Napoleon's Strategy and Tactics
"Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander,
Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, and Frederic the Great.
This is the only way to become a great general..."

- Napoleon Bonaparte

1. Introduction.
2. Napoleon's Strategy.
- - - Napoleon's favorite strategies. >
- - - Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign 1805. >
- - - Jena-Auerstadt Campaign 1806. >
- - - Rapidity of Movements and Concentration of Troops. >
3. Napoleon's Tactics.
4. Jomini and Clausewitz on Napoleon.
5. Napoleon's Staff.
6. Napoleon's Mistakes, Failures and Defeats.
7. Sources and Links.

"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"
- Napoleon Bonaparte

In order to concentrate superior combat strength in one place,
economy of force must be exercised in other places.
Economy of force requires the acceptance of prudent risks in
selected areas to achieve superiority at the point of decision.
One account has it that Napoleon allowed a subordinate
to draw up a plan for the disposition of his troops.
Not knowing what the Emperor wanted, the subordinate
distributed the forces equally in neat little groups
along the border. On seeing it Napolean remarked
"Very pretty, but what do you expect them to do?
Collect customs duties?".

Napoleon with map.
Picture: Napoleon.

Napoleon never encamped or entrenched,
it was the general maxim of the war -
- where is the enemy ? Let us go and fight him !

"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!"
- Napoleon

"Never interrupt your enemy when he is
making a mistake." - Napoleon

"Tactics is the art of using troops in battle;
strategy is the art of using battles to win the war"
- Carl von Clausewitz

"Why, in this age of nuclear weapons and guided missiles,
should the student of military affairs be concerned with
the campaigns of Napoleon ?" - John Elting (US Army)

Napoleon's greatness as a soldier was evident virtually from the start of his remarkable career. Victory followed upon victory for over a decade. Yet if Napoleon's genius was obvious, his method was not. Nor was he particularly helpful in the matter.
Napoleon committed to paper neither the principles that guided his conduct of operations nor the techniques that he employed to implement those principles. "As a result, even before his ambitions led him to ultimate destiny, military commentators undertook the difficult task of explaining his ways of war." (- Albert Nofi)

Although Napoleon played a major role in the history and development of the military art he 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." (Chandler - "Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars" p 18)

According to Loraine Petre, scion of an aristocratic English familiy, and military historian, wrote that Napoleon's genius was not that of a creator. Indeed, he made few practical reforms or innovations in the military art. His talents lay elsewhere, in the strategic and administrative areas of war. Napoleon had the ability to visualize with great clarity the military situation confronting him and to determine the most profitable course of action. He could conceive the most remarkably bold undertakings, and then execute them, making full use of the considerable abilities of the reformed Frenchg army. he developed an aggressive strategic style based largely on de Bourcet's proposals. And he used the Republic as a model in his ability to tap the ultimate resources of France, frequently stamping whole new armies out of the ground in the face if disaster. Thus Napoleon's genius lay in the fact that he saw the ways in which all of the innovations of the late 18th century could be orchestrated into a virtually invincible military system.

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. Wellington said: "I used to say of him (Napoleon) that his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men."

Even in the years of defeat Napoleon proved a resorceful, imaginative, and unpredictable commander. "His enemies could not match his skills nor those of his armies. Their victories were due more to overwhelming numbers than to the talents of their generals." (- Loraine Petre) Success in the field, and in supporting the right political faction at the right moment, brought him a generalship at 24 and command of the Army of Italy at 26.

Few, if any, commanders, before or since, fought more wars and battles under more varied conditions of weather, terrain, and climate, and against a greater variety of enemies than the French Emperor. His understanding of mass warfare and his success in raising, organizing, and equipping mass armies revolutionized the conduct of war and marked the origin of modern warfare ... General Sir Archibald P. Wavell writes: "If you discover how ... [Bonaparte] inspired a ragged, mutinous, half-starved army and made it fight as it did, how he dominated and controlled generals older and more experienced than himself, then you will have learnt something." From 1796, when he assumed his first independent military command, until 1809, Napoleon displayed an astonishing near-invincibility in battle and an equally astounding ability to use that battlefield success to compel his enemies to grant him his political objectives. A dazzled Clausewitz had good reason to call Napoleon the "god of war."

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." ... The conduct of war is an art based on ageless fundamental concepts that have remained valid irrespective of the prevailling means and methods of warfare.
Furthermore, though weapons and tactics have changed continually in step with technological progress, the basic controlling element in war - man - has remained relatively constant ... The Emperor did not imply that one must seek to memorize all the details of the campaigns of great captains of past wars (Alexander, Hannibal, Ceasar, Gustavus, Turenne, and Frederick the Great). No two battles or campaigns have ever been exactly the same. Many fluctuating factors exert their influences; weather and terrain conditions tactics, weapons,transportation facilities, training, morale, and leadership. The specific nature of all these factors is pertinent in a military study, but the subject of paramount importance is the skill with which the leader wielded the means available and exploited the victory, or, conversely, how through ineptitude, poor judgement, or other deficiencies he lost opportunities or suffered defeat.


