Napoleon as a commander.

"Artillery should always be placed in the most convenient position and, if possible, as far as feasible in front of the cavalry and infantry line, without putting the guns at risk" - the war maxim of Napoleon No. 54.

"For guns all men are equal." - Napoleon to General Bertrand (year 1819)

"When I receive monthly reports on the condition of my armies and my navy, which count twenty thick volumes... while reading them I feel more pleasure than a young lady reading a novel." - Napoleon to his brother Joseph (year 1806).

"Although Bonaparte's conquests ended up in defeat and humiliating imprisonment, during his brief but intense life of the soldier, he commanded in sixty battles and sieges, and he lost only seven - at Acre, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, La Rothiere, Laon, Arcis -sur-Aube and Waterloo."[1] "Of the sixty battles he fought, only five - at the Pyramids, Marengo, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig and La Rothiere - were defensive in nature, in others he attacked."[2].

a shot action from series “Napoleon”, year 2002, directed by Yves Simoneau; in the role of Napoleon - Christian Clavier

The year 1806, November, somewhere on Polish wastelands, now the Prussian partition:

“Sacrebleu, Berthier, why is it shaking so much? My imperial bottom has already been bruised. What a wilderness! All around only dirt, stink and pervasive mud. How can we fight in these conditions? The guns are bogging down, the supply is sinking, and the cavalry is moving in a foot-deep marsh. Was all the mud of the world collected here, Berthier?!”


“Where are we for God’s sake?! These maps have nothing to do with reality!”

“This is the main road from Poznan to Varsovie, Sir ... if I'm not mistaken, because really, there is nothing here. Wilderness and wasteland. It's difficult to refer to the maps.”

"Exactly, call the chief of cartographers, order them to make proper maps of this wasteland. Every sign of life we encounter, the name, even the smallest stream, should be marked on them. I am not surprised that this Republic of Poland has fallen, since they have not had good roads. Effective communication is the basis of a prosperous state organism ... Why did the Prussians not bring their Ordnung here, their paved roads with drains for water?”

“They did not want to. They more occupy these land than manage it.”

“And this is wrong! Send Wilhelm (the king of Prussia) my request that his soldiers give their shoes to mine. They will not be useful anymore for Prussians soldiers but my people who lose shoes in the mud, will need them very much... Mud.... Berthier, I made a memorable discovery! Well, we do not have four but five elements: water, fire, wind, earth and... mud.”

“I am glad that Your mood is improving Your Majesty.”

“What about those cartographers, they got stuck in that f… mud!... What again?!”

The carriage which Napoleon travelled got stuck in the Polish mud. The terrible conditon of the roads slowed down the French pursuit of the Prussian army. Let's leave Napoleon with his communication problems and talk about how this brilliant strategist, soldier and emperor in one, went to a war.

The Great Army.

Napoleon definitively brought a new, innovative breath of the war’s art. From his army, which grew as the conquests were made, he created mini armies. It consisted of 20-30 thousand corps (during the Russian campaign, the number of some corps increased to 40, and even 70 thousands of soldiers). These units were consisted of infantry, cavalry, artillery regiments, engineering, sanitary and transport services as well as their own staff. The command of the corps was entrusted to marshals (less often generals), who had big freedom of action given by Napoleon. Such a system has created many brilliant commanders.

Each corps was organized so that he could fight the enemy by himself. The Napoleonic army could boast its remarkable personalities who became marshals of France: march. Louis Davout, march. Nicolas de Dieu Soult, march. Jean Lannes, march. Francois Lefebvre, march. Joachim Murat, march. Michel Ney, march. Nicolas Oudinot and many others. Napoleon was responsible for the strategy, while he left operational actions to the commanders of the various corps. Such an organization of the army for many years gave the French Emperor a factor of advantage over the armed forces of other rulers of Europe. However, these learned from mistakes, which effect Napoleon experienced in 1813. Definitively he was a pioneer. He created a new quality by introducing operational activities at a lower level of army management. These created a bridge between the overall strategy and detailed tactics. "Engage the enemy in fight, then wait and look", Napoleon used to say about his tactics [3]. This model of military art was used in Europe until the end of the Second World War.

At this place, we should mention the person who was the Emperor's "communication centre" responsible for the communication between the mini-armies and their main "boss": marshal Louis Alexander Berthier - Napoleon's chief of staff. During the military campaign, he clung to the Emperor. His main task was to ensure efficient communication between Napoleon and his commanders, as well as with Paris.

Efficient communication - it is the key factor.

