The Duke of Wellington famously described his first and last battlefield confrontation with Napoleon as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
He was referring, of course, to the Battle of Waterloo, a bloody, furious one-day engagement in and around a village in northern Belgium of that name, fought 200 years ago today between France’s Army of the North and an allied army of British, Prussian, and Dutch troops under Wellington’s overall command.
About six hours into the desperate fighting, the French seized a strategically vital farmhouse, brought up their artillery, and came within a hair’s breadth of breaking through the center of Wellington’s defensive line. Had they succeeded, it would have forced a rapid allied retreat, leading to almost certain allied defeat, and yet another French advance on Brussels.
In the event, Wellington’s line, which had been taking very heavy casualties all afternoon, held fast just long enough for a fresh Prussian corps to arrive on the scene. The Prussians punched into the enemy’s right wing, forcing the French to withdraw. The Brits rallied, and counterattacked in the center. Suddenly, French resistance cracked, and the withdrawal morphed into a rout.
The “nearest run thing” turned into one of the most celebrated British (and to a lesser extent, German and Dutch) victories in history. In all, more than 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded at Waterloo on a battlefield of only 5 square miles in less than 12 hours.
Yet it has to be said at the outset, Waterloo’s significance in the broad sweep of history lies less in how or why the battle was fought than in the simple fact that it drew a curtain down on the Napoleonic wars—the Western world’s first extended exposure to what the noted American historian David Bell aptly calls “total war.” In fact, it would be more accurate to say the battle drew down the final curtain on the Napoleonic conflicts, as the First French Empire had been decisively defeated (or so it seemed) by the allied armies in spring 1814, and Napoleon sent into to exile to the island of Elba.
But you can’t keep a good emperor down—he slipped back into France in February 1815, determined to take up the reins of power yet again. And so he did.
Before Waterloo, for almost a quarter-century, the great and small powers of Europe found themselves engaged in a series of large and destructive conflicts against France, not only across all of Europe, but in the Far East, North America, North Africa, and the Caribbean as well. The primary architect, and certainly the most brilliant practitioner of total war in its first (but by no means last) incarnation was Napoleon Bonaparte. The diminutive Corsican general-turned-dictator-turned-emperor managed to build the most formidable empire since Rome by co-opting the explosive political and social forces of the French Revolution, and linking them to a nascent revolution in military doctrine and strategy he understood far better than anyone else—and went on to perfect in a series of wars of imperialist conquest.
Total war, Napoleonic war, arose out of the clash of between the French revolutionaries on one side and the French royalists and their allies among the old regime monarchies of Europe. In rejecting feudalism, the absolute rule of kings, and aristocratic privilege in favor of universal human rights and republican government, the revolutionaries were placing a powder keg underneath Europe’s social and political foundations. Naturally, the Old Regime powers were both appalled and alarmed by the rising tide of revolutionary fervor, for it threatened not only their traditional beliefs about how the world should work, but their heads.
A call to all the monarchs of Europe by Austria and Prussia in August 1791 to quash the Revolution, and restore Louis the VXI of France to his rightful pre-eminence, was interpreted by the Revolutionary government as a direct threat to France’s sovereignty and to political and social reform in general.
The National Assembly in Paris lobbied for a declaration of war against Austria as the ringleader of an anti-French conspiracy. As historian Tim Blanning writes in The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815, “the revolutionaries calculated that war would radicalize the Revolution, destroy the monarchy, establish a republic and—last but not least—bring themselves to power.”
War was declared against Austria by France in April 1792, and indeed, the resulting War of the First Coalition (1792-1797), pitting France against Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Britain, accomplished all those things, and more. After falling back against the weight of an Austro-Prussian invasion into France, the Revolutionary armies mounted a spectacular counterattack in the fall of 1792, seizing all of Belgium and several German states east of the Rhine.
By spring 1793, the fortunes of war turned yet again, as French volunteers turned in their muskets and returned to their families after their streak of early victories. Dunkirk was besieged by the English. The Prussians swept the French out of the Rhineland; the Austrians took back Belgium. The Revolution was on the verge of military collapse by summer 1793. The new governing body in Paris, the National Convention, took the unprecedented step of mobilizing the entire population and all the nation’s resources to carry on the fight: “From this moment until that in which our enemies shall have been driven from the territory of the Republic all Frenchmen are permanently requisitioned for service in the armies. The young men shall fight, the married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; the women will make tents and clothes and will serve in hospitals, the children will make up linen into lint; the old men will [converge on] the public squares to rouse the courage of fighting men, to preach the unit of the Republic and hatred of Kings.”
