What price is too high for ambition? It can be a difficult question. Ambition has driven us throughout history. It can be what makes a person strive for a education or a job. It has built monuments and civilisations. But how far is too ambitious? Does it depend on who you are? Or are the consequences more important? Is it ok to let your ambition kill people? After all just becoming a President or a Prime Minister or a Tsar means you will end up having people killed. Someone has to do that job though. If you exclude one person for being too ambitious, how do you know that the next person will do as good a job as the one you’ve just excluded. Isn’t a certain amount of ruthlessness and ambition exactly what’s needed in a great leader? And how do you deal with it when you know you are one of the historical “great men” as they are called. If you are an Alexander or a Caesar, that ambition is going to kill people, but you know that you are cut from another cloth to most people. Because if people like Alexander or Caesar aren’t ambitious, then how does civilisation move and evolve? Without Caesar, maybe Rome stays a Mediterranean power, and there is no modern France or Spain or Britain. There’s no Constantinople; perhaps even no Crusades or contact with China – so maybe the world never moves past the technology, social structures and populations of 1st century AD. Imagine a world that doesn’t change from then and try to imaging what that’s like.
The Victorians absolutely had to deal with this ambition problem though. It wasn’t an academic issue for them. Cecil Rhodes, Charles Napier, “Chinese” Gordon, Abraham Lincoln were all people who had to put a large dose of ambition and a willingness to see people dead to achieve what they thought were larger goals. Throughout our period, the British Victorians were building an Empire as were the French, Prussians, Russians and North Americans. That often leads to some very uncomfortable questions, about who is building it and why. That leads me to another trait that these great men often have, and that’s “they have a self confidence you could bend iron bars around.” That’s going to be a key to understanding the Age of the Victorians right there, the almost insane self confidence we’re going to see again and again. Searching for the source of the Nile, or the Northern Passage, journeying up the Amazon or taking a handful of soldiers and scraped together forces against enormous odds in far flung parts of the world.
And what’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken? Have you ever staked it all on a risky throw of the dice? When most of us say we have taken a gamble, we usually mean something mundane like trying a new restaurant or seeing a film or going on a date. Even the big stuff is usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things. Quitting a job, starting a business or moving house is rarely going to kill you, and even if it does that is limited to you and your family. What I think we all have in common is a sense of fear of the unknown and that moment where the urge to jump becomes unbearable.
In 1815, in what has to be one of the great gambles in world history, Napoleon left Elba with a handful of men to reconquer France. Now I can’t really imagine how Napoleon felt when he left Elba on 26 February 1815 and landed in France on 01 March 1815. I’m not going through the whole history of Napoleon. I’m going to assume that you know something about his rise from provincial nobody to revolutionary general to 1st Consul to Emperor of the French and master of Europe to exile on Elba. His return started what was known as the 100 days. With just 1,000 men, he invaded France. That has to be one of the most utterly self confident things anyone has ever done. Still, he was not leaping in the dark. The returned Monarchy had quickly wasted any goodwill it had, and it had treated the officers and men of the old Grand Armee disgracefully. The exiled aristocratic class had returned to France and begun the usual aristocratic ways of extraction, and despotism. The old army and people of France were ready for help to fight the tyranny of monarchy. The press reacted in typical style. QUOTE from Le Moniteur Universel 1815 between 9 March 1815 and 21 March 1815
- The cannibal has left his lair.
- The Corsican ogre has just landed at the Juan Gulf.
- The tiger has arrived at Gap.
- The monster slept at Grenoble.
- The tyrant has crossed Lyons.
- The usurper was seen sixty leagues from the capital.
- Bonaparte has advanced with great strides, but he will never enter Paris.
- Tomorrow, Napoleon will be under our ramparts.
- The Emperor has arrived at Fontainbleau. His Imperial and Royal Majesty entered his palace at the Tuileries last night in the midst of his faithful subjects.
