle of 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian Army and imposed a punishing peace on Prussia. Not only was the kingdom significantly reduced in size and population, but the army was limited to 42,000 officers and men with no auxiliaries. While the Prussian general staff under Gerhard von Scharnhorst was able to get around these limits by by constantly training new levees and discharging current ones, the end result was that Prussia became a satellite of France. This was something unacceptable to the young reformers around Scharnhorst. Paret, once again sums this up nicely:
If Scharnhorst and his closest associates at the core of the reform movement determined early on to fight for universal conscription, it was not to solve a shortage of trained men but for the sake of their conception of reform as such. They believed that Prussia could reestablish herself, which required defeating the French, only by breaking down the former isolation of the army in society and by making war the business of the everyone. Beyond that, they wanted corporative society and autocratic government replaced by a more open system of mutual obligation between monarch, administration, army, and citizen in the service of the twin ideals of the nation and the ethically autonomous individual. A comprehensive program of reform followed from these wishes: an army of conscripts of all classes could not be treated in the traditional manner. Discipline, military justice, access to officer rank, to some extent even tactical doctrine would have to be modernized, and length of service would have to be considerably shortened - because those changes, desirable in themselves, became essential if the sons of the educated and well-to-do were to serve in the ranks. As in France, the army would become the school of the nation. By fulfilling a duty common to all in a supra-local and -regional institution, men would learn to be patriots. Such an army, the reformers hoped, would change from an inert instrument in the hand of its commander to a vital force that might even put pressure on the leadership if it was overly cautious or relapsed into purely dynastic policies. It is not accidental that every member of Scharnhorst's group, from Gneisenau and Boyen to Grolman and Clausewitz, was preoccupied during these years with the possibilities of insurrection. Peter Paret, Understanding War, pp 68-69
Why insurrection? The power of pre-modern moral cohesion . . . After describing the power of the new moral cohesion harnessed by ideology and the material cohesion of the French state, Clausewitz continues with what was the reaction:
A reaction, however awoke in due time. In Spain, the war became of itself an affair of the people. In Austria, in the year 1809, the government made extraordinary efforts, by means of reserves and Landwehr, which came nearer to the end in view, and surpassed anything this state hitherto conceived possible. In Russia, in 1812, the example of Spain and Austria was taken as a model. The enormous dimensions of that empire, on the one hand, allowed the preparations, although too long deferred, still to produce an effect; and, on the other hand, intensified the effect produced. The result was brilliant. In Germany, it was Prussia who pulled herself together first, made the war a national cause, and without either money or credit, with a population reduced by one-half, took the field with an army twice as strong as that of 1806. On War, Book VIII, Chapter 3B
The reaction in Spain was of course the guerrilla campaign that was waged against the French occupation. While the enlightened members of Spanish society mostly supported the newly crowned king of Spain, Napoleon's brother Joseph, the peasantry to a significant extent supported by their local clergy revolted against the usurper. The same thing happened in Austrian Tyrol and of course in Russia after Napoleon's invasion of June 1812. The depredations of the "godless" French and their "anti-christ" leader were too much for the pre-modern moral cohesion of these affected groups to tolerate and they reacted.
It is also important here to understand that we see a fundamental change in the way "little war" is comprehended from this point forward. Prior to this, "little war" or Kleinkrieg or Guerrilla was seen by militaries as essentially small unit actions, that is as opposed to Grosskrieg which was action by large formations. The military saw both as being conducted exclusively by conventional troops. With the resistance in Spain, the irregular fighter or Partisan enters the field as an acceptable, even decisive means of warfare. Clausewitz and the other reformers saw the Partisan (Clausewitz used the term Parteigänger for Partisan and Parteigängerkrieg for Partisan Warfare) as the one means available for Prussia to throw off the French yoke. Small groups of motivated citizens supported by small detachments of regular troops would operate opportunistically behind enemy lines. In such a situation, the nation supplants the state as the active agent. War is declared and waged by the people in a merciless struggle for political survival, since the enemy intends to redefine what the citizen's political identity in fact is. Partisan warfare is thus a mixture of strategic defense and tactical offense. Since the defense is the stronger form with a negative aim, the goal is simply to force the attacker to give up his aim though exhaustion. Both pre-modern moral cohesion (the peasantry and communities) and modern cohesion (nationalism as a political ideology of the urban intelligentsia) have their place in the overall struggle. The former allows for the insurgency and the latter provides the moral quality of the new army to be formed to fight Napoleon on equal terms in conventional combat.
So what about conscription specifically? For the insurgency, every citizen becomes a combatant or supporting player. As Carl Schmitt in his Theory of the Partisan describes the Landsturm edict of April 1813:
Every citizen, according to the Royal Prussian edict of April 1813, is obligated to resist the invading emey with weapons of every type. Axes, pitchforks, scythes, and hammers are (in §43) expressly recommended. Every Prussian is obligated to refuse to obey any enemy directive, and to injure the enemy with all available means. Also, if the enemy attempts to restore public order, no one should obey, because in doing so one would make the enemy's military operations easier. It is expressly stated that 'intemperate, unrestrained mobs' are less dangerous than the situation whereby the enemy is free to make use of his troops. Reprisals and terror are recommended to protect the partisans and to menace the enemy. In short, this document is a Magna Carta for partisan warfare. In three places - in the introduction and in §8 and §52 - the Spanish and their guerrilla war are mentioned expressly as the 'model and example' to follow. The struggle is justified as self-defense, which 'sanctifies all means' (§7) including the unleashing of total disorder. Carl Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan, p 43
Why quote Carl Schmitt? Because he's the only one I have found who has really commented on it. Check out the link directly above.
