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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Henri Clarke, the Ministry of War, and the Evolution of Military Administration during the French First Empire

Dague, Everett. Henri Clarke, the Ministry of War, and the Evolution of Military Administration during the French First Empire, 1800-1814. Unpublished Dissertation. Florida State Univ., 2000. 247 p.

Napoleonic scholar Harold Parker has pointed out that, except for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, none of the Napoleonic ministries have been studied in depth. Historians have tended to focus on the overwhelming figure of Napoleon. Isser Woloch's book, Napoleon and His Collaborators, was a refreshing look at those around Napoleon, emphasizing how the "precocious solidity and efficacy of the regimedepended on the commitment and skills of his leading supporters." Samuel F Scott in his article on military administration in the Historical Dictionary of Napoleonic France states that "Napoleon was his own war minister." Henri Clarke, Napoleon's war minister, rates half the space in Tulard's Dictionnaire devoted to Dsire Clary. Is it any wonder then that enthusiasts of the era have largely ignored the administrative work performed by Napoleon's war ministry?

The study of administrative science, bureaucratic history and sociometrics is of relatively recent origin. Historians have tended to look at the results of administrative decisions, rather than the process by which that decision has been carried out. Everett Dague doctoral thesis attempts to look at the administrative evolution of the Ministry of War during the Napoleonic regime.

The idea that Napoleon issued an order and that that order suddenly became a reality is a commonplace in Napoleonic histories. The idea of "war feeding war" becomes a kind of historical shorthand. But between the issuing of the order and its execution existed an efficient bureaucratic organization to bring those orders to fruition. When Napoleon ordered a regiment to move, the ministry of war had to see to it that there was shelter, food, fodder, medical care, veterinary services, firewood, and a "myriad [of] other details that determined how far and how fast such an order could be carried out, or even whether it could be carried out at all." Napoleon inherited a robust system that had evolved under "extreme political and wartime conditions." When it worked, "and for the most part Napoleonic military administration worked very effectively," the system is largely invisible to us today. Only when the system broke down, as it did during the Russian campaign, does it become visible in its failure.

Dague begins his study with a quick survey of management theory as it applies to bureaucratic history. He then turns to an overview of previous histories of Napoleon's administration. The earliest writers on Napoleon's administration were officers who had served in the system and produced technical treatises for use by later regimes. These works included studies such as that by Lieutenant-Gnral Claude-Antoine-Hippolyte Preval's Observations sur l'Administration des Corps, which became the basis for the new Royal army.

The technical writers were followed by a new school of authors who saw the successes and failures of Napoleon's system simply in terms of the Emperor himself. Following Clausewitz, Jomini and Yorck von Wartenburg, these authors tended to focus on strategy and tactics rather than administration. Napoleon, the "Great Captain," was at the center of these works and his administration was seldom, if ever, mentioned. Col. Jean-Baptiste Vache's Napoleon at Work describes Napoleon's staff work in the Jena-Aerstadt campaign, yet the work of Jean-Franois Dejean, the Minister of War Administration, is mentioned only in passing.

Historians have continued to ignore the behind-the-scenes administrative work, often confusing elements of command with elements of management. Napoleon is presented as "using almost pre-made armies with little attention paid to the massive problem of how one creates or maintains such a military establishment, its social costs, or the special problems of administering a state for the purposes of war." For a discipline dominated by military historians it has been enough to "know that Napoleon could muster 620,000 troops in 1812 without having to go into the myriad complexities of how they were raised, quartered and made loyal to the Emperor." Even non-military historians have largely ignored the functions of the ministerial bureaucracies of Napoleonic France. Harold Parker's studies on the Bureau of Commerce stand out as in-depth looks at the inner workings of an administrative agency during the period. Howard Brown's War, Revolution and the Bureaucratic State describes the growth and change in the War Ministry without address the precise functioning of the administration.

Henri-Jacques-Guillaume Clarke has been portrayed as "a weak and fearful man" by Elting and as "efficient to the point of being bloodthirsty" by Jean Savant. Dague leans towards Savant's view, seeing Clarke as an "aggressive, capable officer," under whom the War Ministry "exploded, assuming functions and responsibilities from every other ministry." The War Ministry had undergone numerous transformations before Clarke took it over. From having its functions usurped by Carnot's Bureau topographique and finally being eliminated altogether by the Thermidorians, the Ministry was put back on shaky feet by the time of Brumaire. Napoleon named Alexandre Berthier its first Minister during the Consulate.

