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Napoleonic war was nothing if not complex—an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of moves and intentions, which by themselves went a long way towards baffling and dazing his conventionally-minded opponents into that state of disconcerting moral disequilibrium which so often resulted in their catastrophic defeat.
The Campaigns of Napoleon is an exhaustive analysis and critique of Napoleon's art of war as he himself developed and perfected it in the major military campaigns of his career. Napoleon disavowed any suggestion that he worked from formula (“Je n'ai jamais eu un plan d'opérations”), but military historian David Chandler demonstrates this was at best only a half-truth. To be sure, every operation Napoleon conducted contained unique improvisatory features. But there were from the first to the last certain basic principles of strategic maneuver and battlefield planning that he almost invariably put into practice. To clarify these underlying methods, as well as the style of Napoleon's fabulous intellect, Mr. Chandler examines in detail each campaign mounted and personally conducted by Napoleon, analyzing the strategies employed, revealing wherever possible the probable sources of his subject's military ideas.
The book opens with a brief account of Bonaparte's early years, his military education and formative experiences, and his meteoric rise to the rank of general in the army of the Directory. Introducing the elements of Napoleonic “grand tactics” as they developed in his Italian, Egyptian, and Syrian campaigns, Mr. Chandler shows how these principles were clearly conceived as early as the Battle of Castiglione, when Napoleon was only twenty-six. Several campaigns later, he was Emperor of France, busily constructing the Grande Armée. This great war machine is described in considerable detail: the composition of the armies and the élite Guard; the staff system and the methods of command; the kind of artillery and firearms used; and the daily life of the Grande Armée and the all-seeing and all-commanding virtuoso who presided over every aspect of its operation in the field.
As the great machine sweeps into action in the campaigns along the Rhine and the Danube, in East Prussia and Poland, and in Portugal and Spain, David Chandler follows closely every move that vindicates—or challenges—the legend of Napoleon's military genius. As the major battles take their gory courses—Austerlitz, Jena, Fried-land—we see Napoleon's star reaching its zenith. Then, in the Wagram Campaign of 1809 against the Austrians—his last real success—the great man commits more errors of judgment than in all his previous wars and battles put together. As the campaigns rage on, his declining powers seem to justify his own statement: “One has but a short time for war.” Then the horrors of the Russian campaign forever shatter the image of Napoleonic invincibility. It is thereafter a short, though heroic and sanguinary, road to Waterloo and St. Helena.
Napoleon appears most strikingly in these pages as the brilliant applier of the ideas of others rather than as an original military thinker, his genius proving itself more practical than theoretical. Paradoxically, this was both his chief strength and his main weakness as a general. After bringing the French army a decade of victory, his methods became increasingly stereotyped and, even worse, were widely copied by his foes, who operated against him with increasing effectiveness toward the end of his career. Yet even though his enemies attempted to imitate his techniques, as have others in the last century and a half, no one ever equaled his success. As these meticulous campaign analyses testify, his multifaceted genius was unique. Even as the end approached, as David Chandler points out, his eclipse was “the failure of a giant surrounded by pygmies.”
“The flight of the eagle was over; the ‘ogre’ was safely caged at last, and an exhausted Europe settled down once more to attempt a return to former ways of life and government. But the shade of Napoleon lingered on irresistibly for many years after his death in 1821. It lingers yet.”
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David G. Chandler is Head of the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and a Fellow of both the Royal Historical and the Royal Geographical societies. He is President of the British Commission for Military History and a Vice- President of the Commission International d'Histoire Militaire.
During his researches for The Campaigns of Napoleon, Mr. Chandler made considerable use of primary sources -- including the thirty-two volumes of Correspondence de I'Empereur Napoleon Iier -- and consulted many contemporary memoirs and military commentaries. (This he did with some caution, for such material is often far from reliable.) He also examined many of the most revealing and interesting studies that have been written by soldiers and scholars over the past 145 years, and he incorporated extracts from recently discovered sources in the hope of illuminating still further the well- trodden paths of Napoleonic studies.
