Napoleon’s Shadow: The Impact of his Martial Philosophy
By Michael G. Stroud
The latter half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth, saw nationalist sentiments take hold throughout the world. These nationalist sentiments fermented into revolutions, that exploded from the British colonies in America in 1776, to that of the liberation of Venezuela by Simón Bolívar in 1813. It was the French Revolution that began in 1789 that saw not just the tearing down of the French Monarchy, but the rise of a Corsican born General and eventual Emperor, to martial glory for all-time, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte’s contributions to the practice of war and his martial philosophy significantly impacted military theory for all time.
Birth of Napoleon’s military treatise
Napoleon Bonaparte as a person and general was very much a multi-sided die, and when it was cast during the French Revolution, his facets of opportunism, intellectualism, ambition, along with a healthy dose of being at the right place at the right time, truly came in to play on October 5, 1795. The Parisian mob had turned on the governing Directorate and Assembly and were intent on doing away with them next. The Assembly looked for a quick savior and found it in the unemployed General Bonaparte. Quickly assembling the available 5,000 regular troops and a secured artillery park thanks to the efforts of Captain Murat, Napoleon deployed them in such a way as to command the streets in front of the Tuileries. When the enraged mob launched themselves at Napoleon and his men, “the order was given; several salvoes of grapeshot tore into the crowd at point-blank range, killing at least 200.” This opportunistic moment vaulted Napoleon into the political limelight and began his rise to military prominence.
French artillery firing. Photo © Paul Chamberlain
Nearly twenty years later, after victories against numerically superior armies and coalitions of major powers, Napoleon was exiled for the final time in 1815 to the tiny British controlled island of St. Helena. Reflecting on a dynamic military career, Napoleon’s insights into his methodology and theories on conducting war were collected and became known as The Military Maxims of Napoleon. Napoleon saw his incarceration as an opportunity to provide his theories for friend and foe alike, but more so, for posterity. The treatise itself, is not compiled in any real semblance of order, but rather is arranged as topical standalone statements, covering matters from the planning of a campaign, to flanking attacks, to the principles of famous generals. These maxims quickly became required reading in both military academies throughout the world, counting West Point among them as well as untold numbers of military commanders including Ulysses S. Grant and George S. Patton, looking for insights into warfare and its vast components. Ultimately, Napoleon saw “war as an immense art which comprises all others.”
Technological advancements or limitations of Napoleon’s age that shaped his ideas
Napoleon and his armies were fundamentally based around the infantry and as such, relied on the primary weapon of the time; that of the musket. The musket used was of the 1777 design and was “1.57 meters in length, smooth-bored and with a flintlock ignition, cumbersome to use and slow to operate.” Infantry at the time, even well drilled infantry, could manage only between two to four rounds per minute, with the only real effectiveness being 100 yards or less.
The other primary military technology of the day was that of artillery. Being trained as an artillery officer early in his military career, Napoleon understood the profound importance that artillery played in the outcome of any engagement. He was quoted as saying that “great battles are won by artillery.” This respect for the artillery led to many reforms from the standardizing of its sizes to include 4, 8 and 12 pounders, better metal casting of the barrels, reduced weight, increased mobility, and improved ammunition which led to a higher rate of fire.
Napoleon recognized the limitations of the infantry’s weapons as well as the possibilities with the improvements to the artillery (cavalry played a major role in all Napoleonic campaigns as well, but for the purposes of this discussion, the focus is on the infantry and artillery technology) and molded them to fit his aggressive style of warfighting. Specifically, Napoleon relied on speed, coupled with force mobility to tactically make the technology work to its fullest. One French infantry soldier was to have said “the emperor has discovered a new way of waging war; he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.” Napoleon would utilize speed to get his troops into position to inflict the maximum damage through volley fire, while leveraging mobility to position his artillery into Grand Batteries to deliver massed and devastating bombardments.
Social latitudes that influenced Napoleon’s military philosophy
and the warfare of the age
The French Revolution brought sweeping change throughout France, brushing aside the old monarchy with the dropping of the guillotine, and ushering in a new age. This new age brought new social paradigms into play in what would become known as conservatism, liberalism, and radicalism. It is within these new social norms that Napoleon was able to rise socially, politically, and militarily. The old order of the Monarchy strictly dictated ones’ standing in the strata of society due to their lineage and governmental connections for military appointments. Due to the new societal changes, Napoleon was able to leverage his own boundless ambition and talent, as well as those of like mind, to their fullest potential. “My motto has always been: A career open to all talents.”
