War Classic: The Campaigns of Napoleon

Graham Goodlad recalls one of the great works of military history.

Many thousands of books have been published on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, making him by a wide margin the most extensively studied figure in military history. In the last decade alone, five heavyweight biographies have appeared, by Michael Broers, Philip Dwyer, Alan Forrest, Andrew Roberts, and Adam Zamoyski. Meanwhile, the flow of more specialist studies has continued, especially around the bicentenary of Waterloo in 2015.

No writer, however, has superseded a book first published in 1966, David Chandler’s encyclopaedic survey of The Campaigns of Napoleon. Praised by figures as varied as Charles de Gaulle and General Norman Schwarzkopf, in more than 1,000 pages it chronicles in depth each battle and campaign in which Napoleon participated.

David Chandler

Born: 15 January 1934
Died: 10 October 2004
Nationality: British

David Chandler served briefly in the British Army before dedicating himself to writing and teaching military history. He was head of the Department of War Studies at Sandhurst from 1980 to 1994, where his brilliance as a communicator enthused a generation of trainee officers. Chandler’s main area of expertise was the Napoleonic era – in addition to The Campaigns of Napoleon, he wrote a short biography of the emperor and specialist studies of the battles of Austerlitz, Jena, and Waterloo. He was also an authority on John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, whom he regarded as the greatest-ever British general.

History’s greatest soldier?

Remarkably, The Campaigns of Napoleon was David Chandler’s first major publication rather than the culmination of a lifetime of research. Its subtitle, ‘The mind and method of history’s greatest soldier’, sums up the author’s view of his subject. Chandler establishes the characteristics that brought Napoleon an incredible run of success – losing just six of the 34 major battles that he fought between 1792 and 1815 – as well as identifying the sources of his eventual defeat.

Chandler sees Napoleon as a gifted improviser whose operations were nonetheless underpinned by certain consistent principles. He was not an original theorist but a superb practitioner, who applied the lessons he learned from others with extraordinary effectiveness. Amongst his key skills as a commander were a personal charisma that inspired and moulded others to his will, an outstanding mental capacity, and immense powers of work.

In the book’s most sustained analytical passage, a 70-page chapter entitled ‘Napoleon’s art of war’, Chandler clearly explains what made him such a successful general. From Prussia’s Frederick the Great he learned the overriding importance of striking the enemy’s army as hard and directly as possible. Careful advance planning was a vital ingredient of Napoleon’s success, with provision for alternative courses of action in the event of unexpected developments.

Rapid movement, with troops living off the land rather than being encumbered by slow-moving supply convoys, was another hallmark of his campaigning. As his troops testified, ‘The emperor has discovered a new way of waging war; he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.’

Chandler explains the importance of the organisational structure developed by Napoleon, based on the self-sufficient corps d’armée, composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Such a force could hold off an enemy attack until another French formation, never more than a day’s march away, could come to its aid. This enabled the army to move in discrete units, reducing pressure on the resources of the land that they passed through, and keeping the enemy guessing about the intended destination.

Having marched separately, the corps would then come together to fight the decisive battle. Napoleon had a remarkable ability to keep all the elements of the campaign in his head, right down to the smallest detail. Insisting on unity of command, he personally supervised the entire decision-making process.

These methods were well illustrated by the Ulm campaign in the autumn of 1805, one of Chandler’s many lucidly described case studies. Once he had taken the decision to confront the Austrians, Napoleon swiftly moved 210,000 men from the Rhine to the Danube, encircling the hapless General Mack’s forces and leaving him no alternative but to surrender.

The entire operation was concluded in just under a month. Six weeks later, the organisation that Chandler describes as ‘undoubtedly the most highly developed war machine of its era’ completed the defeat of Austria and its Russian ally at the Battle of Austerlitz.

Seeds of destruction

Chandler located the long-term causes of Napoleon’s downfall in the period immediately after his remarkable double victory over Prussia at Jena-Auerstadt in December 1806. Not only did he fail to extinguish Prussian resistance completely, he now became obsessed with the economic strangulation of Great Britain, on whom he blamed his inability to achieve total European dominance. It was to counter his satellites’ evasion of the French blockade – the so-called Continental System – that he embarked on an unwinnable two-front war in the Iberian Peninsula and Russia.

At a deeper level, argues Chandler, Napoleon’s decline stemmed from the megalomaniac nature that had driven him to wage war. ‘Stage by stage,’ he writes, ‘Napoleon’s abilities began to atrophy or produce monstrous distortions. His passion for orderliness, efficiency and centralisation of power degenerated into selfish egotism and grinding tyranny.’ His lust for power stimulated a nationalist spirit of resistance amongst the peoples he conquered, whilst he became increasingly subject to irrational delusion.

BELOW Austrian General Mack at Ulm, 20 October 1805, surrendering to Napoleon and, in Chandler’s words, ‘undoubtedly the most highly developed war
Austrian General Mack at Ulm, 20 October 1805, surrendering to Napoleon and, in Chandler’s words, ‘undoubtedly the most highly developed war

Jealousy of his subordinates meant that he never developed an effective staff system, preferring instead to retain control exclusively in his own hands. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s enemies learned from him how to improve their own tactics and eventually assembled a coalition that was able to mount effective opposition.

In one of the book’s most vivid sections, Chandler shows how these weaknesses played out in the disastrous 1812 Russian campaign. The emperor attempted to manage 600,000 troops spread over a 500-mile front, with the limited means of communication available before the invention of the telegraph and radio. Adverse weather, determined Russian resistance, and his own declining capacity, combined with insuperable challenges of distance and space, resulted in abject failure. Here is Chandler on the mismanagement of logistics, which he identifies as the most important weakness of the invasion:

The depots were sited too far away to the rear, the Russian scorched-earth policy deprived the army of even rudimentary local supplies, and the mud roads could not take the necessary volume of traffic … It was not so much shortage of supplies as the inability to move and distribute them to the forward areas that doomed the Grande Armée to virtual elimination. Napoleon’s well-known maxim that ‘an army marches on its stomach’ was never better illustrated than during his own Russian campaign.

A tour de force

In The Campaigns of Napoleon, Chandler did not set out to write a complete biography of Napoleon, still less a comprehensive history of his times. As he acknowledges, the focus on operations in which the emperor personally took part means that some important episodes are not fully covered. Readers will have to look elsewhere for coverage of the important naval war – a major blind spot for the land-based emperor. The events of the Peninsular War, after Napoleon’s personal involvement came to an end in 1809, are not explored.

The merits of Chandler’s work are beyond question. His detailed description and explanation of each campaign, from northern Italy in the 1790s through to Waterloo, remain unsurpassed. The author’s narrative gifts, allied to deep knowledge of his subject, make the book a pleasure to read. The text is supplemented by an array of well-drawn maps and diagrams.

Nor are the numerous illustrations of battle scenes included merely for decoration; key features of the engagements are helpfully highlighted in the accompanying captions. This is a book that no serious student of Napoleon’s military career can afford to ignore. •