His Early Years
Carl von Clausewitz was born on 1 June 1780 in Burg, near Madgeburg. His father came from a pastor family and he had served as an officer in the Prussian army yet he was forced to give up his position like other non-noble officers during the Seven Years’ War. Despite his expulsion, the elder Clausewitz raised his sons as patriotic servants to the Prussian state. After the death of his father, Clausewitz’s mother got married to a nobleman, whose influence helped Clausewitz to join the army. He joined the Prussian army at the age of 12, he was promoted to lieutenant three years later. His first battle was the Siege of Mainz in 1794. After Prussia left the coalition against the French, Clausewitz spent five years as a garrison lieutenant and educating himself by reading through various philosophical and military books. He got accepted into the officer academy in Berlin in 1801. He quickly impressed the reformist military theorist and director Gerhard von Scharnorst. They developed a mentor-student relationship which lasted for many more years. Clausewitz graduated from the military school in 1803.
After the concerning victories of Napoleon against the Third Coalition, Prussia started mobilizing in late 1805. By the time Prussia was ready for war, both Austria and Russia were beaten to the ground by Napoleon’s Grande Armee, which left Prussia without allies against the French. Prussian generals and officers –including Clausewitz- were, however, confident in their army’s strength as they all remembered Frederick the Great win remarkable victories against outnumbering forces not too long ago. On 14 October, French army won a devastating victory against the Prussians. Clausewitz got captured while trying to cover the retreat of the Prussian army and he was sent to Paris. The instantaneous downfall of Prussia was a huge shocker to Clausewitz and it changed his theoretical views completely. He wrote several articles during his internment in Paris about what had gone wrong.
Army Reform and the Napoleonic Wars
Clausewitz came back from Paris in 1808 after Prussia and France agreed on a peace treaty. As soon as he came back he joined the War Department to help Scharnhorst’s reform movement. He and other reformers prepared a nation-wide defense plan against the Napoleonic invasion. Main objective was to mobilize people from all classes and unite them under the patriotic view of Prussianism. Nevertheless, the King Frederick William III was not a supporter of these ideas as he was more interested in maintaining what territories Prussia had managed to keep after the peace deal. Clausewitz became the military tutor to the Crown Prince Frederick William (later king Frederick William IV) in 1810 and wrote a series of military instructions for him, that we today know as the “Principles of War”. In the same year, he got promoted to major and married to Marie von Brühl, with whom he had been in a relationship for years. The couple had a pretty unique relationship as they treated each other equally and discussed politics and literature with each other, which was not a common type of marriage at the time.
In 1812, Napoleon started an invasion of Russia and forced Prussia to send troops to his army. After hearing that the King agreed to send the asked troops, Clausewitz and many other officer resigned from the Prussian army and quickly left to Russia to offer their services to the Tsar against the coming invasion. Together with other Prussian officers, they created a Prussian legion within the Russian Imperial Army. He fought in the bloody Battle of Borodino and participated in the entire Russian retreat and counter-attack. And during Napoleon’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow towards the end of 1812, he was a crucial factor in the negotiation of the Convention of Tauroggen, which persuaded Prussia pull back his troops from the French army and join the coalition against Napoleon. Napoleon’s miserably failed invasion of Russia eventually brought him down after the coalition forces managed to push him back to France and force him to abdicate the throne.
After Napoleon’s abdication in 1815, Clausewitz and other Prussian officers who had been serving in the Russian army rejoined the Prussian army. Clausewitz got promoted to colonel as a result of his services in the liberation war. When Napoleon came back from exile and marched into Brussels, Clausewitz’s troops fought against Napoleon’s reinforcement troops at the Battle of Wavre and prevented them from regrouping with him at Waterloo. Napoleon fought and lost his last battle at Waterloo and was later banished to an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
His Life After the War
Clausewitz got promoted to major-general in 1818 by King Frederick William III. He was also appointed director to the Prussian Kriegsakademie in Berlin in 1819. He and his wife Marie were widely known among high social and political circles in Berlin. During his time as the Director of the Kriegsakademie, he started writing down his military studies and preparing a theoretical work. Although he never properly finished this work, we know these writings as his magnum opus, “On War”. He left his position at the Kriegsakademie in 1830 and returned to active service in the army. He was appointed to a brigade that was stationed in East Prussia.
His brigade was soon mobilised during the 1830 Revolutions and was urgently sent to Polish border. Even though no real war occurred, a huge Cholera epidemic burst out in the region. Clausewitz’s close friend and fellow general August von Gneisenau died of Cholera in August 1831. Clausewitz was swiftly replaced by a younger general and he returned home to Breslau. But he was soon diagnosed with Cholera too and died of it on 16 November 1831. After his death, his wife Marie reviewed and edited his theoretical writings and finally published the cult classic “On War” in 1832, writing an introduction to it by herself. Even though the book did not make a ground breaking effect at the time, over time it turned out to be probably the most outstanding book on modern military strategy and created an entire school of thought named after Clausewitz and his ideas. Carl’s wife Marie died almost five years after him, in January 1836. Both Carl and Marie are today buried in Carl’s hometown, Burg.