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General Smith explains Napoleon

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.

23 comments to General Smith explains Napoleon

  • dearieme

    Hm, but the army he marched to its doom in Russia was recruited all over Europe: they weren’t all frogs. But for those who were, I’m suspicious of the assumed effect of being assured by some jumped-up provincial lawyer or renegade priest that now we’re all for liberte, egalite and fraternite. On the other hand, I’ve no alternative explanation to offer, unless it’s something really crude, like the relative incentives between staying on the farm against looting Italy. But there again, Wellington beat his marshals in the peninsula with British and Portugese troops and beat the ogre himself at Waterloo with a lash-up of rather inexperienced British, Dutch, Belgian and German laddies. Does your author explain that too?

  • lucklucky

    Centralisation of power by better communications , logistics and ideology.

  • lucklucky

    Related to Napolean this new book by a French author:

    PARIS, Nov 29 (AFP) – A French author has taken a rare shot at one of the country’s biggest heroes by casting Napoleon Bonaparte as a genocidal dictator and inspiration for Adolf Hitler in an incendiary new book.(…)


  • Verity

    If you’ve ever lived under Napoleonic Code, you will know his controlling tentacles reach into the 21st Century. The Napoleonic Code is a Blairesque micromanagement of human lives. It is loathesome.

  • Robert Schwartz

    IIRC, John Keegan explored much the same territory in his “A History of Warfare.”

  • veryretired

    Napoleon’s mystique has waxed and waned over the centuries, but the fascination with his exploits continues to energize, whether the view is pro or con.

    In severe shorthand, I think there are a couple of main reasons for this, in France and elsewhere.

    First and foremost is the god-awful mess the French revolution had become when Napoleon arose as a popular figure. The Terror, and the swirling intrigues of French politics, had exhausted and terrified everyone.

    The arrival of a savior on a white horse promised some semblence of order and stability.

    Second, Napoleon was a warrior, which was an aristocratic and noble calling, even as the new culture routinely cut the heads off aristocrats. If Napoleon was himself a commoner, and at this point that would have been a plus, he was still a military figure who radiated power and command presence.

    This resonated deeply with the French people, regardless of the varnish of “egalite'” from the revolutionary rhetoric. Just try to imagine a greengrocer named Napoleon rising to the same position because he was a good and honest man who managed his business very well. Not going to happen.

    Third, and this is enough for now, Napoleon was a very skilled military professional who brought victories, and restored some of France’s lost power and glory. People like a winner, and that applies to just about everyone, not just the French.

    I personally believe Napoleon’s legacy was a disaster for the French, and for western culture in general. It is no coincidence that the rest of the 1800’s was a litany of philosophical, political, and cultural worship of the collective, whether called nation, state, volk, spirit, will, idea, or class.

    The man on the white horse became a symbol of dignity, power, and glory. The road paved with bones upon which he rode was never pictured. It is no accident that there is a famous portrait of Hitler in just that pose. Brothers in all but their genes.

  • RPW

    He was a tyrant with some charismatic gifts who cared nothing for humanity. Such men will often manage to do things that seem remarkable to those who don’t have to endure them.

    Militarily, he innovated little of value (much of the system he used had been built up by Carnot) and although he had considerable talents on the tactical level his strategic insight was fatally flawed. He concentrated too much on the glory of battle and not enough on the boring business of keeping armies in the field (“good generals study tactics, great generals study logistics” – Omar Bradley), with the result that he failed to understand the form of war introduced by the Duke of Wellington in Spain and which was brought to it’s apotheosis in Russia.

    He was also a compulsive gambler who never knew when to stop – a wiser man would have cashed in his chips and left the table after Austerlitz, but Napoleon could never resist rolling the dice again and again until he ended up bankrupt. Overall, a second rater who had a bit of luck and let it go to his head, and who failed to notice that his luck was running out before it ruined him. Not unlike Hitler in fact, and his legacy has been almost as poisonous.

  • RPW


    No idea what the author says, but the simple answer is that Wellington was the better general, as even Napoleon himself recognised in his more lucid moments – “He has everything I have, with prudence added” as he said on St Helena.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, I am not sure whether one could say that post-revolutionary France had an “almost infinitely replenishable” store of troops. The key word is “almost”. By the end of the disastrous and hubristic Russian campaign in 1812, France’s forces had been massively depleted. Bonaparte was forced to recruit relatively old men, conscript from further afield, and could not possibly have sustained another Russia-like disaster.

    The fascination is I think to do with how a relatively unknown Corsican soldier was able, by early success and brilliant tactics, to take on the rest of Europe. He also understood the importance of spectacle. Beethoven and others were – briefly – entranced by him.

    The short study of Boney by Paul Johnson is worth reading, too. Also recommended is the study of Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts.

  • Julian Taylor

    Rather like how a unknown Austrian painter and former corporal in the German army was able, in a very short space of time, to take over an entire country and deplete its population and army. There I go again making these parallels between Hitler and Napoleon …

  • Pavel

    Most of his recruits were uneducated village boys who joined the army for the vision of money, wine and adventure. The alternative was tedious farm work with little excitement and NO CHANCE of becoming wealthy and respected. They must have though they had little to lose.

    No wonder that Napoleon had lots of recruits – especially when he had the charisma and the much appreciated vision of “égalité”.

    Also don’t forget that there were no visual media at that time. A fresh recruit could have hardly imagined how horrible the battlefield actually was. They probably didn’t know very well what they were heading for.

