How I broke Napoleon’s codes…

Instant cries of; “Usurper!! Fraud!! It was damned Scovell and you know it, you fiend you!!” – from the crowd…aye well, I deserved that, and you probably deserve and explanation too, don’t you?

Well as my growing audience knows, I am a writer of all things military, but Napoleon (or “The boss” as I like to refer to him) is my particular muse. There are usually two schools of thought when writing upon Napoleon, and usually neither are helpful. The first is either that one is a “War nut” with the eponymous ‘Napoleon complex’ or else is just climbing on the biggest band-wagon of them all (Napoleon is, after all, the most written about subject in all of history!) and the second is that charge of “Napoleon worshipper!” which is pointed as accusationally as ever Matthew Hopkins proclaimed “Witch!” – When it comes to Napoleon, you just can’t win!

The man was great; there is no doubt about it. As a politician, he created the legal code for all of Europe; the ‘Code Napoleon’ which still stands, he created the French Post Office, National Bank, Stock Exchange and a million other things based around the infrastructure of Europe. He was a great inventor, a mathematical genius, a memory-man who would have made Las Vegas tremble. Even when imprisoned on the island of St Helena at the very end, he still solved the island’s unconquerable drainage and irrigation problems and planned the road networks…he was a man of constant ability and activity. But that isn’t why I like him, of course…Napoleon was the world’s greatest general, and that’s that. (Further cries of “Heresy!” from the Alexander the Great fan-club.)

Let’s hammer out a few facts here; Napoleon fought in all sixty pitched battles (so not including skirmishes or ‘combats’ which didn’t quite make the grade as full-scale battles) and he lost seven. That’s pretty good! Even Caesar fought fifty (that includes skirmishes and ‘combats’ as well as pitched battles) and he went down with two losses and a draw (Gergovia, Dyrrachium and Ruspina, if you’re interested). Hannibal lost quite a few (including the first, second AND third battles of Nola and Zama in the end, obviously), the great and incomparable Turenne lost three; Mergentheim, Champ Blanc and Valenciennes and I only end with him because of his wonderful words; “If a commander call himself undefeated, he can’t have been about his business very long.”

So 53 wins and 7 defeats (potentially a few wins which could be termed ‘draws’ but you get the point) – if he were a boxer he would have a better score card than Ali, now wouldn’t he?? So what’s all this about ‘Napoleon’s codes’ I can hear the learned amongst you ask? – Well it comes down to his art of war, and a secret which has lain buried for two hundred years since his death…a secret I have not only discovered, but tested, proven and am in the process of publishing. And it’ll knock your socks off!

You see, from the time of his final defeat at Waterloo (“Booo…hisss…” from the Napoleon worshippers) people started to try to debunk Napoleon and work out his way of waging war. It was a method which seemingly had no constant. Epaminondas had created the oblique order and always struck from the left (see Leuctra and Mantinea), Alexander used a modified version of the above and always struck right of centre (see Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela), Hannibal used ruse and deception, Caesar speed, force and terror, Turenne invented the ‘indirect approach’, Marlborough was a ‘left-hooker’ (see Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde or Malplaquet),Frederick the ‘oblique order’ again (which he resurrected from Epaminondas), Robert E. Lee was an expert at the old ‘one-two’ of left-hook followed by right-cross (see the Seven Days’ battles, 2nd Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Wilderness) – you get the point. Like boxers, most generals had a preferred ‘style’ or a ‘method’ – but Napoleon didn’t. Or so it seems.

Every time he fought, he did something new; in fact he only ever used the same plan twice (which I discussed last year at my talk “Sixty Battles” – and that was, oddly, in his first ever campaign (Montenotte, Dego and Mondovi) and in his last (Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo) – and I was the first person ever even to realise and state this, by the way. It was the perfect model of fighting two separate armies at the same time. The first time it worked perfectly. The second…well, not so well, but almost! – This is the only time we can ever catch him using the same method twice, and in no way that we can call it a ‘style’ – it was just common sense.

Napoleon was keen to learn what people were saying about him, and his memoirs are dotted with jibes at those who have attempted to untangle his legacy and declare him debunked. Many tried, all failed, and whilst he lived, Napoleon tore them down in writing and occasionally offered up something new; always quizzical, a riddle, a question more than an answer, which only deepened the confusion more. An attempt to read Napoleon’s memoirs is pointless…I have, and you have to cut through the megalomania and thirty-six-point observations on what he would have done in somebody else’s stead and how he would have done it better before you realise you have lost your way completely, and can’t tell truth from pure fiction!

After he died, there were more who quickly took up the task; the Welshman Henry Lloyd, Jomini, Clausewitz – who called him simply ‘The God of war’ and declared pretty much everything as simply ‘genius’ and many others after them, and all – and I do mean ALL writers from them until the present day made one critical assumption: Napoleon did not invent anything new in the art of war.

Sure, he took inspiration from others. Some say he merely ‘copied’ from the greatest generals of the past, which is an almost-brainless statement and yet even that can be true here and there. The man himself said that there were inspirations in everything, but never models, but this idea of ‘replication’ has been in vogue for two hundred years. If he didn’t invent anything new, then he must have copied…must have remembered every battle and campaign of note from history and applied them; and there’s your answer. Napoleon debunked. He was a genius with a great memory. Case closed.

