Napoleon, history's greatest general or strategist?

The General of Arcole and Emperor of Austerlitz continues to fascinate the world, as shown by the release of a new film this week. But what of his legacy in the art of war? Five historians specialising in the period and the military shed light on the subject.
Napoléon, plus grand général ou stratège de l'Histoire ?

More than two centuries after his death, his battle plans are still studied in military schools all over the world, and some of his victories still fascinate the greatest army professionals. But beyond military circles, in this age of rankings, the question arises: is Napoleon Bonaparte the greatest general or the best strategist of humanity? 

In 2017, an American student at the University of Chicago, Ethan Arsht, provided a surprising answer to this question. Using statistical formulas created for baseball, he developed a mathematical model to evaluate the performance of 6,619 generals who have fought from ancient times to the present day. "An amusing mental exercise the method enabled him to compare these soldiers by weighting the circumstances of their battles. The result: "mathematics proves it", Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) is "the best general in history".

The Emperor of the French came in "comfortably" first, ahead of Julius Caesar and the Duke of Wellington, one of his toughest opponents. The 15th-century Japanese chieftain Takeda Shingen and Khalid ibn al-Walid, a 7th-century companion of the Prophet Mohammed, rounded out the top 5, while Hannibal Barca, Ulysses Grant, Frederick the Great, Georgi Zhukov and Alexander the Great came in second. the top ten.

So much for mathematics, but what about historical science? Five historians specialising in the military give their opinions and expand on Napoleon Bonaparte's contributions to the art of war: Bruno Colsonprofessor at the University of Namur; General de corps d'armée Benoît DurieuxDirector of the IHEDN and Doctor of History; François Houdecekresponsible for special projects at the Fondation Napoléon, a specialist in the military history of the First Empire and editor of Napoléon's general correspondence. Martin Mottedirector of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and director of the strategy course at the École de Guerre; and Colonel Thierry NoulensD. in history, former senior lecturer at the École de guerre and director of teaching and research in military history at the École militaire spéciale de Saint-Cyr.


As Bruno Colson reminds us, Bonaparte "came to power thanks to the Revolution, which had created much larger and more numerous armies than before".

Thierry Noulens agrees: "Napoleon was able to take advantage of the dual heritage of the military reforms at the end of the monarchy and those carried out by Generals Jourdan and Carnot during the Revolution". In particular, the Jourdan law of 1798 on conscription "gave him access to a mass of cheap, easily renewable soldiers, whereas the professional soldiers of the monarchy were expensive and a rare and precious resource". And "thanks to this dual heritage, he was able to have at his disposal an effective tool for which he devised the instructions for use".

Another factor is that "Napoleon was a leader who was adored by his grognards, and that explains a large part of his successes", points out Lieutenant General Benoît Durieux.

For François Houdecek, Napoleon wanted to control everything, "but with the resources of the time, he couldn't: hence the importance of knowing how to surround himself. His genius also lay in his ability to select up-and-coming men, such as Louis-Nicolas Davout, who was just a general at the time, and to make his entourage last over time".

According to historians, ahead of Murat, Lannes, Oudinot and Ney, Davout was the best officer among Napoleon's marshals. The emperor "was very well organised when it came to giving orders and receiving information", according to the head of the Fondation Napoléon. In this respect, nothing could be done without Marshal Berthier, who had been his staff officer since the American War of Independence in the 1770s: "The Napoleon-Berthier pairing worked perfectly: the one who gave the order, and the one who summarised it and passed it on to the army corps commands. At the same time, Berthier supervised a logistics chain prepared by "extreme planning", another of his great contributions.


Napoleon created his method of using this human material by developing divisions and forming army corps, which brought together the different arms under a single command while encouraging better cooperation between them. A division brought together several brigades, which in turn brought together several regiments. "The divisional system had shown its limitations during the battle of Neerwinden in 1793," recounts Colonel Noulens, "because the brigades were fighting their own battles on their own, with no coordination between them. This is why Carnot thought of grouping the divisions under a single commander and thus forming provisional groups of divisions. Bonaparte made them permanent army corps in 1803 at the Boulogne camp.

For Bruno Colson, his legacy lies above all in his knowledge of the military profession: "That's why armies the world over admire him: in this respect, there is a before and an after Napoleon. His highly organised way of command in terms of army corps and divisions (names used by all the world's armies), his ability to sift through intelligence, to put the right people in the right place, to direct a whole mass of men...". Another of his skills was that of "balancing calculation and chance: first you calculate as much as you can, then a bit of chance comes into play, and he knows how to make the most of it". An invaluable quality, given that, as Thierry Noulens recalls, "he almost always had to face coalitions that fielded a greater number of troops than he did in the theatre of operations".

The battle of Austerlitz (1805) is undoubtedly the most accomplished illustration of his military genius, as Colonel Noulens explains: "Napoleon had no intention of breaking through in the centre; he planned to overrun from the north. The resistance of the Russian general Bagration in the north and the weakening of the Austro-Russian centre made him decide, thanks to his vision, to make the effort in the centre, which was not originally planned. Bruno Colson added: "He adapted his plan at the last moment according to what the light cavalry brought him in terms of intelligence, which shows his flexibility of mind."

