Napoleon as a General, jonathon Riley

Napoleon as a General by Jonathon Riley


Napoleon as a generalAny attempt to assess Napoleon’s success or failure as a General must first establish what we mean by a General, and Generalship. At the outset, one must be clear that this is not a discussion about the peacetime role of General officers, since they will be judged by standards of professional competence; this is a discussion about Generalship in war, where Generals are judged by results. Because war remains an art, rather than a science, Generalship too remains an art, although tempered by science, rather than a straightforward exercise in professional competency. There are, therefore, no simple criteria for assessing great Generals, or at least what makes a great General.

A common dictionary definition speaks of one who holds “extended command”: not helpful in itself. Moreover Generals come in different sizes. A brigadier, the smallest kind of General, commands a brigade of three or four combat units and supporting arms, engaged in the close, tactical, battle and unable to influence anything beyond the range of his organic weapons. A Major General commands a division. In Napoleonic times this was often the basic tactical formation, composed of several brigades, and again was confined to tactical manoeuvres; in modern times, a division is the lowest level of command that plans and conducts operations simultaneously, and conducts the close, deep and rear fight. A Lieutenant General commands a corps. In Napoleonic times this was considered the smallest command capable of acting independently; today a corps is more an operational than tactical level formation. Thus the first aspect of Generalship is command of a fighting formation, of combined arms, engaged in war. Above formation command, Generalship encompasses the planning and execution of campaigns, or the command of an extended theatre of operations. At the highest level, a General will be responsible for managing the military aspects of his country’s policy and strategy, and the spending of its blood and treasure in war.

Considerable care is needed, therefore, when discussing Generalship in an historical context. The responsibilities and required competencies of a General have changed in the intervening years, and one must be careful not to judge Napoleon by modern standards; our understanding of strategy, the operational art, and battlefield tactics are also different. Complex, modern, war – sometimes referred to as “4th Generation War”, or “Three-Block War”, was far in the future. Technology too has advanced in the intervening period of time: the full effects of the Industrial revolution had hardly begun to be felt by 1815, and technology then was little different from what it had been 100 years before. Nor is it right to judge a field commander with the benefit of hindsight, because he made his decisions based on the information available at the time: our lives and experience go forward, following what Steven Hawking calls “the arrow of time”; we are able to review those experiences by looking back, but we cannot change them.

So if the context has changed, how is it possible to assess Napoleon as a General? First, perhaps, according to those principles of war that have not changed - even though Napoleon himself would have disputed that such enduring principles existed. There is some variance between different nations as to how many these are, but those which are generally agreed are the need for good intelligence; the selection and maintenance of the aim; economy of effort;  concentration of force; sound administration and logistic sustainability; flexibility; cooperation between arms, services and allies; security of one’s own force; surprise and unpredictability; the maintenance of morale and what the British Army refers to as “the moral component of fighting power” – that is, why an army fights; the maintenance of good communications; and the primacy of the offensive. The ability to comprehend the political dimension of war is also implicit and unchanging. Those who rail against “political Generals” fail to understand that war is a political act, and that every action in a theatre of operations will have political consequences for the General’s own masters, his opponents, or both. The successful General understands this, and does not fall into the trap of entirely separating what he does from its context.

The second yardstick for assessment is by reference to the human condition. In terms of our evolution as a species, we are no different now from what we were in 1815. Our mental processes are the same, our decision-making abilities likewise are the same. Armed with the knowledge of what the General did or did not know, one can understand and analyse his successes and failures.

What is the essence of Generalship, therefore, at any level? In the Napoleonic period, just as now, the General has to be the man in a military organisation who can recognise any problem at issue, in its entirety; define those things which are likely to be decisive (and very rarely is that one event or action only); and having done this, change the situation to advantage in order to win. General Rupert Smith says of this that he must “employ force, by design, to achieve required objectives.” Put yet another way, he must balance his ends, ways and means while preventing the other side from doing so.

