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The Success of Napoleon

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The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte

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The Success of Napoleon
The Success of Napoleon 
by Richard Podruchny

On the European continent, no one would have imagined that the rise of the "Little Corsican" would have perpetuated a conquest that would involve the entire European continent. This article will take a look at how and why Napoleon Bonaparte was as successful on the battlefield as he was. We will also see how Napoleon efficiently utilized the weapons and technology on hand that would formulate his strategy and tactics, which would result in his domination of Western Europe.

To begin looking at how Napoleon came to dominate Western Europe, we will start with what was inherited from his predecessors. Overall, the technology during the Napoleonic era was relatively unchanged. For the infantry, their small arms, such as the musket and bayonet changed very little.[1] The artillery arm, however, went through some major renovations prior to Napoleon's rise to power. Under the direction of Inspector General Jean-Baptiste Varvette de Gribeauval, these innovations have been described as the foundation of the military achievements of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.[2] The innovations that Gribeauval implemented were that artillery pieces were now made with interchangeable parts, which was suitable for mass production; gun carriages were built to a standard model; the mobility of the guns was improved by harnessing the horses in pairs instead of in file; hardwood axles replaced heavy iron ones; and accuracy was improved through the introduction of the "tangent sight," which is a graduated brass measure that enabled the gunner to sight the gun on a target. The greater mobility of the artillery would be one of the most defining improvements, since it would make it possible for the guns to accompany divisions.[3]

Through these relatively small number of improvements, Napoleon essentially mastered Europe with the weapons and equipment that was available. This means that Napoleon simply made more efficient use with what was on hand. As was mentioned previously, Napoleon improved upon the potential of division formations. Napoleon essentially borrowed the divisional formation from Count Jacques de Guibert, who was the author of his Essai General de Tactique and Defense du Systeme de Guerre.[4] He stressed the need for greater mobility and advocated the use of divisional formations. It was through the use of divisional formations that Napoleon revolutionized strategy. Armies would now be composed of detachable parts that could engage the enemy alone until the rest of the army came up in support, which consisted of both infantry and artillery.[5] Divisions could also be used in encircling or flanking movements, while on the defensive, the division could be used to prevent these offensive maneuvers. This type of formation can now take the advantage of parallel roads and be able to concentrate immediately before making contact with the enemy. As a result of implementing divisional formations, generalship was made more complicated and staff work became more important, as well as the need for highly detailed maps that would need to show terrain features and road networks. It was through this type of generalship that Napoleon would demonstrate his genius, since he was essentially his own chief of staff and he was able to effectively direct operations of his armies, where others would have failed.[6]

Even though Napoleon had implemented the use of divisional formations, armies during this time period would drastically increase in size due to conscription. These conscription based armed forces in France would number over a half a million men.[7] In order to effectively command these large numbers of troops, Napoleon would implement permanent army corps within the French army. This organizational unit became essential for administration and command and controlling these large numbers of troops. The corps formation would be utilized similarly as the division, which it would be a combined arms organization composed of infantry, artillery and cavalry. The cavalry would be responsible for conducting reconnaissance for the entire corps and would also have its own divisional organization within the corps. Even though the corps made it easier for Napoleon to direct his forces, the division would still remain as the major tactical unit within the French army.[8]

As mentioned previously, conscription became the reason for such a drastic increase in the number of troops. However, conscription came about from the French Revolution, which is where a new type of army emerged. In this new type of army, the aristocratic monopoly on officer commissions was removed, which paved the way for a new kind of officer. These new officers were the former Non-Commissioned Officers of the old royal army and they quickly transformed into a competent professional officer corps. Now that the aristocracy no longer had their monopoly, these officers, especially engineering and artillery officers, needed some knowledge of math and science, which led to giving these officers some type of formal education that led to the development of military academies. Another result of the French Revolution would be the emergence of the "nation-in-arms." The French army was not only moved by discipline but through ideological and patriotic dedication. The French government and citizens would support this new national army through the nationalized manufacturing of war material. This increased industrial production, even though this was before the full extent of the Industrial Revolution had reached the European continent, would largely be accomplished by hand rather than machine in order to support that vast numbers of troops that France and Napoleon would rely on.[9]

Now that we have seen what Napoleon had inherited through some of the technological and organizational innovations, as well as through the fruits of the French Revolution, we can now take a look at how Napoleon utilized these resources on the field of battle. By taking a top-down approach, we will first examine the strategic concepts that were refined and employed by Napoleon. At this level of warfare, the strategic level is where Napoleon would excel. To make effective use of his army's superior mobility and inspiration, Napoleon developed two major strategic systems. When he was facing an enemy superior in numbers, the strategy of the central position was used in order to split the enemy into separate parts.[10] This was where each could be eliminated in detail through maneuvering in order to gain the French a local superiority of force in successive actions by bringing the reserve into action at the critical time and place. On the other hand, of the French held superiority in numbers, Napoleon would often use a maneuver of envelopment.[11] By using this tactic, Napoleon would capture his foe's attention with a detachment of his army, while the bulk of his army would sweep against the enemy's lines of communication in order to sever the enemy's links with his bases.[12]

