The Napoleonic Wars



The Art of War of Revolutionary France  ***1/2  The always free thinking Paddy Griffith shows how the French Revolutionary Wars were fought, and it is not a pretty picture.  He shows how radical ideology and near anarchy led to embarrassing failures.  Only contrary aims among allied prevented French disaster.




The Campaigns of Napoleon  *****  David G. Chandler wrote this, one of the best military history books ever written.  His writing helps you visualize battles like nothing else can.  In addition to the campaigns and battles, Chandler explains the Napoleonic system of war, his three strategic maneuvers, and his simple and often repeated battle method.  This book is not cheap, but it is worth every penny.  Despite being over 1,000 pages in length, it left me wanting even more!  



A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars  *****  Vincent Esposito and John Elting explain and critique Napoleon's campaigns.  This book and Chandler's are essential to understand the Napoleonic Wars.  Complex campaigns such as Spain in 1808, Germany in 1813, and France in 1814 are much easier to understand.  The concise writing provides the reader with invaluable information, insight, and opinion, including colorful sentences like, "It was a typical heads-down go and get killed frontal attack."  These maps are not the maps on the West Point website.  There are one hundred more maps, all of which are more detailed than the newer versions.      





With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies  *****  by Brent Nosworthy.  The tactics of the Napoleonic Wars have been poorly understood.  Nosworthy gives excellent detailed examples from the era showing how each of the combat arms dealt with each of the combat arms of their opponents.  He shows the importance of morale and how 18th century doctrine evolved into Napoleonic tactics.  Skirmishers preceded attacking infantrymen, and columns were generally used not so much for attack as they were for maneuver toward the enemy where the men would then deploy into line.  The French used lines more than has been generally thought.  This system worked against everyone but the British, whose superior skirmishers kept the French columns in the dark until British infantry fired a volley and charged just as the French were attempting to deploy.  This book is essential to understanding Napoleonic warfare.


Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon  ***1/2  by Rory Muir.  Perhaps better named, "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Peninsula War", as the focus is on the British Peninsula experience, supposedly due to a lack of sources elsewhere.  The author provides a good analysis of why Wellington was victorious, and he gives a good discussion of light infantry tactics also.  Throughout the book psychological factors in battle are always highlighted.  The examples given concerning infantry tactics are very useful but somewhat confusing without maps, and it is difficult to remember what action the author is discussing, so I found myself re-reading sections just to clear these things up.  Differing troop densities are briefly discussed but are not elaborated upon, and there is less than I would have liked on the interaction of arms, perhaps because this was less important in the Peninsula.  As a result, grand tactics are hinted at but largely ignored.  Sadly only around half of the book is on tactics, with the rest on the experience of battle, making it like "The Face of Battle" but once again mainly on the Peninsula.  Long passages from participants are featured which are usually useful and entertaining, but which can become a bit tiresome.  Despite its flaws, this book is useful and well worth reading.  


The British Light Infantry Arm 1790-1815: Its Creation, Training, and Operational Role  *****  by David Gates.  As important and innovative as the light infantry arm was in its time, it hasn't gotten the attention it deserves from modern historians.  Although the American Revolution led to the use of open order tactics, this was not the inspiration behind British light infantry of the Napoleonic era.  Instead, open order was seen as dangerous in European warfare, so the Dundas manual - the first common doctrine for the British army - was based on Prussian tactics, which had little use for skirmishers.  But change in terrain over the years, with the advent of enclosures, had made light infantry more effective and less vulnerable to cavalry in particular.  The French Revolutionary armies, with large numbers of skirmishers, dominated their opponents - including the British during their brief involvement in Flanders.  First, the British relied mainly on foreigners for light infantry, just as they had in the past, but later they raised native units.  The author deals with the training, discipline, and motivation of the troops as well as aimed fire and social differences compared to the Continent.  Rifles are discussed, including their many disadvantages.  The author shows that JFC Fuller's study of light infantry was flawed, and that Sir John Moore was not as important in the development of the arm as he is often portrayed.  An example is given of screening the army in the Peninsula, and it is convincingly shown that large numbers of skirmishers - quantity but not necessarily quality - was the vital factor in the success of British tactics in the Peninsula.  This book is a necessity to understand warfare of the era.


