Napoleon’s War Strategy Essay

Napoleon Bonaparte was an exceptional personage who made history by scoring successes in the battlefield and won many battles through his operational maneuver. Napoleon’s fame as a General, and indeed his powerbase to become head of the French state, was based on a powerful and fluent campaign in Northern Italy, principally against the numerically superior Austrians. His concept involved rapid movements, surprise, isolation of enemy forces, and exploitation of enemy weaknesses among others.

Napoleon’s concept of operational maneuver did not differ greatly from Frederick’s as he even personally cited Frederick the Great as one of the major sources of his strategy. His vision, self-centeredness, military genius, and application of conventional military ideas to real world situations greatly aided his victories. Napoleon, in his battles, perfected Frederick’s concepts such as the exhaustion method, use of the oblique order, exploitation of the central point, and geometric strategy which the later used in the seven (7) years’ war (1756-63).

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Napoleon is considered one of the greatest military minds in the history of warfare. When he launched into a long series of wars known as the “Napoleonic Wars” with Europe in 1799, he was determined to extend the territorial boundaries of France and its revolutionary borders. Historians view the “Napoleonic Wars” as a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, which had significant impact on all of Europe and revolutionised European armies. Napoleon’s road to success was charted by the supreme triumphs of Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805.

These battles represented a strategic turning point for the French, and demonstrated the supreme military might of the French Empire and strategic genius of Napoleon himself. These two battles represent the climax of Napoleon’s success, and signify his continued efforts to expand his empire further into Europe. Methods of war stand on a continuum between maneuver warfare and attrition warfare. The latter focuses on achieving victory through killing or capturing an adversary while maneuver warfare advocates for recognising that all warfare involves both maneuver and attrition.

Maneuver warfare advocates that strategic movement can bring about the defeat of an opposing force more efficiently than by simply contacting and destroying enemy forces until they can no longer fight. Instead, in maneuver warfare, the destruction of certain enemy targets command and control centres, logistical bases, fire support assets and is combined with isolation of enemy forces and the exploitation by movement of enemy weaknesses.

Napoleon, in his concept of operational maneuver, used the combination of cavalry movement and fast infantry movement to bring about the defeat of superior forces while they were still moving to their intended place of battle. This allowed his forces to attack where and when he wanted, often giving him the advantage of terrain to disable effective movement by his enemy. He used maneuver both strategically, thus, when and where to fight and tactically, which is, how to fight the battle he chose.

This tactic was similar to Frederick’s geometric strategy which focused on lines of maneuver through the study and knowledge of the terrain, and appreciation of the nature of the environment. Napoleon was also successful on the battlefield because he successfully utilized the weapons and technology of the era that helped formulate his strategy and tactics. Technology during the “Napoleonic Era” was relatively unchanged. For the infantry, their small arms, such as the musket and bayonets, changed very little. However, the artillery arms went through some major changes during Napoleon’s rise to power.

Artillery pieces were now made with interchangeable parts, which were suitable for mass production; gun carriages were built to a standard model; the mobility of the guns were improved by harnessing the horses in pairs instead of in file; hardwood axles replaced heavy iron ones; and accuracy was improved through the introduction of the “tangent sight,” which is a graduated brass measure that enabled the gunner to sight the gun on a target. The greater mobility of the artillery would be one of the most defining improvements, since it would make it possible for the guns to accompany divisions.

Napoleon essentially mastered Europe with the weapons and equipment he had available. He also improved on the use of divisional formations. Through the use of divisional formations, Napoleon revolutionised strategy. Armies now composed of detachable parts that could engage the enemy alone until the rest of the army came up in support. These divisions could be used in encircling or flanking movements, while on the defensive the division could be used to prevent offensive maneuvers.

This type of formation could now take the advantage of parallel roads and be able to concentrate immediately before making initial contact with the enemy. As a result of implementing divisional formations, generalship was made more complicated and staff work became very important, as well as the need for highly detailed maps that would need to show terrain features and road networks. It was through this type of generalship, that Napoleon would demonstrate his genius, since he was essentially his own chief of staff and was able to effectively direct operations of his armies, where others would have failed.

To make effective use of his army’s superior mobility and inspiration, Napoleon developed two major strategic systems. When he was facing an enemy superior in numbers, the strategy of the central position was used in order to split the enemy into separate parts. This was where each could be eliminated in detail through maneuvering in order to gain the French a local superiority of force in successive actions by bringing the reserve into action at the critical time and place. On the other hand, when the French held superiority in numbers Napoleon would use a maneuver of envelopment.

By using this tactic, Napoleon would capture his foe’s attention with a detachment of his army while the bulk of his army would sweep against the enemy’s lines of communication in order to sever the enemy’s links with his bases. By employing these two unique strategies, Napoleon always looked for ways he could draw his enemy out to battle. He saw battle as a means to destroying his enemy’s means of resistance. Napoleon’s first defined objective at the outset of any of his military campaigns was the enemy’s army, which he intended to destroy.