"No one should imagine that sound heads are common in armies.
Offensive generals are rare among us; I know only few, and,
nevertheless, it is only to these that ... a detachment can be
entrusted." - Frederick the Great

Napoleon's Strategy.
"There are in Europe many good generals,
but they see too many things at once."
- Napoleon

Napoleon In the 16th and 17th century and for much of 18th as well the conduct of war was rather formal and stylized. Limited war for limited objectives was the rule. It was the sport of the kings, carefully calculated undertaking designed to secure relatively modest gains at minimal cost. Armies acquired lengthy and clumsy logistical trains. The art of fortifications rose to remarkable level, resulting in the proliferation of fortified places for defense and for the protection of the vulnerable lines of supply, and in the necessity of dragging heavy siege guns about. Armies themselves became more skilled, necessitating long years of meticulous and expensive training and maintenance. The net result was the tempo at which was conducted slowed.

Marlborough Maurice de Saxe Frederick the Great General Washington Bold strategic strokes were unusual. Sieges became the norm. "Washington, Marlborough, Prince Eugene, Prussia's Frederick the Great, and Marshal Saxe all knew how to fight a battle when necessary. But even these unusually able commanders did so relatively rarely." (- Loraine Petre)

"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." (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." In the months and weeks before operations actually commenced he would begin to collect information. In addition to reading an enormous number and variety of books bearing on the enemy and the theater of war, he studied the copious volumes of intelligence reports forwarded by the agents that he had scattered throughout Europe. He would pursue works of polirical history, accounts of the state of roads and bridges, reportss on the politicians and generals, and even studied local patterns of food stockpiling and distribution.

Napoleon used 5 simple principles to guide the development of his operational plans designed to hasten the attainment of victory:

  • the primary objective is the destruction of the enemy's armies (or main army) 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.
  • all forces must concentrate on the task of attaining the objective.
  • operations must be designed to surprise and confuse the enemy. Always, he sought to seize and keep the initiative, to impose his will on the enemy.
  • every effort must be made to render the enemy helpless through the severance of his lines of supply, communications, and retreat. His favorite movement 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.
  • the security of French forces must be carefully guarded to prevent surprise.

    Napoleon's favorite strategies.
    - Strategy of Indirect Approach
    - Strategy of the Central Position

    Napoleon had two favorites strategies:

  • Strategy of Indirect Approach
  • Strategy of the Central Position
    The Strategy of Indirect Approach was Napoleon's strategy of superiority, and used when he had plenty of manpower and maneuvering room. It was more sophisticated and more dangerous than Strategy of the Central Position. Essentially it entailed a vast turning movement in the face of the enemy. One of two army corps would be detached to pin the attention of the enemy to his front. Meanwhile, Napoleon would take the bulk of his army on a swift, wide march around one of the enemy's strategic flanks, behind a thick screen of cavalry, optimally with some sunstantial geographic feature providing a "curtain of maneuver." As he advanced toward the enemy's rear, he would trust a corps or two and some cavalry forward to prevent reinforcements from coming up, and then fall upon the enemy from the rear, having severed his lines of communication and retreat. It was this strategy which brought about the smashing victories of Ulm in 1805, Jena in 1806, and Friedland in 1807. There was a great risk in this strategy. Only bold execution, swift movement, and aggressive use of the pinning forces and the cavalry could make it work. If the enemy gained any notion of what was afoot, as in 1807 when the Russians intercepted an order revealing Napoleon's intentions before Eylau, he might slip away, or even attack the relatively vulnerable and separated marching columns.
    The Strategy of the Central Position is termed as Napoleon's strategy of inferiority, used in situations where his armies were weaker than its enemy, but the latter was dispersed in two widely separated concentrations, such as during the opening phases of the campaign of 1809 in Austria and in 1815 in Belgium, and with remarkable brilliance in the face of overwhelming odds in 1814, culminating in the tripple victories of Champaubert, Montmirail, and Vauchamps. This strategy necessitated bold leadership, careful timing, and aggressive movement, for it required the army to get BETWEEN the enemey concentrations, thereby preventing them from uniting. By movong swiftly into the central position, Napoleon could concentrate the bulk of his forces against the more threatening enemy contingent and seek a decisive battle, while a corps or two undertook to hold off the other enemy contingent as long as possible. Things could go wrong, of course. The enemy could discern his intentions and withdrew, as occured in April 1809 in the war with Austria, or the pursuit after battle might be poorly handled (for example after the Battle of Ligny 1815), allowing a defeated contingent to march to support of its comrades, both of which occured in 1815 .

