Napoleon As a Military Commander

Feb 2014
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Kingdom of the Netherlands
"In general he was very poor" I do not say or iomply he was univerally poor at all time in the campaign. I woudl say despite some good moments and Dresden was a Brilliant victory as I said, he overall performance was poor.


Not as many as often has been made out, Petrie (page 15) gives not more than 75,000 new conscripts, Petrie gives a detailed dicsuion of what Napoleo'n army of 1813 consisted of. The Russian were battlef harddned in teh first phase of the campaign, in the second half large amnounts of the resevre army and militia were intergreated into the army, about half the Russian troops in the second half of the campaign after the truce. At least half the Austrians army was recnet conscipts as was the Prussians. There was not a huge differential in quality



Faulire to carry out basic scouting a recurring failure of the French army. 180,000 don;t just slip away unless you are being very lax.


4:1 depends whose figures you take, I would sugguest the rigires are more like 3:1, but as I have said a Brilliant Victory.

Following up Battle sis an importnat skill one which Napoleon failed to do pretty repeatedly , even Austrelitz the pursiant went the wrong way.

You want to cherry pick history to only the incidents that show Napoleon favorable light?
Of all the battles he was personally engaged in he lost only one battle in the 1813 campaign, he won all the others. I don't understand why that would classify as overall poor. I don't assume we blame Napoleon for the mistakes made by MacDonald at Katzbach. His forces were roughly equal to the Prussian army and it is not as if he sent his subordinates on impossible tasks in general. Taking his inferior and outnumbered cavalry into regard you cannot blame him for taking a defensive posture around the Elbe. It seems his strategy of preventing the coalition from combining, by giving Oudinot and MacDonald the tasks of checking the Prussians and Swedes, was a pretty logical one to take. All he had to do was to strike decisive blows at Schwarzenberg whom he didn't have in high regard. Dresden nearly proved this plan would work. Your criticism would probably be that he shouldn't have tried to defend Germany in general and retreat to more solid frontiers behind the Rhine, but that neglects the fact that by doing so Napoleon would have to abandon all his German satelites. How strong would his diplomatic position be after that? How would he convince his German troops to still be fighting for him?

With regards to quality. The French did not only have a lot of new conscripts, for even 75.000 I find quite a large number (though I have read higher estimates), but a lot of his forces were also garrison troops and allies who weren't always reliable. On top of that, and this is really important to point out, his cavalry was massively inferior. I believe Lieven argued this as well. A lot of the quality horses had been spent in Russia and on top of that training an efficient cavalry in the short run is no easy tasks.

You really think a military genius like Napoleon would let 180.000 men slip without a pretty solid reason? You know how hard it is, even for a victorious army, to mount a proper persuit in difficult weather and terrain. Or do you judge the Russians the same way for letting Napoleon slip across the Berezina? Cause if you do then fair enough. But to just argue, he was lax is way to easy. There were many others factors at play. And I know you don't give this much credit, but there are sources that argue that Napoleon caught an illness after the battle. Without his strong centralized command a proper persuit was a lot harder to organize. On top of that he was distracted by the new of the disasters at Katzbach and Grossbeeren which made his situation more precarious as well. In Lieven's Russia vs Napoleon it also states that Napoleon might not have known about the narrow passes behind Ertz mountains. This may also have had to do with the lack of proper reconnaisance the French could now perform.

At Austerlitz he crushed a lot of Russian forces with his mobile artillery in the aftermath of the battle. In any case the Austrians were spent and the Russians on the retreat. He had achieved his political goal after the battle.

