The Master of the Battlefield Part I


“Battle of Moscow, 7th September 1812”, 1822 by Louis Lejeune

Bonaparte was first and foremost a military man, a soldier, a general, a commander of armies, and a deadly destroyer of his opponents’ military capacity. His aim throughout his career was to move swiftly to a position where he obliged the enemy to fight a major battle, destroy the enemy’s forces, and then occupy his capital and dictate peace terms. That is what he invariably did when he had any choice in the matter. He was absolutely consistent in his grand strategy, and on the whole it served him well. It fitted his temperament, which was audacious, hyperactive, aggressive, and impatient of results. Indeed, impatience was his salient characteristic, serving him for both good and ill. As Wellington, who thoroughly understood Bonaparte’s strengths and weaknesses, remarked, he lacked the patience to fight a defensive campaign, and even when he appeared to be doing so, in the winter of 1813-14, he was really looking for an opportunity to make an attack and win a decisive, aggressive battle.

Hence speed was of the essence in Bonaparte’s methods. He used speed both to secure the maximum disparity between his own forces and the enemy’s, by attacking the latter before they were fully mobilized and deployed, and also to secure surprise, both strategic and tactical. He moved large armies across Europe faster than any man before him. He was able to do this, first, because of his ability to read both large- and small-scale maps and plan the fastest and safest routes. In the study of terrain, and the visual reconstruction of it in his own mind, his imagination was at its most potent. Second, helped by good staff officers, he was able to translate these campaign routes into detailed orders for all arms with a celerity and exactitude that were truly astonishing. Third, he infused all his commanders with this appetite for speed and fast movement. Indeed, the common soldiers learned to move fast, taking long marches for granted in the knowledge that, whenever possible, Bonaparte tried to ensure they got lifts on baggage carts in rotation. (During the Hundred Days he got his troops to Paris without obliging most of them to march at all.)

Bonaparte himself set an example of speed. He was often seen flogging not only his own horse but that of his aide riding alongside him. His consumption of horsepower was unprecedented and horrifying. In the pursuit of speed by his armies, hundreds of thousands of these creatures died in their traces, driven beyond endurance. Millions of them died during his wars, and the struggle to replace them became one of his most formidable supply problems. The quality of French remounts deteriorated steadily during the decade 1805-15 and this helps to explain the declining performance of the French cavalry.

The speed with which his armies moved was also due to the strong motivation of his troops. The armies identified their interests and their future with Bonaparte, and the lower the rank, the more complete this identification became. There is a puzzle here. Bonaparte cared nothing for the lives of his soldiers. He disregarded losses, provided his objectives were secured. He told Metternich in 1813, during a day-long argument about the future of Europe, that he would gladly sacrifice a million men to secure his paramountcy. Moreover, having got his army into a fix, and having written off the campaign accordingly, he repeatedly abandoned the army to its fate and hastened back to Paris to secure his political position. This happened in Egypt, in Russia, in Spain, and in Germany. Bonaparte was never held to account for these desertions, or indeed for his losses of French troops, which averaged more than 50,000 killed a year. By comparison, Wellington’s losses from his six years’ campaign in the Iberian Peninsula totaled 36,000 from all causes, including desertion, or 6,000 a year. This disparity brought a rueful reflection from Wellington:

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one prodigious advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought on my knees to the bar of the House of Commons.

This freedom to take risks, which Bonaparte enjoyed except at the outset of his career, was not enjoyed by any of his opponents, all of whom were surrounded by jealous rivals and subject to political authority. And Bonaparte took the fullest possible advantage of it throughout. It fit in perfectly with his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking. It usually came off, and when it did not, Bonaparte gave practical expression to the old army maxim “never reinforce failure,” and left.