    According to Loraine Petre Napoleon often used the two strategies interchangeably. In 1805, for example, he used the indirect approach to place himself in the central position between the Austrian and Russian armies. In 1806 he did it again. In 1813 he took advantage of his central position in Germany to undertake a series of indirect approaches, though his victories at Lutzen and Bautzen were by no means as decisive as he had hoped.
    To be truly decisive, a victory had to result not merely in the defeat of the enemy, but also in pusruing him a outrance to total destruction. This desirable goal was but rarely achieved operationally. In Italy in March and April of 1797 he managed to chase the Austrians almost all the way back to Vienna, and in 1806, in the 23 days following his victory at Jena, the French army totally overran Prussia against triffling resistance. A few weeks more and the French were knocking at the gates of Warsaw !
    The opportunities for such a stupendous pursuit came but rarely, for the foe had to be smashed with minimal damage to one's own army, which would have to lose no time in undertaking a renewed advance.
    Allied strategy in the long wars pales beside that of Napoleon. The bulk of his adversaries were able, but unspectacular. Wellington of britain and Archduke Charles of Austria were the exceptions. The best strategy most of Napoleon's enemies could come up was to shove armies in his direction. Indeed, given endless manpower, this strategy of the concentric advance - advancing armies from all directions - ultimately led to napoleon's defeat in 1813 and again in 1814. His enemies grew wary. The more often he defeated them, the more they learned how to avoid these defeats. The Allies had confidence in the concentric advance, for Napoleon might win some battles, but he could not be everywhere at once, and they would surely win the last battle.

    Napoleon had devised a strategy of the central position. It was designed to place the French army in such a position that it could defeat detachments of the enemy in turn. Napoleon could use a mere part of his force to tie down and occupy the attention of one enemy, then rapidly move his remaining forces to build up a local superiority against the other. This brilliant strategy brought him fantastic victories against stronger enemies. Even in 1815 "the Emperor came within a hairsbreadth of bringing off a major success by using this system." (Chandler - "Waterloo ..." p 76)
    According to Chandler only Napoleon's computer-like mind and his fast marching army were suited to accepting this type of challenge.

    The Ulm-Austerlitz Campaign 1805
    Napoleon's decision to hurl upon the enemy his army was taken at once.
    It was executed with unparalleled rapidity and exactness.

    In 1805, Great Britain, Austria, Sweden, and Russia formed the Third Coalition to overthrow the French. When Bavaria sided with France, the Austrians, 80,000 strong under General Mack, prematurely invaded while the Russians under Kutuzov were still marching through Poland. Bavarian force, 21,500 men under General Deroi, barely escaped. Napoleon's decision to hurl upon the enemy his army was taken at once. It was executed with unparalleled rapidity and exactness and in no time Napoleon had 180,000 men facing the Austrians.

    On October 7, the Austrian commander, General Mack, learned that Napoleon planned to march round his right flank so as to threathen his supply lines and cut him off from the Russian army under Kutuzov.
    (See map.)

    Napoleonic cavalry under Murat conducted reconnaissance, drew up detailed road surveys, and screened the advance of the army. The cavalry screen also made demonstrations across the Black Forest Mountains. Meanwhile the main French forces invaded the German heartland and then swung towards the southeast, a move that was supposed to isolate Mack and interrupt the Austrian lines of supplies. The Austrian commander changed front, placing his left at Ulm and his right at Rain, but the French went on and crossed the Danube at Neuburg.

    The surrender of Austrian army in Ulm, 1805 On the 20th October the unhappy Austrian general Mack, surrounded in Ulm by the French, capitulated with 30,000 men, all that remained under his command of the 80,000-90,000 with whom he had invaded Bavaria few weeks before. A few days later, the Austrian troops in Italy under Archduke Charles, were compelled to retreat in the hope of covering Vienna, now threatened by Napoleon's advance. Negotiations for armistice failed. Napoleon had entered Vienna, and on the anniversary of his coronation inflicted on the Austrians and Russians the decisive defeat at Austerlitz. Austria agreed to the terms of the treaty of Pressburg. Through feverish marching, Napoleon conducted a large wheeling maneuver that captured the enemy army. The campaign is generally regarded as a strategic masterpiece.

    The Jena Campaign 1806
    Napoleon's plan of this campaign
    was simple and beautiful.

    For a perfect campaign, we need look no further than that of 1806 against Prussia. The French army, honed to a fine edge by the brilliantly conducted previous campaign in Bavaria and Austria, secured the total annihilation of the Prussian army and state in precisely one month, from October 6 to November 6. It was a remarkable demonstration of what the French military system could accomplish under Napoleon's guidance. Prussia was broken and dismembered by the war. Her army was ruined, she had no money, and she had lost half of her former possessions.

