Academic journal article History Review

Napoleon at War: Secrets of Success, Seeds of Failure? Graham Goodlad Examines the Controverisal Reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a Military Commander

Academic journal article History Review

Napoleon at War: Secrets of Success, Seeds of Failure? Graham Goodlad Examines the Controverisal Reputation of Napoleon Bonaparte as a Military Commander

Article excerpt

Even at a distance of two centuries, the extraordinary military career of Napoleon Bonaparte exerts a great fascination. His campaigns continue to be studied as exemplars in army staff colleges. The flood of academic and popular books and articles on his life and legacy shows no sign of abating. Yet there is considerable disagreement among historians over Napoleon's qualities as a commander. Some have accorded him the status of a military genius, pointing to his command of the battlefield, his skills as an organiser and his charismatic leadership. Others, however, have suggested that there were major blind spots in his strategic thinking, arguing that he depended heavily on the work of his predecessors and that he was an improviser who 'scrambled' to victory rather than an effective forward planner. A related line of argument is that his eventual downfall owed as much to his own weaknesses and mistakes as it did to the capacities of his opponents. Indeed it is possible to discern the roots of Napoleon's eventual failure in the very characteristics and qualities that originally helped him to dominate the continent of Europe.

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Command and Control

It is not hard to see why Napoleon has been numbered among the great commanders of history. A Napoleonic scholar, Gunther Rothenberg, has calculated that he personally commanded 34 battles between 1792 and 1815, of which he lost only six. For a period of ten years he dominated Europe, heading an empire that stretched from the Channel coast to the borders of Russia. The foremost military theorist of the age of Napoleon, Carl yon Clausewitz, hailed him as 'the god of War', whilst in slightly more restrained fashion the modern historian Martin Van Creveld has described him as 'the most competent human being who ever lived'. What were the distinctive qualities of leadership that brought such accolades?

Napoleon was essentially a practical individual, who did not commit his thoughts on strategy to paper in a systematic manner. His occasional observations on the subject simply underline his essential pragmatism: he declared that 'there are no precise or definite rules' and 'the art of war is simple, everything is a matter of execution'. Most historians would, however, agree that at the core of his philosophy was a belief in offensive action, aimed at a decisive clash with the enemy's forces. Napoleon's primary objective was the destruction of the opposing army rather than the seizure of territory or the capital city. This was demonstrated in the campaign of 1805, when he set out from France to crush the Austrian forces. In October, barely seven weeks after they left the camp at Boulogne, French forces surrounded General Mack's army at Ulm in southern Germany; forcing its surrender almost without bloodshed. Five weeks later, after marching a further 500 miles to the east, the French defeated a combined Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. These victories effectively gave control of central Europe to France.

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Rapid movement and the concentration of superior force were to a great extent dictated by practicalities. The French Revolution had seen a significant expansion in the size of armies--a trend which continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805 Napoleon's Grande Armee numbered some 210,000 men: the French army that invaded Russia seven years later had practically trebled in size. Although the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century created a food surplus, enabling armies to live off the land more easily than in previous generations, it was still necessary for them to continue moving to new areas in search of subsistence. It should be remembered that armies of this period depended heavily on horses for transport and that the daily food consumption of a horse was ten times that of a soldier. These considerations favoured a highly mobile, focused and aggressive style of warfare. …

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