Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter V.
The Future. The Offensive and the Defensive.

IN the event of war between France and Germany the latter will at once assume the offensive with the object of dealing a crushing blow at the outset, a blow so deadly as to make it impossible to recover from the shock and to restore the fighting spirit which eventually leads to victory.

Germany has left us in no doubt about her intentions in this matter. Indeed, the Prussian Great General Staff, as regards the supreme importance of the offensive, strategic as well as tactical, have set aside the teaching of Clausewitz and Von Moltke.[1] They are convinced that if the former had seen the enormous progress of military organization and the technical advances which have accompanied it he would have abandoned his predilection for the defensive. And Moltke’s insistence on the advantages of the defensive referred (they say) to the tactical problem, not to the general principles of military action on a large scale; not, therefore, to strategy. In any case, while the defensive may, in certain circumstances which rarely occur, be the right prelude to a successful tactical offensive, it must not influence us in the general conduct of affairs. An invading army cannot be hampered by the delays of defensive tactics. The general offensive upon which the action of such an army must be based inevitably leads to the tactical offensive in detail. The great, illuminating feature of Clausewitz’s teaching lies in his grasp of the great attack, bold, sudden, impetuous, crushing. “What gives lasting value to his work,” say the Prussian General Staff, “ apart from its great moral and psychological importance, is his constant insistence on the idea of annihilation, as the dominating principle in strategy and tactics.”

Thus Clausewitz’s emphasis on the value of the defensive is swept away, and the offensive is the only thing in his teaching to which the Prussian General Staff clings, to that and to the great weight which he attaches to moral forces.

Similarly, Moltke would, they contend, be the first to agree that the tactical defensive must be subordinate to the general scheme, which consists of the determined offensive of a great army marching to overwhelm the enemy. Thus all thought of the defensive, even in combination with the offensive, has been discarded by the German mind. “It is to be the absolute offensive. It is to be an invasion, not for the purpose of occupying territory, not in order to compel the enemy to a weak and hesitating capitulation by the disorganization produced in his economic and social life. No: it is to be an invasion which is intended to destroy the principal armies of the enemy by enveloping them.”

The ideal is to have a very clearly defined object and the greatest possible freedom of choice as to the methods by which that object can be attained.

The object is to seek out the enemy, to get to close quarters with him at all costs, to try to turn his flank. A frontal attack which forces him to retreat without crushing loss of men does not suffice. An army forced to retreat still remains in being: its material value is only lessened, its moral value may remain almost unimpaired. An army which is surrounded can be made to suffer a disastrous defeat, disastrous in the material sense because a large part of the enemy’s forces is destroyed, disastrous morally because the success of a bold and enterprising plan leaves the enemy disheartened and discouraged.

Such a plan of action has been laid down by all German; exponents of military science, from Von der Goltz to Bernhardi. Bernhardi says:

“In the case of two opposing concentrations of approximately the same strength, the chief object is to find out the direction of the proposed attack, in order to be able to strike at one of the enemy’s flanks and to cut his communications. With anything like equal forces, the defensive cannot be overcome by a frontal attack. A flank attack is the most fruitful method. “

And the German General Staff, summing up the facts set forth in Volume III, gives as its conclusion:

“The examples which have been cited prove clearly enough that the best effects are attained by a flank attack which threatens the enemy’s rear. It is true that the enveloping action hoped for cannot always be carried through, but a real leader will always do his utmost to accomplish it. The length of modern lines of battle, and the difficulty of transporting modern armies from one position to another may necessitate exclusively frontal attacks, leading to no decisive result. This is a real danger from which a leader can only be saved by a sound conception of the art of war. Clausewitz supplies such a conception.”

These are the words of the German General Staff, and the French journal — La Revue Militaire — sums up the doctrine in the following terms:

“Concentration of troops at such a time, and in such a way, as to be able to strike at the enemy in full force, the attack being made, as far as is possible, on one of his flanks with the intention of crushing him at a single blow — this is the interpretation, equally bold and true, which the German General Staff gives to the facts of history and to the teachings of Clausewitz and Moltke.”

