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Jonathan Gingerich

I have toyed with the idea of writing an essay call “The four Wars of Napoleon”. He won an amazing percentage of battles and for that alone he would be remembered. But campaigns come out about 50-50. Taking it one step further, I think you get a better perspective looking at it as 4 wars.

He spent 7 years in the Med. theater (and more continuous time in Egypt than anywhere else). Thanks to Suvorov, the end results weren’t that different than when they started, the Revolutionary Wars being won in Flanders. But it was a well paced apprenticeship for an undoubtedly superior commander. In hindsight, his exploits are gussied up as the seeds of genius, but they weren’t necessarily any different than what the young marshals were running around doing with small forces.

The Glory Years – a war against Russia, Austria, and Prussia, faced one at a time thanks to Prussian reluctance, were both brilliant and lucky. But taken all together a bit of the shine comes off as each victory was less than the previous. The Austrians guessed wrong and handed him his greatest victory, Ulm. So overwhelming no one bothers to write about it. Again the Allies miscalculated at Austerlitz – Buxhowden sitting on his hands with 1/3 of the army still boggles the mind. Jena/Auerstadt was hard fought, but the Prussians were all-in due to geography and their misplayed politics, so the loss was a rout. The Polish campaign, however, was a grind and while it was won at Friedland, the other battles in the mud were fair warning about the limitations of Napoleon’s offensive system in a resource poor environment. Again, it was a brilliant example of “Fortune favors the Bold” but an over-achievement by the  French, which could not be sustained.

The dynastic wars – disposing of the Spanish king and thereby terrifying the Austrian dynasty into thinking they faced an existential crisis – was eventually lost in Spain and settled with a dynastic alliance with Austria which would have saved the Empire had it been more generous. While the Austrian offensive was still inept, the bloodbaths of Aspern-Essling and Wagram, and the slow bleed of Spain were equally fair warnings about the resolution of opponents when the state was at stake.

And then the end – Russia endured and the French alliance met with disaster mostly because the army was too large to sustain in the environment. The result was a complete debacle. The German campaign saw the Allies – eventually Russian, Prussia, and Austria – handling multiple fronts better than the marshals commanding French corps.  They kept their cool, even in the face of the astonishing victory of Dresden, while the French alliance collapsed. Then in France, the winter campaign beat Napoleon to the punch. So he raised another army in  the 100 days, but Wellington and Blucher weren’t going to be rattled by the same old tricks and the bigger battalions won the final victory.

I think much of the disagreements arise, not from the history, but the perspective. The Glory Years are seen not as a perfect storm, but as the natural consequence of French martial superiority. The apprenticeship is elevated as the seeds of genius rather than a promising mixed result, and the dynastic wars viewed from the political result – Napoleon as master of Europe – albeit with concerns about the French losing their edge. The collapse is seen as bad luck and the weight of numbers (which really isn’t true) as the aristocracy cannot abide a self-made upstart. But if you see the other campaigns as the natural consequence of committed, attritional conflict, then Napoleon made a huge mistake not collecting his winning, leaving the table, and resting on his laurels after 1807.