At this point I think it necessary to point out the difference between a Partisan and Brigand. A partisan is an irregular soldier that fights for a cause and has a close affinity with physical proximity in which he operates. Brigandage, on the other hand, organized violence conducted by criminal bands as simply criminality on a large scale, has nothing to do with military operations, although brigands are engaged as fighters. Whatever scraps they pick up due to the war is their own account, provided they accept the costs of their "mistakes". Their depredations can be seen as supporting the overall effort in as far as their actions hamper enemy operations. Anti-brigand operations in quiet sectors would be recommended.
The Landsturm edict - calling up every man from 15 to 60 with no exceptions - was to put it mildly highly controversial and resisted by the various traditional institutions of East Prussia where it was in effect. The townspeople rejected to losing their exemption from military service, the nobility were horrified at the thought of peasant mobs roaming the countryside and of course the Prussian officials thought their normal duties far more important than serving as common soldiers in the ranks. Gneisenau was challenged to a duel by a disgruntled Prussian administrator and Clausewitz wrote in a letter defending conscription that "ten tax assessors" were less needed on the home front to supply the army with its needs "than one shoemaker". It is important to note here as well that officer commissions were to be open to middle class candidates as well, not just the nobility. In the case of the Landwehr this commissioning would include any man provided he was elected by the conscripts in his company/battalion.
What was the practical effect of actions of the reformers during this period? There was no actual mass insurrection since the French were out of East Prussia by April 1813. In all 30,000 men responded to the call and volunteered for military service, this in addition to the majority who consisted of soldiers and former soldiers who had been successively trained prior to and after 1806. Various instances of partisan warfare did break out in Prussian lands still occupied by the French and several officers who had made names for themselves as partisan commanders were retained in the Prussian Army after 1815. Still, it was only after 1813 that the new form of conscription was actually instituted. Peter Paret summarizes the situation nicely:
These reactions suggest that the reformers overestimated the strength of patriotism in Prussia, or, more likely, that they claimed more for it than it could preform. They acted as spokesmen of attitudes that did not yet possess wide currency but were only emerging in Prussian society, often in response to their own propaganda and policies. The months that so often have been labelled a period of national rising against the French found Scharnhorst and his associates, as in earlier years, fighting for their own conception of state and society amidst an antagonistic nobility, an unsympathetic bourgeoisie, and a passive, largely uncomprehending population in the towns and country. They could never have achieved as much as they did if they had not found supporters and sympathizers in all classes, and if the king had not reluctantly cooperated with them for a time; but the degree of antagonism and misunderstanding they encountered on all sides insured that they would fail in their social and political goals. Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State, p 236-7
While the social and political goals were more the nature of seeds planted for the future, the military goals bore fruit during the campaign of the spring of 1813. Prussia was able to bloody Napoleon at both Grossgörchen and Bautzen, the reformers leading from the front to inspire their new army. Clausewitz was still wearing the uniform of a Czarist officer since the King had refused to allow him to return to Prussian service. At Grossgörchen, Grolman, Blücher and Scharnhorst were all wounded, with Scharnhorst later dying as a result of the infected wound. Clausewitz narrowly escaped capture or death at Grossgörchen when his cohort found itself surrounded by French infantry, but was able to fight his way out. As a result of these actions, Austria entered the coalition against France of Prussia, Russia and Britain. The battle of Leipzig followed in the autumn.
The Prussian conscription law went into effect in the summer of 1814, that is after Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig and his surrender. Defense of the country was a universal obligation and consisted of three different institutions: the line army, the Landwehr and the Landsturm. All men were liable for three years of active military service between between 20 and 25. The Landwehr consisted of all former soldiers up to the age of 39 and all those who had not been called to the colors due to lack of need. The Landsturm, a paper organization in peacetime, consisted of all men between 17 and 20 and 39 and 50. There was one exception, young men with certain educational qualifications who could provide for their own uniforms and equipment need only serve for one year and then after honorable service had the option of applying for a reserve commission. This was essentially the same law that was in effect in 1914, although I doubt that anyone in 1814 could have imagined the masses of trained soldiers that conscription would supply to Europe's army one hundred years in the future.
The reformers had succeeded in changing the Prussian army from a shambles after 1806 into perhaps the most modern military force in Europe by 1815. New tactics, military doctrine, officer selection, training and promotion policies bore quick fruit whereas the institutional changes, the general staff, conscription and the Landwehr were to develop significantly over the next 100 years. What had originated as a reflection of new political realities as seen by Scharnhorst, Clausewitz and the other reformers was to become the actual agent of the changes in attitudes the reforms were supposed to reflect. In this instance theory (the notion of nationalism as an ideology capable of inducing modern moral cohesion) instituted the means for this notion to actually become widespread throughout Prussia and later Germany.
In conclusion it is interesting to note that with the reaction led by Prussian conservatives after 1815, most of the reformists were sidelined. With Scharnhorst dead they had lost not only their leader but their most inspiring and influential champion. The attitude of both the Prussian liberals and conservatives changed regarding conscription as well, with the liberals increasingly seeing it as not so much the school of the nation, as the symbol of state coercion and the conservatives increasingly seeing it not as a threat of rebellion but as an instrument to maintain their status and the structures of state domination that maintained it.
Finally, the concept of the partisan as irregular soldier with great political potential was to return again in 1870 as well as later influence a Russian political thinker known under the name of Lenin.


