Jump to content

Why we shouldn't rank Napoleon among the greatest commanders


Recommended Posts

Debate: 

Napoleon's military career presents a paradox. As a tactician, he was superb, perhaps unequaled, but in the field of strategy, he was prone to making incredibly gross blunders, such as the invasions of Spain and Russia. Doesn't a great commander strive above all to avoid disastrous errors? It's hard to second-guess such generals as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, or Tamerlane who were never defeated. In the end, Napoleon's conquests proved ephemeral, he would leave the territory of France smaller than it was in 1789. Grand strategy just wasn't his strong suit.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If one nitpicks Napoleon's blunders one can make him look a bad commander enough; but you know that he also won a lot of campaigns and he won them against Armies and States that, at the time, were considered the best in the world. Moreover, he won them with a level of success that was unprecedented (e.g. the magnitude of Napoleon's smashing of Austria in 1805 and 1809 was something that Frederick the Great could only have dreamed of).

To say that the best commander is the one that is never defeated puts too much weight on chance. Had Napoleon died for natural causes  in, say, 1810, according to your metrics you should have rated him one of the best commanders ever (if not the best). Also in sports, the best team is not the one that has never lost a match (especially if plays only with sub par adversaries in a single season) but is the one that routinely confronts and beat other top tier teams. So, in this respect, I do think that Napoleon was a superb commander.

Having said this, I admit that, yes, the 1812 Russian Campaign was a strategic blunder and this error eventually lead to the loss of his Empire. But even if his conquest were ephemeral, it was the personal fate of the individual named Napoleon Bonaparte that was defeated, not what he was actually fighting for: he eventually lost but managed to win enough to make the conquests of Revolutionary France shape the future of Europe, and not the pseudo-feudal institutions of most of the old monarchies that opposed him. In this respect, Napoleon's fate was in somewhat similar to Alexander the Great's one: he died, his Empire fell apart, his son died young and was never on a throne. But what he did influenced for centuries the future of the territories he had "lost".

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In some ways there's an inherent unfairness in demoting Napoleon to a not-quite-great commander; as the head of state, he faced enormous challenges and decisions that would spare mere generals like Wellington, Blucher, or Kutuzov. Unlike them, he operated at every level. Was he stretched to thin? However, Alexander and Genghis seemed to manage.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, Childress said:

However, Alexander and Genghis seemed to manage.

Well.... we do not have the same amount of historical data to know much about them other than in the broadest vaguest strokes.  The more data one has the more ammunition it gives to the academics and historians who want to make their reputations by denigrating and pulling down past heroes.  That may be a valid fate for some historical characters.  But, the trend seems to be to denigrate and destroy the reputations of all the major leaders of the past couple of hundred years.  

These writers are destroying our history as capably as the Taliban tries to destroy ancient history by blowing up statues, temples and art works.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

55 minutes ago, Erwin said:

Well.... we do not have the same amount of historical data to know much about them other than in the broadest vaguest strokes.  

We know a great deal about Alexander. Contemporaries wrote accounts of his life.  At his height, Napoleon was a worldwide celebrity; he exuded charisma. I submit that if the little emperor was reanimated more than a few of us fall at his feet, kill for him, and throw ourselves into battle at his nod. His mojo was that powerful.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Am agreeing with you.  My point is that with what they knew at the time, and the prevailing customs of that era, modern critiques which have the benefit of hindsight are unfair.  We cannot judge historical personalities with the morals and political correct philosophies of today.  In addition, if Napoleon had won at Waterloo (it was a very near thing) we would be living in a very different world and saying very different things.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Even if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo, he would've lost in the end;. Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria were gathering to crush him. It was a matter of numbers.

Nevertheless, aside from grand strategy, he was supreme as a general on the field of battle.

A clever fellow named Ethan Arsht had the interesting idea of applying baseball sabermetrics to the ranking of prominent generals. His system calculated the total wins added (or subtracted) by the player compared to a replacement-level player. He weighted a general’s numerical advantage or disadvantage compared to their adversary to better isolate the general’s ability as a tactician.

"Napoleon is so far ahead of the normal distribution curve created by the data for these 6,000-plus generals, it’s not even close. After 43 battles, he has a WAR score of more than 16, which blows the competition away. There can be no question: Napoleon is the greatest tactical general of all time, and the math proves it."

https://towardsdatascience.com/napoleon-was-the-best-general-ever-and-the-math-proves-it-86efed303eeb

Ever seen "Moneyball"? This historian determined the 10 best generals in history. Guess who's number 1?

https://www.wearethemighty.com/mighty-history/best-generals-ranked-by-statistics/

Caesar was #2.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Back in the early 1980s, the Guinness Book of World Records made a study of the most written-about persons in history. The most popular were Napoleon, Christ, and Lincoln. However, Guinness awarded Muhammed Ali number one. Really? Well, he was big back then. ;)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

One might also fault Alexander's grand strategy; young and vigorous, he never thought of providing a successor. His death was unexpected but his style of warfare was risky to the nth, leading cavalry charges himself he was frequently wounded. Improvident? Ultimately, the vacancy at the top allowed his empire to disintegrate into a 40-year period of war and chaos. The power vacuum saw the murders of his mother, wives, and children, and the empire was eventually divided among his generals. Alexander's dynasty, if that was his goal,  never materialized. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Napoleon is remembered for his administration which survives to this day. Napoleonic Code (Law), Conserved Foods Logistics, The Metric System. Tactically light artillery which was ignored by Marshall Ney one of the contributing factors of the Battle for Waterloo. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...