By focusing on talent and not connected appointments, Napoleon quickly surrounded himself with the best officers whose talents he leveraged to their fullest to make his military theories and planning a reality. Case in point is that of Marshal Berthier, Napoleon’s chief of staff. Berthier’s talents for organization, speed of execution and anticipation, made him the ideal person to “translate his master’s intentions into clear and concise orders” while also fulfilling his own 1796 directive that “speed is the most important thing in general staff work.” This ability to receive, interpret and disseminate orders with unprecedented urgency, allowed Napoleon to seemingly be everywhere on the battlefield and to execute his methodology with untold speed.
Napoleon’s military philosophy of speed of maneuver coupled with the creation of the autonomous corps, was made possible by those officers that were drawn from French revolutionary society. The by-product of this was that of independent thought to carry out the intent of their orders and not be bogged down in waiting for minute details to do so, as speed of maneuver was the difference between victory or defeat. This was exemplified on 14 June 1807, when Marshal Ney had managed to deploy his entire corps into position by 5:00 p.m. for the assault at Friedland against the Russians, “although he had accepted his orders only an hour before—while his forces were still marching into the main battle area!”
Martial Respect-Then and Now
Napoleon Bonaparte’s ideas, philosophies and style of warfare were viewed with respect even by his adversaries at the time. An unknown Prussian officer recounted from the Battle of Waterloo how “it seems that Napoleon had the design to throw the left wing upon the centre, and thus to effect the separation of the English from the Prussian.” This observation shows the respect for Napoleon attempting to execute one of his principles of warfare: that of the central position to split the combined forces of the British and Prussians. Fellow contemporaries such as the Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz and Baron Jomini who served under Napoleon, were so impacted by Napoleon’s warfare methodology, that both went on to author books of military theory. These theories of vital characteristics of a commander, strategic lines, and logistics to the concentration of firepower at the most critical point, all stemmed from their personal observations and experiences during the Napoleonic Wars.
Antoine-Henri Jomini by George Dawe
Further in the 19th century, Ulysses S. Grant in the American Civil War was relentless in his pursuit of applying Napoleonic warfare principles into play with this dogged persecution of the war against the Confederacy. Speed of maneuver, concentration of force and the seeking of the decisive battle, were just some of the Napoleonic lessons that Grant put into practice after his studies at West Point. Future commanders such as German General Heinz Guderian in World War II and General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War, greatly respected Napoleon’s theories by their respective strategic successes. Guderian adopted Napoleon’s concepts of speed of maneuver through the development and creation of the panzer corps and mechanized warfare. Adopting this new technology to Napoleon’s theories led to rapid German successes in Poland and France early in the war. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf put into action the “Manoeuvre De Derrière” or move to the rear Napoleonic principle by his “hail mary” action of sending massed tanks in a big left hook through the desert, in conjunction with airborne and special forces, to smash the Iraqi armored divisions and cut off their retreat from Kuwait.
Two years into Napoleon’s exile on the isolated Atlantic Ocean Island of St. Helena, the former Emperor of the French was already being viewed with some reverence and awe. In 1817, Irish orator, Charles Phillips said of Napoleon and his methods that “to inferior intellects, his combinations appeared utterly impossible, his plans perfectly impracticable; but, in his hands, simplicity marked their development, and success vindicated their adoption.”
Napoleon’s philosophical impact on warfighting in the 21st century
Napoleon Bonaparte’s warfighting philosophy was heavily influenced by the writings and campaigns of his martial mentor, Prussian King Frederick II. The critical importance of speed and maneuver in any conflict, served as a starting point for Frederick’s martial tenants and as a core for Napoleon’s maxims. In the 21st century, major powers such as the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China all have rapid-reaction plans and rapid-reaction forces that can be deployed in short order in the event of needed, immediate military action. Following this, modern warfare drives rapid movement and maneuver home, through the utilization of air assault, airborne forces, highly mobile armored units as well as superior troop training which lends itself to soldiers that can travel farther, faster and with more individual lethality than ever before. This essence of force projection through speed, lends itself perfectly to the modern age of asymmetrical warfare, where the lines of battle and conflict are blurred at best.
