Contrary to popular belief Napoleon Bonaparte was the average height for his age. But if history understates Napoleon’s height it overstates his military greatness. Although routinely cited as one of the great generals in history Bonaparte was, in actual fact, a one trick pony who constantly flirted with disaster and was a bust when his trick was rumbled. He only fought one great battle, at Austerlitz in 1805, and one great campaign, against Prussia the following year.
This might seem a strange thing to say considering his extraordinary run of success until 1812; driving the Austrians from Lombardy at Arcola in 1796, the crossing of the Alps and Marengo in 1800, the defeat of the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, the Russians again at Friedland in 1807 and the Austrians again in 1809 at Wagram. At its greatest extent, in 1811, the French empire and allied states covered modern day Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark and Norway. Surely this was down to more than luck?
Circumstance played a part. The 150 years of European history between the Treaty of Westphalia and the rise of Napoleon was punctuated by wars like the War of Devolution (1667-1668), the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Year War (1756-1763). In these wars the major powers of Europe; France, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia as well as a constellation of smaller states, slid like mercury from one short lived military alliance to the next, often fighting in one war their allies from the last one.
The wars were like jousts. They were fought for limited aims; no country was ever dismembered after defeat. They were limited in scope. Battles like Malplaquet and Landen were bloody but these wars did not bring the mass, prolonged immiseration of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Any losses in one war could be made up with gains in the next one.
This was the political and military environment that allowed Bonaparte to prosper. His military philosophy was best summed up by American Civil War cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest; “get there firstest with the mostest”. Napoleon relied, first ,on moving quickly to secure a decisive battle and, second, on concentrating his forces at the decisive point to win it.
Despite saying that “an army marches on its stomach” Napoleon bought speed at the expense of logistics. To Bonaparte’s mind establishing supply lines and depots took up resources, limited your freedom of movement, and slowed you down. This meant that his army had to forage for supplies. This put them at the mercy of their surroundings and, to a large extent, made a quick decisive battle necessary. The risk was that if the decisive battle didn’t come his men would starve.
The early successes won with speed bought at the expense of logistics were the perfect passport to success in a Europe full of powers willing to throw their hand in and wait for the return fixture. But they were, to an extent, chimerical. In all but two of his early campaigns Bonaparte failed to secure a decisive victory in the sense of destroying the enemies capacity to resist. Instead he destroyed their willingness to resist. After his victorious campaigns in 1797, 1800, 1805, 1807 and 1809 the Austrians (four times) and the Russians (twice) could have carried on the war if they had wished. The exceptions were his ignominious disaster in Egypt in 1798-1799 and destruction of Prussia in 1806.
After the invasion of Russia in 1812 this trick never worked again. Napoleon’s Grand Armée of 422,000 men in heavy uniforms crossed into Russia on a sweltering June day. As usual Bonaparte had sacrificed logistics for speed and his men carried four days of rations with them. Unlike the fertile theatres of western and central Europe the French found food much harder to come by in Russia, its relative barrenness being exacerbated by the scorched earth policy of the Russians. Men began drifting ever further away from their units to find food, many falling victim to marauding Cossacks or vengeful peasants. Horses, which required far more feeding than a human, died in their thousands crippling the cavalry and placing further pressure on what supply lines there were.
And the quick battle didn’t come. Napoleon was advancing into the gap between one Russian army to north and their central army under his opponent, Marshal Kutuzov. Just as Bonaparte wanted to split these two forces Kutuzov wanted to unite them and so kept retreating to bring them together. As he did so he became aware of the advanced state of decrepitude of the French army. He began to think that he might be able to beat them without fighting them. So he kept on retreating and forcing the starving French to advance.
Contrary to the Napoleonic myth gracefully retold by Tolstoy that his army was defeated by ‘General Winter’ and froze to death during the retreat from Moscow the Grand Armée had, in fact, already lost 320,000 of its 422,000 men before reaching Moscow. The retreat accounted for another 90,000. The Russians had beaten Napoleon by not fighting him.
The lesson was learned quickly. Sensing their chance for revenge after years of defeats and arrogant Napoleonic ‘diplomacy’ the Austrians and Prussians allied with Russia and Britain in 1813. Facing three armies in Germany Napoleon, a new army hastily assembled, went in search of quick decisive victories against each in turn. His enemies refused to oblige. When Bonaparte advanced against one enemy they withdrew and the other two advanced. When he turned to strike one of them that army would retreat and the other two move forward his army deteriorating with each forced march after a new shadow. In this way he was boxed in at Leipzig in October 1813 where, fighting with his back to a river and just one bridge as an escape route, he lost a second army in two years over three days in the biggest battle in European history to that point.
