Would Napoleon have been successful if the Allies had great commanders at the start?

Mar 2016
1,222
Australia
Say, for the sake of argument, the British still had Marlborough, the Austrians still had Eugene and the Prussians still had Frederick - all great commanders that matched Napoleon in their energy and determination and often thought outside the box (and all of whom had beaten the French in major battles). Would Napoleon still have been able to conquer western and central Europe like he did between 1800 and 1810? His fortunes started turning when the Allies brought on-board good commanders like Wellington and Suvorov towards the end of the 1800's, sure, but up until that point they really had no single commander that could challenge the Emperor, and instead relied on overwhelming him with numbers from all directions.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,634
Say, for the sake of argument, the British still had Marlborough, the Austrians still had Eugene and the Prussians still had Frederick - all great commanders that matched Napoleon in their energy and determination and often thought outside the box (and all of whom had beaten the French in major battles). Would Napoleon still have been able to conquer western and central Europe like he did between 1800 and 1810? His fortunes started turning when the Allies brought on-board good commanders like Wellington and Suvorov towards the end of the 1800's, sure, but up until that point they really had no single commander that could challenge the Emperor, and instead relied on overwhelming him with numbers from all directions.
Suvorov dies in 1800 fighting is last campaign 1799-1800 Italy /Switzerland noticing Napoleon, (who was in Egypt) is relatively active Early in Napoleon's Career. Personally I think Suvorov is a little overrated.

The Austrians went backwards in Command. Schwartzenberg was not an improvement over Arch Duke Charles.


That the French army was we'll ahead of the coalition armies till about 1810, the Russians and Prussians going through massive reforms being markedly different in 1812/1813 from the last time they faced Napoleon.

That the Coalitions started to actually work together better in 1813. Most of Napoleon's earlier career he was able to face only 1 major powers army at time certainly helped. While the Russian showed up with help it was a small part of the Russian army and the main allied force was normally beaten by the time they arrived.
 
Feb 2014
1,870
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Say, for the sake of argument, the British still had Marlborough, the Austrians still had Eugene and the Prussians still had Frederick - all great commanders that matched Napoleon in their energy and determination and often thought outside the box (and all of whom had beaten the French in major battles). Would Napoleon still have been able to conquer western and central Europe like he did between 1800 and 1810? His fortunes started turning when the Allies brought on-board good commanders like Wellington and Suvorov towards the end of the 1800's, sure, but up until that point they really had no single commander that could challenge the Emperor, and instead relied on overwhelming him with numbers from all directions.
First of all let me begin by saying that Napoleon never 'set out the conquer Europe'. This is a common myth that is being used to carelessly and all too often.

People are not great generals only if they defeat other great generals. Most of the generals we put on a pedestal today faced a lot of poor commanders, a number of reasonable ones and a few good ones. Usually every time period knows its titan, a few excellent generals, some good ones and a lot of poor commanders. You are asking that if we theoretically put all the worlds titans together what would be the result. Probably a massive slugfest. But I don't think this question is a very interesting one.

Luckily later on you make it somewhat more concrete by mentioning later more succesful allied commanders or commanders who died early during the Napoleonic era. I wonder though if Suvurov would have been able to keep up with Napoleon's quick mind and I doubt it that Wellington would have performed better when facing a Napoleon in his early years with small numbers than lets say a Barclay or a Archduke Charles. Napoleon was probably at his best when he could micromanage an army smaller than lets say 75,000 men. And this he did most of the time when he claimed bit by bit the landmass that would later be called the French Empire with all its dominions. For with such numbers Napoleon was able to ultimately exploit every single cannon, horse and musket. Bigger than that he would have to hand over tasks to subordinates, something he never really trained himself in doing. Its no surprise therefore that Napoleon's most succesful campaigns were 1796, 1805 and 1814. In all these campaigns he commanded a relatively small army and by exploiting his operational knowledge he managed to knock out each enemy one by one. So even though he was often outnumbered in the theatre at large, he still managed to use operations to his benefit by creating small focus points where he could outnumber an enemy flank. He did it in Italy by isolating all of the four relieve attempts by the Austrians, he did it at Ulm, at Austerlitz and again in 1814 during the Six Days campaign. Between 75,000 and 125,000 men he could still manage to inflict some heavy blows, especially when his best commanders were present. Examples of this were Friedland and Dresden. But he could be prone to losing as well on occasion, e.g. Waterloo. Though when he commanded a force bigger than this amount he often failed. Either by not taking account of proper logistics, by giving tasks to commanders who were not up for it or by ordering mass assaults with little effect. Notable examples of these campaigns/battles were Wagram, Borodino and the Sixth Coalition in Germany.

To get back to your question. Had Wellington commanded at Austerlitz instead of Kutuzov/Alexander, would he have succeeded and stop Napoleon from demanding all sorts of stuff at Pressburg? Well Wellington could certainly be as cautious as Kutuzov, so I wonder if he would have done anything differently there. Who knows, maybe he wouldnt have been tricked by Napoleon's trap and kept strong on the Pratzen heights, but thats just too much guessing. Wellington certainly had his moments where he slipped as well.

