Napoleon on the Art of Warby Jay Luvaas
Unlike Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon never wrote a unified essay on his military philosophy. Yet, as one of the world's great strategists and tacticians, he sprinkled wisdom throughout his many and varied writings
In the capstone work of his career, distinguished military historian Jay Luvaas brings together in one volume the military genius of Napoleon.
Unlike Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon never wrote a unified essay on his military philosophy. Yet, as one of the world's great strategists and tacticians, he sprinkled wisdom throughout his many and varied writings. Jay Luvaas spent over three decades poring through the thirty-two volumes of Napoleon's correspondence, carefully translating and editing all of his writings on the art of war, and arranging them into seamless essays. The resulting book captures the brilliant commander's thoughts on everything from the preparation of his forces to the organization, planning, and execution of his battles -- all buttressing Napoleon's view that "in war there is but one favorable moment; the great art is to seize it." Napoleon on the Art of War will be essential reading for military buffs, students of history, and any business leader looking for timeless insights on strategy.
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Generalship and the Art of Command
"It is essential that a general should dissemble while appearing to be occupied, working with the mind and working with the body, ceaselessly suspicious while affecting tranquillity, saving of his soldiers and not squandering them except for the most important interests, informed of everything, always on the lookout to deceive the enemy and careful not to be deceived himself. In a word he should be more than an industrious, active, and indefatigable man, but one who does not forget one thing to execute another, and above all who does not despise those little details which pertain to great projects."
Frederick the Great,
Instructions to His Generals, 1747
In war men are nothing; one man is everything. The presence of the general is indispensable. He is the head, the whole of an army. It was not the Roman army that subdued Gaul, but Caesar; not the Carthaginian army that caused the republic to tremble at the gates of Rome, but Hannibal; not the Macedonian army that reached the Indus, but Alexander; not the French army that carried the war to the Weser and the Inn, but Turenne; and not the Prussian army that defended Prussia for seven years against the three greatest powers of Europe, but Frederick the Great....In war only the commander understands the importance of certain things, and he alone, through his will and superior insight, conquers and surmounts all difficulties. An army is nothing without the head.
Since the war depends absolutely on the season, each month requires a different plan of campaign. The government must place entire confidence in its general, allow him great latitude and put forward only the objective he is to fulfill. A commander is not protected by an order from a minister or a prince who is absent from the theater of operations and has little or no knowledge of the most recent turn of events. Every commander responsible for executing a plan that he considers bad or disastrous is criminal: he must point out the flaws, insist that it be changed, and at last resort resign rather than be the instrument of the destruction of his own men. Every commander in chief who, as a result of superior orders, delivers a battle convinced that he will lose it, is likewise criminal.
A general in chief is the top officer in the chain of command. The minister or prince gives instructions to which he must adhere both in spirit and in conscience but these instructions are never military orders and do not require passive obedience. Even a direct military order requires only passive obedience when it is given by a superior who, being present at the time he gives it, knows the condition of affairs and can listen to the objections and provide explanations to those who must execute the order....
The conduct of the Duke d'Orléans before Turin in 1706 has been justified: historians have cleared him of all blame. The Duke d'Orléans was prince, he had been regent, and he was of an easygoing disposition. The writers have treated him favorably, while Marchin, resting dead on the battlefield, could not defend himself. We know, however, that as he lay dying he protested the decision to remain in the lines.
But who was the commander of the French army in Italy? The Duke d'Orléans, Marchin, la Feuillade, and Albergotti were all under his orders. It was up to him whether or not he would take the advice of a counsel of war; he was in the chair. It was his decision whether or not to conform to the opinion of the war council. The prince did not have trouble in his command. Nobody refused to obey him. Had he given the order for the army to leave its lines, if he could give the order to the left to cross the Dora to reinforce the right; if he could have given the positive order to Albergotti to recross the Po, and the generals had refused to obey under the pretext that they did not owe him obedience, then all would be welt and good. The prince would be exonerated. But, it is argued, Albergotti did not obey the order that he received to send a detachment to the right bank of the Po. He settled for making observations.
Well, that happens every day. It does not in itself constitute an act of disobedience. Had the prince sent him a positive order...it would have been obeyed....The Duke d'Orléans was recognized as commander in chief by the generals, officers, and men. None refused or could have refused to obey him. He is responsible for all that was done.
