2. Napoleon's Strategy and Tactics.
3. Napoleon's Failures and Defeats.
4. Napoleon's Staff.
5. Rapidity of Movements and Concentration of Troops.
6. Morale of Napoleon's Troops.
7. Napoleon's Largest and Bloodiest Battles.
Napoleon is credited with being great tactician and a military genius of his time. He took on all of Europe and gave everyone a pretty good run for the money. His campaigns formed the basic of military education throughout the western world and a lot of the military thinking is still influenced by the great Frenchman. In military academies around the World, including the famous West Point (USA), students were taught French
language so that they might be able to read books on Napoleon's strategy and tactics. Majority
of European and Civil War generals copied the methods of Napoleon with various success.
British general Wellington: "I used to say of him (Napoleon) that his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men."
Napoleon played a major role in the history and development of the military art. But "Napoleon was no great innovator as a soldier. He distrusted novel ideas, disbanding the balloon companies inherited from the armies of the Revolution and rejecting Roger Fulton's offer of submarines and naval mines. His genius was essentially practical, and his military concepts evolved from the close study of earlier commanders, particularly Frederick the Great. He made the fullest use of the ideas of his predecessors and breathed life into them." (David Chandler - "Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars" p 18)
John Elting, colonel of US Army, asked why, in this age of nuclear weapons and guided missiles, should the student of military affairs be concerned with the campaigns of Napoleon ? A simple answer would be: for historical or professional background. But there are more compelling reasons. ...
Gigantic operations of huge forces, such as were undertaken on World War II, are no
longer feasible. Dispersion of forces and logistical facilities is essential to avoid
appalling casualties and massive destruction. ... Over-all success in military ground operations will be dependent upon the aggregate of the individual tactical successes and failures of basic units, operating virtually independently. Such basic units must be of moderate size, highly mobile, compact and powerful armed, self-sustaining, and bravely led - precisely the attributes that characterized a typical
Napoleonic force. Napoleon was one of the major advocates of mobile warfare of the type
that is necessary in an age of possible nuclear warfare. It matters not whether tactical nuclear weapons would or would not be used; the mere threat posed by their existence dictates a corresponding reorganization of forces and modification of tactics. There is no assurance that Napoleon's advice would not be taken literally; "It is principle of war that when thunderbolts are available, they should be used in place of cannon."
Napoleon's Strategy and Tactics.
Chandler writes: "At the level of strategy Napoleon had no contemporary peer. To make the utmost use of the superior mobility and inspiration of his armies, he developed two major strategic systems. When facing a foe superior in numbers, the strategy of the central position was employed to split the enemy into separate parts, each of which could then be eliminated in turn by adroit maneuvering to gain the French a local superiority of force in successive actions by bringing the reserve into action at the critical time and place. ... Conversely, when the enemy was inferior to the French, Napoleon would often employ a maneuver of envelopment - pinning the foe's attention with a detachment while the bulk of the army swept against the hostile lines of communications to sever the enemy's links with his bases. ... On occasion, Napoleon would merge features of these two classic strategies." (David Chandler - "Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars" p 19)
Before every campaign Napoleon considered all possible options. The Emperor wrote: "There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with child." He had one clearly identified objective: enemy's army, which he intended to destroy. That done, any remaining problems could be easily solved. If the enemy did not want to risk a battle, they might be forced to do so by a threat to their capital city. Always, he sought to seize and keep the initiative, to impose his will on the enemy ... When badly outnumbered he managed, by swift marching and maneuvering, to throw the mass of his army against portion of the enemy's, thus being stronger at the decisive point. His favorite strategy was to envelop one of the enemy's army's flanks and threaten its rear and communications, forcing it either to retire hurriedly or to turn and fight at a disadvantage.
Napoleon's army's tactics came from a shotgun marriage of Royal Army with Revolutionary improvisation. In his battles as in his campaigns, Napoleon depended on speed, mass, and aggressive maneuver: normally he struck at one wing of a hostile army, preferably
the one nearer its communications. Only at Austerlitz did he actually stand on the defensive and lure his enemies into a trap.
Napoleon often outflanked his enemy. The flanking movement forced the enemy to turn,
to make quick adjustments in the midst of fighting, either through a retreat or reinforcing
the threatened flank and weakening other flank, center or reserves. Napoleon recommended a
maneuver upon the flank of enemy and assured that in such situation "The victory is in your
hands". Napoleon's flank was attacked at Leipzig, La Rothiere and at Waterloo, and in the three battles he was defeated.
Napoleon's Failures and Defeats.
Napoleon possessed the common human habit of embellishing his best exploits and blaming others for his reverses. For example he developed the account of his mediocre Marengo Campaign into a first-class epic romance. According to Colonel John Elting, "Napoleon's close followers, because of hero worship or personal considerations, also suppressed and invented. On the other hand, his enemies strove to portray him as a monster, and to present his best victories as lucky accidents."
