Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part XIII

This will be picking up right after the phrase, “we need, therefore, not be astounded that his unprecedented military victories have always been considered to follow rather from a systematic strategy – or, as he used to say, des règles de l’art (“the rules of the art”) – than from mere luck or fortunate incident.”


There is now little doubt that Napoleon was the greatest strategist of modern times. The word strategy, although in constant use in newspapers and in common conversation, is rarely grasped in its technical and true meaning. It may be reduced to a very simple expression, in fact, to a single word. Strategy really means a line: the line of operations -that is, the direction which leads a general if he is victorious, to a decisive victory, to a victory that forces his opponent to surrender. In campaigns it is not sufficient to win battles. There has scarcely ever been a general of any note who has not won a greater or smaller number of engagements. What makes a general is not the number of his tactical victories, not the number of persons and arms taken. It is only the rapidity of decisive actions that constitutes a great general. Military leaders who make their points only after wearisome fighting for years and years, entailing enormous loss of men and treasure, may, indeed, be called good generals, but they are certainly not great strategists. In the Thirty Years’ War, for instance, although the number of clever and efficient generals on both sides was very great, there was only one great general – Gustavus Adolphus; for he alone knew where and when to give battle, and he alone arrived rapidly at a decisive and final success. To make this point absolutely clear we have only to compare the campaign of Napoleon in 1805, on the Upper Danube, with the campaign of Marlborough and Prince Eugène in the same region almost exactly one hundred years before, in 1704.

The military problem that both Marlborough and Napoleon had to solve was practically identical. For Marlborough’s and Eugène’s main point was to separate the French general, Tallard, from his German ally, the Bavarian elector, Max Emmanuel; in other words, to prevent the junction of the French and Bavarian armies. In Napoleon’s case the problem was to prevent the junction of the Austrian general, Mack, at and around Ulm, with his ally, the Russian general, Kutusow. Marlborough and Eugène were unable to prevent the junction of their opponents, and were therefore forced to fight a formidable battle, the battle of Blenheim, entailing severe loss on both of them. Napoleon, on the other hand, so arranged the marches of the various columns, and so successfully duped Mack as to the real route of the French army, that Mack’s army, with slight exceptions, was forced to surrender to Napoleon after a few unimportant engagements. These remarks are made from a purely technical standpoint; for, historically, every one knows that Marlborough was in a considerably less advantageous position than was the Emperor, owing to his (Marlborough’s) being hampered by the Dutch and the German princes. It is for this reason that Napoleon’s campaigns to the present day are constantly being studied in all the military schools, whereas even in Prussia or Germany the campaigns of Frederick, with few exceptions, are never made the subject of elaborate study in military schools.

The campaigns of Napoleon are, indeed, typical and classical campaigns; there are dominated by a leading and general strategic idea arising from a complete knowledge of the country. Thus in 1796 we see Napoleon enter Italy from the south on the so-called Corniche, or the route from Savona to Genoa, and in 1800 again we see him enter Italy by the Lake of Geneva and the Little St. Bernard.

His dominating idea was to place himself between the enemy and the enemy’s communications. In addition to that, he invariably sacrificed minor points to the essential points. Even in 1809, when he was again forced to fight Austria in the valley of the Danube, he intentionally ignored the preparing Walcheren expedition, that is to say, the forty thousand English soldiers sent to fall upon his flank in Belgium, for he correctly estimated that if he succeeded in defeating Austria, the English would be in the air without his striking at them at all. If, on the other hand, he was unsuccessful with Austria, his prestige and his military position would be completely ruined. It is well known that Napoleon constantly taught the system of concentration, the system so powerfully imitated by the German generals in the Franco-Prussian War, and a system constantly sinned against in out own times for non-military considerations. Napoleon, who was both ruler and general, had the advantage of not permitting political considerations to warp his military judgment. That strategy was the most important feature of Napoleon’s military genius is evident from the fact that he neither stimulated the invention of new arms, nor favored the adoption of any new mechanical invention. The rifle of his soldiers was still the old rifle of Louis XVI., and so was the cannon. Fulton’s immortal invention – first offered to Napoleon – found no favour with the Emperor. Napoleon clearly saw its possible value; but, as we now know, Fulton’s steamship was then very primitive. Another still more striking proof is that Napoleon invariably held it to be his duty to arrive on the battlefield with more soldiers than his enemy. In fact, while he thought, and in his military correspondence incessantly repeats, that a campaign ought if reasonably prepared (“in accordance with the rules of the art”) never to be lost, he just as frequently insists on the precarious nature of a battle. Battles, he says, very frequently depend on some incident or misunderstanding, on particular events that nobody can foresee. It is therefore safer, he adds, to trust to numbers. Yet he himself repeatedly bear his adversaries when he was in numerical inferiority – especially at Austerlitz in 1805, and at Dresden in 1813. As to the question whether Napoleon’s luck must not be considered as a considerable element of his success, it can certainly not be denied that like all great captains his was an astounding luck. Yet we cannot but admit, especially after a study of his correspondence, that until 1810, that is, so long as he did not overrate himself, and had still contrived to stave off the European coalition against himself, Napoleon’s wonderful success was chiefly based on the wonderful care and genius with which he prepared it. Neither England nor any other country possessed a statesman or general equal to him. Pitt’s greatness was in home matters, and he died in January, 1806. The Austrian statesmen were great neither at home nor abroad, and Prussia was governed by a beautiful, but politically insignificant queen, and a senseless, heavy king. The throne of Spain was disgraced by the most wretched of her numerous royal failures, and on the throne of Russia was a Czar who joined to the vanity of a fop, the cunning of a Tartar and the sentimentality of a false mystic. He was in no wise a match for Napoleon’s statecraft or military genius. The stories according to which Alexander I. of Russia, or later on Prince Metternich, the Austrian statesman, duped Napoleon, are on a level with the well-known legend that Blücher, as the Prussians say, or the Duke of Wellington, as the English say, brought about the downfall of Napoleon.

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