Abel on Clausewitz, 'Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 1' and Clausewitz, 'The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland Volume 2'

Carl von Clausewitz. Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 1. Translated and edited by Nicholas Murray and Christopher Pringle. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020. 440 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-3025-7Carl von Clausewitz. The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland Volume 2. Translated and edited by Nicholas Murray and Christopher Pringle. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2021. 344 pp. $32.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-3034-9.

Reviewed by Jonathan Abel (Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth)
Published on H-War (October, 2022)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57772

Carl von Clausewitz’s The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland chronicles the relatively obscure operations of the War of the Second Coalition conducted in Italy, Switzerland, and on the Rhine in 1799 as the French sought to protect their gains made in the War of the First Coalition from a new alliance centered on Austria and Russia. Translators and editors Nicholas Murray, late of the Naval War College, and Christopher Pringle, wargame designer, present the study in two volumes sold separately: Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant, covering through roughly August; and The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns, covering the period from August through the conclusion of the year’s campaigning after the coup of 18 Brumaire that brought Napoleon to power. Murray and Pringle have previously translated Clausewitz’s analysis of the 1796-97 First Italian Campaign in Napoleon’s 1796 Italian Campaign (2018), also published by the University Press of Kansas, so the new volumes represent a continuation of their valuable work bringing Clausewitz’s campaign studies to an Anglophone audience. The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, as presented by Murray and Pringle, serves as an important addition to the Clausewitz canon and opens the possibility for future research on the titular campaign. Given the work’s nature as a translation, this review will first examine Clausewitz’s account and analysis of the 1799 campaign, which presents fascinating corollaries to his other work and occasional frustration to the reader in equal measure. It will then analyze Murray and Pringle’s translation and commentary, which expand on Clausewitz’s ideas and provide needed context and correlation for them.

Clausewitz’s analysis of the opening year of the War of the Second Coalition in Europe walks the reader through a detailed study of the conflict’s outbreak, diplomatic maneuvering, and operations ranging from the Kingdom of Naples to the Middle Rhine. He follows the armies of both sides, French and Allied, as they groped for a strategic advantage that would either secure and expand conquests from the 1792-97 War of the First Coalition, in the former case, or liberate those areas from French control, in the latter case. Herein emerges one of Clausewitz’s chief themes: the failure of strategy on both sides. He faults the French for a lack of strategic direction, which he repeatedly lays at the feet of the Directory, the five-member executive branch of the French government that held power from 1794 until its overthrow in late 1799. Despite its being the longest-lasting and arguably most stable French Revolutionary government, the Directory comes under withering criticism from Clausewitz throughout the work for not elaborating a clear strategy for the year’s campaigning. Similarly, Clausewitz finds fault with the Alliance, particularly the Austrian/Imperial court and its general staff, the Aulic Council, and the Russians; he also includes the British when discussing the relationship between the Allied campaign in the Low Countries and those further south to Italy. As with the French, Clausewitz faults the Allies for lacking a coherent strategy, which contributed to a lack of direction of operations by the various commanders involved. He seems not to accept the most obvious strategies for each side at face value: territorial conquest and/or security by the Directory, and reconquest/liberation by the Allies. For Clausewitz, these are too vague, as strategy must have a direct relationship with events and campaigns on the ground, according to his conception.

Clausewitz’s detailed narrative of the events of 1799 in Europe provides an invaluable corrective to many operational accounts and narratives of warfare, whether premodern or modern. Too often, those depict relatively unitary armies marching to meet each other and then fighting a culminating battle, perhaps followed by a pursuit. The reality of contemporary fighting took place in two major modes: the aforementioned grande guerre, but also the petite guerre of detachments, positions, raids, foraging parties, and other actions away from larger concentrations of troops. Absent a figure to unify command like Bonaparte, or coherent strategy, Clausewitz instead weaves a rich tapestry of field armies and detachments all maneuvering in both the grande and petite guerre, all striving for the same outcome but not always cooperating or even understanding the situation of the time. For example, he traces the Allied efforts in the summer to retake the fortresses of the Po Valley against their garrisons, French forces in Switzerland, and two French armies in Italy. These efforts involved as many as ten different detachments at any given time on each side. While Clausewitz’s narrative is occasionally hard to follow, an issue compounded by the lamentable lack of maps embedded in the text, it does illustrate the complexity of contemporary warfare and just how many different data points commanders and staff officers had to juggle. Unfortunately, too many modern operational accounts focus solely on the main army, to the exclusion of detachments and other forces, creating a false narrative of unitary armies, operations, and goals. Clausewitz’s account is a necessary and valuable corrective to this.

