His body and mind, character, and career were in part molded by his military education at Brienne. There he learned to keep himself fit in any weather or place; to think clearly at any hour of day or night; to distinguish fact from desire; to obey without question as training for commanding without hesitation; to see terrains as possibilities for the open or hidden movement of masses of men; to anticipate enemy maneuvers and prepare to counter them; to expect the unexpected and meet it unsurprised; to inspire individual souls by addressing them en masse; to anesthetize pain with glory, and make it sweet and noble to die for one’s country: all this appeared to Napoleon as the science of sciences, since a nation’s life depends—other means having failed—upon its willingness and ability to defend itself in the final arbitrament of war. “The art of war,” he declared, “is an immense study, which comprises all others.”78
So he cultivated most those sciences that would contribute most to the science of national defense. He read history to learn the nature of man and the behavior of states; he surprised the savants, later, by his knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, of medieval and modern Europe. He “studied and restudied” the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Turenne, Eugene of Savoy, and Frederick the Great; “model yourself on them,” he told his officers, “reject every maxim contrary to those of these great men.”79
From the military academy he passed to the camp, and from the camp to control of a regiment. Perhaps from his stoic mother he had the gift of command, and knew its secret: that most persons would rather follow a lead than give it—if the leader leads. He had the courage to take responsibility, to stake his career again and again upon his judgment; and, with a daring that too often laughed at caution, he passed from one gamble to another—ever playing with more human pawns for higher stakes. He lost the last wager, but only after proving himself the ablest general in history.
His military strategy began with measures for winning the minds and hearts of his men. He interested himself in the background, character, and hopes of each officer directly under his command. He mingled now and then with the common soldiers, recalling their victories, inquiring about their families, and listening to their complaints. He good-humoredly rallied his Imperial Guard, and called them “les grogneurs” because they grumbled so much; but they fought for him to the last death. Sometimes he spoke cynically of the simple infantryman, as when, at St. Helena, he remarked that “troops are made to let themselves be killed”;80 but he adopted, and provided for, all the children of the French warriors who died at Austerlitz.81 More than any other section of the French nation his soldiers loved him—so much so that, in Wellington’s judgment, his presence on the battlefield was worth forty thousand men.82
His addresses to his army were an important part of his strategy. “In war,” he said, “morale and opinion are more than half the battle.”83 No other general since Caesar at the Rubicon had ever exercised such fascination over his men. Bourrienne, who wrote some of those famous proclamations at Napoleon’s dictation, tells us that the troops in many cases “could not understand what Napoleon said, but no matter, they would have followed him cheerfully barefoot and without provisions.”84 In several of his addresses he explained to them his plan of operations; usually they understood, and bore more patiently the long marches that enabled them to surprise or outnumber the foe. “The best soldier,” he said, “is not so much the one who fights as the one who marches.”85 In a proclamation of 1799 he told his auditors: “The chief virtues of a soldier are constancy and discipline. Valor comes only in the second place.”86 He often showed mercy, but he did not hesitate to be severe when discipline was endangered. After his first victories in Italy, when he deliberately allowed his troops some pillage to make up for the Directory’s skimping on their food, clothing, and pay, he forbade such conduct, and enforced the order so rigorously that it was soon obeyed. “Vienna, Berlin, Madrid, and other cities,” says Méneval, “witnessed the condemnation and execution of soldiers belonging as well to the Imperial Guard as to other army corps, when these soldiers had been found guilty of pillage.”87
Napoleon expressed part of his strategy in a mathematical formula: “The strength of an army, like the amount of momentum in mechanics, is estimated by the mass times the velocity. A swift march enhances the morale of an army, and increases its power for victory.”88 There is no authority for ascribing to him the aphorism that “an army travels on its stomach”—that is, on its food supply;89 his view was rather that it wins with its feet. His motto was “Activité, activité, vitesse”90—action and speed. Consequently he placed no reliance on fortresses as defenses; he would have laughed at the Maginot Line of 1939. “It is axiomatic,” he had said, far back in 1793, “that the side which remains behind its fortified line is always defeated”; and he repeated this in 1816.91 To watch for the time when the enemy divides or elongates his army; to use mountains and rivers to screen and protect the movement of his troops; to seize strategical elevations from which artillery could rake the field; to choose a battleground that would allow the maneuvers of infantry, artillery, and cavalry; to concentrate one’s forces—usually by swift marches —so as to confront with superior numbers a segment of the enemy too far from the center to be reinforced in time: these were the elements of Napoleonic strategy.
