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Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon

The latest historian’s interpretation of Napoleon’s biggest defeat

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Kutuzov at the Fili conference decides to surr...
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It’s amazing that the invasion of Tsarist Russia in 1812 is the subject of another and quite different interpretation of the main causes that contributed to Napoleon’s crushing defeat after the burning of Moscow.

Here is an excerpt from that book – Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace by Dominic Lieven recently published by Viking Books:

Still, Lieven has a serious argument to make, and he makes it persuasively. “One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon,” he writes, “was that her top leaders out-thought him.” As early as 1810, it became clear to the Tsar and his men that the fragile French-Russian alliance would soon collapse, and that Napoleon would invade. They understood that the French emperor would attempt to destroy the Russian army in series of quick major battles, so as to force the country into political subordination. In response, they planned for “a war exactly contrary to what the enemy wants,” to quote a key memorandum from 1812: namely a strategy of “deep retreat” to exhaust and deplete the French, followed by a full counter-attack that would bring Russia’s massive armies back into the heart of Europe, and ultimately (along with its allies) to the gates of Paris.

In 1812-1814, Lieven argues, the Russians followed this strategy, and with brilliant success. In doing so, they could count on several key resources, including superior cavalry (in some ways, Lieven nicely quips, the greatest Russian hero of the war was the horse), and the masses of serfs who were ruthlessly conscripted with little hope of seeing their homes again. In 1812-1814 alone, the Russian army conscripted some 650,000 men. Thanks to their status as semi-slaves, they were cheap, receiving pay equal to only 1/11th of what British soldiers received.

Finally, and in sharp distinction to Tolstoy and the Russian nationalist historians of the conflict, Lieven believes that the “aristocratic, dynastic and multi-ethnic” qualities of the Russian empire constituted a real strength as well. In particular, he highlights the effective cooperation of the nobility and the tsar, and the key role played by military officers of foreign descent, especially Germans from the Baltic states such as his ancestor. (They made up 7 percent of all Russian generals.) While he gives due credit to Tolstoy’s idol Kutuzov, he reserves his greatest praise for the war minister and then supreme commander Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, the descendant of Baltic Germans and Scots.

Another interesting side of this book is that one of Lieven’s forebears was a general in the Russian military.

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Napoleon, Prussian military and Hitler

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… in the early 19th century, the Prussians developed the next step in evolving industrial military into technological military, eventually leading to the Blitzkrieg techniques evolved by Guedarian et al.

In a well reasoned book Goldman and Eliason put to bed how the need to re-organize its armies led the Prussian Generalship to examine the connection between the nation’s socio-political organization and the means to develop a modern innovative military organization.

The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas

By Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason

By repeatedly beating Prussian generals in battle, Napoleon provoked a radical reaction from the Prussians who eventually outdid his brilliance in battle, beginning in the battles of the 1811 to 1815 at Waterloo, especially.

In fact, the Prussian military realized that innovating and rebuilding their military machine required basic political reforms, or freeing its serfs so that they could become citizen soldiers like the French soldiers were. The serfs and mercenaries that made up Prussian armies lacked the ability and willingness to adopt the tactical and operational innovations introduced by Napoleon’s industrialized armies.

Maj. Gen. Scharnhorst, a political liberal and a reformer leading the effort to transform Prussia’s military capability to meet and then beat Napoleon in the field, recognized that it was necessary to free serfs politically to then train them in the new tactics used by Napoleon’s armies.

It is to easy to project this basic idea of revolutionary change into the predominance that Prussian and then German armies exercised over the next 125 years up until June 1940, which saw the lightning defeat of the larger better equipped French Armies by the Wehrmacht in Western Europe.

This predominance was finally stretched and broken by the radical over-reach of Hitler in Eastern Europe from 1941 till the crushing defeat of his armies in 1945 by the Soviet military juggernaut, marshalled by Stalin.

It’s clear then that the predominance of one army over the others comes mostly from the ability to train its soldiery in use of tactics and technology. That certainly was amply demonstrated in May and June 1940 in Western Europe and again in 1943 till 1945 by the Soviet military.

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Nineteenth century Europe witnessed two waves of military innovation, each of which triggered attempts to emulate or counter the successful practices. By the beginning of the century, France had raised a mass army; reorganized it into corps and divisions; and developed a new tactical system, the so-called “mixed system.” The demonstrated success of the Napoleonic military system against Old Regime armies spawned attempts by Napoleon’s adversaries to emulate and counter this style of warfare. By mid-century, Prussia’s unique response to Napoleonic warfare – an organized reserve system and a general staff coupled with the military use of the railroad and telegraph and the adoption of rifled guns and artillery transformed warfare once again. The success of Prussian military methods in the Wars of German Unification led states both within and outside of Europe to adopt German methods.