Really? – I mean….really? Even when he was alive, he laughed at this suggestion, but people still say it. Every new book on the subject (because half a million books on the man aren’t enough…yes there are at least that many titles covering Napoleon) repeats it, and simply because this HAD to be the answer by process of elimination. I mean, what else was there?? The incomparable David G Chandler (for my money the best military history writer of the last hundred years or more) even said it, so did Andrew Roberts in his 2014 book ‘Napoleon the Great’…everyone has. That isn’t a dig either, I love both of their key books on Napoleon, and why should they challenge what has been ‘known’ for 200 years?

Well I hate to say (okay I don’t, I love to say!!) that they were wrong….okay, not wrong; ‘Misled’.

You see, Napoleon was – it is true, a military history fanatic. He was also a ‘war-nut’, a megalomaniac and a semi-crazed genius, and like all geniuses, he talked a bit too much. He wanted to be misunderstood though. Power – which mortal man craves, can only be gained in life…and he got to the very top of his tree, but ‘legacy’ which great men crave, can only be achieved in death (I am virtually citing my own book here, by the way!) – and legacy comes when you are misunderstood. Napoleon didn’t want to be debunked, and hence we are all still talking about him to this day…clever little git wasn’t he??

However, as I say, he talked a bit too much, and whilst leading his ‘debunkers’ down a myriad of paths all carefully planned to confuse and baffle them further, he made a mistake, and I spotted it. Better, it was (and still is) in plain sight, but nobody has seen it in two hundred years, and if you go looking, you will fail…he was cleverer than us, remember, and very, very deliberate. If you played his game on the battlefield, you lost. Like Wellington, you have to fight it out sitting on your arse.

It was just as I finished the last volume of my seven-volume history on Napoleon and his art of war that I saw this. I was concluding – like everybody else – that he had not invented anything new in the art of war. I wasn’t looking for something new at all…trust me, I could do without the bad press of telling every author and expert for 200 years that they are wrong (sorry, ‘Misled’) and then I saw it there in front of me. It was like he had come down from his personal Valhalla and said “Here you go, son. Nice job, but you’re just missing a piece…here it is, I had it in my pocket the whole time.”

I stopped. No….it couldn’t be…heart races, lights cigarette…no surely not? Out comes Chandler’s ‘Campaigns of Napoleon’ and then the Esposito book (the huge one with all the maps) “No…..” I hear myself saying as I sweep through the pages; and suddenly every page looks different…kind of like those annoying “When you see it” posts on Facebook; once you have seen it, you can’t put it back to look the way it did before – it was like that. I looked at one battle then swept back randomly to an earlier one….now forward…and what about….yes he did it there too! It was a bit like in ‘The Matrix’ when Neo can start to see in green binary code – you know right at the end of the first film? – Uh-huh, like that. The ‘Naptrix’?? Who knows. Anyway, it was like that.

“Bastard…” I hear myself saying excitedly, “You clever, clever bastard…” because it’s there, and it’s beautiful.

So what was it? – Err…well…here’s the problem. I have spent two and a bit years on this. Seven volumes. And yes, they needed a bloody big overhaul once I had seen and tested this, otherwise they’d be on the book-shelves long-since. So I can’t actually tell you (Cries of “What the f**k!!??”) You can look and you won’t find it. It isn’t there to be seen. It fooled Clausewitz, for Pete’s sake, you’re not supposed to get it, but it’s there: The thing that made Napoleon pretty much unbeatable. His final secret…and I found it. Of course, the obvious point is “But he lost in the end so it can’t have been that perfect!” – well that’s true too. I have also found out where and why it didn’t work, don’t worry. It’s all there.

I don’t know if he did make a mistake. Maybe, like all good geniuses, or even criminals, there was a little part of Napoleon which wanted to get caught, otherwise where’s the fun? What’s the point in a riddle with no answer? Maybe I’m still ‘in the game’ and maybe this isn’t the end, who knows? What I do know, however, is that when these seven volumes creak their heavyweight arses onto your bookshelves in the next year or so, you will find it as I have. I feel that this has been ‘given’ in a way, not taken; like it is a reward, not a prize; a privilege and not a right…you get it.

Until then, you will have to wait and hope I don’t get run over by a bus or something, but I have a suspicion that having come this far, I might just be okay. Just when we thought everything that could be said about Napoleon has been said, a whole new chapter is about to open, so you know what? Don’t look. Let it come to you, as I did. Savour the moment and eat the dish, not the ingredients…let me have my little day in the sun until the other authors pelt me with rotten tomatoes and cry “Witch!” The truth is that Napoleon invented something which is so good that nobody has ever seen it before, and so subtle that you won’t find it. Even Wellington would probably look again and say; “That’s damned clever, by jove!” 

So yes…if Napoleon is, as Clausewitz said, ‘The God of war’ then by all means call me a ‘Napoleon worshipper’ for I am a convert. Until you can find out for yourself, please make like Bon Jovi, and keep the faith.

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