From Flintlock to Rifle ****   As it was printed in the late 1970s, Steven Ross's well written book, covering from 1740 to 1866, is now somewhat dated but still interesting and useful.  It is flawed in some of its conclusions, and it neglects issues of weapons effectiveness as well as the psychological features of battle in favor of an almost exclusive focus on formations and other 'nuts and bolts' issues.  Use of columns for maneuver and attack are well covered as are the the use of skirmishers and changes in doctrine of various Western armies over time.  The author gives many examples from battles of the era.  So this book is a good introduction to tactics of the era but understandably shouldn't be taken as the be all end all on the subject.  It is best read in combination with Nosworthy's and Muir's more recent books for a fuller, more accurate view.


Blundering to Glory: Napoleons Military Campaigns  ****  Although Owen Connelly still believes that Napoleon was a genius, in this short book he argues that much of his success was due to "scrambling."


Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon  ****  Gunther Rothenberg concisely explains the strategy, tactics, and logistics of the Napoleonic era and the eighteenth century.  Technological and tactical changes of the late 1700s are well covered along with how strategy and tactics changed through the course of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  This is a very good introduction to the Napoleonic era.


1805: Austerlitz  ****  by Robert Goetz.  Unlike many books on the topic, Goetz presents both sides of the war well, and he details and analyzes the whole allied campaign plan from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The battle account is a detailed tactical summary, which is dry, but which gives a good feel for small scale Napoleonic combat, which is not common with most books.  In some ways it is like the micro-histories of Civil War battles, but without accounts from individual soldiers, and unfortunately without drama and without making the characters into real people.  Maps provide good detail but are unclear about allied columns and units above regimental level, and artillery is not consistently shown.  The author argues that French and allied tactics were similar, but unlike the French, allied commanders lacked initiative.  Napoleon's plans were fluid, and before the battle he even considering withdrawal, while the allied plan was ponderous and took no account of possible French responses.  Although the book is flawed, it gives a good understanding of the campaign and battle and provides an excellent look into how battles were fought.  It is well worth reading for a more advanced Napoleonic reader, but not for a beginner.


Napoleon's Great Adversary: Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army ****  by Gunther Rothenberg.  To understand the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, you must understand the role of Austria.  This concise, well-written, and insightful book lets you do just that.  Although Archduke Charles is a major figure in the book, his flaws aren't ignored, and he is not the object of hero worship.  Court scheming had a great effect on military policy and the selection of commanders.  In the few pages on tactics, the author explains why Austrian light troops were inferior to French ones - and even Austrian ones of an earlier time.  Cavalry units were dispersed to support the infantry and were never used as part of a combined arms team.  Being a collection of inherited territories with little in common, encouraging nationalism was NOT an option for Austria, leaving the government to simply raise as a large of an army as they could with conventional methods and constraints.  Although corps organization was used, the Austrians instead tried to fight as single body like in 18th century.  But with no discretion given to corps commanders, opportunities at Wagram were lost as well as the battle itself.  Early in the campaign, the author argues, the promising prospect of an advance north of the Danube was dashed by a change of plan and a shift south of the river.  The wars of 1813 and 1814 and only briefly touched on, and there is only occasional mention of the recent wars with Turkey.  There is little on Austria's financial situation, which was a major constraint on the war effort. 


Eggmuhl 1809: Storm over Bavaria   ****  This Osprey book covers the 1809 campaign well and contains maps and photographs of the battlefield.  The 3D battle maps and modern photos give an excellent sense of the fighting.  The campaign itself is more difficult to follow, so keep "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars" handy.


Badajoz 1812: Wellington's Bloodiest Siege (Campaign Series, 65)   *****  by Ian Fletcher.  Typically, a siege isn't especially interesting.  Both sieges covered here, however, Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz, were different.  The first went unusually well, but at Badajoz, the British showed that this sort of warfare wasn't their specialty.  A bloody storming of a breach eventually succeeded only because of the unexpected good fortune of the diversionary attacks.  A notorious sacking of the city resulted.  Ultimately, the sieges opened Spain up to the British advance, and after Salamanca in the same year, the French were doomed in the Peninsula.


