Napoleon Warfare Strategy

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” – Napoleon

The French Revolution and the Napoleon Warfare Strategy that followed revolutionized military strategy.


The impact of this period was still to be felt in the American Civil War and the early phases of World War I. With the advent of cheap small arms and the rise of the drafted citizen soldier, armies grew rapidly in size to become massed formations. This necessitated dividing the army first into divisions and later into corps.

Along with divisions came divisional artillery; light-weight, mobile and with great range and firepower. The rigid formations of pikemen and musketeers firing massed volleys gave way to light infantry fighting in skirmish lines.

“When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna” - Napoleon

Napoleon Warfare strategy took advantage of these developments to pursue a brutally effective "strategy of annihilation" that cared little for the mathematical perfection of the geometric strategy. Napoleon invariably sought to achieve decision in battle, with the sole aim of utterly destroying his opponent, usually achieving success through superior manoeuvre.

As ruler and general he dealt with the grand strategy as well as the operational strategy, making use of political and economic measures.

While not the originator of the methods he used, Napoleon Warfare Strategy very effectively combined the manoeuvre and battle stages into one event.

Before this, General Officer had considered the approach to battle a separate event. However, Napoleon Warfare Strategy used the manoeuvre to battle to dictate how and where the battle would progress. The Battle of Austerlitz was a perfect example of this manoeuvre. Napoleon withdrew from a strong position to draw his opponent forward and tempt him into a flank attack, weakening his centre.

“Separate to live, unite to fight” - Napoleon

This allowed the French army to split the allied army and gain victory.

Napoleon Warfare strategy used two primary strategies for the approach to battle. His "Manoeuvre De Derrière" was intended to place the French Army across the enemy's lines of communications.

This forced the opponent to either march to battle with Napoleon or attempt to find an escape route around the army. By placing his army into the rear, his opponents’ supplies and communications would be cut.

This had a negative effect on enemy morale. Once joined, the battle would be one in which his opponent could not afford defeat.

“In war the moral is to the physical is as three to one”- Napoleon

This also allowed Napoleon to select multiple march routes into a battle site. Initially, the lack of force concentration helped with foraging for food and sought to confuse the enemy as to his real location and intentions. This strategy, along with the use of forced marches created a morale bonus that played heavily in his favour.

The "indirect" approach into battle also allowed Napoleon to disrupt the linear formations used by the allied armies. As the battle progressed enemy committed their reserves to stabilize the situation, Napoleon Warfare strategy would suddenly release the flanking formation to attack the enemy.

His opponents, being suddenly confronted with a new threat and with little reserves, had no choice but to weaken the area closest to the flanking formation and draw up a battle line at a right angle in an attempt to stop this new threat.

Once this had occurred, Napoleon would mass his reserves at the hinge of that right angle and launch a heavy attack to break the lines. The rupture in the enemy lines allowed Napoleon's cavalry to flank both lines and roll them up leaving his opponent no choice but to surrender or flee.

“Put your enemies in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeting. If they are to die then, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear.

The second strategy used by Napoleon I of France when confronted with two or more enemy armies was the use of the central position. This allowed Napoleon to drive a wedge to separate the enemy armies.

He would then use part of his force to mask one army while the larger portion overwhelmed and defeated the second army quickly. He would then march on the second army leaving a portion to pursue the first army and repeat the operations.

This was designed to achieve the highest concentration of men into the primary battle while limiting the enemy's ability to reinforce the critical battle. The central position had a weakness in that the full power of the pursuit of the enemy could not be achieved because the second army needed attention. So overall the preferred method of attack was the flank march to cross the enemies’ logistics.

Napoleon Warfare strategy used the central position strategy during the Battle of Waterloo Hundred Days. Napoleon masked Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and massed against the Prussian army, and then after the Ligny battle was won, Napoleon attempted to do the same to the Allied/English army located just to the south of Waterloo.

His subordinate was unable to mask the defeated Prussian army, who reinforced the Waterloo battle in time to defeat Napoleon and end his domination of Europe.

It can be said that the Prussian Army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher used the "manoeuvre de derrière" against Napoleon who was suddenly placed in a position of reacting to a new enemy threat.

Napoleon's practical strategic triumphs, repeatedly leading smaller forces to defeat larger ones, inspired a completely new field of study into military strategy.

In particular, his opponents were keen to develop a body of knowledge in this area to allow them to counteract a masterful individual with a highly competent group of officers, a General Staff. The two most significant students of his work were Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian with a background in philosophy, and Antoine-Henri Jomini, who had been one of Napoleon's staff officers.

Clausewitz's On War has become the bible of strategy, dealing with political, as well as military, leadership. His most famous assertion being:

"War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of policy carried out by other means." - Clausewitz

Source {wikipedia Military Strategy}

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