On War

On War

Article image

On War: Culminating Point of the Attack

Excerpts from On War in Clausewitz on Strategy
  • Add To Interests

  • In This Article
    Carl von Clausewitz
    • Successes must be followed up. It is easy for momentum to stall and for advantage to be lost by failing to exploit success.
    • There is an equilibrium between attack and defense. Even a successful action, pursued too far, can make the attacker vulnerable to reversal.
    • Momentum must be managed. It is often easier to continue pursuing a damaging course of action than to stop and change directions.
    • Keywords
    • Attack, Defense, Army, General, Victory, Defeat, Advantage, Environment, Turning Point, Defeat, War, Peace, Leadership, 1800s, Europe, Force, Culmination, Military, Logistics, Planning, Control

    Victory in a battle is rarely decisive enough to bring an end to the war. In most cases, a successful offensive settles into a defensive position. One of the most difficult tasks of the leader is knowing when to halt a successful attack and when to follow it up.

    Often, victories should be followed up and ruthlessly exploited. Once the immediate goal has been attained and the energy of the attack has been spent, the risk of stalling and reversal is the greatest. In some cases, however, it is possible to overshoot the goal due to the momentum of the offensive, leading to an indefensible position in the enemy's territory and a reversal of advantage.

    Victory Must be Exploited: Book IV, Chapter 12

    The more difficult task, that of preparing for victory to the fullest possible extent, is a hidden service provided by strategy, for which it rarely receives any praise. Strategy appears brilliant and glorious when it exploits the hard-won victory.

    What particular purpose the battle may have, how if fits into the overall system of the war, how far the course of victory may lead given the nature of the circumstances, where its culminating point may lie-all these are factors that we shall address later. But for all imaginable circumstances it remains true that without a pursuit, no victory can have a great impact, and that no matter how short the course of victory may be, it must always lead beyond the first steps of the pursuit...

    The pursuit of a defeated opponent begins at the moment the enemy gives up the engagement and abandons his position. All the back and forth movements preceding this moment cannot be counted toward the pursuit, but are, rather, part of the development of the battle itself. Generally, at the moment described here, the victory is still quite small and weak, though assured. In the sequence of events, it would not provide much in the way of positive advantages if it were not completed by pursuit on the first day. As we have already noted, it is only then, in general, that the first trophies are won that embody the victory.

    The efforts that it takes to fight out a long engagement complete the exhaustion. Moreover, the victorious side is not in much less disarray and confusion than those who are vanquished, and consequently needs to restore order, gather up the stragglers, and issue fresh ammunition as needed.

    All these circumstances place the victor, too, in a state of crisis. If the party that was defeated was only a subordinate portion of the enemy army and has others upon whom it can fall back, or otherwise may expect some significant reinforcement, then the victor can easily run the risk of forfeiting his victory. This consideration will soon put an end to the pursuit, in such situations, or at least will restrict it substantially.

    What does get done depends only on the thirst for glory, the energy, and possibly even the severity of the general in command. This is the only explanation for the hesitant way in which we see many generals pursue the victory that their superiority of numbers has granted them...

    Book VII, Chapter 22
    ...Sometimes, stunned and panic-stricken, the enemy may lay down his arms, at other times he may be seized by a fit of enthusiasm: there is a general rush to arms, and resistance is much stronger after the first defeat than it was before. The information from which one must guess at the probable reaction include the character of the people and the government, the nature of the country and its political affiliations.
    The Point of No Return: Book VII, Chapter 5

    The success of an attack results from an existing superiority of forces, physical and moral forces included, of course. In the preceding chapter, we demonstrated that the force of the attack is gradually exhausted. Even so, superiority may increase, but in the vast majority of cases, it decreases. The attacker buys advantages that may serve him well during peace negotiations, but he must pay for these advantages in cash on the spot, with his forces.

    If this superiority of forces in the attack, which diminishes daily, leads to peace, then the objective will have been achieved. There are strategic attacks that have led directly to peace, but very few are of this sort; most lead only to a point at which the forces are adequate only for maintaining a defense and waiting for peace.