    Of particular interest in this campaign is Napoleon's use of the bataillon carre (battalion square) advancing behind an inpenetrable cavalry screen to execute nearly perfect manoeuvre sur les derries, in order to bring the enemy to battle under circumstances particularly favorable to himself.
    The light cavalry rode ahead, probed and located the enemy, then reported back to headquarters (to Napoleon and his chief of staff) the positions of enemy's troops. As soon as the Emperor plotted them on the map, he would order one or both of his wing commanders to engage the nearest enemy force. The reserve was made of heavy cavalry and the Imperial Guard. All troops marched within supporting distance of one another. The wings consisted of one or two army corps each. (Although the French corps varied in size, they all shared one thing: each was a balanced, all-arm force of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers and staff. It was in fact a self-reliant miniature army able to take on much stronger enemy for a limited time.)

    Napoleon's plan of this campaign was beautiful. To base himself on the Rhine River and Upper Danube and simply advance north - eastwards on Berlin would, perhaps, be the easiest for Napoleon, but it would offer no strategical advantages; for if he met and defeated the Prussians on this west-east line, he would simply drive them backwards on their supports, and then on Russians, whose advance from Poland was expected.

    To turn the Thuringian Forest Mountains by an advance from his right, was a less safe movement; but, it offered great advantages.

    First of all Napoleon would threaten the Prussian supply lines, line of retreat, and line of communications with Berlin.
    Secondly, Napoleon would separate the Prussians and the advancing strong Russian Army. The danger with this maneuver was this that the Prussians by a rapid advance through the Thuringian Forest Mountains against his communication line, might sever him from France !

    In the last days of September the Prussian army was spread over a front of 190 miles. The Saxons had not yet completed their mobilisation. Within few days the Prussians shortened their front to 85 miles in a direct line. At the same time Napoleon had huge army already assembled on a front of 38 miles. At last Napoleon's real plan had dawned on the Prussian headquarters. Advance guards were sent in the direction of the Thuringian Forest. The Prussians also detached small corps from Ruchel's force against Napoleon's supply lines. By doing this they weakened their own main army.

    Battle of Jena, 1806 Heavy fighting began when elements of Napoleon's main force encountered Prussian troops near Jena. The Battle of Jena cost Napoleon approx. 5,000 men, but the Prussians had a staggering 25,000 casualties.

    At Auerstadt Marshal Davout's also crushed the enemy. Napoleon initially did not believe that Davout's single corps had defeated the Prussian main body unaided, and responded to the first report by saying "Tell your Marshal he is seeing double". As matters became clearer, however, the Emperor was unstinting in his praise.


    Rapidity of Movements and Concentration of Troops.
    When badly outnumbered he managed, by swift maneuvering,
    to throw the mass of his army against portion of the enemy's,
    thus being stronger at the decisive point.

    "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. Once a war had begun, it was heavily influenced by supply considerations. There were no lightning maneuvers, troops marching hundreds of miles as was seen in the 1805 campaign. The wars of this period were like the jousting of turtles and seldom penetrated far into the country of either nation involved. These wars were primarily wars of maneuver where one army attempted to establish itself in the enemy's territory in a strong position. ... These wars resulted in a continual squabbling over border provinces that exchanged hands every few years.
    Napoleon on the road. When the French Revolution erupted, the French military establishment found itself undergoing a major revolution itself. The logistical administration and its supply system rapidly decayed, proving incapable of providing the logistical support required by the newly raised French armies. As a result, the French armies wee frequently on the verge of starvation. ... By necessity they found themselves forced to fend for themselves, as their government had proven incapable of providing for them. What began initially as the simple pillaging of the countryside by starving soldiers rapidly evolved into a systematic requisitioning and amassing of supplies in a given area. A relatively sophisticated system evolved, where individual companies would detach 8 to 10 men under the direction of a corporal or a sergeant on a periodic basis. These squads operated independent of the main body for periods of a week or a day, collecting supplies and material necessary for sustaining their parent company. They would then return and distribute this material amongst their fellows. ... In the case of the French moving through conquered territory, there was seldom any remuneration. However, only rarely were provisions forcefully taken. ...
    Through during the previous centuries armies had depended on magazines, starving armies had often moved through provinces, stripping them bare and wasting much of what they found. In contrast, the highly organized French system wasted little.
    The French quickly became expert at estimating the ability of an area to support an army and developed skills in locating supplies in areas where other armies would have quickly starved if forced to live off the land. These skills had permitted the French to execute the massive maneuvers that gave them smashing victories in 1800, 1805, 1806, and 1809. It also led to the mystique that the French army could outmarch every other army in Europe. The ablity to maneuver strategically had been seriously handicapped for years by the necessity to provide a wagon train for supplies. ... The French, lacking this military train and having the ability to live off the land they were traversing, were able to march as fast as their soldiers' legs could carry them, instead of at the pace of the oxen pulling the wagons." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia." pp 83-85, 1998)

