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Romping Through Europe

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Frederick W. Kagan.
The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe 1801–1805.
Perseus Books. 774 pages. $40.00

N apoleon was not only a great man; he was also a great pr man, a self-promoter of the first rank: Throughout his career, he carefully fashioned the image of himself as the ultimate romantic hero and man of action, an image that was reinforced by the memoirs of his closest associates. And after his body was brought back to France from St. Helena on the oddly named warship La Belle Poule in 1840 and re-interred in brooding majesty at Les Invalides, a regular Bonaparte cult developed among artists and intellectuals, both in France and abroad, the effects of which are felt to this day. As a result, his triumphs are remembered and celebrated, his failures excused or discreetly forgotten.

Just consider his Egyptian adventure, in which he landed in Alexandria in 1798 with a force of 30,000 soldiers and led them to the Pyramids, where “forty centuries were looking down upon them,” as he put it in his order of the day. What we recall today from this expedition are the artistic and scientific contributions of the scientists, archaeologists, and artists he brought along, echoes of which crop up everywhere in the empire style in the form of obelisks, pyramids, and sphinxes. And there is Antoine Jean Gros’s great painting showing the fearless Napoleon visiting his troops in the plague hospital in Jaffa, a kind of martial Messiah among the lepers.

In reality, of course, the campaign was a disaster, with Nelson sinking the French fleet in Abukir Bay outside Alexandria, leaving the army stranded and its numbers whittled away by disease and sandstorms. After Napoleon’s excursion to Syria, where he failed to take the city of Acre — which was defended by Commodore Sir William Sidney Smith while Syria’s governor, Djezzar Pasha, sat merrily paying cash for every severed French head brought to him — Napoleon had had it. Claiming to be urgently needed elsewhere, he deserted his troops and hightailed it back to France, leaving his army to fend for itself.

An exasperated General Jean Baptiste Kleber, who took over the command, grumbled that he had been left holding Napoleon’s britches, which were full of merde, and someday he would “rub Napoleon’s face in it.” Kleber never got to fulfill his promise, as he was assassinated by an Egyptian in 1800, and the French finally capitulated the following year.

As for Napoleon’s European campaigns, his military opponents — Wellington apart — have regularly been dismissed as a sorry lot, especially Austrian general Karl von Mack, the loser in the battle of Ulm, who has been depicted by Habsburg historians, eager to protect the reputation of their patrons, as certifiably insane. And the Russian commander, prince Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, comes across as a fat fatalist in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, nodding off to sleep during war councils, in keeping with Tolstoy’s theory that history is governed by huge impenetrable forces, and generals and princes do not really matter.

Napoleon’s defeats have routinely been ascribed to the incompetence of others, to bad weather or to illness, piles, bladder trouble, and indigestion, afflictions which no mortal can escape. Rod Steiger, in the movie Waterloo, portrays the emperor’s Maalox moment with spectacular intensity.

The problem with such explanations, according to historian Frederick Kagan, is that they do not teach us very much, except that it is a dumb idea to invade Russia and that piles and stomach upset are a damned nuisance. So this is what Kagan, who has taught at West Point and is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sets out to rectify in his mammoth four-volume undertaking on the Napoleonic wars, of which The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe 1801–1805 is the first volume.

Citing Clausewitz, whose On War distilled the essence of Napoleonic warfare, as his guiding light, Kagan’s ambition is to weave the military, economic, diplomatic, and political strands of the Napoleonic wars together into a coherent whole. Though Clausewitz himself emphasized the inseparability between war and those other areas, as an officer he was mostly concerned with the military aspects.

According to Kagan, it was not a tummy ache that felled Napoleon at Waterloo but rather the coalition that had been formed against him, and it is the theme of coalition-building that has Kagan’s great interest.

According to Kagan, it was not a tummy ache that felled Napoleon at Waterloo but rather the coalition that had been formed against him, and it is the theme of coalition-building that has Kagan’s great interest: how counties face up to the threat posed by a Napoleon, the essential undeterrable man. Writes Kagan: “The real story of the coalitions that fought Napoleon lies not in their increasing military prowess, but in their growing skills as a coalition.” Thus, it was the same Gebhard von Blucher who’d been whupped at Auerstedt in 1806 who came to Wellington’s aid at Waterloo in 1815. What had changed was that by the time of Waterloo the rest of Europe had finally gotten its act together.

