The birth of modern warfare
They were mostly of humble origins and had risen quickly through the ranks to command armies before they crossed the age of thirty. These were the less remarkable facts about Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals and marshals—and they did not owe their rise to him. Napoleon himself was only twenty-six when he received a multiple promotion from the rank of major straight to the rank of brigadier-general! And ironically, unlike most of his marshals, Napoleon owed his early military education to the title of nobility that his father had purchased from King Louis XVI. It was the fall of this King that had actually created the conditions for the rapid military promotions of Napoleon and his marshals.
The country with such unusual contradictions was France in the late 18th Century. Formerly known as the Roman province of Gaul, this land had come under the Germanic tribe of the Franks at the fall of the Roman Empire. The greatest of the Frankish Kings was Charlemagne but his empire soon passed—the Germanic tribe left behind its name for the country, for its inhabitants, and for their language.
The mixed Roman-Gaul-Frankish nobility parceled the country into estates and baronies and carried their lances and swords in the service of their King. They held sway over France as long as heavy cavalry decided the outcome of every encounter on the field of battle—but then came the steady rise of artillery and infantry paralleled by a growing middle-class population in the cities. The armies came to be dominated by commoners but were still commanded by the nobility. The Kings of France retired to a large palace-city on the outskirts of Paris, where they patronized the arts and indulged in frivolous acts along with the nobility.
The people, i.e. the new middle-class with its lawyers, businessmen, writers, poets, and philosophers, demanded a greater share in government. Their startling new ideas spread among the lower clergy of the Church, among the army, and among the peasantry—over a period of three years from 1789-92 the middle-class achieved a revolution and became the real rulers of France.
The members of the ancien regime were imprisoned, guillotined, and deprived of their ranks and privileges. Many of them escaped to neighboring countries and sought military intervention in France from their hosts. Even after the revolution, and the resulting economic regression and the upturning in the military command structure, France was still the strongest, and the most populous, country in Western Europe.
As the Holy Roman Empire of Austria and the Teutonic Kingdom of Prussia invaded France, the revolutionaries executed their King and Queen. The French army was a motley crew of professional soldiers, middle-class civilians, some patriotic nobles, and peasants—in the Battle of Valmy this army withstood an attack by the Prussian army and forced them to retire. Subsequently other French armies, propelled forward by the desperate valor and spirit of their republican soldiers, won victories in the lowlands of northern Europe.
In these battles the first marshals of Napoleon came into prominence. Present at the crucial battle of Valmy were General Kellerman and Captain Ney; in the campaigning along the Rhine were Bernadotte, Augereau, Macdonald, St Cyr, and Soult—the last named would go on to become only one of four Marshal-Generals of France. In this same period emerged Alexander Berthier who was chief-of-staff to a succession of revolutionary generals until he attached himself to the youthful Napoleon and served him in that capacity till 1814.
These battles introduced a revolutionary concept of warfare—namely the formation of infantry columns to take the war to the enemy. Up to this time the attack by a long line of infantry had been the standard of European warfare. The raw French armies did not have soldiers disciplined enough to carry out such elaborate marching and maneuvers—a compact column of infantry was easier to handle on the battle-field than mixed lines of soldiers, peasants, and urban volunteers.
Further south in 1794, at the port of Toulon, a Major Bonaparte managed his artillery well to win a victory over the English. Some of his comrades at this skirmish—Marmont of the artillery and Victor of the infantry—would also go on to become marshals.
A year later Brigadier-General Bonaparte used the artillery of the National Guard to suppress a dangerous mob of royalist sympathizers. The cavalry captain who brought this artillery in time was Murat who would eventually become marshal and marry Napoleon’s sister. For this timely service Napoleon was promoted to full general and was sent to command the French Army in the peninsula of Italy.
Napoleon’s campaign in Italy utilized the column formation of the revolutionary battles, and the fiery spirit of the soldiers of that revolution, to make lightning marches on the enemy. This was a major change from the earlier wars where a rigid discipline and an aristocratic hierarchy ruled the course of any military campaign. Napoleon also introduced the continuing marching immediately after a victorious battle to chase the fleeing enemy, to systematically seize his towns and forts, and thus crush all armed opposition in a single campaign.
Many of the future marshals, in particular Massena, Bessieres and Lannes, came into prominence in this remarkable campaign that went through the Italian principalities and closed on the doorstep of the Austrian capital.
With these victories only Great Britain, the one power that “ruled the waves” was left. General Napoleon decided to strike that power in Egypt, hoping to cut them off from their Indian possessions, and perhaps marching his soldiers across a friendly Iran into India itself! In the battles against the Mamlukes of Egypt and the Ottoman Turks another future marshal came into prominence. Brigadier Davout was an aristocrat who had joined the revolution and had been involved in the campaigning along the Rhine—after becoming marshal he alone came closest to replicating Napoleon’s military skill.
While General Bonaparte was far away in Egypt the Austrians, now allied with Russia, again declared war on France. In their path stood General Massena, commanding the French army in Switzerland, and blocking their path into France. Holding his ground for several months Massena skillfully defeated the advancing enemy formations before they could join forces to crush him. Several junior officers who later became marshals were fighting alongside Massena—apart from Ney, and Soult there were Suchet and Massena's chief-of-staff Oudinot.