Napoleon was like a lot of the “great men” of history – he had a belief in fortune and some greater destiny. He felt he was marked out for greatness. And if you look at him, you can see why. He was unquestionably an intellectual genius who was one of the greatest military commanders in history. At his best he was nearly incomparable. He regularly appears in the top 5 military leaders in history. He also possessed a highly intelligent scientific mind, and a formidable legal brain. It is worth remembering as we evaluate him and Waterloo, that he was also the sole ruler of France at the time, responsible for all civil affairs in her borders and colonies. He also had to deal with all international diplomatic relations, re-order the constitution and economy, re-form and re-supply the military and at the same time fight a campaign against an international coalition determined to use the resources of their combined nations to destroy him. I think you will come to see that the surprise is not that Wellington beat Napoleon, but how amazing it is that the Emperor came so close to actually winning.
I’m going to quickly digress as I think we should put the issue of Napoleon’s height to rest. He was 5ft 4 inches in French Imperial measure, which was 5ft 7 inches in British Imperial measure. That made him of average height for France in the early 1800’s. A number of modern political leaders are also the same height. For comparison, the Duke of Wellington was probably around 5ft 10inches. A lot of the reason for the confusion was highly effective British propaganda that made him out to be small, physically weak, combined with the mistranslation over the height from French measure to British Imperial. Later on Tolstoy (who loathed Napoleon) called him [quote] “the undersized Napoleon” [end quote] as well as other unflattering descriptions. Dr Alfred Adler, a psychiatrist first proposed the Napoleon complex to describe short men over compensating with aggression, which has set the myth in stone.
Now let’s have a look at Europe on the eve of Waterloo campaign in the year 1815. France was without a doubt the great power of the age. She has a population of and was agriculturally rich. Like Britain she was a predominantly agrarian society with the bulk of the population involved in farming or labour. Unlike Britain, France was not a strong naval power. A focus on continental strategy, rather than blue water power projection combined with a series of naval defeats meant France was unable to challenge British naval dominance, which was absolute in 1815. This had a huge impact on French strategy. When naval historians and strategists talk about navies, they will try and define the role of the navy. Navies can be vital in securing trade routes, for costal defence, troop transport, commerce raiding and if capable of long campaigns far from the home base, they can be called Blue Water navies. That means they can project power whether military, commercial or diplomatic, a long way from the home country. That can make them tremendously powerful. The down side is that they are immensely expensive. Just putting a fleet to sea costs more than money; it requires materials to build the ship, often these are hard to obtain. The British had to import timber from the Baltic. It’s not just materials to build though, fleets need men and supplies. They need training, secure harbours, support vessels, and as Mahon noted in his immensely influential work “The Impact of Sea Power on History”, a huge merchant marine fleet to give depth. They also need an arms industry tailored to their specific needs that can keep replacement weapons and ammunition flowing. The upside of this is that if you have a powerful navy, you can do a lot of things that perhaps your opponent can’t. In 1815, Britain had that navy and Napoleon didn’t. Not only did Britain have that fleet, but it could do the lot. It was a blue water fleet and could strike anywhere, but it could also protect commerce, transport troops, raid enemy merchants and blockade enemy ports. Lack of a blue water navy had condemned France to a continental strategy, and they missed the opportunity to assume a dominant role in controlling the Mediterranean. The British fleet allowed a global network of trade, colonisation and slavery that brought immense wealth and power to Britain. This in turn meant the French couldn’t control trade routes or prevent British troop movements by sea. As soon as Napoleon returned, almost the first thing that happened was that the Royal Navy swept the sea’s around France clean of French shipping. Getting supplies and allies from overseas would be an immensely difficult task for the Emperor.
Napoleon paid more than just lip service to the principles of the revolution on his return to France. He instituted important reforms, and established a civilian government. He was the Emperor but his position was precarious so the civil authority had considerable power. Napoleon had to topple the monarchy and set up a new government, then fend off the various invasions. That was not the time for full on ballot box democracy. It is a mistake to view him as a dictator at this stage though. He actually had somewhat less power than he did before his previous exile, and would rely more heavily on the civilian government.
