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Napoleon was undone by faulty strategy. Debate.


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A man does not have himself killed for a few halfpence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify the man.- Napoleon

Even after 200 years we still feel the reverberations of Napoleon’s personality. We identify with the Corsican; many of us glory in his triumphs and regret his downfall- it's personal. He left a lasting imprint upon his contemporaries who speak of his iron will, power of concentration, and near inhuman work ethic not to mention a charismatic charm that we still fell today. Napoleon’s soldiers adored him; at times it seemed they- both Frenchmen and foreigners- were eager to die for him. His powers of recall were legendary:

…when on campaign in 1805 one of his subordinates could not locate his division, while his aids searched through maps and papers, the Emperor informed the officer of his unit's present location, where he would be for the next three nights, the status and resume of the units strength as well as the subordinates military record. This out of an army with seven corps, a total of 200,000 men, with all the units on the move.(1)

Emperor-Napoleon-in-His-Study-canvas-Tuileries-1812.jpg

In his early years, Napoleon was an innovator; his tactical maneuvering was dazzling. These innovations were refined and reached their height during the battles of Ulm, Austerlitz, and Jena in the period of 1805-1806. In contrast to his opponents, he benefited from an excellent officer class based on talent rather than social position.

The army corps system, with its flexibility and limitless variation, gave Napoleon an early advantage over his opponents. His motto: speed and more speed. His indirect approach, La maneuver sur les derrieres, descended at the critical moment to decide the battle. He used it- among other grand tactical maneuvers- dozens of times with great success. One hitch: as the years passed his enemies successfully copied these tactics.

Given Napoleon’s domination in the period up to (arguably) 1806 why do we see an erosion in his powers leading to his final downfall in 1815, nine years later? Some historians attribute the decline to several factors: the increased efficiency of his opponents; the decreasing quality of his own troops; and the limitations of his subordinates. Or simply hubris on the part of the Emperor. Certainly, after Jena there were still many victories for Napoleon to win, but it was after this period that his judgment gradually declines. In the field of grand strategy, he became prone to make incredibly gross blunders. The most egregious of them, the campaigns in Spain and Russia, sealed his fate.

THE SPANISH ULCER

From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step. – Napoleon

After 1806 the armies of France and her enemies grew to gargantuan proportions along with the causality lists; at the battle of Eylau in1807, a draw, Napoleon suffered 25,000 killed and wounded. Following the French victory at Friedland, Napoleon turned his eyes to Spain. He resolved to seize Portugal which had been defying the blockade against Britain under his Continental System. Spain was in the way.

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The Second of May 1808, by Goya. A Spanish guerilla faces a firing squad.

Napoleon arrived in 1808. After achieving an initial victory and replacing the King he left the affairs of Spain to his Marshals never to return. But he came to envision the acquisition of the country via royal puppets ultimately choosing his brother. Used to imposing his will, he assumed the Spanish would acquiesce in all of this but the conservative, Catholic population rose in bloody revolt.

A new kind of war began for us, a war of constant ambush, murder and extermination. No more battles like Eylau and Friedland, but a daily struggle against invisible enemies, thousands of them: hidden in the wilderness, in the bottom of gorges, guerrillas ready to fight in every corner of every building, with neither truce, nor rest; and always the fear of betrayal day and night, at any point, at any bend of a trail, even while we were in bed. -Colonel Joseph Marnier

While the French were victorious in battle (when not facing the Duke), they were eventually defeated as their communications and supplies were severely tested; their units were frequently isolated, harassed, or overwhelmed by partisans fighting an intense, no-quarter-given guerrilla war of raids, ambushes, and atrocities. Meanwhile, the British under Wellington in Lisbon first resisted the French invasion of Portugal then swept them out of Spain arriving in Southern France in 1814.

Spain was to cost Napoleon an annual commitment of 300,000 men per year fighting in the peninsula and after five years of warfare, they suffered 260,000 casualties. The order of battle was deceptive; all but an estimated 70,000 of the soldiers were, at any one time, tied down chasing the guerillas.

From 1808-1814, the Emperor would face two fronts. The debacle in Russia may not have been caused directly by events in Spain but the German campaign of 1813 certainly was; 200,000 French troops remained tied down in the Peninsula. They were sorely missed. Napoleon, thin in cavalry, resorted to recruiting youths and dregs of society while Wellington's Spanish successes served to hearten the Prussian-Russian alliance that was wavering after setbacks at Lutzen and Bautzen.

