What Made Napoleon Such a Brilliant General?

Because I majored in American Military History and have been known to throw out a military analogy in analyzing a marketing or business situation, I occasionally get the question, “So who do you think was the best military commander?”  One could make arguments for Alexander the Great, Patton, Lee, Napoleon, Hannibal, Genghis Khan or the Duke of Wellington, among numerous others. 

But when pushed for an answer, I would have to go with Napoleon.  Inevitably, the next question is, “So what did he do that was so great?”  I could get real complex with you, but let me boil it down to one central principle that has broad learning for most business situations. 

A military battle is composed of many complex moving parts.  Land based armies were composed primarily of three different parts for many years prior to the Napoleonic Wars.  These three basic elements were infantry, cavalry and artillery.  (But then those of you who have played the board game “Risk” already knew that!)  Infantry are the classic foot soldiers.  The pawns if you are a chess player.  The cavalry is mounted on horses and now more modern vehicles and move with much greater speed.  The artillery, be it archers or catapults in olden days or modern howitzers capable of sending projectiles for miles, are designed to inflict damage from far away.

Among pre-Napoleonic commanders, the standard methodology was to commit your elements one at a time.  If your opponent moved forward his infantry, you countered with your infantry.  It was like a chess match, but with many pieces missing.  Once the infantry had duked it out, then you sent in your cavalry.  You either used your artillery to soften up the enemy prior to the advance of your infantry or cavalry or at the end of the battle to mop up.  You never opened up with your artillery while your infantry was on the field.  That would be bad for morale and add a whole new perspective to the term “friendly fire”. 

But Napoleon was brilliant at multi-tasking.  While emperor, he would often arrange a dozen secretaries around him and dictate a dozen letters simultaneously.  He figured out how to orchestrate all pieces of his army simultaneously.  Advances in artillery had created more accuracy, so he was able to launch a barrage, while his infantry was moving forward.  Unless your soldiers were color blind, your cavalry could safely attack one side of an opposing army while your infantry was attacking another. 

Imagine the affect this had on an opposing commander who was used to the enemy coming at him one unit at a time.  All of a sudden, the enemy was coming at you with all of their pieces at the same time.  It was an early version of the Blitzkrieg or “lightning warfare” that the Germans launched so successfully at the start of World War II.

Unfortunately, after about 15 years, the opposing commanders started to catch on.  At the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington executed the orchestrated warfare better than Napoleon.  But there is a side note here that I offer in Napoleon’s defense.  During the battle, Napoleon became ill and retired from the field.  Wellington had chosen the Waterloo battlefield carefully over a year earlier in case Napoleon ever escaped from Elba (see future blog entitled “Picking Your Battles Carefully”).  He had his infantry retreat over a ridge.  Napoleon’s second in command, Marshall Ney, thought that Wellington was withdrawing from the field and ordered his cavalry to charge and cut down the retreating, disorganized infantry.  But in reality, Wellington had his infantry form “battalion squares” just over the ridge and unseen by the cavalry.  In a battalion square, the infantry forms several lines packed in shoulder to shoulder.  It is a suicidal formation when facing infantry as the density of the soldiers makes an infantry barrage very effective in killing lots of soldiers.  But it is impenetrable for cavalry.  The horses can’t move through the soldiers and just mill about while their riders are shot down.

When Napoleon arrived back on the field, he shouted at Ney, “How could you have sent forward the cavalry with no infantry support?”  He knew about orchestrated warfare, but Ney had missed that lesson.


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One Response to “What Made Napoleon Such a Brilliant General?”

  1. Joe Says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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