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Napoleon’s strategic failure – what the modern world can learn, Part 1


Ridley Scott’s film ‘Napoleon’ prompted us to ask military historian Jonathon Riley, author of two key books on Napoleon and a former commander of British forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, for a  review. His damning and fascinating account of ‘the most historically inaccurate film I have ever seen’ is here. But what does an understanding of Napoleon’s successes and ultimate failure tell the modern world? Today and tomorrow Jonathon sets out the principles of strategy and command that eluded the French Emperor; how these very same principles hold for today’s winners and losers, whether armed combatants in Ukraine of Gaza or supranational organisations.

THERE ARE no better examples of the great truth that if strategy is flawed, then no matter how brilliant the tactical manoeuvres, no matter how inspired the operational art, failure will be inevitable.

Strategy can be defined very simply as the attainment of national or, importantly, alliance objectives, using all such ways and means as are available, appropriate and legal. Military strategy is secondary to this. The decision to make war is a political one, but no government will take such a course without having the means to do so.

By 1805, Napoleon was in the unique position of combining the functions of Head of State with those of supreme war-lord. Without the ability to implement strategy by maritime trade, or diplomacy, or through modern systems of communications, Napoleon relied on his army first and foremost to realise French strategic goals. Conscription, the means of generating the strategic mass that would provide the manpower for this army, was key to the Napoleonic strategic system, not to mention a devastating imposition for the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of families touched by it. 

Napoleon himself said at the time of the Peace of Amiens I802 (which temporarily ended hostilities between France and the United Kingdom, marked the end of the French Revolutionary Wars; and set the stage for the Napoleonic Wars), ‘between old monarchies and a young republic the spirit of hostility must always exist. In the present state of affairs, every peace treaty means no more than a brief armistice.’ The only peace to which Napoleonic strategy was aimed was a peace dictated wholly and solely by the conqueror. Wars were followed by treaties, or dynastic marriage, or the imposition of client rulers. Napoleon was never able to convert former enemies into allies except in the case of small, wholly dependent states like Denmark and Saxony. Treaties of alliance produced subjects, like the Confederation of the Rhine or Holland; or restive satellites like Prussia. All were tolerated only as a source of men, money and materiel for further wars prompted by hatred of the only enemy never to submit to French power, England. 

By 1811, Napoleon was aiming not just at a stable limit to his empire in Europe through peace with England, but total domination of the world: his empire would have no limits. In 1811 he remarked that ‘in five years, I shall be master of the world: there only remains Russia, but I shall crush her.’ 

His system existed only through greater and greater success, as the means to a favourable and lasting settlement: one that saw Napoleon and his empire in control of the international system. But, however successful in the short term, his downfall resulted not merely from final battlefield defeat, but from flawed strategy which created a series of catastrophic dilemmas and which, put together, were too great for France to solve. 

The first was the imposition of ‘the Continental System’. Napoleon’s policy of keeping British trade out of Europe bankrupted the paymaster of the seven coalitions that faced him. Where the system worked Europe suffered, for the Continental System was not a blockade of Great Britain by France (the French navy was incapable of attempting this). Nor was it a blockade of the French Empire by England, for the English government freely issued licences for trading with Europe. The Continental System was a blockade of the French Empire by itself. As such it was bound to fail.

His second great strategic miscalculation was the invasion of Russia. Of the 600,000 French and allied troops that marched into Russia in the summer of 1812, perhaps 60,000 ragged skeletons struggled back over the Elbe in the following spring – the rest had either deserted en masse, or rotted as Russian prisoners, or had died of cold, starvation and Russian attacks on the long retreat from Moscow. France and the Army never recovered from the losses of men, materiel, horses and, above all, prestige. A year later, he faced the power of a united Europe.

His third strategic blunder was in Spain – the Peninsular Wars, 1807-14 where Britain, aided by Spain and Portugal, succeeded in driving the French invaders out. Here, he managed to trigger first the popular revolt in Spain, and then the English intervention in Portugal, from which grew the ‘Spanish Ulcer’, tying down French resources which were needed elsewhere. In Spain, Napoleon made a fatal strategic miscalculation which, combined with the Russian campaign and the Continental system, brought him down. The course of the war in Russia and later in Central Europe could well have been substantially altered by the addition of the 200,000 French and client troops tied down in Spain.

