To describe the intelligence and cleverness of Napoleon is a task not unlike the way he led his own armies, something to be broken down into sections and examined. For Napoleon was himself a man of details, meticulous and methodical. He fully believed that victory was based on two things, fast and hard attacks using superior manoeuvrability and having superior morale, staff and if possible, numbers. He studied the strategies of past generals and used their ideas, adding on to them and looking at where they made their mistakes. “Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great general…” (Napoleon Bonaparte) Napoleon’s greatness didn’t end with him though; his ideas and strategies on warfare didn’t die out, despite becoming dated as new technologies emerged, as seen in the American Civil War. His tactics are still studied today because of his tenacity and experience on the battlefield. Few, if any commanders were involved in as many, or as varied battles as him which could vary dramatically in terms of weather, landscape and enemies.
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From 1796 to 1809, Napoleon displayed an astonishing near-invincibility on the battlefield that led him to not only win victories militarily but also politically. He rose quickly from a lowly officer to self-crowned Emperor of France. His charisma and quick-thinking led to France being one of the greatest empires that Europe had seen, extending his dominance far and defeating army after army in battle. He did this with a different line of thinking that left his opponents battered and broken. Put simply, Napoleon’s strategies consisted of excellent manoeuvring, flanking and isolating the enemy. When faced with superior numbers, he would divide the enemy army and defeat each section individually by skilfully deploying his reserves at the right time and place. When faced with inferior numbers, he would smash into an opponent’s flank, distracted them and damaging morale while the main detachment would sweep across their lines of communication.
His careful planning was an integral part to his success as well; he said: “There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with child.” He had one clear objective, destroy the enemy’s army and all the remaining problems would be easily solved. Through advanced manoeuvring he made sure he always had the jump on his enemy, always on the offensive, keeping the enemy on its toes. He would take the initiative and determine the location of the battle, when outnumbered he would throw all of his troops at one decisive point to break the enemy’s lines. He also would frequently attempt to outflank the enemy and attack their lines of communication, supplies and leadership, causing panic and chaos. He relied on speed, aggression and mass.
His tactics came from “a shotgun marriage of Royal Army with Revolutionary improvisation.” His army would move as one, each battalion within supporting distance of the other. A light cavalry screen would ride ahead, to scout out and determine the enemy’s whereabouts. After learning of them, he would decide the best place to strike and instruct his main force to engage, two wings followed behind that, and behind them, a reserve of heavy cavalry and the Imperial Guard. Napoleon would use one force to distract the enemy then build superiority over another part of the army and crush it. Each division and battalion also had the ability to act on its own, with cavalry, infantry, artillery and a variety of staff. Napoleon always made sure to attack an enemy on its flank, and assured that in such situation “The victory is in your hands”. Napoleon’s flank was attacked at Leipzig, La Rothiere and at Waterloo, and in those three battles he was defeated.
Napoleon, while a great general, made some mistakes, something which Hitler should’ve studied in World War II. Napoleon’s downfall began with his campaign into Russia. He was fighting a war at too many fronts and had stretched his troops thin. Then, during his Russian campaign he could not employ one of his key strategies, living off the land. Without being tied down by supply lines, Napoleon’s forces could easily move around Europe, much quicker than his enemies. But, this idea didn’t pan out in Russia, as they used a tactic called Scorched Earth, retreating farther into their country and destroying everything along the way. The Russians had powerful troops in the form of Cossacks, but they had an even powerful ally, their winter. Napoleon would lose half a million of his best troops and despite taking Moscow, would be forced to give up and return to France. Then, more disaster struck in the form of a new alliance between England, Prussia and the Netherlands. By 1813 the combined forces of Prussia, England and the Netherlands had determined Napoleon’s strategy and used it against him. They made sure their armies fought together so they could not be divided and conquered, and they attacked his flanks and outmanoeuvred his forces and 1815, he would face his final defeat at Waterloo and be exiled from France.
Napoleon’s management of his troops was something he did excellently however. He thought it was very important that morale be high and he went about a few ways of doing this. First, he offered financial compensation. On top of their normal salaries, he offered bonuses for key battles which took place. He had taken 100 million francs to be disturbed among his forces evenly. Equality was another big part of his plan for good morale. He made it so that anyone could become an officer and be promoted through the ranks. It didn’t matter what their background was, if they demonstrated the ability, they could be promoted. Finally, through generous medal-awarding, his great speeches, and his charismatic personality, Napoleon was able to drive men to fight and lay down their lives for France, inspiring a sense of nationalism, and greed, in them.
Napoleon is still studied today for two reasons. The first being that learning history and studying the past is important. We can learn from our mistakes, get a better understanding of the world and even learn some new things, which is very important to the ever-changing world of warfare. Secondly, his tactics, while dated, can still be adapted for today’s world. He believed in mobile warfare and the strength of individual units, able to act on their own and carry out objectives. This is what modern warfare today is, large scale battles are done, WWII signalling the end of them. Now, war is small scale skirmishes, arms races, out-manoeuvring and out-thinking your opponent. It is a world where tactical nukes and the threat of apocalypse loom. Because this threat exists, war must be planned around it very carefully and meticulously, similar to Napoleon’s campaigns. Because today’s conflicts place so much weight on the success of individual units, Napoleon’s ideas of a well-armed, organized, bravely led, varied, experience and mobile battalion are important. It’s important because there is no assurance that Napoleon’s advice would not be taken literally; “It is principle of war that when thunderbolts are available, they should be used in place of cannon.”
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