Napoleon As a Military Commander

nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
4,843
Ohio, USA
You can break it down if you want, but Napoleon was up against a coalition that greatly outnumbered him over all.

I bring up Moltke, because it seems that the overwhelming majority of generals that studied Napoleons campaigns had great respect for his abilities both in his time and long after his death. This certainly seems to be a tad revisionist. The facts remain that it took 4 coalitions to dislodge him and a 5th to finish him for good. He fought more battles than Alexander or Caesar and he generally came out successful, winning battles as late as 1815. Even in defeat, he often gave better than he got like at Leipzig and La Rothiere.
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nuclearguy165

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
4,843
Ohio, USA
You can break it down if you want, but Napoleon was up against a coalition that greatly outnumbered him over all.

I bring up Moltke, because it seems that the overwhelming majority of generals that studied Napoleons campaigns had great respect for his abilities both in his time and long after his death. This certainly seems to be a tad revisionist. The facts remain that it took 4 coalitions to dislodge him and a 5th to finish him for good. He fought more battles than Alexander or Caesar and he generally came out successful, winning battles as late as 1815. Even in defeat, he often gave better than he got like at Leipzig and La Rothiere.
Not revisionist enough to lower my overall great respect overall for Napoleon as a military commander. Again, he was among the best of all time just as he has generally been considered for a long time. What you see as revisionist I see as simply approaching the conflicts from slightly different perspectives and with a few alternative considerations in mind, as well as digesting traditionalist Napoleonic propaganda with a healthy degree of skepticism.

Casualties were fairly even at La Rothiere, with about 6,000 for Napoleon and maybe 6,500 at most for the Russians and Prussians, though clearly a higher percentage of casualties overall for Napoleon, plus the loss of 73 artillery pieces. By comparison, the Coalition lost 62 during the Six Days. As for Leipzig, that depends on how many were really lost during the bridge incident, with estimates ranging between 15-30,000. If you take the low figure, then they were even. With the high figure, Napoleon suffered more. Without regard for the bridge incident, then yes, the Coalition suffered more purely combat casualties because of Schwarzenberg's mistakes, Bernadotte's tardiness and Napoleon's strong defensive position, even though it was the kind of fighting that was very unusual for someone like him, who was typically very offensive. Napoleon also benefitted from a unified command structure whereas the circuitous Coalition armies did not.
 

Lee-Sensei

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Aug 2012
2,122
Not revisionist enough to lower my overall great respect overall for Napoleon as a military commander. Again, he was among the best of all time just as he has generally been considered for a long time. What you see as revisionist I see as simply approaching the conflicts from slightly different perspectives and with a few alternative considerations in mind, as well as digesting traditionalist Napoleonic propaganda with a healthy degree of skepticism.

Casualties were fairly even at La Rothiere, with about 6,000 for Napoleon and maybe 6,500 at most for the Russians and Prussians, though clearly a higher percentage of casualties overall for Napoleon, plus the loss of 73 artillery pieces. By comparison, the Coalition lost 62 during the Six Days. As for Leipzig, that depends on how many were really lost during the bridge incident, with estimates ranging between 15-30,000. If you take the low figure, then they were even. With the high figure, Napoleon suffered more. Without regard for the bridge incident, then yes, the Coalition suffered more purely combat casualties because of Schwarzenberg's mistakes, Bernadotte's tardiness and Napoleon's strong defensive position, even though it was the kind of fighting that was very unusual for someone like him, who was typically very offensive. Napoleon also benefitted from a unified command structure whereas the circuitous Coalition armies did not.
1) You forgot to take into account the fact that he was outnumbered over 2 to one at La Rothiere.

2) If you’re not trying to downplay his generalship, I apologize. It just looks like a lot of people are.
 

pugsville

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Oct 2010
9,760
More men than any individual countries army? Perhaps. More men than the coalitions he was facing? That seems very unlikely.
Why is it unlikely?

France was the most populous country in Europe, before it expanded it's borders, and then threre is the Imperial Client states and Allies. France had a army based on widespread conscription and was able to extract heavy contributions of men and money form occupied regions.