Berthier reorganized the ministry and placed professional, capable and loyal administrators as heads of its various bureaus. With Berthier and Napoleon in the field, Carnot was brought in to run the Ministry. Carnot dismantled all the work Berthier had done, decentralizing it into 26 competing bureaus. Back from the war Berthier undid all of Carnot's work and largely reconstituted the ministry's former structure. The Ministry of War Administration was created as was the Conseil d'administration de le guerre. The campaign of 1805 showed that the reformed system worked, in spite of some problems. The over-centralization created problems when Napoleon and his Chief of Staff were in the field together. Too much of the work of the War Ministry fell into the lap of Jean-Franois-Aim Dejean, the head of the Ministry of War Administration, who remained in Paris. When peace came it was obvious that Berthier could not remain both War Minister and Chief of Staff. A strong presence was needed at the ministry in Paris.

Clarke was named Minister of War on 9 Aug. 1807. Clarke, in good Napoleonic fashion, began at once to expand the functions of his ministry. Clarke was an effective bureaucratic warrior. One of his talents was for producing reports and memos to Napoleon that could be answered with a terse "approved," "disapproved," or other response. "Napoleon allowed Clarke great latitude in operations, but that trust was justified by Clarke's successful fulfillment of Napoleon's orders in both spirit and letter. Clarke forcefully but diplomatically used the authority Napoleon gave him to handle the operation in a way that supported Napoleon's plansThe Ministry of Warhad become Napoleon's efficient proxy by 1809" Under Clarke the Grande Arme became "one of the first armies to be administered through a modern bureaucratic structure capable of uniting various diverse social, economic and political elements, for a sustained period of time, over a vast geographic area, for the single purpose of war."

In an interesting section Dague presents a case study of the inner workings of the War Ministry during the operations of the Walcheren Island colonne mobile. The colonne mobile was a special military unit tasked with rounding up deserters and draft-dodgers (or arresting the parents and relatives of these deserters) in several departments. Since the colonnes operated across department lines, military-civilian relations were of great importance.

In the wake of the Malet conspiracy and the disastrous Russian campaign Clarke's star was falling. In April 1813 Napoleon shifted the functions of the Ministry of War Administration to Daru (as well as control of the army treasury in June). The creation of the commissaires extraordinaires undercut the authority of not only Clarke, but also Daru, the prefects and subprefects. In the exigencies of the final years of the Empire Napoleon destroyed the centralization which had brought him so much success. By the time the Allies invaded France the chaos in the administration of the French war effort was apparent.

In 1814 Napoleon gave Clarke responsibility for defending Paris but at the same time set up a defense council that undercut Clarke's authority. Dague gives an example of the confusion created by the overlapping authorities. Napoleon ordered Clarke on 31 Jan. 1814 to recruit additional troops for the Young Guard in Paris for his army, while on the day promising Joseph Bonaparte, head of the defense council, four thousand Young Guard troops for the defense of the capital.

After Napoleon's abdication Clarke rallied to the restored King, following him to Ghent after Napoleon's return from Elba. Clarke was again named Minister of War by Louis XVIII on 12 March 1815. Clarke was named a Marshal in July 1816 and retired in 1817. In the final analysis, in Dague's view, Clarke was an effective, if ambitious, administrator, who understood how to curry favor with his sovereign in order to retain and enhance his own bureaucratic power.

I would have wished for greater depth in delineating the inner workings of the Ministry of War and a more sophisticated treatment of the subject, but Dague admits to the problem of a lack of secondary works dealing with the subject. I would have wished for more on Clarke's relations with other Ministers (other than his chief bureaucratic enemy, Savary). The chapter on the Malet affaire, while interesting, is peripheral to an administrative history the War Ministry except as both the high point of Clarke's power and the ultimate source of Clarke's falling out with Napoleon. On the whole the study is interesting, but it raises more questions than it answers. Hopefully historians will be moved to do more research in these areas. Some errors, whether in editing or understanding, have crept into the work. For example, Dague substitutes "Marat" for Hughes Maret, "Lauce" for Lacue and "Alexandre DuPons" for Pierre Dupont de l'Etang.

Appendices outline the changes in the structure and organization of the War Ministry, the Ministry of War Administration and related offices from 1799 to 1815. Dague has made extensive use of archival materials from SHAT, the Archives Nationale and the Archive de Paris. Like all dissertations, this work is not indexed.

Everett Dague is an assistant professor of History at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he teaches a course on Napoleon and the French Revolution.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2002