Clausewitz’s purpose in writing, as is the case with almost all of his work, was to shape the nineteenth-century Prussian staff officer. As such, his campaign narrative is drawn from available sources, largely from those penned by Antoine-Henri, Baron Jomini, and Erzherzog Karl Ludwig Johann Josef Lorenz, Herzog von Teschen, with a sprinkling of other sources. Instead, his focus is on analysis, which is contained in discrete subsections after each major battle or campaign and present throughout in shorter format. In these, Clausewitz examines the options available to the commanders at each given point and then states which of them they should have taken, which is usually not the one they selected. In this analysis, he forcefully and exhaustively illustrates the linkages between the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, providing a series of proofs for his more theoretical work in On War. In that respect, the reader will gain much insight into Clausewitz’s thought.

However, Clausewitz’s approach is also immensely frustrating. His opinions almost always assume perfect information on the part of the target of his criticism, both of the terrain and of enemy positions and movements. He makes little effort to inform the reader what information commanders may have had available at any given time, nor does he spend much time discussing the importance of scouting, maps, and understanding of local conditions in time and space, all of which were and are vital for commanders and staff officers. The result renders most analysis sections as repetitive didactic lessons that might be summarized as “this commander should have been more aggressive in this situation.”

This also indicates another of Clausewitz’s major themes, which is to analyze the performance of various commanders involved throughout the year’s fighting. These range from commanders in the prior war like Karl and Jean-Baptiste Jourdan to men later made famous during the Napoleonic Wars like André Masséna, Charles-Etienne Gudin de la Sablonnière, and Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, and those who have largely fallen from the pages of histories of the period like Jean-Etienne Championnet and Aleksandr Rimsky-Korsakov. With one exception, Clausewitz is brutally dismissive of the commanders’ abilities, strategies, and operations. He universally faults them for a lack of imagination, prowess, and ability to link strategic aims with operational and tactical events, especially absent coherent strategic guidance from respective capitals. In particular, Clausewitz is no proponent of Karl, finding him throughout the year to be overly cautious and unable to seize opportunities to achieve decisive victory. To a lesser extent, Clausewitz applies this criticism to all of the army commanders involved, even when they triumphed in battle, as did Masséna at Second Zurich or Aleksandr Suvorov and Michael Friedrich Benedikt Freiherr von Melas at Novi in August. The exception to Clausewitz’s criticism is Suvorov, the dynamic and energetic commander of the Russian contingent who legendarily reconquered Italy more rapidly than had Bonaparte in 1796-97 before quitting in a fit of pique and taking the Russian armies with him late in the year. Clausewitz finds much to praise in Suvorov’s actions, particularly his insistence on pressing offensives before and after battle, and his restless energy that drove the Allied armies to exertions they were unused to under Austrian or even other Russian commanders.

Clausewitz’s analysis of the commanders and their actions during the campaign clearly indicates his desire to have a Bonaparte to analyze. Bonaparte, of course, does not appear in the 1799 campaign, despite the subtitles of both volumes of The 1799 Campaign in Italy in Switzerland; he was occupied with his campaign in Egypt and then in overthrowing the French government. In The 1796 Campaign, the French genius gave Clausewitz a model commander to illustrate his principles and inept enemies against which to contrast him, and them. In 1799, no such genius exists, even Suvorov. As a result, Clausewitz’s analysis tends towards the simplistic and repetitive. This makes it more difficult for readers to connect to On War and to draw modern lessons from, beyond very general principles.

In the same vein, Clausewitz occasionally produces arguments that are specious at best in his effort to elicit value from the campaign. For example, in 1:305n83, he argues that “if the value of Switzerland and Italy was high for the Austrians, they should have put more effort into their conquest. That they seemingly made only a halfhearted effort indicates that they placed a low value on these countries or that they misunderstood what was at stake in the conflict.” While this illustrates his theory of the value of the object, one of the major themes of On War, it is a laughable point in the context of the year’s fighting. Few in mid-1799 knew what was at stake in the campaign; they could not have known that Bonaparte would seize power, reorganize the French government, and help rapidly reverse most of the Allies’ gains in the conflict. In the longer term, they could not have known that the Napoleonic Wars would continue and expand toward massive, absolute wars of nations. In mid-1799, commanders simply knew what the situation was in their proximity and what direction they had been given by their government. Such examples occur throughout the book, as noted in the prior section lamenting Clausewitz’s analysis of decisions requiring perfect information. Ex post facto analysis is valuable in understanding Clausewitz’s theories and in training Prussian staff officers in the 1820s, but so too would be an understanding of what commanders did and did not know at any given time, an effort from which Clausewitz demurs.