Through these two types of strategy, Napoleon would once again borrow these ideas from one of his teachers. Pierre de Bourcet, a chief of staff of the royal armies in both the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, as well as the director of the school for staff officers at Grenoble. He taught that an enemy could be misled by moves of various units which appeared to be disconnected, but which were actually part of a unified plan. The overall aim of this strategy was to compel the enemy to divide their forces and then to attack them while separated before it could be reinforced. It was through this philosophy that would form the basis of Napoleonic strategy. Napoleon would later refine this strategy by accident at the Battle of Marengo in 1800, where the battle was won for Napoleon by the opportune appearance of a division that had failed to concentrate prior to battle. Thereafter, Napoleon would often hold reserves back until the enemy forces were worn out, which was when he would send in his reserves.[13]

By employing these two types of strategies, Napoleon always looked to ways that would draw his enemy out to battle. He saw battle as a means to destroying his enemy's means of resistance. Napoleon's first and clearly defined objective at the outset of any of his campaign was the enemy's army, which he intended to destroy.[14] If his enemy did not want to risk battle, he would force them to do battle through his maneuvering, which would threaten something vital. Throughout all of his campaigns, Napoleon always sought to seize and retain the initiative, in order to impose his will upon the enemy. Even when Napoleon was badly outnumbered, he was still able to outmaneuver his enemies through marching and maneuvering, in order to employ the bulk of his forces at a weakened point of the enemy's. It was through Napoleon's focus on the enemy's armed forces and his ability to exercise quick maneuvering that he would enjoy most of his successes.[15]

The quick maneuvering and marching ability of Napoleon's armies would form the foundation in the execution of Napoleon's strategic concepts. When the French Revolution broke out, the French military logistical system rapidly fell apart, which proved incapable of providing the logistical support required by the newly raised French armies. This would evolve into the French army being able to operate by living off the land and not having to depend upon the magazine supply system. By living off the land, this would lead to the mystique that the French army could outmarch every other army in Europe. The French army was not handicapped by large numbers of supply wagons, which also fed this mystique. Instead of the army being hampered with how fast or how slow their supply train can move, now they were able to march as fast as their soldier's legs could carry them.[16]

To aid in Napoleon's speed of maneuver, his troops traveled light. Coupled with the increase in mobility from living off the land, the French abandoned the orthodox 70 paces per minute line of march in favor of a quick step of 120 paces per minute. This simple change would allow the French to march twenty to thirty kilometers per day. Even though this may seem to be a simplistic change, but in the days prior to railroads or automobiles, this change was a dramatic one. However, any army could duplicate France's new doctrine, but it was the revolutionary ideals of the citizen army and the threat to the survival of their "New France," as well as the sense of French nationalism that inspired the French army to perform such feats that were impossible for other armies to achieve during this time period.[17]

Now that we have seen how Napoleon was able to dominate the strategic arena on the European continent through strategic refinements, adopted changes in doctrine and the revamping of the logistical supply system, we can now look at the modifications and innovations that Napoleon made at the tactical level of warfare. At the tactical level, we will first examine the foundation of Napoleon's army, the infantry arm. As a member of the French infantry, an individual could expect two to three weeks of basic training, which stressed the use of the bayonet. The Napoleonic foot soldiers were renowned for their agility, stubborn attacks, as well as the speed of their marches. As it was mentioned previously, it was this speed and maneuverability that formed the foundation of Napoleon's successful campaigns. This speed and maneuverability was due to the lack of baggage that was carried by the French foot soldier, since they bivouacked in the open and lived off the land.[18]

Now that the French infantry was not weighed down with excess baggage, the re-introduction of light-infantry was put into practice. The use of skirmishing tactics and skirmishers in the era of the French Revolution meant that the foot soldier had to be re-trained to operate as an individual, as well as a part of a group. Napoleon would often utilize the light infantry or skirmishers to probe enemy positions or to find and keep the enemy stationary until the light artillery and larger infantry formations moved in support.[19]

With the re-introduction of light infantry into the Napoleonic army, they would be combined with a close order column, which would constitute the new tactics of the Napoleonic infantry. The light infantry or skirmishers would occupy the enemy in order for the larger assault formations to move up without being too exposed to the fire of the enemy line. To put this into a clearer perspective, the Napoleonic regular infantry would perform either role, whether it was in a skirmishing or regular infantry role.