    The system of living off the land worked remarkably well, but it had its limitations. It could only work efficiently where the local resources were extensive. In populous and prosperous countries large armies could be supported. But in inpoverished regions of Europe, a large army would starve. When foraging using Napoleon's well organized techniques, an amry of 100,000 men with 250 guns and 40,000 horses could be sustained in an area of about:

  • - 65 miles across in France, Germany, Netherlands and (northern) Italy
  • - 105 miles in Spain and Poland

    The French troops were unable to live off the land in 1812 during the campaign in Russia. Russia was described by many westerners as a "wasteland" with poor roads, few cities, and long distances. There was also the retreating Russian army and scorched earth tactic. Napoleon was forced to reorganize and expand his military train and supply system. Supplies were stockpiled all along the Vistula and Odra rivers. The munitions Napoleon gathered together for his 1812 campaign compare favorably with the efforts of the heavily industralized nations during the First World War.

    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." March or die was the napoleonic formula - and it did not appeal to the young soldiers. No one was allowed to lag behind and in 1813 special NCO detachments knew how to make the "lame" walk. Most often Napoleon 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. Napoleon wrote to Murat "The best marchers should be able to do 25-30 miles a day." In 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)

    Not only on strategical level the French were fast, but also in battles. Tsar Alexander of Russia made this comment in 1805: "... the rapidity of Napoleon's manoeuvres never allowed time to succour any of the points which he successively attacked: his troops everywhere were twice as numerous as we were." One of Napoleon's generals replied: "We manoeuvered, indeed, a great deal: the same division fought successively in different directions - this is what multiplied us during the whole day." Austrian General Stutterheim praised the French too: "... the French generals manoeuvered their troops with that ability which is the result of the military eye, and of experience ..."

    One account has it that Napoleon allowed a subordinate to draw up a plan for the disposition of his troops. Not knowing what the Emperor wanted, the subordinate distributed the forces equally in neat little groups along the border. On seeing it Napolean remarked "Very pretty, but what do you expect them to do? Collect customs duties?". :-)
    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. The word 'point' even, has been the source of much confusion, and more controversy. One school has argued that Napoleon meant that the concentrated blow must be aimed at the enemy's strongest point, on the ground that this, and this only, ensures decisive results. For if the enemy's main resistance be broken, its rupture will involve that of any lesser opposition. This argument ignores the factor of cost, and the fact that the victor may be too exhausted to exploit his success - so that even a weaker opponent may acquire a relatively higher resisting power than the original.

    The other school - better imbued with the idea of economy of force, but only in the limited sense of first costs - has contended that the offensive should be aimed at the enemy's weakest point. But where a point is obviously weak this is usually because it is remote from any vital artery or nerve centre, or because it is deliberately left weak to draw the assailant into a trap. Here, again, illumination comes from the actual campaign in which Bonaparte put his maxim into execution. It clearly suggests that what he really meant was no 'point', but 'joint' - and that at this stage of his career he was too firmly imbued with the economy of force to waste his limited strength in battering at the enemy's strong point. A joint, however, is both vital and vulnerable." (Hart - "Strategy" 1991 pp 98-99)

    Napoleon used as little force as possible against non-critical objectives.
    "There are in Europe many good generals," he declared in 1797, "but they see too many things at once. I see only one thing, namely the enemyís main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves." According to David Chandler here lies the central theme, of Napoleonís concept of warfare.
    In order to concentrate superior combat strength in one place, economy of force must be exercised in other places. Economy of force requires the acceptance of prudent risks in selected areas to achieve superiority at the point of decision.

  • ~

    "Between a battle lost and a battle won,
    the distance is immense and there stand empires."
    - Napoleon

    Napoleon's Tactics.
    Wellington was extremally unwilling to stand on his own against Napoleon.
    One could almost venture to say that Wellington was 'running scared' of Napoleon,
    and thats why he not wanted to face him alone at Waterloo.

    Napoleon's brilliance as a strategist only served to bring the enemy to the battlefield. "Battle was always the ultimate object of all of Napoleon's planning and thought. Indeed, he conducted more battles than most great commanders before or since and managed to win most of them." (Petre - "Napoleon at War" p 165)

    Once enemy contact was established, the advance guard seized the most favorable position available, striving to fix the enemy and to form a pivot of maneuver for the army in the rear. While the advance guard spent itself, these fresh units went into action on its flanks. The light infantry probed in, developing weak spots and tying down the enemy. Behind the light infantry the light artillery moved aggressively forward and the real fighting began. Once the enemy's army was engaged Napoleon had but one purpose: destruction. The Emperor preferred to fight offensively under all circumstances, even when on the defensive. At Austerlitz he did actually stand on the defensive, lured his enemies into a trap, and then attacked.
    Napoleon's battle tactics came from a shotgun marriage of Royal Army with Revolutionary improvisation. In his battles, Napoleon depended on speed, mass, and aggressive maneuver: normally he struck at one wing of a hostile army, preferably the one nearer its communications. 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.

