As wargamer and amateur-historian, I believed four myths: that battles decided campaigns, that generals galloped in the front lines, that thousands died and that sleek tactical positioning decided a battle. None of these myths is remotely true, I learned. Statistics and soldier’s diaries tell other, true stories.
The Love for the Legend
I somehow thought that Napoleonic battles were decisive battles personally directed by dynamic or totally failing generals that led to sweeping changes in European history.
That was all based on history books that I have read since I was 8, or 10 (I was a precocious reader of Time-Life books). In these history books battles ‘happen’ on a certain date and time and have grand political results. Battles were master chef moves in a master chess game. Dramatic subplots in a dramatic era.
Admit it. The Napoleon era is fascinating. A constant cycle of complots, negotiations, war, battles, heroism, victory, defeat – leading to new cycles of complots, negotiation, battles, victory and defeat. And on top of it the towering figure of Napoleon, the smart, intellectual and lucky coach who leads his team to several World Cup Finals but in the end finds his Waterloo. The history books are full of fantastic legends(The Warrior Becomes King! The Crown and the Pope! Escape from Elba! The Epic Final Battle); Napoleonic uniforms are spectacular; and the interaction between cavalry, infantry and artillery leads in many rulesets to a rock/paper/scissors game, which is – gaming-wise – interesting.
Clausewitz, Zamoyski and… Muir
My idea of the grimdark reality of Napoleonic fighting was more or less based on movies, on Clausewitz, Jomini, who gave me the impression that warfare was mostly an intellectual project, swift management of friction: and 1812. Napoleon’s Fatal March to Moscow, by Zamoyski, that gave me the impression that warfare was a long quest, a dense queue of soldiers marching from west to east and then back. My sort of vague idea was that ill-informed commanders scouted the countryside and had a more or less co-ordinated encounter on a battlefield. Volleys of fire destroyed battalions. The skill of the general defined the outcome of the battle and the battle the outcome of the campaign. A romantic compromise between Clausewitzian chess and Zamoyski’s orchestrated marathon.
Most wargame books never give you an idea what the nature of Napoleonic battles was. Many are just narrations of great campaigns with loads of beautiful miniature dioramas. And rules, and orders of battle, and tabletop objectives, that accentuate the ‘chess’ aspect – or worse, a casino-approach. Meanwhile, as a player and reader I don’t take these books seriously, no matter how hard the designer tries. Like simulation of a football game with dice rules, it’s impossible to simulate a battle with dice rules.
It was a wargame ruleset however that pointed me to Rory Muir, an Australian historian and expert in Napoleonic and 19th century history. The designer of 2×2-Napoleonics referred to him. This designer had a different ‘design philosopy’ – he wanted to portray the ‘glue of war’, the problems to organize the units while in battle and keep them in motion and effective after first contact – hence the ‘glue ‘. Source? Rory Muir’s ‘Tactics and Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon‘, published in 1998 and recently cheaply available for my Kindle. Almost 25 years old, but new to me. It’s Anglocentric, true, and mostly focusing on the British experience in the Iberian campaign and the Hundred Days. But it fills gaps in the puzzle and unravels myths. Four myths.
Myth 1: It’s the battle that decides the campaign
No. It’s the campaign that decides the battle.
Many military history books or wargame campaign guides tend to describe one of the battles, or the grand final battle, als the brilliant turning point of the campaign. The glorious highpoint.
It is not. I knew. I’m not naive. I also read that in Zamoyski, but so far I had regarded it as part of his narrative that 1812 was a doomed expedition anyway. He wrote about the soldiers
As they marched across Germany and Poland, they had no clear vision of the aims of the campaign, and this dampened the ardour of some. ‘The future was vague, and its fortunes very distant; there was no inkling, nothing to exercise the imagination, nothing to awaken the enthusiasm,’ wrote Colonel Boulart of the artillery of the Guard.
And about Napoleon:
In effect, he had assembled the greatest army the world had ever seen, with no defined purpose. And, by definition, aimless wars cannot be won. One cannot help wondering whether Napoleon did not realise this.
Muir downplays the role of the ‘decisive battles’. More often than not, warfare was tedious, boring and slow and battles were rare. He summarizes the diary of French private Barrès who fought the Austrians:
“By the time the army camped at Austerlitz Barrès had been on the move for three months, had marched about 1,000 miles, and had yet to fire a shot in anger. (…) it is obvious that the great majority of these were partial combats between detached forces, advance and rearguards and the like, rather than pitched battles between the main bodies of opposing armies. In fact, actual fighting was comparatively rare in the life of a Napoleonic soldier, and Barrès was not unusual in not having fired a shot in the whole campaign until Austerlitz.”