You call it cherry picking, I call it taking a different approach then how I did before in debates surrounding this topic. I remember very vividly that I took quite a balanced approach in previous debates. I felt I was compromising, but I never really felt like that favour was returned by staunch Napoleon-revisionists. For example I remember quite well how I criticized Napoleon for leaving to many of his capable commanders and men in obsolete forts, how he should have appointed commanders in a better way, how he should have exploited his interior lines better etc etc. What did I get in return? Well: 'Yes all that and a lot more negative stuff that he did'. If we follow your logic then Napoleon stubmled into victory at Austerlitz by a combination of luck and capable subordinates. You cherry pick statistics how the allied numbers were a lot lower and simply dismiss opposite numbers as Bonapartist propaganda, how Napoleon was lucky that the allies even gave battle at all, how his commanders basically did all the work during the battle and how he apparantly made more mistakes after the battle. Does Napoleon get any credit at all for the battle that most historians still classify as his crowning achievement? Didn't you also argue that Ulm was just an accident or something like that? That might have been someone else, it has been some time since we had these old debates.
 
Feb 2014
1,875
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Yes, and a lot of that is due to the faults of Schwarzenberg in the first place, as well as the lack of a clear-cut command structure over multinational armies. Napoleon’s armies were also multinational to a fair extent but always under an overarching imperial command of his own which the coalition’s didn’t share. Huge advantage for him, plus many of the defensive advantages he had at Leipzig made the Coalition task there much more difficult than is often realized. They almost lost on the first day due to the bungles of Schwarzenberg, simple as that. However,, the impressive effort on Tsar Alexander’s part to retrieve the situation was notable, as was the performance of Russian cavalry and artillery and Austrian infantry. On the northern front, 20,000 men of Yorck’s corps managed to overthrow and push back 17,000 of Marmont’s veterans, with casualties that were probably a little bit higher for the French, according to Leggiere.

The bridge incident wasn’t complete luck for the Coalition either; it was facilitated by the Russians sending in skirmishers.

The relatively lackluster pursuit afterwards was again related to the command issues and Schwarzenberg. Plus, consider that still that many thousands of French stragglers were picked up since many fewer of Napoleon’s forces made it back to France as opposed to those who got away from Leipzig in the immediate aftermath of the battle.

Lastly, considering that the Russians were outnumbered 2-1 on the entire first day of battle and that it all ended on the second day with the complete destruction of the French force after allied reinforcements arrived, I do actually believe Kulm was a complete, Napoleonic-like victory. It was more complete and more important than Hanau, for sure.

All in all, the Coalition task is made much more difficult than commonly realized when one takes into account that they were facing freaking Napoleon, on top of all of their other issues.
You often put forward how I should pitty the position of the coalition forces for being so multinational and thus so fragile and that is fine. I even agree with it. But I never hear you argue how the Napoleonic system, propogated by by Jomini afterwards, also had a massive weakness which was: if Napoleon falls away there is nothing. How often did we see the Grande Armée almost disintegrate the moment Napoleon wasn't looking? So yes sure, he had an overarching imperial command structure with all decision-making based on him, but that was both a strength and a weakness depending on the situation.

I give Tsar Alexander most of the credit at the first day of Leipzig as well. He had certainly grown beyond Austerlitz at that point. Schwarzenberg, seemingly, still had his head in a former century.

It would only not have been luck if the intention of those skirmishers was to make the bridge blow prematurely, but I dont recall those skirmishes between Russians and French were meant for that specific goal. Mostly just to herass an enemy with its tail between its legs.

How many of those stragglers were French and how many were defecting satelite armies? Just wondering if there are any records on that. Cause that would make desertion seem a lot more logical.

A Napoleon-like victory is a victory that determines a campaign, e.g.: Austerlitz, Friedland. Kulm did not seal Napoleon's faith I would argue. It set him back and robbed him of the oppurtunity to surround a lot of Austrians, but his army after Kulm was still quite formidable. Also, complete destruction? I believe more than half of French forces made it out at the end of the battle. As I said though Kulm was a great achievement for the Russians and again showed how much they had learned over the years. I am not here to take away their glory, but it might be a bit much to classify it as a Napoleon-style victory. After all it was only one army corps that was engaged. I mean I dont consider Jena a great victory either, just a victory. Again all credit is given to Ostermann though for holding the French at bay so fiercely.
 