By the spring of 1794 the French conscript army had swelled to a massive 800,000 men, by far the largest in European history. Moreover, true to its egalitarian principles, the government culled the officer corps of hundreds of aristocrats, including more than 300 generals who had obtained their commission through political connections, and replaced them with junior officers, commoners with a firm grounding in the new military doctrines and tactics developed in the wake of France’s defeat in the Seven Years War of 1754-1763.
Beset by internal squabbles and disputes over strategy, the First Coalition found it difficult to contend with France’s new conscript armies. By 1795, France had retaken Belgium, and the German states on the left bank of the Rhine, as well as Holland.
It was as commander of the Army of Italy that Napoleon emerged as the most charismatic and strategically brilliant of the new French generals. With an army of only 45,000 men and 60 pieces of artillery, he repeatedly bested larger, more heavily armed Austrian and Sardinian forces during the campaign seasons of 1796 and 1797. In spring 1796 alone, he vanquished his adversaries in three set-piece battles on their own turf in rapid succession, forced an armistice on Sardinia, and then seized Milan, the capital of Austrian Lombardy.
The following year, the Austrians tried to annihilate the French threat by converging on Napoleon’s forces at Mantua with two armies from different directions, both larger than his; Napoleon placed his army at the junction of the two, concentrated first against one, and then the other, and defeated both. Then he marched through the Alps, and threatened Vienna. Austria sued for peace.
The Treaty of Campo Formio (1797) ended the War of the First Coalition, leaving France in control of Holland, Belgium, the left bank of the Rhine, and all of northern Italy, but the immensely popular Napoleon, who was already laying the groundwork for his ascent to absolute power, treated the peace agreement much as he would others to follow: it was little more than a speed bump on the road to further conquest. “Peace” for insatiably aggressive Bonaparte, quips Blanning, “was merely the continuation of war by other means.”
Alarmed by France’s thrust into the Mediterranean, where it intended to expand its own influence, the Russians joined the Austrians and the British in the second (and last) of the Revolutionary wars—the War of the Second Coalition. Determined to challenge England’s overseas empire, Napoleon invaded Egypt and captured Cairo with the intention of conquering the Middle East and going on to India, only to have his fleet sunk by Admiral Nelson at Aboukir Bay, leaving the army marooned in North Africa.
Then, in spring 1799, the Austrians swept the French out of Switzerland, and the Russians conquered northern Italy. Once again, the Revolution appeared on the brink of defeat, and the nation looked to its most brilliant soldier to save the day. In a coup that enjoyed widespread popular support, Napoleon was appointed First Consul and essentially given a free hand to set the political and military agenda of the nation.
In a masterfully planned and executed campaign, he dispatched an army that made quick work of the Russians at the Battle of Zurich, after which Tsar Paul I fell out with the allies, and ordered his army to retire to Moscow. Napoleon returned to Italy at the head of another army via the treacherous Great St. Bernard Pass in the Alps, and snatched decisive victory from the hands of defeat against the Austrians at Marengo. Following one more devastating loss to the French at Hohenlinden in Germany, Austria again sued for peace in 1802, acquiescing to all French conquests since 1792.
His grip on both political and military affairs now fully secure, Napoleon began to apply his prodigious energies and organizational skills into mobilizing the populace, modernizing the state bureaucracy, and turning the army into one of the premier military institutions in world history—all with a view to prosecuting more ambitious campaigns of conquest and glory.
Between 1803 and 1809, Napoleon led the French armies to a stunning series of victories over three subsequent coalitions of European powers, and consolidated French control over most of Europe by direct conquest and nuanced, yet decidedly coercive, diplomacy. As historian Peter Paret (among others) has observed, war for Napoleon was not a measure of last resort; it was the centerpiece of French foreign policy.
The French army that ranged over the continent at this time was larger, and considerably more mobile and lethal, than any of its opponents. It was an entirely different animal in form and function than the relatively small professional armies that fought limited, typically inconclusive wars for incremental gains during the 18th century. Its primary object was to engage in large-scale, decisive battle that, by annihilating the enemy’s forces, reduced his powers of resistance to the maximum extent possible.
Napoleon was by training an artillery officer, and his armies were the first in the world to employ truly accurate and mobile field artillery in standardized calibers, both in support of infantry operations, and to terrorize his adversaries with highly concentrated bombardments against vulnerable formations. Another innovation was the introduction of a permanent reserve force of elite infantry and cavalry, to be employed with the utmost violence to bring engagements to a victorious conclusion.