    The Emperor had two basic battle plans:

  • The Battle of Maneuver (66 % of his battles)
  • The Battle of Attrition (33 %)

    The Battle of Maneuver required some superiority in numbers. Napoleon's main force held the enemy's attention to his front, while another force fell upon one of his flanks, and then rolling up the rest of the line. The cavalry was sent in pursuit. The advantage of this tactic was that it inflicted a major defeat on the enemy at minimal cost. But things could go wrong. A quick movement of reserves in the enemy's rear could thicken up the threatened flank. And an enemy deployed with strong natural support (ridge, wooded area, etc.) on his flank would be immune to this method. Austerlitz, Jena and Eylau, three of his victories, were all essentially battles of maneuver.

    The Battle of Attrition was a frontal slugging match in which firepower was poured into the enemy in enormous amounts until he appeared to be weakening, and then great masses of men would be thrown in to smash their way through his lines. Such a battle was costly affair, but there were times when no other course was possible. Some were great victories like Wagram in 1809, other were marginal and incredible costly victories, like Borodino in 1812, and several were defeats, such as La Rothiere 1814, and Waterloo. There was much that could go wrong in such a battle. The enemy might prove stronger, more numerous, or receive support from another army, the enemy might have a trick or two up his sleeve, such as Wellington's reserve slope defenses, or Kutuzov's Cossacks at Borodino.

  • ~

    If Jomini sought for the common element in the generalship of Napoleon and his predecessors,
    Clausewitz dwelt on the difference between them. Jomini sought for principles as precepts
    for guidance in action. Clausewitz thought general principles in the shape of precepts or
    rules of little avail in the presence of the infinite variety of the situations of war.

    Jomini and Clausewitz on Napoleon.
    "To Jomini Napoleon was the compeer of Caesar, of Hannibal, and of Alexander."
    To Clausewitz he was 'the very god of war." - Wilkinson and Spenser

    Karl von Clausewitz Jomini Left: Antoine-Henri, baron Jomini (1779-1869) was born in Switzerland. He became a general in the French, and afterwards in the Russian service, and one of the most celebrated military writers. Jomini wrote several books and articles. One of his last essays dealt with the influence of the breech-loading rifle.
    Right: Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780- 1831) was a Prussian officer, military historian and influential theorists. He is most famous for his military treatise "Vom Kriege" (On War.) translated into several languages.

    Although serious military thinkers today are more likely to refer to Clausewitz, in the Napoleonic age itself, Antoine de Jomini was more likely to have that distinction. "It is probably fair to say that in general Clausewitz addressed the political and strategic levels of war and Jomini addressed the operational level. The two were born only a year apart. They held similar staff-officer positions in the Napoleonic wars, albeit in different armies. Jomini was by far the more celebrated thinker in his own lifetime. ...
    It is important to remember what Jomini is and what Jomini is not. Almost all of his work answers one question: how does one deploy units successfully in the main battle? For officers who must answer this question, Jominiís ideas, the Principles of War, are extremely useful and extremely important. For officers trying to answer any other questions, Jomini is not so useful. A cookbook is all-important for cooks but not very helpful for anyone else. There is almost no treatment of politics, no strategy, no technological change, no strategic resource base, no psychology, no peopleís war, no adversary, and indeed no unexpected adversity in Jominiís work. The operator must remember that while the Principles of War are an essential tool, they are likely to be only one of the many tools he needs for victory." (- U.S. ARMY Command and General Staff College C600-8)

    "To Jomini Napoleon was the compeer of Caesar, of Hannibal, and of Alexander. To Clausewitz he was 'the very god of war.' Each of them prepared himself for his theory by writing the history of campaigns both of Napoleon and of his predecessors. But their ways of regarding their subject were different.
    Jomini's object was to find out by comparison between Napoleon's campaigns and those of Frederick the principles of action which were common to them both and might therefore be of universal validity. He analysed their operations and classified them according to their geometrical form. The base of operations, the direction of an army's advance and that of its front can each be represented as a line. Jomini examined the relation between these three kinds of lines. ... Jomini's analysis and classification of operations in spite of its artificial terminology, was correct and useful. It was the first scientific exposition of strategy as a system of principles, and it has been used by all the subsequent strategical thinkers. Willisen in Germany and Hamley in England are Jomini's disciples ...
    If Jomini sought for the common element in the generalship of Napoleon and his predecessors, Clausewitz dwelt on the difference between them. Jomini sought for principles as precepts for guidance in action. Clausewitz thought general principles in the shape of precepts or rules of little avail in the presence of the infinite variety of the situations of war. The question which Clausewitz put to himself was how it came about that Napoleon's wars were so fundamentally different from most of those which had proceeded them. His answer was that the energy with which a war is carried on is a product of two factors, the strength of the motive which actuates the belligerents and the degree to which that motive appeals to the population of the States concerned. The French Revolution had called a nation to arms. France therefore acted with the utmost energy. On the other hand, the cause for which the Governments of the Coalition were fighting was by no means vital to them and scarcely interested their people.
    The success of France was therefore predetermined. When the French forces came under the control of Napoleon the overthrow of the old monarchies was inevitable. But the pressure of the French Empire upon the populations then aroused such bitter resentment that the nations one after another rushed to arms, and thus the overthrow of Napoleon was as much predetermined as had been his unprecedented conquests. This portion of the theory of Clausewitz is, however, not derived from the generalship of Napoleon. Its root idea comes from an essay in which Scharnhorst in 1797 reviewed the revolutionary war of 1792-5, in which Napoleon had not yet had a command. Scharnhorst attributed the success of the French to the energy of unity of the French nation, and the failure of the Allies to their discord and their inadequate efforts.
    The subsequent exertions of Prussia in and after 1813 confirmed Clasewitz in his view of the importance of the distinction between national and dynastic war." (Wilkinson, Spenser - "The French army before Napoleon; lectures delivered before the University of Oxford ..." pp 14-16)