The General may have to fill a series of incompatible roles: politician, leader, manager, supply specialist, public relations man – as well as strategist, operational commander and tactician. The exercise of command by a General therefore is not to be confused with simple leadership, or information processing. Command encompasses three essential functions: leadership, control and management (of men and resources), and decision making. These functions vary according to the size and complexity of an army, but must always be exercised. Command is, like sovereignty, indivisible. This applies, too, at each level – Napoleon remarked on this at an early stage in his career as a General when faced with a division of command of the Army of Italy between himself and Kellermann. Writing to the Directory in Paris in May 1746 he said that “I am certain that one bad General is better than two good ones.” And if command is indivisible between commanders, it is also not possible to separate a commander’s responsibilities from his authority over resources, and his accountability for the consequences of actions undertaken in his name. Experience shows that if these are separated, trouble always follows. This mention of command by a General at different levels leads us to examine Napoleon’s Generalship at the accepted levels of strategy, operations, and battlefield tactics.

Napoleon as Strategist

By 1805, Napoleon combined the functions of Head of State with those of supreme war-lord, as had, for example, William III of England and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. It is difficult therefore to be too rigid with modern definitions. Moreover, the world is a more complex place now: the industrial and technological revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have broadened both the bases of war and the means of conducting it. However it is true to say that by 1805, the notion of strategy was at least recognisably modern. As early as 1777, Joly de Maizeroy had defined it in his Théories de la Guerre thus:

Strategy . . . combines time, places, means, various interests and considers all . . . The former [i.e. tactics] reduces easily to firm rules, because it is entirely geometrical like fortification; the latter [i.e. strategy] appears very much less susceptible of it, because it is related to an infinity of circumstances, physical, political and moral, which are never the same and which pertain entirely to genius.

The notion of strategic objectives being achieved through means as diverse as diplomacy, economic power, information warfare and military power is not too far from this line of thought. Moreover the requirements of a successful strategic concept have not changed, and can be held to include popular will and support; political resolve, nationally and collectively; alliance or coalition unity of command and effort where this is applicable; timely and appropriate force generation and deployment; a secure base of operations; and when operating away from home, the support or at least compliance of the local population and authorities.

Napoleon, like Carnot, cemented this separation of strategy from mere grand tactics by exploiting the potential of mass armies, and by altering the 18th Century notions of the relationship between movement and firepower. Some caution is needed however, because as Jomini pointed out in his work The Art of War, technology may change, but principles seldom do. This is because of the nature of war as competition, and because of the enduring nature of the human condition already discussed:

. . . new inventions . . . seem to threaten a great revolution in army organisation, armament and tactics. Strategy alone will remain unaltered, with its principles the same as under the Scipios . . . since they are independent of the nature of arms.

One must further distinguish the sort of strategy practiced by Napoleon, his allies and some of his opponents, from that of his implacable enemies the English. England, because of its world-wide empire, economic base, and strategic reach – through naval power – was arguably the only major power able to conduct strategy through means other than military power. In 1813 alone, England was able to subsidise her allies in Europe to the tune of almost ₤7.5 million. Thus it was the vast financial resources of the British Empire, as much as anything, which underpinned the Allied will to continue the struggle against Napoleon. This, combined with its naval power, more than compensated for the relatively small size of Britain’s army during the period.

Napoleon, although he had demonstrated as early as the beginning of the Italian campaign in 1796 that he had an excellent grasp of French strategy and its requirements, was not in this position. Despite building excellent ships, his navy was never able to challenge the English – certainly not after the defeat of Trafalgar. On land, Revolutionary and Imperial France had to use military force not in addition to the other instruments of national power, but in order to access them. Military power for Napoleon must be seen therefore as diplomacy, not merely in the Clausewitzian sense of an addition to it.

After 1791, war as the export of revolutionary ideology as much as for expansion was inevitable for any French regime. The reckless optimism of 1792 resulting from the ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was bound to cause upheavals and struggles against the old order throughout Europe, and the agency of this upheaval was the zeal and energy of the French people. Napoleon himself said at the time of the Peace of Amiens “Between old monarchies and a young republic the spirit of hostility must always exist. In the present state of affairs, every peace treaty means no more than a brief armistice.” This, despite the fact that he was, as is usual with dictators, invariably claiming to be pursuing peace. On St Helena he portrayed this in grossly propagandist terms, claiming to be the father of a united Europe, but in fact, the only peace to which Napoleonic strategy was aimed was a peace dictated wholly and solely by the conqueror.

