Finally someone has explained to me why such as fuss is made, and not just by idiot Frenchmen, about the military genius of Napoleon.
All I have seen for the last forty years or so is a very self-important general who liked presiding over slaughters, sometimes of the other fellow’s army, sometimes of his own, and frequently both. I have seen a land-locked leader who was comprehensively defeated by Nelson several times. And I have seen a hubristic fool who invaded Russia, with catastrophic consequences. Okay he also won several battles, and wrote out lots of laws. But why the adulation?
Recently, however, I have been reading General Sir Rupert Smith’s new book, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World.
Reading the Introduction was sometimes a little like wading in lead boots through treacle. It contains sentences like: “Force is the basis of any military activity, whether in a theatre of operations or in a skirmish between two soldiers.” “Military force when employed has only two immediate effects: it kills people and destroys things.” And: “Military force is applied by armed forces of men, materiel and their logistic support.” Even a civilian like me knows these things, although to be fair to Smith these thudding revelations of the obvious immediately become the basis of distinctions and qualifications that were more subtle.
However, as soon as Chapter One got started, things livened up considerably. And Smith began his story proper with: Napoleon.
What made Napoleon different was that the French Revolution had created something quite new, in the form of a vast and almost infinitely replenishable army of conscripted citizen enthusiasts, rather than the human farm animals who were herded into battle by his contemporaries. Eighteenth century infantry tactics were as much about preventing desertion by one’s own soldiers as they were about defeating the other lot, which does much to explain why actual battles were generally avoided and manoeuvre and negotiation were often all that happened in pre-Napoleonic military confrontations.
Besides which, in the eighteenth century, armies were hard to replace. They did not flock to any banners. They had to be chased after and caught.
Napoleon did not invent the solution to this problem, but the Revolution presented him with it, and he seized upon it.
This is the bit of the story I never did properly understand, and I guess I still do not. What was the big difference between being a subject and being a citizen? Some non-aristocratic thug standing on a balcony bellowing at you that you were now a “citizen”? Big deal. But apparently, in those days, it was a big deal. In exchange for this title Napoleon’s citizen army became something quite new.
Napoleon realised that, provided that he looked after his men – fed them properly, clothed them properly, and so on – he could demand of them things that his rivals could only dream about. In exchange for such solicitousness, Napoleon was able to split his vast citizen army into independent corps, each able to fight on their own, and trust them to do as they were told and not to run away. While his opponents could manoeuvre only as one docile mass, his armies would split up and march this way and that (which also made them a lot easier to supply because this made foraging so much easier), like a Kung Fu master waving his hands hypnotically, and only converging on what Napoleon decided would make a good battlefield on the day of the battle itself.
Once there, Napoleon was not afraid to get stuck into a pitched battle, because unlike the opposition, he could whistle up another army in the event of defeat, or for that matter of costly victory. Apparently his fellow “citizens” did not mind this. Risking death, in exchange for “gloire” was, they reckoned, a good deal. Fighting for Napoleon was like playing football for Brazil, in an age of mud-bound cloggers. Dying was worth it, because until then, you lived! Was that it? I do not really know.
Even after the amazing Russian fiasco, Napoleon was still able to magic another army together out of nowhere, and have another crack at the coalition that confronted him from 1813-1815. As Smith himself points out, this was truly remarkable.
So I guess I still do not fully understand Napoleon’s achievement. But thanks to General Smith, I have, as it were, isolated the bit of the story that is still a mystery to me. And once I take that bit on trust, the rest of the story falls into place.
Maybe me not fully understanding the “citizen” bit is because, as Smith has already made very clear, the “paradigm” of industrial warfare that got started with Napoleon is now, in his opinion, in a state of advanced crisis, and is in fact pretty much history. It was this paradigm shift argument that got me interested in this book in the first place, and why I intend to press on until I have finished it, despite any further treacle I may encounter. General Smith is, I think, a man worth following, through a book anyway, and the price of following him is worth paying.
Smith apparently played a big part in the Balkans in the nineties. I wonder what he did there, and what he will say about it. And I wonder whether Perry de Havilland approves of this man or has in the Spawn of Satan box, in the company of people like Harold Pinter.