Thus, Kagan is clearly less besotted than the Napoleon worshippers and less emotional than Napoleon haters like Paul Johnson, who in full and splendid John Bull mode in his hugely entertaining biography tears the man to shreds as a tacky little runt who cheated at cards, kicked his officers, and swiped the sword and orders of Freddy the Great when visiting his grave at the Garrison Church at Potsdam after the battle of Jena.

Kagan proves that it is perfectly possible to see Napoleon’s flaws and essential nastiness while acknowledging the brilliance of his mind, with its almost Mozartian simplicity and elegance. Kagan dispassionately dissects Napoleons failures as well as his successes — as was indeed Napoleon’s own method when studying the ancients and Frederick the Great: “Read and meditate upon the wars of the greatest captains,” he admonished. “This is the only means of rightly learning the science of war.”


E urope first got to know the name of Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy in 1796, where the generalship over the French Army of Italy was his reward for having saved the corrupt Directoire government from a public insurrection. At first sight, it did not look like much of a reward. Of the French armies, the Army of Italy was the trash can, lacking in everything: cannon, horses, funds. But in keeping with the precepts of Lazare Carnot, the reorganizer and professionalizer of France’s revolutionary armies, that “war must pay for war,” Napoleon promised his “half naked and mistreated” soldiers “honor and riches” beyond their wildest dreams if they would fight for France.

His basic approach to war was simple: “There are in Europe many good generals, but they see too many things at once. I see only one thing, namely the enemy’s main body. I try to crush it, confident that secondary matters will then settle themselves.” Whereupon he proceeded to lick the Austrians in the battles of Lodi, Arcola, and Rivoli, causing them to withdraw from Italy. Under the peace treaty of Campo Formio, the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics were established under French influence.

The French squandered most of these gains during Napoleon’s trip to Egypt, where the Austrians reconquered with Russian help what they had lost in Italy. Which meant that Napoleon had to go back and lead an army of 50,000 from Switzerland across the Alps through the Saint Bernard Pass (where the artist David immortalized him on fiery horseback rather than on the sensible mule he was actually riding) to defeat the much greater Austrian army at Marengo, leading to the peace treaty at Luneville in 1801, which shut the Austrians out of northwestern Italy and established the Rhine as France’s eastern border. A separate peace treaty was made with Britain in 1801 and ratified the following year in Amiens. On his return from Italy, Napoleon was made First Consul for life on August 2, 1802.

Unfortunately, as the rest of Europe was soon to learn, Napoleon’s treaties were not worth the paper they were written on. In the period between April 1801 and September 1802, he annexed Piedmont, re-occupied Switzerland and left his troops in Holland, and he occupied Naples the following year. He was also actively seeking to recover France’s overseas empire, which upset the Brits. Diplomatically, his game was one of trying to split up his opponents through a combination of threats and bribes.

As an example of Napoleon’s bullying tactics, Kagan cites two celebrated incidents from early 1803 involving the British ambassador, Lord Whitworth, whose aristocratic imperturbability got Napoleon’s goat. At the first meeting, Napoleon demanded, in a two-hour monologue, that Britain quit Malta, restrain its press, and chuck out French refugees. The alternative would be war.

At a diplomatic function in the Tuilleries shortly thereafter, Napoleon threw a regular fit, according to the notes of the Russian ambassador reporting the incident back to the czar. He threatened Whitworth with “throwing black crepe” over treaties and announced that “he would try to make a landing in England, and put himself at the head of that expedition. This would be a war of extermination in which he expected to have a great deal of success.” By May 1803, Britain and France were back at war.

Napoleon committed a further gross act of provocation in March 1804, when he had a troop of cavalry kidnap the Duke of Enghien, a member of the Bourbon family, whom he suspected of conspiring against him and who lived on the other side of the border in the neutral electorate of Baden. (Napoleon was rather casual when it came to other people’s borders.) After a short trial before a military tribunal on phony charges, he had the duke shot at the Chateau de Vincennes, sending shockwaves throughout the courts of Europe — a deed his wily foreign minister Talleyrand famously characterized as “worse than a crime. It was a mistake.”

To top it off, in order to establish a greater legitimacy and secure the succession in the hope of creating a dynastic line, in May 1804 he proclaimed himself emperor after a popular election to which he for good measure had added an extra 500,000 votes in favor from the army and navy, though they had never been consulted on the matter. And he made marshals of his generals, forming the nucleus of a new instant nobility, to be showered with fancy titles and possessions.


