Antoine Jomini and the Limitations on Developed Theories of War

Updated on October 17, 2019
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John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

Antoine Jomini - Portrait by George Dawe from the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace.
Antoine Jomini - Portrait by George Dawe from the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace. | Source


Antoine-Henri, the Baron Jomini, was a Swiss officer who served as a general in the Napoleonic French army, notably on the staff of Field Marshall Ney, and later in the Imperial Russian army as mercenary and advisor. He witnessed the key battes of Jena and Eylau, and was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by Napoleon.

Jomini lived from 6 March 1779 to 24 March 1869, and was in his day one of the most celebrated writers on the Napoleonic art of war who influenced military thinking in the nineteenth century. Jomini's ideas were mandatory reading at military academies, especially his key work Summary of the Art of War (1838), at the American United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and other military academies in Europe. Jomini’s theories were thought to have affected many officers who later served in the Crimean War and the American Civil War.

"Napoleon on the field of Eylau" by Antoine-Jean Gros - Jomini was a witness and participant in this battle.
"Napoleon on the field of Eylau" by Antoine-Jean Gros - Jomini was a witness and participant in this battle. | Source

A man of his times

Antoine Jomini was in the forefront of contemporary writers and thinkers about the strategies of Napoleon and the conduct of war in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. Generals of the American Civil War consumed the writings and teaching of Jomini as the Napoleonic Wars provided some of the best most recent examples of the type of warfare they perhaps aspired to: the maneuvering of great armies which would engage in set piece battles. Set piece battles certainly occurred during the American Civil War, but the characteristics of the war were not constrained by set piece battles alone but by other strategies and innovations in the operational and strategic levels of war.

Early critics

Jomini was not without his critics, however, as Christopher Bassford cited that Jomini was decried as a "charlatan" by contemporaries, who constantly sought to adapt his writings to his reading audience, implying he was more concerned with good publicity than the content of his ideas. Additionally, Bassford contends in his main argument that much of what Jomini had to contribute to the study and discussion of war had already been absorbed into contemporary doctrine by the principal belligerents; his value was therefore as an observer "in a purely historical sense." (See Bassford, "Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction")

The ideas and observations captured by Jomini about war therefore have not stood the test of time.

Modern Criticism

Jomini cited the value of the "decisive point". This has been absorbed into US Marine Corps doctrine in MCDP-1, Warfighting, and remains a key point of analysis and critical thinking for commanders and staffs to ponder. Lines of operation, also cited by Jomini, are terms we are also familiar with today. Increasingly in modern conflicts, these terms has been applied by military planners as a tool to measure effectiveness, and most recently in US counter-insurgency operations where governance, rule of law, and security are broken down into lines of operation from higher campaign level objectives down to lower echelon subordinates.

While these elements of Jomini's thinking seem largely relevant in modern application, the nature of contemporary hybrid and assymetric warfare have made finding the decisive point as Jomini defines it in his Napoleonic view of the world increasingly problematic. Historian Hew Strachan has cited the relevance of lines of operation in Jomini's time as they might be interpreted today, where a general could command the theatre of war and force the enemy to withdraw rather than fight.

For Jomini, according to Strachan, a political aim might be limited to the acquisition of a province and the means to accomplish this might be maneuver rather than battle. (Strachan, European Armies and the Conduct of War, 61) Again, this seems apt in our recent operations in counter-insurgency where combat may not have always resulted in a decisive outcome, even when the enemy was defeated on the battlefield. But Jomini and his contemporaries were focused on lines of operation to the extent of focusing on the decisive point on the battlefield, and not in the bigger strategic picture. The winning of set piece battles and the occupation or acquisition of territory has not survived today as the guarantors of victory.

Jomini in 1859, by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre
Jomini in 1859, by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre | Source

Conclusion: the Limitations of Jominian doctrine in the modern era

The limitation of Jomini was not in his ability to make astute observations about war and its conduct in his own time, but in particular to the European way of war in context to the political situation of the time. The application of Jomini’s thinking about the Napoleonic Wars may have found its limits in the contemporary wars of his era. Jomini’s inability to see beyond the wars of his contemporaries and his own flawed belief that what he was observing in the Napoleonic were immutable laws of war, have made his ideas unable to transcend both time and the modern realities of warfare.

Works Cited

1) MCDP-1 Warfighting, United States Marine Corps, 1991

2) Bassford, Christopher. "Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction." Paper presented to the 24th Meeting of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe at Georgia State University, 26 February 1993. Proceedings of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, XX (1992). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, 1994.

3) Strachan, Hew, European Armies and the Conduct of War (London, 1983) ISBN 0-415-07863-6


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