The author of a dozen works on early eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century military history, David G. Chandler is a recognized authority in the Marlburian and Napoleonic periods. His other publications include A Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, 1979, Waterloo -- The Hundred Days, 1980, An Atlas of Military Strategy, 1980, and Napoleon's Marshals, (editor), 1987. He has also contributed a chapter to Volume VI of the New Cambridge Modern History as well as numerous articles and reviews to magazines and journals. Chandler lives in Yately, Hampshire, England.
Almost nine years of commissioned service already lay behind Citoyen-capitaine di Buonaparte when he penned Le Souper de Beaucaire. A great deal happened to the young Corsican during this considerable period of time, and many of his early experiences were destined to have important repercussions on his later career. Above all, most of his notions on the art of war and military affairs in general were formulated during this period, and it is important to study the early influences if we are to acquire any real insight into his future greatness and ultimate fall.
Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769, at Ajaccio in Corsica, the second surviving son of Carlo and Marie-Letizia Buonaparte. Many generations back the family was of Italian extraction, but by the 1760s the Buonapartes had found a patrician niche in Corsican life and had become regarded as an important and influential -- if not very wealthy -- pillar of local society. Several ancestors had played a part in the chaotic history of the island. His father was rather a restless and extravagant lawyer, with a penchant for poetry, constantly embarrassed for money and forever seeking social advancement, besides being closely associated with the rebel-patriot, Paoli. His mother was a natural beauty with a character of granite, who never forsook the simple ways of her upbringing and took good fortune and bad with the same calm detachment. To the very end of her life Madame Mère was a formidable and dignified figure of noble appearance, ruling her remarkable brood with a rod of iron. No member of the family was allowed to forget the respect due to the matriarch, no matter how exalted his position. A story is told (probably apocryphal) of how Napoleon held out his hand for his mother to kiss shortly after his coronation. One version states that the spritely old dame actually slapped his face; another (less probable) that she bit his hand. Whatever the truth of this tale, there is no doubt that Letizia was a power to be reckoned with and remained so to the very end of her life. She died aged eighty-six in 1836.
Childhood in Corsica could hardly have been lonely for the future Emperor of the French. The family eventually comprised eight children, besides a further five who died in infancy. Of the five surviving boys, four were in due course to wear crowns: Joseph, the eldest -- rather a frivolous character who took up the duties of head of the family after their father's death in 1785 and who always received a degree of deference from his younger brother -- became first King of Naples (1806) and two years later King of Spain; Louis, the fifth born, was made King of Holland (1806); Jerome, the baby of the family, was crowned King of Westphalia in 1807; and, lastly, Napoleon himself, who for good measure combined in his person the Emperor of the French and King of Italy. Only Lucien, the child born next after Napoleon, never received a throne -- but this was not through lack of opportunity or invitation. Of the three girls, one, Caroline, placed herself in line for a future crown as a Queen-consort when she married Joachim Murat, eventually crowned King of Naples in succession to Joseph. The other two, Elisa (whom Napoleon disliked for her bitter tongue) and Pauline (whom he adored), found dukes and generals for husbands.
Even if this grandeur and social importance still lay far ahead in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Buonaparte ménage in Ajaccio attracted guests of fair importance, perhaps the most significant of them being General de Marboeuf, French governor and military commander of Corsica and a family friend of long standing. Scurrilous gossip has suggested that he was Napoleon's father, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory. Nevertheless, de Marboeuf undoubtedly played an important part in Napoleon's early life by being instrumental in gaining him a place at the school at Brienne in France. It took time to prove that the Buonapartes possessed the necessary four generations of nobility to qualify for entry, but eventually the young Napoleon was notified that a place awaited him. It is interesting to note that education at Brienne was free for most of the students, the state footing the bills, and that Napoleon thus received his first real schooling through the aegis of a kind of welfare state -- albeit one wholly designed for aristocrats. However, local conditions in Corsica had not been particularly favorable so far as education was concerned. Napoleon had learned a little Bible history, and "Uncle Fesch" (later the supremely worldly cardinal) had taught the lad his alphabet. But this was hardly sufficient schooling for an aspirant to the Brienne Academy; and so at the age of nine Napoleon was sent for four-months to attend the College at Autun with his elder brother, Joseph, for some intensive instruction in the French language -- once again owing his entry to the good offices of de Marboeuf, who was the uncle of the current Bishop of Autun.