The Eagle's Last Triumph: Napoleon's Victory at Ligny  *****  by Andrew Uffindell.  This short, concise, and insightful book is not a tactical study of the battle, but rather an objective operational and strategic study.  So maps, although plentiful, lack details.  Among the author's conclusions are that Napoleon believed that defeating Britain, with the great financial support and subsidies that it gave, would end the coalition and war against him.  As a result, he originally planned a quick advance on Brussels, but Blucher concentrated more quickly, forcing him to change his plans.  Prussian Chief of Staff Gneisenau thought that his nation had no interests in Belgium and that the Brits alone should defend it.  Wellington, expecting Napoleon to fight defensively behind fortresses like in 1814, was slow to respond but did not intentionally mislead Blucher about his difficulties in concentrating.  Dutch-Belgian commanders at Quatre-Bras stayed in place, against orders, helping to save the situation.  From their pre-battle conference, Blucher believed that Wellington would attack Napoleon's flank, but as he left, the Duke added, "if possible", which the Prussian may not have picked up on, as both the French and Prussian armies deployed with the hope of help from the west.  Napoleon intended an encircling a flank attack by D'Erlon's corps and an attack on the enemy's center at Ligny, but his army encountered a great crisis and was on the verge of panic when D'Erlon's unidentified corps mistakenly approached Napoleon's rear.  The crisis was ended, however, and Blucher rashly committed all of his reserves, making the battle ripe for Napoleon to commit the Imperial Guard.  A decisive victory was stymied because of the blundering and miscommunication regarding D'Erlon's reserve corps.  Although Napoleon had changed his plan and now intended to attack Blucher, the staff officer sent to get D'Erlon's support did not continue on to explain this to Ney.  Ney recalled D'Erlon, who despite being in sight of the battle at Ligny, compromised and brought most of his troops back toward Quatre-Bras - but too late to effect that battle.  Napoleon's orders were not precise, so D'Erlon had not advanced into the Prussian flank, but into Napoleon's rear, nearly causing a panic.  All the parties involved are responsible in some way.  The failure to achieve a decisive victory and the failure to pursue quickly the following day made Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo possible.  There, the author argues, Wellington prepared, if necessary, to retire toward Ostend on coast, and not through the forest behind him.  This implies a readiness to abandon Blucher, who, despite advice to the contrary, was prepared to stand by Wellington to the end.


The Battle : A New History of Waterloo   *****  by Alessandro Barbero, translated by John Cullen.  Written by an Italian historian of the medieval era who is also a novelist, "The Battle" is engagingly written and well translated, using many first-hand accounts from all major participating nations.  Because the author is Italian, his book isn't Anglo-centric, Franco-centric, or Germano-centric; all participants are objectively covered without losing the drama of the battle and without the booster-ism and cheerleading of other books.  Like many military history books, however, there are few useful maps, but the terrain and deployments are well described and easy to understand - at least if you have some knowledge of the battle.  Despite this flaw, the author gives a genuinely new and different account of the battle with many insights; the examples are many.  For instance, the Allied infantry deployed in four ranks instead of two in order to facilitate forming square, a clear break from usual practice.  D'Erlon's early afternoon attack was not made in massive columns, as has been thought, but largely in successive lines - probably in reaction to experience in the Peninsula War.  Lobau's corps was initially sent to support D'Erlon after his failed attack, and not to oppose the Prussians as stated in earlier accounts.  In fact, the author shows that Napoleon had not even done the simple reasoning to deduce that the troops approaching him couldn't possibly have been French and could only have been Prussian.  The British cavalry counterattack which reached the Grand Battery had little effect on French artillery, despite claims to the contrary, and in effect destroyed the Allied cavalry.  So when the massive French cavalry attacks occurred, there was little the Allied cavalry could do.  Allied infantry casualties piled up, and had the attacks lasted much longer, the squares would have broken.  So French cavalry dominance and skirmisher superiority, neither of which had been the case in Spain, along with artillery superiority, nearly won the battle for Napoleon despite French errors.  Finally, partly in the hope that their mere appearance would put the Allies to flight, the Imperial Guard was brought forward.  Not of their former quality, the Guard advanced in squares, not columns as has been thought.  It was touch and go for some time, but the Allies held firm, and the French fled in panic.  Throughout the book, the psychological state of the men in the ranks is key to understanding the battle.  In short, this book presents the latest findings on the battle, is well researched, well reasoned, well written, and well worth reading.

 Military Thought in the French Army, 1815-51  ***   Always free thinking Paddy Griffith argues that the French Army of this era was progressive socially and tactically while returning to a smaller more professional force in reaction to developments late in the Napoleonic Wars.  Especially interesting is the move toward light infantry and the emphasis on a "gymnastic" pace to close with the enemy more quickly.  Although not as good as some other of Griffith's books, it is an interesting look at this important transitional time.




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