Napoleon’s Top Ten Military Commanders

“Read and reread the deeds of the great commanders, it is the only way to learn the art of war.”

It is something of immense interest to me to recall anything about ‘The God of War’ himself, Napoleon – for me at least, the greatest military commander who ever lived, and to provide new views on him. He is, after all, the most written-about man in all of history.

Firstly a quick break from our narrative to address a quick issue – “The ‘F’ word” – that’s right: “Falklands.” Readers of my blog will also know that I have received some major, shall we say “attention” for my recent work on the Falklands. For the most part the response has been excellent, indeed incredible. However what with this, and with my current productions covering both Caesar and Hannibal, I wanted to make one thing abundantly clear, in that I am not a ‘Falklands’ historian nor indeed an ‘Ancient’ historian, but  Military historian who covers all genres. The Falklands thing was a pet-project which grew, as were many of the others, but for me, by and large, a great deal of my work comes down to the most personally fascinating man in military history – and that is of course Napoleon. It is easy to be pigeon-holed in our industry, and prior to the whole Falklands thing, many were saying “Ricky that ancient warfare historian” – now it has gone the other way!

So for just a minute here, I’m going to indulge myself and talk about the man who I lovingly refer to as ‘The Boss” – and in particular about the ten men who really influenced him and his art of war.

Alexander the Great 

Any history of Napoleon’s influencers has to start here. Alexander was the man who set the proverbial ‘bar’ for all commanders from all ages. Alexander fought – and won – perhaps forty battles, combats and sieges without ever a defeat, although being most famous for the battles of the Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and the Hydaspes. Whilst other commanders, as we shall see, influenced Napoleon militarily, strategically and tactically, yet Alexander provided Napoleon with the ‘dream’ that one man could stand as a God and sweep all before him. It was in pursuit of this dream that Napoleon met his demise; his inexorable thirst to conquer taking him to Russia where he later said he wished he had fallen so that men might always wonder if he could have reached farther than his idol.

Hannibal Barca 

The ‘father of strategy’ Hannibal makes the list second. Napoleon, like so many others, was in awe of this doyen of battle tactics whose battles, particularly those of the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and of course Cannae, have formed the model for every major battle and campaign in history. For a commander whose ultimate aim was a decisive and crushing battle, as was Napoleon, Hannibal was the obvious choice. He was a man who could do the impossible, who could take on odds with a plan which would make his opponents work for him. What Alexander did for the grand dream, so Hannibal did for Napoleon in that idea of the grand destructive battle and his famous quote; “I will either find a way, or make one.”

Julius Caesar 

Caesar is a curious addition from a purely military stance. Of fifty battles fought, there was little which could be absorbed into the French system as there could be with Hannibal. But where Caesar made the grade above all others was in his ability to climb and create his own legend. If Alexander had been the dream, then Caesar was the blueprint to how an ordinary man might get as close as he could to it. Caesar was a formidable strategist who could merge the military art with politics and propaganda, and these lessons were all absorbed by Napoleon. Of a purely military legacy we must allow that Caesar’s speed was the thing which fired Napoleon’s imagination. When anyone stood up to Caesar, he came down upon them like a lighting bolt and scattered their allies and their armies before anything could grow into a desperate situation. It was an idea which Napoleon was to use to full effect many times.

Charlemagne

Charles the Great, the man whose Latin name ‘Charles Magnus’ became converted into one form. The King of the Franks, Charlemagne forged an empire which united Western Europe, particularly France, Germany and Italy, and which fused a military and political system together. In many ways a latter-day Caesar of sorts, Charlemagne was a shrewd diplomat and also a military innovator of the first order. He led a cavalry-revolution of ‘shock action’ against his opponents and introduced novel, indeed revolutionary siege techniques, and was an outstanding logistician which ensured that his campaigns could be fully supported and seen through to the end. Primarily, Charlemagne was the first commander to used converging detached forces – something key to the Napoleonic system. Credited with eighteen major battles and not one defeat, Charlemagne bridged the gap between the hero-worship of the ancient commanders and the practical genius of the ‘moderns’ (as Napoleon termed them) and is remembered as one of the very few truly outstanding commanders of the dark ages.