By 1811, Napoleon was aiming not just at a stable limit to his empire in Europe through peace with England, but total domination of the world: his empire would have no limits. The hostility of the old monarchies, and especially of England, forced him to keep expanding until no opponents were left. In 1811 he remarked that “in five years, I shall be master of the world: there only remains Russia, but I shall crush her.” Napoleon and his system existed only through greater and greater success, as the means to a favourable and lasting settlement: that is, one that saw Napoleon and his empire in control of the international system. In this lay the seeds of his destruction, and three examples of this sort of over-reach amply demonstrate the flaws in the system: the Continental System, the Occupation of Spain, and the expedition to Russia.

The Continental System which came to its fullness under Napoleon had begun as early as 1793. That it developed as it did, however, was the result of Napoleon’s inability to carry through the invasion and conquest of Britain. Where the system worked, and Napoleon kept out English trade, Europe suffered, for the Continental System was not a blockade of Great Britain by France: the French navy was incapable of attempting this. Nor was it a blockade of the French Empire by England, for the English government freely issued licences for trading with Europe. The Continental System was a blockade of the French Empire by itself.

The results for the British economy were dramatic. Lancashire was deprived of raw cotton, and goods began to pile up at ports. British exports to the US fell from £111 million per year to £2 million, and the government found itself forced to pay for the vital American grain in gold rather than in goods. Weekly wages for workers fell by two-thirds. By late 1811 there were riots in Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, which required the diversion of troops from the Peninsula: the situation was critical, for a militant rebellion in England now would certainly have handed victory to Napoleon. But in fact, relief was already in sight. The embargo and non-intercourse acts had been hugely unpopular in America, especially in New England, and were widely ignored by the mercantile community who were happy to continue to use English licences. In this they were encouraged by the English themselves, who after 1812 continued to trade with New England while blockading southern ports from the Gulf coast to Long Island, thus increasing national divisions and anti-war sentiment in New England.

But England’s real saviour was the Tsar. His famous Ukase of December 1810, which in effect gave preferential treatment to US shipping and thereby opened the door to English trade, effectively spelled the death of the Continental System. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 acceler­ated the process by opening the ports of Russia and Sweden to British ships as well: by the spring of 1813, British exports were at their highest level for years: total exports were valued at £118 million for the year 1812-13, while taxation yielded £68 million, or five times the pre-war figure. Thus England, with a population of only 18 million, was in a position to subsidise the armies of the Sixth Coalition which would at last bring Napoleon down.

Napoleon’s second great strategic miscalculation was again in part due to the hostility of England, but in part to a combination of more complex factors. Spain, a once powerful country which for centuries had been France’s rival, was now to become a vassal. In so doing, Napoleon managed to trigger first the popular revolt in Spain, and then the English intervention in Portugal. Napoleon gambled heavily on Spanish hostility to the English, but entirely misunderstood the intense anti-French feelings that had been aroused by his annexations, and reprisals against guerrilla activity. How he could have believed that such a treaty was possible shows how his grasp of reality had slipped: Ferdinand in prison understood the situation better than Napoleon did. Believing that the Treaty would be ratified by the Spanish Cortes, he drew off troops from the Spanish frontier, especially cavalry and artillery, which rendered it incapable of resisting effectively when the treaty was abrogated, and Spanish divisions formed part of the Allied Army that invaded southern France.

In Spain, Napoleon made a fatal strategic miscalculation which, combined with the Russian campaign and the Continental System, brought him down. He committed acts so insulting and so treacherous that he drove Spain into the arms of her ancient enemy, England. “The whole affair,” as he later remarked on St Helena, “was too immoral.” The course of the war in Russia and later in Central Europe could well have been substantially altered by the addition of the 200,000 French and client troops tied down in Spain.