The soldiers liked this high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk. Soldiers like action. High casualty rates mean quicker promotion and higher pay. Moreover, in Bonaparte’s armies, unlike all the others, promotion was usually on merit. Private soldiers had a good chance of promotion to senior noncommissioned rank and a reasonable chance of becoming officers, even generals. Under Bonaparte’s rules, a proficient soldier could transfer to the Guard, the army’s elite force, where he was paid as much as a sergeant in a line regiment. Good food (where possible), high rates of pay, and loot—these were the material inducements Bonaparte offered. He also fraternized with the men. Byron’s friend Hob-house, who watched Bonaparte inspect a parade during the Hundred Days, was astonished to see him pull the noses of soldiers he picked out from the ranks. This was taken as a sign of affection. He also slapped the faces of favored officers, quite hard. This, too, was not taken amiss. Bonaparte knew how to talk to his men around their campfires. His public addresses were short and simple: “Soldiers, I expect you to fight hard today.” “Soldiers, be brave, be resolute!” “Soldiers, make me proud of you!” Bonaparte liked and expected to be cheered by his men, in contrast to Wellington, who dismissed cheering as “coming dangerously close to an expression of opinion,” and would never have dreamed of touching one of his officers, let alone a private soldier; he detested commissioning from the ranks, believing that officers so made remained slaves to drink. There were advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Once Bonaparte became First Consul, and still more after he was crowned, he turned his soldiers into a privileged caste. Wellington often observed that Bonaparte’s presence on the field was worth 40,000 men in the balance. What he meant was not a tribute to Bonaparte’s tactical skill but a reflection on his power. He explained his remark in a memorandum he wrote for Lord Stanhope in 1836:

[Napoleon] was the sovereign of the country as well as the chief of the army. That country was constituted on a military basis. All its institutions were framed for the purpose of forming and maintaining its armies with a view to conquest. All the offices and rewards of the state were reserved in the first instance exclusively for the army. An officer, even a private soldier, of the army might look to the sovereignty of a kingdom as the reward for his services. It is obvious that the presence of the sovereign with an army so constituted must greatly excite their exertions.

Wellington added that all the resources of the French state were directed to the particular operation Bonaparte commanded to give it the maximum chance of success. He enjoyed direct, not delegated power like most commanders in chief, and to a degree, Wellington said, never before exercised by a sovereign in the field. He made all his subordinate appointments according to his own notions, without the need to consult anyone. (Wellington, by contrast, often had generals foisted upon him by the Horse Guards and sometimes could not even choose his own staff officers.) Finally, Wellington thought, Bonaparte’s sovereignty stilled disputes among his marshals and thus gave the French army “a unity of action.”

Wellington might have made a further point. Bonaparte also controlled all the domestic channels of communication, including a subservient press. He could thus, except in extremis, present his own version of military events, and the roles played in them by individuals and units, to the French public and the world. He was not the first sovereign- commander in chief to appreciate the uses of propaganda, but certainly the first to recognize its central importance in war, and to take full advantage of the increasingly large-scale media, from giant placards to steam-produced newspapers, now available. The state semaphore and posting systems meant that he could always get his version to Paris first, and this enabled him, for instance, to present his Egyptian expedition as a huge cultural success, rather than a complete naval and military failure. He could also, if necessary, manipulate the mob, in much the same way as Arab military dictators do it in our time—not through a state political party, as in their case, but through the structures of the National Guard and other paramilitary formations that survived from Revolutionary times and remained loyal to him. Bonaparte had lived through the old times when civilian mobs intimidated the royal soldiers and persuaded them to be disloyal. Now he reversed the process—it was the military who set the political tone and the civilians who followed them.

The French nation was behind the army during the Napoleonic period (1800-14), in a way that would not have been possible in any other European country at that time. The army was the premier institution of the state—in a sense it almost was the state—and the soldiers knew it. It made them proud and bolstered their morale. Here was one of the keys to Bonaparte’s military success: he could draw on this morale, rely on it, exploit it, before it was eventually destroyed, in Spain and Russia. The French army, under Bonaparte at his best, had an enviable corporate arrogance. It knew it was the finest. Correspondingly, it inspired fear, except among the best professional troops, and sometimes even among them.

Indeed, fear was Bonaparte’s most useful weapon. It was the one he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start—it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defenses before a French shot was fired. During his campaigns, with few exceptions, Bonaparte faced coalitions of nations with vastly superior manpower resources, if properly assembled and deployed. His strategy therefore was not only to strike quickly but to strike between his opponents’ forces, before they could join together. He went for each in turn, hoping he would have numerical superiority and defeat them separately. The Allied armies thus rarely had the confidence of numbers, and even when they had, Bonaparte’s notorious ability to bring up reinforcements quickly and surprisingly tended to undermine it. Granted these initial advantages, Bonaparte’s battle tactics were usually simple. Of course he knew of all the classic dodges—encirclement, attack from the rear, ambush—and used them when opportunity presented. His understanding and exploitation of terrain was comprehensive. Whenever possible, he deliberately chose his battlefields. But once his army was deployed on ground of his choosing, he simply attacked. His tactics were all of a piece with his strategy. There was much sense in this policy. In early nineteenth-century warfare, with unarmored men exposed to cannon and shot, it was essential to morale for a unit to keep in tight formation. Once that was lost, it was likely it would disintegrate into a shambles and run. No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan was: attack!