Finally, one of the more curious themes throughout The 1799 Campaign concerns civil-military relations. While the Allied armies were technically commanded by their respective heads of state, each delegated that duty in practice to field commanders or staff organizations like the Aulic Council. This created a situation in which both sides conducted the war via civilian governments issuing strategic direction and command to field or theater commanders, mirroring a modern civilian-military divide, albeit in anachronistic terms. This hierarchy immensely frustrates Clausewitz throughout his analysis of the year’s fighting, particularly in the second volume of his work as it becomes clear that neither side will achieve a decisive victory despite opportunities to do so, at least according to the author. This leads to a troubling line of analysis from Clausewitz: if presented with a situation where a decisive victory is possible, field commanders should ignore strategic plans provided by civilian governments and conduct the war as they see fit, including violating direct orders. The most prominent example of this is in Karl’s reassignment to the Rhine late in the year; Clausewitz argues that he should have ignored his orders from the Aulic Council and instead thrown his force into attacking the weaker French in Switzerland, an argument he supports with Karl’s own laments from his memoirs. Other examples recur throughout the text, from his advice that French commanders ignore the government’s orders to divide forces and conduct certain operations to a direct order from Austria to abandon a siege in Italy to support an exposed position on the front.

This civilian-military relations issue is troubling for two reasons. First, while it accords with Clausewitz’s dictum that strategy must react to tactical and operational changes, it seems at odds with his famous dicta that war and politics are synonymous and that military affairs must be subordinate to political/grand-strategic authority. Second, and much more importantly for the modern reader, it calls into question the subordination of military commanders and affairs to legally constituted political authority. On 2:124, Clausewitz explicitly states that a genius must find his own “fame and glory,” even at the expense of “discharging his duty,” including obeying lawful orders. These topics make for fascinating analysis, both in their own right and as compared to On War. If Clausewitz’s works retain relevance beyond his own time, as is generally believed and taught, an argument like this is the most valuable for modern readers and must be engaged in its full depth and implications.

Murray and Pringle’s translation and commentary are the other half of The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland. Their translation is excellent, no small task for the notoriously difficult-to-translate Clausewitz. Their notes also illuminate the connections between the work and On War, making the former an invaluable corollary to the latter. However, the same notes often lack needed context and secondary sourcing for readers unfamiliar with the campaign and the wider events of the year.

Murray and Pringle’s translation, as in the case of their previous work on Napoleon’s 1796 Campaign, is effective. They avoid the trap of some translators by not getting entangled in idiosyncrasies of period diction; the resulting prose is smooth and readable. They also do not become ensnared in either excessively literal translation or too much dynamic equivalence, crafting a translated literary voice that carries the reader through the prose. For example, in their introductory note, the translators explain Clausewitz’s shift of tense in the work as his adoption of one of three literary voices, whether to relate details of the campaign, provide strategic analysis, or to opine on the actions of commanders in campaigns, which they retain. This rounds the rough edges of Clausewitz’s writing style, which is particularly important for readers not versed in it. While it is easy to underestimate the value of good translation, Murray and Pringle must be commended for their excellent effort in conducting it.

After the translation itself, the extensive footnotes are Murray and Pringle’s other significant contribution to the text. These generally take three forms: references to On War; explanations of a source Clausewitz is using, particularly Karl and Jomini; or elaborations on a point Clausewitz makes that a contemporary should understand but which might be lost on a modern reader. The notes in the first two categories are excellent, while those in the third category are occasionally lacking.

The most numerous category of translators’ notes in The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland is those that are references to On War. These are extensive and, at times, lengthy. They provide exhaustive cross-references to the hallowed text, detailing and providing examples of nearly every one of Clausewitz’s key arguments and themes in it. A reader unfamiliar with the details of On War will be well guided by Murray and Pringle in this regard, and most readers will want to have both texts open as they read the campaign account. The result is that The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland becomes a kind of concordance to On War, marking it as an invaluable addition to Anglophone studies of Clausewitz and his work.

While these extensive reference footnotes are very useful to the reader, they can occasionally be repetitive, particularly in sections where Clausewitz struggles to derive useful lessons from a particular event or battle. In these chapters, the footnotes become a version of “this is an example of Clausewitz’s trinity/fog and friction/the nesting of strategy, operations, and tactics/genius in war.” Occasionally, these even appear to be self-parody, as is the case with 1:49n72: “the reader is encouraged to use its [On War’s] table of contents to identify applicable parts and read small excerpts that relate to Clausewitz’s ideas here,” or 1:130n188, which argues that the Austrians should have read On War before undertaking their war.

The second category of notes includes those that expand upon the sourcing Clausewitz uses. As none of it exists in English, these notes provide depth to his own historiography and expand the access of Anglophone readers to works written in German and French. For the reader versed in French, the translators have provided extensive Francophone transcriptions of various relevant texts, including government decrees and orders relating to the conduct of the war. Collectively, these give readers a broader understanding of Clausewitz, his sources, and his methods.