MOTHER RUSSIA

I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North. The sword is now drawn. They must be pushed back into their ice, so that for the next 25 years they no longer come to busy themselves with the affairs of civilized Europe.–Napoleon

Charles XII tried it, Napoleon tried it, Hitler tried it. It never seems to work out invading Russia.- David A. Bell, Princeton University

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Alexander I

The Russian Czar, Alexander I, was growing impatient with Napoleon’s Continental System designed to kneecap Britain through embargoes. The policy was causing a disastrous drop in trade followed by a collapse in the Ruble so he ceased complying in 1810. He then imposed a heavy tax on French luxury products and, making it personal, rebuffed Napoleon’s proposal to marry one of his sisters. Furious, the Emperor resolved to force the Czar to the negotiating table and bend him to his will. This never materialized. 
 
The official Casus Belli, the enforcement of the Continental System, was virtually the same as Portugal in 1806.

The decision of the 1812 invasion of Russia had been Napoleon’s alone and had been taken against warnings to the contrary. Despite amassing over 600,000 soldiers Napoleon expected a limited war, essentially a punitive action. The Russians perceived it as a struggle to the death. This is the moment when hack modern psychoanalysts declare his megalomania.

The war started badly: while reconnoitering the frontier on horseback in front of thousands of his men Napoleon’s mount reared, throwing the Emperor to the ground. He quickly got back on the saddle but the event was not forgotten by the superstitious troops; the ill omen spread through the ranks.

After a brief battle near the border, the Russians began a long retreat employing using a scorched earth policy that denied sustenance to the French. A second indecisive battle at Smolensk left thousands of French dead. The summer heat became oppressive and Grande Armee soldiers were coming down with insect-borne diseases including typhus and dysentery. Hunger and desertion began to haunt Napoleon's troops.

Finally, the Russians offered battle at Borodino 75 miles from Moscow, a set-piece slugfest causing 70,000 casualties but the French owned the field at the end. Napoleon’s usual decisiveness and tactical finesse were absent- but he was suffering from piles. On September 19 the French entered the ancient capital, only to see it to become engulfed in flames.

Napoleon_in_burning_Moscow.jpg

Napoleon waited in vain for the expected surrender terms from the Czar. If he wished to decapitate the Russian Empire he made the wrong choice of city. Moscow was the largest and the more accessible but Alexander, his court, and the Imperial bureaucracy resided in St Petersburg, a city built on islands whose approach was guarded by dense forests. Secure, the Czar felt no need to come to terms.

Napoleon led his army out of Moscow on October 10, realizing that it could not survive the winter. The well-known privations and horrors (including cannibalism) suffered by the Grande Armee in retreat will not be brought up here. Britannica estimates that of the 612,000 combatants who entered Russia only 112,000 crossed back over the Niemen River. The catastrophic loss of men, not to mention 200,000 horses, would hobble the French in the decisive- and enormous- battles of 1813.

SUMMARY

The ill-conceived campaigns in Spain and Russia were not the only determinate factors that caused Napoleon to end up in his little kingdom on the island of Elba. From a strictly military point of view, yes they were, but from a Grand Strategy point of view, his greatest- and most determined enemy was Great Britain with her bottomless finances, her economic and industrial contributions, and her selective military interventions. He would defeat one enemy or alliance only to see another rise up supported by England. After the Battle of the Nile, her naval assets restricted, for the most part, Napoleon to the continent.

Napoleon’s career presents a paradox; as a tactical commander in the field he was unsurpassed, in the arena of grand strategy he could be erratic and impulsive;  his gambling sense failed him. It seems Napoleon was at his best leading small to medium-sized armies, not the increasingly enormous and ungainly numbers he led after 1806, most notably the German campaign in 1813. His wizardry reappeared in the 1814 campaign in France leading modest-sized forces. 

During the later part of the Empire, he faced more proficient enemy commanders some of whom had learned their trade from him. Nevertheless, Napoleon deserves, IMHO,  his traditional reputation as one of history's great military commanders.  
 
(1)   https://www.napoleon-series.org/researc ... enius.html

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Well Napoleon failed to achieve any worthwhile allies in his campaigns, and the few partners he had proved better at getting him in trouble than out of it. Ultimately the very thing enabling Napoleon's strengths were enabling his enemies too, Europe's burgeoning population boom and the emerging proto-Nationalism were making it impossible to achieve lasting victory in one big battle and France couldn't spare the men to just annex Europe. Cracking a whole country's war effort required absolutely shattering its war making potential by occupying it, burning all of its cities down, and wiping out royal heirs none of which Napoleon was seriously inclined to do to anyone because he just wasn't prepared to be that ruthless. He was only interested in reform and wasn't really a revolutionary or extremist at heart even though his ideas sounded quite revolutionary to many people of the time. He was a sound tactician who turned out to be a bad strategist ultimately but he was faced by some pretty serious complications and nearby enemies he was either unable or unwilling to defeat decisively. 