Above the mistake of invading and occupying Spain, and combined with it, the invasion of Russia in 1812 was the biggest single factor in deciding the downfall of Napoleon and his Empire. At a very early stage in the campaign, the massive failure of Napoleonic logistics was apparent. Despite unprecedented preparations, the supply of 600,000 men in a hostile country, over vast distances, proved impossible. Herds of cattle were too slow, living off the land meant starvation, supply depots were too few and too small, and horse-drawn traffic over a few bad roads could not service them, nor feed the troops from them. The Tsar could even mount a counter-attack, and maybe subvert the Austrians and Prussians. Added to this, Napoleon needed a speedy conclusion to the war in order to force the Russians back into the Continental System before the odds began to tell against him in the field. It seems therefore that Napoleon’s instincts as a soldier overcame his intuitive judgment as a statesman. But having made his decision, he found almost the exact same strategic dilemma confronting him at Moscow, in the aftermath of Borodino: should he now remain in Moscow, withdraw to Smolensk, or march on St Petersburg? The calculations seem to have revealed that to stay put was to rot, and to advance meant death in the snow.

The disaster in Russia had a massive impact on French military potential: the empire lost 570,000 men, 200,000 horses and 1,050 guns and while the guns could be replaced, the men and horses were in increasingly short supply. More important was the moral effect, for the defeat shattered the myth of Napoleonic invincibility and kindled the moves that resulted in the 6th Coalition. In the final years of his reign, Napoleon might win battlefield victories again and again, but after Russia, and combined with the effects of the Spanish Ulcer and the Continental System, he was irrevocably set on the road to St Helena. There is no better example of the great truth that if strategy is flawed, then no matter how brilliant the tactical manoeuvres, no matter how inspired the operational art, failure will be inevitable. The American Revolutionary War was a recent example at the time, clear for all to see, and so no-one can now be accused of sitting in judgment with the benefit of hindsight.

Napoleon and Operational Art

Napoleon would certainly have understood the modern notion of the operational level. Although military theory at the time spoke only of strategy and tactics, the campaign was a well understood idea, as was the concept of operational manoeuvre, usually referred to as Grand Tactics. The very concept of centre of gravity stems from interpretations of the Napoleonic system by contemporary theorists such as Clausewitz and Jomini. Modern notions focus on the idea of critical vulnerabilities within a centre of gravity, and pitting strength against weakness – of manoeuvre. Napoleon had a good understanding of this, although when possessed of overwhelming strength, as he often was, attrition rather than manoeuvre was a perfectly respectable method of fighting.

For Napoleon, the centre of gravity at the operational level was almost invariably the enemy’s army, and the most fundamental, decisive act in achieving his strategic objectives was its destruction in battle by the fastest means available. When faced with a coalition, as he often was, the centre of gravity was the strongest member of that coalition and its army, without whom the rest would fall away as the vital unity of the coalition was shattered. As he himself said, “It is upon the field of battle that the fate of fortresses and empires is decided.” By this means he would break the enemy’s will to resist so that all else - the conquest of territory in particular - would follow, as a result of what Frederick the Great had called “the bloody decision”. “I see only one thing”, Napoleon declared in 1797, “namely the enemy’s main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves.” Not for him the tedious business of siege warfare which had characterised much of 18th Century operations.

Logistics have been mentioned in the discussion of both strategy and operational art, and a brief examination is due. Although the emphasis in logistics has changed since Napoleon’s day, as has the technology, the problem has not altered in kind. The degree to which an army can be sustained remains one of the key factors for any General in planning and executing a campaign. Indeed, it may, as in Russia, be decisive. Then and now, it remains a driving factor in the size of forces that can take and keep the field. Napoleon’s armies were the largest that the western world had then seen and his method of supplying it had therefore to be innovative – hence his insistence on spreading out and foraging to supplement the depots. There is no information in his correspondence or the archives to show how Napoleon assessed the performance of his logistic system, but in general he seems to have been content given the few changes he made to it, aside from the major innovation of the Train Service.

It is ironic that, having succeeded in so many campaigns on the basis of just enough, just in time, he should fail in Russia after the most extensive preparations undertaken in the history of warfare up to that point. He knew well that living off the country would be impossible, and he knew the results of staying in one place for any length of time, but even his preparations were insufficient for the demand, distance and duration of the campaign. Even so, had the indiscipline of the troops been checked earlier, it is conceivable that things might have been easier. Those corps with commanders prepared to crack down hard, like Davout, invariably did better than those whose commanders were slack.