At the age of nine years Napoleon entered the Royal School of Brienne on April 23, 1779, and stayed there for five and a half years. The school was run on military lines by strict and austere Minim priests but was not specifically an officer-cadet school, although a proportion of the well-born young gentlemen did aspire -- like Napoleon -- to the King's commission. Here he studied French, Latin, mathematics, history and geography. It cannot be said that his days at Brienne were particularly happy. Surrounded by polished and courtly sprigs of the French petite noblesse, the gawky and homespun di Buonaparte was socially out of his depth, and many were the fights and altercations he had with his classmates over his supposedly lowly origins, stumbling French and quaint Corsican accent. Even his teachers tended to mock him, and if it had not been for the solace afforded by the neighboring household of a certain hospitable Madame Lomenie and the cultivation of a small garden patch within the school grounds, La Paille-au-nez (as his comrades dubbed him in mockery of his name and peculiar accent) would have been unhappy indeed.
This isolation bred two particular qualities in Napoleon -- a deep love of books and a fierce patriotic pride in Corsica -- and encouraged a third -- leadership. Of the subjects taught he best liked mathematics and history, and he spent countless hours reading every relevant book he could lay his hands on. His revulsion to the taunts of some of his school companions turned him in upon himself and led him to idolize Paoli, the hero of Corsican independence. He continually dreamed of the day when their joint homeland would be free from the yoke of the foreigner. This fixation was to remain with him until 1793 and was destined to play a detrimental as well as a formative part in his early development. Finally, the persecution he received from certain members of the staff gave the Corsican boy a certain degree of inverse popularity with his own year of students, and he was eventually accepted as their unofficial leader. He was constantly devising games based on the wars of antiquity and earned considerable local fame one hard winter by designing and building an elaborate series of fortifications out of snow, from which he and his gang sallied forth to inflict a definite and not altogether bloodless defeat on the senior term. His practical gifts were fast emerging during these schooldays.
Toward the end of his time at Brienne, Napoleon slowly began to stand out from among his fellows. Bourienne was one of the few friends he made there, and according to his future chief secretary's not over-reliable Memoirs, "Father Patrauld, our mathematical professor, was much attached to Bonaparte and he had great reason to be proud of him as a pupil. The other professors, in whose classes he was not distinguished, took little notice of him." Nevertheless, the royal inspector, M. de Keralio, wrote a generally favorable report in 1783 which provides us with a brief impression of him at this time: "M. de Bonaparte (Napoleon), born August 15, 1769. Height five feet three inches. Constitution: excellent health, docile expression, mild, straight-forward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics. He is fairly well acquainted with history and geography. He is weak in all accomplishments -- drawing, dancing, music and the like. This boy would make an excellent sailor; deserves to be admitted to the school in Paris." The recommendation for a naval career was never carried through, but it is tantalizing to surmise how good a sailor Napoleon might have made.
Passing through the final examinations at Brienne, he announced his choice of the artillery as the arm of the service he wished to join. It was a wise decision. Not only would the artillery service suit his mathematical talents; it was also the one part of the services (apart from the engineers) where talent as opposed to wealth and breeding could earn advancement. Much now depended on his obtaining a cadetship at the École Militaire in Paris -- but in less than a month he received a favorable answer to his application, and on October 30, 1784, he arrived in the French capital. He was now a little over fifteen years old.
L'École Militaire was not at this time particularly distinguished for the attention it paid to the proper preparation of its young aspirants for commissions. Napoleon continued his studies of mathematics, geography and history and added to his attainments a fair knowledge of German, dancing, fencing and fortification, though it appears he did not take up the opportunity for riding instruction. He made a friend in one Des Mazis, and the time seems to have passed pleasantly enough at first. However, in the spring of 1785 his father died, and, besides being a bitter personal loss, this placed a great strain on the already stretched family finances. Joseph and Lucien both abandoned their studies in France and returned to Corsica to help their mother support their brothers and sisters, but Napoleon stayed on in Paris under conditions of real poverty. He read much, ate little and gradually acquired that lean and hungry look which stares out of a dozen portraits painted in the early years of his fame. Perhaps the school authorities deliberately shortened his course to allow him to alleviate his utter destitution with the princely pay of four dollars forty-five a week (1, 120 livres a year), which would be his entitlement as a newly commissioned sous-lieutenant. In any case, in August 1785 Buonaparte was put up for examination and passed out forty-second -- a place of little distinction, though it proved higher than that of his friend Des Mazis, who was fifty-sixth. In due course both young men received orders to report to the La Fère Artillery Regiment, presently stationed at Valence, and accordingly they quitted Paris on October 31, reporting for duty at their unit on the 5th November. It is interesting to note that they finished the journey on foot after enjoying a costly if entertaining dissipation at Lyons; newly commissioned officers are the same the world over, heedless of generation.