Napoleon made strategical, tactical and political mistakes. For example the most serious mistake was fighting on several fronts at once. The French fought Spaniards and British in the west and the Russians, Prussians and Austrians in the east. Below other mistakes:
(Napoleon believed that after a few quick battles, he could convince Tzar Alexander to return to the Continental System. Then he also decided that if he occupied Moscow, the Russians would ask for peace. However, when Napoleon eventually took over Moscow, the Tsar still did not surrender. He could not surrender because if he did, he would be assassinated by the nobles. Karl von Clausewitz explained "Napoleon was unable to grasp the fact that Alexander would not, could not negotiate. The Tsar knew well that he would be disposed and assassinated if he tried so." (Clausewitz - "The Campaign of 1812 in Russia." p 256)
Some of Napoleon's major defeats:
As a commander, Napoleon was becoming predictable, and his enemies were beginning to appreciate the counter-measures and use them against him. Increasingly he refused to face up to reality and suppressed all traces of criticism. "Nevertheless, when all was said and done, he remained a giant surrounded by pygmies; his reputation survived his fall, for his basic greatness was inviolable." (Chandler - "Waterloo - the hundred days" p 41)
Allies' new (and successful) strategy in 1813.
On picture: Louis Alexandre Berthier, Napoleon's chief of staff.
The hardworking staff officers who followed Bertheir, their taskmaster, had to know their jobs and perform them well. The staff of Napoleon's army provided the administrative, logistical and communications support that Napoleon found necessary to make his army operate over long distances and in little known territories. Napoleon's army was able to operate across Europe with great easy and speed. For example in 1796 Napoleon's army dropped out of the clouds of Switzerland, passed through terrain thought impassable for an army, to strike and destroy the enemy in Italy. In 1805 Napoleon's army flew across northern France at speeds unimaginable to the rest of Europe's army commanders. In 1814 Napoleon's found enemy scattered armies along the road to Paris, with none of them being within supporting distance of any other. This led Napoleon's 4 stunning victories at Champaubert, Montmirail, Chatteu Thierry and Vauchamps.
The staff of the army was not something new before Napoleonic Wars.
Oliver Cromwell, King Jan Sobieski, marshals of King Louis XIV and some other commanders
had their own staffs that had been efficient enough in their times but were temporary organizations. Pierre-Joseph Bourcet wanted specifically trained officers and permanent staff corps. The officers were expected to be trained in topography, geography, science of the art of war, history etc. Shortly speaking they had to be able to handle records and reports.
In 1783 the French was the first who formed Corps d'Etat Major (staff corps), although
it was soon abolished by the Revolution. In 1805 Mathieu Dumas proposed to reestablish a permanent staff corps. Napoleon quickly accepted this idea. According to writer George Nafziger (USA), it was the French, and most probably Napoleon himself, who brought the first truly modern military staff into existence. The staff consisted of several "divisions":
In 1812 the chief of staff had 9 aides , a General Staff with 5 generals, 11 adjutants
and 50 supporting officers. There were also geographical engineers and cartographers,
19 officers of military administration, war commissioners, inspectors of reviews, and
Napoleon's cartography staffs were the most developed in Europe. The conduct of every battle and campaign is strongly influenced by the topography of the area involved. Frequently, this topography dictates the course of action, and it often introduces significant hazards. An initial study of the ground over which the campaign was fought - mountains, roads, rivers, vegetation - will prove most helpful in understanding the reasons for many of the actions.
Napoleon wanted quick, accurate mapping as the army advanced. Part of the staff was made responsible for the army's map supply, terrain studies and map making. It was accompanied by a mobile printing shop and a small copper-plate press. It could produce hundreds of rough maps in a few hours !
The Swedes and Brits also had built their own telegraphs but
these were slower and less advanced technologically.
Rapidity of Movements and Concentration of Troops.
"In the 17th and 18th centuries the military had evolved a supply system based on the amassing of supplies in magazines and fortifications augmented by purchases from civilian contractors who followed in the wake of every army. These supply systems were rudimentary at best, and it was not possible for any army to sustain itself at any distance from its magazines. This restriction led to a system of military operations that were carefully planned, long in advance, and supported by the accumulation of military supplies for months prior to the actual inception of the campaign.
Napoleon used to say: "Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the later than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never." Most often he pushed on with the attack, maintaining a constant element of surprise. He used to say: "I have destroyed the enemy merely by marches." Napoleon never encamped or entrenched, it was the general maxim of the war - where is the enemy ? Let us go and fight him ! It gave him the advantage of selecting one or another part of enemy line and forcing the enemy to time consuming regrouping and sometimes causing temporary disorder in his ranks. Napoleon believed always in the attack, speed, maneuver and surprise. Napoleon: "When an army is inferior in number, inferior in cavalry, and in artillery, it is essential to avoid a general action. The first deficiency should be supplied by rapidity of movement ..." In 1813 despite the fact that the Allies had been fighting Napoleon, and knew of his talent for maneuvering, they chose to back themselves into a corner, dig in, and wait for several days while Napoleon, almost in his leisure, maneuvered against them." (Nafziger - "Lutzen and Bautzen" p 248)
Napoleons troops travelled light, marching 15-50 km a day without any cumbersome baggage
trains as they lived off the land. Napoleon: "The strength of an army, like the power
in mechanics, is estimated by multiplying the mass by the rapidity; a rapid march augments
the morale of an army, and increases its means of victory, Press on !"
