Book Review: Napoleon As Military Commander

Napoleon as Military Commander, by General James Marshall-Cornwall, offers a comprehensive analysis of Napoleon’s military career and the strategies and tactics that made him the most powerful dictator of Europe since Charlemagne. But with so much more to the story of Napoleon than how he won his military battles, it will leave you wanting more.

Napoleon As Military CommanderYears ago, a common gripe I would make to friends was that I could not find a biography of Napoleon that I liked the look of enough to buy or read. It seems a strange complaint to make; few historical figures have had more books written about them, perhaps only Hitler and Washington. The reasons Napoleon attracts such attention are obvious. His effect on history is significant and he is near enough to our time for those effects to still be relevant; his accomplishments are staggering yet his legend precedes him, much of which is historically inaccurate, which leaves us eager to discover the real man and events; and unlike some other historical leaders in battle, he lived his life in the full light of history, yet there is much that could be argued about or interpreted differently.

The problem with all this is that it makes the subject of Napoleon’s life, achievements, and character an important but overwhelming one. When I would search for books on Napoleon I would find them to be either all too brief overviews or focused on one area or period of his life. An example of the latter would be Adam Zamoyski’s best-selling 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. Otherwise, I would find the more comprehensive biographies to be exhaustive, dry, academic books, most of them getting quite dated. What I wanted was a modern narrative history that could cover his entire life, without oversimplifying or excluding, in a single volume. In the absence of one, I picked up James Marshall-Cornwall’s Napoleon as Military Commander.

Marshall-Cornwall was a General of the Royal Field Artillery, serving in the First World War and taking an active part in the Second during which he was knighted. His book on Napoleon was first published in 1967 and this edition is part of a series of Classic Military History by Penguin. Marshall-Cornwall begins his biography by discussing Napoleon’s formative years and the legacy of military strategy he inherited before working through his major campaigns and battles chronologically through the rest of the book.

In discussing Napoleon’s formative years, Marshall-Cornwall covers the culture of Corsica, the personalities of his family, early signs of Napoleon’s character and his years as a cadet in French Military academies. A poor Corsican with a funny name and accent, the young Napoleon was not popular at the academy but Marshall-Cornwall argues that this only strengthened his determination and fuelled his individualism. Incredibly industrious, he surpasses other cadets, studying for 16 hours a day, poring through books on Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar as well as more contemporary military theoreticians. In an essay based on the philosophy of Rousseau, the young Napoleon makes the somewhat prophetic statement:

Men of genius are meteors destined to burn out in order to illuminate their era

Meanwhile the French Revolution has broken out. With no obvious ties to either side, and a shortage of trusted officers following the purges, Napoleon was able to rise quickly through the ranks. Though a brief attempt at Corsican independence failed, Napoleon gained some valuable experience for the future.

One of the points Marshall-Cornwall is eager to make is that Napoleon was no great innovator of military strategy.

It is one of the myths inherent in his legend that Napoleon invented a new system of warfare. This was not the case.

As evidence, Marshall-Cornwall cites the facts that Napoleon made no essential changes to basic procedures, no improvements to army equipment in 15 years as Consul and Emperor. Though he did have some ideas, he did not implement them, partly due to constraints on industrial capacity.

Instead, Marshall-Cornwall points to Marshall Saxe as an original French thinker in strategy, organisation and tactics. Though there is no evidence that Napoleon studied Saxe, he did study Bourcet and Guibert who followed Saxe and had similar ideas – a doctrine of increased mobility and manoeuvrability. Other theoreticians advocated concentrated use of artillery and close coordination between artillery and infantry. Napoleon’s genius, argues Marshall-Cornwall, was to put the lessons from these thinkers – learned over the wars of the Spanish, Polish and Austrian succession as well as the Seven Years War – into practice more boldly and ruthlessly than his adversaries, most of whom were using tactics that were well outdated.

Given the responsibility of devising plans for battles at Toulon and Onéglia, Napoleon earns a reputation as an excellent tactician. Further leaps in rank follow and soon Napoleon is given command of the French Army of Italy. In one of my favourite parts of the book, Marshall-Cornwall, details Napoleon’s first major campaign against the Austrians and Sardinians in northern Italy. Using speed and managing to outmanoeuvre the enemy in order to maintain superior numbers where he needed them, Napoleon manages to drive a wedge between the allies, effectively fighting a war on two fronts until he has separated them enough to defeat them individually.