  1. Seydlitz - Great part two, thanks. The Paret quote: "They believed that Prussia could reestablish herself, . . . . only by breaking down the former isolation of the army in society and by making war the business of the everyone" is especially relevant IMHO - today as well as in the early 19th century. I have one question and a minor snivel.

    Question - My German language skills were extremely poor to non-existent to start with and rusty now. Are there additional meanings of the word "Parteigänger" in the CVC quote other than "Partisan Warfare"?

    Snivel - Carl Schmitt ideas lend nothing to the debate. You would do better without him.

    Looking forward to part three.

  2. Parteigängerkrieg I meant to say.

  3. Keep it coming, Seydlitz. I look forward to your conclusions.

  4. A "Parteigänger" is a follower of a political party. "Parteigängerkrieg" would be war waged by the followers of a party which could be an insurrection or civil war. The distinction between this term and the earlier "Kleinkrieg" is significant . . .

    Actually I recommend Schmitt's whole essay on The Theory of the Partisan. While his politics (or was it simply cynical opportunism?) are abhorrent, he's a very interesting theorist . . . similar to JFC Fuller.

  5. I guess I need to make this distinction a bit clearer. By injecting "Kleinkrieg" with a specific political dimension (Parteigängerkrieg) the Partisan as irregular soldier (although not the Brigand) becomes a legitimate means of waging war. The regular army's function in effect becomes support for the partisan campaign . . . until the situation dictates a return to "Grosskrieg". it doesn't take much of an imagination to see how this could have influenced Mao (who had studied both Clausewitz and Lenin).

  6. I'm eager to see how this ends - I have some pretty strong opinions on the draft in an American context - I wonder where we will all end up in this debate.

  7. Well written summary of the Prussian experience in the early 19th Century. I'd only take issue with the notion of the Prussian Army as the "most modern" of 1815; given the performance of the Prussian troops in the Campaign of 1814 as well as at Ligny in 1815 I'd say that at best the Prussian Army of 1815 was "about the equal" of the French (when both were about equally well-led) and the British infantry and artillery (the woeful British cavalry was another story...), slightly better than the Austrians and markedly better than all but the best Russians. Hard to tell with the Swedes, seeing as they actually fought so little...