General Jourdan states in his Mémoires that the government had pressured him into fighting the battle of Stockach and he seeks thus to justify himself for the unfortunate consequences of this affair. But this justification could not be allowed even when he had received a positive and formal order, as we have demonstrated. When he decided to deliver battle, he believed that he had favorable chances to win it. He deceived himself.
But, might it not happen that a minister or prince should explain his intentions so clearly that no clause could be misunderstood and that he says to a commander: "Deliver battle; the enemy, by virtue of his numbers, the quality of his troops, and the position that he occupies will defeat you. No matter this is my will."
Should such an order be passively executed? No! If the general understands the benefit and consequently the morality of so strange an order, he must execute it. If he does not understand it, however, he should not obey.
Something of this sort often occurs in war. A battalion is left in a difficult position to save the army, but the battalion commander receives the positive order from his superior, who is present at the time he gives it and responds to all objections, if there are reasonable ones to make. It is a military order given by a commander who is present and to whom one owes passive obedience. But what happens if the minister or prince is with the army? Then he takes over command, he is the commander in chief. The previous commander is no more than a subordinate division commander.
It does not follow that a commander in chief must not obey a minister who orders him to give battle. On the contrary, he must do it every time that, in his judgment, the chances and probabilities are as much for as against him, for our observation only applies in the case where the chances appear to be entirely against him.
Unity of Command
Unity of command is of the first necessity in war. You must keep the army united, concentrate as many of your troops as possible on the battlefield, and take advantage of every opportunity, for fortune is a woman: if you miss her today, do not expect to find her tomorrow.
Napoleon to the Executive Directory, 14 May 1796
I believe it very impolitic to divide the Army of Italy in two; it is likewise contrary to the interests of the republic to place two different generals in command.
The expedition to Livorno, Rome, and Naples is a mere trifle; it must be made by divisions in echelons so that by a retrograde march one could move in force against the Austrians and threaten to envelop them at the slightest movement that they might make.
For that you need not only a single general, but even more important, nothing should hinder him in his march and his operations. I waged the campaign without consulting anyone. I could not have done it well had I been forced to reconcile my point of view with that of another. I won advantages over far superior forces and with a pressing shortage of everything because, convinced that I had your confidence, my march was as quick as my thoughts....If you weaken your means by dividing your forces, or break the unity of military thought in Italy...you will have lost the most favorable occasion for imposing laws on Italy.
In the posture of affairs of the republic in Italy, it is indispensable that you have one general who possesses your complete confidence. If it is not me I shall not complain in useless repetition, but redouble my zeal to earn your esteem in the position that you confide to me. Each man has his style of waging war. General Kellermann has more experience and will do it better than I, but the two of us together would be a disaster.
It would be better to have one poor general than two good ones. War, like government, is a matter of tact.
Great operations...require speed in movements and as much quickness in conception as in execution....We require therefore unity of thought military, diplomatic, and financial.
The Attributes of a Good Commander
The foremost quality of a commander is to keep a cool head, to receive accurate impressions of what is happening, and never fret or be amazed or intoxicated by good news or bad. The successive or simultaneous sensations that the commander's mind receives during the course of a day are classified and occupy only as much attention as they deserve, for common sense and good judgment are products of a comparison of several sensations considered. There are men who, because of their physical and moral makeup, distort a picture of everything. No matter how much knowledge, intellect, courage, and other good qualities they might have, nature has not called upon them to command armies or to direct the great operations of war.
Kilmaine...was an excellent cavalry officer. He possessed sangfroid and the ability to take in a military situation at a glance [coup d'oeil]. He was very well suited to command detached corps of observation and any delicate missions that required discernment, intellect, and sound judgment....He knew a great deal about the Austrian troops, was familiar with their tactics, and he never let himself be awed by the false reports that they customarily spread in the rear areas of an army, nor by the heads of columns that they throw against communications in all directions, to create the impression of large forces where there are none.
The essential quality of a general is firmness...which is a gift from heaven. [In the campaign of 1800 in Germany] Moreau, three times in forty days, repeated the same demonstrations, but every time without giving them the appearance of reality. He succeeded only in emboldening his enemy and he offered him occasions to strike the isolated divisions....During this campaign the French army, which was the more numerous, was nearly always inferior in numbers on the battlefield. That is what happens to generals who are irresolute and act without principles and plans. In war tentative measures...lose everything. Military genius is a gift from heaven...but the most essential quality for a general is firmness of character and the resolution to conquer at any price.
In war nothing is accomplished except through calculation. Anything that is not profoundly meditated in its details will produce no result. Matters are contemplated over a long period of time and, to attain success, you must devote several months to thinking about what might happen. If I take so many precautions it is because my habit is to leave nothing to chance.
