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Revolutionary France's Revolution in Warfare


Although there are plenty of historians who would like to qualify its extent, there is a general feeling among commentators that the French Revolutionary Wars saw an evolution in warfare, and that revolutionary France helped push it forward.

The French Revolution and the Evolution of War

In 1832 Clausewitz wrote ‘On War’, a work of military theory that became a classic, and contributed to the successful German reunification. In it, Clausewitz identified a sea change in European warfare and he said it happened in 1793. While On War is as subject to revisionist history as any other source, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars did see a change in the way European’s fought.

Before, in the eighteenth century, warfare had evolved to be between relatively small armies of predominantly mercenaries, aiming to take small regions or states in order to better negotiate a settlement through which they hoped to gain (Poland, which was cut up and ceased to exist, was a notable exception). Wars tended to be short, although sometimes disputes over the succession of a nation could drag affairs out. In addition, warfare usually shied away from large, ‘set piece’ battles, and focused on movement, putting pressure on your enemy and forcing them away without any firing. A typical eighteenth century army was 50 – 75,000 soldiers in size.

In 1793 France was losing the wars of the revolution, and the first coalition of European powers seemed on the verge of successfully invading France and restoring the monarchy. The answer, to the French, was to declare the ‘levée en masse’ which conscripted every male of fighting age. This ‘Nation in Arms’ wiped away the era of small mercenary armies and introduced a France which could summon up a million soldiers within a year, from a population of just under thirty million. They were drawn predominantly from peasant families, and had little time to train. What they bought was ‘élan’ and a desire to seek out decisive battles, putting their faith in bayonet charges to smash opponents. Faced with this enemy, the rest of Europe had to adapt, and many more men were put under arms. Industrial development, spearheaded by Britain’s industrial revolution, was a necessary enabling factor, allowing the larger numbers of troops to be supplied and supported. While Napoleon began with 35,000 men in the Army of Italy, by 1806 he was commanding a force of 180,000, and pushed organization over its limits in 1812 with a force of nearing 600,000.

Napoleon Builds: A New Military

Napoleon inherited this situation, he did not make the advances himself. He now had an army where the new conscripts were merging with the experienced survivors of the previous regime. However, he was to make changes which affected for over a century how Europe would fight wars. Between 1801 and 1805 Napoleon split his army into ‘corps’ of around 30,000 men each, with infantry, cavalry and close artillery support, keeping some units separate (such as the Imperial Guard, who evolved into an army within an army). Each corps nominally had a Marshal in charge, and Napoleon could order them to operate independently of him. The result was a system which kept central command intact but allowed for effective decentralization, as each Corps was a small army. He also used skirmishers more than before.

These ideas weren’t Napoleon’s own, as he was heavily influenced by the theorist Guibert, but Napoleon took the troops he had and put them through a series of swift and adaptable manoeuvres, lured his enemies into attacking where he wanted, followed up with effective counters and then pursued effectively, causing masses of casualties for proportionally fewer in his army. These early, and late, victories made Napoleon’s name, and saw him put into practice what Guibert had just written about, thanks to his improvisational genius. However, the Napoleon of the middle to late Wars had grown slower, less incisive, and more prone to sluggish movement and frontal attacks which mauled all the armies involved, his included. Part of this was the decline in quality of men, experienced troops replaced with fresh conscripts, part was the man himself. Napoleon also aimed to do more than take small territories and then negotiate: he conquered huge regions and reorganized the governments to effect permanent change.

However, Napoleon failed to develop his army any further, and came up with no new ideas himself. There were possible technological changes that could have been made to the weapons, armor and progress of his forces, and his desire to maintain full control resulted in him keeping juniors - who could have proved decisive - away from key events, or from growing in ability, weakening his army overall. He did not change tactics or training from the French techniques of the Revolutionary War, and his ignorance of new artillery possibilities was amazing for an ex-artillery officer. Napoleon’s armies were affected by other weaknesses stemming straight from their leader, such as a complete disregard for weather and dismal record in planning supply, but equally they were often effective because of his improvisational skills. But Napoleon’s genius was to take the revolutionary armies and make them dominant, until Europe finally caught up.

Europe Adapts

Once this system proved effective the rest of Europe adopted it, and began to work out how Napoleon was winning. In 1812 the Russians retreated from him, refusing to be caught in the manoeuvre Napoleon needed to win a surprise battle, and kept his declining mind busy until winter destroyed the army. Later in Germany and France, as the Sixth Coalition armies - now remodeled in the Napoleonic style - liberated and invaded, they were able to avoid making the mistakes their forbears had made, and end the wars.

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