    I do appreciate that you touch on the "Krumper System", what I think of as the real genius of the Prussian conscription laws and the fundamental basis behind the massive armies (as you note) of France, Russia, and Germany of 1914. The whole notion of a massive reserve of trained men indeed made the whole concept of the "mobilization of the nation" real and something that had to be taken into account any time two industrial European nations came nose-to-nose. "Mobilization means war", indeed...

  8. As to the quality of the Prussian Army in 1815, this is after Waterloo and Paret's view, although I tend to agree with it, thus "perhaps" . . .

  9. Actually, if you move the cursor to "post-July 1815" I'd tend to agree more than just "perhaps". With the French off the board then you're only looking at the British as anywhere close to a tactical peer competitor and the depth of the Prussian reserve system makes them strategically far superior.

  10. Seydlitz,

    really nice take on the New Prussian army. Here only a few additinal remarks:

    1) The German Kleiner Krieg or Kleinkrieg was usually used for actions of regular (Hussaren) or semi regular units like Freikorps etc., the fighters were considered soldiers. Parteigänger is usually used as synonym for these fighters.

    2) In contrast, Volkskrieg as used by CvC when he was describing Spain (1809) and Russia (1812) meant that civilians fight and the fighters would not have been treated as soldiers.

    The Prussian Landsturm would have fought IMHO more or less a Volkskrieg. Most tactics may have been the same in a Volkskrieg and in the Kleinkrieg, the status of the cobatants was different.

    Most of the ideas of conscription and officer recruitment was
    developed by Scharnhorst's mentor, Count Wilhelm of schaumburg-Lippe (1724-1777).
    Scharnhorst, as son of a farmer, was only able to become
    officer in peace time because Wilhelm's quite unusual approach, Scharnhorst's low birth would have been a knock out criterium in most other countries.

    As Prussia was economically bled white in 1812 only a large scale conscription gave a realistic chance to defeat the French forces which still had a quite good man power base as the losses in Russia 1812 were mainly soldiers from Poland and German allies. In contrast, the huge losse of 1813 were mainly French and undermined Napoleons political position on the homefront.


    an interesting aspect for me is, that Prussian generals were able to defeat their French peers in most battle when Napoleon was not leading the French forces, i.e. when the French ground forces had to operate in seperate armies during the autumn campaign the generals lost more than their master could achieve at the same time. In 1814 Napoleon led the only larger French army and achieved a series of spectacular victories. This meant IMHO that the French forces of 1813-15 had a clear structural weakness in the higher leadership
    department especially when you compare this with the situation of the Prussian after Ligny when Blücher was missing or injured and Gneisenau made the important decisions.


  11. Ulenspiegel-

    My use of terms was intentional. "Kleinkrieg" refers to small unit actions by Hussars as you mention or small detachments of infantry, but military units. This was standard practice at the time by all armies, including the French. "Parteigängerkrieg" reflects the fundamental shift starting with the realization of what a popular uprising could actually achieve. Clausewitz uses this term to describe specific actions during 1812-13. "Volkskrieg" - which is beyond the scope of this post - finally represents Clausewitz's far more refined concept of the 1820s as described in Book VI, Chapter 26, which you will notice I have not referred to . . .

    Schmitt identifies a profound conceptual shift between pre-1809 and the Bekenntisdenktschrift/edict of 1813 and Paret identifies a profound shift between 1813 and the mature Clausewitz of the 1820s . . . so being a strategic theorist and not a military or Clausewitz historian I've used three different terms to describe this development . . . which I find not only adequate, but actually quite clear . . .

  12. Seydlitz,

    my problem is that in the 19th century sometimes Parteigänger is used again in the sense of fighter in the small war (Kleinkrieg). BTW personally I do not see the military difference between the actions of Prussian Parteigänger in 1812/13 and members of Freikorps in earlier wars, they were as members of Freikorps soldiers. Their political motivation may have been different.

    It is obvious that for all authors 1809 and 1812 were important years and forced them to modify their concept and writings. IIRC Ewald only describing the AWI was conceptionally caught somewhere in between.


  13. Uhlenspiegel: The worst flaw in the Napoleonic system was his tendency to promote people whose primary military attribute was "loyalty to Napoleon". Whether this was a preconceived plan or simply the natural inclination of a man who was one of history's supreme egotists I have no idea, but the end result was to produce a gaggle of corps commanders who did decently under the eye of the Great Man but seemed a lot less capable on their own.

