The napoleonic wars 1803-1815



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THE NAPOLEONIC WARS 1803-1815

Steve Morewood


‘The art of war is simple. Everything is a matter of execution’ Napoleon Bonaparte
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of interlinking conflicts all involving France, which followed on from the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1801). There were brief pauses, which produced peace efforts and fragile peaces (1796-7, 1802-3, 1806) but the ideological dimension of the struggle meant that the wars would only end with decisive victory for one side or the other. They were dominated by Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor and a military genius who was deified ‘the god of war’ by the famous strategist Carl von Clausewitz. The wars generated two of the most famous battles in history: Trafalgar (October 1805) where Lord Nelson decimated the French and Spanish fleets, ensuring that Napoleon could not invade England and Waterloo (June 1815) which ended Napoleon’s hopes of a political revival.
Napoleon secured some dazzling victories, not least at Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena. It took six coalitions to defeat him. At their heart was England, the ‘implacable foe’ of Republican France, whom Napoleon dismissed as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ but which doggedly remained in the struggle.1 It was England, a constitutional monarchy, which could not accept a Europe dominated by French revolutionary ideals that started the wars by declaring war on France in May 1803. ‘The great objective of the war’, declared Admiral Nelson ‘is down with the French.’ The wars’ longevity can largely be explained by the fact that England, with a dominant navy but a miniscule army, was unable to deal France a decisive blow while France, lacking naval supremacy, could not invade across the Channel to defeat and occupy England. As the first industrialised nation and the wealthiest belligerent, England could produce the arms and provide the money to keep its allies in the fight.
Some military historians contest whether the Napoleonic Wars can be seen as ushering in modern warfare. True, divisional organisation came into vogue combined with light (more moveable) artillery with greater range and accuracy and skirmish (loose formation) tactics supplanting the straight line. Yet there was much that was traditional about the fighting: the colourful uniforms, lances, swords and muskets, wooden sailing ships and cavalry charges. The only real military innovations (from the British) were shrapnel and rockets (though these were unguided and little used). Conversely, these were the first wars of mass mobilisation (some have deemed this the first truly world war), requiring the movement of huge armies from one front to another. There were set piece battles involving hundreds of thousands of troops, mass casualties and the suffering of civilians as huge areas were laid waste by rampaging armies. In fact proportionally more people died in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars than in the world wars of the twentieth century. The Napoleonic Wars lasted four times as long as either world war and was the first conflict to be called ‘the Great War’, a title later given to the 1914-1918 struggle, which, after the outbreak of another world war in 1939, then became known as the First World War.2
The Napoleonic Wars have been seen as part of the ‘military revolution’ that began in 1550 with the introduction of firearms. However, until Napoleon most battles were indecisive. They were fought by small professional armies for limited objectives and battle was often avoided because the cost was too heavy for both sides. Mid-18th century European battles typically involved armies of 60,000 to 70,000 troops. Usually wars ended with the exhaustion of financial resources and manpower but without a decisive battle. In the later 18th century there were a number of key developments which provided the basis for transforming the situation: -


  1. The demographic revolution marking a shift from subsistence to surplus farming. Europe’s population virtually doubled – by 1792 Russia boasted a population of 44 million, France 26 million, the German states 20 million and Britain 18 million – providing the platform for mass armies to be created.

  2. The Industrial Revolution, starting in England but spreading to the Continent, representing the first stages of mass production and generating more wealth (in England national income almost doubled from 1712-1792). War economies could now service and supply mass armies providing the basis for total war.

  3. Improved military organisation. The creation of self-contained all-arms divisions which marched in parallel and could converge or fight alone for limited periods.

