Rory Muir

Tactical Advances

Napoleon on War

By Bruno Colson (Translated by Gregory Elliott)

Oxford University Press 484pp £27.99 order from our bookshop

Napoleon was not a modest man. He had no doubt of his genius, or that it was innate. He was successful because of ‘the special gift I received at birth … Everywhere I have been, I have commanded … I was born for that.’ Luck and good fortune were important, but not decisive:

No sustained great acts are the work of chance and fortune; they always derive from calculation and genius. One rarely sees great men fail in their most perilous endeavours. Take Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, the great Gustavus [Adolphus], and others: they always succeed. Is it because they had good fortune that they became great men? No, but because being great men, they proved capable of mastering good fortune.

He believed that the most necessary quality of a great commander was a cool head and bluntly told his brother Joseph, ‘We are two very different men … Everything goes to your head; you must be impassioned. Nothing goes to my head. Were I at the top of Milan cathedral and precipitated head first to the ground, I would fall calmly looking around me.’ As Bruno Colson, the editor of this fascinating new collection of Napoleon’s views on the nature and art of war, acknowledges, ‘In all his statements, we must suspect self-dramatization, self-representation, and self-glorification.’

But forethought and preparation were as important to success as natural ability:

In war nothing is obtained without calculation. Anything that is not profoundly thought through in detail yields no result. If I always seemed ready to react to anything, to face anything, it is because before undertaking anything I thought about it for a long time; I foresaw what might occur. It is not some genie that reveals to me all at once, in secret, what I must do or say in a situation unanticipated by others: it is my reflection, it is meditation.

He was also quite frank in admitting that general principles of war were seldom very helpful. He believed that too much depended on the specific circumstances of the moment – that ‘what was wise and skilful at 5 o’clock in the morning is folly at 10 o’clock’, and that the real difficulty for great generals consists not in making fine plans but in their execution. And he also anticipated Clausewitz’s view that ‘Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy.’

Napoleon, a gunner by training, believed that ‘the best generals are those who hail from artillery’ and that, in modern battles, ‘Firepower is everything; the rest is very little.’ But he also laid great stress on the importance of fostering the morale and fighting spirit of the army, employing the language of honour and glory to motivate his men, and inculcating a tradition of rivalry and emulation through the creation of two different elite companies in each battalion, by extolling the achievements of individual regiments to the whole army and by the creation of an Imperial Guard. It was important to give his men confidence by persuading them that they outnumbered the enemy and by avoiding changes of direction that would have meant retracing their marches. In his later battles, commanding large armies, he was generally content to leave the details of tactics and deployment to his subordinates; what mattered was compelling the enemy to commit their reserves to the action while retaining a strong force of fresh troops in hand, whose advance, late in the day when both armies were exhausted, would prove decisive. There was often only a slight difference between the armies at the moment of victory and defeat, and the advantage gained by victory would need to be fully exploited by the vigorous pursuit of retreating opponents, which would completely demoralise the enemy, inflict many further casualties and yield thousands of prisoners.

Colson has been assiduous in collecting Napoleon’s views from a wide variety of sources over the course of his career, including letters of advice to subordinates (such as his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais), conversations recorded in the memoirs of contemporaries and, especially, the notes he dictated while in exile on St Helena. Dubious and apocryphal sources have been rejected and in some cases the text of the quotation has been verified against the original manuscript. The work, which was first published in French in 2011, has been fluently translated by Gregory Elliott, though occasional oddities have slipped through (the ‘corps-to-corps fighting’ referred to surely means ‘hand-to-hand fighting’).

Colson has arranged the material on the same plan as Clausewitz’s unfinished masterpiece On War and expertly draws out the parallels and contrasts between the French emperor’s and the Prussian soldier’s views on the nature of military conflict. This structure is not perfect: there is a good deal of repetition and backtracking, while important subjects, such as the treatment of local civilian populations, deserve more space than they receive. However, the dialogue between Napoleon and Clausewitz, though in a sense artificial (neither read the other’s work), is stimulating and rewarding. A more serious criticism is that Colson does not sufficiently test Napoleon’s remarks against actual practice. He cites the pursuit of the Prussians after Jena and a few other, minor, engagements as examples of Napoleon’s belief in the importance of ruthlessly exploiting victory, but it is not noted that these were the exception rather than the rule. Most of Napoleon’s victories were followed either by an armistice and peace negotiations or by further campaigning, and not by the panic-struck flight of the enemy across hundreds of miles of open territory. Similarly, Napoleon’s concern for the health and welfare of his men – which was quite genuine in some contexts – needs to be contrasted with the appalling losses suffered through disease and deprivation by the young conscripts raised to replace the myriad casualties of the Russian campaign of 1812. Nonetheless, this is an exceptionally stimulating book for anyone with a serious interest in military history and it provides ample evidence of the cool, cynical pragmatism that complemented the raging ego of one of history’s greatest generals.

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