Encyclopedia: Tactics

Military tactics of Napoleonic period

Napoleon developed and put into practice the first concept of blitzkrieg. Bonaparte was the only person who knew how to make the best of it back at that time. His style of conducting operations became a real shock for many European commanders. If the armies could previously play cat and mouse with each other for many weeks and even months not daring to engage in a decisive battle, then “Corsican upstart” firmly dictated his rules to the enemy and the latter usually had little chances to avoid a battle for destruction.

Light infantry battalions and specialized voltigeur companies usually showed up on the battlefield first. They opened disturbing fire on the enemy from far away while artillery was deploying. Its primary objective was to suppress hostile batteries or center fire on the enemy troops in case of their advancement.

Under the cover of curtain-fire and powder smoke, infantry battalions moved forward in columns at large intervals along the frontline. When approaching the enemy at the effective fire distance, the battalion columns could assume the line formation. Skirmishers then would fall back to the flanks or behind the friendly lines so that the battalions could fire in files. Musket fire, however, served for mainly auxiliary purposes, as the weapons were far from perfection. Hence, it was used rarely and usually when it was needed to stop the enemy or gain time to estimate their positions and maneuvers. As soon as these tasks were performed, the lines would assume column formation and move on towards the enemy.

Supported by heavy artillery fire, the columns would start out slowly and gradually speed up. It was important to maintain strict orderliness and keep on moving in the given direction, as the lines would have to engage the enemy with the bayonets in several sectors of the frontline simultaneously so that the enemy could not transfer reinforcements from other sectors. The column would double its speed at the distance of one hundred meters from the enemy lines and switch to running in a twenty-five meter range.

Offering support to the infantry troops, light and heavy cavalry would try to make the enemy regroup into squares and decrease amount of muskets and cannons turned to the frontline. Meanwhile, the batteries of horse artillery moved out at full speed and started fusillading the enemy point-blank.

Given efficient management of all components of the “Napoleon’s recipe,” a breach in the enemy lines would start growing shortly. This was a turning point in Bonaparte’s tactics, and it was so important that the emperor was prepared to take heavy casualties for it to come. Sometimes he sent the last reserve into action to widen a gap in the hostile ranks. Having regrouped after first attacks, heavy cavalry would then burst into the gap at full speed to develop success of the breach. They pounded the enemy in the rear until their whole front collapsed.

Breach in the enemy lines usually meant victory. However, the enemy was rarely encircled and fully shattered, as some parts always managed to escape. That was when the chase kicked in. Light cavalry and dragoons followed the hostile remnants until their full annihilation or surrender.

General strategy of French army
(Revolution and Napoleonic wars period; main differences from strategies of royal armies)

The Revolution and Empire notably changed the tactics of the land combat and war concept itself. These milestone events ensured development of Bonaparte’s military talent to its full extent and left an indelible vestige in the history of wars. In terms of the strategy, his personality has been of high authority even by today. Hence, it is simply impossible to speak about the war and armies of late 18th – early 19th centuries without referring to the legacy of the great commander.

To understand the role of Napoleon in the history of the world wars, we need to recollect the status quo that determined the nature of the conflicts between European countries on the eve of the French Revolution. Local scope, limited combat objectives, lack of distinction between ideologies of different states as well as relative weakness of the West European monarchy gradually gave rise to a strategy remarkable for extreme caution when conducting military operations of any kind. Among the main signs of this concept was tendency to avoid battles and achieve victory by maneuvering, besieging and sallying communications of the enemy. As a result, forces were dispersed, occupied positions were stubbornly defended, troops moved very slowly… Truth be said, it made some sense because full mobilization of the country was pointless under the ultimate war objective to capture a small province or even a single city of a neighboring state or solve dynastic problems in a third state.

In addition, loss of an army or even its significant part could cost a pretty penny that a hard-won territory would not reimburse for many years. That is why existing governments of 17th-18th centuries continuously expected their commanders to abstain from risky decisions that could lead to a major clash of the armies. In 1778, almost on the eve of the French Revolution, a conflict between Prussia and Austria flared up. The armies avoided encounters so much that there was not a single decisive battle. Because the opposing forces focused on trying to cut off each other’s supplies, the war was humorously called the Kartoffelkrieg (“Potato War”).

The Revolution of 1792 ruined the stereotypes that had developed for decades. For the French people after all, it was a question of existence of their state rather than a struggle for some sort of succession or a province. Apparent ideological differences brought about abrupt increase of people who were desperately committed to their ideals and prepared to die for them. Their strategic objectives, thereafter, also changed radically.

During the first post-revolution years, the character of war prosecution did not change much even after the Republic created a strong army. The major forces of both opposing sides were stretched along the borders at a standstill with a main struggle going on for separate fortresses and fortified positions. Military leaders had an old turn of mind even though they were at the head of a new army. Hence, commanders continued to apply customary strategy methods based on bow-and-scrape principles. The Republican army was already trained to make forced marches and could firmly overcome severities of campaigns even without tents and transports; soldiers and officers were deeply committed to their cause, fought courageously and sacrificed themselves without hesitation. Despite it all, their generals kept on scheming in their usual way – that is to besiege a fortress, cover a territory, secure permanent communications, etc.

Bonaparte was the first commander who understood this strategy had had its day and proved it in practice. Having realized that once the sword of international war was unleashed, and one could and had to use it differently, Napoleon managed to understand the nature of new war. He was not afraid to take the responsibility of putting the system of destruction into practice. It was the strategy when a commander concentrated all his efforts on defeating the opposing army and overcoming a hostile country as soon as possible.

Napoleon was not a mere person of a natural gift who could intuitively understand the essence the changes to come and arrange it into strict concept without a relevant experience. In many respects, Bonaparte’s approach to new tactics and strategy derived from the authors he studied at the military college. Thus, English military theorist of late 18th century, Lloyd claimed that Frederick the Great evinced his true military talent in the battle of Prague in May 6, 1757 by attacking Austrian marshal von Braun when the latter was about to open his line. This must have inspired Napoleon to develop the tactics that would make the enemy upset the integrity of the battle line exposing them to a fatal blow. In addition, Bonaparte learnt du Taille’s lesson well and widely used large artillery batteries in the battles of Eylau, Friedland, Borodino and Waterloo. The young Corsican studied all contemporary military theorists with great interest. Juxtaposing facts and gathering bits and pieces of valuable ideas, he gradually developed his own “formula of battle”.

Bonaparte’s military thinking consisted of several fundamental ideas. The most important of them was a concept of offensive combat based on a powerful attack. Its main objective was to defeat the enemy forces and end the war with one mighty strike. This was a strategic ideal Napoleon learnt from the works of Frederick the Great. The emperor of France rarely resorted to defensive tactics, even if strategically he was in defense. Perhaps, his famous saying “Attack is the best defense” can be regarded an apogee of his philosophy.


Post Author: Peffy

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