Warfare from the perspective of one of Napoleon’s marshals
Napoleon Bonaparte, for all his many personality flaws, is generally regarded as a genius of military craft. His innovative grand tactics frequently overwhelmed the generalship of commanders whose understanding of war was founded on ideas from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. None of his generals or marshals were of his calibre in this respect, yet all, by degrees, practiced the art of war in the manner of their master. Those interested, rightly look to the writings of Antoine Jomini—a soldier of Napoleon and considered by many to one of the founding fathers of modern strategy—as a primary source on methods of warfare in the early 19th century. In his book ‘The Art of War’ Jomini discusses his subject using examples drawn from both the battles and campaigns of Napoleon and from his own experiences in the emperor’s service. As with Jomini, the principal interest and value of Marmont’s book, to the modern reader, is that the author writes from the perspective of a soldier of the First Empire of the French and draws upon knowledge, experience and examples (often first-hand) from the campaigns of the Napoleonic era, to expand and explain his topic. This makes ‘Marmont on Warfare’ an invaluable resource for all those interested in the period. The author briefly touches upon military theory before turning to the organisation of armies of the Napoleonic model. There follows a comprehensive examination of the operational aspects of war including battle conduct, retreats, night attacks, ambuscades and siege craft (among others) and finally an examination of command philosophy. This unique Leonaur edition is enhanced by the inclusion of a short biographical piece, concerning the military career of Marmont, that provides context for the author’s own writings.
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It is impossible to lay down a theory respecting surprises. It ought to be impossible to execute a surprise during the day, and it would always be so if every officer and every soldier constantly did their duty with exactitude and intelligence: but sometimes this is far from being the case. When we succeed in surprising the enemy, it is a piece of good fortune we should know how to take advantage of, for it is one of the readiest and easiest ways of gaining a success.
Troops who are in the order of formation required by the circumstances—troops who know that they are going to fight, who are animated by a consciousness of their strength, by confidence—such troops attacking an enemy by surprise who is mot prepared to resist them, have such an advantage over him, that they have every right to count on victory.
Good troops, animated by an excellent spirit, commanded by an able general prompt in his resolutions, can alone escape a catastrophe, and that only sometimes, under such circumstances. But the truth is, that such troops and such a general would never conduct themselves so as to be placed in such a position.
It is otherwise with night attacks: here there may not be a surprise, properly speaking, but there is a sudden attack which could not have been foreseen, and there is ignorance respecting the real dispositions of the enemy; because at night we cannot perceive him until he is very close.
It is only when armies are very near one another, that I believe an enterprise of this nature to be possible; for were it necessary, before attacking, to traverse a great distance, there would be great danger that the various columns, when required to act, would fail to do so harmoniously.
It is then, I repeat, when two armies are very close to one another, that such an action could take place; only a moderate force should be employed, several points should be simultaneously attacked, and we should endeavour, before everything, to create disorder; should we succeed in doing so, we obtain the effects of a victory without having purchased it by great sacrifices, and we place ourselves in a position to profit by it if the state of things shall afterwards give us an opportunity of doing so.
This sort of thing should be chiefly attempted when we have opposed to us second-rate, ill-disciplined troops. If in the midst of the uncertainty of a real attack these troops commence to move, confusion will soon arise amongst them; sometimes, even, it will happen that the different columns do not know one another, and proceed to fire upon one another, to the great advantage of the assailants, who will then perform the part of the spectator. The commander of the attacking force employs only a portion of his troops, after giving them precise instructions determining the sphere in which they should operate, and making them acquainted with the position and direction of the other columns, so that it runs much less risk of falling into disastrous errors.
It has more than once happened that columns of one and the same army, during night operations, have taken one another for the enemy, and done much injury to each other.1 If mere chance can produce such accidents, it may readily be imagined that it is possible to produce them designedly, and in that case the accidents are much more serious, because the presence of the enemy is a reality, and he may take part in the fray in a direct manner. It is sometimes good, therefore, when circumstances are very favourable, to attempt night attacks; to employ at first a limited number of troops who shall endeavour to render themselves masters of some important points, and hold themselves in readiness to overwhelm the enemy with all our forces as soon as day dawns, should we find it advantageous to do so.
The first example of an attack of this nature is the enterprise executed by the Austrian army on the Prussian Army at Hochkirchen in the night of the 13th and 14th October, 1758. The two armies were very close. Marshal Daun ably prepared his attack, which was very vigorously executed by General Laudon. The enterprise was favoured by the blind confidence of Frederic the Great, who did not perceive the danger that menaced him. A sudden attack made in several columns rendered the Austrians masters of the large battery of the Prussian camp. Fighting was kept up till 10 o’clock in the morning, when the Prussian Army was forced to retreat, which it did in an orderly manner and without being pursued, after having lost almost all its artillery: to do this required good troops and the prestige of the name of the great captain who had been beaten.
But if the circumstances which allow of an enterprise of this character are rare and delicate, and if they require much consideration, there are others respecting which we should not hesitate, which are unattended with inconvenience in the case of failure, and which when successful give great results.
If beaten and retreating troops inconsiderately take up a position at night, without the protection of material obstacles, too close to the pursuing enemy, the circumstances are all in favour of the latter, who might very appropriately make a night attack with a few troops, but with vigour and intelligence.
On the evening of the Battle of Vauchamps I had the pleasure to make a very successful application of this principle.
The 14th February, 1814, after the disaster of the morning at Vauchamps, which cost the Prussian army 4,000 prisoners, the enemy retreated; my corps eagerly pursued him and I succeeded in surrounding his rearguard, composed of a Russian division, with my cavalry, increased by a reserve of mounted troops put at my disposal by Napoleon. This Russian infantry bravely resisted the charges made upon it and continued its march.
On its arrival at Etoges it was night, so under the cover of the wood it had traversed, it stopped and made arrangements for bivouacking. Napoleon had directed me to stop at Champ-Aubert and take up a position there, but I was well acquainted with the locality, having only quitted it the day before; knowing that the position of Etoges was as unfavourable for the enemy as it was favourable for us, and foreseeing that the following day I should be engaged in covering the movement which the emperor would make in order to get near the corps which were manoeuvring in the valley of the Seine, I thought I would hasten to attempt a coup-de-main upon this corps and not wait to occupy Etoges until it had taken its departure therefrom. I got together 800 infantry, I formed them in column on the high road, placing only fifty men on the right and left flank in the wood, at 100 paces, and marching along with them, I made the troops move in perfect silence, forbidding them to fire a single musket, and enjoining them to rush on the enemy as soon as they got sight of him.