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Review: "The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

David Bell's famous book, "The First Total War."

David Bell's famous book, "The First Total War."


The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

By: David Bell

Throughout David Bell’s book The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, the author explores the origins and rise of modern military tactics and warfare. This type of warfare, as he explains, differed quite significantly from the fighting techniques devised and implemented prior to the French Revolution. Whereas the Old Regime era focused on honor and mutual respect on the battlefield for one’s adversaries, Bell plainly demonstrates that the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars created a clear break from this noble past as the notion of "total war" came to dominate nearly all political and military strategies of world powers (Bell, pg. 5).

Bell's Main Points

With the rise of Napoleon and the collapse of the Old Regime (from the French Revolution) came warfare that maintained no “restraints” (Bell, pg. 8). Instead, battle tactics began to focus heavily upon “relentless” attacks against enemy troops and the complete annihilation of an adversary’s combat effectiveness in the field of war (Bell, pg. 234). As Bell describes, the “true and natural course” of war during this time began to involve “the commitment of every possible resource and all possible violence” to achieve victory—a concept known as “total war” (Bell, pg. 241).

This style of warfare—although practical in its overall effectiveness—was not without faults, however. While effective on the field of battle, Bell demonstrates that “total war” greatly affected civilian populations as more and more people fell victim to atrocities committed by invading armies and troops. This new style of combat also helped create great animosity among conquered populations and led to an even more deadly and treacherous form of fighting --guerrilla warfare -- in which smaller forces were afforded an opportunity to inflict great damage on larger and more capable adversaries with minimal casualty rates. Because of the effectiveness of these new styles of combat, Bell asserts that modern-day military tactics still borrow heavily from the principles of total war established during the French Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Personal Thoughts

All in all, Bell does a great job of demonstrating the rise and implementation of "total war" throughout France and Europe during the early 19th century. Not only does he explain how the new system of fighting differed significantly from the aristocratic warfare of the 18th century, but he also demonstrates the connections that modern-day combat shares with the advent of this new type of warfare.

Whereas the French Revolution helped destroy aristocratic styles of governance (as well as the honor-based style of fighting that accompanied it), Bell also clearly demonstrates that Napoleon played a key role in spreading the notion of "total war" to the European continent. Without him, such notions of brutality may have never spread as far as they did. As his army conquered more and more countries and populations, Bell makes it very clear that Napoleon’s idea of warfare quickly permeated the minds of political leaders and civilians across Europe. Once these ideas took hold, Bell effectively demonstrates that there was no turning back to the former styles of fighting. To this day, especially throughout the 20th century, the concept of total war remains forever embedded in the strategies of military generals, rebel groups, and political leaders worldwide.

Overall, I give this book a 4/5 Star rating and highly recommend it to individuals interested in the history of France, the French Revolution, 18th-to-19th-century warfare, and military strategies. This was a really fun and interesting read, to say the least!

Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity as you won't be disappointed!

Questions for Discussion

1.) Did the 19th century truly mark the dawn of "total war" as David Bell proclaims? Or were there other instances of this type of warfare before the French Revolution and Napoleon?

2.) Who was Bell's intended audience for this work? Can this book be equally appreciated by scholars and the general public, alike?

3.) Does Bell have an overarching thesis? If so, what is it?

4.) Do you find Bell's arguments to be convincing? Why or why not?

5.) What type of primary source material does Bell rely on most?

6.) Did you find this work to be engaging?

7.) Does Bell present his chapters in a logical order?

8.) What are the strengths and weaknesses of this book?

9.) In what ways could this work be improved?

10.) Were you satisfied with Bell's overall conclusion? Did he effectively wrap up his arguments and main points?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Broers, Michael. Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny. New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Colson, Bruno. Napoleon: On War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Desan, Suzanne, Lynn Hunt and William Max Nelson. The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2013.

Moore, Lucy. Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France. New York: Harper Press, 2006.

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2006.

Tackett. Timothy. The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Works Cited

  • The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
  • Staff. "Napoleon Bonaparte." 2009. Accessed December 21, 2016.


Robert Sacchi on May 15, 2017:

It would seem total war was used previously when fighting against native peoples. The difference with France in the early 19th century was it was Europeans using it against Europeans. Wasn't the first signs of the French concept of Total War when the French people routed the Prussian army?