What lessons can we draw from this today? Napoleon of course was in a highly unusual position. After 1804 he combined the offices of head of state, head of government and supreme commander. The same intelligence framed the national strategy, directed the policies of government which enabled it, implemented the laws and budgetary measures needed, formed and commanded the armies and exercised command on the battlefield. There is no counterpart today like that. 

Western governments are incapable of framing and implementing strategy. Not only do they not know how, but also they actively avoid it. Strategy is for the long term, requiring decisions and commitments which will not be realised in the lifetime of one government. Ministers, civil servants, diplomats and military officers hold their posts for only short periods. Instant gratification, or the appeasement of the electorate dominate their thoughts. The current British government clearly has no strategic vision whatsoever: if it had Brexit would have been properly completed, trade relationships around the world pursued and the armed forces strengthened instead of being reduced to the status of an international joke. 

But strategy is possible: the strategy of England, and then of Britain, from the reign of Elizabeth I to Maastricht Treaty, can be summarised as preventing the continent of Europe being dominated by a single power. The policies of parties and governments on how this was to be achieved varied, but the objective remained until the great surrender begun under Edward Heath and was completed by John Major. 

What is the strategic objective of Israel at the current time, one wonders? Probably it is survival. Israel has no strategic depth – in its territory, its population or its international backing. It cannot therefore manoeuvre and it cannot compromise. Like Napoleon, Netanyahu’s major strategic tool is his army. Like Napoleon, and unlike British Prime Ministers from Major onwards, that army has been fully resourced and kept in readiness.

Even in non-democratic states today, there is no-one in Napoleon’s position: not Kim Jong Un in North Korea, nor Xi Jinping in China, nor Putin in Russia, nor Ebrahim Raisi in Iran. Yet although none of these rulers exercise the huge span of command and control held by Napoleon, they are able to take the long view and to set out strategic goals – how? Because they are unfettered by the requirements of going to the electorate every few years, unconcerned about losing power, able to direct the resources of the state towards their goals and are, moreover, unencumbered by the necessity to explain their actions because they control the media. 

Thus Russia, with an economy smaller than that of Italy, is keeping the whole of NATO fixed by its military operations in Ukraine and by its control over strategic materials and energy. Putin has very clear strategic goals, which I have spelled out elsewhere in this publication. Like Napoleon, therefore, his tempo of making and implementing decisions will always be faster than his opponents and he can always wait out the effects of short-term reverses, trusting in the long view to prevail. China too has a clear strategic vision as the world’s dominant power, which it pursues relentlessly both within and without the territories of other nations. How much of our power networks, satellite communications, cell phone networks, rail and traffic control networks, banks and universities can be turned on or off by the Chinese? I think we are in for a nasty shock when we find out the answer to that question.

There are, of course, other bodies in the modern world that can and do set a strategy. They do so because they too take the long view and they too are not concerned with accountability. These bodies range from The Gates Foundation to major businesses like Amazon and Microsoft, to the WHO, to the WEF. Their strategies are, of course, about control of the population and control of the world’s wealth – for their own benefit, not for the general good. 

Is there any hope, therefore, for the West, faced with such a band of the Devil’s disciples? In terms of strategy, probably not. Our chief hope must be that dictators like Napoleon all have one thing in common: they never know when to stop. It is as well to remember that Napoleon, in spite of the adulation in which he is still held, ended his days as an exile on a remote rock in the Atlantic Ocean. When all is said and done, Napoleon lost. Recent history is replete with other examples: Tsar Alexander II, Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin, Eric Honecker, Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein. What will bring them all down is the same error of underestimating their opponents both great and small – strategic miscalculation.

Jonathon Riley has authored several books on Napoleon including Napoleon as a General and 1813: Empire at Bay: The Sixth Coalition and the Downfall of Napoleon.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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