Big armies had relatively small battles with relatively small losses. The 1805 Grande Armee had 400.000 men. Muir:
“yet Napoleon had only 65,000 troops at Austerlitz. Even the Imperial Guard had fewer than 7,000 of its 11,500 men present on the day of battle, many of the rest being on duty in palaces or in depots far to the rear
(…) nonetheless it seems likely that fewer than half of Napoleon’s soldiers took part in any serious fighting in 1805. This was not due to incompetence. Some of these men, though in the army, were not fit to take the field, while others had taken the field only to fall ill. Large detachments were made to occupy important positions and to guard the army’s flanks and lines of communication. Such troops were not wasted even if they never came within sight of the enemy. The essence of strategy did not consist simply of collecting every man in the army together and marching straight at the enemy
(…) Given this, it is not surprising that the greatest killer of soldiers in the age of Napoleon was not the enemy, but disease and privation. Nor does this simply reflect British garrisons rotting in fever-soaked islands in the Caribbean, for it applies almost equally to armies engaged in active operations in Europe. The most obvious example is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia where, although there are no reliable figures, it seems that of every twelve soldiers who crossed the Niemen, two returned alive, one fell in action or died from wounds, two were taken prisoner, and the remaining seven succumbed to the rigours of the campaign
(…) Things were no better for the British troops in the Peninsula where, for much of the war, between one-fifth and one-third of Wellington’s rank and file were sick at any one time; and where, between January 1811 and May 1814, two-thirds of all the British soldiers who died succumbed to illness and disease.”
Generals were looking for decisive battles and afterwards battles were described as decisive. I think the key was the enduring ability of a force to threaten, not to fight. I used to think that military genius and tactics in individual battles decided 70% of the outcome of a campaign. I now think that 70% is decided by strategy, logistics and organisation, and max 30% by tactics. Max.
Myth 2: Napoleonic commanders had a leading, active battle role
I thought they were like orchestra directors, marching in front of their troops, directing the great finale, galloping everywhere.
Wrong. Generals set the battle in motion and watched from a distance, waiting what would happen. Lead from behind or the sidelines.
Memoirs and well-written history books that I read always give a different expression, based as they are on first hand meetings, experiences and conversations with/from the key players. Some generals boast about their leadership, other books cite anecdotes about generals that place him in the center of the action, while in fact it’s a sideshow..
(My favorite anecdote is about the lost leg of Lord Uxbridge, Waterloo battle. According to story, which is probably apocryphal, Uxbridge was close to the Duke of Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, to which Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!”. His leg was amputated, and according to another anecdote, Uxbridge only grunted: “The knives appear somewhat blunt”. Uxbridge survived, but his leg was buried at Waterloo with its own tombstone that became a late 19th century tourist attraction).
Stories like Napoleon crossing the Arcole bridge are great propaganda stories, even after more than two centuries. My favorite Napoleon the Superman story is this one, about the Arcis d’Aube battle, 1814:
As a mob of fleeing French cavalry galloped for the Arcis bridge, Napoleon drew his sword and rode into their path shouting, “See who will re-cross the bridge before me”. At the same time, the crack troops of Louis Friant‘s Old Guard division began crossing the bridge and took up a position to defend Arcis. Sebastiani’s badly shaken horsemen slowly began to recover from their panic and reorganize. During this crisis an Allied howitzer shell landed sputtering near the rallying troops. Seeing his soldiers flinching from the missile, Napoleon intentionally rode his horse directly over the bomb. The shell exploded and killed the horse, which went down, taking the emperor with it. Napoleon soon emerged unscathed from a cloud of smoke, mounted a fresh horse and rode off to inspect his army.
Muir however writes, about the humble daily life of a general:
“In a set-piece battle the general had usually done his most important work by the time the first shot was fired. The days or weeks of the campaign preceding the action determined its circumstances – which commander had managed to concentrate the greater force, whether one was able to fight on a battlefield of his choosing, or if one army had been unsettled by being forced to retreat. Wide turning movements may have been initiated which could bear fruit during the battle, or troops might have been detached too far to rejoin in time to take part in the fighting. Long before the first clash of arms at Waterloo, the shape of the battle had been decided: Napoleon had detached Grouchy with 33,000 men to pursue the Prussians, leaving his main force dangerously weak (…)
There are various mentions of Wellington once the battle began, watching the progress of the attack and controlling his reserves (…) It was normally very difficult to withdraw troops even from a quiet sector of the battle line, in order to reinforce a threatened point. Once deployed in the front line troops largely passed beyond the control of their commander, although he could, as Wellington did at Waterloo, signal a simple order, defensive to a general advance, or, conversely, give the order to retreat.