These then are the avowed aims of the German General Staff. And they are fully confirmed by the preparations which are being carried on close to the frontier under its direction.

The German Staff would not have established the debarkation-points of its strategic railways in such close proximity to the French frontier if its members had not intended to forestall the enemy: otherwise their concentration-plans would be at the mercy of the French. Almost all these railway stations are within thirty miles of the frontier. There are eighty such stations in Lorraine, half of them having platforms more than five hundred yards long. There are about thirty in Alsace, one-third of them having platforms of equal length. It is useless to discuss here the probable alignment of the German armies. What is certain is that rapid offensive action will be undertaken by the troops massed beforehand in Alsace-Lorraine and reinforced with all speed.

The line of frontier acquired by the Germans in 1871 runs in such a way that they can without difficulty concentrate their troops for a decisive blow, that they can throw their armies on to the frontier and at the same time on to the flanks of the French forces. This seems to be the ideal state of things for offensive action.

We shall meet the enemy’s offensive with scientifically organized defensive action, and with a strategical scheme inspired by unflinching willingness to make whatever sacrifice may be necessary for its execution.

Germany, then, knows what she wants, and knows it thoroughly. Does France know her own mind in the same way? Major Rossel (the Socialist military writer) says emphatically that she does not. He first lays down what should be the natural system of defence for France from a socialist and truly national standpoint.

“The strategical conception which corresponds to this idea of a war of national defence involves, on the one hand the massing of troops in a position of security, and on the other a general offensive at the right time and place. Such is the only plan of campaign — at once defensive and offensive — for a nation which wishes for peace while it wages war, and which derives its power in war from its very wish for peace.”

Major Rossel proceeds to ask whether France is properly prepared, under the guidance of her military thinkers, either for the offensive or the defensive; and he unhesitatingly answers the question in the negative, and urges the nation to insist upon a plain statement from the Staff on this fundamental point. There is here no question of public discussion of secret plans of campaign; no idea of intruding into the sphere of military science in its detailed execution of the fundamental principles of national defence. But the French people have a right to know what those principles are, and to ask that they should be in harmony with their political and social aims; for it is the nation which must be prepared to carry them out.

The whole of the military organization, the whole system of mobilization and of concentration must be radically different, according as France chooses to adopt the policy of a national offensive on the Prussian principle or the system of national defence as indicated by Major Rossel. As the offensive can only succeed by extreme rapidity of action, with something of the element of surprise, so it is clear that the Armed Nation is not the appropriate weapon for the purpose. It is too big and too slow in its action. In other words, the theory of a national offensive implies the abandonment of the principle of relying on the nation itself. The centre of gravity is, by this theory, transferred to the vanguard of a limited army which must, by the natural course of events, inevitably become a permanent frontier army. Thus the theory of the offensive extends its baneful influence to the very foundations of military organization, and tends to mould the whole system according to its principles. It reacts on mobilization, by leading to a kind of mobilization in successive lines; its effect is seen in the method of concentration, by compelling this process to be carried out as close to the frontier as possible.

Similarly, the defensive as understood in its widest and boldest sense demands the most thorough preparation in time of peace. But here the massive power of the Nation in Arms takes the place of surprise attacks, of partial concentration and of risky movements. And the deplorable separation of the reserves from the active army disappears.

But the nation must be prepared for the initial sacrifice which this sovereign method entails.

Sheltered from the blows of the enemy, safeguarded against all surprise attacks, the gigantic concentration of millions of citizen soldiers will be carried out. It is possible that, at the beginning of the war, some portion of national territory will have to be temporarily abandoned. The first-line armies, consisting of men belonging to the frontier districts, strengthened possibly by troops drawn from all parts of the country, will be merely a covering force: their duty will be to withdraw as slowly as possible, fighting rearguard actions, not attempting to bring about decisive battles. The national resources will meanwhile be gathered together for a supreme effort: but the essential thing is that there should be no panic among the people. The mind and the soul of the country must be prepared for this bold scheme of temporary retreat as a preliminary to an irresistible offensive.