The Napoleon’s army became a legend in terms of speed and movement. One of the most impressive military achievements was for example the transfer of around 170,000 soldiers from the English Channel to the Rhine in just 2 months (year 1805). The Great Army marched day and night, singing, cheering in honour of its Emperor and napping while walking. Although soldiers did not rest, there were full of positive energy. 

As a result, the enemy units (in this case - the Austrian ones) were completely surprised and cut off from the ways of retreat before they knew the situation. Napoleon's army didn’t have any losses during this extraordinary march.

You cannot talk about the Napoleonic army without mentioning his Guard. 

The Imperial Guard was created in 1804. "(...) consisted of a staff and infantry, cavalry and artillery units, accompanied by battalions of sappers and marine infantry. (...) This elite corp grew rapidly from the initial 8,000 people in 1804 to 100,000 in 1812." [4].

The Guard was a strategic reserve force to assist the basic units at the critical moment of the battle, so it often didn’t take part in it. For this reason, soldiers of the Guard were called "immortal" by other formations. The guards had higher pay and more privileges. Undoubtedly favoured by Napoleon, they arouse envy of soldiers from other formations.

Napoleon was not short. He was about 170 cm tall. However, when he stood among his guardsmen, who could not be under 180 cm, additionally dressed in big, bears caps, he might have looked like a peanut.

How did Napoleon move during the war?

The emperor was not a good rider. He moved two types of carriages. For long-distance travel he had a cabinet on wheels. It was equipped with a sleeping mattress, a handy library, a dining room and a bathroom. In his office on wheels, the emperor held conferences and received guests who at that moment changed their means of transport to his carriage. He dictated the answers to the letters that reached him during “business” trips. He read studies on the countries with which he was fighting and the areas he entered (including geodetic reports). In this way, he could travel uninterruptedly day and night, making at a high speed (at that time), long distances and not neglecting his duties as the commander of the armed forces and the head of the state.

Approaching the borders of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the campaign against Prussia (year 1806), Napoleon studied the tracts about the history of Poland, its system, army and economy.

The traveling office was large, comfortable, adapted to work during the trip, but nevertheless, as for Napoleon's needs... slow. That is why the calash was used by the Emperor for quick raids between the corps of the army. Due to the fact that the vehicle was smaller than the cabinet on wheels, some of Napoleon's accessories travelled on horseback. One of the guards carried maps, the second telescope, and the third imperial pencil case. The canteen travelled on a mule at the back. During the stops, four-legged imperial canteen was brought for Napoleon. A leather tablecloth was unfolded on the grass. During the cold weather a bonfire was kindled. Baskets with food were taken from the mule and the Emperor, together with his commanders, started camping. Napoleon was not a gourmet. He ate simple and practical food. On the battlefield he often ate with his soldiers from one cauldron and drank from one pot.

"Berthier, is it far to this Varsovie? These rough terrains will shake out the whole dinner."

"Not far away, Sir. I suppose about two hours."

"Oh, my poor ass. Order to bring me a horse in an hour's time. I will ride on horseback. Will my sparkish brother-in-law welcome us against?"

"Of course, Sir. The messenger has already been sent to him with the news that you are coming."

Yes, Napoleon also travelled on horseback. However, it was not his favourite means of transport. He was alltileryman not a cavalryman. He felt in the saddle not comfortable. The finesse of dressage and contact with the horse was not his favourite. He was too absorbed in other matters. For that reason, horses for him were specially selected. He liked white Arabian horses. These horses were well-behaved. They walked softly and didn’t require leading. The Emperor didn’t care for it. He was sitting in the saddle, just like, held reins nonchalantly in one hand. He didn’t concentrate on driving, only on his thoughts. He travelled, following the horses of his guard's officers. Despite the lack of riding skills, he could stay in the saddle up to several hours. He certainly didn’t feel comfortable but nothing was important in the face of a higher case, which was commanding by thousands of human lives.

Napoleon's quarters during war.

"The Emperor’s quarters" didn’t mean that it had to always be a palace. On the battlefield, among wide meadows it was difficult to find a palace or even a manor. The Emperor often stayed in poor cottages. They became the centre of French power for a few days. The cottage was divided into a sleeping area and an office. In the sleeping area, the Emperor enjoyed a bed with a metal frame. There were also devices serving the Napoleon’s toilet. Everything was in perfect order.