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Fascinating article.

I am struck by how time changes people's perspectives on who is a hero or villain, who can be admired and glorified and who vilified.

Eg:  From the above: 

"He left a lasting imprint upon his contemporaries who speak of his iron will, power of concentration, and near inhuman work ethic not to mention a charismatic charm that we still fell today. ***********'s soldiers adored him; at times it seemed they... were eager to die for him. "

"In his early years, ************ was an innovator; his tactical maneuvering was dazzling. These innovations were refined and reached their height during the battles of ********, ******** and ******** in the period of **********. 

The army corps system, with its flexibility and limitless variation, gave ********** an early advantage over his opponents. His motto: speed and more speed. His indirect approach... descended at the critical moment to decide the battle. He used it- among other grand tactical maneuvers- dozens of times with great success. One hitch: as the years passed his enemies successfully copied these tactics.

Given ************’s domination in the period up to (arguably) ********** why do we see an erosion in his powers leading to his final downfall in *********, X years later? Some historians attribute the decline to several factors: the increased efficiency of his opponents; the decreasing quality of his own troops; and the limitations of his subordinates. Or simply hubris on the part of ***********.  Certainly, after ********* there were still many victories for ************ to win, but it was after this period that his judgment gradually declines. In the field of grand strategy, he became prone to make incredibly gross blunders. The most egregious of them, the campaigns in... Russia, sealed his fate."

Question:  Who is being discussed?  Napoleon or Hitler?

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Posted (edited)
On 7/1/2020 at 11:46 AM, z1812 said:

Napoleon has been romanticized to a great extent. In Britain, and most European countries, he was very much regarded then, as most regard Hitler now.

Napoleon incited nationalist movements which were both feared and opposed by local aristocracy and nobility. Contrary to the usual narrative, Nationalist movements were associated with the Liberal movements of Europe that began to emerge around the 19th century, as both of these entities were associated with reform. In Napoleon's time little of Europe was nationalized to any great extent, and a lot of it was still feudal. There was a real fear inside the landowning class that revolution would sweep Europe and this fear persisted for many decades after Napoleon's death. (Judson) It's important to remember during this era that universal suffrage for all men was considered an extreme idea, and division of rights along religious, racial, regional, and property owning lines were often common and variously enforced in many Duchies and Sovereignties. Nationalism promised emancipation for serfs and peasants by making them citizens of a state and guaranteeing them rights for that reason alone, although this process was rarely a straightforward one. 

A lot of what we hear today about Napoleon is just the recycled reactionary version of events describing his as a despot, war criminal, etc some elements of which is true but most of which is just surviving detritus from land owners who resented the idea of an emancipated peasantry. Comparisons to Hitler are utterly groundless, and obscure Napoleon's reformist position on many issues that would've granted more equality to Europe's peasants all of which were bitterly resented by local nobility. The British only hated him since he organized a strong continental block, threatening Britain's security and giving the Empire a good scare. This is ironic since he was pursuing many of the same reform policies the British were, but Britain had a popular assembly and mechanisms by which these things could be obtained through legal due process and lobbying. France didn't, and the refusal of the Bourbon Kings to reform eventually led to revolt, leading to the revolution, to Robespierre, to Napoleon, etc. 

After Napoleon was exiled Europe was still fundamentally the same, the entire Congress of Vienna was designed around re-imposing a status quo that didn't stay imposed for very long in many places. The emergence of the printing press and widespread newspaper circulation though means that there's lots of information coming from that era containing myths and falsehoods that is circulated to this day in what could be considered as the original fake news process. 

Edited by SimpleSimon
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I have similar thoughts to SimpleSimon on this.  I read this excellent book by Andrew Roberts on Napoleon (link below).  In the very first pages he contends that it is grossly unfair to equate Napoleon w Hitler, and his book makes this case very well IMO.  Napoleon was not out to exterminate or enslave people.  Hitler's plans would require the extermination, banishment, or enslavement of dozens (hundreds?) of millions of people.  Nap's not some bleeding heart nor is he a bloodthirsty lunatic; nor is he all that much worse than many (most?) of the monarchs ruling Europe at the time.

But he was really, really good at war most of the time.

https://www.amazon.com/Napoleon-Andrew-Roberts-audiobook/dp/B00OSF1O44/ref=sr_1_4?dchild=1&keywords=napoleon&qid=1593731336&sr=8-4

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The interesting thing about history is how major characters and events get reinterpreted as more and more time goes by.  Am confident that in another 100 years or so, there will be a revision of Hitler much as the above posts describe Napoleon. 