Napoleon’s emphasis on the destruction of your enemy’s armies and their ability to make and conduct war, carries through time into the present. This is exemplified in the Vietnam War, when the U.S. tried desperately to seek a decisive battle with North Vietnamese troops and end the war through the annihilation of its armies. This was countered by the Communist forces generally avoiding large and direct confrontations, instead relying on more guerilla warfare strategy and tactics. This prevented the U.S. from executing a key Napoleonic principle of the decisive battle. However, this principle did see success in the Persian Gulf War at the Battle of Medina Ridge, where one of the largest tank battles in history and the decisive battle of the war, occurred resulting in the destruction of over 400 tanks, vehicles and artillery compared to the loss of less than 20 total Allied vehicles and aircraft.
A further principle of Napoleon’s warfighting philosophy for modern warriors to take heed of is that of the field of battle. In the modern age, this can mean the digital battlefield as well as a geographic one, but warfighters should not be driven to a course of action by their enemy, but rather, prepare the battlefield themselves and draw the enemy in. Napoleon directly speaks to this when he states that “It is an approved maxim in war, never to do what the enemy wishes you to do, for this reason alone, that he desires it. A field of battle, therefore, which he has previously studied and reconnoitered, should be avoided, and double care should be taken where he has had time to fortify or entrench. One consequence deducible from this principle is, never to attack a position in front which you can gain by turning.”
Intangibles such as patriotism are just as important to the modern warrior as in Napoleon’s time. When a soldier is motivated and fighting for an ideal larger than themselves, this elan can serve as a force multiplier by itself and potentially carry the day. The Battle of Benghazi in 2012 is an example of this when militants attacked two American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In the ensuing battles, six members of the Annex Security Team fought off dozens of attacking militants. Fighting to save your fellow Americans was a strong motivator against overwhelming odds, thus proving the value of patriotism. Napoleon specifically mentions the importance of patriotism in his Military Maxims when he says “…A love of country, a spirit of enthusiasm, and a sense of national honour, will operate upon young soldiers with advantage.”
French infantry firing. Photo © Paul Chamberlain
History has seen the emergence of many successful military leaders throughout the world during its endless rotations. Rameses II of Egypt and his tactical victory over the Hittites at Qadesh was one of, if not the earliest, record of a battle and subsequent public relations spin by the Pharaoh. Alexander III of Macedon, known more commonly and for all time as Alexander the Great, for his vast conquests of most of the known world that reached from Greece to India. All were achieved through audacity and a relentless drive to satiate his ambition. Alexander reached the pinnacles of martial glory and power by roughly 30 years of age. The tactical brilliance of the Carthaginian Hannibal Barca and his hatred of Rome led to devastating defeats of Roman army after Roman army only to finally be checked at Zama by Scipio Africanus. The warrior-statesman Frederick the Great of Prussia turned a small nation-state surrounded by powerful enemies, into a European military power, through direct leadership, iron-will and training standardization.
All of these are broad examples of military commanders in history that indelibly have left their impression in the annals of military study and martial philosophy, but it was Napoleon Bonaparte, the ever-astute student of history, that bonded many of these principles into his own unique, military philosophy. Napoleon’s martial theories would come to be known as his maxims and as such, they were collected and recorded mostly during his final exile on the craggy St. Helena. Not linear in nature, the former Emperor’s war theories encompassed far-ranging topics from encampments, surrender, the proper use of cavalry and hundreds more. These Maxims of Napoleon showed both contemporaries at the time and students of military history since, a diverse, yet relatively simplistic approach to warfare, that resonates to this day. The base themes of strike your enemy where he does not expect you, speed of maneuver to place the maximum amount of force projection at the most critical junction and “divide and conquer” are just a few of the emperor’s martial dictates that have been applied from commanders such as Vo Nguyen Giap during the Vietnam War to General Erwin Rommel and his Africa Corps. Modern military commanders such as Colin Powell and General “Storming” Norman Schwarzkopf, students of Napoleon’s art of war, applied many of his principles in their execution and subsequent defeat of the Iraqi military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Jacques-Louis David, “The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries,” WikiCommons.com. Napoleon portrait.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsican born, artillery trained and ambitiously relentless, maximized his natural talents to leverage the military technology of the time in such a way to elevate him both militarily and socially. The Emperor’s prodigious intellectual capabilities and magnetic personality to influence nearly anyone in his presence allowed him to “penetrate to the very heart of any matter and take into account every peripheral consideration at the same time” thus providing the mental opportunity to create revolutionary military theories and warfighting concepts. The seemingly harmonious fusing of combined arms, in the self-contained fighting unit of the Corps structure, while being led by independently minded officers from the fervor of the French Revolution, allowed for a new theory and approach to warfighting (the central position and decisive battle) that stunned his adversaries at the time and has inspired and influenced military officers ever since. Napoleons impact on martial theories, as evidenced in his own campaigns and put down in his writings and Maxims are such that when “an achievement lasts so long and bears such fruit, it provides its own justification.”
