military, Jonathon Riley

Napoleon as a General

By Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley CB DSO PhD MA FRHistS

Book Reviews

5 stars - The Last Ironsides: The English Expedition to Portugal, 1662-1668 "A superbly researched book, well-written and full of interesting stuff on one of the British Army's most obscure campaigns. Anyone with an interest in the military side of the English Civil Wars will find this fascinating."

Napoleon as a generalNapoleon as a General - Book Reviews

The Dorchester Review - Spring/Summer 2018


In a short article, there is not space to expound the study of generalship. However, it is necessary to begin by highlighting a few benchmarks, giving some words of caution about judging the likes of Napoleon by modern standards, and then passing on to examine briefly Napoleon’s performance at various levels of war. For those wishing to learn more, I can only commend my own book, from which this article is drawn, Napoleon as a General.

The first aspect of Generalship by which we can assess Napoleon is the command of fighting formations, of combined arms, engaged in war. Above and beyond this, Generalship encompasses the planning and execution of campaigns, or the command of an extended military 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. However, considerable care is needed when discussing Generalship in an historical context compared with now. 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 different. Technology too has advanced in the intervening period of time – by 1815, the full effects of the industrial revolution had yet to be felt, never mind the advances of the Twentieth Century. What has not changed, however, is that the principles of war are roughly constant, as is the human condition: our mental processes are the same, our decision-making abilities likewise are the same. So, armed with the knowledge of what Napoleon did or did not know, one can understand and analyse his successes and failures.

Another enduring theme that connects Generalship in the Napoleonic period and now is the position of the General as the man who can recognise clearly the nature of 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. Again, then as now, a General may have to fill a series of roles alluded to earlier: politician, leader, manager, supply specialist, public relations man – as well as strategist, operational commander and tactician. The exercise of command by a General is therefore not to be confused with simple leadership, nor 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 across the span of command. Like sovereignty, command is 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 1796 he said that ‘I am certain that one bad General is better than two good ones.’

Against that background, therefore, let us look briefly at Napoleon’s performance in strategy, campaigning and on the battlefield.

Napoleon as Strategist

By 1805, Napoleon combined the functions of Head of State with those of supreme war-lord in a way that few others ever have: Alexander the Great, some of the Tsars, Hitler, Saddam Hussain perhaps compare with him. Since Napoleon’s day, of course, the industrial and technological revolutions 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 – who pointed out that war remains an art tempered by science – 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 modern idea 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; alliance or coalition unity of effort; timely and appropriate force generation; a secure base of operations; and when operating away from home, the compliance of the local authorities and/or population.

Napoleon emphasised the separation of strategy from what was then called grand tactics by exploiting the potential of mass armies to achieve strategic effects, and by altering the 18th Century notions of the relationship between movement and firepower. Earlier armies, it can be argued, fought in order to manoeuvre; Napoleon manoeuvred in order to bring the enemy to battle and through battle, achieve the sort of decision that would bring about the fall of a nation. One must, however, 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 during the early nineteenth century. In 1813 alone, for example, England was able to subsidise her allies in Europe to the tune of almost ₤7.5 million – a huge sum in those days when a gentleman could live very well on £600 a year and equivalent to around £4.3 billion today. It was the vast financial resources of the British Empire, as much as anything, therefore, which underpinned the will of the Sixth Coalition 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. 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 Robespierre’s statement of aims in 1791, war as the export of revolutionary ideology as much as for expansion was inevitable for any French régime. Napoleon himself said at the time of the Peace of Amiens that: ‘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 statement was made in spite of the fact that he was, as is usual with dictators, invariably claiming to be pursuing peace. 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. 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 England. Where the system worked, and Napoleon kept out English trade, Europe suffered as well as England, 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. But without English trade and English finance, Europe would inevitably suffer recession and hardship. No matter to Napoleon that Europe suffered: the results for the British economy were dramatic in 1810 and 1811 when the system was at its height. Half of England’s trading markets were closed, there was a run on the pound, the value of stocks fell dramatically, manufacturing industries went into recession, workers were laid off, food prices rose and there was so much unrest in industrial areas that there was a very real fear of revolution. England’s saviour was the Tsar. His Ukase (decree) of December 1810, which re-opened indirect trading, effectively spelled the death of the System. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 acceler¬ated the process by re-opening the ports of Russia and Sweden to direct trade from British ships as well. A visitor to the great Leipzig Fair in early 1813 remarked that once again, English cloth and manufactured goods were freely available.

