Cult of the offensive

Cult of the offensive
Map of the Schlieffen Plan and planned French counter-offensives

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 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. 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 first one to strike will score victory over the enemy forces.

International politics

In international relations, 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 defensive posture. Liberal institutionalists argue that it is a commitment problem,[1] and that preemptive war which results from the security dilemma is fairly rare.[2]

World War I

Cult of the offensive was the dominant theory among many military and political leaders before World War I. 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. 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 canceling the mobilizations. This phenomenon was also referred to as "war by timetable".

The German Schlieffen Plan is a notable example of the cult of the offensive. Supported by pro-offensive officers such as Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, it was executed to near victory in the first month of the war; however, a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris, the Battle of the Marne (combined with surprisingly speedy Russian offensives), 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" to swiftly seize German 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.

In the hindsight, World War I ultimately favored defensive strategies; cult of the offensive led to heavy losses during the fighting on the Western Front. The forces that expected attack prepared elaborate defense positions (trenches with machine guns), which were commonly able to inflict heavy losses on attacking infantry. It would not be until World War II that offensive strategies such as blitzkrieg were shown to be highly efficient. However, due to the "military leaders preparing to fight the last war", much of military thought was influenced by the fact that cult of the offensive. Hence the military leaders, particularly among the Western Allies in the early phase of the war, tried to avoid offensive at all cost (what became known as the cult of the defensive, see Phony War).


  1. ^ Powell, Robert. 2006. "War as a Commitment Problem."
  2. ^ Reiter, Dan. 1995. "Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen." [JSTOR access required]


  • 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, [1], JSTOR
  • 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
  • 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), IngentaConnect
  • Azar Gat, The Development of Military Thought: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0198202466, Google Print, p.114
  • John R. Carter, Airpower and the Cult of the Offensive
  • Online Lecture of the Cult of the Offensive

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