Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

What Made Napoleon Possible?

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Two hundred years ago today, Napoleon Bonaparte went down to final defeat at Waterloo.

Napoleon Bonaparte is rightly remembered by history as a great commander. However, he was also the beneficiary of military changes — some designed, some accidental — that gave free play to his unique abilities and magnified his influence, at least until the rest of Europe caught up to him.

The Sport of Kings

Warfare in 1750 was truly the sport of kings, conducted by relatively small armies officered by sons of aristocrats and augmented by paid mercenaries. The soldiers, often scraped from the dregs of Europe and subject to ferocious discipline, required time and money to be drilled into an effective fighting force. This force was too precious to risk in an all-out battle with a low probability of a decisive victory. The great leaders, such as Maurice (Moritz), Marshal Saxe, were famous for using maneuver and the threat of battle to win positional victories while keeping their armies intact.

Eventually, one side or the other would exhaust its treasury and have to make peace. A treaty would be signed, provinces would change hands and the defeated side would rebuild for the next inevitable such conflict.

One of the important aspects of this kind of war was it was fought between members of Sovereign’s Club, who usually knew when to stop. The kings and princes mostly had no desire to wipe out a brother sovereign and paid attention to the balance of power; today’s ally could be tomorrow’s adversary, moving into the vacuum created by a defeated common enemy.

Innovations in France

The defeat of France in the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) stripped her of her North American colonies and irreversibly weakened her position in India. It was a significant national reversal that released direct military and indirect political consequences.

The Plan with Branches

While there is evidence that other great commanders had used contingency planning before, Pierre-Joseph Bourcet (1700–1780) formalized the concept of the plan with branches to allow for opponent countermoves, changing conditions and new information.

In his Principles of Mountain Warfare, Bourcet foresaw the form of organization that Napoleon would use to great effect:

A general who intends to take the offensive should assemble his army in three positions, distant not more than a march from one another, for in this way, while he will threaten all points accessible from any portion of the 25 or 30 miles thus held, he will be able suddenly to collect his whole army either in the centre or on either wing. The enemy will then be tempted to post troops to defend each of the threatened avenues of approach, and the attempt to be strong at all points will make him weak at each separate portion.

However carefully the enemy may have prepared his communications between several parts of his army, …in case of an attack at any point he will not be able to concentrate his troops there in time, if only the attacking general has concealed his plan and his first movements. The attacking general will usually be able to steal a march, …while the defender requires time to receive warning, time to issue orders, and time for the march of the troops to the point attacked.

In order to make this work at a contemporary scale, it is not sufficient that the great commander does contingency planning in his own head; the staff must understand the concept and produce the alternative sets of orders, ready to be issued. Where communication is essentially limited to line-of-sight or the speed of a dispatch rider, a high level of staff organization is needed to ensure that the columns really do converge at the right place and time.

Artillery Reforms

Cannon at Fort Ticonderoga, of the type that would have been there in the 18th century. Credit:

Cannon at Fort Ticonderoga, of the type that would have been there in the 18th century. Credit:

As late as the American Revolution, cannon were large and cumbersome, and only useful in defending or attaching fixed positions such as forts and earthworks. The cannon were not very mobile and their supplies were not mobile at all.

Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715–1789) dramatically redesigned French artillery after 1776. He reduced and standardized tube sizes and mounted them on more mobile carriages. He sought a system of interchangeable parts for cannon, although this was beyond the abilities of armories at the time.

Cannon of de Gribeauval's design, 1794. Note the increase in mobility.

Cannon of de Gribeauval’s design, 1790. Note the increase in mobility.

Jean du Teil (1738-1820) further advanced artillery methods, working out the tactics to use de Gribeauval’s cannons effectively in battle.

Citizen Soldiers

The overthrow and execution of the anointed King of France was not tolerable to the Sovereign’s Club. Beginning in 1793, the neighbors began to take military action to put down the French Revolution.

As a result, the French pioneered many aspects of nationalism. There was no king to recruit for, and no need to recruit, anyway; it was your duty because you live here to fight for the country. The Levée en Masse decree of 1793 began:

From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.

France was at this time the most populous nation in Europe. Using this new innovation in national service, France could muster over a million men, whereas the pre-revolutionary French army counted 150,000 regulars. More importantly, compare this with the strength of their principal opponents: Austrian forces numbering just under 500,000, and less than 200,000 Prussian soldiers.

The Challenges of Scale

Without skilled leadership, the French army would effectively be a militia, capable of defending the borders of France but incapable of offensive operations in foreign territory. Taking the offensive would require new innovations in command and control, in movement and supply. Just moving an army of 100,000 men is a complex problem. They can’t all use the same road; it would take days to get past any point, and by the time the back half of the column arrived, the front would have stripped the area of food. The long column would be an inviting target to the enemy.

