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Was Napoleon a Great General? Essay

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Napoleon inherited an army which made up for its lack of skills simply through its huge numbers. The Levee �n mass, an early form of conscription, was responsible for this. As soon as Napoleon gained power he began reforming the army. Owing to his large political power he was able to pass laws very easily. However, later on he found that being both General and politician had its drawbacks.

Napoleon’s army was split into divisions. This made supplying easier, as supplies were ordered for a division rather than an army, although the coordination of attacks across divisions was obviously made more difficult.

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Furthermore a corp. system, seemly confusing the matter further, was implemented. It consisted of 3 infantry divisions, 1 cavalry division and 46 guns. One corp. had enough firepower to survive by itself and several could spread out to forage for greater self-sufficiency. Foraging was so successful for Napoleon that in the Prussian and Polish campaigns the armies actually made money for the government.

When these corps were combined they could attack from separate directions cutting supply lines and causing general panic and confusion, as was seen at Austerlitz. Napoleon also favoured this corp. system for his ‘divide and conquer’ tactic. He hoped that by launching attacks at the enemy’s centre he could split their forces, allowing him to proceed to finish off one flank first and then turn on the other. In this way even if Napoleon’s army was outnumbered, each individual advance of Napoleon would outnumber the enemy. The corps. could be successfully manoeuvred and synchronized to surround one enemy flank quickly fulfilling the plan.

Napoleon himself proved to be great battlefield tactician in the wars. There were numerous examples of how he outwitted a force more powerful or experienced than his own. At Aboukir for example his regular force was up against an elite army of Janissaries. Deep in enemy territory in Turkey defeat would have meant capture or death. By screening his cavalry with infantry he thrust forward charge upon charge of cavalry, supported by infantry, into the enemy pushing them back to the coast.

He then ruthlessly finished them off, drowning many as they were forced back into the sea. This also provides a good example of how Napoleon was not satisfied with just winning a battle. He wanted to inflict massive casualties on the enemy to prevent them from regrouping. He did this after Jena Auerstadt as the Prussians lost 3 times as many men in a 200 mile pursuit. A further successful new tactic he used was to use mixed formations of skirmishers, infantry and cavalry, whilst his introduction of new technology into French army, especially artillery, give Napoleon every chance of winning battles.

Due to all these factors the French army gained territory after territory – it seemed unstoppable. Then Napoleon ended a truce to declare war on Russia. From the size of the French and her army it was clear she could not take on the world. What did Napoleon hope to gain from this next endeavour? French land had tripled, was it true Napoleon had neither aims nor limits to his conquest. This failure of any realistic objectives ultimately led to his defeat and was a grave failing as a general.

The Russians refused to stand and fight and give Napoleon the victory he so wanted. Instead they retreated 400 miles from the frontier. Crippled by cold, fever and exhaustion the few soldiers who reached Moscow retreated, partly through fear of being cut off but also because when they saw Moscow in flames (set alight by the Russians to prevent it falling into French hands). This campaign was not just a loss but a disaster. The hundreds of thousands of men now dead had been drawn from the Spanish campaign. Napoleon’s failure to secure the Spanish front before opening another front, achievable with his overwhelming numbers, cost him dearly.

Subsequently, at the Battle of Leipzig, some of Napoleon’s faults were further revealed. As the battle commenced Napoleon saw the allied guns being pushed up to the front, previously his tactic, and exclaimed “At last they have learned something”. This was to set the tone for the rest of the war. After suffering a string of defeats at the hands of Napoleon the opposing generals began to recognise the same tactics were being used time and time again – Napoleon had become predictable. Some of these tactics were therefore copied, such as mixed formation, whilst others combated, e.g. Wellington’s use of reverse slopes and cavalry screening to stop Napoleons mass central infantry advance at Waterloo. Leipzig offered few terrain advantage for Napoleon and the battle turned into a long slog, eventually won by the allies because of superior numbers. It was Napoleon’s turn to flee, with Allies in hot pursuit.

Another flaw in Napoleon’s armoury was his failure to appoint or retain skilled subordinates. Ney for example lacked Napoleon’s grasp of battlefield tactics and failed Napoleon at Waterloo. Another example is after Leipzig when Napoleon left a Colonel in charge of blowing a bridge to stop the Allied pursuit. The irresponsible Colonel left his post to a corporal who blew the bridge too soon condemning 20,000 French soldiers to death or capture.

Napoleon’s early successes were due in part to the failings of the Allied generals. However after Napoleon’s resource draining “Spanish ulcer” it became clear Napoleon had a capable and competent adversary, Wellington. At Waterloo, Wellington used a combination of old text book manoeuvres mixed with the new tactics to successfully defeat Napoleon. The famous use of reverse slopes mixed with infantry squares against cavalry and screening of his own cavalry made Wellington the master of defence. Napoleon failed to break the solid defence and as his orders became more erratic, thrusting unsupported cavalry or infantry assaults to break upon the allied line, he lost the battle when Prussian reinforcements sweep into his right flank.

In conclusion, Napoleon was certainly a great battlefield tactician. Examples of his genius could be seen at Aboukir, where he used the sea as his ally, or later when he won decisive victories such as at Jena Auerstadt and Austerlitz where, in hilly country, he could feint, wheel, surprise and outflank. But gradually his tactics became predictable and when battles were forced onto flat plains (Leipzig) or attacking uphill (Waterloo) every movement could be seen and so his advantages were lost.

More importantly, Napoleon’s ability to handle the more strategic aspects of the war, as opposed to deploying his troops on the specific battlefield, was sometimes suspect. Although he tried not to open up more than one front at a time or fight a large coalition of allied countries, he can be criticised for being drawn into an attack on Russia before Spain’s resistance had been completely silenced – his superiority in numbers was significantly weakened as a consequence. Maybe Napoleon’s true flaw was that he lacked any real aims in prosecuting the war – as he opened up new fronts with no apparent limit he simply increased the numbers of enemies determined to defeat France.

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