Gustavus Adolphus  

The first of the ‘moderns’ on Napoleon’s list, Gustavus, King of Sweden, has been hailed as both ‘the father of modern warfare’ and ‘the father of the the artillery’ – something not lost on Napoleon. Perhaps the single greatest soldier who ever lived, Gustavus was the ‘total package’ of warfare, merging all aspects of warfare into a truly national effort and producing the world’s first standardised artillery on top of a hundred more innovations to the art. The perfect infantryman, artilleryman, cavalryman, engineer and more, Gustavus shook the world and revolutionised the art of the commander for ever more. A lion of a man and always in the thick of the fighting, yet Napoleon was less than complimentary about him, stating that; “He wins one battle, loses the second and is killed in the third – there’s a neat reputation for you!” – yet despite this and several more jibes at Gustavus’ expense, Napoleon spent the night of the battle of Lutzen alone and in quiet contemplation at the monument toGustavus who had fallen on that field. There, he said, he experienced some great revelation – he never said what he saw, but the following day, Napoleon came out fighting as only Gustavus had or ever could. His greatest single day, as Marshal Marmont later recalled.

Marshal Turenne 

Of all of Napoleon’s favourite military commanders, Turenne topped the list as his idol and is still remembered as the greatest French general before Napoleon. He was not a technical innovator, as had been Charlemagne or Gustavus, nor did he fight any truly great battles as had Alexander or Hannibal, but Turenne was the first who could wage ‘campaign’ warfare. He made movement and manouevre his weapons and could defeat his opponents long before the battle was ever joined. An exponent of many short, sharp pin-prick actions, Turenne’s doctrine was at the forefront of Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy and later, when he was against the ropes in France and facing insurmountable odds, he was to revert once more to this model and to show that Turenne, before all others, was his teacher in the arts of war. Napoleon was later to say that he wished he had had Turenne with him at the battle of Wagram – indeed that he would have preferred him to Hannibal, and later went on record as saying that; “If I had had Turenne at my side during my campaigns, I would have been the master of the world.”

The Great Conde 

Turenne’s friend, then his enemy and then once again his friend, Conde was to claim second-place to Turenne in Napoleon’s list of the greatest French generals. Conde was the greatest battle-captain of his age, at just twenty-one the man who finally destroyed the legend of Spain’s invincibility in warfare at the battle of Rocroi, and – right up to his very last battle as an old gout-ridden version of his former dashing self – the maddest and boldest commander to ever grace the field of battle. Conde faced  and even defeated in battle some of the world’s top generals to include von Mercy, Montecucolli and even Turenne on one occasion, although owing his three battlefield defeats solely to his former friend. It was Conde’s skill, his patience and then an uncanny sense of timing to unleash that savage onslaught in a way matched by no commander other than possibly Alexander himself, Conde married those two Napoleonic concepts of coup de oeil and what he himself termed ‘The sacred fire’ into a perfect model. At Wagram, along with Turenne, Napoleon had also wished for a Conde by his side.

Prince Eugene of Savoy 

Another Frenchman, but one who fought against France, Prince Eugene was the greatest commander of the Hapsburg Empire who fought against both Ottoman and European opponents with consumate skill. Napoleon actually made very few comments about Eugene, although military theorists state that that above all he could make the system work, which no other could. Yet Eugene brought to the art of war something which blended the elements of Gustavus, Turenne and Conde into a perfect harmony. His brilliance was, perhaps, in doing everything brilliantly, and whilst we might think of Hannibal for Cannae, of Gustavus for Breitenfeld or of Conde for Rocroi, yet Prince Eugene made this his everyday business.He was the first to truly add ‘Intelligence’ as an arm of warfare as important as infantry or cavalry, and had an uncanny way of knowing his opponents intimately, often better than they knew themselves. Often compared with and even overshadowed by his great friend and co-commander Marlborough, yet Napoleon paid homage to Eugene’s effortless acceptance of coalition warfare, and indeed he honoured Marlborough the same, even commissioning a work on his campaigns to which he added great tracts himself anonymously.