  4. Improved staff organisation – command and control.

  5. Improved artillery – guns were more mobile and accurate.

The French Revolution embodied the ideal that every citizen was a soldier as reflected in the new citizen manned National Guards. A mass army was created supplied by a state directed war economy. This marked the transformation of warfare – what Clausewitz called ‘the participation of the people in this great affair of state’. On 22 August 1793 the French National Convention, faced with invasion by conservative Powers (Austria, England, Prussia, Sardinia and Spain - the First Coalition) intent on crushing the revolution which had beheaded the monarch, declared general mobilisation and created a revolutionary army over one million strong. Declaring ‘the fatherland in danger’, the Committee of Public Safety under Robespierre conscripted all national resources, human and material. Instead of seeking volunteers it decreed a levee en masse, requisitioning all able bodied males between 18 and 25. Requisition was supplanted in 1798 by conscription: for four years in peacetime and for an unlimited period in wartime. Furthermore, the new system was ruthless with failed commanders (many incompetent generals were executed3) while at the same time facilitating the rapid promotion through the ranks of talented junior officers. Napoleon and Michel Ney were the most famous beneficiaries of this.
These emergency measures worked: by the end of 1794 the invasion was defeated and French forces went onto the offensive, invading the Low Countries and the German States. In November 1795 the Jacobin regime was replaced by the Directory (run by five directors), which feared that demobilisation would lead to social unrest. This encouraged ‘war nourishing war’: the costs of fighting were to devolve on occupied countries. The Directory also allowed generals freedom to pursue their own strategies as another means to keep them in power.
Napoleon Bonaparte called himself a ‘child of the revolution’. A staunch republican, he later acquitted the trappings of an absolute monarch. Born in Corsica in 1769, Napoleon was educated at royal military schools and commissioned into the artillery. The revolution gave him the chance to rise to high command in his twenties. In September 1793 he commanded the artillery during the siege of Toulon, rising from captain to brigadier within eight weeks. In October 1795 the Directory was threatened by an armed uprising. Napoleon came to its rescue, destroying the rebels with a ‘whiff of grapeshot’.4 His reward was promotion to the rank of general. In March 1796 he became general-in-chief of the Army of Italy, taking over a faltering campaign and defeated the Austrians. In 1798, faced with the fruitless prospect of invading England, he persuaded the Directory to let him invade Egypt instead, the first move in a grandiose scheme to threaten India. Although Nelson’s destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1 August 1798) marooned Napoleon’s army, encouraging the formation of the Second Coalition, Napoleon himself managed to return to France, overthrowing the Directory in November 1799 and making himself First Consul. On 16 May 1804, aged 35, Napoleon became emperor. Ahead lay eleven years of great victories, setbacks and ultimate disaster.
Napoleon took full advantage of the military system he inherited. ‘I cannot abide promoting desk officers’, he remarked. ‘I only like officers who make war.’ Conscription was maintained (although after 1812, after the tide turned, no longer generated anything approximating to the numbers called to the colours) and recruited two million men (1800-1814). Napoleon engendered loyalty through his leadership skills and evident tactical flair, a tendency reinforced by his creation of the Elite Imperial Guard. ‘The morale and opinion of the army’, Napoleon declared, ‘are more than half the battle.’ The Duke of Wellington felt that Napoleon’s inspirational presence in battle was worth two army corps. The French Army was able to move faster than its opponents through abandoning cumbersome supply arrangements. Instead, the concept introduced was of living off the land to supplement the basic diet of bread and wine.
Napoleon introduced the corps in 1800 and it became integral to his success. This was a small army in its own right, subdivided into divisions and brigades, an all-arms force able to operate independently for limited periods. The corps system co-ordinated skirmishers, heavy infantry, cavalry and guns; Napoleon deriving maximum synergy from complimentary arms. Napoleon emphasised speed, rapid concentration and decision. His corps cornered opponents and brought them to battle, often leading to their quick surrender. ‘In war’, Napoleon declared, ‘the simplest manoeuvres are the best’. There were some constant elements in Napoleon’s fighting methods: -


  1. Fighting offensively – the destruction of the enemy’s field army was the prime objective rather than the occupation of territory or the capital, which could follow. Victory in battle was the key.

  2. Do not divide forces but concentrate on an enemy weak point.

  3. Deception – advances were screened by light cavalry to achieve surprise through shock attack.

  4. The first corps to engage the enemy would tie it down buying time for the rest of the army to catch up.

  5. Seeking weak points in enemy positions to achieve a decisive breakthrough and knowledge of the terrain.

  6. There were three main variants to attack: a) the central position, b) flanking envelopment and c) frontal attack. A) Where the enemy outnumbered: the central position divided enemy forces creating a minority force which was targeted and defeated before the main enemy force was defeated. B) One part of the army engaged the enemy’s front while another broke through on the flanks. C) The choice of last resort, involving most casualties, only pursued where there was no other option (as at Waterloo), which meant the use of combined arms.

