Reasons for Napoleon's Success (to 1807).

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Reasons for

Napoleon’s Success(to 1807)

a) Napoleon’s Strength – The Military Aspect


  1. Napoleon’s Qualities of Leadership
  2. The Changing Nature of War
  3. The Development of the Grand Armee
  4. The Development of Winning Tactics
  5. Weapons Training in the Grande Armee
  6. Napoleon’s Strategic Planning
  7. Napoleon’s Generalship

b) Napoleon’s Strength – the Civil Aspect

c) The Enemies’ Weakness – Allied Disunity

  1. The Second Coalition 1799
  2. The Third Coalition 1805

a) Napoleon’s Strength – The Military Aspect

i) Napoleon’s Qualities of Leadership

  • One of Napoleon’s great strengths as leader was the devotion of his men. His soldiers adored him.

  • Despite his generally unprepossessing appearance, when he wished to charm he could quickly win over anyone he met, however initially hostile they might be. Within a couple of days he had completely captivated the officers and crew of Bellerophon taking him to St. Helena in 1815, much alarming the British government.

  • One Admiral at that time exclaimed, “If he had an obtained an interview with His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, in half an hour they would have been the best friends in England!”

  • His contemporaries had no doubt about the charismatic quality of leadership. His great adversary Wellington said to him that the moral effect of his presence in the field and worth an additional force of 40,000 men to the French army. This he ascribed to Napoleon’s dual position as both head of state and commander-in-chief, which gave him unparalleled control over events, but also to his great personal popularity with the army.

  • One of Napoleon’s own generals explained this popularity by saying that it “was by familiarities that the Emperor made his soldiers adore him, but it was a means available to only to a commander whom frequent victories had made illustrious; any other general would have injured his reputation by it”.

  • By the use of theatrical and emotional language in his bulletins and Orders of the Day, Napoleon formed a special bond between himself and the army. He played on the ideas of military glory, of patriotism and of comradeship, while giving at the same time the impression that he had a deep paternal concern for his men. To this they responded with real devotion.

ii) The Changing Nature of War

  • The majority of the eighteenth-century wars were fought with more or less evenly matched, mainly mercenary armies, very similar to each other in training, equipment, composition and strength. Each was quite small, containing sometimes as few as 30,000 men, and the wars were normally undertaken with limited objectives such as the acquisition of a small province, more often than to be eventually used as a bargaining counter in maintaining the balance of power in the game of international diplomacy.

  • The cry of la partie en danger had led in 1792 to the formation of a French national army consisting initially of ‘patriotic volunteers’. Universal conscription had long been advocated by such different men as Guibert (the influential and aristocratic pre-Revolutionary military reformer) and Rousseau (the equally influential eighteenth-century philosopher). Both thought it the best way to raise a citizen army which would have wide support, and in 1793 conscription was actually introduced. A year later there were a million men under arms (France had the largest population in Europe, 28 million, to draw recruits from). In practice, the largest majority of conscripts were from poor peasant families, in theory at least universal conscription brought together men from all classes of society in defence of la partie.

  • Eighteenth-century generals tried to avoid battle, if at all possible, concentrating instead on sieges, or on manoeuvring in order to evade the enemy or to gain a tactical advantage (also identified as ‘intensified diplomacy’ by Clausewitz). Violence was controlled by calm calculation of the risks involved and careful observance of the conventions of war. The enthusiasm and fervour, the élan and dash of the Revolutionary armies was something alien to established military practice.

  • The men fighting in the new French armies were not their as mercenaries, nor as men impressed against their will, but as citizens honourably defending their Revolution against its threatened destruction by outside forces. Instead of avoiding battle they actively sought it. Often ill-disciplined and ill-equipped, they relied on shock tactics and the momentum of the bayonet charge to bring them success, especially in their early encounters.

  • Conscription was introduced in 1793 – it marked the first amalgame, the merging of remnants of the old army with the new. The veteran soldiers brought much order into its early chaotic organisation without destroying its verve, and formed it into a fighting force which Napoleon used as the basis of his Grand Armee.

iii) The Development of the Grand Armee

  • In the period of comparative peace between 1800 and 1804, Napoleon reorganised the French army which under the Directory had been split into a number of separate armies. Each of these had been under the command of a more or less independent general, an arrangement which made concentrated and intensive action almost impossible.

  • Napoleon knew this from his own experience – as commander of the Army of Italy and then the Army of Egypt he had frequently made his own decisions and he had acted without reference to anyone.

  • His new arrangements were based on the ideas of Guibert, whose thinking was probably the single most important influence on Napoleon’s military development. The whole army was divided into corps of about 25-30,000 men; some of the cavalry was kept separate, as were the reserve artillery and several elite groups, the most important of which was the Imperial Guard. The entire army was under the direct and sole control of Napoleon himself, as the commanding army.