Am not saying that is right or wrong, just that seems to be what happens as events fade into distant memory.  Eg:  Lincoln used to be a hero.  Now there are moves to discredit him (and Washington) and desecrate their monuments.  Same with Churchill.  Given enough time passing, the folks who arguably used to be considered our greatest humans and heroes become vilified and the old villains become reformed into misunderstood geniuses, often described as "visionaries/ahead of their time".  Perhaps this phenomenon is largely due to academics who make their reputations on this sort of controversial revisionism.

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Napoleon fought more than 70 battles, winning all but only seven, mostly at the end.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_ ... ular%20War.

First-hand descriptions of Napoleon by his contemporaries:
https://www.napoleon-series.org/researc ... ption.html

An excerpt:
He dictated while walking to and fro in his cabinet. When he grew angry he would use violent imprecations, which were suppressed in writing and which had, at least, the advantage of giving the writer time to catch up with him. He never repeated anything that he had once said, even if it had not been heard; and this was very hard on the poor secretary, for Bonaparte remembered accurately what he had said and detected every omission. . . . He always derived amusement from causing anyone uneasiness and distress. His great general principle, which he applied to everything, both great and small, was that there could be no zeal where there was no disquietude. . . .

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2 hours ago, JulianJ said:

I find that a strange thing to say. If there's anything left of this society in 100 years, I feel sure that Hitler will be as vilified as he is today: a murderous fascist.

Saw a doc on Netflix that proposed that the EU is/was a creation of concepts and ideals devised by the Nazis - "a Europe united under Germany/German leadership".  Whether you consider that crazy or not it shows how given sufficient time, historical events get reinterpreted/revised.  

"On the 1st January 1958 Hallsein became the first president of the European Commission. In held the post for ten years and during this period he advocated the establishment of the Common Market."

 

 

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  • 1 month later...
On 7/4/2020 at 6:58 AM, Childress said:

Napoleon fought more than 70 battles, winning all but only seven, mostly at the end.

There is a saying about the British Army: they tend to lose evey battle, except the last one.

 

Of course, it's only the last one that really matters.

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Napoleon was an incredible military leader, sure. However, you can't expect any one person to be a genius at everything. He is a classical tale of an overly ambitious micromanager, who too often overlooked delegation. It is obvious hindsight that his strategy did not work, but why?

Battle of the Nile was a decisive defeat against the French Army, not just the French Navy. He was forced to capitulate all his Middle East gains, and was confined to the continent. His counter-blockade of British shipping to Europe set him on a collision course with Portugal, Spain and Russia. Napoleon was neither an admiral, nor a diplomat. He would often rage and threaten heads-of-state, if they had any mixed feeling of his occupation of the continent. 

Napoleon's tactical judgement was also obscured by his ambition, at times. Barclay de Tolly's forces were numerically inferior at the start of the invasion of Russia (more so than in 1941). Through mobile small unit tactics, he managed to even the score before the Battle of Baradino. Barclay de Tolly had powerful delegates, like Bagration -- who took the initiative and began organizing partisan opposition. Set piece battles were Napoleon's forte, and he was too self-absorbed to consider more flexible tactics.

Comparisons to Hitler are inescapable, but there are key differences. Napoleon was a military officer, not an ideologist. If Hitler showed up at the gates of Berlin, like Napoleon did in Paris, after his exile -- would all the fighting men accept his return to Fuhrer? Hitler delegated well in early war. His diplomacy landed him easy victories and his Admirals plagued the seas for some time.

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...he was going to lose anyway.

Yes. With a quarter-million Germans and Russians- and more to follow- closing in the writing was on the wall. In retrospect, Napoleon's  (arguable) near-miss at Waterloo was the very best outcome for his legend. He can bid adieu to his weeping grognards while French historians sharpen their pens concocting their 'might-have-been' scenarios. 
If only....

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What was faulty was assigning to the Russians the same socio-psychological behavior of European nations.  Wars were common in Europe and were usually resolved so that the prevailing royal power and status quo of these nation-states was maintained.  Basically: When one captured one's enemy's capital (or enuff vital territory) they surrendered and that was that - until the losing nation recovered and started a new war to recover what they lost ad infinitum.  But, the European Royal families were all related and having a jolly time slaughtering their subjects who were easily expendable assets.

The Russian psyche, as Hitler also discovered, is/was different.  They would fight on regardless of losses.  This would be an alien method of war to Nappy - as it was to Hitler.  These invaders simply did not comprehend this psychology or predict it.

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