    It was the French, and most probably Napoleon himself,
    who brought the first truly modern military staff into existence.
    - George Nafziger, USA

    Napoleon's Staff.
    The professionalism of Napoleon's staff shortly before Austerlitz contrasted
    sharply with the confusion prevailing in the Russian and Austrian staffs.
    - Robert Goetz

    Marshal Berthier Picture: Louis Alexandre Berthier, Napoleon's chief of staff. In 1780 Bertheir went to America, and on his return, having attained the rank of colonel, he was employed in various staff posts. Berthier's incredible accuracy and quick comprehension, combined with his complete mastery of detail, made him the ideal chief of staff to commander like Napoleon. Berthier took part in numerous campaigns. The manner of his death is uncertain; according to some accounts he was assassinated, others say that, maddened by the sight of Russian troops marching to invade France, he threw himself from his window and was killed. Berthier is one of the most known chiefs-of-staff.

    Napoleon made significant changes in Carnot's system, partially out of administrative necessity and partially due to the fact that he did not merely direct military operations from Paris, as Carnot had done, but actually conducted them in the field. Thus, Napoleon's administrative machinery tended to be larger and somewhat clumsier than Carnot's. A Ministry of War handled the "civil" functions of the army, such as conscription, pay, and record keeping. Napoleon himself headed Grand-Quartier-General, which actually supervised the army.
    Under him was his personal staff, La Maison, which included an operational headquarters, a traveling cabinet of France, and the Bureau Topographique, his intelligence and planning staff. The two principal subordinate agencies of G-Q-G were the General Commissariat of Army Stores, which supervised all types of supply, and General Headquarters of the Army, under Marshal Berthier.

    Berthier dircted the "General Staff", which had several distinct sections and departments, each dealing with a well defined area of responsibility, such as troop movements and intelligence, personnel and records, and legal affairs, plus special staffs for each arm of service.
    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":

  • 1st - handled troop movements, orders of the day, officers assignements and general correspondence
  • 2nd - supply, police, hospitals and headquarters administration
  • 3rd - recruiting, prisoners of war, deserters, and military justice
  • 4th - supervising the army's lengthening line of communications
  • 5th - reconnaissance, correspondence with fortress commanders etc.

    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 artillery staff.

    The professionalism of Napoleon's staff shortly before the battle of Austerlitz contrasted sharply with the confusion prevailing in the Russian and Austrian staffs. Napoleon had produced a plan of battle well in advance and his staff had issued written orders the evening before, in the Russian and Austrian headquarters the plan had not been completed until the night of DEcember 1st and "the column commanders had only learned of the details after midnight. "Under such circumstances, confusion was inevitable." (Goetz - "1805: Austerlitz" pp 120-121)

    Napoleon's staff organization was quite efficient, but had certain limitations, the principal ones being Napoleon and Berthier themselves. Having worked so long together, the two became incapable of working efficiently with anyone else. Napoleon had but utter a few words for Berthier to comprehend his meaning and frame pages of clear, accurate orders. No one could do that.

    In effect, Napoleon's staff organization was a personal staff, rather than a genuine general staff.

    A further problem was that Napoleon's staff tended to grow, for he was not merely running his army, but all the other armies of France and the government as well. Nevertheless, the French example was far superior to any other in Europe and began to be adopted rather widely, by many other countries. In Prussia certain refinements were introduced, increasing specialization and laying the foundations fore the evolution of modern military staff.

    According to John Elting, Napoleon and his staff were served by the first really effective long-distance communications system. Chappe designed a new semaphore telegraph. It consisted of a tower, from which rose a 30-foot mast with movable wooden crosspiece pivoted at its top. The telegraph looked like a large T and was painted black for better visibility. Messages were sent 1 letter at a time. In good weather one sign could be sent for 150 miles in 5 minutes !
    Napoleon made good use of the Chappe telegraph in his invasion of Italy. The Swedes and British also had built their own telegraphs but these were slower and less advanced technologically.