The French army was not at the peak of its efficiency in the years immediately preceding the Revolution, although there was a leavening of talent and significant new ideas in the process of formation amid the dust of decay. A military career was not, however, regarded as the most promising one available -- certainly not for the rank and file -- and every regiment found difficulty in maintaining its recruiting figures. The Régiment de la Fère was no exception to this, and according to the great historian Sloane, Napoleon's original unit was reduced to putting up advertisements appealing for volunteers in the following terms: "Dancing three times a week, rackets twice, and the rest of the time skittles, prisoner's base and drill. Pleasures reign, every man has the highest pay and all are well treated."
Similar blandishments appear on recruiting posters down to the present day, but at least reality has moved a little closer to the printed word in the 180 years since 1785. A young officer without private means or important friends faced a bleak enough prospect: 720 livres of his pay were deducted for board and lodging and this left little over seven dollars a month for everything else -- including, in Buonaparte's case, sending a little financial aid to his mother and family. Nor were promotion prospects exactly alluring. He could expect to serve fifteen years as a lieutenant, as many more as a captain, if he was lucky secure a majority at the end of his service, and then retire in his early fifties with a decoration and the penury of half pay for the rest of his life.
Nevertheless, Buonaparte threw himself with enthusiasm into the task of learning his new duties. At the time the sensible procedure in the French artillery was to make all newly joined subalterns undergo a three-month probationary period of basic training. Part of this was served as an ordinary gunner, learning the profession from the bottom; part was spent as an acting noncommissioned officer. This experience was very important. He learned how to talk to the men in the ranks and to appreciate the matters they considered to be of importance. Throughout the halcyon days of the Consulate and Empire, and right to the end of his career, Napoleon never lost "the common touch"; he was always able to make himself the idol of the rank and file when he felt so disposed. Part of this knack of man-management was learned in the early months at Valence, as di Buonaparte went through the mill with the rest. But at length the chrysallis period came to an end, and on January 10, 1786, he received the confirmation of his commission.
In all, nine months were spent at Valence. It was generally a pleasant, if impecunious, time. The idea that Lieutenant di Buonaparte was a solitary, withdrawn character is erroneous. There is evidence that he entered fully into the social life of the garrison town, such as it was, taking dancing lessons, attending balls and routs with a fair degree of gusto. If he saw comparatively little of his brother officers at this time, this was due to the fact that they all habitually scattered in pursuit of their various pleasures. However, there are indications that homesickness for Corsica -- still very much his spiritual home -- caused him to go through a period of acute melancholy. Peacetime garrison life held little excitement for the serious-minded young officer, but in August 1786 he was sent with his company to help quell a local disturbance at Lyons occasioned by an unpopular wine tax. Then his regiment was ordered to quit Valence and march to Douai (in the normal course of unit rotation), and from October 1786 to February 1787 di Buonaparte continued his professional and private studies under the darker northern skies.
Then at last the appointed time for his first leave came around. On February 1, 1787, he set out for Corsica, and after a quick journey by way of Marseilles he at last set foot in Ajaccio again after an absence of over eight years. Much of his furlough was spent in trying to sort out his family affairs, but in between visits to lawyers and notaries he continued his reading and began to collect material for a projected history of Corsica. In April, with the end of his leave looming in sight, he wrote to Marshal the Duc de Ségur, Minister of War, begging for an extension of his leave "for five and a half months to date from 16th May next which he needs for the recovery of his health, in accordance with the enclosed certificate of the doctor and surgeon." He went on to ...
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