To outline properly the scope of Napoleon’s military tactics we would need more than a limited understanding of military history. My aim here is to only briefly outline many of the innovations, tactics or methods that made Napoleon one the greatest military minds in the history of warfare. In saying this a lot can be made of Napoleon’s success and failure in battle. He was passionate and daring to the end, he won and lost his fair share of battles, but always somehow managed to put the fear of God in nearly of those who dared to oppose him. Even the Duke of Wellington, who succeeded in delivering Napoleon his final and most notorious defeat at Waterloo, commented in its aftermath,
“ In all my life I have not experienced such anxiety, for I must confess that I have never been so close before to defeat ”.
Napoleon revolutionized military tactics and swept aside many of the assumptions of warfare of the ancient regime. He exploited the use of mass conscription and consistently sought to inflict a swift and decisive blow to his enemies. Often this was achieved by Napoleon’s effective strategies of annihilation (total war). In doing so, he basically set the standards of warfare that would become known in our lifetime as blitzkrieg.
The key to Napoleon’s success was ultimately strict security and his ability to adapt and carry out the element of surprise; superb intelligence; good communication; a methodical command structure and rapid mobilisation. Of all of these, Napoleon’s ability to rapidly mobilise his army was his greatest strength. The Grand Armee was known to march remarkable distances in days that armies of the past covered in weeks. To their advantage, Napoleon’s army was also able to live off the land.
Charge of the French Cuirassiers (cavalry) at Friedland (1807) – by Ernest Meissonier.
Napoleon genius also lies in his ability to adapt and innovate his army. Napoleon, in a pivotal organisational move, introduced the corps, both small and large enough, to operate effectively as infantry, cavalry and artillery units. Important to Napoleon’s overall aims, both his corps and divisions were given effective staff structures. It meant he could trust his commanders to operate effectively in smaller corps, for example, in secondary battles. (Unfortunately, the autonomy of individual forces wasn’t always successful. Waterloo is our best example of the failure of individual corps, which contributed greatly to the defeat of the French.)
During his many battles, Napoleon sought to ultimately concentrate all the resources at his disposal on a single front. This enabled him to seek out and identify the most key opposing force and destroy it. Often he did this by placing his forces behind the enemy’s rear by cutting off the enemy’s supplies and lines of communication (the manoeuvre sur les derrieres). Another famous Napoleon strategy involved taking what is called the central position. In his wars, Napoleon was often confronted by two or more armies, taking the central position aimed to drive a wedge between a coalition force and defeat them separately.
His success was made possible not only by an infantry that was well-armed with muskets (and expected to be able to fire three volleys a minute), but also with the use of cannons and a massed cavalry. Napoleon learnt very early on what devastating effects the cannon could have on royalist on the steps of Saint-Roch church in 1795. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Napoleon would eventually favour the cannon as an offensive weapon. He made his Grand Armee cannons as mobile as possible, often wheeled to the battlefield by horse-drawn limbers. In regards to his use of cavalry, they were often very effective in routing the enemy, in large-scale charges and for getting around enemy lines.
Napoleon, as many historians have repeatedly told us, represented the pinnacle of the military innovations of the French revolution. He used many of the innovations and practices of the 1790’s and made them his own. There is no better example to showcase Napoleon’s genius in the ‘art of war’ than the Battle of Austerlitz. Military historians often all agree that this battle was Napoleon’s greatest military masterpiece.
Battle of Austerlitz
In the winter of 1805 Napoleon’s Grand Armee marched halfway across Europe to confront the allied armies of Austria and Russia. The stage was set for a bloody encounter between the three armies, west of the town of Austerlitz (in modern-day Czech republic). The allies strategically chose the Pratzen Plateau to act as their primary central position. Little did they know that Napoleon had deliberately evacuated the plateau to create a trap for the allies. In addition, he provided the enemy with fake intelligence that suggested that his right flank was weak. He was essentially using his right flank as bait!
Hoping to entice Russia and Austria into attacking his weak flank, they immediately took the bait and struck south towards Napoleon’s right. This attack by the allies was repulsed by Napoleon’s famous III Corps, which arrived from Vienna just after the battle had started, but in time to deliver the allies an unexpected blow.
As the Russians and Austrians continued to throw large numbers of men to reinforce their attack on Napoleon’s right, their central position on the Pratzen Plateau began to weaken. The trap that had been set by Napoleon, to divert the enemy to his flank, had succeeded in weakening the Russian and Austrian centre. Pleased with the progress, Napoleon unleashed a ferocious attack through the middle of both armies, sending them into a panic, splintering their lines and making it easier for him to defeat them separately. (In the mayhem that followed, Napoleon’s artillery completed the allies misery by firing cannons into the frozen ponds, breaking the ice beneath the trapped enemy that originally attacked his right flank.)
The end result provided Napoleon with a significant victory. It would go down in military history as a great lesson in deception and manoeuvre! Importantly, it also saw the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon forced Francis II (of Austria) to break up the empire and reorganize the German states under his protection. Of course, none of this could have been achieved without the loyalty and dedication of his officers and soldiers. It seemed that they were prepared to go to the ends of the earth for him. It could be also said that this was Napoleon’s greatest genius, to make his men feel that he was one of them!
Napoleon’s return from exile from the island of Elba – by Karl Stenben.
Photo Credit: All images are in the public domain except the image of the Gribeauval 12 pounder cannon, which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.
Notes and Further Reading
Jeremy Black, The Battle of Waterloo, Icon Books, 2010.
Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography, Arcade Publishing, 2011.
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, Viking Press, 2014.
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon The Great, Penguin Books, 2015.
Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life, Harper Perennial, 1998.