Feb 2014
1,875
Kingdom of the Netherlands
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.
But when Napoleon did it, he did it in circumstances much less favourable to him. Italy (1796), Bohemia (1805), France (1814). Napoleon created a superior position from an inferior position. Aspern-Essling, Leipzig and Waterloo were just exploiting superior numbers they already had to start with. Combined Anglo-Prussian forces in the Waterloo campaign outnumbered Napoleon 2:1, at Leipzig around that number as well and at the war of the fifth coalition the Austrians had a slight superior troop amount as well. Napoleon had to take serious risk during the Austrian relieve attempts at Mantua, he had overstretched himself in Bohemia and he had to be creative to the most ultimate level to create small sectors of superior numbers in the France campaign. At least to me that is reason enough for regarding Napoleon's concentration of forces to be more impressive.
 

pugsville

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Oct 2010
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Of all the battles he was personally engaged in he lost only one battle in the 1813 campaign, he won all the others. I don't understand why that would classify as overall poor. I don't assume we blame Napoleon for the mistakes made by MacDonald at Katzbach. His forces were roughly equal to the Prussian army and it is not as if he sent his subordinates on impossible tasks in general. Taking his inferior and outnumbered cavalry into regard you cannot blame him for taking a defensive posture around the Elbe. It seems his strategy of preventing the coalition from combining, by giving Oudinot and MacDonald the tasks of checking the Prussians and Swedes, was a pretty logical one to take. All he had to do was to strike decisive blows at Schwarzenberg whom he didn't have in high regard. Dresden nearly proved this plan would work. Your criticism would probably be that he shouldn't have tried to defend Germany in general and retreat to more solid frontiers behind the Rhine, but that neglects the fact that by doing so Napoleon would have to abandon all his German satelites. How strong would his diplomatic position be after that? How would he convince his German troops to still be fighting for him?
In the Spring Napoloen outnumbered the Russians and Prussians about 2:1. He had two good chances to inflict substantial defeats on them at Lutzen and Bautzen. Two good chances and he failed. He gave an important command to Eugene and a minor one to Davout. Mine ciricism is he did not make themost of his chances when he had them, he made poor strategic plans, appointed poor commanders, and filaed to cut his losses and colsolidate (the garrison at dresden, he hnag on to Dresden rather than use the troops in the field)



With regards to quality. The French did not only have a lot of new conscripts, for even 75.000 I find quite a large number (though I have read higher estimates), but a lot of his forces were also garrison troops and allies who weren't always reliable. On top of that, and this is really important to point out, his cavalry was massively inferior. I believe Lieven argued this as well. A lot of the quality horses had been spent in Russia and on top of that training an efficient cavalry in the short run is no easy tasks.
How long is piece of String. My point is the allies had about the same mix of recent conscripts in their armies.

Napoleon's failure to send his dismounted cavalry home from Russia was short sighted. They were almost useless as infantry and a logistical burden.


You really think a military genius like Napoleon would let 180.000 men slip without a pretty solid reason? You know how hard it is, even for a victorious army, to mount a proper persuit in difficult weather and terrain. Or do you judge the Russians the same way for letting Napoleon slip across the Berezina? Cause if you do then fair enough. But to just argue, he was lax is way to easy. There were many others factors at play. And I know you don't give this much credit, but there are sources that argue that Napoleon caught an illness after the battle. Without his strong centralized command a proper persuit was a lot harder to organize. On top of that he was distracted by the new of the disasters at Katzbach and Grossbeeren which made his situation more precarious as well. In Lieven's Russia vs Napoleon it also states that Napoleon might not have known about the narrow passes behind Ertz mountains. This may also have had to do with the lack of proper reconnaisance the French could now perform.
See Petrie for dismissal of the "Napoleon was sick" excuse. He gives a detailed examination and dismisses it as false. (page 248)