Fighting a battle with an army of that size also presents challenges. The commander has to be able to direct action he can’t see; this was a problem many American Civil War generals were unable to master. The commander cannot be everywhere; he has to give orders to subordinates and trust that the latter will apply their own training, experience and common sense to the evolving situation. Information has to flow quickly and reliably between commander and officers in order to be able to cope with the chaos, the unforeseen and the unfolding course of battle.

The Army Corps

Prior to the 1740’s, the largest permanent military formation was the regiment. Marshal Saxe created the division, which was the smallest unit capable of operating independently, having its own supply and support functions.

Building on the work of Saxe and Bourcet, Napoleon organized his Grande Armée into several corps, each of which had several divisions. The corps had its own line of march and was commanded by a general (after 1804, often a marshal) who had mission orders rather than detailed orders. The corps needed to be large enough to hold its own for a day if attacked, while other corps came to its aid.

Ulm Campaign, 1805.

Ulm Campaign, 1805.

An example of the use of corps to move effectively and disguise intentions is the campaign against the Austrians in 1805. Napoleon attacked with over 200,000 men, but it was not immediately clear to the Austrians where he was going. Suddenly his forces all turn and converge upon the Austrian force of 72,000 at Ulm and destroy it.

The Marshal You Never Heard Of

Napoleon depended upon skilled subordinates to carry out his orders. Many of these were honored for their service by being named Marshals of France, and their conduct is reported in histories. Some marshals, such as Lannes, Davout and Masséna, were capable of success as independent commanders, while others, such as Ney, are remembered for their battlefield leadership and personal bravery.

Louis-Alexandre Berthier was Napoleon’s chief of staff. He typically is not mentioned in the histories of Napoleonic battles and he does not appear on historical maps, but he was essential to the success of the campaigns. He kept the intelligence coming in and the orders going out. He made possible the rapid, coordinated movements for which Napoleon is famous.

It is a military maxim that, “Converging columns don’t.” Berthier and his staff were responsible for making sure the columns really did converge at the proper place and time. They did it with messengers on horseback and face-to-face communication. This was a major accomplishment and gave Napoleon the confidence to maneuver in ways his opponents did not dare attempt.

Napoleon’s Contributions

All these soldiers, improved weapons and staff capabilities were there, but someone had to have the will to use them. Napoleon brought the will, determination, initiative and raw appetite for power to harness this potential and apply them to expand his own greatness and that of France (one and the same to him).

Napoleon had the confidence and the nerve to actually rely on the advantages he had and take risks based on them. Having the staff to issue the orders, he counted on his forces to converge and be where he wanted them to be when he wanted them to be there.

I may lose a battle but I should never lose a minute.
— Napoleon

Napoleon was the first modern commander who understood time-based warfare, even though the unit of time in his era was the day rather than the hour. In the years before 1813, he kept his opponents off balance and operated inside their decision cycles.

These successes went to his head, and his insatiable lust for power led him to overreach. The first marker of excess was the invasion of Portugal in 1807. This began the Peninsular War, which was a constant drain on French resources.

By 1813, he was fighting all of Europe and opposed by commanders such as Wellington whose confidence, purpose and resources matched his own. The powers of Europe saw Napoleon as a threat that must be eliminated.


Better not to have been born than to live without glory.
— Napoleon

One cannot overlook the enormous quantity of blood and treasure spilled by Napoleon in Europe. Even if he had succeeded in Russia in 1812, there is no reason to believe he would have stopped and rested contentedly. For Napoleon, he was not there to realize the glory of France; France was there to realize the glory of Napoleon.

However, the alternative to Napoleon was not twenty years of peace in Europe. The royal houses saw the French Revolution as a disease, and were eager to lance the abscess before it infected their own populations. In the end, the Congress of Vienna restored the House of Bourbon to France. A lesser ruler would have likely been fighting about as often, but France would have been fighting defensively. Napoleon, valuing the initiative as he did, took the fight to the neighbors.

The Terror and the Levée en Masse, which have served as the foundation of totalitarianism, were created by others while Napoleon was still an obscure artillery officer serving in a provincial backwater. These cannot be laid at his doorstep.

The rest of Europe gained at least as much from Napoleon as did France, as reforms and modernizations that royal governments would otherwise have resisted were forced upon them in order to fend off, or recover from, the French invasions. Prussia, in particular, would never be the same. Whether or not the revitalized Prussia was a net gain for the world is another story for another day.

With all this, one still has to marvel at the man who pulled all the opportunities together and imprinted his name on an entire generation. Historians and military officers still study period we identify as the Age of Napoleon.

For Further Reading

These web sites have various articles regarding Napoleon and his era:

The Napoleon Series:

Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Homepage:

Napoleonic Guide:


Written by srojak

June 18, 2015 at 7:19 am

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