Sometimes, even finding a cottage was a problem when there were no villages nearby, no buildings, only a field. Then the imperial tent was put up, which was carried, like a canteen, on a mule. Everything was done according to plan and in a perfect order. Each element of the frame had its own number and was assembled by the servants in just a few minutes. The elements of the Emperor’s bed were numbered in the same way. This enabled very quick installation and dismantlement because Napoleon didn’t like to wait. That tent became not only the general headquarters during the war, it was also the seat of the Emperor during the campaign. In the room assigned for work, there were: the imperial armchair, the table at which he worked, the stool for the secretary Napoleon dictated letters and documents, the table for maps, as well as the bookshelf and the ministerial documents. The war activities didn’t trouble the French ruler to rebuke his ministers for their sluggishness and lack of effects, to look after benefits for widows of war heroes, or to dictate a propaganda for the next issue of Le Monitour. The lion was always alert, able to manage both the battlefield and the state administration.

From 1805, Napoleon began publishing war bulletins (37 in total), in which he described military activities in colourful language (with dialogues). The soldiers read them with their faces flushed crimson with emotions, like a greatly exciting novel. Propaganda was a machine of success.

Discipline in the Great Army was based on honour, attachment to the Homeland and faith in the Emperor. Its motto was: "Valeur et Discipline" (bravery and discipline). The penalty system was not used. As a result, the French soldiers went into battle with the Emperor's name on their lips and after the victory turned into unchecked gangs of looters and rapists.

Occasionally the Emperor camped together with his soldiers under the open sky. Confirmation of this fact you can find in letters to his wife Josephine. After winning the battle at Austerlitz, he wrote to the Empress: "I beat up the Austrian-Russian army commanded by two emperors. I'm a little bit tired. I was camping for eight days under the open sky when the nights were rather cold..." [5].He was one of his soldiers then, an ordinary "little corporal"[6]. He ate and talked like an equal. His soldiers loved him for that.

The Emperor's rest during the war was minimal. When he could afford it, he slept about 4 hours. When sleep was an unnecessary luxury, dozen-minute naps were enough for him to restore energy. During the night before the battle, he was able to wander together with Berthier among the camping soldiers and at first light he sat in the saddle and toured all positions before the battle. When military action forced him to chase after enemy, he could not sleep a few days. Then he fell asleep for a few hours and felt like a new-born. Sometimes, in the break of studying reports from the battlefield and state affairs, he had a moment for reading.

Napoleon on the battlefield.

He did not run in front of his army, such as a famous Polish commander – prince Joseph Poniatowski. He stood in the middle of his position, on a hill when it was possible. He was looking through the telescope. As a strategist, he had to have a look at the whole battlefield. Hence, with the help of adjutants on fast horses, he directed orders to his marshals, commanding particular corps.

Napoleon during a march on Russia, a frame from a television documentary program

The soldiers loved him so much that they would not allow him to endanger himself in the battle. Apparently, before the battle of Austerlitz, the Emperor teased his soldiers, announcing that if the fights would take unfavourable turn, he would fight on the most difficult part of the front. There could be only one answer to such a dictum: "We promise, tomorrow you will only have to fight with your eyes only!".[7]. So it happened. The French army achieved a crushing victory over Austrians and Russians without exposing its beloved "little corporal".

a shot action from series “Napoleon”, year 2002, directed by Yves Simoneau; in the role of Napoleon - Christian Clavier

It happened that soldiers teased their Emperor because he behaved as one of them. He didn’t keep distance. Following an eyewitness account: "He loved soldiers who had the courage to talk to him freely and he always laughed with them."[8]. According to other source: during fights in the former Polish territory in 1807, when his undernourished army was wading through mud and through snow, and the frustration among soldiers grew every day, between the infantrymen and the Emperor riding on the horse nearby a dialog was heard:

S: "What on earth came to your head to lead us starving on such terrible roads?"

N: "Four more days of patience and I will not ask you for anything more. Then you will go for the winter rest."

S: "Well, it is quite soon, but remember that after four days we will go without your permission!" [9].

You will find more about these extraordinary times and the Emperor's person in my novel “Cor Igni. A Battle of Hearts." It is waiting to be published.


The text was based on:

1. Geofges Bordonove „Napoleon Bonaparte”, Warszawa 2010.

2. Robert Bielecki „Napoleon”, Warszawa 1973.

3. Andrew Roberts „Napoleon the Great”, Warszawa 2015.

4. Wikipedia.


[1] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon the Great”(Polish title „Napoleon Wielki”), p. 822.

[2] therein, p. 824.

[3] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 402.

[4] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 365. 

[5] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 410.

[6] Honorary rank of "corporal", gave Napoleon soldiers fighting under his orders in the first Italian campaign (1796).

[7] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 401.

[8] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 455.

[9] Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, p. 455.