Napoleon On War

Author Rating:
4.5/5,
  • Author:
    Bruno Colson
    This is a brilliant, stimulating, important and occasionally infuriating book, which will become required reading for anyone interested in Napoleon and his era and is an invaluable work of reference. It is the first-ever systematic collection of Napoleon's thinking on war and strategy, set out in a single authoritative volume. Some of this material has never been published before, including Napoleon's personal definition and theory of strategy. It must have been a Waterloo of a research project.

    Napoleon often spoke about writing a book on the art of war. Had he ever done so, given who he was, it would have become a classic, worthy of a place alongside Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Machiavelli's The Art of War and Clausewitz's On War. Napoleon never wrote it: instead, he used his enforced leisure on St Helena to write lengthy memoirs, whose main purpose was to show that he had been infallible, never making a wrong decision: his eventual defeat and forced abdication were the fault of traitorous, unreliable or incompetent Ministers, Generals, allies and of Perfidious Albion.

    So this is the book that never was. Nearly 200 years after his death, the present volume is the closest that we shall ever get to the great book on war that Napoleon contemplated but never had the time to complete.

    Napoleon left a voluminous legacy of letters, directives, orders, instructions, memoirs and reflections, writing at length to Commanders-in Chief, Governors and relations whom he had placed on thrones around Europe, advising them how to organise their armies, run a campaign and lead men in battle. No detail escaped his attention. These documents contain much of the wisdom that Napoleon would have developed, polished and incorporated into his never-to-be-written book.

    The Editor of this volume, Bruno Colson, is Professor of History at the University of Namur, Belgium. He has copied the structure of Clausewitz's On War, using the same chapter headings and filling the chapters with what Napoleon had to say on the subject, with explanatory passages by Dr Colson. It was an inspired idea; as a result, we are able to compare the ideas of two of the greatest military philosophers, who were also the founders of modern strategic thinking. Occasionally this approach does not work: a few of the chapters are very short indeed, because Napoleon had little to say – or at any rate little that he wrote has survived – on that particular subject.

    The book gives us fascinating insights into Napoleon's personality. Unintentionally, he reveals his faults as well as his genius. For example, his reflections on naval warfare are distinctly odd. He knew and understood nothing about it, but never accepted the fact. He gave orders to his Admirals that would often prove to be impossible to implement: on the appointed day the fleet might be unable to leave Port because of adverse winds or tides. If it managed to do so, the enemy might unhelpfully prove to be hundreds of miles away from the location of Napoleon's proposed decisive sea battle. Naturally the Admirals were to blame for this.

    There was a dark side to Napoleon. He writes chillingly of “making an example” to intimidate rebels in occupied territories, or even in France itself, into obedience. A village would be annihilated or a prominent individual – the Duke of Enghein, for example – arrested and executed on trumped-up charges. Napoleon explains that this is actually a merciful policy, as it avoids greater bloodshed in the longer term by shocking and awing the opposition. One might however equally well call it terrorism.

    Moreover, it did not work: this kind of action in Spain caused the country to erupt in a furious popular uprising – the first guerrilla war, in fact – in which both sides committed atrocities (Goya's horrible engravings of The Disasters of War depict them vividly) and which the French eventually lost. It was the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic Empire. The judicial murder of Enghein caused horror, rather than cowed acquiescence, and convinced the Princes of Europe that Napoleon was a criminal who must at all costs be got rid of, along with his dynasty. In Talleyrand's words, it was “worse than a crime; it was a blunder”.

    Finally, Napoleon misread the French people. Perhaps this is not surprising; he had no French blood. Corsica only became French about the time of his birth. His father's family originated in Tuscany; his mother's in Collalto in Northern Italy. The Princes of Europe may not have been altogether wrong in regarding him as a bandit who engaged in interminable vendettas. Napoleon failed to recognise French citizens' deep desire for peace and their growing weariness with his megalomaniac schemes of conquest, which were very costly in French soldiers' lives. When he returned in 1815 for the Hundred Days, he was outraged to discover that many of them preferred life under Louis XVIII. He flung the Mayor of Marseilles into prison for daring to tell him that “We have a King whom we love and have been slowly learning how to be happy again.”

    None of which detracts from Napoleon's genius as a great Commander with a brilliant intellect, who fought as many battles as Alexander, Caesar and Frederick the Great combined, in very varied terrain and climates and usually won.


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