Alexander wanted a stable system in Europe, based on international law; he had first hoped that Napoleon could be hemmed in by defensive alliances, but had reached the conclusion that Napoleon could not be contained.

H ow to stop this monster? The main players on the continent were the Russians, the Austrians, and the Prussians, while the Royal Navy controlled the oceans. Aware of the failures of the two previous attempts at anti-French coalitions, the young and idealistic Czar Alexander of Russia took the lead in the effort to form a new coalition, the so-called third coalition, which is the main topic of this volume. Alexander wanted a stable system in Europe, based on international law; he had first hoped that Napoleon could be hemmed in by defensive alliances but reached the conclusion that Napoleon could not be contained and therefore had to be fought and defeated.

Alexander first approached the British. Though the Brits were Napoleon’s most implacable foes, a number of obstacles had to be overcome — the British were skeptical of the czar’s idealism and suspicious of Russian intentions toward Turkey, while the Russians objected to the British naval policy of confiscating the cargo of neutral shipping — before a treaty could be signed. The Brits could be relied upon to provide financing — Napoleon would forever rail against “Pitt’s gold” — but at that time, they did not have an army on the continent. For that, continental allies were needed. Alexander had first hoped to persuade Prussia’s King Frederick William iii into joining the game when Napoleon invaded Hanover. But Prussia was poor and threadbare, its military leadership ancient and stuck in Frederick the Great’s parade manual. In fact, so far had military expenses been cut that the Prussians relied on showing visiting dignitaries their parade troops, hoping to impress them with military theater. Besides, Frederick William feared the Austrians and the Russians almost as much as he feared the French; he was determined to stay neutral.

Alexander then turned to Francis, the emperor of Austria. Francis’s Austro-Hungarian empire had also seen better days, and he feared that a mobilization on his part would invite a French attack. What abruptly changed his mind and brought the third coalition into being was Napoleon’s decision in 1804 to make Italy a kingdom and put himself on its throne, leaving the day-to-day running of the place to his stepson, Eugène Beauharnais. To Napoleon, this was just a bit of routine housekeeping, but to Francis it presented a mortal threat to Austria, as it put the French armies permanently within striking distance of Vienna. With a heavy heart, he started to mobilize.

At this point Napoleon was up on the Channel coast at Boulogne with his Army of England, consisting of 200,000 men, busily preparing for the invasion of Britain, for which an armada of small boats and barges had been assembled to get the troops across. He always regarded Britain as his main enemy, and its destruction was priority one. According to Kagan, the coalition’s mobilization moves took him by surprise and annoyed him intensely; he did not want war in that part of Europe just then.

Hence, Napoleon waited to the very end to see whether his useless admiral, Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve, would show up in the Channel with his fleet to support his landing in Britain. But de Villeneuve, whom Napoleon derided as a Jean-foutre (French for klutz), judged his fleet too vulnerable and failed to arrive.

The book thus dismisses those historians who claim that the Army of England was just an elaborate ruse, that Napoleon never intended to invade Britain, that in fact he had planned the whole time to strike in the middle of Germany. This, according to Kagan, is the view of those for whom Napoleon is incapable of miscalculation — a group, incidentally, to which Napoleon belonged himself. In 1810 he asserted to Count Metternich that “I would never have been stupid enough to undertake an assault on England. The army assembled at Boulogne was always an army aimed at Austria.” But, Kagan cautions, Napoleon on Napoleon should always be taken with a grain of salt: His invasion set-up was far too elaborate to be a decoy operation.

While inept at sea, Napoleon certainly knew how to move on land. His plan was to go to the center of Europe and clobber the Austrians before the Russians arrived. His great advantage was that he had a fully trained and equipped army at his disposal whose skills had been honed to a fine edge over two years. Leaving a shadow force on the Channel, he renamed his Army of England “Le Grande Armée” and sent it racing to Germany, covering 20 to 30 miles a day, fully equipped with drummers placed at the head, middle, and rear of every brigade column, drumming them along.

Showing up in unexpected places was very much the Napoleonic way; as he put it, “Marches are war.” The army’s movements were masked by a screening force of light cavalry under the command of his brother-in-law, the flamboyant gascon Marshal Joachim Murat, who was known for his courage and his extravagant self-designed uniforms.

As befits a man who has taught at West Point, Kagan is particularly good on the rather unglamorous topic of logistics, without which no army will get anywhere. Napoleon was meticulous in planning his routes, calculating what each would take in ammunition and horses, and the separate courses his army corps were going to take; as they had to live off the land, the routes had to vary. Living off the land enables an army to march fast without relying on slow carts of food supplies and pre-positioning of depots. The drawback, of course, is that it upsets the local populations, especially when you claim to have come to liberate them from their oppressive rulers.