The final test of the general is in tactics—the disposition and maneuvering of his forces for and during battle. Napoleon took his stand where he could survey as much of the action as his safety would allow; and since the plan of operations, and its quick adjustment to the turn of events, depended upon his continued and concentrated attention, his safety was a prime consideration, even more in the judgment of his troops than in his actual practice; if he thought it necessary, as at Arcole, he did not hesitate to expose himself; and more than once we read of men being killed at his side in his place of observation. From such a point, through a staff of mounted orderlies, he dispatched instructions to the commanding officers in the infantry, the artillery, and the cavalry; and those messengers hurried back to keep him informed of the turn of events in every segment of the action. In battle, he believed, soldiers acquired their value chiefly through their position and maneuverability. Here too the aim was concentration—of massed men and heavy fire upon a particular point, preferably a flank, of the enemy, in the hope of throwing that part into a disorder that would spread. “In all battles a moment comes when the bravest troops, after having made the greatest efforts, feel inclined to run. … Two armies are two bodies that meet and endeavor to frighten each other; a moment of panic occurs, and that moment must be turned to advantage. When a man has been present in many actions, he distinguishes that moment without difficulty.”92 Napoleon was especially quick to take advantage of such a development, or, if his own men wavered, to send reinforcements, or change his line of operation in the course of a battle; this saved the day for him at Marengo. Retreat was not in his vocabulary before 1812.
It was natural that one who had developed such skill in generalship should come to find a macabre thrill in war. We have heard him lauding civilians as above soldiers; he gave precedence, at his court, to the statesmen over the marshals; and when conflicts arose between the civilian populations and the military he regularly took the civilian side.93 But he could not conceal from himself or others that he experienced on the battlefield a pleasure keener than any that came from administration. “There is a joy in danger,” he said, and he confessed to Jomini that he “loved the excitement of battle”;94 he was happiest when he saw masses of men moving at his will into actions that changed the map and decided history. He viewed his campaigns as responses to attacks, but he admitted, according to Bourrienne, “My power depends upon my glory, and my glory on my victories. My power would fall were I not to support it by new glory and new victories. Conquest has made me what I am, and conquest alone can maintain me.”95 We cannot quite trust the hostile Bourrienne for this pivotal confession; but Las Cases, to whom Napoleon was next to God, quoted him as saying (March 12, 1816), “I wished for the empire of the world, and, to ensure it, unlimited power was necessary to me.”96
Was he, as his enemies put it, “a butcher”? We are told that he recruited a total of 2,613,000 Frenchmen for his armies;97 of these about one million died in his service.98 Was he disturbed by the slaughter? He mentioned it in his appeals to the Powers for peace; and we are told that the sight of the corpses at Eylau moved him to tears.99 Yet, when it was all over, and he looked at the matter in retrospect, he told Las Cases: “I had commanded in battles that were to decide the fate of a whole army, and I had felt no emotion. I had watched the execution of maneuvers that were bound to cost the lives of many among us, and my eyes had remained dry.”100 Presumably a general must comfort himself with the thought that the premature deaths of those uprooted youths were insignificant displacements in space and time; would they not have come to an end anyway, obscurely, less gloriously, without the anesthesia of battle and the amends of fame?
Even so, he felt, as many scholars (Ranke, Sorel, Vandal …) felt, that he had been more sinned against than sinning; that he had fought and killed in self-defense; that the Allies had vowed to depose him as the “Son of the Revolution” and the usurper of a Bourbon throne. Had he not repeatedly proposed peace and been repulsed? “I only conquered in my own defense. Europe never ceased to war against France, against her principles, and against myself. The Coalition never ceased to exist, either secretly or openly.”101He had taken, at his coronation, an oath to preserve the “natural boundaries” of France; what would France have said if he had surrendered them? “The vulgar have never ceased blaming all my wars on my ambition. But were they of my choosing? Were they not always determined by the ineluctable nature of things?—by the struggle between the past and the future?”102 He was always weighed down, after the exuberant first years, by the feeling that no matter how many victories he might win, one decisive defeat would wipe them out and leave him at the mercy of his foes. He would have given half the world for peace, but on his own terms.
We may conclude that until Tilsit (1807) and the invasion of Spain (1808), Napoleon was on the defensive, and that thereafter, in the attempt to subjugate Austria, then Prussia, then Spain, then Russia, and to enforce his Continental Blockade, he brought additional wars upon an exhausted France and a resentful Europe. Though he had proved himself a superlative administrator, he abandoned the cares of state for the glory and ecstasy of war. He had won France as a general, and as a general he lost it. His forte became his fate.