    That said, I'm not sure I'd still give Prussia more than a slight edge in 1813. If you take the engagements where Napoleon was present Prussian or Prussian/Allied forces win at Mockern, Luckau, Grossbeeren, 2nd Katzbach, Kulm-Priesten, Dennewitz, and Wartenberg. French forces win at Poserna, Hoyerswerda, Colditz, Lindenau, and Hanau, and Liebertwolkwitz is a draw.

    So call it 7-1-5 for the Allies, and factor in that the French Army of 1813 was a shadow of the Grande Armee' before 1812...well, like I said; I think that by 1815 the Prussian regular forces were about as good as the best of the French and British armies.

    There's no shame in that; between them these were the best organized, trained, and led troops in Europe at the time...

  14. fdchief -

    If Napoleon picked them for loyalty then he was a lousy judge of character. Most of the 26 men he had made into Marshals of France were envious and resentful of him and many betrayed him. And most of the 26 had already attained high rank in the revolutionary army and won many victories independent of Napoleon prior to 1804 when he signed his first promotions to Marshal. Kellerman at Valmy is one example that I recall without referencing the library, but there were several more.

    And they did it while leading ragtag armies, partly professional soldiers especially in the artillery, but mostly brand new citizen volunteers. This was the pre-conscription French revolutionary army described as: ". . .a mob of zealots. On their feet were sabots and they were clothed with second-hand effects of old clothes shops . . . archaic uniforms from the Seven Years War, the War of Austrian Succession, the Camisard Revolt, and/or the French expeditionary force in the American Revolution." Luckily they had the advantage of French cannon and gunpowder, which were the best in the world at the time, and of course well trained regulars as cannoneers.

  15. uhlenspiegel -

    Ewald is the exact opposite of how many Americans viewed Hessian officers in the AWI: i.e. he appears to have been both sober, distinguished, and competent. Undoubtedly most Hessian and Brunswickers who served were the same. But propaganda at the time and resentment against mercenaries (even though it was German princes that were the true mercs and not their soldiers and officers ) would not accept that Hessian officers were anything but drunken, arrogant, bumblers.

    Have always felt that it is incestual to only read the memoirs of one side in any war or battle. I would like to read Ewald's writings and perhaps those of Baurmeister. But they are rare here - $100 plus and even $50 plus for used copies. I need to see if my small town library can borrow some from larger institutions.

  16. Mike,

    I have never questioned the quality of the Hessian forces in the AWI, I have only to compare desertion rates of these forces and compare them with the numbers of Prussian regiments of the SYW. :-)

    My point was, that Ewald was caught in the middle of a developement that spans the regular Kleinkrieg of the SYW and the real Volkskrieg of 1809/12, therefore, we may face some conceptional contradictions by using an author who had only the former as reference. In contrast CvC had both.


  17. @Chief

    the point I tried to make was that French generals (not Napoleon) with much campaigns as background had in autumn 1813 real problems to compete with their Prussian opponents. Hanau and Göhrde were not fought by Prussian generals. :-)

    It is undisputed that Napoleon was the most dangerous general in 1813-15, usually his enemies needed a very good day or much higher numbers to defeat him.

    The focus in the French army was to optimize Napoleon's leadership, the price was a deficit in form of generals who lacked often confidence and the ability to operate without "supervision".

    On the level of regiments the French had in spring 1813 even more problems than the Prussians, the number of officers and NCOs with regular training was very likely much higher in the Prussian regiments, the French leadership (no coalition) was better then, autumn campaign is IMHO different.

    The men of my hometown near Hannover often fought in the KGL, therefore, no quality problem here on my side. :-)


  18. @mike

    Ewalds "Abhandlung über den kleinen Krieg" (1785)
    is available on google books, hope this works for you: :-)


  19. Ulenspiegel - My German is spotty at best. There are English translations of at least two of his works available in online bookstores. My only problem is with the price.

    As far as the desertion rate by Hessian rank and file: I am surprised it was not much higher. They were sent to the wilderness by mercenary princes for which the common soldier did not receive a farthing. Plus they were wooed by the Americans who offered them land grants to desert. I am surprised that all the Hessian regiments did not go over to General Washington.

    As far as the KGL, I dont think they were mercs even though they fought with England. They were fighting for their occupied homeland. More like the Free French or Poles