  • The organisational aim was to allow unity of command – Napoleon’s – while providing flexibility in action. Each corps was given a particular role on a campaign march, but this role could if necessary be quickly changed; regiments could be transferred from one corps to another if required, and infantry or cavalry detachments could be sent out as skirmishers or moved round as protective screens to shield the movement of the rest of the troops, and leave the enemy confused and uncertain as to what was happening. In battle as well as on the march, flexibility was the key. Once the engagement was joined, the idea was to manoeuvre as would best lure the enemy into taking an unfavourable position, and then tempt him into committing his whole force, including his reserve, into an all-out attack.

  • Napoleon would at this point order his own reserves to launch a surprise enveloping attack on the enemy’s rear and/or flank. In the decisive French charges and relentless pursuit which followed, heavy casualties would be inflicted on the fleeing enemy.

  • These casualties sometimes, as at Marengo, Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena, numbered three times as many as those suffered by the French. This strategy was new. Guibert had proposed this strategy years earlier, but as Napoleon put it, “everything is in the execution”, thus we cannot belittle his brilliance.

iv) The Development of Winning Tactics

  • Military strategists had been disputing from the time before the Revolution about the way to deploy the infantry (the principal part of the army), on the march or in battle. Should they be in line or column?

  • The column, a long file of soldiers moving slowly along a single road, was the traditional marching formation, but was extremely vulnerable to enemy attack and almost powerless to take offensive action in emergency.

  • The line abreast was the equally traditional battle formation, three more or less stationery ranks of musketeers ranks of musketeers firing continuously to order. Well-trained, disciplined troops could be very effective in this formation against infantry or cavalry, but were always vulnerable to concentrated artillery fire.

  •  1791 – a compromise was reached between the ‘column or line’ schools of thought, and embodied in a new drill manual. This allowed the commander to choose whatever combination of line and column seemed best to him at the time, in what came to be called ‘mixed order’. It was a development of this ‘mixed order’, which Napoleon most frequently employed in battle – the infantry in a concentrated but mobile formation made up of both line and column, moving around the battlefield as required, firing at will, and following up, in Revolutionary tradition, with a massed bayonet charge when needed, and supported by the cavalry.

  • Napoleon, on the march, dispersed his forces into self contained groups advancing simultaneously at a distance perhaps as a mile from each other along several roads, in effect forming a series of columns in line abreast.

  • This allowed for mutual support and reinforcement in case of attack and at the same time simplified the requisitioning of supplies from the countryside through which the army was passing.

  • Following Guibert’s precepts once again, Napoleon ensured that the army should travel light and therefore speedily, covering an average of 12 to 15 miles a day living ff the land instead of relying on slow supply wagons or on depots requiring careful advance preparation. The army on the march was, thus, well spread-out and extremely mobile, easily able to move into a loose net-like formation and trap enemy forces manoeuvring in a traditional compact group. They could then be rounded up, and forced to fight at a disadvantage.

  • Campaigning for Napoleon was, until 1807, a successful blend of mobility, speed and surprise, which brought rich rewards; not until the enemy the enemy learnt how to counter his strategies did the situation change.

  • Napoleon, like all Revolutionary generals, was committed to the idea of the offensive and to the importance of forcing the enemy to give battle, but only when that enemy has been out-manoeuvred. While he was able to maintain the surprise element, Napoleon managed to win every encounter.

  • At Ulm 1805 the Austrians, remaining stationery, were surrounded. At the twin-battles of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 the Prussians, on the move, were surrounded and, worse still, found themselves facing the wrong way as the French attacked and the battle began. The Prussians still operating in accordance with the teachings of Frederick the Great (most of their generals had learnt their craft in his campaigns) were organised in slow and unwieldy line-formation. Restricted in their movement they were annihilated, losing 45,000 and all their artillery.

  •  While Napoleon’s army remained a national one – the French nation in arms-fighting offensive wars and pursuing a policy of mobility and surprise against the old-fashioned, semi-static armies of the Ancien Regime, Clausewitz was right – Napoleon could not lose.

  • Napoleon was so successful that in his early campaigns that by his victories he changed the pattern of war. Instead of taking land in the eighteenth-century manner from states in decline (as Poland had been partitioned by her neighbours shortly before the Revolution) he took – and kept – territory belonging to the strong. His victories were so total that diplomats were unnecessary for the peace negotiations – he could, and did, dictate his own terms on the vanquished.
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  • From 1805 onwards he developed the use of war as une bonne faire (a good thing) financially. Peace treaties imposed on defeated countries not only provided for the free quartering of Napoleon’s troops on their territory, but included payment of massive indemnities – Prussia was forced to find 311 million francs after her defeat at Jena 1806. War had been satisfactorily self-financing. It would continue to be so, as long as he kept on winning.


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