Napoleon’s logistic system was, therefore, like much else that he did, not so much a revolution as a development of earlier practice either by his immediate predecessors or by earlier Generals whose methods he had gleaned from study. The exception is the Train Service. With the same exception, his methods were not dissimilar to those of other European armies of the period. Martin van Creveld, for example, shows that the proportion of supply vehicles in the French and Austrian armies in 1805 was almost exactly the same. All European armies lived off the land, but the French Army was particularly proficient and Napoleon knew how to exploit this skill through organised plunder. The campaign of 1805, like his preparations for Russia, do however show that Napoleon also realised what he had to do when the army moved through country which would not support large numbers of troops and animals: huge depots and magazines, large numbers of draft animals, columns of wagons and barges, troops tied to securing the routes.

But the Industrial Revolution had yet to reach its full potential; nor had railways begun to appear, and it was these factors that allowed armies to grow to the size they did during the First World War, and to remain static for extended periods. It is interesting that in modern campaigns, static operations in theatres like the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have brought their own problems in over-stretching limited military logistic units. Consequently, deployed military forces are once again relying on contractors to provide accommodation, food and food supply, drinking water, fuel, and transportation. The situation of modern times is almost the reverse, therefore, of Napoleonic times. Once the line of communication – especially the strategic line of communication – has been established and secured, the use of contracts, and the development of food technology and other commodity storage have made the maintenance of a static force far simpler than that of a mobile one. This must be so even though modern formations have developed logistic support at unit, formation and theatre levels, thus allowing modern mobile forces to be self  sufficient for longer, and at lower levels of command, than in Napoleonic times. But given the constraints and conditions of his time, therefore, Napoleon must be given credit, whatever his shortcomings in other areas, for making ten shillings do the work of a pound. That he over-ran most of Europe, and that his armies did not starve in the process, is nothing short of a miracle.

Napoleon on the Battlefield

For Napoleon, there was an inescapable connection between the campaign and the battle: the campaign was constructed to achieve his strategic objectives; and was designed to bring the enemy to battle, a battle that would be the decisive act of any war. In this, he was being true to that essential requirement of Generalship already described, even though he himself would not have expressed it in those precise terms – that of determining those things that are going to be decisive. The purpose of battle was not merely to defeat the enemy’s army – the operational centre of gravity - but to destroy it and thus end any war at one stroke.

By destroying the opposing army, the enemy’s strategic centre of gravity could be directly threatened: be it the capital city, or vital resources, or a key leader. The campaigns of Marengo, Ulm and Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau and Friedland are all illustrations of this principle in action. Thus it must be apparent that while distinctions may be drawn between strategy, operational art and tactics using considerations of time, or resources, or geography; strategy and operational art have by no means been suspended when battle is joined. Manoeuvring throughout the theatre of operations, and in the realm of diplomacy, continues not only before and after, but also during a battle. This is implicit in Clausewitz’s celebrated but often misquoted and still more often misunderstood remark that “ . . . war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.”

The close connection between strategic objectives, operational manoeuvre and battle was underlined by Napoleon’s own position as head of state, head of government, and commander in chief: in such an unrivalled position, he could ensure the unbroken maintenance of the aim from the beginning to the end of a war: something that few others, even absolute rulers like Stalin, have been able to achieve. The same intelligence thus prepared the general strategic conditions and objectives, set the operational scenery, and joined the engagement. Today, the position of a commander at the strategic or operational levels is rather different. He may indeed assist in preparing the general conditions for engaging an enemy; he may exert influence on the course of battles by assigning resources, priorities, boundaries, rules of engagement and so on. But the execution of a battle – what Tukachevskii called “the practical resolution of strategic measures” - will be entrusted to a subordinate combined arms commander.

Given the nature and ranges of weapons just described, and the size of armies of the period, Napoleon could generally expect to be in a position to observe and control any battle personally from one or two key positions of observation. Like a modern commander, Napoleon required the ability to separate himself and his tactical headquarters from the impedimentia of the main headquarters. Such arrangements gave him the flexibility that any General needs in order to move rapidly, with a reasonable degree of protection, in order to exercise command at wherever the decisive point of a battle might be – but for limited periods. In doing so he would reinforce his own intuitive powers of decision-making, by ensuring that his own awareness of the situation was as current as it could be. Meanwhile the main headquarters, much larger, kept control of the army. Napoleon could use this main headquarters for planning, or could return to it to rest and recuperate under the umbrella of its life-support, or could base himself there to command the battle in, for example, a dispersed situation where the flow of information most naturally coalesced in main headquarters through its communications network. This flexibility allowed Napoleon to do the three things, already mentioned, which any General must be able to do in order to fulfil his command functions: to find out what is going on, to communicate is intentions to his subordinates, and to maintain contact with the staff so that problems can be solved.