But such a system implies a clear grasp of the principles involved, and a resolute choice between the offensive and the defensive. The most disastrous thing that could happen would be for the General Staff to hover undecided between these two contradictory principles. But that is in Jaurès’s opinion precisely what has happened in France. The whole military system is, he declares, vitiated by the hybrid system of a tentative offensive combined with a half hearted defensive, not fully thought’ out on clearly conceived principles. On the one hand the French Staff must be well aware that a French offensive against Germany would be fraught with infinite difficulties and danger, since Germany has the advantage and practically every factor which makes for a successful offensive. Both the political and the military initiative in aggression is infinitely easier for Germany than for democratic France. This would give her an advantage of several days mobilization, and her larger population enables her to maintain a first-line army at least as large as the French without counting on any reserves.

Finally, the form of the. German frontier gives her great facilities for the initial movements preparatory to the first contact of the two forces.

The chances for a successful French offensive are, therefore, small indeed, and it would seem that such an idea must necessarily be condemned by the French General Staff. Yet the latter hesitates to renounce it frankly and definitely, owing to the constant obsession which has influenced the whole school of military thought since Gilbert’s erroneous reading of Clausewitz’s teaching. We are hypnoitized by the fallacy which looks upon the defensive as; something timid, leading to a slavish imitation of the enemy’s initiative, whereas the offensive is bold, and enables the attack to follow out a definite plan of its own, and to bring superior forces to bear at the decisive point.

Gilbert shows the most extraordinary inconsistency in dealing with the subject. At one time he seems to realize. the enormous advantages which would accrue from a utilization of the whole of the military resources of France. He says:

“The great battles which will follow close on the preliminary strategical movements must be entered upon in. full force and not until all preparations have been made, even if this process should entail the postponement of. decisive action, the withdrawal of the armies to the rear, and their realignment at the greatest possible distance from the enemy.”

He emphasizes these views in the following passage:

“Under all circumstances we must act on the principle laid down by Clausewitz, that the retention or the abandonment of territory is not a decisive consideration: that no serious disadvantage is entailed by the temporary abandonment of a certain stretch of territory if it thereby becomes possible to strike decisive blows at other points. Only by making such a sacrifice can we carry out with the necessary thoroughness the essential, yet so frequently disregarded, principle of absolute concentration of forces.”

The meaning of this evidently is, that if France had at her disposal, for the defence of her territory, two million men thoroughly fit to take the field, if for instance she could count on all her citizens between twenty and thirty-five years of age, trained and organized in time of peace, her leaders ought to wait, before undertaking decisive action in the field, until these two million men had been concentrated; and that their concentration area ought to be fixed far enough from the frontier to enable this concentration to take place. Gilbert seems to recognize the necessity of carrying out these plans of mobilization and concentration, but he proceeds to argue that the greater part of the forces thus mobilized and concentrated should be limited to a subordinate part in the operations.

This leads him into great inconsistencies. He recognizes that, if we fought at all, we should probably have Russia for an ally. Russia would mobilize slowly; Germany would doubtless attempt to deal us a crushing blow first; and therefore, (writes Gilbert) “ we must consider whether it would not be advantageous to decline the first battles which the Germans would offer us.” But how can a battle be declined, when the enemy is pressing on and straining every nerve to come to hand-grips? Only by a system of well-planned and carefully arranged retirements: in other words, only by adopting precisely those defensive tactics “(including actual abandonment of home territory) which Gilbert always repudiates. Gilbert, again, would “ utilize the whole forces of the nation “; but he would relegate all men over 29 years of age to a secondary sphere of operations. The Swiss, far more wisely, recognize the great military value, (for defensive warfare) of men from 29 to 35. The Swiss allot to their elite (men from 20 to 35 years of age) the role which Gilbert assigns to men under 29 only; and use their Landwehr, i.e. men from 40 to 45, for the tasks which the French writer places in the hands of men from 29 to 34 years of age. These glaring inconsistencies must be due to that old obsession in favour of the offensive, which in turn impels Gilbert and his school to favour the barrack-trained army and to undervalue the great military strength of the armed nation.

