Beginning with the saving of The Directory on 5 October 1795 with a “whiff of grapeshot,” followed by swift tightly interwoven military and political victories, Bonaparte was taking inspiration from one of historical influences, Julius Caesar as to his ascendency and his role of governance in France. “In such a state of affairs these deliberative assemblies could no longer govern; the person of Caesar was therefore the guarantee of the supremacy of Rome in the universe, and of the security of citizens of all parties. His authority was therefore legitimate.” Much like Caesar, Bonaparte saw his role as a literal savior of France, with its fortunes being inextricably melded with his own, thus making them one in the same in his mind.

Having secured his position as First Consul, Napoleon resumed his military operations in 1800 with an audacious plan to defeat the Austrians in Italy that would culminate in a French victory at Marengo on 14 June of the same year. Speed of maneuver in conjunction with unexpected movements was critical to an army being where it needed to be at the exact right time. Taking inspiration from his thorough studies of Hannibal Barca, Napoleon marched the 60,000 strong French through the snow-packed Alpine passes to do just that, catching the Austrians unaware and flatfooted. The principle of movement and appearing where you are least expected formed the nexus of one of Napoleon’s must implemented Maxims, Maxim XVI.

This necessity in war for Napoleon reads in part that “It is an approved maxim in war, never to do what the enemy wishes you to do, for this reason alone, that he desires it.” Speed and the rapid movement of his armies was the literal engine that drove Napoleon’s military machine and in turn, its successes. It’s foundational basis as a Military Maxim comes as no surprise, as Napoleon, a life-long student of history who voraciously studied the campaigns of Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Gustavus Adolphus, saw in them all the near-fanatical importance of speed of maneuver and its close link to battlefield success. 


Top: Napoleon demonstrated the effectiveness of Maxim XVI much to the chagrin of the Austrians at Marengo. This painting by Baron Lejeune Louis Francois depicts Napoleon and the French army at the Battle of Marengo. Commons.wikimedia.org.

Bottom: Napoleon would cement his legacy as one of history's top military commanders with his victory over a combined Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz. Here, Napoleon is greating the defeated Francis I of Austria in this painting by Antoine-Jean Gros. Britannica.


Even near contemporaries, such as Frederick II (1712-1786) of Prussia were held in deep respect by Napoleon for Frederick’s ability to outfight and outmarch much larger armies with his smaller, yet more lethal and more mobile Prussian army. Once Napoleon and the French had decisively beaten the Prussian military at the dual battles of Jena-Auerstadt on 14 October 1806 and had invested Berlin, it has been said (yet not historically verified) that Napoleon made a pilgrimage of sorts with his conquering Marshalls to Frederick’s tomb. Here he was said to have remarked to the effect that if Frederick had still been alive, that the French would not have beaten the Prussians and would therefore, not be in Berlin. The zenith of Napoleon’s military prowess however would come after his crowning as Emperor of France and the creation of the First French Empire on 2 December 1804 at the penultimate Battle of the Three Emperors or more commonly known as the Battle of Austerlitz which would come exactly one year later. Here Napoleon and his 75,000 soldiers faced an Austro-Russian coalition army of around 89,000 strong led by Austrian Emperor Francis II (1768-1835) and Russian Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825).

12543179855?profile=RESIZE_584xNapoleon and his penchant for being everywhere at once, was a maestro with his army being the orchestra; one master directing it all at Austerlitz. A singular approach to leadership, with success or folly resting on the shoulders of one commander, was a critical component of Napoleon’s warfighting philosophy. “Nothing is so important in war as an undivided command: for this reason, when war is carried on against a single power, there should be only one army, acting upon one base, and conducted by one chief.” This combined with his other Maxims of speed of maneuver, appearing and fighting where you are not expected, force concentration of troops and artillery, and a host of others, would see Napoleon smash the larger Allied force and secure one of history’s most significant tactical victories by 5 pm that day. The devastation wrought by Napoleon’s warfighting Maxims inflicted over 15,000 combined Austro-Russian casualties along with 12,000 having been taken prisoner at a cost of 1,300 Frenchmen killed, nearly 7,000 wounded and under 600 taken prisoner. The French victory was so resounding that it forced Austria to sue for an armistice and the Russians to retreat back toward Poland, leaving Napoleon and his Military Maxims as master of the battlefield.


Suggested Reading

Chandler, David. The Military Maxims of Napoleon. London, UK: Greenhill Books, 1994.

Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1966.

Connelly, Owen S. Blundering To Glory - Napoleons Military Campaigns. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Holmes, Richard. The Napoleonic Wars. London, UK: Carlton Books, 2015

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014. 






You need to be a member of War History Network to add comments!

Join War History Network

Votes: 0
Email me when people reply –