At Dresden the French just did not notice an army of 180,00 departing in the night and did not maintain contact with pickets. Just gob smacking bad soldiering but one all too common in the French army, (Ney failure of similar basics at Lutzen is another) It was Napoleon who assumed the Allies retreated more west than south on no eal evidence (much as after ligny) It was Napolen who delayed to 9AM to order action (shades of Ligny again)

That the Allies retreated through rough country was a known fact, maybe Napoleon did not know how bad but the it was easy country was just obivious fact. If Napoloen allowed himself to be distracted by bad news elsewhere and was incqpable of walking chewing gum then that is a significnat faw in his makeup. These things happen, if he allowed himself to be distacted it stills falls to his reposnibilty to orgainse a proper pursuit, It was rolld gold opptnuity and he flubbed it.

And he just hang Vandamme out to dry., Then he left teh Garrison in Dresden. Teh Numbers were very close on the first day at Leipzig Petrie (page 328) gives 191,000 v 200,000 (day 3 the odds got a lot worce) But Napoleon had left teh Garrison at dresden and lost Vandamme ghe could of eaisly had another 50,000 men.

At Austerlitz he crushed a lot of Russian forces with his mobile artillery in the aftermath of the battle. In any case the Austrians were spent and the Russians on the retreat. He had achieved his political goal after the battle.
My piont was it was another French pursuit that went the wrong way. In Napoleon's entire career sucessful pursuits were quite rare.

You call it cherry picking, I call it taking a different approach then how I did before in debates surrounding this topic. I remember very vividly that I took quite a balanced approach in previous debates. I felt I was compromising, but I never really felt like that favour was returned by staunch Napoleon-revisionists. For example I remember quite well how I criticized Napoleon for leaving to many of his capable commanders and men in obsolete forts, how he should have appointed commanders in a better way, how he should have exploited his interior lines better etc etc. What did I get in return? Well: 'Yes all that and a lot more negative stuff that he did'. If we follow your logic then Napoleon stubmled into victory at Austerlitz by a combination of luck and capable subordinates. You cherry pick statistics how the allied numbers were a lot lower and simply dismiss opposite numbers as Bonapartist propaganda, how Napoleon was lucky that the allies even gave battle at all, how his commanders basically did all the work during the battle and how he apparantly made more mistakes after the battle. Does Napoleon get any credit at all for the battle that most historians still classify as his crowning achievement?
I'm always willing to get into a serious discussion of numbers.

Didn't you also argue that Ulm was just an accident or something like that? That might have been someone else, it has been some time since we had these old debates.
It mostly was. Napoleon did not intend to encircle Mack, Napoleon was quite late in picking up what Mack was doing (and to be fair what Mack was doing was not logical) The Ulm camapign was not some masterprice as people make out. In every victory there is a certain amount of credit to the victor and a certain amount of discredit to the loser. At Ulm almost all of the credit goes to Mack. Napoleon had what 3-4 times the troops, Mack had opportunity to retreat and was urged to do so by the other Austrians generals when it was obvious that overwhelmingly force was approaching. Mack could have withdrawn with Most of his amry intact, it was the only logical decsison. All those aorund him were imploring him to so. How was it some masterpiece of encirclement form Napoleon?
 

nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
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But when Napoleon did it, he did it in circumstances much less favourable to him. Italy (1796), Bohemia (1805), France (1814). Napoleon created a superior position from an inferior position. Aspern-Essling, Leipzig and Waterloo were just exploiting superior numbers they already had to start with. Combined Anglo-Prussian forces in the Waterloo campaign outnumbered Napoleon 2:1, at Leipzig around that number as well and at the war of the fifth coalition the Austrians had a slight superior troop amount as well. Napoleon had to take serious risk during the Austrian relieve attempts at Mantua, he had overstretched himself in Bohemia and he had to be creative to the most ultimate level to create small sectors of superior numbers in the France campaign. At least to me that is reason enough for regarding Napoleon's concentration of forces to be more impressive.
Napoleon was slightly inferior in numbers at the beginning of the the 1809 war with Austria (180,000 French versus 220,000 Austrians when operations began but which would soon change), when the Austrians were invading Bavaria. By the time operations really started to take off though during that phase and later phases of the war then Napoleon's numbers increased faster than the Austrians to give him overall superiority probably by the time of Eckmuhl. The Austrians were inferior in overall numbers by the time the French took Vienna, so the Austrians did NOT have overall superior numbers at the time of Aspern-Essling; they only had more on the field there because they surprised him by their presence and Napoleon only took a fair minority of his total forces to fight on the far side of the Danube.

Moravia in 1805 was an example where he had inferior numbers in the area of operations and at Austerlitz, but he had more backup reserves in Germany so that overall numbers for carrying on the war were pretty close to even on each side.

You are correct with 1796 and 1814, I'll give you that. However, those weren't the examples I was thinking of anyway.
 

nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
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Ohio, USA
You often put forward how I should pitty the position of the coalition forces for being so multinational and thus so fragile and that is fine. I even agree with it. But I never hear you argue how the Napoleonic system, propogated by by Jomini afterwards, also had a massive weakness which was: if Napoleon falls away there is nothing. How often did we see the Grande Armée almost disintegrate the moment Napoleon wasn't looking? So yes sure, he had an overarching imperial command structure with all decision-making based on him, but that was both a strength and a weakness depending on the situation.

I give Tsar Alexander most of the credit at the first day of Leipzig as well. He had certainly grown beyond Austerlitz at that point. Schwarzenberg, seemingly, still had his head in a former century.

It would only not have been luck if the intention of those skirmishers was to make the bridge blow prematurely, but I dont recall those skirmishes between Russians and French were meant for that specific goal. Mostly just to herass an enemy with its tail between its legs.

How many of those stragglers were French and how many were defecting satelite armies? Just wondering if there are any records on that. Cause that would make desertion seem a lot more logical.

A Napoleon-like victory is a victory that determines a campaign, e.g.: Austerlitz, Friedland. Kulm did not seal Napoleon's faith I would argue. It set him back and robbed him of the oppurtunity to surround a lot of Austrians, but his army after Kulm was still quite formidable. Also, complete destruction? I believe more than half of French forces made it out at the end of the battle. As I said though Kulm was a great achievement for the Russians and again showed how much they had learned over the years. I am not here to take away their glory, but it might be a bit much to classify it as a Napoleon-style victory. After all it was only one army corps that was engaged. I mean I dont consider Jena a great victory either, just a victory. Again all credit is given to Ostermann though for holding the French at bay so fiercely.
Well, sure, Kulm was too small of an encounter to end the war on its own, but considering the surrounding circumstances it may have saved the war for the Coalition, as Lieven argues. The parts of VanDamme's command that did not directly become casualties were scattered to the four winds and we don't know how many actually made it back to their commands.

Harassing an enemy with its tail between its legs is precisely what causes something like the bridge incident to happen. Harassment like this is to strike panic into one's opponents and cause them to do things inimical to their cause. It need not have this kind of specific goal in mind beforehand and it almost never does.

The lack of Napoleon's presence was an issue for his marshals when they were sent on independent commands in 1813, sure. This was the shadow that loomed over their defeats at Katzbach, Kulm, Dennewitz, etc. However, it was an advantage for the main army directly under his command, probably about 200-250,000 strong, and it was certainly an advantage for his forces engaged at Leipzig, about 200,000. He was also no Schwarzenberg and so that's an advantage as well. Schwarzenberg's moves here (and at Dresden) weren't even always stuck in the last century; they were foolish by those standards, too.

