Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence as a general during the French Revolution, becoming ruler of France as First Consul in 1799. In 1804, after having subdued most of Europe through conquest or alliance, he crowned himself Emperor of France to prevent a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Napoleon spent the next ten years fighting a succession of wars against various allied coalitions, with often brilliant results, such as at Austerlitz in 1805.
As a part of his unending struggle against Great Britain, Napoleon attempted to impose a continental embargo, but this was ineffective and caused his allies, such as Russia, to suffer immensely. As a result, Russia resumed trading with Great Britain in 1812, inducing Napoleon to invade Russia in June of that year. The disastrous results of that invasion, whereby only 40,000 of approximately 650,000 troops survived the campaign, paved the way for Napoleon’s first abdication in April 1814. Exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon chafed at his separation from power, and in March 1815, escaped to return to France once more, reclaiming the throne. Once again, a powerful coalition was organized against him, and on June 18 he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Again, Napoleon was exiled, this time to the far distant island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821.
In Napoleon on the Art of War, Jay Luvaas utilizes personal correspondence to create essays that illuminate the great commander’s thoughts on military philosophy. Luvaas stitches together Napoleon’s writings into ten essays, plus an analysis of the campaigns of Frederick the Great. In these essays the reader will find discussions of strategy, tactics, general principles of ground war, and commentary on the “great captains.” (Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, etc.)
If there is a recurrent theme throughout these essays, it is Napoleon’s obsessive focus on organizational details and logistics, for it is his meticulous preparation that often proved decisive in battle. Napoleon recognized this, saying, “If I take so many precautions, it is because my habit is to leave nothing to chance…A plan of campaign must anticipate everything that the enemy can do and contain within it the means of outmaneuvering him.” (pg. 66)
Napoleon also enumerated several military principles, such as “Do not make flank marches in front of an army that is in position” and “Preserve your line of operation with care and never abandon it lightheartedly.” (pg. 40) Napoleon’s ideas were foundational to military studies throughout the nineteenth century, his campaigns becoming the subject of intense examination by students at military academies across the Western world.
In America, the officer corps of both the Union and Confederate armies were well versed in Napoleonic tactics, and held fast to these lessons learned at West Point, even in the face of new technologies that made many of the ideas obsolete. Not all Napoleonic lessons were scrupulously adhered to though, such as, “No infantry, however brave, can march 3,000 or 3,600 feet with impunity against sixteen or twenty-four well-placed guns, served by good gunners. Before it would get two thirds of the way its men would be killed, wounded or scattered.” (pgs. 56-57). Lee would have been wise to have accepted this advice at Gettysburg, as would Burnside at Fredericksburg seven months earlier.
While the changing face of military technology eroded much of the value in Napoleonic study, his operational and strategic genius still resonates today, and according to Luvaas, “A strong case could be made that Napoleon created the operational level of war as it is understood and practiced by soldiers today.” (introduction, pg. x) For students of military history, no understanding of nineteenth century warfare is possible without first establishing a solid footing in Napoleonic tactics, which provided the basis for all Western warfare through the First World War. Even beyond that, one can still see Napoleon’s fingerprints on modern military command structure through the corps and divisions of today, which make command and control possible at the operational level.
Much of Napoleon’s writings in this book are in fact directives given to field commanders, and demonstrate how his direct experience in combat provides real-life lessons in military theory. For example, Napoleon may be writing to offer correction to what he perceives as error or faulty logic in his officer corps and will illustrate a point to a subordinate by referencing an earlier campaign or battle. As he does this, he takes time to expound upon sound military principles, and these are entertaining passages.
In other communications, Napoleon goes into great detail about specific operational features of the campaign, as in when he is listing the disposition of corps in the Grande Armee prior to Austerlitz, down to a count of the number of rounds each soldier will carry on his person. These passages can be tedious, and as Napoleon will often mention every river, town and ridge to be encountered in the line of operation, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to maintain focus throughout. Overall, however, if one stays with Napoleon’s train of thought, the important lessons about warfare become apparent and the value of the text in Luvaas’ mind is seen.
In military history, the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte is so pervasive that not just a school of tactics, but an entire era bears his name. Generations of officers learned their craft studying him, and more than a few spent their careers trying to emulate him. Reading his words today sheds light not just on Napoleon, but also to a larger degree on an entire age of combat commanders. For the student of military history, reading Napoleon is to peer into the past and see the foundations of a century of warfare, with all of its pageantry and all of its carnage.