Michael G. Stroud is a Michigan, U.S.A.- based military historian that has published over a dozen articles for military history websites, scholarly journals, and print magazines, in both the U.S. and the UK. He can be followed and contacted via his LinkedIn page.
 David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, (New York, NY: Macmillan Company), 1966, 39.
 Ibid, 39.
 Napoleon Bonaparte, G.C. D’Aguilar, David G. Chandler, and William Elliot Cairnes, The Military Maxims of Napoleon, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books), 1994, 33.
 Philip J. Haythornthwaite, Napoleon’s Military Machine, (New York, NY: Hippocrene Books), 1988, 16.
 Ibid, 16.
 Ibid, 44.
 Peter J. Dean, “Napoleon as a Military Commander: The Limitations of Genius,” The Napoleon Series, Accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/napoleon/c_genius.html.
 J. Christopher Herold, The Horizon Book of the Age of Napoleon, (New York, NY: American Heritage Publishing), 1963, 74.
 Ibid, 77.
 Lt. Col. Wilbur E. Gray, “Napoleon Conquers Time & Distance: The Revolution in Battlefield Command and Control,” Napoleon, January 1996, 16.
 Charles Phillips, An Historical Character of Napoleon, 1817, Accessed February 20, 2021, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy1.apus.edu/action/doBasicSearch?Query=doi%3A10.2307%2F60202665&acc=on&wc=on&fc=off&group=none&refreqid=search%3Af27696ad9618a95f4ba4f05c5cd82929.
 Napoleon Bonaparte, G.C. D’Aguilar, David G. Chandler, and William Elliot Cairnes, The Military Maxims of Napoleon, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books), 1994, 61.
 Ibid, 74.
 David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, (New York, NY: Macmillan Company), 1966, xxxv.
 Ibid, xliii.
An Account of the Battle of Waterloo Fought on the 18th of June 1815. 1815. British Library, London, England. http://access.bl.uk/item/pdf/lsidyv2b169b8a.
Bonaparte, Napoleon, G.C. D’Aguilar, David G. Chandler, and William Elliot Cairnes. The Military Maxims of Napoleon. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.
Phillips, Charles. An Historical Character of Napoleon. 1817. Accessed January 24, 2021. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy1.apus.edu/action/doBasicSearch?Query=doi%3A10.2307%2F60202665&acc=on&wc=on&fc=off&group=none&refreqid=search%3Af27696ad9618a95f4ba4f05c5cd82929
Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1966.
Dean, Peter J. “Napoleon as a Military Commander: The Limitations of Genius.” The Napoleon Series. Accessed January 24, 2021. https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/napoleon/c_genius.html.
Gray, Lt. Col. Wilbur E. “Napoleon Conquers Time & Distance: The Revolution in Battlefield Command and Control.” Napoleon, January 1996.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Napoleon’s Military Machine. New York, NY: Hippocrene Books, 1988.
Herold, J. Christopher. The Horizon Book of the Age of Napoleon. New York, NY: American Heritage Publishing, 1963.
Knighton, Andrew. “8 Changes Napoleon Made to Warfare – One of the Most Influential Generals in History.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified August 4, 2017. Accessed January 24, 2021. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/napoleon/8-changes-napoleon-made-warfare.html.