As impressive as this effort was, the follow up of driving the Austrians out of Lombardy, defeating reinforcement armies sent from Austria and forcing an Austrian surrender by exposing Vienna – something Napoleon’s superiors tried to dissuade him from attempting as they considered it impossible – was equally brilliant. Marshall-Cornwall argues that this may have been Napoleon’s most brilliant campaign of his life, though again he stresses that it was not achieved with luck or genius but by applying the lessons of experience from those Napoleon had studied.

After an Egyptian adventure and rise to the consulship, Napoleon has to reconquer the ground he won in Italy, after it falls in his absence, against an enemy that is wiser to his tactics. Marshall-Cornwall is reluctant to criticise Napoleon, especially since he won the campaign, but this time Napoleon’s success relied more on luck than previously. Marshall-Cornwall points out the audacious risks Napoleon took, the many soldiers abandoned to their fate and the fact that a more competent adversary may have punished Napoleon’s errors more severely.

By 1805, Marshall-Cornwall argues that Napoleon is entering the zenith of his career. With Britain, Austria and Russia now in an awkward coalition against him, Napoleon must act quickly or face the destruction of his Empire. Victories at Ulm and Austerlitz achieved this. Again, Napoleon used speed to out manoeuvre the enemy, he anticipated the enemy’s strategies, induced them to attack his strengths while exposing themselves and took advantage of their mistakes. Marshall-Cornwall considers this campaign to be Napoleon’s masterpiece. But there were also heavy costs involved and, when Napoleon delegated to his other commanders, there were signs that their abilities were not up to the standard of their Emperor.

It is a recurring theme throughout the book – the failure of Napoleon to train his subordinates in his methods so as to trust them with command. At the same time, Napoleon repeatedly gave positions of authority to family or political connections, like a feudal king, rather than promote men on merit.

An uneasy period of peace is broken by Prussian and then Russian aggression against the French. Though Napoleon defeated both threats; despite terrible conditions, no knowledge of the battlefields or of the enemy’s plans; the victories come with heavy casualties and Napoleon seems more desperate for a lasting peace.

Napoleon is now the most powerful dictator on the continent since Charlemagne. But Marshall-Cornwall describes his empire as an upside-down pyramid – it all hinged on the abilities of one man. A man who was increasingly losing touch with reality; hypnotised by his own success, believing himself infallible and not giving credit to the ineptitude of his adversaries. It could only go one way from here.

What proceeds sounds like a prelude to the two World Wars of the twentieth century, with the French in the place of Germany as the central power facing a war on two fronts. Napoleon seems to have underestimated Spanish resolve when they begin open revolt aided by the British, including a certain Arthur Wellesley. The French in Spain appear to be headed for victory whenever Napoleon is present to lead them personally, but they seem headed for defeat whenever he leaves to fight elsewhere. Napoleon’s mistrust of his subordinates, resulting in a policy of appointing Marshals not on the basis of their strategic ability but on the zeal with which carry out his orders, means that he must micromanage everything but the war has become too large for him to do that.

In the east, outnumbered by the Austrians and unable to withdraw troops from Spain, Napoleon is forced to break his own maxims and fight a reactionary defensive war. Yet, in what Marshall-Cornwall calls a striking example of Napoleon’s genius, he devises a plan that turns almost certain defeat into victory and captures Vienna again. But defeating the Austrian army in the field proves difficult. Fierce fighting with heavy casualties when trying to cross the Danube results in Napoleon’s first real defeat. Austrians have also taken heavy losses and Napoleon readily accepts when they offer peace.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia is one of the most analysed campaigns in history – the unpredictable weather, dysentery, costly delays, stretched supply lines, Napoleon’s health problems and inability to draw Russians into a decisive battle and the disastrous retreat through a Russian winter – have been well covered multiple times. But Marshall-Cornwall stresses the importance of seeing the Russian campaign in the larger context of France’s troubles in Spain and Russia’s war against the Turks. Though Marshall-Cornwall does not go that far, the parallels to the Second World War are there to be interpreted.

The Army of Spain was also doomed to destruction and the Emperor had fallen between two stools.