Might I also add that it was Napoleon's own problem that he gave independent commands in the Autumn of 1813 to those like Ney, MacDonald, and Oudinot, and yet completely under-utilized better commanders such as Davout and St. Cyr? Napoleon didn't need to have Davout to administer Hamburg, and he didn't need 40,000 men for it either. Napoleon also certainly didn't need to leave 35,000 men in Dresden under St. Cyr when Leipzig was about to be fought.

As for the stragglers who were picked up after Leipzig, consider that there were probably at least 160,000 French troops fighting at Leipzig (with the remaining 30-40,000 in Napoleon's army being satellite allies, with 5,000 deserting during battle and 30,000 being captured or deserting after battle). Only about half this number of French troops ultimately ended up making their way back to France, at least before peace came.
 
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nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
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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.
Yes, but where he's often praised for doing so, such as at Friedland if just to name one, are often where he had superior numbers overall.

Dresden could have been more decisive than it was if Napoleon had better utilized the best road (along the eastern sector, when his forces pursued more to the west) for his pursuing forces, which the French had access to and their opponents did not. Vandamme knew about it and used it but he didn't receive proper support. Still, Vandamme mishandled the situation and let Russian troops under Osterman-Tolstoy and Eugene of Wurtemmburg slip by under his nose to block his path later on.
 

Lee-Sensei

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Aug 2012
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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.
Napoleon had a narrow majority. It wasn’t as if he had twice as many troops.
 

nuclearguy165

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Nov 2011
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Napoleon had a narrow majority. It wasn’t as if he had twice as many troops.
At Jena, yes he did. The Prussians had 54,000 to Napoleon's eventual 97,000. Even if we are to include field forces for the entire campaign, Napoleon's forces significantly out-numbered the Prussians; 110-120,000 total Prussians in the field to about 140,000 for Napoleon.
 

pugsville

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Oct 2010
9,761
Napoleon had a narrow majority. It wasn’t as if he had twice as many troops.
But look at the 1806 Campaign what did Napoleon do that was outstanding? With slight superiority in Numbers, with a much better trained and lead Army, using superior doctrine and organization he stumbled into two encounter battles at Jena And Auerstadt. He did not as a strategist set the terms of battle, it was an accidental encounter where the numbers on each side at each battle were mostly chance. Napoleon out number his opponent almost 2:1 and Davout was outnumbered almost 1:2 the other way.

It was not some cunning plan or stratagem from Napoleon, he stumbled into thee battles (equally so the Prussians). if Davout had been utterly defeated and his army destroyed whose fault would it have been? Napoleon stumbled badly as a strategist . Fortunately for him Davout the most stunning victory of the period., which reflect well on Davout but not on Napoleon, who can really claim zero credit for the victory.

Yes his political spider sense let him jump start the cmapaignb grabbing a march on the Prussians, and the superior training an do organization of the French army were partly due to Napoleon so some credit there (divisions and doctrine predated Napoleon).

As a strategist it's a poor performance. As a General beating a opponet you outnumber almost 2:! with a clearly superoir quclity force is hardly some great achievement an Avergae to Good Perfomance as a General.


1807 the Polish Campaign, Napoloen with now a clear superiority of forces dos not do particularity well. Benningsen make a misstep at Freidland and is well beaten. But it was not Napoleon with some cumming plan, Napolen did not carefully set the terms for the battle, both sides had misread the other and Benningsen thought he was pounced on an isolated divsion when the encounter developed, for Napoloen it was an Happy accident, he had a clearly superior force. Once the bulk of the Russian army had crosed the river and the size of the French army arriving was becoming apparant it was too late , and teh French army was in a clealry superoir position and the result was a forgorn concusion. Sure Lannes had to do the heavy lifting at the starrt of the Battle, delaying the Russians while Napoleon arrived with the bulk of the Army. By the time Napoloen was aware of what was happening and directing the Battle it was relatively simple when for any good commander. As a ageneral or as as astrategist nothing outstanding. An average to good sort of performance.