Napoleon in 1815 was not the same Napoleon who had repeatedly thrashed the powers of Europe in 1800-1806. He was older, fatter, slower and less energetic but the Emperor was not to be taken lightly. He was still renowned as a master of war with a glittering list of victories that went from Spain to Russia, from Italy to the Baltic and from the Danube to the Nile. He was not invincible as the disasters in Spain and Russia had proved, but his final defence of France in 1814 had been brilliant. Napoleon in 1815 had a serious problem though. He needed one thing above all else and that was time. He needed it because the powers at the congress of Vienna had declared him an outlaw and would form the 7th Coalition. He had put out peace feelers and appeared to be genuinely willing to work within an international framework. The war was not the Old World of Europe against France, it was against Napoleon. He needed time to get his veteran soldiers to return to the colours. He needed time to levee new recruits. He needed time to re-write the constitution, and completely restructure the economy, he needed time to get his Marshals to return to him and he needed the former prisoners of war who had been returned to be re-enlisted. That was a real problem for Napoleon because he knew that time was a double edged sword. The longer he waited, the more troops and supplies his enemies could put in the field against him.
In an unfortunate stroke of timing, Napoleon had returned to France during the international Congress of Vienna. The former combatants had gathered to create what they claimed would be a new European order of peace and security. It would also just happen to re-establish the old aristocracies, especially in France because hey we’ve seen what happens when you put the people in charge, they actually want to try to run things and distribute land fairly, have an even handed legal system, abolish privilege and all kinds of non-sense. Luckily we can fix all that and oh crap Napoleon is back. Didn’t we just get rid of him?
So the representatives of the European powers assembled at the Congress of Vienna issued a declaration outlawing Napoleon and agreed to place armies of at least 150,000 each in the field to oppose him.
The Coalition Powers agreed on a coordinated invasion of France to start on 1 July 1815.
- Britain and Prussia would assemble their armies in Belgium (a territory recently acquired by United Kingdom of the Netherlands)
- The Russians would assemble an army and advance through Germany towards the French frontier
- The Austrians would assemble two armies and advance on the French frontiers
- The troops of Bavaria, Baden, Wurtemberg, and Hesse, would assemble their troops on the upper Rhine under the command of the Prince of Württemberg.
Now try to imagine that you suddenly have to arrange to defend an entire country after you’ve just overthrown the government. You have to cover the frontiers, plan a strategy and set the victory conditions you want to achieve, create an organisational structure, move troops by horse, cart and foot, and work using only hand drawn maps. If you lose, it might cost you your life and your country could be conquered or broken up. A lot of us struggle to organise an office so try to conceive of the scale of the task that Napoleon has here. When he took over government on 19 March 1815 from the debased and despised Louise XVIII he inherited the standing army of 46,000 combat ready troops. By the end of May Napoleon had managed to raise this to 198,000. Think about how difficult some companies find it to recruit even a handful of low level staff and now scale it up to the massive numbers Napoleon needed. He need boots, uniforms, horses, reserves, gun limbers, carriages, bandages, food, muskets, ammunition, maps and a huge array of other supplies. To give you another idea of the scale of the challenge, remember that Napoleon didn’t just have to defeat the British & Prussians in Belgium. He had to prepare for an expected Spanish invasion, an expected British naval landing in Southern France, guard the Swiss Boarder to prevent an invasion, secure the Italian border and the frontiers of the Prussian/German states. The Allies could potentially field 989,000 men against him. It is important to note that the French armies weren’t entirely based on conscription, but it became more and more important as the years passed.
I think you are beginning to see that far from some of the Victorian myths of Wellington “The Iron Duke” thrashing Napoleon at Waterloo and stopping the tyrant, in fact it was highly unlikely that Napoleon would succeed.
Napoleon acted with characteristic brilliance. He carefully formed armies and smaller corps to cover the various trouble spots. He had a choice between a protracted defence of France, or to go on the offensive and try to defeat his enemies in detail before they could join up against him. By taking the fight to them he hoped that significant military victories would force them to the peace table. It is important to understand that everything Napoleon now did was to try to turn military advantages into diplomatic victories. It was a huge gamble though. It had failed utterly in Russia where he won battle after battle but his enemy simply refused to negotiate. Now he was fighting an enemy that wanted to destroy him personally. Some of the Coalition, such as Blucher, hated him and wanted him dead. They would no more negotiate with him than the Allies in WW2 would have negotiated with Hitler. It was all or nothing for most of them.