Speed and mobility were greatly enhanced by Napoleon’s division of the army into discrete, independent corps of 25,000 to 30,000 men, each containing staff, infantry, artillery, cavalry, engineer, and supply units. Napoleonic corps eschewed the cumbersome baggage trains of other 18th-century armies, sustaining themselves by requisitioning supplies from the local population, and foraging on the march.
The French corps typically moved along different routes of march while on campaign to maximize speed and tactical flexibility, but remained close enough to one another to provide mutual support, or to concentrate rapidly for a powerful attack.
“Unlike his 18th century forbears, who rigidly distinguished between maneuvering and giving battle, adopting different formations for each activity,” writes historian David Chandler, “Napoleon fused marching, fighting, and pursuing into one continuous and devastating process.” By moving his forces along diverse routes rapidly, into positions his adversaries had little reason to expect, Napoleon created confusion, doubt, and demoralization within the enemy camp.
Nowhere was the mobility and strategic boldness of the Napoleonic army better demonstrated than in the defeat of Austria and Russia in the War of the Third Coalition in 1805. The Austrian army was forming up in Bavaria along the Danube River, with about 30,000 troops concentrated at Ulm, and the Russians were behind them, about 50 miles to the northeast. Together they threatened to attack either France or northern Italy.
In late August 1805, all seven corps of the French army marched at a blistering pace of 20 to 35 miles a day from Boulogne in northwestern France, crossing the entire country into southern Germany in a month. They crossed the Rhine northwest of Ulm, swept down behind the Austrian army there, and encircled it. General Karl Mack, who expected a French attack to come through the Black Forest to his front, the traditional path of invasion from France into Germany, was completely wrong-footed, and surrendered his entire force on October 20 without firing a shot.
Napoleon then marched east along the Danube with 65,000 troops, took Vienna, and lured a combined force of 90,000 Russians and Austrians into attacking him on ground of his own choosing at Austerlitz. There the allied army launched a major attack at Napoleon’s right wing, badly overextending and weakening its own front lines, just as the Emperor had hoped.
Then, as an additional French corps under Marshal Soult arrived on the scene via forced march, Napoleon ordered Soult to break through the weakened enemy center, while Napoleon’s own left wing attacked the enemy flank and rear. By late afternoon, about 30 percent of the enemy force was dead, wounded, or POWs.
The victory at Austerlitz crushed Russian and Austrian morale, and cleared the path for the extension of French power deep into central and eastern Europe. “In his [Napoleon’s] greatest campaigns,” observes Paret, “the climactic battle emerges naturally from long and rapid advances deep into enemy territory; but the advances were never directed at a particular location, a geographic objective. Rather they pushed a strong army so far forward that it could not be ignored but had to be fought.”
As a field commander, Napoleon’s very presence instilled immense confidence in his troops, and dread in those of the enemy. He had a sixth sense about the tactical intentions of his enemy, and a remarkably intuitive capacity for detecting subtle shifts in the momentum of combat, and capitalizing on them with the utmost violence.
That he was at once head of state and supreme commander “was certainly conducive to the closest integration of policy and war,” writes Paret. “The unity of political and military authority eliminated the friction at the top that otherwise was inevitable. Above all it facilitated quick decisions … and made possible the startling flexibility with which he adjusted his diplomacy to the shifting military situation. ”
Although Waterloo marked the end of the Napoleonic wars, it can hardly be said to have caused their end. Waterloo has the odd distinction of being the only major battle to have been fought after formal peace agreements had been worked out and agreed by the warring powers. The irrepressible Corsican simply could not stay put in exile in Elba—where he had been consigned for almost a year after the victory of the Sixth Coalition in 1814—and had to make one last desperate stab at glory.
The end for France had actually begun to come into view several years earlier, as the emperor’s lust for additional conquest led to imperial overreach, and frankly, some pretty dumb decisions, especially the 1812 invasion of Russia, with its catastrophic winter withdrawal, and the devastating confrontation with superior allied armies at Leipzig. By that point, Napoleon’s adversaries had adopted many of his methods and ideas as their own.
At the Paris and Vienna peace conferences of 1814-15, the diplomats rebalanced the map of Europe, restoring France to its pre-revolutionary borders, and put in place a number of mechanisms and agreements to insure security and stability. But Napoleon had let the genie out of the bottle, and total war would come again to Europe and the world with a vengeance, in the form of two world wars. All the major strategists in those conflicts were assiduous students of Napoleon’s campaigns, just as all serious academic and military strategists since the end of World War II have been, for if Napoleon was not the father of modern warfare, then he was surely its first master.
James A. Warren is military writer and visiting scholar at Brown University. Author of Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2013).