Napoleon came to power in one of the most chaotic moments in history–the French Revolution. The French people had overthrown a monarchy that had existed for hundreds of years and established a new kind of political order. But because it was so new, nobody quite understood what it all meant. The Revolution led to terror and swings of reaction and more revolution, until in 1796, a turning point had been reached. France’s numerous enemies, lead by the Austrians, were threatening to invade the country and reestablish the old monarchy. The fighting had grown particularly intense in Italy. If the Austrians and their allies were able to overrun the French in Italy, they would pour into France from the South and the Revolution would be over.
The campaign in Italy was going badly for the French and so in desperation, they named the 26-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte, former artillery lieutenant, commander of all French forces fighting in Italy. Through some bold maneuvering and some innovative strategies Napoleon was able to save France from disaster, but barely. As a result of his success he was named commander in chief of the French army. After the Italian campaign, Napoleon did some reflecting. He felt there was a better way to wage war; he needed a new kind of army or organizational principle.
Napoleon began by analyzing the way his enemies waged war and their organizational model. Essentially, a typical general would have at his command an army of a certain size and configuration. To make this army more mobile a general could break it up into groups, but what he might gain in flexibility he would lose in control. How could a general continue to direct and monitor the battle, if his army was divided and scattered? This would also violate the key military principle of keeping one’s forces concentrated. Control then was more important than mobility, so he would keep this army together.
The general would stay in the back of the advancing forces and command the battle from this safe position. Those in front, the scouts and vanguards, might see something unexpected as the enemy approached, but before they could get the army to adjust to these changes, they would have to pass messages to the general in the back, who would then relay his response to the front, all of which took a lot of time. In addition, this massive force had to be fed and for this purpose large wagons–led by horses and oxen–would accompany the army, slowing it down. In times of bad weather, which were frequent, these supply wagons would come to a complete halt.
Because of all this, armies advanced slowly, both sides tending to march to a point where they would meet in battle. Once there, some clever maneuvering and superior firepower could decide the issue. This form of warfare was completely linear and predictable. Although armies at the turn of the 19th century might look modern, with the latest rifles and artillery, they were fighting according to a model that was ancient. This was essentially the way wars had been fought since Alexander the Great. It was out of fear that generals adhered to this rigid system. War is inherently chaotic and such a system offered the maximum in control.
Napoleon had once compared these generals to Marie Antoinette. What he meant was the following: the Queen had lived through a period of incredible turmoil in France–famine, widespread discontent among the peasants and bourgeoisie, the dissemination of dangerous ideas in the press, etc. To handle all of this, Marie Antoinette employed a strategy: she increased the distance between herself and the French people so as to control what she saw and heard. She imagined that the turmoil was in fact rather superficial. After all, the French monarchy had been through a lot, and this too would pass. Its prestige and authority could never really be challenged. Why lose your head over such momentary fluctuations?
And so she held on to these beliefs all the way to the bitter end.
These generals operated in a similar way. They looked to the past, instead of examining the present. They increased their distance from the common soldier and the shifting realities of war. They held on to the old organizational principle as if it were magical. Ultimately such faith in a timeless power structure or model is a form of magical thinking–your belief system overrides reality.
Napoleon was different from these leaders. He was much younger. He had grown up with the revolution–rising from the bottom of the military, which had now been fashioned into a kind of citizens’ army. He was deeply aware of the great changes in the world–social, political, technological. He was aware that this altered the psychology of warfare–the French army was fighting for the sake of the revolution, for the sake of an idea. It was a whole new culture and social dynamic. War had to catch up with these changes; it had to become fast and fluid, to fit the times. In military terms, speed is a force multiplier. It brings momentum and surprise into the battlefield–with speed, an army of 25,000 could have the force of 100,000.
In order to have such power, however, Napoleon would have to reconstruct his army from the ground up. And it is at this point that Napoleon made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of warfare–namely that structure is strategy. The structure of your group, of your army, is what gives it speed and mobility, creates its tone, rhythm and way of action. If you structure it in a dense, bureaucratic and ad-hoc way, you will have a slow, lumbering army, no matter what you try to make them do. You have to be willing to accept a degree of chaos. You have to let go. The fluidity you gain will more than compensate for any momentary loss of control.
