Eighteenth century warfare prior to the 1789 French Revolution had been shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the day.
Eighteenth century warfare prior to the 1789 French Revolution had been shaped by the political, social, and economic conditions of the day. Wars were fought over narrow dynastic issues by small
Revolutionary France could afford neither the expensive professional armies that were the hallmarks of the old style of warfare nor the time needed to train rough conscripts in the ways of rigid eighteenth century linear warfare. The revolution served to undermine the traditional aristocratic officers’ corps. In the place of the old royal army, a new national army was formed, composed of conscript citizen-soldiers commanded by officers who advanced through their talent rather than their titles. The poor economic conditions in France produced armies that had to survive on the fruit of the countryside rather than depend on long baggage trains with overstretched lines of communication. The benefit of this otherwise unfortunate sitation was that the French army gained greater speed and mobility. The new armies of revolutionary France dominated the battlefields of Europe and won victory after victory. It took the military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), emperor of France from 1804 to 1814, to realize the full potential of this new type of warfare.
Between 1792 and 1815 seven anti-French coalitions were formed by Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. France’s dynastic opponents had little choice but to follow the French military example or face defeat. With the exception of Great Britain, all the great powers copied the French military system to a greater or lesser degree. With its chief reliance on sea power, Britain remained conservative in its military thinking and committed to linear warfare fought by a small professional army. This system proved remarkably successful against the French in Spain and later against Napoleon at
Following Napoleon’s downfall, the armies of Europe largely reverted to the traditional pattern of long-service professional armies. The conservative political and social order reasserted itself across Europe. While the nobility continued to dominate the ranks of the officers’ corps in many armies, they did so to a lesser degree. With the reduction of foreign troops so widely employed in the armies of the eighteenth century, the rank-and-file soldiers of the nineteenth century chiefly served in the armies of their respective nations. A period of relative peace settled over Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. No wars on the scope and scale of the French Revolutionary Wars
The foundations for the age of Napoleon were laid by the French Revolution, which is widely considered to have begun with the storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789.
The Napoleonic Era ushered in a revolution in warfare: No longer was military power limited by the economic, political, and social conditions of the eighteenth century. The French Revolution produced the age of
Selected Battle Sites in the Napoleonic Wars
Considered one of the most gifted generals in history, Napoleon dominated this period in the history of warfare. The French Revolution provided him with the tools of success and opened the way for his rise to power. Napoleon personally embodied the motto of careers open to talent. He fought nearly fifty pitched battles and won most of them. More than one hundred years after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, generals were still trying to copy his achievements. The stress on offensive operations became the accepted road to victory for all military establishments with the goal of quick decisive victories on the battlefield. It should be noted that the Napoleonic era also produced a number of capable generals other than Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas
French uniforms during the Napoleonic period (from left): for infantry, grenadiers, and cavalry.
Cavalry relied upon the saber and, to a limited extent, the lance.
The lance was most effective against infantry or retreating cavalry. Short carbines and pistols supplemented the sabers, swords, and lances. Little armor was used in the Napoleonic era. Heavy cavalrymen known as
After the Napoleonic Wars, the percussion
The advance of
Although the Napoleonic period is often remembered for its elaborate uniforms, the reality was frequently far from ideal. Most troops, except for certain elite groups such as guard formations, had to make do with whatever clothing they could get. Few soldiers were ever fully outfitted in regulation uniforms. The scope of Napoleonic warfare placed great strain on governments’ abilities to produce enough clothing for the needs of European armies. At times, even in the best-regulated armies, soldiers wore civilian gear.
Prior to the French Revolution, innovators in the old royal army introduced the practice of organizing armies into
Napoleon, mounted on a white horse, at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
Prior to the French Revolution, warfare had focused on avoiding costly, uncertain battles. The object of war was not to destroy the enemy but to achieve limited objectives with limited means. The French Revolution ushered in an era of total
Inspiration also came from the campaigns of King Frederick the
Napoleonic warfare stressed quick decisions and decisive battles achieved by destruction of enemy field forces. The goal was to destroy the opponent’s state of balance and will to fight while achieving economy of force in the pursuit of particular political goals. Better roadways and the combined arms divisional formation made this type of warfare feasible. Prior to the beginning of a campaign, detailed
Limitations of the weapons of the day determined battlefield tactics. From the onset of the French Revolutionary Wars, France relied on the
Napoleon (center) examines a group of French soldiers at the Battle of Jena in 1806.
The advances in artillery allowed for greater battlefield mobility and concentration. Light cavalry units were used in scouting and skirmishing roles. Heavy cavalry was used on the battlefield for its shock impact. The chief defenses against cavalry were concentrated artillery fire and the formation of infantry units into squares such as those employed by the British at Waterloo.
The two most influential military thinkers of the period were Swiss soldier Antoine-Henri de
Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War Since the Eighteenth Century. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Bell, David A. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Black, Jeremy. “Revolutionary and Napoleonic Warfare.” In European Warfare, 1453-1815, edited by Black. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Bruce, Robert B., et al. Fighting Techniques of the Napoleonic Age, 1792-1815: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Chandler, David. On the Napoleonic Wars. London: Greenhill Books, 1999. Doughty, Robert A., and Ira Gruber. Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations from 1600 to 1871. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996. Esposito, Vincent J. A., and John R. Elting. Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York, Praeger, 1964. Reprint. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1999. Gates, David. “The Napoleonic Era and Its Legacy.” In Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Isemonger, Paul Lewis, and Christopher Scott. The Fighting Man: The Soldier at War from the Age of Napoleon to the Second World War. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. London: Hutchinson, 2003. McNab, Chris, ed. Armies of the Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009. Muir, Rory. Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Pois, Robert A., and Philip Langer. “Napoleon in Russia, 1812.” In Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Weigley, Russell Frank. “The Climax of Napoleonic War: To Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt.” In The Age of Battles. 1991 Reprint. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Weller, Jac. On Wellington: The Duke and His Art of War. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. Biography: The Great Commanders: Napoleon Bonaparte. Documentary. Biography Channel, 1998. The Duellists. Feature film. Enigma Productions, 1977. Foot Soldier: The Napoleonic Soldier. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1998. Horatio Hornblower. Television series, Meridian Productions, 1998-2003. Master and Commander. Film. Twentieth Century Fox, 2003. Napoleon and Wellington. Documentary. A&E Home Video, 1999. Waterloo. Feature film. Paramount Pictures, 1970.
European Wars of Religion
The Era of Gustavus Adolphus
The Era of Frederick the Great
The Crimean War
The American Civil War