Title: Napoleon and the Conclusion of the Military Revolution

Napoleon and the Conclusion of the Military Revolution

Napoleon and the Conclusion of the Military Revolution The idea that Napoleon alone was responsible for the massive and sweeping reforms that shook the military establishments of early nineteenth century Europe is one that, on closer scrutiny, is hard to defend. Napoleon has in the last two centuries become a popular ‘deus ex machinia’ a towering legend who changed the world forever. His ambition and drive certainly did change the political map of Europe and his actions speed up the reform of continental military practice. But these reforms, rendered speedy because of the cataclysmic wars shaking Europe, were neither instantaneous or all-embracing. They were also built up from the ideas Napoleon assimilated at the École Militaire (France's most prestigious military school, in Paris). For all his bluster he introduced few tactical or strategic reforms, rather he refined and perfected the idea of ‘total war’ that was brought about by the revolution.[1] Indeed many of his tactics on the battlefield were brutish and ugly “On the battlefield the simplest plans are best, all depends on execution”[2].
He was the best exponent of focused mass strikes; he used a mixed order of skirmish, firing line and battalion column to smash the enemies’ lines at their weakest point[3]. His most famous dictum on the art of war runs thus “The principles of war are the same as those of a siege. Fire must be concentrated on a single point and as soon as a breach is made the equilibrium is broken and the rest is nothing”[4]. This aggressive and direct method of attack was far-removed from the chess-like game that war had become in the century preceding his rise. Yet this change in warfare had its roots long before the dawn of the Napoleonic era, indeed Napoleon may well have drawn many of his ideas from his voracious reading of military history. The use of mass force[5] was an idea that was as old as Alexander the Great, though it had only been re-discovered in continental Europe by the armies of Gustavus Adolphus[6].

This essay is not a critique of Napoleon the man; rather it will attempt to assay the qualities of Napoleon the general. The extent of Napoleon’s talent allowed him to grasp the fine detail and larger picture at the same time. An interesting and informative anecdote about the prodigal capabilities of the Emperor’s memory allows us to see just how extensive his ‘capacious intellect’ really was. Before the battle of Austerlitz Napoleon and his staff come upon a Colonel and his regiment who have lost their parent unit. While his aides tried to scrabble for lists and orders of battle, Napoleon, without looking at any paper, told the astonished man who his divisional commander was, what battles his division had seen and what the fastest route to his division was.[7] This astonishing memory for detail enabled him to keep a firm personal command of a shifting battle with hundreds of individual units engaged.
To assist us in the assayance of Napoleon the general we have the works of some of the finest military minds Europe has ever produced. Carl von Clausewitz and Baron Henri de Jomini saw extensive and varied action during the Napoleonic era; from that service we have Clausewitz’s masterly work ‘On War’, and the seminal Art of Warby de Jomini. Through the crystal clear prism presented to us by these works we are able to assess the role of one man in the conclusion of a revolution in military thought and practice that had begun with a Florentine statesman in the mid 16th century. Machiavelli had initiated, in his Art of War, a review of the constitution and use of armies. While his pedagogic insistence on the use of armies has long since passed its use, his insistence on self reliance and discipline strikes as true a chord today as it did both in the Florence of his day and the France of Napoleon’s.[8]
To really get a grasp of the Napoleonic art of war it is important for us to look at its two keenest observers, Carl von Clausewitz and Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini. Clausewitz, more than Jomini, was the man who appears to have grasped the central tenets of ‘Napoleonic’ warfare better than any other. He saw Napoleon as having the perfect ‘trinity’ of Army, State and Policy[9] and this strong base, coupled with an almost unerring instinct for finding his enemies’ centre of gravity[10] made him the greatest general of modern times[11]. Baron de Jomini, who served under Marshal Ney, was a member of the Grande Armée, in one of the most prestigious of the Corps d’Armée no less. He saw firsthand how people had to interpret orders given to them by the Emperor. His writings claim to ‘give away many secrets’[12] which is true but he gives himself over, particularly in his art of war, to the minutiae of military organisation, expounding on the benefits of Column vs. Line[13] this level of detail made for much debate amongst military theorists but in the long term Jomini has come to symbolise the other Napoleonic technique, operations of manoeuvre[14], so detested by Clausewitz.
Napoleon’s first active independent command was as the general of the Army of Italy, he took a disheartened, starving and ill organised army and made them into one of the most effective fighting forces in the arsenal of the republic. [15] Bell makes the case that the foundation for Napoleon’s success was his talent for shameless self aggrandisement, his superlative memory for detail and his gigantic capacity for work.[16] Indeed Talleyrand, the great French statesman of Napoleon’s empire is quoted as saying “What a pity the man wasn’t lazy”[17] How then did these skills translate on to the battlefield, how did they serve to make one man the symbol for the revolution in military theory and practice? Taking the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt as an example of the quintessential Napoleonic victory we see a microism of Napoleon’s strategy for the conquest of Europe. He divided the two principal columns of the Prussian Army between the villages of Jena and Auerstadt, expecting to find the greater force concentrated around Jena Napoleon advanced there with the bulk of his force. He sent Marshal Davout with only a moderately sized force to contain what he thought was the smaller Prussian force. Indeed when a galloper came from Davout telling the Emperor about the astonishing victory that was won by Davout’s corps. Napoleon reportedly said “Tell your Marshall he is seeing Phantoms”[18]