The Austrians and the Russians had the numbers in their favor, with some 350,000 men, of whom Austria would provide 235,000 and Russia 115,000. But mere numbers did not faze a man like Napoleon, whose favorite game was to split his opponents up, isolate them, and then defeat them in detail before their overall superiority could be brought to bear.

Napoleon’s Austrian opponent was Baron Karl von Mack, in charge of an army of 80,000. Mack was a self-made man of huge ambition and self-confidence who had risen from private all the way to quartermaster general of the Austrian army. He had promised his master that he could mobilize in two months, where others claimed it would take six.

As Kagan says, generals should be self-confident. But Mack’s was the kind of overconfidence that springs from insecurity. High-strung and in permanent crisis mode, demanding instant execution, Mack would issue a blizzard of orders, some of them contradictory, without checking to see whether they were implemented.

Above all, according to Kagan, Mack lacked what Clausewitz calls “coup d’oeil,” an eye for battle; that is, an ability to read a situation and intervene at exactly the right moment. Mack had a fondness for complicated maneuvers, exhausting his officers and troops in futile marches and counter marches, in contrast to Napoleon, who preferred keeping things simple, which is always advisable when the bullets start to fly.

To make matters worse, the Austrians — who had only met Napoleon as a tactical commander in Italy before and not at the strategic level — prepared for battle in Italy, where they had an army of 95,000 men and where they believed Napoleon would strike again. When he realized that Napoleon was coming right at him in Germany, Mack should have changed his plan, and fast.

But Mack was surrounded by aristocrats who would have been only too pleased to see him fall flat on his face; under the circumstances, he could not admit to having made a mistake and therefore did very little to modify his war plan. As a result, his army was encircled in the battle of Ulm, and on October 17, 1805, he surrendered without having put up a proper fight; he was subsequently sentenced to death by an Austrian court martial but was imprisoned instead and eventually pardoned.


H aving dealt with the hapless Mack, Napoleon now prepared to face the Russians. In an effort to split the allies, he tried to tempt Francis into making a separate peace, all the while readying himself to do battle with the Russians. He needed to defeat them decisively before the Austrian troops arrived from Italy and before his own lines of communications became overextended.

Being too late to rescue the Austrians in Ulm, the Russian general Kutuzov, with his army of 40,000 troops, did not much fancy doing battle with Napoleon with the odds running heavily against him and was retreating as fast as he could to link up with Russian and Austrian reinforcements in a more defensible position. Kutuzov enjoyed a five-day advantage, and Napoleon’s initial moves were uncharacteristically slow and uncertain.

Indeed, Kutuzov was about to escape, in part because Napoleon’s cavalry commander, Murat, had allowed himself to be sidetracked by the pleasing prospect of entering Vienna — which was undefended and of no military importance — as its conqueror. This earned him a stinging rebuke from Napoleon for having disobeyed orders to pursue the Russians “with your sword in their kidneys” and instead behaving “like a scatterbrain.”

Napoleon’s tongue-lashings of his glitter-prone brother-in-law are always enjoyable: This incident presages the occasion, after the battle of Friedland in 1807, on which Napoleon disgustedly compared him to “Franconi the circus rider.” But cavalrymen cannot always be expected to be master strategists, and the fault was Napoleon’s for not having kept Murat properly informed of his priorities.

At his point, Napoleon got some unintended help from Emperor Alexander of Russia, who had joined his army in the field and who, as a matter of honor, wanted Kutuzov — by now heading a force of 82,500 men — to attack immediately. Alexander’s fellow emperor, Francis, was less keen on the idea, but he had already lost one battle and could not afford to look timid.

Alexander had interpreted an offer from Napoleon to enter an armistice as a sign of weakness, and he was confirmed in his error by the report of one of his arrogant young aides, who had met Napoleon on the front line and was clearly not impressed, describing to Alexander how he had seen “emerging from the trenches a small figure, very greasy and dressed in an exceedingly funny manner.”

Alexander thus overruled the cautious Kutuzov, and this, according to Kagan, explains Kutuzov’s famous nodding off during the war council. There was nothing he could do to avert catastrophe.