Though his invincibility was tarnished, Napoleon was far from done. With fresh conscripts, Napoleon wins successive battles to halt the allied advance westward and strike them in retreat. In what the author considers to be his biggest blunder; Napoleon signs an armistice which Marshall-Cornwall argues was more advantageous to the allies than the French.

But the allies continue to grow with Austria joining them. Napoleon in 1813 is not behaving as the same man he was in 1796; his forces are divided, slow and reactionary. He has completely abandoned the principles that made him so successful and has become obsessed with matters other than defeating the enemy and is losing touch with the reality of the situations his men face. This is especially true of the battle at Leipzig where he was deluded in thinking he could defend his position.

Napoleon sacrificed his military genius on the altar of political ambition.

Despite the fall of Paris, the surrender of French forces in Spain and the end of Napoleon’s reign, Marshall-Cornwall still insists the 1814 campaign was an ‘amazing achievement’ and a ‘strategic masterpiece’, arguing that Napoleon was let down by the incompetence of his subordinates, a few strategic errors and fatal gambles while the endurance of his men was stretched.

Of course the most remarkable thing about the life of Napoleon is that, if he was any other man in history, this would be the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Despite a suicide attempt, exile and an apparent abandonment of his dreams of empire and conquest, events turn to draw him out of the shadows and to gamble it all in an epic battle.

Waterloo will easily rank among the most important battles in history as well as one of the most analysed and with the most books written about it. Coming at the end of the book, Marshall-Cornwall does not over-emphasise the battle, instead he gives the relevant events their due in proportion to the many others in the book.

Napoleon as Military Commander is a fascinating insight into the career of a military genius in an era before rapid technological advances would radically alter the craft. Marshall-Cornwall is clearly enamoured with his subject and gives Napoleon much credit for his victories while not being too reluctant to point out his errors. Without an alternative analysis I cannot judge how defendable his conclusions are but I suspect he is a little too generous to Napoleon at times. I am glad to have the book and to have read it, especially for the insights into some of Napoleon’s lesser remembered campaigns, but it is not without its faults.

The maps provided were enlightening, but their appearances dried up about two-thirds through the book and I found myself frequently wishing for more of them to better understand the unfolding events. The ones that are there could be greatly improved. If you are going to have a book about the career of a commander, I think the maps need to be more instructive as to the positions of the various armies and units at different times and their movement from one stage of the battle to the next. The illustrations within Adrian Goldsworthy’s Cannae set an excellent standard.

There is also an acute detachment from the horrors of the events in this book. By about two-thirds in I found myself overwhelmed by the body count; thousands upon thousands of dead men at every major engagement as well as the considerable hardship while they were alive – forced marches, starvation, disease, extreme weather. For those of us living, or even fighting, in the relative comfort of the present, it is perhaps heartening to know that such losses would not be tolerated by the civilian populations of a 21st century democracy. Marshall-Cornwall barely describes the plight of Napoleon’s soldiers, instead giving estimates for the many dead and suffering with a certain cold detachment.

Having been first published in the 60’s, Napoleon as Military Commander lacks the narrative style of modern history writers. This becomes particularly desirable when the personalities and mental states of the key protagonists become relevant. This is not restricted to the apparent changes in Napoleon’s character and decision-making. The character and state of the unpredictable, unreliable, disloyal and apparently mentally unstable Marshal Ney would make a fascinating side-story, especially as he played a key role in the battle of Waterloo.

As interesting as this book was, it has a general weakness in its ambition to focus on Napoleon’s military career. As Marshall-Cornwall himself stresses in the book; it may be futile to separate Napoleon’s war craft from his statecraft and to be fair he does devote some space to discuss Napoleon’s activities as statesman including an entire chapter on the period of his rise from Consul to Emperor. But combined with the missing character narrative, the book’s subject feels rather narrow and the reader is denied an appreciation of these events within a much larger story. In other words, though this book is interesting and has strengths, it was never going to fulfil my desire for a comprehensive, modern biography of Napoleon.

As it would happen, just as I finally make the effort to read Napoleon as Military Commander, some new biographies of Napoleon have been published. Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great has been grabbing most of the attention but there is also Michael Broers’ Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny published last year. Roberts’ book looks very much like the book I have been waiting for and I will surely get a copy. But looking at my current reading schedule I might now get around to reading it until the next generation of biographies are published! When I do get around to reading it, I will have been well prepared by reading Napoleon as Military Commander.


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