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Military Art of Napoleon

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Jacques-Louis David - The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries - Google Art Project

Napoleon, by David

Since the future probably holds for us another World War, we should make a few observations on the military art of Napoleon.

The objective of war

1. The chief question to be answered for every war is: what is its primary goal? The objective is a point towards which all lines of development must converge. Once the goal is formulated, a plan of war must be drawn which attempts to show how the objective is to be realistically achieved.

Clausewitz, who was fighting Napoleon because he opposed conquest of his native Germany, carefully observed the lessons he learned in the war. He stated two fundamental principles of strategy in the book "On War": "The first is: reduce the weight of the enemy’s power into as few centres of gravity as possible, into one if it can be done; again, confine the attack against these centres of force to as few principal undertakings as possible, to one if possible; lastly, keep all secondary undertakings as subordinate as possible. In a word, the first principle is to concentrate as much as possible. The second principle runs thus -- act as swiftly as possible; therefore, to allow of no delay or detour without sufficient reason."

Napoleon’s explains his principles of fighting in Remark #7 on a book by General Rogniat "Considerations sur l'art de la guerre", Paris, 1816: "The rules of Caesar were the same, as those that guided Alexander and Hannibal: keep all your forces together, do not have easily assaulted places, go as fast as possible to the most important points, use the moral factor, the fame of your arms, the fear which they instill, as well as political means for insuring the faithfulness of your allies".

The moral factor

2. Moral quality of soldiers is one of the most important factors in fighting a war. Napoleon put it like this: "In war, the moral element and public opinion are half the battle." Hence, most modern military publications, by discussing principally the hardware, are looking at the wrong side of the equation. Instead, they should be discussing the "soft" side of the equation: the loyalties of soldiers, their understanding of the goal of fighting, or, as the Americans put it, "the psychological warfare".

Napoleon slept on the ground, together with the soldiers, ate from the same kitchen, and personally led them into an attack. The soldiers adopted him as their "father" (read "People's Bonaparte ", a story of Balzac.) This contrasts sharply with the behavior of modern Soviet and Russian generals: they have their own kitchens, separate from the soldiers, they address soldiers in a rude manner and often try to degrade them, they have all kinds of privileges, such as hunting on airplanes, limousines, special clinics. The officers use soldiers as personal slaves, for example to build for them private homes or work the marijuana plantations. The officers steal from their soldiers, and pressure their subordinates to follow in their wake.

Thus, as revolutionary war represents a striving towards social equality, it is won first of all through personal example of leaders, who attempt to introduce as much equality and democracy as possible in each concrete situation. The soldiers should be explained the strategic goal for which they are fighting and this should not contradict the personal behavior of their leaders.

The numbers

3. In contrast to the moral quality of the troops, the quantity of soldiers is of secondary importance.  We see France attacking the armies of the coalition in 1792 with huge armies raised on the principle of "levee-en-masse", i.e. all citizens are soldiers. In the period of the Chinese Revolution, Mao concentrated up to 5 times numerical advantage over his enemy before an attack. In general, the more popular a war is, the greater is the number of people willing to participate in it. In an unpopular war, people burn their draft cards, escape to another country, sabotage the war effort in all kinds of ways, ultimately preparing for a revolution.

Know the political and social divisions in the enemy camp

4. Essential to every plan of war is an examination of recent political and social changes. For example: in 1796 the Austrians wanted to defend one part of Italy against Napoleon, while the Sardinians wanted to protect another part. So, they split forces, and Napoleon beat them one by one. In 1798 Napoleon planned an assault of the island on Malta. The fortifications of island-fortress were very good, and the island was well armed, but there were tensions between the native population and the knights of the order of St. Johann of Jerusalem, who were the feudal masters of land. This led Napoleon to estimate that the island was not going to put up a good defense, and he turned out to be right. The population saw in the Frenchmen their allies against the knights, and so riots and insubordination started when the French started to attack the island. The island fell easily.

A war is a competition of social systems

5. In war we see a competition of different states, a competition of different social systems. As the war progresses, more and more efforts are made on each side. This may lead eventually to a situation where there is a break down of an internal order, leading either to a coup d'etat (as we have seen with Hitler in 1944) or a social revolution (as we have seen in Russia in 1917). Hence, every warring party must keep an eye on the relation that exists between the goal and the amount of effort needed to achieve it. Obviously, the more progressive the goal, the more effort the society is willing to put forward for its achievement.

Unified command

6. Good officers are good at leading the regiments of their army. The Mameluks in Egypt described Napoleon's troops thus: "The French sultan is a magician which holds all his soldiers tied by one fat white rope, and depending on the string which he pulls, the soldiers turn right or left, as a single person; they called him ‘a Father of Fire’, to convey the intensity of the fire of the artillery, which used the grape shot, as well as the hand weapons fire of his infantry."

Rely upon the most advanced technology of the day

7. A revolutionary commander relies on the most advanced weapons and methods of its day. J. Burbeck in "Artillery and Napoleon" writes: "beginning in the late 1760’s, the artillery used by the French Army was completely redesigned along scientific principles by J. B. Grimbeauval, who standardized all construction and design. This resulted in lighter, more manageable cannon and better quality barrels and ammunition". Napoleon put it thus: "Great battles are won with artillery". Today, we may say that great battles will be won through information warfare, as well as though air and space weapons. Artillery and tanks are echoes of yesterday.

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