(From me)

It’s clear that German military learned most from their experience in WW I. They found ways to develop and test out their air arm with faster fighters and tactical ground support equipment like the Stuka dive bomber and airborne transport adapted to carry parachutists into tactical situations. Then they developed tanks and tank warfare with adoption of onboard radio communications. They also developed telephone and radio communications to support their command and control of men, tanks and supply. These technological adaptions led to Blitzkrieg and warfare by movement.

Hitler was unscrupulous enough to see how to use this technical advantage combined with his canny understanding that the democracies, France, England, and the other nations of Europe were unable or unwilling to coordinate their military might to face down German military superiority.

But he did not at any time have any viable strategic plan. Most of his victories were won by the skin of the teeth with each warlike step leading to a grabbing of resources that Germany didn’t have.

The French military basically learned nothing and used armour and air in a purely support mode completely secondary to the movement of divisions, corps and armies of infantry.

(end of comment)

These two waves of innovation represented the military manifestation of broader social or economic changes. The Napoleonic warfare was the result of nationalism, while the Prussian military system was the result of the movement of industrial technologies and production techniques into the military sphere. Success or failure in the adoption of new military practices turned not only on military organization and culture, but also on the fit between the new techniques and the broader social, political and economic environment of each country.

Each of these broad social and technological changes constrained the ability of armed forces to emulate successful innovations in a different manner. The political changes required to emulate Napoleonic military practices were the most daunting. Countries unwilling to adopt wholesale social and political reforms attempted to copy those elements of the Napoleonic military system that required less jarring changes. Rail and telegraph lines were distinguished by their joint military and civilian character. Rail lines in particular were very expensive. Their development was the product of the economic interests of individual entrepreneurs and industries. Militaries were thus hamstrung or blessed with the civilian networks they were given. The rifle was the most purely military (and least expensive) of the three. Here, adoption success turned most on the abilities of the individual militaries and least on the civilian or material environment.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2010/04/17 at 07:40

Posted in about books, history, writings

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The Prussians learned an important lesson when they were beaten by Napoleon’s “Industrial Warfare”

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The Kingdom of Prussia within the German Empire
Image via Wikipedia

Here is an explanation from Goldman and Eliason:

By repeatedly beating Prussian generals in battle, Napoleon provoked a radical reaction from the Prussians who eventually outdid his brilliance in battle, beginning in the battles of the 1811 to 1815 at Waterloo, especially.

In fact, the Prussian military realized that innovating and rebuilding their military machine required basic political reforms, or freeing its serfs so that they could become citizen soldiers like the French soldiers were. The serfs and mercenaries that made up Prussian armies lacked the ability and willingness to adopt the tactical and operational innovations introduced by Napoleon’s industrialized armies.

Maj. Gen. Scharnhorst, a political liberal and a reformer leading the effort to transform Prussia‘s military capability to meet and then beat Napoleon in the field, recognized that it was necessary to free serfs politically to then train them in the new tactics used by Napoleon’s armies.

It is to easy to project this basic idea of revolutionary change into the predominance that Prussian and then German armies exercised over the next 125 years up until June 1940, which saw the lightning defeat of the larger better equipped French Armies by the Wehrmacht in Western Europe.

Decal for German helmet, Sieg Heil !! Alles ju...
Image via Wikipedia

This predominance was finally stretched and broken by the radical over-reach of Hitler in Eastern Europe from 1941 till the crushing defeat of his armies in 1945 by the Soviet military juggernaut, marshalled by Stalin.

It’s clear then that the predominance of one army over the others comes mostly from the ability to train its soldiery in use of tactics and technology. That certainly was amply demonstrated in May and June 1940 in Western Europe and again in 1943 till 1945 by the Soviet military.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/08/02 at 17:49

Previous posts re Napoleon have attracted many viewers to my blog.

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So I wonder how many will be attracted to my posting a most attractive portrait of Wellington. Which portrait I copied from a most unlikely source .

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/07/14 at 11:44

My blog has been viewed about 1,500 times during each of the past 3 months

with one comment

Most of viewing traffic seems to be attributable to posts about Napoleon with about 3,763 views and the Happiest Country in the world with about 1500 views.

Go figure.

Yes I like the idea that blog viewers are interested enough to find my site and view my posts. I do try to keep my posts and post subjects varied.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/05/30 at 13:37

Key Napoleon web site

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The Napoleon Bonaparte Internet Guide.jpg

and here is the link!

I am looking forward to see how this post affects my blog stats. Over the last few months an earlier Napoleon post has gotten 20 to 30 views each day!

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/04/22 at 09:40