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The Napoleonic Wars (Smithsonian History of Warfare)
By Gunther Rothenberg
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Gunther Rothenberg
All right reserved.
The Transformation of War
and the Emergence of
When darkness fell on 2 December 1805 the battle of Austerlitz came to a close. From his command post Emperor Napoleon watched the rout of the Austrian and Russian troops south of the Pratzen Heights. Further north the sounds of combat were fading as a Russian corps disengaged. When the emperor ordered a general ceasefire at 5 p.m. the enemy army had ceased to exist as an effective force and the will of his opponents to continue the war had been destroyed.
While Napoleon, then General Bonaparte, had made an impressive debut in Italy in 1796-7, the battle of Austerlitz was the triumphant finish to a campaign unprecedented in its sweep, speed and results. In little over three months, the emperor had projected his army from the Channel coast into the heart of central Europe, changed the balance of power in Germany, and effectively ended the Third Coalition against France. The swift and decisive operations awed contemporaries. Carl von Clausewitz, the great interpreter and philosopher of war, pronounced Napoleon the 'god of war', and the campaign set the pattern for the mobile, offensive and ruthless style of war, calledNapoleonic.
Military reforms before the French Revolution
The Napoleonic style was a synthesis of reforms and innovations suggested by others. His original contributions were few and mostly confined to the higher levels of warfare. But Napoleon systematized and elaborated reforms already under way and, with his personal genius, created the most effective army of its time, transforming the art of war itself. The arms and equipment as well as the troop types in his armies remained almost identical with those of Frederick the Great or even Marlborough. What had changed were the size of armies, their organization, command and control, and, above all, the ends for which they were employed, with the decisive, war-ending battle their paramount objective.
In the century before the French Revolution wars had become formal affairs, pursued with limited means for limited objectives by highly trained and brutally disciplined professional armies, commanded, especially in the higher ranks, by an aristocratic cousinage. Lacking ideological or national motivation, with limited agricultural, financial, industrial and chiefly manpower resources, operations were restricted in scope and intensity. Battles were avoided because heavy casualties, coupled with desertions, proved too costly for victors and vanquished alike. Wars commonly ended with the exhaustion of finances and manpower rather than with a decisive battle.
These constraints disappeared or were modified to a substantial degree in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. The shift from subsistence to surplus farming provided food which enabled Europe's population to roughly double. After Russia with 44 million, France, rising from 18 to 26 million by 1792, was the most populous country. The Habsburg Empire doubled its population from 9 to 18 million, roughly the same figure as Britain, while the population of all German states combined rose from 10 to 20 million. The agricultural economies of eastern and central Europe absorbed this increase in population, but in densely populated France it was only partially integrated, the remainder constituting a volatile urban mass -- manpower for the armies of the Revolution and Napoleon. This demographic shift coincided with the early Industrial Revolution; output of iron and textiles greatly increased, and the early stages of mass production meant that arms and equipment could be supplied for the much-expanded military establishments. The expansion of industry, overseas trade and the improved means of administration and taxation provided better finances, especially in England where national income nearly doubled between 1712 and 1792.
The end of the Seven Years War in 1763 brought debates about improving war-fighting capabilities. France, where the humiliating defeats of the war had considerable impact, became the focus for military changes that impacted on Revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare. In the long run, the articulation of field armies into self-contained all-arms divisions appears as the single most important innovation. Marching along separate but parallel routes, these formations accelerated movement, reduced logistic problems and, able to fight alone or converge with others, increased strategic options. Suggested in 1759 by Marshal de Broglie, they were tested repeatedly during the following decades and permanently adopted after 1793. Divisions enabled the Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies to handle far greater numbers than had been previously possible. Command, control and co-ordination of several dispersed formations required an appropriate staff organization. In 1775 de Bourcet, a French staff officer, published schemes for using converging columns in mountain war, and in 1796 General Berthier, assigned as Bonaparte's chief of staff, wrote a detailed manual of staff procedure, later adopted throughout the French Army. Their smooth functioning staff system provided a great advantage for the French over their adversaries.
France also led in developing new infantry tactics. The long debate of 'line versus column' was resolved in favour of a combination put forward by de Guibert in 1772, proposing battalions in line and in columns, capable of rapidly shifting deployment according to the tactical situation, the ordre mixte. The essentials of this system were incorporated in the Regulations of 1791, the formal infantry doctrine of the armies of the Revolution and Napoleon, supplemented by renewed emphasis on skirmishing. There were improvements in artillery. Guns became more mobile and accurate, developments pioneered in Austria and Prussia, and introduced into the French service by de Gribeauval. While historians have made much of the supposed uniqueness of his range of field guns -- 4-pounders, 8-pounders and 12-pounders -- Austrian, Prussian and English artillery was nearly as hard-hitting and mobile as the French, and was often utilized when captured. The same was true of the standard flintlock muskets. The French model of 1772 with a 0.69-inch bore was not much superior to the weapons of other European powers, while the larger calibre 0.74-inch British musket inflicted the gravest injuries. Technology did not propel the transformation in war, though the capacity to produce the large quantity of weapons, ammunition and equipment required was crucial.
Excerpted from The Napoleonic Wars (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Gunther Rothenberg Copyright ©2006 by Gunther Rothenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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