Napoleon made his strategy more difficult to achieve by making some fateful decisions. Ones that would doom him. He appointed one of his greatest and most able Marhals Louis-Nicolas D’Avout as his Minister of War. This was because Davout was incredibly good in the role but more importantly was utterly loyal. He was the only Marshal to remain loyal to the Emperor. His upright character and stern discipline meant he was utterly reliable. He was the right man for the job, but his presence as a marshal in the Waterloo campaign could very well have changed the course of history. Davout was a supreme military commander, arguably as good as Napoleon at the tactical, operational and theatre levels. His army corp was always the most disciplined and well supplied of the French forces.
Had Davout commanded the field at Waterloo instead of Ney, there would have been no blunders with unsupported cavalry charges, nor would the infantry have been allowed to plod in so many of their attacks. If he had commanded at Quatre Bras instead of Ney, he would have understood why the battle was so important and the need for decisive action – something seemingly absent from Ney’s rather slow actions of the day. It is one of the great might have been’s that Napoleonic history buffs have discussed since then.
The other killer mistake for Napoleon was appointing Joseph Fouché as his Police Minister and de facto spymaster, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to Foreign Minister. Both were ruthless, brilliant and utterly self centred with no scruples. Both had betrayed masters before with promises that they were acting in the best interest of France. Frankly, to win the war against the Coalition Napoleon would have done rather well to have had them both imprisoned or shot. Fouche was, as always absolutely loyal to himself. He quickly made himself indispensible but Napoleon both mistrusted and somewhat feared him.
On the upside Napoleon had many of his veterans. He had some capable marshals, who if not of the calibre of Massena, Lannes or Berthier his much missed Chief of Staff, at least included the Bravest of the Brave Marshal Ney and the formidable Marshal Soult. The Marshals are a fascinating group that deserve a podcast series in their own right. I promise I will do some episodes on them as part of the members episodes I have planned. Some of them had amazing careers. Indeed if not for Napoleon, some of them would be historical super stars but with the Emperor present they were always outshone. Soult’s position was especially interesting because rather than being given a corp or army command, he was appointed to the role of Chief of Staff. It was a role he was highly unsuited to, despite his strong performance in the Peninsular Wars. He was not tactically brilliant in the field like Napoleon or Massena but he was disciplined, courageous, a capable field commander, and a great organiser of armies. He had won a number of notable victories and had been instrumental in the Emperor’s success at Jena. He had previously acted as a Chief of Staff in Spain. As an army commander he was highly respected by no lesser general than Wellington. In 1838 he represented Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria where he met his old adversary Wellington, who is said to have seized his arms and said “I have you at last”, a tribute to his difficulties fighting the wily Marshal in Spain. Sadly, unlike Breathier, Soult struggled to translate Napoleon’s high level instructions into concrete detailed orders. Poor staff work dogged the campaign. Where Berthier ran a disciplined, efficient staff at a cracking pace, Soult was more leisurely. Berthier would send 3 messengers with the same order to ensure it reached the intended recipient, whereas Soult would only send one. It was also remarked that Soult used low quality horses and officers for the staff, unlike Berthier.
It is unlikely that Berthier would have allowed the debacles of Grouchy or D’Erlon wandering aimlessly at crucial moments.
Marshal Ney was another interesting choice. In his prime before 1812 he had been a fierce fighter and an exceptional winner of battles. After 1812 and the epic retreat from Moscow where he earned the title “Bravest of the Brave” he was not quite the same fiery genius. Napoleon writing with some hindsight said of him [QUOTE] “Admirable for his bravery and stubbornness in retreats, he was good when it came to leading 10,000 men, but with a larger force he was a real fool. Always first under fire, he forgot about troops who were not under his immediate command” [END QUOTE]
When Napoleon marched north to confront the Coalition on 12th June, Marshal Ney went as a civilian and in disgrace having betrayed his Emperor then the Bourbons. He had been enticed by the Emperor to defect, and the troops cheered the decision of the beloved marshal to join the Emperor. Certainly it is likely that Napoleon had one eye on public opinion when he recalled Ney. Still he never really brought Ney back into the inner circle. Napoleon probably never forgave Ney for leading the marshals revolt that originally deposed the Emperor.