Even in this near fatal miscalculation we can see the inherent strength of the Napoleonic model, Davout commanded an army corps, a small self contained army containing a mix of both Cavalry Artillery and Infantry. This sort of army structure, reminiscent of the old Roman legion, was arguably Napoleon’s greatest innovation in the field of Military strategy[19]. This very flexible force structure enabled Napoleon’s armies to ‘March divided and fight concentrated’ with a degree of co-ordination that was hitherto unknown[20]. It was this degree of flexibility and autonomy that enabled the Grande Armée to destroy the Prussian Army “more completely than any army has ever been ruined on the battlefield”[21] The brilliant victory won by the armies of France, coupled with their astonishing victory at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 provided the catalyst for the coalition forces to begin their own military re-organisation, though due to the divided and fractious nature of their societies these nascent reforms would not bear true fruit until the campaigns of 1813[22]
To fully understand the differences between the army of Napoleon and the army of Prussia it would be constructive to include a quick overview of the state of the Prussian military and its command structure immediately prior to the cataclysmic battle of Jena-Auerstadt. The Prussian state first came to be regarded as a serious, if minor, European power during the reign of Frederick II “The Great”. He led the army to a series of stunning victories over much larger enemy forces. While this led to a marked rise in Prussian influence it also led to a certain arrogance, the army of Prussia believed itself to be morally and physically superior to any enemy it might have to face. Even at the Battle of Valmy in 1792 the dangerously obsolete nature of the Prussian army was plain to be seen, yet in the fourteen year interim no modernisation of any kind was attempted.[23]
The Prussian army of 1806 muddled along with a hodgepodge of commanders, making manoeuvres and concentrations that were so bizarre that Napoleon could not make any sense of them whatsoever[24]. This showed the greatest difference between the old and new styles of war. While the streamlined command processes of the revolution had been, by now, widely copied by the coalition states Prussia retained a small minded almost pastoral outlook. Instead of concentrating their forces and going straight for Napoleon (as he did to them) they dithered and bickered frittering away many men on superfluous garrisons[25]. The one plan they could agree on was to try and surprise the Grande Armée in its billets and destroy it piecemeal. This mildly ridiculous plan shows us the marked difference between Napoleonic warfare and the warfare of the proceeding century. Clausewitz and Chandler both point out the ridiculousness of this plan, “An entire army may not be surprised in its billets as a battalion might”[26]. The other glaring flaw in this plan was speed which was something the Prussians did not possess. For them anything over a twelve mile march in a day would be seen as excessive[27] whereas Napoleon and his army were well used to covering up to twenty-five miles a day, and then fighting a battle[28]. This gross disparity is what would lead the Prussians to be surprised at Jena-Auerstadt.

It would be easy then to imagine that Napoleon and his army were simply waiting to kick down the rotten door of the Prussian establishment and topple William III from his throne. Yet Napoleon was very cautious and careful in his preparations for this campaign. Many of his soldiers were expecting a long and drawn out conflict.[29] This apprehension did not however, prevent Napoleon from going straight to the decisive conflict, as was his wont. This is the true difference that Napoleon made. The real break from tradition that he precipitated was that he always went for a decisive confrontation, limited means warfare did not sit well with him[30]. So while the Prussians may have been content with driving the French back out of Prussia, or at best across the Rhine, Napoleon sought to bring them to terms and add them to his scarce collection of allies.[31]
In the aftermath of the climactic battles Napoleon drove the Grande Armée hard, trying to destroy what was left of Prussia’s field army. In this ruthless pursuit Clausewitz finds the final break in tradition, for the armies of the First Empire, war was not a gallant game, there were few enough aristocratic dandies in the Grande Armée[32]. Yet many in the armies of the coalition failed to change their ways, despite the obvious superiority of the Napoleonic model. It took seven years for the coalition to finally concentrate their forces and use the Napoleonic model on the master. Even with this level of reform it took the allies three days of hard fighting to destroy what was left of the Grande Armée after their disastrous campaign in Russia at Leipzig. Finally in the extraordinary ‘Hundred Days’ campaign Napoleon tries one last throw of the dice. His erratic generalship at the battle of Waterloo gives us a painful reminder of his mortality as disease and age affected both his raddled body and dimming mind.[33] It is ironic then, to think that the military that took up the true meaning of Napoleonic warfare was the very one that had been so humbled. The Prussian reformers, Scharnhorst Gisneau and Clausewitz laid the foundation for the rise of the General staff and the stunning victories of 1866 and 1870 which formed the absolute peak of Napoleonic warfare.