I don't believe this theory that Napoleons started losing because he faced more capable generals. I can spot very little difference between Schwarzenberg and von Melas, between Kutuzov and Barclay or between Blucher and Bagration. I think Napoleon first and foremost started to lose because he started to command larger and larger armies and often from a vast distance (Spain, Russia, Germany). He was no longer in total control of a single army consisting out of tightly controlled Corps commanders. Instead he vaguely controlled a large occupation force in Spain, half a million men in Russia and over 300,000 men spread all over Germany in 1813. Without his direct control he simply had to give up responsibilities to commanders. Commanders who had not been trained at doing so. Or at least most of them hadn't. On top of that many capable commanders had died, some of the good ones were used on different fronts (in the case of the sixth coalition, only Davout and St Cyr were of proper quality, many of the other capable commanders were in Italy or Spain). So the crucial combination of Napoleon's talent combined with some extremely well trained Corps commanders slowly started to disappear. So sure he could win a battle at Dresden, but if at the same time Ney and MacDonald got beaten elsewhere, then what is the point?

People often say I cannot criticize Napoleon, but I believe I just did here. Napoleon was not good at controlling large armies and handing over responsbilities to the right people in such a scenario. In a battle he knew where to place a specific commanders and during theatre based operations he knew where to deploy each Corps commander as well, however when the scales got larger he lost more control. At the same time his opponents did not necessarily become better generals, but the simply made better use of the situation. Schwarzenberg was just as poor in 1813 as he was in 1814. You could even say in the case of Blucher that he let himself slip more as time progressed, though somewhat recovering himself in 1815. Knowing that beating Napoleon in the field was a hard job, they focussed more on a general strategy, exploiting the stuff Napoleon wasnt able to control. They simply exploited their numbers. They trained themselves in working together and in de-centralized command. Which meant that Schwarzenberg would not have to be worried to the same extent as Napoleon did at leaving Blucher at his job as Napoleon was worried at leaving MacDonald, Ney or Soult at theirs.

The facts speak for themselves. Battles where Napoleon was personally in command by far have a much higher winning ratio than a losing one. So noI dont think facing Napoleon between 1796-1809 when he still had his full set of capable commander and operated with smaller armies would have resulted in a different outcome had the post-1812 commander been in charge at that time. Nor do I think that the coalition would have lost either had those early commanders (Melas, Alvinczy, Bagration, Kutuzov etc) been in charge in 1813 and 1814. Again I am not saying the coalition did not learn as time progressed. But they progressed on different issues. Strategy, logistics, technology. But at a tactical level and on an operational level the allies could still be as clueless in 1813/1814/1815 as they were in 1796/1800/1805. For Dresden, the Six Days campaign, Ligny do not pale by comparison to Rivoli, Marengo or Austerlitz.
 
Feb 2014
1,870
Kingdom of the Netherlands
Napoleon essentially became trapped by his own system. A system that was almost completely focussed around the commander in chief. This system worked during smaller operations, but showed cracks in larger theatres of war. Because Napoleon had trained his generals at being reliant on him, they operated very cautious or very foolish when he was not directly in their presence. After 1807 Napoleon was no longer the bulldozer causing breach after breach through each enemy line he encountered, but became a bulldozer with a large number of lawnmoyers circling around it, being picked off one by one. Each time requiring himself to use bits of his own army to reinforce them.

Thus in this particular style Napoleon never progressed and kept relying on the same system. Maybe he believed that even if his subordinates could not handle the pressure, his personal succes alone would be enough to guarantee succes. Though how long can such a system last when you are winning battles, but at the same time most of your reinforcements have to go to your failing commanders. Then again it nearly worked at times. He nearly managed to end the sixth coalition at Bautzen, Dresden, Leipzig and during 1814 by his personal succes, regardless of how his subordinates were performing. Even at Waterloo he nearly managed to win the day regardless of Grouchy's failure to act decisively on way or the other. There were moments in all of these battles and campaigns when the faith of the coalition could have fallen towards both ways. Again this for me proves that as a general Napoleon was certainly one of history's best. For even in campaigns which ended up with massive numbers and fronts, his actions alone often brought the opposing side to the negotiating table or at the brink of that.
 
Jun 2015
1,252
Scotland
Or under utilising his skilled commanders and over promoting mediocrity.

Davout is a glaring example, a more reiable and better field commander than Napoleon.
 
Dec 2011
473
N. Ireland
He was very successful in the early years, partly due to incompetent enemies, and his own energy and innovative use of resources. Much like the German army of 1940.

Then, just like in 1943/4, his enemies learned his tricks, copied them, learned not to fear him, and smothered him with numbers.
 

paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
In my opinion Napoleon was successful because he often fought against ' conventional' opponents whose tactics he could predict. When he fought against less predictable men, or people who didn't follow the usual tactics of war, he would often come unstuck. In Russia Napoleon marched to Moscow and captured the capital. He naturally expected the Tsar to sue for peace and make appropriate reparations. When he didn't, Napoleon was left flummoxed. Same with Blucher; having been defeated he should have retreated and regrouped, leaving Napeon to face Wellington alone
Belligerently he didn't and flanked Boney to deal a crushing defeat at Waterloo. Wellington branded Napoleon 'a mere pounder' he certainly wasn't that, he was a pioneer in warfare, but it wasn't long before his opponents upped their game too.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,634
. I can spot very little difference between Schwarzenberg and von Melas, between Kutuzov and Barclay
Kutuzov and Barckay? There's a light year, Kutuzov was criminally incompetent, Barclay one of the best commanders of the period.

And you see little difference.
 

paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
I dispute this. Napoleon usually outnumbered the opposition in the theatre at large.
I agree. And I find it dificult to accept when some people say 'he only won xxx battle because he had more men'. Part of the skill of a general is to take to the field with superior numbers.