The fact is that even the most intellectual of our military leaders have not yet taken the idea of the Nation in Arms seriously. They recognize and tolerate the existence of the idea, but they do not accept it. They do not venture to attack the principle openly: that would be tantamount to attacking the sovereignty of the principle of democracy, but they hamper and impede the application of the principle in practice. I have shown how this is done by our military organization, which reduces the value of the reserves almost to vanishing point. I have now shown the same influences at work in our plans for carrying on war, in which our military leaders, on the pretence of wishing to adopt offensive action, neglect and set aside the vast strength of the Nation in Arms.

It is only by the adoption of a defensive strategical method from which decisive offensive action can soon be developed, that the combined energies of France can be brought into play for her defence.

There is no question here of an inert and passive defensive: on the contrary what I advocate is an energetic defensive accumulating its forces for the attainment of decisive results, like a strongly beating heart gathering in all the blood of the country so as to put fresh life into the struggle. That portion of territory which will have to be temporarily abandoned for the better concentration of force will not abandoned without resistance. The fighting forces of e frontier districts and of the neighbouring provinces will form a sort of great covering vanguard winch will dispute every inch of ground. The chief thing is that this covering force will not attempt to strike decisive blows. Its function will be to hamper and exhaust the enemy’s offensive, not to smash it: and to withdraw, step by step, towards the concentration zone.

Then at last the armed nation brought together for the decisive battles will take the offensive. Why should it be said that in these circumstances the French armies will not have a positive result in view, and that their movements will be dictated by the enemy, whose every step will be watched and followed by them? On the contrary, the enemy will be dictated to by France invaded and menaced: the advantage which he hoped to gain from decisive battles at the outset of the campaign will have been withheld from him. He will be forced to fight the decisive battles not the ground chosen and prepared beforehand by him, but on the ground chosen by France. He will be met not by a weak vanguard hastily detached from the armed nation, but by the armed nation itself. He will be obliged either to join battle under unfavourable conditions, or to abandon the strategical plan he had adopted.

The simultaneous mobilization and concentration of the twelve classes of what is now the reserve will bring into line for the first decisive battles a vast army of two million men, supported by the Territorial units, and consequently able to undertake a fresh campaign in case of any serious reverse.

But why should not Germany bring into play equal or stronger forces? She cannot do so, replies Jaurès, without mobilizing her reserves, and to do this would be to lose the whole advantage of the surprise upon which, intending offensive, she reckons.[2]

It must be borne in mind that the ideas and methods here put forward and advocated are integral parts of a coherent whole. The adoption of a militia system, the organization of the armed nation, the strategical method of national defence have no meaning unless the French, people have foresworn all thought of war and warlike adventure, unless they have made their desire for peace so clear, so self-evident that no doubt or misunderstanding can possibly arise. It would be useless to ask the French people to co-operate in ensuring the successful working of a militia system if they did not know that their co-operation was required for no other purpose than for the maintenance of peace and justice.

A people, animated by a sincere love of peace, and by an equally sincere and fruitful determination to make ready for wear — taught beforehand to look forward to the adoption of this great strategical scheme of defensive action — such a people would not, I think, be exposed to — the danger of attack from any quarter. I confess that: it is this hope, this certainty, of peace which enables me to deal with the ideas regarding war which I am obliged to examine and discuss. “When it becomes evident that a great republican nation has carried its love of peace and its love of liberty- to their natural conclusion, the world will obtain the first assurance of the advent of universal peace: the armed multitude organized now by France” for the defence of her independence, will some clay give; way, not to the brutal violence of an invader, but to the approach of world-wide peace filling the horizon with the light of confidence, shedding its rays on all the countries of the world.”

1. See the third volume of the Studies of the Great General Staff, “Success in Battle and how to obtain it,” published in 1901.

2. For the testimony of a French military expert to the extent to which these ideas have been justified by the present war, see Appendix II.