Moreover, the French army under Bonaparte was trained and organized for attack, and it had the equipment and formations to do so effectively. A good staff and reliable field signaling systems, expertly organized by General Berthier, meant that attacks were well timed and coordinated. There was no set procedure, but it was usually as follows. First, an intense artillery barrage. Bonaparte had good guns, plenty of them, and good gunners. His horse artillery could maneuver its teams to within close reach of the enemy, so the cannon could be fired point-blank, thus trebling the rate of fire. Then they could be whisked away if enemy cavalry tried to overrun them. The proper response to the barrage was to dig shallow slit trenches, but this meant carrying spades, and they were not usually available. The alternative, which Wellington stumbled on early in the peninsular campaign, and therefore employed whenever he could, was to command the infantry to lie down, especially on a reverse slope (if available). This cut casualties to virtually nil and taught the infantry they had nothing to fear from the French guns. But Austrian, Prussian, and Russian commanders never adopted this tactic, fearing loss of formation. At all events, Bonaparte’s opening barrages usually had considerable effect, inflicting heavy casualties and inspiring yet more fear.

Behind the guns were the cavalry, waiting for the barrage to cease, reconnoitering the weak spots in the enemy line, and charging when appropriate. Bonaparte had by far the best cavalry in Europe, as Wellington acknowledged (his own he considered brave but unbiddable, and often positively dangerous to their own side). They had the great advantage that they could conduct a limited charge—that is, overrun a position and then re-form, instead of individually pursuing fleeing soldiers. The discipline of the French cavalry was due largely to some outstanding commanders, notably Masséna and Murat. But there were many others. The French cavalry were originally fairly well mounted, but after about 1808 the quality of horses declined and this was reflected in the cavalry’s loss of panache and power of impact.

Bonaparte was not so foolish as to suppose that victory against a determined professional enemy could be secured by guns and cavalry alone. The infantry were essential to master and retain the field. They, too, were trained to inspire fear, advancing at the rapid pas de charge, with drums beating ferociously, bugles blaring, and trained war cries. Bonaparte exploited the intimidating power of martial noise, and he reinforced this with the design of uniforms intended to make his infantry seem taller. This was particularly true of the Old Guard, chosen for height anyway but made more formidable by huge bearskins sometimes two feet high. (The Old Guard had at least five years’ experience; the Young Guard were the best of each year’s conscripts.) The total Guard numbered 50,000 and formed a separate army in itself (rather like Hitler’s military SS divisions). They were kept behind the line regiments and deployed so that they could be sent to any part of the battle when needed. Their presence was a comfort to the line, and if the line did its job well, they did not need to be thrown into action at all. Thus, paradoxically, the elite Guard, especially the Old Guard, the best troops, saw less action than most units, unlike the British guards, who were always in the thick of it. This could have serious consequences. The Old Guard failed Bonaparte at Waterloo, when they were most needed.

Bonaparte, having completed his three-wave attack, then reassessed the tactical situation and took measures accordingly. He directed operations from a piece of high ground or the roof of a building, if available. Sometimes he had a scaffolding tower made. But this was dangerous, and Bonaparte, though unquestionably brave, did not take needless risks with his person. He dressed in the dark green underuniform of the chasseurs of the Guard, sometimes with a gray greatcoat over it, which was inconspicuous. He never wore decorations in action (it was the flashing stars Nelson invariably wore on the quarterdeck that attracted the French sniper’s attention at Trafalgar and killed him). Wellington followed the same routine, wearing a dark suit almost indistinguishable from civilian dress. But whereas Bonaparte wore his hat square on, Wellington put the ends fore and aft. Why? Wellington liked to raise his hat, out of courtesy and to return salutes. Bonaparte rarely raised his hat to anyone.

Both used telescopes constantly. Bonaparte often criticized the French optical industry for not producing better models. It was notorious that British officers had superior ones, and the first act of a French officer when dealing with a British prisoner of rank was to relieve him of his telescope.