Spoiler Alert, click show to read: 
[1] Bell D.A. – The First Total War
[2] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol I
[3] Jomini B. de – The Art of War
[4] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol I
[5] Mass force or ‘Power to a Point’ is the quintessential method of attack. Essentially the commander spots a weakness in the enemy’s forces, sends overwhelming force to destroy it and then uses the breach to rout the enemy army. This held as true for the companions of Alexander as the Cuirassiers of Ney.
[6] Rothenburg G.E. – Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus, Raimondo Montecuccoli and the “Military Revolution” of the Seventeenth Century in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P
[7] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon
[8] Gilbert F. – Machiavelli: The Renaissance in the Art of War in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P.
[9] Clausewitz C. Von. – On War. Clausewitz held that the most effective way for a state to wage war necessitates a unity of purpose between the three chief elements of the state. Namely the Army, as the active arm of policy, the State, meaning popular support and Policy, meaning a clear direction from the government of the state.
[10] Clausewitz C. Von. – On War. By centre of gravity Clausewitz means their strategic centre, the one place that if compromised would bring down the enemy, this principle is applicable in any military engagement, from a light skirmish to the largest war. The famous Schlieffen plan is the most instantly recognisable, if extreme, use of this principle.
[11] Clausewitz C. Von. – On War
[12] Shy J. – Jomini in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P
[13] Jomini B de. – Art of War. In this case Column means a regiment with its battalions formed into columns who advance with skirmisher support, all Napoleonic armies deployed in column as it is the fastest way to both march and keep order. However when a regiment advanced like this it generally was advancing to charge. ‘Line’ means a long thin line, usually two or three ranks which uses weight of fire as opposed to bayonets.
[14] Jomini B de. – Art of War. Operations of Manoeuvre, such as the famous surrender at Ulm in 1805, mean marching and positioning your troops in such a way as to gain maximum advantage. Clausewitz insisted that they were only good for a limited type of warfare and that to gain great results a battle must be fought.
[15] Bell David A. – The First Total War
[16] Bell David A. – The First Total War
[17] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[18] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[19] Paret P. – Napoleon and the Revolution in War in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P
[20] Paret P. - – Napoleon and the Revolution in War in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P
[21] Clausewitz C. Von. – The Campaign of 1806
[22] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[23] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[24] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[25] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[26] Clausewitz C. Von – The Campaign of 1806
[27] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[28] Bell D.A. – The First Total War
[29] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[30] Paret P. – Napoleon and the Revolution in War in Makers of Modern Strategy Ed. Paret P.
[31] Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Vol II
[32] Clausewitz C. Von. – The Campaign of 1806
[33] Bassford, Moran, Pedlow – Clausewitz, Wellington and the Campaign of 1815

· Bassford, Moran, Pedlow – On Waterloo – Clausewitz, Wellington and the Campaign of 1815 – 2010
· Bell David A. – The First Total War Bloomsbury 2007
· Chandler D. – The Campaigns of Napoleon Folio Society, London 2007
· Chickering R. Total War, the use and abuse of a concept German Historical Institute Washington D.C 1999 Anticipating Total War: The German and American experiences 1871-1914
· Clausewitz Carl Von. On War Paret and Brody (Ed. Everyman’s Library 1993)
· Clausewitz Carl Von. The Campaign of 1806 Accessed at
· Gilbert F. – Machiavelli: The Renaissance of the Art of War in Makers of modern strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Princeton University Press 1986
· Jomini Baron De. The Art of War Project Gutenberg 2004
· Lynn John A. Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army 1610-1715 Cambridge University Press 1997
· Machiavelli N. – The Art of War CRW Publishing 2004 (Lon.)
· Motley Mark. Becoming a French Aristocrat: The education of court nobility 1580-1775 P.U.P 1990
· Paret P. Napoleon and the Revolution in Warfare in Makers of modern strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age Princeton University Press 1986
· Paret P. The Cognative Challenge of War, Prussia 1806 Princeton University Press 2010
· Strachan Hew. Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War – A Biography – Atlantic Books 2008