Close cooperation on the battlefield was relatively simple at that period not only between corps, but between the various arms and services of the entire army. Napoleon himself, crucially, never allowed control of any battle to slip from his hand except on a very few occasions. When he did so, the outcome was a bad one for the French, as Marengo almost proved, and Aspern-Essling and Waterloo certainly did. It is often said that Napoleon did not interest himself in tactics: this does not stand close examination. It is true that only rarely did he issue any detailed guidance on corps level tactical employment; but it is also true that it was Napoleon who devised and issued the battle plans, and then directed the combined attacks of infantry, cavalry reserves, and massed batteries of guns. What a modern corps or divisional commander carries out on the battlefield today in conventional war within his own sphere of command, therefore, Napoleon himself performed on the entire field of battle.

If Napoleon was brilliant at the operational level, there was little glitter, and less subtlety on the battlefield. True, he produced a run of successes in his early years, leading up to the triumph of Jena-Auerstadt. Thereafter, however, for every victory, the truth is that there was a disaster or near disaster which had to be recovered. He won at Friedland, but only after the bitter winter battle of Eylau; Wagram recovered the near-disaster of Aspern-Essling at huge cost; and there was little to celebrate at Borodino. The flash of genius was again apparent at Lutzen, but Bautzen was a draw, and the success of Dresden was followed by Kulm, the Katzbach, and Leipzig. Ligny was an illusion, shattered by Quatre Bras and Waterloo. And in other theatres of war, like Spain and Portugal, where the dreaded cries of “Vive l’Empereur” were absent, his subordinates were roundly and regularly thrashed – by 1813, at the hands of Spanish troops at that. And even though he did succeed in grinding down the armies of most of his European opponents at one time or another, his armies never succeeded in intimidating the English, whose use of the reverse slope to minimize the effects of artillery fire and surprise infantry attacks; and whose decimation of the attacking columns by devastating quantities of accurate musketry confounded the French time after time.

One common aspect of Napoleonic battles, regardless of the opposition, was the blood-letting. Because of his insistence on rapid marching to gain time, and because this enabled him, at Ulm, to outmanoeuvre an enemy and force a surrender without fighting – what Sun Tzu called the acme of success as a General – the myth grew up that, as old soldiers would repeat, “the Emperor uses our legs instead of our bayonets”. Nothing in subsequent history shows this to be true. In battle after battle, the French conscripts would hold on in desperate combat, waiting for support from the rest of the army, which was marching divided. Then, when the greatest possible mass had been assembled, the day would be settled – either in victory or in a draw – by the crude application of force. Massed artillery fire to blast holes in the enemy, and columns of infantry and cavalry pouring in. There is no subtlety here and as the quality of the army declined as each campaign took its thirty or forty percent casualties – more, far more, in Russia, where out of almost 500,000 French and client troops (not including the Austrian and Prussian corps), only about 60,000 escaped – so its battlefield performance declined.

A key judgement for any General is to understand what his army is capable of doing, and what is beyond its abilities. Montgomery is scorned for his carefully prepared battles with their limited objectives, but in truth, he knew that his army was not capable of complex manoeuvre, especially against an enemy as accomplished as the Germans. In the early years, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was the most capable battlefield force in the world; and Napoleon could accordingly demand feats of endurance, sacrifice, and complexity which were beyond those of his opponents. But the quality its later performance declined with the quality of the troops, and indeed the quality of the marshalate, as casualties took their toll. After the Russian campaign, for example, Napoleon never tried to unite dispersed corps on the battlefield in the presence of the enemy during offensive operations – but rather short of it. He could no longer rely on a high quality holding action to buy time for the assembly of his main army. As performance declined, so the cost of fighting rose still higher. Bautzen cost Napoleon more than 20,000 casualties – twice what his opponents lost. Despite Dresden, the French Army then lost 150,000 men in killed, wounded and prisoners between June and September 1813, without counting sick and stragglers. Leipzig cost him 70,000 killed, wounded, sick and captured including seventeen general officers. Waterloo was to cost him 47,000 in dead and wounded. As a percentage of the numbers engaged, these figures equal the very worst days on the Western Front and yet the Generals of the Great War are vilified while Napoleon’s reputation still shines.

