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What the modern world can learn from Napoleon, Part 2 – don’t just win the war, win the peace

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This is the second of two essays by Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley on the lessons the modern-day world can learn from Napoleon’s successes and ultimate failure. These follow on from his review of Ridley Scott’s historically inaccurate film published on Saturday. Yesterday’s Part 1 examined strategy, past and present. Today’s focuses on the limits of power them and now.

‘IT IS upon the field of battle that the fate of fortresses and empires is decided.’ So declared Napoleon. The campaigns of Marengo, Ulm and Austerlitz,Jena, Eylau and Friedland are all illustrations of this principle in action. Napoleon’s unique position of power as both Head of State and supreme warlord  allowed him to connect directly his strategic objectives with campaigns to realise them. The campaign was constructed to achieve his strategic objectives and designed to bring the enemy to battle, a battle that would be the decisive act of any war. In this, he was being true to that essential requirement of generalship, simpler then than now of course: which is to determine those things which will be decisive. Thus the purpose of battle for Napoleon was not merely to defeat the enemy’s army but to destroy it and thus end any war at one stroke, achieving his strategic objectives in battle by the fastest means available. 

These campaign objectives were, however, often identified in the context of a flawed strategy, as I discussed yesterday, and although they therefore produced short-term success, they were ultimately futile.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Napoleon’s success at the theatre, or campaign, level was that he got away with it for so long. What allowed him to do so was the sheer size and organisational strength of his own Grande Armée – only one third of the 611,000 in 1812 prior to the invasion of Russia were French; the majority drawn from client states, allies and annexed territories across the rest of Europe. It allowed him to do things more rapidly and more completely than his opponents. He tookhuge risks in his habitual technique of marching divided – necessary though this was for speed and foraging. Against better quality opposition, he would have been more severely punished – as he was in the series of battles after Dresden in 1813 – for armies that march divided risk being brought to battle divided, and therefore on unfavourable terms. These potential disasters were as often as not averted by sheer bloody fighting at the tactical level. The campaigns of Northern Italy, Marengo, Austerlitz and Jena for example were little short of masterpieces, because his tactical gambles paid off

But even if Napoleon could be brilliant at the operational level, there was little glitter and less subtlety on the battlefield. True, he produced a run of successes in his early years, leading up to Jena- Auerstädt. Thereafter, however, the truth is that the price of his gambles was that for every victory, there was a disaster or near disaster which had to be recovered. He won at Friedland, but only after the bitter winter battle of Eylau; Wagram recovered the near-disaster of Aspern-Essling at huge cost; and there was little to celebrate at Borodino. The flash of genius was again apparent at Lutzen, but Bautzen was a draw, and the success of Dresden was followed by Kulm, the Katzbach and Leipzig. Ligny was an illusion, shattered by Quatre Bras and Waterloo. And in other theatres of war, such as Spain and Portugal, where the dreaded cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ were absent, his subordinates were roundly and regularly thrashed. 

There is no subtlety here and, as the quality of the army declined as each campaign took its 30 or 40 per cent casualties, so its battlefield performance also, inevitably, declined. Bautzen cost Napoleon more than 20,000 casualties – twice what his opponents lost. He then lost 150,000 men in killed, wounded and prisoners between June and September 1813, without counting sick and stragglers. Leipzig cost him 70,000 killed, wounded, sick and captured. Waterloo was to cost him 47,000 in dead and wounded. 

What, then of his legacy? When one looks at the curriculum for military history at the British Army Staff College in 1913, and its equivalents in the USA and France, one is struck by the emphasis on the Napoleonic Wars, in spite of the more recent example of the sequence of wars between Prussia and her rivals. The dominance of Napoleon was marked, and in France, probably amounted more to worship than mere dominance. Every general clearly wanted to be him; to crush his enemy’s army, march into his capital, and thus attain the goal of decisive victory. This elusive ideal has persisted right down to the present. What does not seem to have dawned on those responsible for teaching the military classes of the future was the simple fact that that, in the end, Napoleon lost – and a principal reason for his failure was that he never succeeded in transforming a defeated enemy into a willing ally: he won wars, but he never won the peace.

Of course, Napoleon himself on St Helena, and his many admirers later, did all they could to disguise this. It was Basil Liddell Hart who reminded the world of the uncomfortable truth that ‘it is as well to remember that St Helena became his destination’. To get him there took more than 20 years of ruinous war – mainly against poorly coordinated coalitions, inefficient armies and elderly, second-rate generals. Faced with this sort of opposition, Napoleon did not have to be faultless; he just had to be better than the other side. But given this sort of opposition and given the edge that superior French organisation and a unified command brought, it is not surprising that the legend grew to the size it did.

Because of this legend, the evolution of the nature of modern warfare over the next century and more became obscured. European armies after Napoleon were almost invariably large organisations raised through conscription; and the Industrial Revolution equipped them with weapons far closer to those of today’s battlefield than of Leipzig or Waterloo. Aircraft, the railway, the telephone and telegraph, the steam and petrol engines, smokeless powder, breechloaders and repeating weapons were all in place by 1914. But there is, in warfare, a relationship between the introduction of new technologies and the employment and deployment of troops. This relationship is not constant, and when it is not attended to, trouble follows. Thus, by the American Civil War, although the armies were equipped with powerful, rifled muskets and heavy artillery, and could be moved by rail, the tactics were still those of Waterloo. The results, for generals seeking the Napoleonic grail of the decisive battle, were the casualty rates of battles such as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg – and the acceleration of trench warfare. One can argue that the same process continued through to the first four months of the Great War, which cost the French Army 800,000 casualties. It was not until 1917 that this relationship was adjusted and Blitzkrieg, Lightning War, was born.

Even today, armies still operate within what is described as a Napoleonic staff model and a corps structure at a time when, once again, the employment-technology relationship is shifting. The revolution in information should mean that the staffs of generals are organised in a way which cuts across traditional divisions to provide superior (not necessarily faster) information, and thus produce superior decisions. Howeveropponents of western generalship today are not only states but non-state groupings whose command structure, as far as they can be said to have one, operates in the virtual realm. Bringing an army corps into action might succeed in taking ground, but as the Israelis discovered in south Lebanon and the Coalition found in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the action will not necessarily be decisive. In Gaza today, the Israeli focus remains on the destruction of Hamas as a military force as the decisive act. This is, however, the wrong lesson to draw from Napoleon’s legacy in the context of modern warfare. 

Whether in conventional operations such as the Russian actions against Georgia and now in Ukraine; or in complex counterinsurgencies such as Afghanistan, it is campaigns which are decisive. Battles are one of the means by which a tipping point is reached in a campaign or in the conditions within a theatre of operations, after which there will be only one, inevitable conclusion. This point was reached in Iraq when security force numbers achieved the sort of historic norms required to submerge an insurgency; and when the host nation government achieved the ability to access and control its economic resources. It was never reached in Afghanistan where the failure to implement civil effects at community level – which is where the centre of gravity lies in Afghan society – the failure to commit or generate enough security forces, and the failure to control the rampant corruption of the government meant that a tipping point in the campaign was reached in the wrong direction when Nato withdrew its forces. 

It therefore does not matter how much modern equipment, for example, the West throws into Ukraine: a decisive stroke by the Ukrainians is impossible. The Russians designed a campaign and in spite of many tactical failures, carried it through. They now hold what they always intended to hold and, taking the long view, they await the inevitable failures of Western strategic patience and a settlement on their terms. They might not have won a decisive battle in the way that Napoleon would have understood it, but they have created decisive conditions – and that could just be enough.

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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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