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To what extent was Napoleon the decisive influence on warfare


The warfare spanning the period of 1794-1815 was vastly different to that which preceded
it; and this is, to some extent, due to the rise and successes of Napoleon Bonaparte as the
leader of the French Republic. However, it is sometimes argued Napoleon was not the man
behind the advancement of warfare he simply jumped on the bandwagon. Thus, other
factors which contributed to the advancement of warfare from the bland and unconvincing
war of the C18th to the far more all-out warfare of the early C19th need to be examined
before coming to a conclusion on the decisive influence.
Napoleon first came to prominence as a young and talented artilleryman in early French
revolutionary wars. He rose up the ranks thorough meritocracy and first established himself
as a leader after his victory at the battle of Montenotte in 1796 his first as commander in
chief of the French army. This was indicative of the French progressivism of the time the
otherwise unheard of adoption of meritocratic generals and leaders as opposed to the
traditional aristocrats of past. From there on he established his reputation as one of the
greatest military leaders of all time.
Napoleons initial successes were so great and plentiful it appeared at one point as if he
would never be stopped. This was due, in some part, to his introduction of the tactic of
envelopment. A perfect example of this was at the battle of Ulm in 1805 where the French
cavalry effectively snuck around the back of the Austrian army, cutting of their supply and
retreat lines. The Austrians were forced back to Ulm where they were bombarded by French
artillery. This was considered a tactical masterpiece; and was a warning that newer, faster
and more aggressive tactics were being utilised and Generals would have to adapt if they
were to keep up with the French. Thus it can be said that tactically, Napoleon massively
influenced warfare in being the first general to use consistently the tactic of envelopment
which would go on to be replicated by General all around the world. However there were
other factors affecting the tactics of the age of impulse warfare. The revolutionary wars pre-
Napoleon led to many advancements in warfare. The introduction of divisions or demi-
brigades allowed a more expansive war. Divisions could move and fight independently,
something which had never been possible before. Also, the reforms of the Gribeauval
artillery system meant that artillery could become a much larger part of warfare, which
changed how armies approached battles. To me, it seems apparent that the tactics of
warfare was adapting and evolving before Napoleon; however considering the rate at which
he modernised and intensified battlefield tactics I would have to conclude that, tactically,
Napoleon was the largest influence on warfare 1792-1815, if not ever.
The French Revolutionary Wars represented the first general European war since the Seven
Years War of 1756-1763. The whole of France got behind a common cause - there was a
sense of the citizen soldier. This marked a significant psychological difference regarding the
approach to war as there was now a common ideological goal to get behind. Men fighting
for a purpose would have been far more committed to the cause, and this in itself
stimulated warfare. Not only did this common goal improve the commitment of men on the
battlefield, it also meant that the size of armies increased due to vast rises in the numbers
of volunteers. This, combined with the French levee en masse (conscription), led to the
French army increasing in size from 150,000 to 750,000 men between 1791 and 1794.
Clearly, this increase in numbers was hugely influential in changing the course of warfare
more men on the battle field meant more casualties and general larger-scale warfare.
Whilst Napoleon brought to the table a commitment to attack as a general, something
which had been lacking in C18th wars, and a motivational presence on the battlefield worth
40,000 men; I believe that a psychological change had been triggered in France already by
the revolution, and they were much more prepared to fight as one entity behind a common
cause. The adoption of ideological warfare cannot be accredited to Napoleon and was, in my
opinion, an important in the advancement of warfare.
Another argument could be that if Napoleon hadnt come in as the leader of the French
army then a different, equally as skilled general would have done the same thing. I have
talked already about the French progressivism with regard to generalship and meritocracy;
and had Napoleon not been the man in the right place at the right time somebody else may
have been on hand to take the glory. The French were on a roll after the start of their
revolutionary campaigns early victories from Dumouriez filled them with confidence. All
they needed was a man at the helm to lead them. Having said this, Napoleon did bring a lot
of personal qualities to the battlefield he was one of the best improvisers ever seen in
warfare with an innate ability to adapt to any situation thrown at him. He showed this at
Jena where he was able to turn around General Neys failures with skill and composure. He
proved himself to be capable to such an extent that his performances even warranted praise
from his rival Wellington describing how Napoleon was worth 40,000 men on the
battlefield. Thus, I do not believe it would be fair to argue anyone could have led the French
to such successes as they enjoyed through the revolutionary wars. Napoleons influence on
warfare in this respect is unarguable.
The success of Napoleonic warfare could not last forever, and Napoleon did eventual
experience failures. A series of Pyrrhic victories had left the French army slightly bare, and
upholding levels on dominance became increasingly difficult. The first sign of a break in
Napoleons seemingly untouchable French army was at Salamanca and Vitoria in Spain.
Napoleons forces were worn down by Guerrilla forces then to be beaten by a conventional
British force at Vitoria. The British were more disciplined and organised, and their
innovation in defence proved effective (Lines of Torres Vedras). It appeared as if the French
army was losing its touch, and the British forces under Wellington had become more
organised and threatening. Further losses in Russia at Borodino as Napoleon marched to
Moscow also proved costly. There was a huge loss of life the largest in one day that would
be seen until the Somme. Napoleon seemed to be lacking his old decisiveness. So, towards
the end of the period it appeared Napoleon was becoming more and more irrelevant with
regard to bringing new thing to the table on the battlefield his opposition were beginning
to learn his tricks and adapt to beat him. The final battle of Napoleons military career was
Waterloo against the British. Napoleons French army was unable to take on both
Wellington and Bluecher. They became encircled, flanked from the right, and were
overpowered. Napoleons successes seemed to lead directly to his eventual downfall,
ironically. He stimulated his enemies into reform - creating mass armies which had to be
answered by mass armies and embarking upon a new style of offensive war which led to
effective defensive innovation by his enemies. Whilst he may have been defeated
eventually, his enemies adopted his tactics and were forced into action.
To conclude, I believe that the French Revolution had created an atmosphere which was
willing to embrace a new age of warfare. Suddenly there was a nation who were untied and
had fought for their freedom from their repressive monarchy. Napoleon was able to
capitalise on this through his skill and innovation as a leader; providing the French army
with direction and hugely effective new tactics. As a result of this, the rest of Europe had to
adapt. You only have to look at Wellingtons use of envelopment, a Napoleonic tactic, to see
his influence on warfare. Whilst the improvements in artillery and the introduction of
ideological warfare were already there before Napoleon came along, it was he who was able
to put this all together, forcing a reciprocation from his enemies. Therefore I would have to
conclude that, yes, Napoleon was the decisive influence on warfare 1792-1815.