Ney was eventually summoned to join the Emperor on campaign. It was at short notice and Ney departed France with only 1 staff officer. Finally at a meeting with the Emperor on the road to Charleroi on the 15 June 1815, he was suddenly appointed to command of the 1st & 2nd Army Corp with 2 regiments of light cavalry of the Imperial Guard and 8 regiments of Kellerman’s heavy cavalry. This gave him a command of 50,000 men and 72 guns. These figures would not stay constant as brigades and divisions were abruptly shifted to command area’s as necessity dictated. It was a curiously spur of the moment appointment at a crucial moment in the campaign. Ney did not distinguish himself in terms of tactical or strategic ability on during the Waterloo campaign but his bravery was all that could be asked of a hero of France. Sadly, we will see it was an order of Ney’s to D’Erlon that probably doomed Napoleon before Waterloo was even fought. In fairness to Ney, being given command of an army on the march on the eve of a critical battle is a hellish task. He would have had to find out where, on the confused roads of Belgium, his troops, officers and supplies were, meet his officers, take control of them and begin his planning. He had to do this with horse messengers and hand written notes. I think for all his faults, history is often unkind to Ney. He was placed in a very difficult situation and the sight of Ney at the end of Waterloo is a display of courage almost unequalled on either side.
The last of the Marshals was Grouchy. He was a brave cavalry leader who had impressed Napoleon at Wagram but had remained an overlooked general. His unexpected elevation to Marshal caused immense jealousy from his subordinates. Grouchy had never been good at getting the best from his officers and this appointment inflamed the hatred that Vandamme already had for his superior. Worse he had no experience of leading infantry or combined forces and his main achievements had always been under the command of the more capable Marshals like Davout or Lannes or when he was directly under the control of the Emperor.
The whole myth of the disciplined British against the brave, dashing but undisciplined French became a Victorian myth but one that perhaps contained a good deal of truth. Certainly there are accounts that suggest that most troops and junior officers were fanatically loyal to the Emperor. A good number were veterans or former POW’s who were thirsty for revenge, many the victims of torture. The senior officers were more conflicted and many feared that the Emperors return meant France was destined for yet more wars. I’m not sure if they considered that actually committing wholeheartedly to Napoleon was the best chance for the French Republic to not just survive but thrive. The senior generals and marshals were in some ways disliked. They were seen as old and disloyal. Men who had owed everything to Napoleon yet had betrayed him. The return of Ney and Soult to the cause was welcome, but the army was not exactly a cohesive force. It has constantly been described by historians as being like a fine but brittle sword. It was the best army Napoleon had commanded since 1809 and was filled with veterans, but at the same time it didn’t have the deep discipline and trust. It hadn’t had much time to practise together to develop real bonds of trust between the men, and the essential small unit cohesion that helps troops know what their fellows are going to do without having to be told.
The French troops were principally unarmoured infantry. Most marched on foot, but there were regiments of dragoons that moved on horse and fought either on foot or mounted to give the benefits of cavalry and infantry. The typical French Infantryman was armed with a musket. Now I know that this might seem primitive compared to the highly accurate rifles and machine guns of later armies, but as historian John Elting wrote: [QUOTE] “In their own time they made and broke empires; they won, and nailed down, the independence of the USA. Together with the Roman short sword and the Mongol composite bow, they rank as the greatest man-killers of all-history.” [QUOTE] As the musket was a smoothbore and loaded from the muzzle it was most accurate at up to around 50 yards but could still kill at up to 300 yards. The limitations of the musket were offset by its ability to fire quickly and perform robustly in the field. If well maintained it was extremely reliable, plus its weight and sturdiness meant it could be used in melee with a bayonet or as a heavy club. A blow from the butt of a musket could crush a man’s skull. Most Napoleonic infantry carried the ‘Charleville’ musket (fusil d’infanterie) model 1777 (AN IX), with overall length 151.5 cm, (barrel length 114 cm), triangular bayonet 45.6 cm and a short saber. It fired a French musket ball of .69 calibre using a flint lock. So popular was it that it became the basis for numerous foreign imitations. The French version 1766 was so highly regarded it was the basis of the iconic American Springfield Musket 1795. Keep in mind that ammunition was cast to an approximate size, and there were no interchangable machine parts so standardise replacement parts weren’t typically available, making repairs a matter for an experienced gun smith. Powder was variable and Napoleon would refuse to release gun power producers for active service as their work was too valuable.
