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To what extent was the strength of the French army the main reason for Napoleon’s military success until 1808?
Throughout Napoleon’s early reign until 1808, it is undisputed that the French army enjoyed an unprecedented amount of success on the battlefield in its numerous campaigns against its foes. It is therefore astounding that following 1808, its successes start to dwindle to the point of Napoleon’s ultimate demise in 1815. Consequently, many historians have disputed the true nature of Napoleon’s early military successes. In order to evaluate this debate, one must assess three key factors: the strength of the French army, the weakness of the opposition and Napoleon’s ability as a commander.
It is clear that the inherited strength of the French army played a decisive role in Napoleon’s military success until 1808. As David Chandler quotes, ‘the weapon was ready forged’. The levees and levees en masse of the preceding revolutionary governments had introduced thousands of new conscripts into the army which meant, in terms of sheer numbers, Napoleon had the command of a vast, unstoppable force which was practically unrivalled on continental Europe until 1813. In addition, the expanding population of France and her empire meant the prospect of an indefinite amount of men. Napoleon himself stated, ‘I can afford to lose 30,000 men a month’. This meant that Napoleon could effectively win battles simply by overwhelming his opponents. The army inherited by Napoleon also had a democratised officer core, which meant the officers had earned their positions based on their talent and their ability to command, rather than their social standing.
Having capable, competent and reliable officers in the army was undoubtedly very advantageous, as demonstrated at the battle of Jena-Auserstedt where General Davout was able to gain a decisive victory against the Prussian main army despite being outnumbered two to one. The development of divisions and corps in the internal organisation of the army and, furthermore, the development of weapons and tactics was integral to its success. Strategies such as living off the land, which was often used by Napoleon, ensured the army could move rapidly over enemy terrain, as it did not rely on supply lines, and the use of corps meant sections of the army could march closely ahead of each other and provide reinforcements quickly should one encounter an enemy force. Other innovations included the policy of amalgame where recruits were trained ‘on the march’ by veterans.
This meant new troops could be deployed instantly, instead of undergoing months of preliminary training at a barracks, but also developed comradeship among the troops and officers. Many of the soldiers in the French army were deemed ‘citizen soldiers,’ alluding to the fact that they were fighting passionately for their hard earned liberties gained during the revolution. This generally meant there was high morale among the troops. In terms of financing, the state of war set up by the revolutionaries provided limitless spending on the military and many factories were converted to solely supply to army. However, despite these numerous advantages that were introduced prior to Napoleon’s ascension, the state and achievements of the French army in 1799 would suggest that it was Napoleon who successfully implemented these changes. Following on from Chandler’s quote, though the weapon was ready forged, it was Napoleon who successfully wielded it.
The weakness of the opposition must also be considered crucial to Napoleon’s military successes. Throughout his early campaigns, Napoleon made war with almost all the great European powers yet they were unable to defeat him. This attributed to several reasons, most significant of which is the fact that the allies had no uniform command structure within their coalitions until 1813. This was a decisive disadvantage, as commanders from each of the great powers found it difficult to cooperate in battle, and could mean different tactics being deployed by each commander, casting the whole operation to disarray, such as at the battle of Austerlitz. The majority of these allies could also be seen as driven by their own agendas, and therefore fell in and out of coalitions, meaning that they were unreliable to their allies and never quite fully devoted to stopping Napoleon. In fact, there was no formal coalition until 1814, under the treaty of Chaumont.
The allies also had the disadvantage of having to cope with the conflicting pressures of the domestic front versus their foreign policy. Unlike France, the allied nations did not have a limitless budget for war. Napoleon did not share this problem, as he was both the head of state and commander in chief of the army, meaning he could divert money to whichever state sector he wanted, when he wanted. In effect, France’s domestic policy directly supported its foreign policy, as it was fighting to preserve the gains of the revolution. In contrast to the French army, the allies still fought by 18th century tactics, and in reality had undergone little military reform.
Officers were still selected on the basis of social standing rather than ability, which did not ensure competence for commanding troops and there were no ‘citizen soldiers’ among their ranks. This meant the allied soldiers were forced to fight, and had little stake or motivation for it. Within the internal structure of the army, officers were still considered quite separate from the normal foot soldier. This meant there was little sense of unity or sense of loyalty to the commanders, and discipline was only maintained by inhumane punishments such as flogging, causing low morale. It therefore seems clear that if the allies had employed similar tactics to those of the French army, they might have been a bigger match, although one must bear in mind that these armies had been more successful in their retaliation before Napoleon took power, again suggesting that he was the underlying cause for French military success.
Another factor for Napoleon’s success was his leadership and ability. Napoleon was clearly a very valuable part of the French war machine both due to his immense intellectual ability and his astute leadership of men. One of his greatest traits was his ability to motivate and gain unwavering support from his men. Napoleon knew how to win loyalty from his troops and did this through a number of ways. He rewarded soldiers for bravery and commendable conduct through the legion of honour, but also employed humiliating punishments to encourage his men to perform at their best. During the Italian campaign, Napoleon let his troops pillage and plunder the conquered lands and paid them in gold, which again won loyalty. Napoleon’s familiar style with his soldiers was also a great motivational tool.
His brilliant memory for faces and names served him well, and his willingness to share food and converse with his soldiers played a key role in building comradeship and morale. Merely his presence on the battlefield could inspire extraordinary feats from his men. Napoleon also had an astonishing intellectual capacity and was able to process vast amounts of information. This meant he could be in complete control of all decisions, which meant there was little misunderstanding or deviation from orders.
Napoleon also received daily status updates and bulletins from each of his corps, even when on campaigns which he could then use to plan his tactics and determine priorities for supplies etc. effectively. Furthermore, Napoleon was a very gifted strategist and tactician. His innovative ideas were often key to the success of the French army. Tactics such as quick deployment of troops from one area to the next were vital and valuable, as demonstrated at the battle of Ulm, where Napoleon secretly moved the entire Grande Armee from the north western shores of France to face the Austrians at Ulm in a matter of days.
In conclusion, the inherited strength of the French army was surely a fundamental reason for French military success until 1808, although not the most important. Evidently, the state of the army, its new tactics and weaponry could be seen as the basis for France’s military victories but as is demonstrated by its position in 1799, it took Napoleon to realise its true potential. Despite its weaknesses, the alliance of great powers had held off the French army and had it in retreat when Napoleon returned from his Egyptian campaign, showing that the French were also weak without the strong unified leadership Napoleon introduced when he stepped in as first consul.
In seven years, Napoleon had taken France’s conquests from northern Italy and parts of Belgium, to most of continental Europe. Napoleon once quoted ‘in war men are nothing; one man is everything.’ Despite the military developments in the French army such as the democratisation of the officer core, policy of amalgame and levees had been introduced before Napoleon took power, he was the one to exploit them successfully and hence gain military success.