A magisterial study of war and strategy

Jeremy Black deals a fatal blow to Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius

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This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Strategies for a World War, Jeremy Black (Rowman & Littlefield, £25)

As a rule, the market for historical reputations is volatile, subject to prevailing fads and changing perspectives. Napoleon Bonaparte’s stock, by contrast, remained at a premium for a long time, but it has been falling steadily for a while now, so much so that it is now beginning to look overpriced.

The idea of the emperor as a military genius who refashioned the “art of war” in his own image, created and carefully curated by Napoleon himself, then perpetuated by heavyweight strategic writers such as Jomini and Clausewitz in the early 19th century and further burnished by generations of historians, has fallen out of fashion of late.

Recent scholars have tended to emphasise the flaws and shortcomings of Bonaparte the commander and strategist. They might not all agree with the late Owen Connelly’s punchy assertion that the emperor had “blundered to glory”, but most accept that, whatever his own accomplishments, the Corsican usurper was fortunate in his enemies. Shares in Napoleons are not likely to rally anytime soon. Jeremy Black’s excellent and well-judged The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Strategies for a World War will see to that.

In Black’s reading, French strategic management was flawed throughout the period, and the Napoleon that emerges from these pages was a somewhat unimaginative leader. A skilled tactician, no doubt, and gifted with a remarkable ability to read the potentialities of the surrounding terrain — he always had maps with him — but in battle he was largely reliant on the melée by forcing engagements whose course and shape were uncertain at the outset.

The notion of ‘strategy’ is a later 19th century concept

He was a gambler. A lucky one most of the time, admittedly, but he also had a penchant for micromanaging, a habit that grew more pronounced the longer he was in power, though the communications and logistics problems of contemporary warfare forced such practices on him.

More profoundly, Napoleon lacked a sense of what one would now call “grand strategy”. He could conceive of no other means for settling political problems than recourse to military violence. Nor could he grasp the fundamental choice between a maritime and a continental strategy that lay before France — and so he ended up pursuing versions of both and in this he failed.

He knew no other way of treating his own allies other than by bullying and trickery. They might have been vital to his ultimate success, but to him they were satellites, mere pawns to be pushed along the chessboard of great power politics and sacrificed if and when it suited his interests or whims.

But Black’s book is about more than Napoleon. The notion of “strategy”, more especially its vocabulary, is a later 19th century concept — even if, in essence, it was practised well before then, all warfare being a matter of establishing ends and prioritising certain means towards their attainment. Black offers a nuanced and subtle interpretation of contemporary ideas which follows on from his recent work on what he terms “strategic culture”.

Napoleon reviewing the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard in Paris in 1811

By this he means established patterns of thought, often drawing on deeper historical experiences, that frame perceptions of the outside world and notions of state or dynastic interest, and so shape decision-making processes. This (in a very broad sense) “cultural” approach and Black’s sensitivity to the variegated contemporary contexts set his analysis apart from the all too often mechanistic and reductive understandings that tend to underpin current discussions of strategy.

Isaiah Berlin divided political theorists into two categories: hedgehogs, who had a single, commanding idea; and foxes, who had many ideas, none of them dominant. The former tend to be doctrinaire and dogmatic, the latter subtle and supple. Berlin’s insight applies with equal force to historians. Black is undoubtedly a fox, sceptical of the explanatory force of a single idea and appreciative of the varying merits of different factors. He places great stress on aspects of contingency that make for the essential openness of all historical situations.

This book refrains from trotting out old familiar lines about republican zeal and revolutionary élan in the wars of the 1790s or Napoleon’s charisma and superior military leadership. Indeed, it eschews any overarching grand narrative. In its place, Black emphasises the interaction of different powers pursuing their own strategies which, in turn, shaped the overall context of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Rightly, he is careful to stress that this label has the potential to mislead. It is, indeed, little more than a convenient umbrella, under which will be found huddling the wars between France and the repeated coalitions ranged against her (seven in the end), but also those between the smaller powers and along the fringes of Europe and overseas, such as the Russo-Turkish War (1806–12) and the Anglo-American War (1812–14).

Nor was the traffic in one direction only. Seemingly retrograde Austria, after all, inflicted repeated defeats on the French in the 1790s and later, most notably at Aspern in May 1809. The Habsburg Empire also proved almost impossible to defeat, let alone to conquer. Black places greater emphasis on elements of continuity than other historians.

Napoleon leaving the Lobau after the defeat at the battle of Aspern

As his analysis makes clear, continuity in personnel aside, French tactics and innovations after 1792 owed much to the experiences of the 1780s. The Austrian and Prussian armies were not pickled in aspic either at the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), untroubled and unaffected by the smaller and larger campaigns and conflicts since then.

All in all, with his latest book Black makes a highly significant and welcome contribution to the study of late 18th and early 19th century war, and of strategy in general. This is not a book for neophyte Napoleonic students, however. Although Black is at pains to establish the contemporary contexts, some sense of the period is necessary to savour his many nuanced ideas and judgments.

One might quibble about some of them. To this reviewer’s mind, for instance, Black tends to diminish the defensive elements in Napoleon’s generalship. “The whole art of war,” he once said, “consists of a well-reasoned defence, extremely circumspect, and a bold and rapid offence.” By contrast, Black’s Napoleon is a general seeking the offensive à outrance.

Even so, this book is a treat. Only someone with Black’s magisterial grasp of this period, the extraordinary breadth and depth of his knowledge and understanding of war, and his sharp antennae for historical connections could have attempted such a work. It is a book by a very clever fox, and it underlines, if underlining it needs, that history and strategy are best left to foxes.

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