Thursday, 10 September 2015

Napoleon's Maxims - IV, Marches of an Army

"When the conquest of a country is undertaken by two or three armies, which have each their separate line of operation until they arrive at a point fixed upon for their concentration, it should be laid down as a principle, that the junction should never take place near the enemy, because the enemy, in uniting his forces, may not only prevent it, but beat the armies in detail."

The first point that came to mind when I read this was another of Napoleon's maxims "March dispersed, fight concentrated", and in turning the pages to see what Dr Chandler had to say on the matter I was chuffed to see that it was the first point that he highlighted as pertinent to this maxim.

The larger armies became, and the Napoleonic era saw armies massed on a much larger scale than in previous centuries, the greater the need for those armies to sub-divide to free up road space to allow units and support forces to manoeuvre across a country, without  causing them to be so strung out that the tail would be so far behind the head, and the lead units totally starved of supplies due to the roads in their rear being clogged up with follow up forces.

Napoleon's "Battalion Carre" or battalion square with four corps illustrated here and their cavalry screen easily able to change the direction of march with a right wheel, without losing formation.
Napoleon's major contribution to this principle was his development of the Corps d'Armee and the Battalion Carre march principles that enabled all arms formations (the Army Corps) to manoeuvre in support of each other (normally about a days march) and be able to fight and pin a much larger enemy as supporting corps joined it in battle. The formation also allowed the ease of changing direction without losing mutual support should an enemy be discovered in an unexpected area. This box formation allowed the separate lines of communication without becoming too dispersed.

The point Napoleon makes about the junction of forces and the proximity of the enemy preventing or interfering with that concentration is classically illustrated at Ligny, a battlefield I visited earlier this year.

The battle saw a race between both sides to get enough troops into position before the battle commenced. Napoleon had to delay the start of the action until 2.30pm to allow time to bring up Gerard's and the Guard Corp to join Vandamme. He just managed to beat Blucher to the punch who had Zeithen's I Corps in St Armand and Pirch's II Corps in Ligny but was only joined by Thielemann's III Corps at 3pm on his left flank and with Bulow's IV Corps unable to reach the battle in time. The late concentration of the Prussian troops forced Blucher to feed his men into the battle piecemeal and only the late start and close terrain together with the tenacity of the Prussian soldiers managed to allow him to hold until nightfall and this coupled with a tardy French pursuit allowed the Prussians to fight another day.

This aspect of the grand manoeuvre is probably one of the key aspects that attracted me to Napoleonic warfare. The combination of all arms capability without any one arm being dominant over the other two, together with this art of manoeuvre that requires obtaining knowledge of the enemy's position and preparation to bring ones own forces together at the right time in the right place. Above all other horse and musket periods  I think Napoleonics gives the best game featuring these aspects and I think the dream of most Napoleonic gamers is to play a campaign that recreates and captures these aspects.

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