Now the roles of the Napoleonic foot soldier has been identified, we can now examine the more renown infantry formations that Napoleon would utilize in his battlefield successes. One such formation was the column, which was developed by Lazare Carnot and later perfected by Napoleon. The French infantry column was an adaptation of the linear system, where the deployment of a number of linear units or battalions were in depth to provide physical and psychological weight to an attack, however, individual units could still operate in a linear formation. The greatest advantage by using this type of formation would rest in its flexibility and versatility. This formation would permit the commander to move large numbers of troops over the battlefield with better control and more rapidly than was possible before. The column formation could operate with ease in rough terrain, while being able to change formations just as easily. With the re-introduction of skirmishers, they could be detached without making major readjustments on the battlefield. While on the battlefield, this formation could very rapidly convert from two or three rank firing lines or squares and back to the original formation.[20]

Overall, the French infantry column essentially had two main functions; first, it could be used to bring troops in close order rapidly to engage the enemy; second, it could be used as a sustaining force. If the column sent out skirmishers to start the engagement, it would be used as a replacement pool for the skirmishers, as well as their immediate tactical reserve. If the column encountered firm resistance, the column might deploy into lines to carry on the fight with volleys. Once the enemy wavered, these lines could resume the advance or they might reduce their front and move forward in column.[21]

With the improvements in tactics and employment of the infantry arm, Napoleon would also make great use of his cavalry and not just in battle. The French cavalry would serve as the basis for Napoleon's intelligence collection. His light cavalry would be sent out well ahead of his army's main body in their attempt to find the enemy and be able to ascertain their dispositions.[22]

On the battlefield, the cavalry would remain as the shock arm of the Napoleonic army, with lances and sabers as their principle weapons. Within Napoleon's cavalry arm, he would still keep the distinctions between light and heavy cavalry. Now with Napoleon providing his cavalry with artillery and still utilizing them in great numbers, he would use them in surprise operations against the enemy's cavalry and infantry, which would prove to be very effective. The Napoleonic cavalry would typically be used against the enemy's infantry that had already been shaken or broken by massive artillery bombardment or by infantry attacks. Napoleon would demonstrate just how effective he could use his cavalry on the retreating enemy, which would cause as much chaos and destruction upon his enemies as possible. As Napoleon would later find out, the use of his cavalry against fresh infantry formations that would have the time to form squares would often prove disastrous for the attacking cavalry.[23]

After looking at how the Napoleonic infantry and cavalry underwent their renovations during the Napoleonic era, we can now focus upon Napoleon's favored arm, the artillery. By the time that France was plunged into its revolution, its army's artillery had been brought up to the latest standards, as well as its many new gunners and officers being trained in their employment. The French artillery arm would owe its change in status to Jean Baptiste Gribeauval, who would standardize all construction and design of the artillery pieces and gun carriages. This led to lighter, more manageable cannon, better quality barrels and ammunition. After 1800, the French artillery service would also benefit from the fact that their new Commander-in-Chief, Napoleon, was one of these very same artillery officers who had exerted so much influence on revolutionary fighting. Combined with the sweeping technological and organizational changes that were begun before the revolution, this would assure that the French artillery arm was the state-of-the-art for its time. These improvements would boost morale in a branch of service which already had a long tradition of professionalism. The end result was more aggressive battlefield tactics and ensuing success, which ushered artillery away from a supporting position into a decisive and highly destructive role.[24]

The use of artillery by Napoleon would once again be traced back and perfected during this era. Even though Napoleon believed that while the infantry was the main arm of an army and it could not stand up to superior artillery, he would borrow his ideals in employing artillery from Chevalier du Teil, who was Napoleon's superior in command of artillery at Toulon, where he had urged that artillery be concentrated at the point of attack and dispersed along the entire line. Napoleon would follow this practice and he would use his large caliber guns to blast a hole in the enemy's line into which the infantry could penetrate. As time went on, and the quality of French conscripts deteriorated, Napoleon would increase the proportion of artillery in his armies and he would rely more and more on bombardment.[25]

Due to the lower quality of conscripts, one of Napoleon's favorite battlefield techniques was through the use of the Grande Batterie. The Grande Batterie would be used in the later years during the Napoleonic era. This technique was essentially the physical massing of artillery fire in support of achieving his main objective on the battlefield, which would have the effect of blasting the enemy line to shreds to permit his infantry to advance. Even though Napoleon had raised the artillery branch from the status of an auxiliary to that of an equal compared to the infantry and cavalry branches, his use of artillery would still remain a contributing factor to his successes, however a very potent one.[26]

During the era of Napoleon, no one was able to match his ability to perfect the use of weapons, technology and tactics as he did. As we have seen, Napoleon was not so much the innovator but the borrower, which provided the foundation for his string of successes on the European continent. The impact that Napoleon would have can be found through his losses. In his defeats, this is where we can see how his enemies adapted to Napoleon's war making capabilities. Overall, the impact on the European continent would be through the emergence of the "nation-in-arms," which demonstrated the ability to field masses of troops and dramatically increased production efforts with a nation behind the war effort. It would be the combination of Napoleon's war reforms and the French nation behind his forces in the field that would have the greatest resounding impact on Europe.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Podruchny.

Written by Richard Podruchny. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Richard Podruchny at:

About the author:
Richard Podruchny is currently an active duty member of the USAF for the last 14 years. Over those 14 years, I have been stationed or deployed in the United Kingdom, Turkey, South Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Texas, Virginia, and Alaska. As of lately, I'm an instructor for our Combat Targeting Course where we teach our students, both officer and enlisted, the doctrine and methods through which the Air Forces wields Air Power. I have been married for the last 10 years and my wife and I have two beautiful children, an 8 year old daughter and a 5 year old son.

Published online: 02/16/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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