Napoleon’s prestige was undiminished by the unsuccessful but bold strike on Egypt and on his return to France the young general was persuaded to take part in a coup against the corrupt government. The new government was a semi-dictatorship with Bonaparte emerging as the First Consul and marching his army over the Alps to defeat the Austrians once again at the Battle of Marengo.
Back in Paris a group of republican generals and politicians vainly attempted a counter-coup against Napoleon who had signed a concordat with the Catholic Church on behalf of his country and had once again legitimized the holding of land-titles. But Napoleon had a sense of history and it was with history in mind that he crowned himself Emperor and anointed his leading generals with the royalist title of marshal.
In the meantime Britain, Austria, and Russia had formed the Third Coalition against France. Napoleon organized the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean in northern France to cross over the English Channel—this was the first time that the independent armed formation of the corps emerged into military parlance. The seven corps that comprised this army were self-sustaining units that could operate in independent campaigns under their generals. But England was still supreme at sea and when the attempt of a French admiral to lure them away into the Atlantic failed, Napoleon immediately marched off this army, now titled the Grande Armee, against the Austrians and the Russians.
At Ulm the Austrian army was surrounded and forced to surrender after a minor skirmish but the destruction of the French and Spanish naval fleets at Trafalgar by Lord Nelson, gave renewed confidence to the allies. Unfortunately at the Battle of Austerlitz the Emperors of Austria and Russia were defeated, the Holy Roman Empire of the former was finally abolished, and a confederation of German states along the River Rhine was created to serve as a permanent check on Austria.
Within a year Prussia had declared war on Imperial France. The Grande Armee, resting in the Rhine confederation marched to war with blistering pace, their advance screened by a large cloud of cavalry. At Jena Napoleon defeated the Prussian army but unknown to him the King of Prussia and his commander had already slipped away with the bulk of their forces. Marshal Davout, who had been assigned the task of mopping up the fleeing enemy, instead met an organized enemy force twice his own strength at Auerstadt and with remarkable skill and tenacity defeated them. In the unceasing campaign style introduced by Napoleon no rest was given to the numerous corps of the army, which mopped up the important towns and forts of Prussia in lightning marches and swiftly ended Prussian resistance.
Napoleon, the keen student of history, symbolically removed the sword of the Prussian King Frederick from his tomb. And it was with history in mind that he had assigned numerous dukedoms and principalities to the republican generals and ministers—but now, in the manner of the ancient Frankish Kings, he assigned aristocratic titles based on the victories gained on a particular field of battle. Marshal Davout was henceforth entitled Duke of Auerstadt.
At this time far in the south trouble broke out in Spain, which even though a Bourbon Kingdom, was ostensibly allied with France. But reports came in of intrigue by some of the Spanish ministers and Napoleon immediately dispatched an army—not against Spain but against Portugal, which was an English ally. On this pretext other armies poured into Spain.
But these were mostly semi-trained troops led by the older republican generals—the main army under Napoleon was fighting the Russians hundreds of miles away in the east. From their base in Poland the Grande Armee had entered the Russian plains in mid-winter and during a raging snowstorm at Eylau had met its first check at the hands of an enemy. Napoleon withdrew into eastern Prussia and called up more reinforcements while dispatching an army to take the strategic city of Danzig. Several months after Eylau the French invaded Russia and defeated the enemy at the Battle of Friedland in June 1808.
However towards the end of that same year the inferior French armies in Spain had been defeated by the patriotism and heroism of the Spaniards. Many of the conquered cities and forts were lost, and to cap it all the English landed in Portugal to assist their ally. Napoleon entered Spain with his veterans from the east and defeated the Spanish armies and recaptured Madrid. The task of repulsing the English back to the sea and recapturing Portugal was left to his marshals and Napoleon returned to France in 1809. But the war in this peninsula never ended—the early victories over the French had filled the Spaniards with the wildest confidence and the best efforts of Ney Soult, Lannes, and Augereau were in vain.
The early defeats in Spain had inspired the Austrians to mobilize once again against Napoleon. The first encounters at Eckmuhl won the French the road to the Austrian capital but at the Battle of Aspern-Essling the Archduke Charles repulsed the forces of Napoleon—and Marshal Lannes too fell in this encounter. But as in Russia Napoleon held his ground and called up reinforcements—a month later at the Battle of Wagram the Austrians were vanquished. It was at Wagram that Napoleon used a grand battery of 100 guns to deliver concentrated fire on the advancing Austrians—another military innovation that became a part of modern warfare.
The continuing war in Spain, the creation of new marshals like Poniatowski the Polish prince and the Marquis d’ Grouchy , the invasion of Russia and the terrible retreat, and the climatic Battle of Leipzig are best described in the book Napoleon and his Marshals by AG Macdonell.
Written in such simple language, peppered with humor and sarcasm, and so lively to read that it is surprising to learn how long back it was first published—in 1934! The reader will not find the dreary details of all the battles and campaigns but a superb overview and some intriguing facts that are not covered in conventional history books. The idiosyncrasies of the marshals, their passions and jealousies, and the important role they played in the birth of modern warfare are topics covered in this book.
The personal incidents of each marshal’s life, and the incidents of Napoleon’s life as well, are so vividly painted in Napoleon and his Marshals that it reads like a movie screenplay rather than a book on military history.
Monday, March 20, 2006
The birth of modern warfare