In addition to Austerlitz, François Houdecek sees Jena (1806) and Friedland (1807) as emblematic battles of Napoleon's military art. In these three victories, "the military tool was perfectly effective: thanks to its capitalisation on training at the Boulogne camp, it achieved rapid conversions between line, column and square formations. When you save a few seconds or minutes on these conversions, you win the battle by taking advantage of the topography.


More generally, he adds, his battles are "very sequential, with the different weapons intervening in the battle at key moments, or moments that he deems to be key. His real contribution is knowing when to bring in the different units, in a sort of rotation. First, artillery preparation, which links brute force to moral force; then infantry, then cavalry".

While "speed of movement was an essential element of his strategy", as Bruno Colson reminds us, Napoleon Bonaparte also used his knowledge of the terrain. "His extensive knowledge of past wars, his training as an artillery officer and his excellent mathematical skills served him well" in taking advantage of the battlefields, according to the Belgian historian. One example is the Italian campaign, "a mountainous terrain that he knew well. He took advantage of the terrain to separate the Austrians from the Piedmontese. Their armies were almost on an equal footing, but he played with the valleys to separate them. This enabled him to keep part of the opposing forces on the defensive with few resources, in order to concentrate the maximum forces at the decisive point.

A contemporary of Napoleon, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz considered him to be "the god of war", no less. "The Italian campaign fascinated Clausewitz," recounts General Durieux, who wrote his thesis on Clausewitz. "Bonaparte was a genius in what we now call the art of operations. Clausewitz described it as follows: "Beginning with decisive blows and using the advantages thus obtained to strike new blows, always gambling his winnings on a single card until the bank was broken [...] it was to this method that he owed the colossal success he enjoyed".

For Bruno Colson, Napoleon was a kind of "super-officer": "A type of commander who was always on the alert, who did not spare himself, endowed with a great deal of character, a physical ability to stay awake for a long time, capable of taking all information into account..." Martin Motte notes that he combined "a rationalist side and a creative side". Martin Motte notes that he combined "a rationalist side with a creative side": "He had the training of an Enlightenment scientist, an heir to European rationalism; and at the same time he went beyond it, without a deterministic mindset".


Through the intermediary of two major military theorists fascinated by his prowess, his contemporaries Clausewitz and Antoine de Jomini, Napoleon's military art was to influence all the officers of subsequent generations, right up to the world wars. On a historical scale, "if you add up all his victories, he had the most, he won on points", Bruno Colson laughs. The figures vary depending on whether you go back to the siege of Toulon in 1793 or the early days of the Empire: 80 victories for 7 defeats, 38 victories for 5 defeats.

As a result, "many generals wanted to do the same thing as him, even though the weapons had changed", continues the Belgian historian. "Napoleon's legacy cost the French army and the Americans dearly in the American Civil War," adds Colonel Noulens. "While firearms underwent unprecedented development during the industrial revolution, French leaders, like the Americans at Gettysburg, continued to apply Napoleonic schemes without adapting them to the new power of firearms. Hence, in France, the disaster of 1870.

And during the First World War, "this was the case for all generals, whatever their country", observes Bruno Colson. Thierry Noulens gives an example: "In August 1914, when General Joffre was mistaken about the intentions of his German adversary Moltke, he devised an overall manoeuvre based on the Battle of Austerlitz. Unfortunately for him, we were beaten everywhere and our armies were only saved by the Battle of the Marne in September...".

The generals of later generations understood the moral of the story: "Rather than applying Napoleon's plans to the letter, we should seek to apply his principles: economy of forces, concentration of effort, freedom of action, safety/surprise, as Foch did later during the First World War", says Colonel Noulens.

In his opinion, Bonaparte was the greatest general in history: "He had a sense of the terrain and of manoeuvres, and he also had a keen eye for detail.


But when it comes to assessing Napoleon's achievements, historians stress the importance of "distinguishing between 'grand strategy' and the leadership of an army, military strategy", as Bruno Colson sums up: "His legacy lies primarily in the military profession, less in the exercise of foreign policy with the instruments of power, because he lost his conquests and was ultimately defeated. He is therefore more respected as a general than as a head of state. Too attached to keeping France larger than life, he was unwilling to negotiate with the allies, even after his defeat at Leipzig (1813) when they were prepared to leave him the left bank of the Rhine all the way to the North Sea. His intransigence was such that he was unable to keep what he had conquered, or even what he had inherited as First Consul."

General Durieux was of the same opinion: "Napoleon's results as a strategist were less brilliant, and the battles he won produced few major strategic successes". While he praised "his genius, his cunning and his character", Martin Motte also noted that he was "more into operations than strategy". And "by the end of his reign, the combination of military and political duties had become too heavy, he was too tired. Clausewitz compared Napoleon to a compulsive gambler "who no longer realises when he has to stop.

His mastery (of logistics, speed, lightning concentration, manoeuvres, the ability to exploit the pivotal moment in the battle, the art of the chase...) is therefore his legacy. François Houdecek acknowledges another innovative contribution, of which Ridley Scott's Hollywood blockbuster in cinemas this week is a direct result: "His sense of communication: he understood that the way in which war is told, explained and presented is what galvanises his troops and an entire country. And to fascinate posterity.