In most of his engagements, Napoleon’s forces outnumbered the opposition which was a tribute to their organisation, marching capabilities, logistics and organisation.
The Grand Armee was established by Napoleon in 1802 and became his main military instrument. It was rigorously trained and by 1805 comprised seven corps plus one allied corps. Its general staff co-ordinated movements and intelligence, such as crossing the River Danube with 150,000 troops. In 1808 large parts of the Grand Armee were diverted to Spain. The following year, Napoleon formed a new force, the Army of Germany, which in 1812 was re-designated the Grand Armee, which invaded Russia and was called ‘the army of twenty nations’ (actually three armies). There was also the Army of the Ocean Coasts, created in 1803, which was deployed along the Channel and North Sea plus three formations under Napoleon’s control: the Army Cavalry Reserve of six heavy mounted divisions; the Army Artillery Reserve with a quarter of the available heavy guns; and the Elite Imperial Guard. In 1815, in his final campaign, Napoleon commanded the Armee du Nord.

Underpinning the French war effort was an arms industry whose infrastructure was laid down during the revolution and then built up further after inheriting a production capacity of only 42,000 small arms per annum. National workshops were established in Paris and elsewhere. By 1803 125,000 weapons were being manufactured annually. Artillery production also intensified with 17 foundries being established. It helped that all European musketry took the same calibre ball – so captured weapons could be used. In total the French war industry produced 3.9 million small arms. But production never caught up with demand and the British, with their superior manufacturing resources, were able to out-produce their enemy. Indeed, by 1813 Britain was not only equipping its own forces but also providing over a million muskets for its allies.



Given his undoubted military genius, why was Napoleon ultimately defeated? Historians have suggested a number of reasons. They include: -

  1. Hubris. Napoleon did not know when to stop. He refused to compromise and the expansions of the empire led to strategic overstretch.

  2. Napoleon took all the decisions. His Chief of Staff, Berthier, commented: ‘The Emperor needs neither advice nor plans of campaign. No one knows his thoughts and it is our duty to obey.’ However, continued success was dependent on Napoleon continuing to take the right decisions. As his health declined, he became more hesitant and dilatory and did not always make the right strategic choices as with his decision to pursue the elusive Russian Army into the depths of Russia, a fatal miscalculation. Moreover, it was easier to maintain personal control with 50,000 troops but when the numbers swelled to over 400,000 this became difficult. When his armies operated on an extended front or in different theatres of war Napoleon’s efforts to maintain strategic control were found wanting.

  3. Logistics. Napoleon famously said: ‘an army marches on its stomach’. Yet he never allocated sufficient manpower to transport supplies so troops had largely to maintain themselves. Foraging and requisitioning aroused local resentment, fomenting guerrilla warfare in Spain. In Russia the reliance on living off the land failed because little was available to scavenge, especially when winter set in and temperatures plummeted to – 35 degrees C.

  4. The British refusal to come to terms. This led Napoleon to introduce the Continental System in an effort to deny England trade with the Continent but this only succeeded in alienating Spain, Portugal and Russia. The ramifications led Napoleon to invade the Iberian Peninsula in 1807 but this only led to ‘the Spanish ulcer’, a drain on French manpower, as his forces faced guerrilla warfare and the British under Lord Wellington. After 1809 Napoleon was unable to inflict any defeats on his opponents in this theatre. Wellington, whose favourite tactic was to disguise his exact position, inflicted a decisive defeat at Vitoria on 21 June 1813, ending the French presence in Spain. The Continental System failed to force England to sue for peace (it expanded its colonial trade to compensate) and led to strategic overstretch.

  5. The Russian campaign of 1812 which claimed 400,000 of the 614,000 troops involved and the Grand Armee was decimated in the retreat from Moscow. This drain in manpower proved irreplaceable. Between 1806 and 1810, the glory years, desertion rates were under 3 per cent. But after this military disaster, desertion increased and conscription decrees fell on largely deaf ears. Napoleon was now vulnerable to a coup de grace from the latest allied coalition. Prussia joined Russia in February 1813 and, with Bavaria (the Sixth Coalition) put armies of 500,000 troops in the field. Napoleon’s armies of 1813 were not of the quality of the old. For the first time, the French fielded fewer troops than their opponents. They were driven from German territories and the Allies invaded France from two directions: Wellington from the south and Prussia, Russia and Bavaria from the north, forcing Napoleon’s abdication on 6 April 1814 after the fall of Paris.