After much analysis, Napoleon decided upon the following: He would break his army up into smaller divisions, ranging in size from 20,000 to 80,000. Each of these divisions would be led by a field marshal, who would be inculcated in Napoleon’s philosophy of war and in what he wanted in a particular campaign, but these marshals would be allowed to make their own decisions based on what they saw on the battlefield. They would fight in the front of the lines instead of safely in the back, so they could react in real time.
This would be replicated all the way down the line. Lieutenants and sergeants could make decisions for their units based on what they saw, as long as it fit into the overall mission of the division. Napoleon understood very well the new social order and what motivated the common soldier. He enjoyed he freedom from within the army structure, the chance to prove himself, to show initiative. Napoleon would build into the structure of this army the chance for the lowest soldier to rise to the top, based on merit and bravery, a novel concept at the time. Furthermore, they would all be fighting for an idea–to spread the revolution to the rest of Europe.
Napoleon added one small technical detail that revealed his way of thinking: his soldiers would now carry their supplies in carefully designed backpacks, each individual responsible for keeping his supplies in order.
These were the components of the new army–smaller, more mobile units; no supply wagons to slow them down; important decisions that could be made by leaders in the moment; soldiers who were more intensely motivated and engaged in the struggle. It was a force that was considerably faster and more fluid than any other army in Europe. With such a weapon Napoleon could evolve a new strategy, what is known as maneuver warfare. Instead of advancing his troops along a single line, he could throw his five or ten divisions at the enemy in scattered patterns, and they would decide to advance depending on how the enemy reacted. In this way, he recaptured the initiative. He could adjust faster than the enemy and destroy its willpower by making it impossible to foresee his maneuvers.
As you can imagine, with such an army Napoleon dominated the scene for ten years in a way that no other military force has done in history. But there is a second chapter to this story. For the next ten years, from 1806 to 1816, we see a steady decline in his powers. He starts to believe that his success comes from his magical personality and genius, as opposed to the strategies he had invented. He creates his own aristocracy and distances himself from the revolutionary ideals. He begins to slow down with age, and to fight wars the way his enemies had fought them. He believes in overwhelming the enemy with size and firepower, instead of mobility. All of this leads to his tragic campaign in Russia in 1812 and his final defeat at Waterloo in 1816. In essence he had morphed into a kind of Marie Antoinette himself, holding on to the power he had, believing in the magic of his authority and growing increasingly arrogant.
This then is the pattern and the lesson we can learn from any revolutionary period in history: you are either a Marie Antoinette or a Napoleon Bonaparte. One or the other spirit tends to dominate your decision-making process. If you are a Marie Antoinette, you manage to convince yourself that nothing is really changing in the world. You concern yourself with the present, with the pleasures at hand. You trust in the power and privileges you have had in the past. All of this will continue, you tell yourself. In essence, you manage to keep your distance from the events around you. You live in your bubble. Hard times or adversity only strengthen this bubble. If you’re a Napoleon Bonaparte, you move in the opposite direction–towards the change coming from the bottom up, towards reality. You want more contact with the world, no matter how chaotic and challenging that might be, because power lies in moving in that direction and exploiting the moment.
The following are the two most critical strategic principles that you must adhere to in times of change: first, speed is of the essence. You need to be able to adapt quickly to events. To do so, your group must be organized to allow for such fluidity. This means creating a structure that is looser and that leaves room for initiative from within. Your brilliant strategies will mean nothing in such times if your organization is bureaucratic and hierarchical. Second, you must unite this group around an idea, a reason for fighting or advancing, beyond money. You are creating a culture where you are harnessing the creativity and energy of your soldiers. The old is finally dying out and leaving space for something youthful and new. You are riding this tide, this historic fatality as it sweeps the globe. In conjunction with these principles, you must be continually vigilant that any kind of success does not slowly transform you into a Marie Antoinette.
Stay tuned for the next installment, or read The Descent of Power as an ebook.