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 transformed into a vassal: the country was invaded and occupied, the monarch imprisoned and replaced by the Emperor’s brother Joseph, and resistance brought savage reprisals. In dishonouring Spain, Napoleon managed to trigger first the popular revolt, 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 were aroused by his annexations and reprisals against guerrilla activity: he could not hope either to keep or to win the peace that had been imposed by French arms. How he could have believed that such a treaty as San Ildefonso was possible shows how his grasp of reality had slipped: King Ferdinand in prison understood the situation better than Napoleon did. 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.’

In addition to the mistake of invading and occupying Spain, 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 incapacities of Napoleonic logistics were apparent. In spite of 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. Added to this, Napoleon needed a speedy conclusion to the war in order to force the Russians back into the Continental System before terrain, weather and numbers began to tell against him in the field. It seems that Napoleon’s instincts as a soldier overcame his judgment as a statesman.

The disaster in Russia had a terrible impact on French military potential: the empire lost 570,000 men including the desertions of his erstwhile clients and allies, 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 upsurge of national feelings in Germany and elsewhere that resulted in the formation of the Sixth Coalition. In the final years of his reign, Napoleon might win battlefield victories, 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. He seems, however, to have been unable to see this. Evan after the disaster of Leipzig in 1813 he was offered peace terms which would have left him on his throne and France with more territory than she had had in 1789. He refused and ended his days as an exile.

Napoleon and Operational Art

If Napoleon committed fatal strategic errors, what about his abilities on campaign? Napoleon would certainly have understood the modern notion of the operational level of war. 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 one’s own, and the enemy’s centres of gravity as being decisive stems from interpretations of the Napoleonic system by contemporary theorists such as Karl von Clausewitz and Anton Jomini. For Napoleon, the centre of gravity at the operational level – that aspect of the enemy’s power that, if attacked, would cause his downfall – 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. ‘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.’ The campaigns of Marengo, Ulm and Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau and Friedland are all illustrations of this principle in action. Not for him the tedious business of siege warfare which had characterised much of 18th Century operations, for Napoleon only ever undertook two sieges in his entire career - and those right at the outset of his career – Mantua and Acre..

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Napoleon’s successes at the operational level was that he got away with it for so long. What allowed him to do so was the sheer size and organisational strength of the Grande Armée itself: the introduction of the corps system, its all-arms divisions, and its staff made it unique and it allowed him to do things more rapidly and more completely than his opponents. His battery of manoeuvres at the operational level was after all, limited: envelopment, the central position, the battalion square and the operational penetration. A thorough analysis of previous campaigns, allied with good reconnaissance should have shown his enemies what he was about, and allowed them first to counter him and then to play back his own techniques against him. There were huge risks, for example, in his habitual technique of marching divided – necessary though this was for speed and foraging. Against better quality opposition, he would have been more severely punished – as he was in the series of battles after Dresden in 1813 – for armies that march divided risk being brought to battle divided, and therefore on unfavourable terms. But for most of his career, Napoleon was opposed by inferior Generalship, or by coalitions with a divided command. As late as 1813, with even force-ratios, he was able to handle the Central European allies very severely with a set-piece envelopment at Bautzen, which was a re-run of several previous battles; yet the penny did not seem to drop. Even Wellington, who of all the allied Generals seems most clearly to have understood Napoleon’s methods, was hoodwinked in the campaign of the Hundred Days.

This is not to say that he did get away with it all the time. The campaign in Egypt and Syria was nothing short of a disaster. Russia was a débâcle. His subordinates never succeeded in maintaining the initiative in Spain for long, and the Hundred Days ended in abdication and exile. Even during those campaigns which can be accounted successful, there were serious, sometimes near-disastrous, setbacks – for too often, the system of marching divided resulted in Napoleon being left waiting for some subordinate to arrive, while his troops withstood the devastation of close-quarter battle in the appalling conditions of the day. At Jena, for example, Bernadotte never arrived at all, and Davout instead of clinching the day, met the Prussian main body by pure chance at Auerstadt, winning a battle against all the odds. At Marengo, the day was saved only by the arrival of Desaix, and at Eylau, by Ney. Ney failed to repeat this feat at Bautzen, allowing the allies to escape. In 1815, D’Erlon spent a day marching and counter-marching between Ligny and Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, Grouchy never closed with the battlefield.

These potential disasters were as often as not averted by sheer bloody fighting at the tactical level which will be examined more closely in a moment; but when Napoleon was good on campaign, he was brilliant. The Campaigns of Northern Italy, Marengo, Austerlitz and Jena for example were little short of masterpieces, because his tactical gambles paid off. Therefore, the balance sheet favours Napoleon as an operational General.

