Skip to main content

What Made Napoleon’s Grande Armee So Deadly?

Andrew is an avid reader who enjoys researching and discussing history with others.

Read on to learn the major reasons why Napoleon's Grande Armee was so successful. The above painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, was created by Jacques-Louis David in 1800.

Read on to learn the major reasons why Napoleon's Grande Armee was so successful. The above painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, was created by Jacques-Louis David in 1800.

Napoleon's Success

Napoleon Bonaparte was the dominant figure of the Old Continent for more than a decade in the early 1800s. His French Empire dominated the Continent like no other power since the Roman Empire of Antiquity.

His successes were only possible thanks to the incredibly military successes his Grand Armee achieved against the many Coalitions formed against France. Napoleon was often fighting against more than one of the Great Powers of Europe at once, and yet he still succeeded.

One can only ask the questions—why were the French armies capable of defeating the combined might of Austria, Russia and Prussia at the same time? What made Napoleon’s Grand Armee so special? Here are the four major reasons this article discusses:

  1. European armies had poor leadership
  2. Morale and quality of the rank and file
  3. Speed
  4. Napoleon's military genius

Quick Guide to Napoleonic Infantry Tactics

To understand what made the post-1789 French army so successful, first, we must know who their enemies were. The main Continental enemies of France were the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia.

These states had quite large professional armies during these years; they all had at least 180,000 soldiers. However, despite some of these armies' good training, many problems plagued them.

1. European Armies Had Poor Leadership

The first problem the armies of European monarchies usually faced was bad leadership. Most of the officer corps of European armies were filled with nobles. Many got their position solely thanks to their wealth or court relations and had zero qualification or talent for the position they filled.

In contrast, the French Revolution allowed men of lower birth to rise through merit, although it would be foolish to believe that nepotism and relations played no role in the French army.

Still, many of Napoleon’s Marshalls would never have risen to their rank without the Revolution. One of Napoleon’s best Marshalls, Andre Messena, was the son of a shopkeeper. Another of Napoleon’s talented Marshall’s, Souchet, was also of commoner birth. Napoleon’s friend Marshall Jean Lannes also rose from humble origins.

2. Morale and Quality of the Rank and File

The second problem the armies of the Old Monarchies faced was the quality of the rank and file. As the possibility of rising to higher positions was more or less nonexistent, lower-born people with ambition had relatively little incentive to join the military.

During the Peninsular War, Wellington once lamented that his men were the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink. Though he might have been a bit harsh on his men, it was true that the soldiers often came from the poorest classes, and even criminals were sometimes conscripted into the army.

The armies were not true national armies either. The army of Frederick the Great, which was regarded as the best in Europe, had a high proportion of foreigners, who were little more than mercenaries.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Consequently, desertion rates during campaigns were often very high, and the soldiers’ morale was often left wanting. The best example of poor morale was probably the Prussian army during the War of the Fourth Coalition. Before the war, the Prussian army had a fierce reputation; however, all it took was one big defeat at Jena-Auerstedt, and the Prussian army more or less collapsed in a month.

Unlike the armies of the Old European monarchies, the armies of Revolutionary France (and for quite some time the armies of the French Empire) were made up of the citizens of France. Their inexperience at first hampered the French war effort.

However, thanks to the simple fact that the French were constantly fighting someone for nearly a decade, they eventually got very competent at it. Their competence in battle banished the poor morale that often affected their enemies. Napoleon said that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”

Cavalry played a crucial role in pursuing the fleeing enemy, the lack of cavalry greatly hampered Napoleon after the Russian disaster

Cavalry played a crucial role in pursuing the fleeing enemy, the lack of cavalry greatly hampered Napoleon after the Russian disaster

3. Speed

The third problem Napoleon’s enemies had was speed—or better put, their lack of it. The pre-industrial gunpowder armies often had a relatively limited range. As the soldier was using firearms such as muskets, pistols or rifles, the army needed to be continuously resupplied with powder and ammunition for obvious operational uses.

Ammunition and powder was not the only thing an army needed either, as both the men and the horses needed food. Starting from the age of Louis XIV, European armies built-up supply depots where they stored food for the campaign and relied on long supply convoys to keep the army fed during the campaign.

The cynical would also say that as commanders knew that the soldiers’ loyalty was often doubtful, they did not want to give them the chance to wander off in search of food and never return.

This system allowed the armies to be well fed and supplied; however, thanks to the poor state of the roads, the speed with which armies travelled was compromised, or when the armies used rivers, their range of movement was limited.

The French, especially Napoleon, broke with the convoy system and had his men “live off the land.” This meant that French soldiers gathered whatever supplies they could from the locals—this method allowed Napoleon’s armies to move at a much faster pace than their enemies.

Napoleon also restructured his armies and the corps system, each corps being commanded by one of his Marshalls. Each corps was a mini-army that contained infantry, cavalry and artillery. Thanks to this system, Napoleon’s army was travelling in a dispersed manner.

However, the distance between the different mini-armies was never significant; if things went according to plan, the others were able to come to its aid within a short period.

The speed and the dispersed manner in which Napoleon’s armies moved often confused his enemies, and on occasion, they completely missed it, like General Mack at Ulm. The unfortunate Austrian general walked straight into Napoleon’s trap and was encircled way before he realised what was happening.

The genius of Napoleon was crucial to use the good ingredients to their fullest extent

The genius of Napoleon was crucial to use the good ingredients to their fullest extent

4. Napoleon's Military Genius

And finally, the French armies were also led by a commander who, during his prime, was a military genius. Napoleon was a workaholic if there ever was one; he could put in 16-18 hours shifts a day in, day out.

His computer-like mind allowed him to plan, and upon receiving a stream of intelligence from his light cavalry, to replan based on the new information he received. For example, Napoleon was the type of man who could not only play imaginary chess with a friend, but start a game in August against his mate, not meet that friend until October, and when they finally did meet, say off-the-cuff: “Queen, E5.”

Napoleon disliked frontal assaults and preferred to use the corps, which just engaged the enemy as the distraction, keeping the enemy busy. At the same time, he would order the rest of the units nearby to march against the flanks and back of the enemies. However, as the fog of war was real, even the best of plans were often difficult to execute to perfection.

Sources

Chandler, David G. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.

Duffy, Christopher. (2016). The Military Experience in the Age of Reason. Routledge.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

Related Articles