  6. Opponents copied Napoleon’s fighting methods. By 1809 European armies were of a similar size, all adopted the corps as the main manoeuvre unit, increased artillery provision and improved staff work, taking away Napoleon’s previous advantages. Furthermore, Napoleon’s enemies began to anticipate his moves, seeking to deny him a decisive breakthrough, most notably in Russia.

  7. Napoleon’s allies deserted him and switched sides. By 1814-15 his opponents were also gripped by nationalism which gave them a determined sense of purpose. After the debacle of the Russian campaign, they were also no longer in awe of Napoleon.

  8. Napoleon did not understand naval warfare. He was unable to defeat the Royal Navy which meant his forces could never invade England.

Napoleon was able to make a short-lived political comeback (the Hundred Days) after returning from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba in March 1815 but the Allies (England, Russia, Prussia and Austria forming a seventh coalition) were determined to crush him once and for all before he had time to rebuild his forces. Napoleon struggled to field an army which comprised of old veterans and young volunteers prone to panic. He faced two Allied armies in Belgium: an Anglo-Dutch-German army under Wellington and a Prussian army under Blucher. Wellington fielded 107,000 troops and Blucher 149,000 against Napoleon’s 143,000 (Armee du Nord). Napoleon’s only hope was to defeat his enemies piecemeal. After crossing into Belgium on 15 June 1815 but although he inflicted a defeat on the Prussians at Ligny, his marshals were hesitant and Napoleon failed to order an immediate pursuit. This meant that the Prussians could regroup and return to the field.
On 18 June 1815 74,000 troops under Napoleon faced 67,000 under Wellington at Waterloo. The latter’s forces were cannily deployed along a low seven kilometre wide ridge, which was very strong defensively, rendering a breakthrough difficult. The need for a quick victory forced Napoleon to make a frontal attack. Normally he began battles at dawn but delayed until noon to allow the ground to dry to bring the twelve-pounder guns into position. Initial French attacks were driven back by volley fire and a cavalry charge. In mid-afternoon Marshal Ney sent in two cavalry divisions but the British squares held their ground. Three Prussian corps then joined the battle, which proved decisive despite Napoleon throwing in his last reserves. On 22 June 1815 he signed a second abdication, ending the Napoleonic Wars. This time there was to be no comeback: he was exiled to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena and kept under constant guard.
The Napoleonic Wars engulfed most of Europe, claiming millions of lives. The extent to which they transformed warfare is debateable. Aside from shrapnel, all armies employed pre-existing weapons. Rather, the transformation occurred because of the sheer scale of the resources employed - for instance, the firing of around 500,000 rounds per major engagement. The congruence of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution facilitated the equipping of huge armies determined to fight for a just cause. At Valmy in 1792 less than 100,000 troops were on the battlefield. By Leipzig (1814) there were over a million. With the demographic revolution soldiers were no longer scarce and hard to replace. Thus conscripts replaced mercenary professionals. Before 1792 generals tended to seek to avoid battle. After 1792 they actively sought it. For Napoleon war was diplomacy by another means. He sought hegemony over Europe. He favoured short offensive campaigns designed to destroy the enemy’s main army. Napoleon was eventually overwhelmed by his conservative opponents who learned from their mistakes while Napoleon’s hubris eventually wrought nemesis. Nevertheless, he left a legacy which exerted a profound influence on military thinking especially during the early phases of the American Civil War. In fact Napoleon’s maxims were carried in the saddlebags of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, one of the most successful Confederate generals. Antoine-Henri Jomini, who interpreted Napoleonic strategy (Napoleon himself left no book on his military thinking) was hugely influential and until 1914, when the defensive held sway in the opening battles of another great war, the Napoleonic principles of concentration of force, surprise, economy of force, mobility and the search for a decisive victory through daring attack remained influential.


1 See R.Harvey, The War of Wars. The Epic Struggle between Britain and France: 1789-1815 (London: Constable, 2006).

2 See D.A.Bell, The First Total War. Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury, 2007).

3 Deputies were placed with the armies. In 1793 17 generals were executed; in 1794 67.

4 Napoleon once remarked: ‘It is with artillery alone that battles are won.’



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