Such light travelling was possible in rich Western and Central Europe but not in Russia.
On the vast and poorly inhabited lands of Eastern Europe Napoleon was forced to use the
baggage trains to feed his troops.
But still inIn 1812 Roguet's division had covered a distance of 465 miles by wagon and over
700 on foot ! Paul Britten Austin described how the French marched during the invasion of Russia: "Each division sets out after the one ahead of it at 2-day intervals. With a distance of 100 paces (70 m) between battalions, its regiments march "in two files sharing the road whose crown they leave free.' Halting for '5 minutes in every hour and at three-quarters of the day's march for half an hour' and with a day's rest every fifth, they tramp on northwards at an everage speed of 25 miles a day. Every second day they pick up rations, provided along the route by Count Daru's administration." (Austin - "1812: The March on Moscow" pp 27-28)
Napoleon expertly concentrated troops before battle. He wrote:
"Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, and Frederick, as well as Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar,
have all acted upon the same principles. These have been - to keep their forces united ..."
It was Napoleon's method that when several corps begin an aggressive action they should
concentrate at a place away from the enemy to prevent the opposing army from destroying the
approaching armies piecemeal. Speed of maneuver and speed of concentration were crucial
components of victory. Napoleon wrote: "Fire must be concentrated on one point, and as soon as the breach is made, the equilibrium is broken and the rest is nothing." There is however misunderstanding of this theory. Lidell Hart explained "Subsequent military theory has put the accent on the first clause instead of on the last: in particular, on the words 'one point' instead of on the 'equilibrium'. The former is but a physical metaphor, whereas the latter expressess the actual psychological result which ensures 'that the rest is nothing.'
His own emphasis can be traced in the strategic course of his campaigns.
Morale of Napoleon's Troops.
Before battle it was important for Napoleon to have morale of his troops set on a very high level. Napoleon: "It is not set speeches at the moment of battle that render soldiers brave. The veteran scarcely listens to them, and the recruit forgets them at the first discharge. If discourses and harangues are useful, it is during the campaign; to do away with unfavourable impressions, to correct false reports, to keep alive a proper spirit in the camp, and to furnish materials and amusement for the bivouac."
Promotion was open to everyone, and was not restricted to the gentry and aristocrats. Even a private could become a general. There was saying in Napoleon's army: "Every one of you carries a marshal's baton in his knapsack; it is up to you to bring it out".
In addition to the Legion of Honor and promotion, there were gifts of ca$h.
Officer of cavalry wrote "... we were informed by an order of the Emperor that out of the war contributions exacted from that monarchy [Prussia] he had forstalled a sum of 100 million francs to be distributed among the troops. Every soldier of the army, be he NCO or private, was to receive 15 francs if he had been in arms at the battle of Jena; if he had been present also at Eylau he was entitled to 30 francs; and if his campaign included the battle of Friedland he was to receive 45 francs." (Parquin - "Napoleon's Victories" p 91)
Napoleon knew how 'to speak to the soul' of his officers and men. Partly he used material rewards and incentives - titles, medals, awards; partly he resorted to deliberate theatrical meausures to bend men to his will; but above all there was the sheer power of personality or charisma that emanated from his large, grey eyes which so many of his contemporaries described.
He was a master of man-management.
The least word of praise was treasured unto death by the recipient; the slightest rebuke
could reduce a hardened grenadier to tears. Ministers and marshals wondered at the breadth
of his intellect; ordinary citizens and soldierly became willing propagators of his legend.
All feared his rages; all admired his abilities and application, for no subject seemed beyond
his powers. His memory appeared limitless, as did his capacity for applied hard work.
Napoleon's Largest and Bloodiest Battles.
The era of French Revolution was time when the traditional dynastic wars of monarchs had been replaced by wars of peoples. The armies became bigger and they fought bigger battles. Wars with Napoleon Bonaparte’s army brought with them destruction never before known to the World.
Napoleonic battles were the largest and one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The battle of Leipzig is also called The Battle of the Nations and is so far the largest. In terms of casualties (killed and wounded) only the battles of Seven Years War and the Civil War (in USA) can match the Napoleonic battles.
1 - French losses: 28,000-50,000 (average 39,000) killed and wounded.
NOTE: Prisoners and deserters are also 'casualties/losses' but were not included in the count. The number of prisoners reflects the 'bloodiness of combat' but only to a certain degree. There were battles where after few shots entire battalions surrendered or during retreat after battle thousands of men surrendered or abandoned their ranks.
Five days later he had already four times defeated the Austrians.
Then he turned upon the Sardinians, who in another 5 days
were in helpless retreat on Turin."
- Wilkinson, Spenser - "The French army before Napoleon;
lectures delivered before the University of Oxford ..." pp 9-10
Sources and Links
Karl von Clausewitz - "On War".
David Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
William Cairnes - "The Military Maxims of Napoleon"
John I. Alger - "The Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War."
Ferdinand Foch - "The Principles of War" translated by Hilaire Belloc.
On War - by Karl von Clausewitz (ext. link)