The Various Coalitions did not include all powers at all times. France had a larger army than any two other major powers combined, and it had large amount of client states and allies, It's only in 1813 that there is pretty inclusive coliation.

1800,1805,1806,1807,1809,1812 The French had more troops deployed into actual active theaters of war, and may well have had more troops overall. Austria, Purssia, and Russia (the major european land powers) only faced Napoleon united in 1813.

All teh major powers had various limitations of their army and their ability to deploy large amies in central Europe,

Britain only maintained a small army with Global commitment
Prussia a relative small state,
Austria struggled to pay for gher army.
The Russian Army started a long way from central Europe and projecting force was diffacull,
 
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pugsville

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Oct 2010
9,760
1) You forgot to take into account the fact that he was outnumbered over 2 to one at La Rothiere.
Napoleon outnumbered the Allies at Luastzen and bautzen 2:1 (in the acutal battle and troops in the theater of opertaions) but suffered about twice as many casaluities,


2) If you’re not trying to downplay his generalship, I apologize. It just looks like a lot of people are.
Napoleon was a military genius , but along with Great Strengths he had large flaws and limitations, and may people have exaggerated his career, and few hold up his record for critical examination. I think's he one of teh outsanding Generals of the period, exactly how you rate the top few depends on what qualities you favor. I don't tthink he;'s head and shoulders above all comers others have claims, , and not even a shoe in for best. None of the otehrs commmitted the outright blunders and mistakes that Napoleon did. None oversaw such an Epic failure as 1812. How much wieght you give to stengtsh versus weakness is pretty subjective. Say Napoleon is 2790 in the General rating before 1812 what is he afterwards?

He won most of his battles when fighting markedly inferior opponents , armies that poor doctrine, poor organization, poor leadership often poorly lead and often outnumbered to boot. Now for some of thoise tings Napoleon deserves credit, his organization and strategic grasp of operational implication of the division/corps system put him ahead. His quick strategic action often lead to superior numbers in the main opertaional theater and his operational maneuvers to suproir numbers on the battlefield on occasion. But sometimes coalition armies were often at disadvantage in numbers as well, the proposition that Napoleon was always outnumbered does not hold up to examination. Individual circumstances need to be examined.

Later in his career when his opponents armies had reformed themselves in doctrine and organization and found better commanders Napoloen did less well overall even when he had the numerical advantage. But generally the odds were rising against Napoleon.
 

nuclearguy165

Ad Honorem
Nov 2011
4,843
Ohio, USA
1) You forgot to take into account the fact that he was outnumbered over 2 to one at La Rothiere.

2) If you’re not trying to downplay his generalship, I apologize. It just looks like a lot of people are.
1. True, but just like with Napoleon out-numbering the Prussians at Jena, it came in phases.

2. That's fine. Many appearances of downplaying Napoleon are probably not actually, in fact. Mostly, it's just trying to account for newer, alternative perspectives when so much traditionalist Anglo-French historiography had exclusively been in play for such a long time.
 

Larrey

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Sep 2011
5,907
A very interesting thing I've noticed about many of these Napoleonic discussions is that Bonapartists love to point out that it is to Napoleon's credit that he is able to concentrate superior numbers against his foes whenever he outnumbers them in any particular critical operation or encounter, and they are very correct in that. Yet, they don't give the same credit to coalition commanders when they are able to do same against him at such places as Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, and Waterloo, just to name some.
Seems a bit non sequitur. To the extent Napoleon, with a smaller army, was able to concentrate more of it for battle against coalition adversaries, with larger armies overall – yes that seems a definite achievement.

In general terms what I was pointing out is that in the final confrontation with the last a decisive coalition Napoleon could win all kinds of battles, and none would be decisive because there was always another coalition army on the way. While the coalition could lose any battle for the same reason without ever suffering a decisive defeat.
 

pugsville

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Oct 2010
9,760
Seems a bit non sequitur. To the extent Napoleon, with a smaller army, was able to concentrate more of it for battle against coalition adversaries, with larger armies overall – yes that seems a definite achievement.