    Beyond that lies the turning point, the rebound. The strength of that rebound is commonly much greater than the force of the initial strike. We call this the culminating point of the attack. Since the purpose of the attack is to occupy the enemy's country, it follows that the advance must continue until the superiority of forces is exhausted.

    This, then, drives us to our goal and can easily lead us beyond it. When one considers how many factors enter into the equation of the forces, one understands how difficult it is, in many cases, to determine which of the two sides possesses the superiority of forces. Often it all depends on the wispy thread of the imagination. Thus it all comes down to sensing the culminating point with the light touch of the intellect...

    The victor is not able to defeat his adversary completely in every war. Often, and in most cases, there is a culminating point of victory. The bulk of experience has demonstrated this at length. But since this topic is particularly important for the theory of war and is the supporting point for almost all campaign plans, and because its surface is clouded by an array of apparent contradictions as though by a display of shimmering colors, we wish to take a closer look at it, and to address its internal logic...

    The Point of No Return, Continued: Book VII, Chapter 22

    Thus the superiority of forces that we have or that we achieve in war is only the means, not the end, and it must be used toward that end. Yet we must know how far that superiority will extend, so that we do not go beyond that point and reap disgrace rather than new advantages. There is no need to offer particular examples from experience to prove that strategic superiority is exhausted in the strategic attack. Rather, the great number of occurrences has compelled us to seek out the inherent causes of it.

    Only since the appearance of Bonaparte have we seen campaigns among civilized nations in which superiority of forces has led without interruption to the fall of the opponent. Before him, each campaign ended with the victorious army seeking to win a position in which it could merely maintain an equilibrium. The momentum of the victory would stop at that point, and a retreat might even become necessary.

    Hereafter, this culminating point of the victory will occur in all wars in which crushing the enemy cannot be the military objective, which will be the case for most wars. Thus the natural objective of every campaign plan is the turning point from the attack to the defensive.

    However, overshooting this goal is not simply a pointless expenditure of effort leading to no further gains. Rather, it a destructive action that causes reactions, and broad experience has shown that these reactions have a disproportional impact. This is such a common occurrence, and seems so natural and readily understandable, that we can dispense with a detailed analysis of its root causes.

    In every case, the most important of these are a lack of organization in the newly taken country and the psychological impact caused by the profound incongruity between a significant loss and the new gains that were expected. Moral strength and encouragement often rising to the level of bravado, on the one hand, and despondency, on the other hand, here commonly play against each other in an exceptionally dynamic way. Thus losses during the retreat are increased, and those on the retreat usually thank heaven if they get away with giving back what they had taken without suffering losses of their own territory.

    The Equilibrium Point of Attack and Defense: Book VII, Chapter 22

    Just as no defensive campaign is composed solely of defensive elements, no campaign of attack is composed solely of offensive elements. This is because, aside from the brief interim period that occurs in every campaign in which the two armies hold a defensive stance, every attack that does not lead to peace must necessarily end with a defense.

    In this way, it is the defense itself that contributes to the weakening of the attack. This is much more than hairsplitting; rather, we consider it the greatest disadvantage of the attack that, after it is over, we are placed in an entirely disadvantageous defensive position... Once the mind has a particular direction forward to the goal or back toward a refuge, it is easy for the reasons that compel one man to stop, and motivate another man to action, are not felt to their fullest extent. Since the action continues in the meantime, one crosses the limits of equilibrium in the course of that movement, moving beyond the culmination point without being aware of it.

    It can even happen that the attacker, buoyed by the moral forces that lie particularly in the attack, will find it less tiresome to keep forging ahead, despite the exhaustion of his forces, than to stop, like a horse dragging a load uphill. We believe that this shows, without internal contradiction, how the attacker can move beyond the point that still offers him good results, were he to stop and take up the defense, that is the point of equilibrium.

    Therefore, in planning the campaign, it is important to take adequate account of this point, both for the attacker, so that he will not take actions beyond his abilities, and run up a debt, as it were, and for the defender, so that he will recognize and take advantage of this mistake when the attacker makes it.

    This article was excerpted from On War by Carl von Clausewitz as explored in Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist, from The Boston Consulting Group's Strategy Institute.

  • Add To Interests