Marshal Saxe 

The young Saxon drummer-boy who first served under Marlborough and Eugene at the siege of Lille aged just twelve and went on to fight at Malplaquet is now remembered as ‘the military prophet’ and for good reasons. Having served under the two greatest commander of the age, he next served under Peter the Great, commanding a regiment aged just seventeen and soaring to fame by capturing Prague by a coup de main. Victory followed Saxe everywhere, handing defeats the the British and their allies at Fontenoy, Rocoux and Lauffeldt. Where Saxe earned his place, however, was as a military theorist in a series of books known as his ‘Reveries’. First decried as the ravings of a madman on opium, Saxe’s reveries were idolised by Napoleon, for they were the first work which truly began to understand warfare as an exact science or definitive system, and were produced with the French system in mind. Saxe believed that the French character was fundamentally different from others, particularly the well-drilled Prussians, and that therefore the French required a system which applied to them alone. His innovations – never to be seen, included upgraded artillery, suggested rapid-firing breech-loading muskets and a corps of assault troops armed with swords and bullet-proof shields. A man of phenomenal strength, Saxe’s party-trick involved crushing a horse-shoe in one hand, a trick which he could still perform into his fifties when he died of fever.

Frederick the Great 

Very few military commanders – perhaps save only Turenne, stood as high with Napoleon in the practicalities of warfare as did Frederick, but for very different reasons. With all of the commanders listed, Napoleon had a love and a fascination but with Frederick, Napoleon had something which merged reverent respect with a professional jealousy bordering on hate. Frederick was the first commander of the modern age to truly look back through history and to see how the lessons of ancient warfare could be applied in the present day. In this alone, he was essentially the maker of Napoleon. Frederick saw the ‘manouevre battles’ of Cyrus the Great in the 500’s BC and drew on the histories of Epaminondas of Thebes and Philip and Alexander of Macedon to create a military system – the most famous incarnation of which was his ‘oblique order’. A master theorist in warfare and a man never scared of the odds, Frederick  wrecked his opponents with skill, efficiency and a cold-blooded determination. When one of his party compared Frederick with Turenne, Napoleon was incensed, stating that Turenne was by far the better, and when pressed as to this curious answer and reminded that he had always held Frederick in awe, Napoleon stated; “That is true, but it does not mean that I won’t now tear down all that he stood for.” In 1806 Napoleon faced the once-great Prussian army that Frederick had built, at the battle of Jena and destroyed it utterly, going on to destroy the monument to Frederick’s victory over the French at nearby Rossbach. Nevertheless, Napoleon was to pay his hero his dues as he led his generals to visit the tomb of the Great King of Prussia, ordering them; “Hats off gentlemen. If he were alive, we would not be here!”

About the author: Ricky D Phillips is a military history author with current works due for release including some remarkable new pieces of ancient history, a seven-volume history of Napoleon and a brand new project covering the Falklands War amongst many others.

He can be followed on Facebook at ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ for the latest updates on his new projects and latest books, plus the latest news from the world of military history.

 

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One thought on “Napoleon’s Top Ten Military Commanders

  1. “The men sang lustily, the noise crossing the bleak, dark field to strike terror into the hearts of the Imperialists.”
    I’m surprised by just how much I enjoyed reading Ricky D Phillips’ book Gustavus Adolphus, the fourth volume in his series Napoleon’s Great Commanders. This is the single most comprehensive book ever written about the seventeenth century King of Sweden who has been called the “father of modern warfare”.
    Not much of a weapons and warfare fan, more interested in the past and people, I was initially cautious of embarking upon reading the 400-page volume. My concerns were thankfully unfounded. Phillips paints, in well selected words, a picture of a positive, dynamic, innovative and personable ruler. In his fast moving and captivating style, he draws the reader into the heart of the story and makes us feel that we are actually in the middle of the action. We are taken on a journey through the 37 years of Gustavus Adolphus’ life; his becoming King as a teenager, inheriting not only the crown but also a number of wars and a cumbersome military force. We watch as he makes huge advances in military technology and leads Sweden through numerous victories before and during the 30 years war, against enemies that Phillips has not overlooked in his thorough research, as he takes his country to military supremacy.
    A word of caution: some of the battlefield scenes are, in keeping with our author’s detailed narrative style, particularly graphic. If they were not so, I feel that history would have been dealt a disservice.
    With all of that in mind I can’t recommend this book highly enough as the ideal gift for someone interested in military history or, like myself, interested in fascinating human stories.
    This outstanding volume is surely worthy of a score of 5/5

    Liked by 1 person

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