In general terms what I was pointing out is that in the final confrontation with the last a decisive coalition Napoleon could win all kinds of battles, and none would be decisive because there was always another coalition army on the way. While the coalition could lose any battle for the same reason without ever suffering a decisive defeat.
Napoleon won all sorts of indecisvie battles. One given the scale of the armies really inconsequential losses. He never beat up a large army, His victories were quite small in size.

Well Napoleon had a vast empire dominating Europe then he lost all these battles and campaigns such that in the end he was massively outnumbered. His situation at this end was a function of his earlier losses.

GHe lost a vast army in 1812 meaning he started 1813 with a lot less, he then lost another vast army so in 1814 he was heavily outnumbered. It was a function of his defeats.
 
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Kingdom of the Netherlands
After the First day withdrawal was the only option. Napoleon failed to prepare for the withdrawal. It came down to one bridge because Napooen did not prepare to minimize defeat.
In any case that is still not an argument that the blowing of the bridge wasn't bad luck for Napoleon. His plan was to keep Poniatowski as a strong rearguard, knowing the quality of the Polish forces that was perfectly reasonable. Also, as you said, Napoleon usually delegated such tasks to his divisional commanders. It would be quite harsh to argue that it was Napoleon's own fault that he lost 30.000 men to pow's. He retreated the Grande Armée over small bridges before, e.g.: Aspern-Essling, Borodino.

If anything Napoleon was bleeding the coalition white up untill the the Saxon defection and the bridge incident. The battle thusfar had been a slugfest for the coalition, Lieven estimates the casualties for the coalition to be around 52.000 and the French casualties to be around 60.000 after the battle. That includes the prisoners taken after the bridge incident so that would make French casualties prior to that to be around 30.000. These casualty rates were reason enough for him to think he could force the coalition to an armistice.
 

pugsville

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Oct 2010
9,760
In any case that is still not an argument that the blowing of the bridge wasn't bad luck for Napoleon. His plan was to keep Poniatowski as a strong rearguard, knowing the quality of the Polish forces that was perfectly reasonable. Also, as you said, Napoleon usually delegated such tasks to his divisional commanders. It would be quite harsh to argue that it was Napoleon's own fault that he lost 30.000 men to pow's. He retreated the Grande Armée over small bridges before, e.g.: Aspern-Essling, Borodino.

If anything Napoleon was bleeding the coalition white up untill the the Saxon defection and the bridge incident. The battle thusfar had been a slugfest for the coalition, Lieven estimates the casualties for the coalition to be around 52.000 and the French casualties to be around 60.000 after the battle. That includes the prisoners taken after the bridge incident so that would make French casualties prior to that to be around 30.000. These casualty rates were reason enough for him to think he could force the coalition to an armistice.
The fact it was only one bridge was down to Napoloen, he had a whole day to do something about it. He could have easily thrown another bridge or two. He did not. It was single point of failure when there did not have to be one. That Napoleon left his army in such an isolated position where the failure of one bridge was so bad is entirely down to Napoleon. It is not harsh but entirely factual to put those losses down to Napoloen.

Lieven says no such thing. (page 458)

"Perhaps they were only 60,000, as the French accounts claim: on the other hand , by the time the army reached Frankfort it only 70,000 men under arms and 30,000 stragglers, so the overall casualties during or immediately after the battle must of have been closer to 100,000"

Chandler goes with (page 982)
"over the fourday period the Allies lost probably 54,000 killed and wounded although the accurate figures are extremely hard to calculate. As for the French their battle casualties were probably in excess of 38,000, but a further 30,00 fell into Allied hands during the 19th"

And Petrie only goes (Page383)
54,000 (allied) 73,000 (french) of which only 15,000 he puts down to the bridge. And 5,000 side changers.

There was no prospect of Napoleon forcing the coalition to an Armistice. Yes it was bloody victory , buy a decisive one the destroyed much of Napoleon's army and lost him Germany. Napoleon would start the 1814 campaign with very very little.
 
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