A plan of campaign must anticipate everything that the enemy can do and contain within it the means of outmaneuvering him. Plans of campaign are modified to infinity, according to circumstances, the genius of the commander, the nature of the troops, and the topography. There are two kinds of plans of campaign: good plans and bad plans. Sometimes the good plans fail as a result of accidental circumstances, and occasionally bad ones succeed through some freak of fortune.
Success in war depends upon the prudence, good conduct, and experience of the general. You do not require spirit in war, but exactitude, character, and simplicity. The art of being sometimes audacious and sometimes very prudent is the secret of success. [In 1792] Dumouriez made a very audacious move by positioning himself in the midst of the Prussian army. Even though I am a more audacious warrior than he was, I would not have dared such a maneuver.
It is said that I am daring, but Frederick [the Great] was much more so. He was great especially at the most critical moments. This is the highest praise one could make of his character. Caesar...ran great risks in adventures where he demonstrated his boldness. He extracted himself from them through his genius....He was at one and the same time a man of great genius and great audacity. Turenne is the only general whose boldness increased with age and experience....His last campaigns are superb.
Marshal Ney...is a brave man, zealous and all heart. [At Waterloo] he was given the honor of commanding the great attack in the center. It could not have been entrusted to a braver man or one more accustomed to this sort of affair. 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 the first under fire, he forgot about troops who were not under his immediate command.
I loved Murat because of his brilliant bravery, which is why I put up with so much of his foolishness. Like Ney, Murat was incomparable on the field of battle, but he always committed stupid mistakes. He understood how to conduct a campaign better than Ney and still he was a poor general. He always waged war without maps, and how many mistakes did he not commit to be able to establish his headquarters in a chaâteau where there could be women! As for bedding down with a woman...my woman could have died in Munich or Strasbourg and it would not have upset my projects or views by a quarter of an hour.
Intelligent and intrepid generals assure the success of actions. One must be slow in deliberation and quick in execution. To win is not enough: it is necessary to profit from success. In the profession of war, like that of letters, each has his style. For sharp, prolonged attacks that require great boldness Masséna would be more appropriate than Reynier. To protect the kingdom against invasion, Jourdan is preferable to Masséna. General Reynier...had been trained to be a topographical engineer. He understood maps thoroughly, had waged campaigns with the armies of the North and of the Rhine, where he acquired the reputation of being a man of sound advice, but he lacked the most essential qualities of a commander in chief. He loved solitude, was by nature cold and silent and not very communicative, and he knew neither how to electrify or to dominate men.
A division commander in the Army of Italy, Masséna...had a strong constitution and was tireless, on his horse night and day among the boulders and in the mountains. This was the kind of war that he understood particularly well. He was determined, brave, bold, full of ambition and vanity. His distinctive characteristic was stubbornness, and he never got discouraged. He would neglect discipline and pay little attention to administration, and for this reason was not much loved by the soldiers. He was tolerably poor in his dispositions for an attack. His conversation was not very interesting, but at the first cannon shot, in the midst of bullets and dangers, his thought would acquire strength and clarity. If defeated he would start again as if he had been the victor.
[Lannes] was wise, prudent and bold. In the presence of the enemy he possessed imperturbable sangfroid. He had little education but real natural ability. On the battlefield he was superior to all of the French generals when it came to maneuvering 15,000 men. He was still young and he would have continued to improve; perhaps he would have been clever even at Grand Tactics.
Berthier, the chief of staff, always spent the day around me in combat and the night at his desk: it is impossible to combine more activity, goodwill, courage, and knowledge. He was very active and followed his general on all reconnaissances without neglecting any of his work at the bureau. He possessed an indecisive character and was little fit for command, but he had all the qualities of a good chief of staff. He knew topography well, understood reconnaissance detachments, attended personally to the expedition of orders, and was accustomed to briefing the most complicated movements of an army with simplicity.
Desaix was the most capable of commanding large armies. Better than the others, he understood la grande guerre as I understand it. In my judgment Kléber was second in this respect, and Lannes perhaps third.
Moreau had no system in either politics or military matters. An excellent soldier, he was personally brave and very capable of moving a small army on the battlefield, but he was an absolute stranger to the knowledge of Grand Tactics. Without his woman he could have performed admirably for me, for basically he was a brave man, but he could not effectively command more than 20,000 men. This was the opinion of Kléber and Desaix. Perhaps under my tutelage he would have been molded. With 40,000 men I would not fear Moreau with 60,000 or Jourdan with 100,000!