The flintlock musket revolutionised warfare in comparison to the old matchlock muskets. To utilise it en mass though required mass volley fire to make up for the inaccuracies of the individual. This created a lethal kill zone at around the 50-150 yard mark but it required intense discipline. Debates ranged in military circles over the benefits of whether to fire in line or in column or in half column, whether a firing line of 3 ranks was better than 2. Napoleon and the French adapted many of the best practices from other nations and perfected them. There is a misconception that the French fought in large columns, but this is not true. The French adopted the 2 ranks formation at a tactical level at close range. At a larger level the various lines would often form variations on the Attack Column. The attack column is not the same as the long deep marching column. It was more a rectangle formed by the individual companies of soldiers than a solid mass of men marching in a deep mass as you might see on a parade ground or on the road. The columns were supported by screens of skirmishing troops that picked off enemy officers and covered the advance. A volley might be fired on the way in but it was much reduced from the fire power of the stationary line. Still troops in attack columns could manoeuvre quickly and still deliver a pushing amount of firepower followed by a brutal charge into melee. If the regiments in question were supremely disciplined they might deploy into longer firing lines at close range.
For Napoleon, the attack column was the principle formation of attack as it allowed the French to cross the lethal fire zone of the lines of musket armed conscript troops of most coalition nations, but the crucial element was that the attack was preceded by the great guns of the artillery that would focus on key points of the enemy line, and shock charges of the cavalry to help the attack columns push home their assault at a vulnerable point in the enemy line.
The actual formations varied throughout the Napoleonic wars. The highly trained French army of 1805 was able to adopt various attack columns formations and assault divisions that were beyond the abilities of the army of 1815. The versatile Ordre Mixte was a good example. It had a mass of skirmishers out front, with battalions in a long firing line behind. Behind these were the bulk of the division in attack columns, with elite grenadiers either in reserve or leading the attack. Supported by heavy guns and possibly massed heavy cavalry, these sophisticated formations could devastate most opposition lines. Unfortunately the French army of 1815 simply couldn’t train well enough to adopt these more complex formations. Losses of high quality officers and NCO only exacerbated the problem. At Waterloo it is possible that General D’Erlon was reduced to forming his men into four large columns of various battalions. Unwieldy and unsupported, it was highly unsuitable for an assault on an uphill position against a well prepared and supported defensive line. As the French infantry abilities decayed, artillery was called on more and more to shake the enemy lines instead of skirmishers and infantry assaults as was previously the case.
The French also relied more and more on their fantastic cavalry regiments. Napoleon especially love the heavy cavalry. Big men, on big horses with full cuirasses and heavy straightswords. A well timed charge by the Cuirassiers could smash enemy lines or shatter enemy counter attacks. Napoleon greatly valued the heavy cavalry and was adapt with using them. He was careful that his Marshals and Generals ensured that the Heavy Cavalry didn’t charge unsupported. The heavies went in under cover of an artillery barrage and usually with horse artillery. The two main occasions where French Heavy Cavalry made mass unsupported charges were at Eylau under Marshal Murat with astonishing success but then Murat is probably the finest cavalry commander who has ever lived and his timing was perfection. The second occasion was at Waterloo where Ney, then Napoleon essentially destroyed the French Cavalry in an epic blunder.
The French also used various light cavalry, dragoons and lancers. Lancers were especially feared as they could under the right conditions reach past the bayonet wall of an infantry square and spear the men. This tactic was especially lethal if the weather was too wet to fire muskets. Dragoons would sometimes find themselves burdened with carbines and bayonets, whilst some light infantry officers and dragoons would be given rifle carbines. Uniform patterns and issue varied widely depending on the time period, the whims of the local colonel, the vagaries of supplies and the interference of various re-organisations. Campaign clothing was often a world away from the formal regulation clothing worn on parade. The organisation of the Imperial Guard was kept separate and it acted in some ways as an independent army which drew higher and pay and was fed the best rations.
Napoleon constantly tinkered with the various units in his armies. He implemented the concept of the army corp system. Basically a corp was a collection of divisions that could function as an independent army. It was designed to be able to attack or defend against huge odds. In some ways the corp system was the key to Napoleon’s early victories. Napoleon would increasingly be forced to give his corp commanders more and more operational freedom. He retained overall command and was responsible for the grand strategic use of the various core and for the various theatre strategies. Napoleon also maintained a large personal staff organisation that included interesting dress including some Mamelukes and Guides.