  • Why on earth would I think Rupert Smith was a Spawn of Satan jackanapes like national socialist apologist Harold Pinter? Smith was the man who OK’ed the unleashing of NATO airstrikes against the mass murderous Bosnian Serb regime!

  • Paul Marks

    Like the armies of Republican Rome the army of Republican France was partly made up from men who flocked to the banners and partly made up of conscripts.

    N. spread the system of conscription to those nations in Europe that he took over (via local puppet government).

    Off hand I do not know what percentage of the 600,000 “Grand Army” that invaded Russia (the biggest army Europe had yet seen) were French.

    The losses in Russia (whilst not quite the “600, 000 went in and only 30,000 came out” of legend were terrible, as were the losses in the absurd war in Spain -absurd because the King of Spain was a puppet of N. but the Emperor insisted on replacing him, and provoking years of war and a British intervention, anyway).

    Carthage shunned conscription (after big losses in Sicily fighting Greek colonists), but in the latter wars with Rome the Romans had mass conscription (leaving Carthage to rely on mercs from all sorts of places).

    The Romans sacrificed the small farmer class (who were dragged away from their farms for years, and returned to find much of the land dominated by large slave worked estates – before the First Punic war there had not even been a special slave market in Rome) in order to attain victory by manpower.

    Carthage was not prepared to have its population suffer to the same extent as the Romans were – and (as Roman thinkers predicted) the Carthaginians ending up suffering still more.

    In many ways the French Revolution was a return to the total war of the classical world (and they knew it).

  • Perry

    To fully understand my speculation about your opinion of General Smith you have to be able to understand how cosmically ignorant of the Balkans some people (such as me) are, still. Here by dragons, etc., is about the limit of my knowledge. Okay not quite that bad, but nearly. My speculation was that maybe Smith opposed or delayed, or something, policies that you approved of.

    My basic reason for reading Smith’s book is the paradigm shift thing, as I said. But getting some kind of handle on what the hell just happened in the Balkans is also a big motive. Until now I’ve never found a book on that, or mentioning that, that I really wanted to read, given how many books I do really want to read and never will. Other than The Clash of Civilizations, which is only very sketchy about the Balkans. The Balkans is a Clash of Civlizations, is really all that that book says.

    How about General Michael Rose?

  • ian

    I had always understood Napoleon to have more or less invented – or at least perfected – the idea of a General Staff. In other words officers who could act as if they were the Supreme Commander and with his authority, so long as they acted within the agreed ‘doctrine’.

    I am pretty ignorant however of the real background to this period, having failed my History O-level and only developing an interest in matters historical in later years so I realise this may be a misconception.

  • J

    A comparative biography of Hilter and Napoleon exists, and is well worth reading. Author is Desmond Seward.

    Napoleon created a conscripted army held together by nationalism rather than personal loyalty (although that helped) or fear. He also made great improvements in logistics and beaurocracy. By this I mean things like giving buildings on a street numbers, so that outsiders can refer to them.

    The UK was also at the time starting to realise the benefits of nationalism, and was busy cultivating it with inventions such as the union jack and Britannia.

    Prior to this period armies were often uneasy mixes of personally loyal soldiers, the religiously motivated, mercenaries, and those who didn’t want to be mistaken for ‘the other side’ by trying to keep out of it.

  • Edward

    Indeed, the rise of democracy caused a major change in war. Previously, most common people saw war as a matter of king vs king, with little personal stake other than trying to stay out of the way. Populist governments transformed war into an all-encompassing national movement.

    I’d highly recommend Herman-Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed”, in which he discusses this and many other problems with democracy. His bottom line is that individuals experienced more freedom and safety living in monarchies (“privately controlled governments”) than in democracies (“publicly controlled governments”), but they’d be still better off under anarcho-capitalism.

  • guy herbert

    J – the benefits of nationalism… To the state, you mean?

  • Jacob

    His bottom line is that individuals experienced more freedom and safety living in monarchies (“privately controlled governments”) than in democracies (“publicly controlled governments”)

    Which to translate into modern terms – means – some dictatorships are better than some democracies. You have to examine the exact nature of each regime.

    Napoleon’s regime was probably better than the republican chaos that preceded him.

  • I’d highly recommend Herman-Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed”

    And I’d highly not recommend it.

  • dearieme

    “The UK was also at the time starting to realise the benefits of nationalism, and was busy cultivating it with inventions such as the union jack”: ahem, the Union Jack was first introduced by James VI and I in the early 1600s. It was then properly adopted after the Union of 1707. Unless you’re referring to its final form (after the Union of 1801) you’re out by about a century or more.

  • Big D

    I would highly recommend The Art of War in the Western World by Archer Jones. It starts with basic tactical/strategic warfare with the Greeks, and works its way through history to WWII. Along the way, it pays significant attention to the medieval, rennaisance, and Napoleonic eras.

    Napoleon himself makes for an interesting “nature vs. nurture” discussion. To what extent did he break new ground in warfare, and to what extent did he just take advantage of independent advances in technology and military thinking? I’m leaning somewhat to the latter these days. Concepts like how to properly use cavalry (eg not Agincourt), inventions like canning (created by somebody responding to a prize he offered for food preservation inventions), and increased effectiveness of gunpowder weapons of all sizes all participated in his success… until his opponents began to discover them as well.

  • J

    Guy – certainly benefit to the state rather than the individual.

    I do think there are times when nationalism can be better for individuals, for example where it replaces something worse, such as tribalism.

    When you consider how artificial nationalism is, it’s amazing how effective it is.