  • ~

    "One must change one's tactics every 10 years
    if one wishes to maintain one's superiority ..."

    "A man has his day in war as in other things,
    I myself shall be good for it another 6 years
    after which even I shall have to stop."
    - Napoleon ... in 1806

    Napoleon's Mistakes, Failures and Defeats.
    "Everything conspires against the commander
    - dumb execution, weather, brakdowns, misunderstandings,
    deliberate obstructions and jealousies. He must be prepared
    to accept 50 % results in twice the time calculated."
    - US Army general Joseph W. Stilwell

    Archduke Charles defeated 
Napoleon in Aspern-Essling in 1809. 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:
    • the severity of Napoleon's terms to Prussia undermined the security of the peace
    • his policy towards England contemplated nothing short of her total ruin
    • his aggression raised Tirol, Portugal and Spain as fresh enemies
    • his invasion of Russia resulted in the loss of half-million of his best troops and one thousand cannons. After that disaster Napoleon's never regained his greatness. (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:

  • 1809 Aspern and Essling - although he would later claim a victory, Napoleon had sufferred his first major defeat. He lost out to the determined Austrians under Archduke Charles.
  • 1812 Beresina - Napoleon lost 25,000 killed and wounded, Russians lost 20,000. Additionally at least 10,000 Frenchmen were massacred by Cossacks, while another 20,000 died in the freezing river or were crushed to death in the panic to cross the bridges. Remnants of Napoleon's army managed to escape. (Some authors consider Beresina as French tactical and strategical victory).
  • 1813 Leipzig - Napoleon withstood all Allies assaults and then counterattacked. Meanwhile another army (under Bennigsen) attacked his flank. It forced him to abandon his strongpoints and withdraw his army closer to Leipzig. Then he was surrounded and defeated. In terms of casualties and political and strategical results it was probably Napoleon's greatest defeat.
  • 1814 La Rothiere - while Napoleon exchanged blows with Blucher's and Sacken's army to his front, another army (under Wrede) attacked his flank. Napoleon retreated, it was his first defeat on French soil.
  • 1815 Waterloo - while Napoleon attacked Wellington's German-British-Netherland army, another army (under Blucher) attacked his flank. Napoleon was routed.

    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)

    The defeat at Aspern-Essling is explained by Loraine Petre. "For the defeat of Essling the Emperor had himself to blame. He had certainly been careless in his preparations for the crossing [of the Danube River], once more a result of his unbounded pride and his contempt for his enemy. He had been amply warned of the dangers of a sudden rise of the Danube, the fate of the Austrian bridge at Mauthausen should have warned him of the dangers to a bridge of boats from barges and other masses floated down the rapid stream. Yet he trusted his army to a single bridge of boats without any protection by stockades, or by boats cruising about to arrest such floating masses above the bridge. His information regarding Charles' position seems to have been bad and to have led him not to expect serious resistance immediately after the passage. Even on the morning of Essling, his cavalry had failed to detect the advance of the whole Austrian army. Essling was the first great success of an Austrian army against Napoleon in person. ... There is no clearer proof that Napoleon realised his own rashness in the first crossing than the infinite care which he bestowed on his preparations for the second, and the perfection with which they were carried out." (Petre - "Napoleon at War" pp 261-2, publ. 1984)
    After Essling, Napoleon's position was one of extreme anxiety. The news of the reverse spread like wildfire throughout Europe, offering every encouragement to his enemies.

    "In the autumn of 1813, the Allies adopted a strategy of not letting any one of their three armies face Napoleon alone. Should the master place himself at the head of his troops, then the Allied army facing him was to withdraw, while the other advanced. While Napoleon was chasing air, the opportunity was taken to bring certain of his marshals to battle and defeat them individually." (- Peter Hofschroer)
    It worked wonders. In August Marshal Oudinot's corps was trashed at Gross Beeren, Marshal MacDonald was defeated at Katzbach, and General Vandamme at Kulm. In September Marshal Ney was routed at Dennewitz.

  • "In a fortnight he [Bonaparte] was ready for the field and made his first move.
    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
    Recommended Reading.

    Karl von Clausewitz - "On War".
    David Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Loraine Petre - "Napoleon at War"
    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
  • "The Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz
    is widely acknowledged as the most important
    of the major strategic theorists."

  • Jomini on Strategic Lines and Points,
    Decisive Points of the Theater of War ...

  • Influence of Napoleon on Civil War Tactics and Strategy.
  • Applying Napoleonic Tactics to Trench Warfare in World War I.
  • Rise and fall of the strategy of exhaustion.
  • Coalition Tactics on the Napoleonic Battlefield and Their Influence on Unity of Effort.
  • Chess game: Napoleon vs General Bertrand. :-)

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    Napoleon, His Army and Enemies