‘Napoleonic’ Warfare – Its Strategy and Tactics
Napoleon’s mastery of Europe’s battlefields was ended for the second—and final—time when he lost the Battle of Waterloo. Although that battle was the end of Napoleon as Emperor of France, it was not yet the end of “Napoleonic warfare.” In one form or another, the form of combat that borrowed Napoleon’s name hung around until at least the American Civil War (unfortunately, often with disastrous consequences as firearms technology had, by the mid-nineteenth century, made much of the tactics—although not the strategy—of Napoleonic warfare obsolete). Yet, what exactly was “Napoleonic warfare”? Briefly, here are the strategy and tactics of Napoleon’s way of war.
Strategy of Napoleonic Warfare: An examination of Napoleon’s campaigns shows that his strategy was, above all, characterized by offensive action preceded by thorough planning. The majority of Napoleon’s campaigns began, not on the field of battle, but in the library, where he collected all the information he could on his potential enemy and studied every aspect of his opponent’s country, history and military forces. The information was supplemented by reports from legions of well-placed spies who supplied the latest data on Napoleon’s intended target. Only when he thought that he was thoroughly prepared did he set his own forces in motion seeking offensive action. Once in motion, Napoleon’s approach marches demonstrated speed, mobility and flexibility (largely due to his creation of the corps organization) that his opponents were usually incapable of matching. By always employing an outstanding degree of security, his forces consistently confounded and confused his enemies as to his true strength, precise location and intended point of attack. Finally, his actions often produced a numerical advantage for French forces when his speed and flexibility allowed for a rapid concentration for battle at the critical point. Napoleonic warfare strategy, as practiced by the man who invented it, usually resulted in the French Emperor being able to make a more effective use of time and space than his opponents did.
Tactics of Napoleonic Warfare: Napoleon’s tactics once his forces met the enemy on the battlefield were, essentially, his own application of several innovations created by his predecessors that began after the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, Jean du Teil and the Comte de Guibert were all instrumental in developing technical improvements, tactical mobility and organizational changes during the three decades preceding Napoleon’s arrival on the battlefield in the 1790s. Guibert’s development of the division organization permitted a greater concentration of the improvements in firepower and mobility (chiefly the creation of more mobile, highly lethal field artillery cannon) that were pioneered by Gribeauval and du Teil.
Two tactical formations predominated: the line formation which allowed a concentration of overwhelming firepower (especially artillery) at the critical point of attack; and the column formation, a powerful, densely-packed concentration of troops in great depth along a narrow frontage that could break through an enemy line, often at the point where massed, mobile field guns had already blasted a gap. Typically, a cloud of lightly-armed skirmishers preceded both formations to “soften-up” enemy formations with carefully-aimed rifle fire.
FRENCH CAVALRY VERSUS BRITISH SQUARES
It is a fearsome thing for foot soldiers to see horsemen riding down on them. During the Napoleonic Wars, French cavalry greatly improved under Napoleon who sought in them a mighty striking force, capable of breaking through an enemy disposition.
While the thin red line of British infantry was formidable against frontal attacks, its flanks and rear were vulnerable to cavalry charges. For defense, infantry formed hollow squares with three or four ranks on each side. The first rank knelt with rifle or musket but on the ground and bayonet pointed outward. The next and succeeding ranks stood with bayonets pointed outward in position to fire, creating a hedge of steel. Infantry squares allowed cavalry to approach 100–125 yards before firing. The tightly packed hollow squares bristling with bayonets gave the infantry a better chance of surviving the charge.
Since horses are unwilling impale themselves on bayonets, cavalry had several tactical approaches to breaking an infantry square formation. The best way to break up squares was horse artillery. However, these units could be vulnerable to counterattacking cavalry and infantry sharpshooters. Cavalry could attack in echelons against a corner of the square in case the defending ranks emptied their muskets.
In the raw tactics of a brutal battle, cavalry could charge the square with great impetus. A fast moving horse when hit severely took nearly 15 yards to fall down and tumble, and it could roll into infantry on a square side creating a gap through which following horsemen could gain access to the unoccupied center.
Pivotal tactical swings in warfare through the ages have often been when infantry learns to stand against mobile forces. By the Battle of Waterloo, disciplined infantry could consistently hold against cavalry charges unsupported by infantry and artillery. With increasing firepower over the ages, infantry dominated battlefields until the armored warfare of World War II.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, HISTORYNET Editor at Large