Directing a major battle in the poor visibility caused by drifting gunsmoke was no easy matter. Most of the Napoleonic battle pictures were painted long after the event by artists who were not present, and they drastically simplified the scene. But at Aspern, the battle was drawn while it was actually taking place by a professional Austrian watercolorist who was perched high on a building from which he could survey most of the field. His work’s verisimilitude leaves an impression of great confusion. No wonder experienced generals favored simple plans. Issuing fresh orders was not easy. They usually had to be carried by the hand of a brave and reliable aide-de-camp. Berthier, as staff chief, always sent more than one officer with duplicate orders—sometimes a dozen if the distance was great. But this was a military luxury of the kind that Bonaparte, who could command virtually unlimited resources, usually enjoyed. In any case, toward the end of a battle, the supply of ADCs ran out. All kinds of people were roped in to carry scraps of paper. At Waterloo, Wellington discovered a patriotic English tourist, who had somehow got involved in the battle, and made good use of him as a messenger. But often a commanding general had to ride about the battlefield and give orders in person. That was often how he was killed or captured.

Though Bonaparte was an exceptionally enterprising and aggressive strategist and tactician, he was in many ways a rather conservative military man. Most of the military innovations from which he benefited—the general staff, the new artillery, the semaphore, and so on—had been introduced under the ancien régime or during the Revolutionary period. The French state had magnificent arsenals and arms factories, but Bonaparte never set up a department to study and make use of scientific warfare or new technology—this despite his frequent and public commendation of the scientific approach. France had many skilled engineers, chemists, physicists, and biologists who might have been put to military use. The American naval engineer and inventor Robert Fulton, who built the first steamship and who was fiercely anti-British, appeared in France with all kinds of ideas, especially for submarines. But he got only lukewarm support from the French admiralty and none from Bonaparte himself. It was left to a British colonel, Henry Shrapnel, to invent what was to become for generations the most effective antipersonnel shell, and to the Royal Ordnance at Woolwich to start work on rockets.

Bonaparte enjoyed the services of a military scientist of genius in the shape of Domenique-Jean Larrey, who devoted his life to military medicine and was with Bonaparte on some of his most arduous campaigns. It was Larrey who invented the Flying Ambulance, the first effective vehicle for getting the wounded rapidly off the field. This was part of a system Larrey designed for ensuring that as many casualties as possible received proper medical treatment as quickly as possible. It undoubtedly worked, and saved innumerable lives. Moreover, Larrey deprecated the atrocious habit of military surgeons of sawing off arms and legs on the slightest pretext, usually because a bullet, in entering the limb, had carried with it a portion of clothing so that the wound became infected. He thought that limbs could usually be saved, and proved it in many cases.

Yet curiously enough, though Bonaparte lavished praise on Larrey’s skills and character, he never made him head of the army’s medical services. The post went instead to an older and more conservative man, Pierre-François Percy, who was surgeon in chief to the army, later the Grande Armée, from 1801 to 1812, when he retired. (The Grande Armée was introduced in 1805, meaning the Imperial Army when formed into a single body for a major campaign.) Larrey then indeed succeeded him for a time, but when Bonaparte returned from Elba he reappointed Percy, who by then was clearly past it. For most of the wars, Larrey had to be content to be chief surgeon to the Guard, who thought the world of his methods. Bonaparte only once employed him personally. He preferred Alexandre Yvan, who served him from 1796 to 1814. The reason was that Yvan held old-fashioned views on amputation and the use of the scalpel as opposed to time, nursing, and medications. Bonaparte preferred the risk of losing a limb to the possible alternative of putrefaction and death. The same reasoning seems to have applied to his preference for Percy, an old hacksaw-and-chopper man. We have here a clue to an important element in Bonaparte’s personality. Like many people—most people, probably—who are radical and “progressive” in general, he tended to be conservative in particular, especially on matters he thought he knew a lot about. Battle wounds were one of these subjects. Another was cannon and ammunition. On these matters he thought the improvements introduced in his youth were quite enough, and though he fiddled with the standard equipment, he never changed it substantially. Pontoons, mobile metal bridging materials, siege howitzers, anything involving naval technology including barges and troopships—he was not interested. He made little use of observation balloons; indeed he took no notice of airpower, though it was then much discussed. He ignored steam power, though the traction engine and the railroad were just over the horizon, and rail was to transform grand strategy in the decades to come. One might have said that the military rail was made for Bonaparte’s geo-strategy of swift transfer of armies. But he preferred merely to improve the old military road system, mostly laid down in the days of Louis XIV. It is a fact that Bonaparte introduced many innovations, notably the decimal system. But he was never keen on decimals, preferring the old system in which he had shone in youth, and on Saint Helena he denounced it root and branch. Radical in appearance, he had a hard, obstinate, conservative core.


Leave a Reply