Napoleonic-Era Book Explains Evolving Dark Art of War

A title lobby card for the 1927 silent French epic film Napoléon sold for $10,157 at a July 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It is generally accepted dogma that the French Revolution devoured not only its own children. Many of those who fought against it were literally children. Carl von Clausewitz was only 12 when he first saw action against the French.

A true warrior-scholar, Clausewitz (1780-1831) survived the shattering defeat at Jena-Auerstedt (today’s Germany) in 1806, refused to fight with the French against the Russians in 1812 and saw action at Ligny in 1815. As noted in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest, British historian Niall Ferguson says it was Clausewitz who, better than anyone (including Napoleon himself), understood the way the Revolution transformed the dark art of war.

The Prussian general’s posthumously published masterpiece On War (1832) remains the single most important work on the subject produced by a Western author. Though in many ways timeless, Ferguson points out On War is also the indispensable commentary on the Napoleonic era. It explains why war had changed in its scale and the implications for those who chose to wage it.

Clausewitz declared that war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will … (it is) not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” These are considered his most famous words, and also the most misunderstood and mistranslated (at least from what I have read … which is extensive).

But they were not his most important.

Clausewitz’s brilliant insight was that in the wake of the French Revolution, a new passion had arrived on the field of battle. “Even the most civilized of peoples [ostensibly referring to the French] can be fired with passionate hatred for each other…” After 1793, “war again became the business of the people,” as opposed to the hobby of kings, Ferguson writes. It became a juggernaut, driven by the temper of a nation.

This was new.

Clausewitz did acknowledge Bonaparte’s genius as the driver of this new military juggernaut, yet his exceptional generalship was less significant than the new “popular” spirit that propelled his army. Clausewitz called it a paradoxical trinity of primordial violence, hatred and enmity. If that was true, then it helps explain the many people-wars of the 19th century, but is a perplexer (at least to me) when applied to events a century later.

The Battle of the Somme, started on July 1, 1916, is infamous primarily because of 58,000 British troop casualties (one-third of them killed) – to this day a one-day record. It was the main Allied attack on the Western front in 1916 and lasted until Nov. 18 when terrible weather brought it to a halt. The attack resulted in over 620,000 British and French casualties. German casualties were estimated at 500,000. It is one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

The Allies gained a grand total of 12 kilometers of (non-strategic) ground!

It is hard to fit Clausewitz’s thesis into this form of military stupidity. I prefer the rationale offered by the greatest mind of the 20th century: “Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die,” said Albert Einstein.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Somme Offensive was a Disaster for British, French Forces

A collection of 175 photographs relating to the ground campaigns of World War I went to auction in February 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

The Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, in the Civil War was the bloodiest day in American history, with more than 22,700 killed or wounded.

However, it pales in comparison to the Battle of the Somme in WWI. The Somme is a river in northern France that travels through a gentle valley to the Bay of Somme in the English Channel. “Somme” is a Celtic word for tranquility.

The Battle of Somme was anything but.

In 1916, northern France was a prime battleground where French and English armies ran headlong into the Second German Army. With superiority in numbers, the French planned a battle of attrition. But, a massive attack by the Germans at Verdun shifted the planning to the British.

The British launched an offensive with 20 Divisions of English plus seven Divisions of French troops attacking along a 10-mile-wide front, expecting an overwhelming triumph. A critical flaw in their strategy was an over-reliance on their artillery.

From June 24 to July 1, 1916, over 3,000 British and French guns bombarded the Germans with such ferocity that the 750,000 allied troops in the trenches facing west were confident that there would be little opposition when they “went over the top” to attack.

The only issue was that the shelling warned the Germans what to expect next and, critically, the damage to their forces had been amazingly minimal.

When the Allies did attack, it only took a few minutes for the slaughter to begin. But, when it did, it changed British history and attitudes about war forever.

The Germans had not only built just trenches, but heavy dirt and concrete bunkers so deep that no amount of shelling could damage them! So when the Allies finally charged, in tight lines, German machineguns methodically mowed them down. “We didn’t even have to aim.”

The casualties were staggering.

From July 1 to Nov. 16, the Somme became the costliest battle in the history of the world. On the first day (alone), the British Army lost 57,450 troops – 20,000 of them dead. The combined total for the British and French was 1,250,000 dead and wounded.

So much for tranquility and English military planning.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].