One additional reason for his success was logistics. 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 for it is one thing to order a force to march to a particular place, but it is quite another thing to get it there and then keep it there. Logistics my therefore indeed, as in Russia in 1812, be decisive. Then and now, logisitics 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 yet seen: they were in effect moving cities, with all the problems of food, water supply, sanitation and medical care that cities have; his method of supplying them had therefore to be innovative – hence his insistence on spreading out and foraging to supplement his depots despite the tactical and operational risks that this entailed; and his dislike of sieges – for when they halted for long periods, armies rapidly ate up the food in the surrounding area. Keeping moving solved this problem.

It is ironic that, having succeeded in many campaigns on the basis of providing just enough just in time – by foraging and his system of supply depots and the wagon train – Napoleon 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 demands, distances, destination and duration of the campaign. Even so, had the plundering of the troops been checked earlier, systematic foraging might have yielded better results.

Napoleon’s logistic system was, 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, which linked the combat units with the stores depots. With the same exception, his methods were not dissimilar to those of other European armies of the period. 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 he had no railways, no mechanised transport, no cold storage nor food processing technologies; it was these factors that allowed armies to grow to the size they did during and after the First World War and to remain static for extended periods. 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. Deployed military forces are 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. But given the constraints and conditions of his time, Napoleon must be given credit, whatever his shortcomings in other areas, for making 50 cents do the work of a dollar. 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, simpler then than now of course: that of determining those things that are going to be decisive. The purpose of battle was not merely to defeat the enemy’s army but to destroy it and thus end any war at one stroke.

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, because few can cope with the span of command involved. In Napoleon’s case, the same intelligence 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 will be entrusted to a subordinate combined arms commander: evidence that the span and scope of command has broadened beyond the ability of one person to control.

Given the nature and ranges of weapons 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. Because of technological advances, the requirement for a General to move around today is less, but it has still not disappeared and there are times when, because of moral factors, only his personal presence will do.

Meanwhile, the main headquarters, much larger and run by his Chief of Staff, Berthier, kept control of the army. This flexibility allowed Napoleon to do the three things that 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 across the entire field of battle.

If Napoleon could be 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 Jena-Auerstadt. Thereafter, however, the truth is that the price of his gambles was that for every victory, 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. 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, who regarded him with a sort of amused contempt even when he beat them at Corunna; and 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, as at Ulm, to outmanoeuvre an enemy and force a surrender without fighting, 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, 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, so its battlefield performance also, inevitably, 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: its combination of size, organisation, equipment, command and control, training and sustainability was superior to all others; and Napoleon could accordingly demand feats of endurance, sacrifice, and complexity which were beyond those of his opponents. But the quality of its later performance declined with the quality of the troops, and indeed the quality of the Marshals, as casualties took their toll. After the Russian campaign, for example, Napoleon rarely 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. In spite of the victory of 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. 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 Personal Qualities

Before concluding, we should make mention of Napoleon’s remarkable personal qualities. He was without doubt brave. He had great charisma; he was an inspiring leader; he exercised a strong personal magnetism and had a remarkable recall for names. He had the common touch with the troops. His breadth of intellect, memory, capacity for work and powers of concentration were all immense. He had well developed intuition and could make a decision rapidly. He was, by the way, a little above average height for the period and the jibes against ‘Little Boney’ that came from the lampoons of James Gillray and others are undeserved: he was usually surrounded by tall Grenadiers of the Guard in their even taller bearskins and this may have made him appear short. On the other hand he had a furious and vicious temper – quite terrifying to subordinates in one with so much power. He rarely confided in allies or subordinates and made no attempt to bring them on; nor did he ever found a Staff College. All he wanted was obedient puppets who could execute drills.

Napoleon’s Legacy

When one looks at the curriculum for military history at the British Army Staff College in 1913, and its equivalents in the U.S.A. and France, one is struck by the emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars, in spite of the more recent example of the sequence of wars 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. He 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.

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. 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 industrial revolution equipped them with weapons far closer to those of today’s battlefield than of Leipzig or Waterloo. Aircraft, the railway, the telephone and telegraph, the steam and petrol engines, smokeless powder, breach loaders and repeating weapons were all in place by 1914. 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 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 1917 that this relationship was adjusted and Blitzkrieg was born.

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 found in Iraq and in Afghanistan, 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. Whether in conventional operations like the Russian action against Georgia; or in complex, counter-insurgencies like Afghanistan, it is campaigns that are decisive. Battles are one of the means by which a tipping point is reached in a campaign or in the conditions within a theatre of operations, after which there is only going to be one, inevitable conclusion.


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