Napoleon Bonaparte Became the Model for Generations of Subsequent Commanders
The career of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), one of history’s greatest military geniuses, spanned nearly three decades, during which he fought over 60 battles, losing only 8 times. He revolutionized warfare with tactical, strategic, and organizational innovations, and for generations after his death, he was the model whom all aspiring commanders sought to emulate.
Napoleon was an artillery officer with an instinctive grasp for its full potential. Until the late 18th century, commanders tended to view field artillery more as a defensive than an offensive weapon. In the years preceding the French Revolution, military theorists had begun to challenge that conception. Napoleon took their ideas, and ran with them.
Napoleon did not see artillery as an adjunct, but as a central part of his battle plans. Instead of using artillery to simply break up attacking infantry or cavalry, Napoleon realized its offensive potential by concentrating it in grand batteries to devastate key enemy positions. He also studied the relationship between the placement of his own guns and the potential movements of his troops and those of the enemy. Napoleon then positioned his artillery accordingly, anticipating the flow of battle and having his guns already in place or ready to move to where they could do the most good.
Napoleon had also spent time in the Bureau of Topography, and he had an instinct for the ground and terrain. One of the secrets behind his success, routine now but often overlooked before Napoleon, was studying the terrain in advance to select the best battlefield. His maxim “know your enemy and know your battlefield better than your enemy“, is as valid today as it was in Napoleon’s day.
One of Napoleon’s greatest organizational innovations was the development of the corps system. He organized divisions into corps of 20,000 to 40,000 men, that were essentially mini armies containing infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery. During campaigns, the corps, each headed by a marshal, would march on a broad front, likened to the outstretched fingers of a hand. When one corps made contact with the enemy, it would give battle and attempt to fix the opposition in place, while the other corps closed in on the enemy, turning the outstretched fingers into a closed fist.
On the battlefield, Napoleon overthrew the linear warfare that had dominated battlefields since the days of Gustavus Adolphus – a process begun early in the French Revolutionary Wars, and perfected by Napoleon. When the Revolutionary government enacted the levee en masse and conscripted the entire French population into the war effort, French armies were suddenly swollen by hundreds of thousands of new recruits. France was invaded on multiple fronts by her neighbors’ professional armies, and it lacked both the time and resources to train up the new citizen armies to professional levels.
Making a virtue out of necessity, French military doctrine, as perfected by Napoleon, was changed to deemphasize the linear tactics of lining up against enemy forces and exchanging volleys of musket fire. Such exchanges were usually won by the more professional army. Instead, the French emphasized attacks by massed troops in dense columns, which required relatively little training. The dense formations were psychologically comforting to poorly trained troops under fire. They were also psychologically exhilarating, enabling them to feed off each others’ enthusiasm and elan during an attack. Napoleon mastered the art of using terrain and good timing to throw such columns at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, to overwhelm and break them with sheer mass.
Napoleon also went out of his way to make his soldiers not only respect him, but love him. He shared his men’s hardships, and spoke their language. A master propagandist, he issued bombastic army bulletins to boost his soldiers’ morale, praising their prowess, and his own brilliance in order to solidify their confidence in him. It was effective back then, when such propaganda was something new.
Napoleon’s armies were also a meritocracy in which commendable behavior was rewarded with decorations and promotions. It was often said of Napoleon’s soldiers that “inside every private’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton“, to describe the potential for rapid promotion and advancement. And indeed, more than one of Napoleon’s marshals had started off as a lowly private.