T he great climax known as the battle of the three emperors occurred on December 2, 1805 near the village of Austerlitz in present-day Slovakia and displayed the essence of Napoleonic warfare: speed, maneuver, and deception. Here Napoleon’s ability to read the terrain can be seen in its purest form in the trap he set for the Russians and Austrians. Instead of seizing the high ground of the plateau of Pratzen, where only someone suicidal would attack him, he left that position to his opponents. And he left his right flank weak on purpose, instructing his soldiers to fall back as if frightened by the firepower and numbers opposing them, thereby encouraging the Russians to leave the high ground.

Marshal Soult’s troops, carefully hidden by the terrain, would then seize the plateau and attack the Russians from behind while the fleeing French would suddenly stand, trapping the Russians between hammer and anvil. Having his army feign a withdrawal was, of course, extremely risky, demanding very disciplined and motivated troops. Napoleon had that.

The result was a Russian rout. General Kutuzov received a slight wound in the fighting but declined the ministrations of Alexander’s doctor. “Thank the Czar, and tell him that my wound is not dangerous, but over there is the fatal wound,” he said, indicating the oncoming French. The czar himself tried in vain to rally his fleeing troops with the words “I am with you, I am sharing your danger. Stop.” Understandably, the experience left the czar in a foul mood. Later on, some of those who had fled had five years added to their service time and their uniforms downgraded. Altogether, Russian casualties amounted to some 20,000 men, while the French lost around 8,000.

This being said, Austerlitz was not as one-sided an affair as it has often been labeled. Many Russians fought hard, Kagan says, adding that Napoleon’s boast that whole sections of the Russian army were forced out into the marshes and frozen lakes — where his artillerists broke the ice with preheated red-hot cannon-shot, causing them to perish — was pure propaganda. The water was too low for that. In fact, at one point during the battle some of Napoleon’s own troops, facing the Russian imperial guard, lost their nerve and came rushing past him, remembering to shout “Vive l’empereur!” before they were outta there.

Thus, Kagan argues in his anatomy of the third coalition’s defeat, it wasn’t so much the allied troops as their leadership that was at fault. Alexander had no trusted military advisors in his inner circle, only diplomats. The allied plan was dictated more by the exigencies of holding the coalition together and by the fear of appearing weak than by sound military considerations. There was no proper coordination between the political and military levels, and there was no overall military command to plan for the entire coalition’s operations and to coordinate among the theatres. Individual commanders cared only for their own armies.

The plans should have involved careful synchronization, and they failed to take into consideration the distances between the armies and the problems of communication at a time when contact between them had to be made by courier. It was just assumed that troops could be moved hundreds of miles by the stroke of a pen and be expected to show up on time too.

According to Kagan the coalition plans were simply too complex for the command and staff structures of the time. The same men who developed the grand strategy were responsible for developing detailed plans for each individual theatre. In Kagan’s apt comparison, this would correspond to having Roosevelt and Marshall set the strategic priorities during World War ii and allocate the resources while at the same time requiring them to work out the specifics for D-Day and Okinawa. Worst of all, their plans rested on the assumption of a passive and predictable enemy who would obey the role assigned to him. Napoleon was not that kind of opponent.


T he aftermath of Austerlitz found Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand trying to prepare the peace treaty in nearby Brno and complaining about his working conditions: “Brno is a horrible place. There are four thousand wounded here right now; every day there are quantities of deaths. Yesterday the stench was detestable.” Talleyrand wanted to conclude a lasting peace with lenient terms for the Austrians that would secure them in the French camp, but Napoleon would not listen. He preferred to humiliate the Austrians with the Treaty of Pressburg, which took Venice and the Tyrol away from them and stripped them of influence in southwestern Germany, not to mention compensations.

Among the coalition members, the defeat led to further rancor and suspicion. The Austrians charged the Russians with deserting them, while the Russians accused the Austrians of seeking their own deals with Napoleon. As for the Prussians, who had finally mobilized as a result of Napoleon’s troops having broken their neutrality, their negotiator simply disobeyed his instructions and betrayed the Austrians, signing his own treaty of alliance with Napoleon at Schonbrunn.

The Brits were gloomy. An exasperated Pitt told his aides after Austerlitz to “roll up the map of Europe; it will not be needed for the next ten years.” This contributed to Pitt’s death soon after.

In the sense of splitting up his enemies and sowing discord among them, Napoleon was successful. But his harsh treaties ensured that new coalitions would form against him. In the sense of creating a stable peace in Europe, as Kagan’s masterful volume shows, Napoleon failed dismally.