Thursday, 20 August 2015

Napoleon's Maxims - I, Frontiers

"What then is a maxim? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the term as coming from the Latin adjective maxima, "greatest": A general truth drawn from science or experience; principle, rule of conduct."
Dr David Chandler

Amongst other reading I am currently browsing through Dr David Chandler's "The Military Maxim's of Napoleon".

These gathered thoughts of the great man, complied by an unknown author, make fascinating reading for the Napoleonic enthusiast as much for the insight they give into the thinking of of one of the great captains of history. However, the forward written by Chandler makes clear that there is a danger of misunderstanding the meanings of these ideas, given the constraints of Napoleon's use of French and all its peculiarities of grammar with him being a Corsican and not a native speaker. The appropriate emphasis on a particular word or its precise meaning can mislead as much as inform.

In addition these maxims were not compiled by Napoleon, but taken from his writings and thus subject to contradictions, one to another, together with a lack of context. Napoleon was not a commander who used maxims to decide his conduct in one campaign or battle to another, rather he was more of an intuitive commander with a sound understanding of military principles and a thorough mathematical logic that underpinned his manoeuvres. Thus he did not write down his principles for his marshals, only tending to outline what he expected them to do from one situation to another. The letters sent to his step son, Prince Eugene, commanding on the Hungarian front against Archduke John during the 1809 campaign are an excellent illustration of his tutorial in military principles and likewise provide a window on the thinking of the man.

Prince Eugene at War 1809 by Robert M Epstein is a excellent read covering this period and the letters of instruction from Napoleon.

David Chandler illustrates the hazards of attempts by later military commanders to applying literally these ideas to later eras. This does not mean that the maxims are invalid with the advance of time and technology, more that they need to be considered in the context of the times they were written and considered taking into account the changes in capability that now apply that was not possible then.

The Napoleonic wargamer is not so constrained as we are trying to simulate the issues faced by commanders of the era and so it is a fun exercise to consider the application of these thoughts to our games and campaigns and look at the history of the Napoleonic wars and think of the occasions where these ideas applied or were miss-applied.

So I thought it might be fun to occasionally drop in a post on a Napoleon Maxim with some comment and an opportunity for discussion on its application from a wargamers slant. As these posts develop they will build into the collection of maxims with mine and hopefully your comments that will make an interesting reference for other gamers to browse and consider.

To get the ball rolling I present "Maxim I"  themed under Chandler's listing, "Frontiers".

The Frontiers of states are either large rivers, or chains of mountains, or deserts. Of all these obstacles to the march of an army, the most difficult to overcome is the desert; mountains come next, and large rivers occupy the third place.

My thoughts were that when reading how the Emperor directed his forces in the Peninsular War, very often dictating orders and grand strategy from Paris, Vienna and Moscow it seems to me that some of his marshals may have smiled reading this thought from their leader and mumbled to themselves "tell me about it!"

After deserts, of which you might include the vast sierras of Spain or vast open spaces in Russia, devoid of people and very often food stuffs when previously marched over, Napoleon lists the mountains of which Spain and Portugal in particular boasts multiple ranges splitting the country up with valleys occupied by mighty rivers swollen by seasonal rains and snow melt. The ideal country to defend against his legions.

Any Peninsular War campaign worth the name has to take these concepts into account when presenting challenges to the wargamer and Napoleon's pronouncement should be ringing in the ears as your troops have to deal with the depredations of guerillas or pesky Spanish armies regrouping to strike again from their mountain strongholds.

Not to just limit this idea to a Napoleonic theme, this categorising of terrain constraints would have been familiar to the ancients. One only has to think of the struggles the Romans had with the Parthian and latter Sassanid empires to see the truth in deserts and mountains being such a formidable barrier to invading forces. The latter campaigns of the Crusaders would again highlight these constraints and one only has to consider the build up of logistic support in the Gulf War of more recent times to appreciate the difficulty modern armies face when operating over these types of predominating terrain.

The current focus of this blog is the Talavera campaign and part of my current work has been to look at the history of the veteran French regiments that made up Victor's I Corps that spearheaded Napoleon's re-invasion in November 1808. A common theme has been to look at the plans made by Napoleon for the corps in its attempt to surround and destroy Blake's Spanish army south of Bilbao and then redirecting his forces at Madrid as the Spanish Army of the Centre was pushed aside.

Napoleon's maxim clearly illustrates the constraints placed on his campaign by the terrain on the frontier between France and Spain. Again and again his forces failed to surround and destroy the almost immobile Spanish army groups as they were able to disperse and escape his cavalry in the surrounding mountains, only to regroup later. The drive on Madrid was opposed by a scratch force of Spanish troops in the Somosierra Pass and to some extent Spain's mountainous terrain helped Sir John Moore evade Napoleon's clutches as he pulled the pursuing French forces off to the Galician coast.

It could be argued that the final decider on the complete success of Napoleon's re-invasion in 1808 was the Spanish terrain and that perhaps only Napoleon could have achieved the level of success that was achieved given those constraints.


  1. Interesting thoughts JJ, especially the often-raised question as to whether the French may have prevailed had Napoleon not left Spain and concentrated on that theatre instead.

    I'm not so sure, for the simple reason that I think Wellington would have frustrated him until he left the it in the hands of his marshals anyway. I know the first time I read the history of the Peninsular war I became frustrated myself that at the end of every campaign season Wellington gave up all the ground he had won and simply retreated back along his lines of supply into Portugal.

    Napoleon on the other hand, to my mind at least and up until 1813, seemed to have a predilection for a deciding set-piece grand encounter, towards which the Austrians, Prussians and even the Russians up until Borodino were happy to oblige. Which may also be behind the reason he didn't threaten the British supply lines during the 100 days as opposed to taking them front-on at Waterloo, as the former must surely have forced a retreat by Wellington toward the coast for political and supply reason, which must consequently have underscored Gneisenau's reservations about the renewed alliance and therefore have forced Blucher to have retreated along their supply line as well.

    It is much easier to conjecture like this in hindsight, but the thing that attracts me most to Napoleonic wargaming are all these "what-ifs", and your excellent blog JJ always gets me thinking. Thanks again.

    By the way, my favourite maxim is "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake" (I just hope that it is not apocryphal).

    1. Thanks Lawrence. Yes I agree that Napoleon's continued presence would not necessarily have been the deciding factor. The terrain in the peninsula was what the modern military would describe as a "force multiplier". Wellington recognised this fact as he also recognised Napoleon as a similar force multiplier, once saying his hat was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield.

      The problem for the French was that their forces only achieved a maximum of about 360,000 men, and they were only able to sustain that for a relatively short period of time, due to other requirements for their presence in the rest of the Empire.

      Wellington estimated he could hold Portugal against 100,000 French, and Massena was only able to gather 70,000 troops.

      In a nutshell, the terrain, plus the presence of allied troops, together with a growing menace of guerilla forces ramped up the requirement for a force of nearly 500,000 men to take and hold key areas whilst leaving enough men available to conduct offensive warfare. This could have been done if Napoleon was able to avoid action in other parts of his Empire during the subjugation, but the British were quite adept at fermenting trouble abroad that never allowed him to get that respite.

      Wouldn't it be great to be able to get an opinion from Napoleon?