If his enemy did not want to risk going into battle, he would simply force them into battle through his maneuvering. Throughout all of his military campaigns, Napoleon always sought to seize and retain the initiative, in order to impose his will upon the enemy. Even when Napoleon was extremely outnumbered, he was still able to out-smart his enemies through marching and maneuvering, in order to employ the bulk of his forces at a weakened point of the enemy’s line. It was through Napoleon’s focus on the enemy’s armed forces and his ability to exercise quick maneuvering that he would enjoy most of his successes.

Frederick on the other hand also employed the tactic of speed through exploitation of rapid movement and surprise as he did at the battle of Rossbach in November 1757. He also used the central position strategy which entailed fighting one battle at a time by moving his troops on interior lines and not to fight in all fronts at a time. The core of Napoleon’s army was his infantry men, who individually could expect two to three weeks of basic training, which stressed the use of the bayonet. The Napoleonic foot soldiers were renowned for their agility, stubborn attacks, as well as the speed of their marches.

This speed and maneuverability formed the foundation of Napoleon’s successful campaigns, and was made possible by, the lack of baggage that was carried by the French foot soldier, since they lived off the land. Even though Napoleon believed that while infantry was the main arm of an army, it could not stand up to superior artillery. He would borrow his ideas in employing artillery from Chevalier du Teil, who was Napoleon’s superior in command of artillery at Toulon, where he had urged that artillery be concentrated at the point of attack and dispersed along the entire line.

Napoleon would follow this practice and would use his large calibre guns to blast a hole in the enemy’s line into which the infantry could penetrate. Like Napoleon, Frederick also hinged his successes on his infantry as evidenced by the Rossbach campaign. During the era of Napoleon, no one was able to match his ability to use weapons, technology, and tactics. Napoleon was not much of an inventor of military tactics, but rather a borrower from his teachers and what he experienced on the field of battle.

Napoleon applied much of what he learned, reflected, and added his own twist to military tactics, which provided the foundation for his string of successes on the European continent. The ability to use weapons was one of the few differences Napoleon had with Frederick. The latter won most of his battles not through fire power but great tactics especially his use of the oblique order battle and being at the right place at the right time. The Ulm Campaign is one of the greatest examples of Napoleons military brilliance and tactical supremacy on the battlefield. It shows his cunningness and determination to defeat his enemies.

The victory at Ulm was a product of hard work, long training and preparation that resulted in a decisive victory. Napoleon was on a major campaign and he was winning. After the Campaign of Ulm, Napoleon and the French captured Vienna and made their way to Austerlitz, the most successful military battle of Napoleon’s career. The battle of Austerlitz represents the peak of Napoleon’s success. He defeated the third collation, knocked Austria out of the war, and expanded French dominance over the European Continent. The Battle of Austerlitz took place on December 2, 1805 in the present day Czech Republic.

Austerlitz is known as the battle of the three emperors, pitting Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Emperor Francis I of Austria, against Emperor Napoleon of France. On December 1, the Russian imperial army and the Austrian imperial Army (Allied forces) met with one another to decide the best course of action against the French. Alexander I wished to attack the French head on, but the Austrians wanted to take more of a defensive approach against Napoleon. With intense pressure from senior commanders, supreme allied commanders decided that an attack would be made against the French southern flank.

However, Austrian and Russian forces did not plan on Napoleon being one step ahead of them. He anticipated they would strike at his right and he thinned it to make it seem a weak spot. This would weaken the allied center and allowed Napoleon to implement a planned massive counter-attack in this area to shatter the allies’ lines. Positioning Marshal Jean Lannes’s V Corps near Santon Hill at the northern end of the line, Napoleon placed General Claude Legrand’s men at the southern end, with Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s IV Corps in the center.

As the battle began on December 2, the first of the allied attacks began hitting the French near the village of Telnitz. The French were pushed back, but the arrival of Marshall Louis Nicolas Davout’s III Corps helped them regain their lost position. As the battle continued the French forces were able to force the Russians to retreat on all aspects of the battle field, and the allied lines began to fall apart. General panic seized the allied army and it abandoned the field in all possible directions.

In three months, the French had occupied Vienna, destroyed two armies, and humbled the Austrian Empire. Austerlitz set the stage for a near-decade of French domination of the European continent. Austerlitz was Napoleon’s peak of success. It effectively ended the Third Collation and forced Austria out of the war. Frederick on the other hand exhibited his military genius during the entire Selesion war particularly at the battle of Rossbach on 5 November 1757 and Leuthen of 5 December 1757 where the he used maneuver, deception and terrain to successfully defeat a much larger French and Austrian army.

It should, therefore, be concluded that there were no major differences between Napoleon’s operational concept of warfare and Frederick’s. Although both were military geniuses, it is clear that Napoleon borrowed more from Frederick’s strategies and went on to employ them with modifications in his battles. Napoleon’s concept was, thus, a modification and improvement of strategies by Frederick and others like Clausewitz and Jomin. This fact does not, however, take away Napoleon’s military genius as an individual.

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