Napoleon and the Operational Art of War

    Considered one of history’s greatest field commanders, Napoleon made significant contributions to the strategic, operational, and tactical art of war.  Napoleon’s ability to integrate previous military thought with new concepts of waging war allowed him to create a Grande Armeé that became the most feared army in Europe.  However, Napoleon’s inability to secure a lasting peace ultimately led to this downfall as other European armies were able in time to absorb his methodologies and eventually defeat his army at Waterloo.  Beyond 1815, Napoleonic warfare had a tremendous influence not only on the American Civil War, but the organization, tactics and fighting methods of armies into the 20th century.  Most of the Confederate and Union generals were well versed in Napoleonic tactics from their training at West Point and the writings of Baron Jomini, and this influence can be seen in how Civil War campaigns and battles were conducted.  Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign and his leadership at Chancellorsville in 1863 offer excellent examples of the Napoleonic operational art.

    Napoleon began his military command career in the middle of a major change in French military doctrine.  The French Revolution had swelled French ranks with a multitude of highly motivated, but comparatively untrained soldiers.  Napoleon quickly realized that traditional European linear battlefield tactics would be ill-suited to these massive new French forces.

    The French forces quickly began developing a more flexible column formation for both the march to the battlefield and the subsequent tactical maneuvers.  Napoleon’s first major contribution to the operational level of war was the brilliant combination of maneuver and combat into a seamless plan to out march and out think his opponents, leaving them off balance as he prepared to attack them on a battlefield of his choosing.  Napoleon’s ability to visualize how a campaign could evolve over time allowed him to devise various courses of action to react to quickly changing tactical circumstances.

    Napoleon also increased both the mobility and combat power of his army by the creation of the first real combined arms divisions and corps in modern Europe.  By combining infantry, cavalry and artillery into corps and placing them under capable commanders, the French were able to disperse their army over a wider area, providing both an operational and logistical advantage over their opponents.  This dispersion allowed Napoleon to conceal the geographic objective of his army and force his opponent to divide their army in order to defend key objectives or bring his army to battle.  In addition, Napoleon was able to reduce his logistical vulnerability by operating with minimal supply lines and not depending on fixed magazines that siphoned off troops to protect them.

    This corps structure also proved its utility by allowing movement to contact by a force large enough to require the enemy to deploy their forces in a general engagement.  If needed, this corps could fight an independent holding or delaying action while Napoleon gathered the army in a coordinated manner.  Once the enemy army was located, the flexibility of the corps to fight independently also enabled two of Napoleon’s major operational advancements.  First was the ability to fight more than one army simultaneously using a strategy of the “central position” or interior lines of approach and the second was the enhancement of the “turning maneuver” where Napoleon outflanked a potentially larger or well dug-in opponent by placing his army astride their lines of supply and communications.  This concept of isolating and defeating his opponents in detail allowed Napoleon to not only choose favorable ground for battle, but provided time to gather his dispersed forces and achieve local tactical superiority at the critical moment of battle.

In addition to dispersing his corps on the march, Napoleon could use his superior cavalry forces to screen his movements and keep his opponents confused on his strength, route of march and objective.

To be continued........

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