Henry IV was a good soldier, but in his time war demanded only courage and good sense. It was very different in a war fought with great masses. The bravery that a commander in chief must display differs from that required of a division commander, since his bravery should not resemble that of a grenadier captain. Glory and the honor of arms is the first duty that a general who delivers battle must consider; the safety and conservation of his men is only secondary. But it is also in his boldness and stubbornness that the safety and conservation of men is found.
In war good health is indispensable. For it is at night when the commander must do his work. If he tires himself unduly during the day fatigue will overcome him at night. At Vitoria we were defeated because Joseph [Bonaparte] slept too much. Had I slept the night before Eckmühl I would never have carried out this superb ma neuver, which is the most beautiful that I have ever made....My activity enabled me to be everywhere....A commander should not sleep.
War is waged only with vigor, decision, and unshaken will. One must neither grope nor hesitate. I have very rarely met with that "two o'clock in the morning courage"; in other words, spontaneous courage which is necessary on some unexpected occasion and which permits full freedom of judgment and decision despite the most unforeseen events.
In war the first principle of the commander is to conceal what he is doing, to see if there are ways of overcoming the obstacles, and to do everything toward this end once he has made his decision. One sees only his own problems and not those of the enemy. It is essential to display confidence.
But the generals are not content if they do not have an entire army. They are always making requests it is in the nature of things. There is not one who can be trusted in that respect. It is quite natural that the man charged with only one responsibility focuses entirely on that. The more troops, the better assurance of success. One makes a great mistake to consider their requests if it is not likely to be honored.
One always has enough troops when he knows how to use them and when the generals do not sleep in the towns but instead bivouac with their troops.
The loss of time is irreparable in war. The reasons that one gives are always poor, because operations misfire only through delays. The art consists simply in gaining time when one has inferior forces.
Napoleon to Marshal Bessières, 20 November 1809
I notice with pain that you do not march with suitable energy. You are commander in chief; you must remove all difficulties
....Everything you do will be well done provided you are soon victorious. March rapidly and vigorously without any but, if, or because. The special affection that I have for you has caused me to decide to let you acquire this glory. Be of firm character and will....Overcome all obstacles. I will disapprove your actions only if they are fainthearted and irresolute. Everything that is vigorous, firm, and discreet will meet with my approval.
When you issue orders, take measures to assure that they are executed and punish those who commit such a serious fault. Why repeat an order? An order must always be carried out; when it is not, it is a crime and the guilty man must be punished.
Give your orders in such a way that they cannot be disobeyed....Carefully explain...that they are not susceptible of any but, if, or because; and that twenty-four hours after the orders are received these regiments must be on the move.
Napoleon to Marshal Berthier, 9 July 1812
The Emperor cannot give you positive orders, but only general instructions because the distance is already considerable and will become greater still....The first objective for your corps is to protect the Niemen, so that the navigation on it cannot be disturbed in any way. Your second objective is to contain the garrison of Riga; the third, to threaten to cross the Dvina between Riga and Dinabourg in order to harass the enemy; the fourth, to occupy Courland and to keep the country intact, since the enemy finds so many resources for his army there; and finally, as soon as the fight moment has arrived, to cross the Dvina, blockade Riga, bring up the siege equipage and begin the siege of this fortress, which is important for us to possess in order to assure our winter quarters and give us a point d'appui on this large stream.
The conduct of generals is more delicate after battles than before because then, having been able to pursue only one course, they find themselves criticized by everybody who favored other alternatives. As for me, I apply myself to follow the spirit of the instruction of the government and if, by the swiftness of events, the force of circumstances and the distance involved, I have taken something on myself, this has only been with the greatest repugnance....In military operations I consult nobody; in diplomatic operations I consult everybody.
In an army corps the eye of the commander must remedy everything. Captains and officers, whatever their merits might be in other respects, are constantly in a state of carelessness if the presence of the commander does not continually make itself felt.
Copyright © 1999 by Jay Luvaas
Meet the Author
Jay Luvaas has been a scholar and teacher of military history for more than thirty years. He has taught at Allegheny College, the U.S. Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, and the U.S. Army War College, where he was the first Professor of Military History. He is the author or editor of five books, including Frederick the Great on the Art of War, and has contributed to or co-authored a dozen more. Napoleon on the Art of War is the culmination of three decades of work.
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