But for much of the time the general could only influence the course of the battle by committing fresh troops from his reserve, whether to exploit an advantage or to contain a local defeat. Such reserves were precious, and many hard-fought battles were decided by who retained the last uncommitted force. Consequently an important element in the art of generalship was the ability to judge the ‘ripeness’ of a battle; when to refuse to release any reinforcements, and when to dole out a few.”
Zamoyski describes Napoleon and Kutuzov at Borodino as passive leaders, deciding (or not) about reserves:
“They sent urgent requests to Napoleon for reinforcements. But Napoleon did not respond. Although he had a good view of the whole battlefield, from where he sat he could not make out clearly what was really happening on the ground, and he did not, as usual, mount his horse to take a look. He sat very still most of the time, showing little emotion, even when listening to the reports of panting officers who, without dismounting, retailed news from the front line. He would dismiss them without a word, and then go back to surveying the battlefield through his telescope (…) Kutuzov was simply reacting to appeals for help and alarming reports. A staff officer would gallop up with some unit commander’s request or suggestion, and Kutuzov would wave his hand and say: ‘C’est bon, faites-le!’ Sometimes he would turn to Toll and ask him what he thought, adding: ‘Karl, whatever you say I will do.’ According to Clausewitz, the old General contributed nothing to the proceedings.”
I compare it to the role of a football coach in the dug-out. Before the match he reviews the plans and the training and the routines, the ‘clockwork’, during the battle he can only shout instructions and bring in reserves. The match is in the hands of the players. Maybe a powerful speech halfway the match or a crucial switch or an act of personal leadership can change the outcome, but more often than not the match is won because the experienced coach has prepared his players, has a good captain in the field and told his team what to expect. And because the team is lucky.
“There were no magic keys to success, which explains why the written testimony of successful generals is usually so unrevealing (…) The most that we can say seems to be that good generals made few serious mistakes on the battlefield and ruthlessly exploited the mistakes of their opponents; that they had a thorough knowledge of the practical mechanics of war: how long it would take for a division of, say, 8,000 men to advance across 1,000 yards, deploying under enemy fire, and if it would then be in a state to climb a hill and assault some enemy batteries; that they had something of the chess player’s skill of seeing several steps in advance (…)
Personal bravery under fire was an essential but commonplace virtue for a general. Its absence would quickly destroy the faith of an army in its commander (…) This does not mean that they observed the battle from afar in comfortable security – Wellington’s behaviour at Waterloo points to the absurdity of the idea – but rather that they understood the progress of the battle, and did not normally plunge in where the fighting was thickest.”
Myth 3: Napoleonic Battles Were Killing
The basic Ancients battle, IMHO, was a relative bloodless clash between two armies and in the end the losing side flees when cohesion was lost and morale broken. No death or glory battles, but ‘we quickly give up or glory’. Maybe that’s a myth, as well, but that’s what my military Ancient history books tell me.
I thought that the age of gunpowder had changed that. Of course, muskets were inaccurate, but as I imagined the two formations walked or ran towards each other, French normally in column, defenders waiting in line, and then the groups clashed: a devastating volley would destroy the enemy formation or the column would, like a trainwreck, overrun the line. Deaths. More deaths. Chaos. Dense formations walking over the battlefield clashing with other formations until half or more of them were dead or wounded and the others fled. Just like in the movies.
In reality mortality was surprisingly low. Muir:
“In other words forty-nine of every fifty French soldiers present at Austerlitz survived the battle (though some would have died subsequently of their wounds), and six out of seven emerged unscathed. (…) Similarly, at Waterloo the British contingent of the allied army lost 30 per cent of its strength as casualties, about 5 per cent or one man in twenty being killed.”
Other sources concur:
“Today, it is generally estimated that 600,000 to 1.3 million French perished during the military campaigns between 1792 and 1815, 70 to 75% of which for the wars of the Empire (1805-1815), in other words, between 400,000 and one million.
(…) These totals, for example, include those who simply “disappeared”, (…) not all those who disappeared died: proof of this is a recent study which shows that tens of thousands – 30, 40, 50,000? – of French deserters settled in Russia during the Campaign of 1812. In the same way, the numbers of those killed in battle have been revised downwards.