If Napoleon was firstest at the fatal price of neglecting his supplies he often failed to be mostest as well. Time and again, throughout his career, when the eagerly sought battle arrived it often found Napoleon unprepared and with his forces divided.
The battle of Marengo in 1800 became such a part of Napoleonic myth that he named his horse after it. It was so famous because Napoleon snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Or rather he didn’t, his subordinate, Marshal Desaix did. Breaking his own maxim of concentration of forces Bonaparte had sent a corp under Desaix off on a wild goose chase and been ambushed by the Austrians. Luckily Desaix heard the gunfire, disobeyed his orders and headed for the battlefield where Napoleon had suffered a kind of breakdown. The battle was saved but, alas, Desaix was killed.
This was repeated numerous times but nowhere more notably than at Napoleon’s final battle, Waterloo in 1815. Defeated and banished in 1814 Napoleon returned to France the following year, toppled the unpopular Louis XVIII and was declared an enemy of Europe by his erstwhile foes. Again, his plan was to cross as quickly as possible into Belgium and defeat the British and Prussian armies there so he could prepare for the advance of Russia and Austria.
He crossed the border on June 15th in between the British and Prussian armies the aim being, as in Russia, to drive the armies apart and defeat each separately. It didn’t work, Wellington, the British commander, and Blucher, the Prussian, decided to hold their positions. On the 16th Napoleon threw his main force north east against the Prussians at Ligny while sending a smaller force north west to capture the crossroad of Quatre Bras from the British.
At Ligny Napoleon ground out a victory but his troops were so exhausted that they had to rest the following day. This meant that despite holding the French at Quatre Bras the position was now untenable. Besides, Wellington had picked a much better defensive position a few miles to the north at Waterloo.
It was here that Napoleon, the man who urged concentration at the decisive point, repeated the mistake of Marengo and split his force. Unsure of where the Prussians had retreated to after Ligny Bonaparte sent 30,000 men under Marshal Grouchy, one third of his army, to locate the Prussians. What they were supposed to do when they found them was unclear, Grouchy was ordered both to push the Prussians away from Waterloo and, at the same time, link up with Napoleon. Lacking the decisiveness to choose either Grouchy fought a battle against the Prussians at Wavre so half heartedly that most of them were able to get away to Waterloo to reinforce Wellington. It was the allies who concentrated at the vital point and Napoleon who left wailing “Where is Grouchy?” as his final gamble failed.
The battle of Waterloo itself was the usual gruesome Napoleonic affair. In the Thirty Years War a battle had been notably bloody when 20,000 died. In Napoleon’s battles this would count as a skirmish. 52,000 died at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, 77,000 at Wagram in 1809 and a staggering 124,000 at Leipzig in 1813.
These figures were dwarfed by the First World War a century later but there had been a revolution in military technology in the meantime which produced, among other things, the machine gun. There had been no similar advance in killing power between the Thirty Years War and Napoleonic Wars. Armies had grown in size, 160,000 men fought at Malplaquet in 1709 while more than 600,000 fought at Leipzig, but the battles killed a greater proportion. At the exceptionally bloody battle of Breitenfeld in 1631 15% of combatants were killed, at Borodino in 1812 that figure was 29%.
Much of this was down to Napoleon’s battle tactics. For all his reputation for skilful manouvre, more strategic than tactical, his victories, when they came, were generally the result of sheer pugilism. Aside from the deft movement at Austerlitz which coaxed the Austrians into a trap Bonaparte often chose the simple bludgeon of frontal assault. The stories of Wagram, Borodino and Waterloo particularly are ones of waves of massed frontal assault.
But Napoleon wasn’t one to ponder these losses. After the battle of Bautzen in 1813 in which 40,000 died Bonaparte snapped “After such butchery, no result!” Wellington, on the other hand, reflected after Waterloo “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”.
Napoleon is one of the great figures on European history. His incessant warfare turned France into a nation at arms a mode of war and societal organisation which spread via conquest beyond his borders playing a major role in inculcating the nascent ideology of nationalism. But while his height may be understated, his military prowess is quite the opposite.