Napoleon’s Legacy

When one looks at the curriculum for military history at the British Army Staff College in 1913 – and indeed its equivalent in the USA, the Command and General Staff College – one is struck by the emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War, in spite of the more recent example of the sequence of wars in Europe between Prussia and her rivals. The dominance of Napoleon was marked, and in France, probably amounted more to worship than mere dominance. Every General clearly wanted to be him; to crush his enemy’s army, march into his capital, and thus attain the goal of decisive victory. This elusive ideal has persisted right down to the present. What does not seem to have dawned on those responsible for teaching the military class of the future was the simple fact that that, in the end, Napoleon lost.

Of course, Napoleon himself on St Helena, and his many admirers later, did all they could to disguise this. It was Basil Liddell Hart who reminded the world of the uncomfortable truth that “it is as well to remember that St Helena became his destination.” To get him there took more than twenty years of ruinous war – mainly against poorly coordinated coalitions, inefficient armies, and elderly, second-rate Generals. Faced with this sort of opposition, Napoleon did not have to be faultless; he just had to be better than the other side. Tempo in military terms is helpfully defined in this context: it is the rate or rhythm of activity relative to the enemy. But given this sort of opposition, and given the edge that superior French organisation and a unified command brought, it is not surprising that the legend grew to the size it did.

Because of this legend, the evolution of the nature of modern warfare over the next century and more became obscured. European Armies after Napoleon were almost invariably large organisations raised through conscription; and the full impact of the industrial revolution – which was not felt until after 1815 – equipped them with weapons far closer to those of today’s battlefield than of Leipzig or Waterloo. Aircraft, he railway, the telephone and telegraph, the steam and petrol engines, aircraft, smokeless powder, breach loaders and repeating weapons were all in place by 1914. It is of course true that military technologies do not advance in complete capability leaps: armies do not replace all their weaponry and equipment in one turn: cutting edge technologies and legacy systems continue to co-exist, (notation) and this gradual process of technical innovation to an extent obscures tactical or operational innovation. But there is, in warfare, a relationship between the introduction of new technologies, and the employment and deployment of troops. This relationship is not constant, and needs careful and frequent revision. When it is not attended to, trouble follows. Thus by the American Civil War, although the armies were equipped with powerful, rifled muskets and heavy artillery, and could be moved by rail, the tactics were still those of Waterloo. The results, for Generals seeking the Napoleonic grail of the decisive battle, were the casualty rates of battles like Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg; and the acceleration of trench warfare. One can argue that the same process continued through the Franco-Prussian war, the early stages of the South African War, and the first four months of the Great War, which cost the French Army 800,000 casualties. It was not until 1918 that this relationship was adjusted – and Blitzkrieg was born. Even then, the spirit of Napoleon still lived.

Even today, armies still operate within what is described as a Napoleonic staff model, and a corps structure, at a time when once again, the employment-technology relationship is shifting. The revolution in information should mean that the staffs of Generals are organised in a way that cuts across traditional divisions in order to provide superior (not necessarily faster) information, ad thus produce superior decisions. The most likely opponents of western Generalship today are not states, but non-state groupings, whose command structure, as far as they can be said to have one, operates in the virtual realm. Bringing an army corps into action may succeed in taking ground, but as the Israelis discovered in south Lebanon and the Coalition has found in Iraq, the action is not necessarily going to be decisive. But the focus on destroying an enemy force as the decisive act remains. This is, however, the wrong lesson to draw from Napoleon’s legacy in the context of modern warfare. Napoleon may have been successful on many – but by no means all – his battlefields; and he may have been a master of campaigning. However in strategic terms he was a failure. One of the principal reasons for his failure was that he never succeeded in transforming a defeated enemy into a willing ally: he won wars, but he never won the peace.


© Jonathon Riley 2007. This article appeared in History Today in July 2007