The example of Austerlitz is striking: before the present day, estimates reckoned on 3,000 to 5,000 French mortalities. A precise count of individual men made by two very patient historians has reduced this number to circa 1,600 deaths, a lot, admittedly, for a single day’s battle, but a great deal less than the “traditional” figure.” France in 1801 had 900,000 more inhabitants than it had had ten years earlier and in 1815 more than 1.5 million more than in 1790.”
Soldiers ran. Muir, again:
“as the battle went on, units in the firing line gradually lost their cohesion and became increasingly vulnerable to any sudden shock. In a long battle of attrition, order would gradually dissolve until the whole unit might virtually dissipate of its own accord (…)
it seems likely that a sudden shock – whether the casualties from an enemy volley, or the sight of enemy troops charging forward – would lead to a large number of men turning and pushing their way past their officers and sergeants (supposing that they were still resolute), and that their panic would quickly spread throughout the unit.
Next comes the fact that the great majority of soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars were not killed in action: many survived, and most of those who died (two thirds or more) succumbed to disease and exhaustion rather than enemy action. From this it seems likely that fewer than one in four soldiers ever killed an enemy, and most of these deaths would have been the result of unaimed musketry, or of artillery fire, where no individual would recognize his part in any particular death.”
Myth 4: Napoleonic battles were decided by smart tactical positioning
The battles were more like heavy weight boxing. Punch after punch and finally a knockout with the last reserves.
“Napoleonic battles consisted of a number of smaller combats which added up to a more or less coherent whole. Thus at Waterloo the fight for Hougoumont was almost completely independent of the great French cavalry charges (…) The cumulative effect of combats in this type of battle was to batter and exhaust both armies, absorbing their reserves and reducing their cohesion, so that they became vulnerable to a final decisive attack (…)
It was for such moments that Napoleon husbanded his Imperial Guard. At Ligny, the Guard and Milhaud’s cuirassiers attacked the exhausted Prussian centre in the gathering gloom of evening. Blücher had virtually no reserves left in hand; his fighting troops were physically and morally spent, unable to summon up the will to check the advance of the most famous elite troops in Europe. With their centre broken, and the cohesion of their entire army threatened, the Prussians had no choice but to accept defeat and to withdraw.
(…) The need thoroughly to disrupt the enemy’s army in order to thoroughly defeat it explains why the object in many battles was to break through the enemy’s main line. In Napoleon’s favourite manoeuvre sur les derrières an attack on the enemy’s flank absorbed his reserves and forced him to improvise a new line, but the final, decisive attack occurred at the junction between the old and new lines.”
What Does This Mean For Napoleonic Wargaming?
I will not start that fruitless ‘Simulation vs Gaming’ discussion again. In general, Muir’s findings severely undermine well-known wargame truths that we hold to be self-evident:
- ‘point values’: the campaign weeks/months before the battle and the overall morale were more important than training. Is it possible to reflect something highly momentual like ‘battle spirit’ in a numerical value? For example, the morale of the French Imperial Guard might be lower in 1815 than in 1809. Or maybe it was just as high at the start of the battle, but went down when the Prussians arrived, even the Imperial Guard lost faith. We don’t know.
- command range/command skill. Many wargame rules give (sub)commanders a command range, a longer range if the commander is better. That’s an appropriate game tool to allow group moves, but is it ‘realistic’? The commanding general was more an efficient campaign manager with a ‘feel’ for the ‘flow of the battle’ than a D&D cleric with a magical aura of influence depending on skill level.
- Casualties. The casualty rate in wargames is high, in comparison to the historic stats. Wargames that use ‘morale’ or ‘fatigue’ use a better indicator. Soldiers lose faith and run.
- flank attacks. In Napoleonic wargaming, a formation is a square shaped column or rectangle that can be attacked from aside. Like on a chess board, on on a map with hexes, or how Alexander supposedly attacked the unprotected flank of a phalanx. The reality is that slow moving bodies of men attacked each other and could threaten a flank position of an army, like the Prussians who threatened the French flank at Waterloo. A general could send reserves to this flank or not. The wargame idea that a battalion, marching in close order, faces north, magically feels a sabre pushing in their western or eastern ribs, resulting in a negative modifier is wargame fiction.
- logistics. Not counting in tabletop battles, decisive in Napoleonic battles.
- reconnaissance. Intel. Important for the general who needs to decide when and where he will use his reserves. An aspect often overlooked by wargame scenario’s.
Not that reading Muir has decreased the fun that I have with my tabletop battles. I already knew I was gaming, not simulating a battle. This old Muir book made more clear to me in which aspects Napoleonic miniature are ‘games’. Recommended reading for every armchair general!