The final category of notes is those that give wider context to the 1799 campaign, particularly to the political and strategic analysis in which Clausewitz extensively engages, as noted. Clausewitz likely assumed he did not need to provide much context for his audience, officers familiar with the campaign, recent history, and contemporary military affairs in general. Murray and Pringle have largely opted not to fill this gap, and the resulting contextual notes are less extensive than the previous two categories. Thus, they represent the most significant flaw in the translation.

The best example of this is Clausewitz’s analysis of the Directory and its strategic direction of the French war effort. He repeatedly castigates the Directory for its lack of clear strategic goals and its apportioning of its forces from the Low Countries to southern Italy. He argues, based on his sourcing from Karl and Jomini, that chaos reigned in Paris and the Directors simply were not competent. Clausewitz was naturally slave to the sources he had available in the early nineteenth century, but more recent studies like Howard Brown, War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State (1995); Georges Lefebvre, La France sous le Directoire (1978); Martyn Lyons, France under the Directory (1975); or Denis Woronoff, The Thermidorean Regime and the Directory 1794-1799 (1984), have cast doubt on this interpretation. However, Murray and Pringle largely let these critiques go without comment, offering little analysis of the Directory, its membership, or its strategic planning or thought. Similar lack occurs in contextualizing Clausewitz’s analysis of Austrian, Russian, or British politics and strategy. Such analysis would be an invaluable balance to his often stilted opinion of the contemporary French when Bonaparte is not present, and it occurs throughout both volumes.

This lack of contextual sourcing or rebuttal to Clausewitz’s more suspect assertions and arguments often leaves the reader adrift in the context of the period.[1] They lack context in order to determine the veracity and utility of Clausewitz’s theories when put into practice, especially given that Clausewitz’s arguments are usually presented forcefully, if not outright polemically. The result is a work that serves admirably as an expansion of Clausewitz’s œuvre but is less successful as a campaign analysis on its own merits.

Finally, Murray and Pringle have provided another vital service in their translation by highlighting a largely forgotten series of campaigns. The 1799 campaigns were the opening salvos in the War of the Second Coalition in Europe, but they have no dedicated, academic account in English. Most accounts gloss over the campaigns, touching down briefly to give the results of the major battles, or simply ignore them in favor of Bonaparte’s adventures in Egypt and the Levant, and his return in 1800. Indeed, the wider wars of the French Revolution have not been given the in-depth academic operational account in full in English that they deserve. Even Ramsay Phipps’s magisterial The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon (1926-39) ends before the 1799 campaign. By translating Clausewitz’s account, Murray and Pringle have highlighted this deficit, suggesting to generations of scholars the need for solid academic accounts of all of the campaigns fought between 1792 and 1800, particularly those where Bonaparte was not present.

The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, as translated by Murray and Pringle, is an invaluable addition to the field of Clausewitz studies. Students of the great philosophe of war will find much of value in the translation. In particular, the extensive footnotes cross-referencing it to On War transform it into a kind of concordance of the classic of military theory. Readers will deepen their understanding of Clausewitz’s theories and their application, particularly in sections where he struggles to elucidate them for want of a competent commander and leader like Bonaparte. It is also a call to scholars to examine campaigns that are not traditionally written about, whether Masséna in Switzerland or various fights in the Pyrenees prior to 1795. As such, it is highly recommended.

[Ed. note: The views of the author do not reflect any official position of the US Army, the Command and General Staff College, the Department of Defense, or any other government official or agency.]

Citation: Jonathan Abel. Review of Clausewitz, Carl von, Napoleon Absent, Coalition Ascendant: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland, Volume 1 and Clausewitz, Carl von, The Coalition Crumbles, Napoleon Returns: The 1799 Campaign in Italy and Switzerland Volume 2. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57772

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


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"one of the more curious themes throughout The 1799 Campaign concerns civil-military relations"

One of the critical subject matters in this review is that of the relationship between civilian government and military authority. Placing this crucial relationship into focus needs to be studied and understood. In our age of the 20th century and modern history, all too often civilian govts. have been subjected to military authorities, overthrows and removals.

What Clausewitz did and does is place this central concern from history into sharp relief.

His overstatements of the role to military authority, in relation to civilian authority and its direction of military matters, squarely sets down this tension, which requires military authority to follow and not lead civil governments, in their conduct of business and affairs. It should not be dismissed. Merely claims of military authority viewing itself as 'better' than civil; one such conclusion that might be given to Clausewitz, as a military officer. But realization this working partnership is necessary, not only for the formula of Clausewitz, interrelating politics and war as successful conduct of governments and societies.

In this early analysis, fundamentals of 'Democracy' are brought into view by Clausewitz, as significant practices and historical meaning by developments of peoples and their relationships to government
itself. Civilian government should be held supreme and above the military is bedrock to democracy and its practices; providing direction and outcomes, from military authority and use. It is not a curious thing but absolutely central to developments from history since at least the times of Napoleon.