The combined discipline of the French army, the battlefield brilliance of the fighting marshals, and the genius of Napoleon in bringing the maximum force against a limited point of his enemies’ lines and shattering them had allowed the French to become in 1805 the finest army in the world. The Emperor focused on fast movement, pinning attacks to the front whilst attacking the flanks and the rear and the ability to move his army corps in a dispersed fashion only to quickly converge at key points. Above all the Emperor was adaptable, expertly selecting the right tools and formations for whatever challenge was presented. He preferred the offensive campaign to allow him to deal early knockout blows against his enemies, overcoming the logistical shortcomings of the French field armies by winning the war before supplies became an issue. Too often the French army relied on the brilliant leadership of Napoleon and the Marshals, combined with the often insane bravery of its troops, to make up for serious organisational difficulties.
Another persistent issue for the French was lack of quality artillery, and woeful production facilities for muskets and ammunition. Training was also of increasingly low quality. This was contrasted with the Britain, where the beginnings of the industrial revolution and a world wide trading network meant that guns and ammunition were relatively plentiful for the period. The French often requisitioned older guns for costal defence and Napoleon focused obsessively on his artillery. He and senior officers had done a vast amount of work to standardise and improve the artillery to make it world class. It suffered dreadfully in Russia and never truly recovered. It seems clear on reflection that British Artillery, especially the Horse Artillery was of a consistently higher quality, but sometime less effective.
Between 1803 and 1807 the French armies were almost all veterans regarded as some of the finest in Europe. General Friant wrote that at Austerlitz [QUOTE] “No sooner had the 15th Legere and 33th Ligne arrived and deployed than they marched on the enemy, nothing could resist their attack, the 15th was directed at the bridge and chased a corps 10 times more numerous than they, penetrated Sokolnitz, intermingled with the Russians, slaughtering with the bayonet all that dared oppose them.” [END QUOTE]
Deploying from march into battle formations in the face of the enemy is especially difficult, and to then go straight into an attack is an even more daring manoeuvre. Marshal Davout was both daring and disciplined enough to do it at corp level.
Fighting in the age of musket and sword was a grim and bloody business. Colonel Waller, (British 2nd Division) witnessed a French attack against Picton’s “Fighting Division” in 1810 at Bussaco: [QUOTE] “At this moment were seen the heads of the several columns, three I think, in number and deploying into line with the most beautiful precision, celerity and gallantry. As they formed on the plateau, they were cannonaded from our position and the regiment of Portuguese… threw in some volleys of musketry into the enemy’s columns in a flank direction, but the (Portugese) regiment was quickly driven into the position … the (French) columns advanced in despite of a tremendous fire of grape and musketry from our troops in position in the rocks, and overcoming all opposition although repeatedly charged by Lightburne’s Brigade, or rather the whole of Picton’s Div., they advanced and fairly drove the British right wing from the rocky part of this position.” [QUOTE]
So many of those fine Frenchmen had died in the march out of Russia that the French Infantry of 1815 wasn’t quite of the same calibre, but it was still very high quality and the Imperial Guard were feared across Europe. Now the Emperor was on the move and what a move. He would teach the coalition how the Master waged war. He had achieved the impossible by seizing the throne and assembling the armies. Now he moved so fast that the coalition still believed he was in France, when he was actually marching to divide the British and Prussians. His goal was to destroy the Prussians, then the British before they had time to react. He nearly succeeded.
Join me next time to find out about the famous British army of 1815 under the legendary Duke of Wellington. Before I go though, I hope you are getting a sense of how tough and brave and powerful the French Army under Napoleon really was. The French have been the butt of some appalling jokes, and US President Bush referred to them as “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” This is a gross slur on an extremely brave and hard fighting nation. The French under Napoleon routinely displayed incredible courage under fire, and conquered most of Europe. The repeated charges of the British squares by the French Heavy Cavalry alone was valour of the highest order, and the British respected them immensely for it. Throughout much of her history France was regarded as the pre-eminent military and social power in Europe.
Anyway, that’s all for now.Get in touch