Cult of the offensive

The cult of the offensive refers to a strategic military dilemma, where leaders believe that offensive advantages are so great that a defending force would have no hope of repelling the attack; consequently, all states choose to attack. It is most often used in the context of explaining the causes of World War I and the subsequent heavy losses that occurred year after year, on all sides, during the fighting on the Western Front.

The term has also been applied to those considering air power doctrine immediately prior to the opening of World War II, where it was believed "the bomber will always get through" and the only way to end a bombing campaign was to bomb the enemy into submission. It is also often used to explain Israeli strategy during the 1960s and 1970s, as demonstrated in the Six-Day War in which Israeli forces attacked and routed much larger enemy forces in a lightning attack.

Military theory

Under the cult of offensive, military leaders believe that the attacker will be victorious (or at least cause more casualties than they receive) regardless of circumstance and so defense as a concept is almost completely discredited. This results in all strategies focusing on attacking, and the only valid defensive strategy being to counter-attack.

International politics

In international relations, the cult of offensive is related to the security dilemma and offensive realism theories. It stresses that conquest is easy and security difficult to obtain from a defensive posture. Liberal institutionalists argue that it is a commitment problem[1] and that a preemptive war that results from the security dilemma is fairly rare.[2]

World War I

The cult of the offensive was the dominant theory among many military and political leaders before World War I.[3] Those leaders argued in favor of declaring war and launching an offensive, believing they could cripple their opponents, and fearing that if they waited, they in turn would be defeated. The dominance of this line of thought significantly contributed to the escalation of hostilities, and is seen as one of the causes of World War I.

Military theorists of the time generally held that seizing the offensive was of crucial importance, hence belligerents were encouraged to strike first in order to gain the advantage.[4] Most planners wanted to begin mobilization as quickly as possible to avoid being caught on the defensive. This was complicated as mobilizations were expensive, and their schedules were so rigid that they could not be canceled without massive disruption of the country and military disorganization. Thus, the window for diplomacy was shortened by this attitude, and once the mobilizations had begun diplomacy had the added difficulty of having to justify cancelling the mobilizations. This phenomenon was also referred to as "war by timetable".[5]

The German Schlieffen Plan is a notable example of the cult of the offensive. Supported by offensively-minded officers such as Alfred von Schlieffen and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, it was executed in the first month of the war (with some historians maintaining it was nearly victorious,[6] though others claim the Plan never had any chance of success.[7]) A French counter-attack on the outskirts of Paris, the Battle of the Marne and unexpectedly speedy Russian mobilisation and attacks, ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. It was not only Germany who followed the cult of the offensive; the French army, among others, was also driven very strongly by this doctrine, where its supporters included Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre and Loyzeaux de Grandmaison. Officers of that period were indoctrinated that "The French Army, returning unto its traditions, no longer knows any law other than the offensive." This is thought to be the military reason behind the French Conscription Law in July 1913, following the passing of a similar bill in Germany six months earlier: the offensive "guerre à outrance" swiftly to seize Alsace-Lorraine was felt by military planners to require an additional 200,000 conscripts with respect to the defensive war for which the army was prepared.

World War I was dominated by defensive firepower but the onus on the Entente was to conduct an offensive strategy, that caused mass casualties and mutual exhaustion. German armies prepared elaborate defensive positions on the western front with trenches, barbed wire and concrete strong-points backed by artillery, rifles and machine guns which until 1917, were sufficient to inflict mass losses on attacking infantry and restrict the Franco-British armies to minor gains in ground. Tactical development on the Western Front in 1917 began to return mobility to the battlefield and a form of semi-open warfare developed. Much inter-war military thinking was influenced by the cost of offensives fought for strategic reasons, in circumstances of defensive operational and tactical dominance. In World War II, the Western Allies from 1939–1940 avoided an offensive, intending to wait until Franco-British rearmament had matured and the blockade of Germany had undermined its war economy, then in 1941 or 1942, resume the firepower warfare of 1918.


  1. Powell, Robert. 2006. "War as a Commitment Problem." "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-09-07. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
  2. Reiter, Dan. 1995. "Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen." JSTOR 2539227
  3. Snyder, Jack L., The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984
  4. Azar Gat, The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992
  5. Taylor, A. J. P., War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began, London: Macdonald & Co., 1969
  6. Dupuy, Trevor N, A Genius for War: the German Army and General Staff, 1807-1945, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977
  7. Ritter 1958, pp. 1–194.


  • John R. Carter, Airpower and the Cult of the Offensive
  • Dupuy, Trevor N, A Genius for War: the German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977; ISBN 0-13-351114-6
  • Stephen Van Evera, The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58–107, , JSTOR 2538636
  • Echevarria II A.J., The 'Cult of the Offensive' Revisited: Confronting Technological Change Before the Great War, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 25, Number 1, March 2002, pp. 199–214(16), doi:10.1080/714004043
  • Azar Gat, The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-820246-6, Google Books, p. 114
  • Ritter, G. (1958) [1956]. The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth (English translation of Der Schlieffenplan: Kritik eines Mythos ed.). London: O. Wolff. OCLC 263625262. Retrieved 24 October 2015. 
  • Jack Snyder, Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984, International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 108–$146, JSTOR 2538637
  • Snyder, Jack L., The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984; ISBN 0-80-141657-4
  • Taylor, A. J. P., War by Time-Table: How the First World War Began, London: Macdonald & Co., 1969
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