Napoleon’s military philosophy of speed of maneuver coupled with the creation of the autonomous corps, was made possible by those officers that were drawn from French revolutionary society. The by-product of this was that of independent thought to carry out the intent of their orders and not be bogged down in waiting for minute details to do so, as speed of maneuver was the difference between victory or defeat. This was exemplified on 14 June 1807, when Marshal Ney had managed to deploy his entire corps into position by 5:00 p.m. for the assault at Friedland against the Russians, ‘although he had accepted his orders only an hour before—while his forces were still marching into the main battle area!’
Napoleon Bonaparte’s ideas, philosophies and style of warfare were viewed with respect even by his adversaries at the time. An unknown Prussian officer recounted from the Battle of Waterloo how ‘it seems that Napoleon had the design to throw the left wing upon the centre, and thus to effect the separation of the English from the Prussian.’ This observation shows the respect for Napoleon attempting to execute one of his principles of warfare: that of the central position to split the combined forces of the British and Prussians. Fellow contemporaries such as the Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz and Baron Jomini who served under Napoleon, were so impacted by Napoleon’s warfare methodology, that both went on to author books of military theory. These theories of vital characteristics of a commander, strategic lines, and logistics to the concentration of firepower at the most critical point, all stemmed from their personal observations and experiences during the Napoleonic Wars.
Further in the 19th century, Ulysses S. Grant in the American Civil War was relentless in his pursuit of applying Napoleonic warfare principles into play with this dogged persecution of the war against the Confederacy. Speed of maneuver, concentration of force and the seeking of the decisive battle, were just some of the Napoleonic lessons that Grant put into practice after his studies at West Point. Future commanders such as German General Heinz Guderian in World War II and General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Persian Gulf War, greatly respected Napoleon’s theories by their respective strategic successes. Guderian adopted Napoleon’s concepts of speed of maneuver through the development and creation of the panzer corps and mechanized warfare. Adopting this new technology to Napoleon’s theories led to rapid German successes in Poland and France early in the war. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf put into action the ‘Manoeuvre De Derrière’ or move to the rear Napoleonic principle by his ‘hail mary’ action of sending massed tanks in a big left hook through the desert, in conjunction with airborne and special forces, to smash the Iraqi armored divisions and cut off their retreat from Kuwait.
Two years into Napoleon’s exile on the isolated Atlantic Ocean Island of St. Helena, the former Emperor of the French was already being viewed with some reverence and awe. In 1817, Irish orator, Charles Phillips said of Napoleon and his methods that ‘to inferior intellects, his combinations appeared utterly impossible, his plans perfectly impracticable; but, in his hands, simplicity marked their development, and success vindicated their adoption.’
Napoleon Bonaparte’s warfighting philosophy was heavily influenced by the writings and campaigns of his martial mentor, Prussian King Frederick II. The critical importance of speed and maneuver in any conflict, served as a starting point for Frederick’s martial tenants and as a core for Napoleon’s maxims. In the 21st century, major powers such as the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China all have rapid-reaction plans and rapid-reaction forces that can be deployed in short order in the event of needed, immediate military action. Following this, modern warfare drives rapid movement and maneuver home, through the utilization of air assault, airborne forces, highly mobile armored units as well as superior troop training which lends itself to soldiers that can travel farther, faster and with more individual lethality than ever before. This essence of force projection through speed, lends itself perfectly to the modern age of asymmetrical warfare, where the lines of battle and conflict are blurred at best.
Napoleon’s emphasis on the destruction of your enemy’s armies and their ability to make and conduct war, carries through time into the present. This is exemplified in the Vietnam War, when the U.S. tried desperately to seek a decisive battle with North Vietnamese troops and end the war through the annihilation of its armies. This was countered by the Communist forces generally avoiding large and direct confrontations, instead relying on more guerilla warfare strategy and tactics. This prevented the U.S. from executing a key Napoleonic principle of the decisive battle. However, this principle did see success in the Persian Gulf War at the Battle of Medina Ridge, where one of the largest tank battles in history and the decisive battle of the war, occurred resulting in the destruction of over 400 tanks, vehicles and artillery compared to the loss of less than 20 total Allied vehicles and aircraft.
A further principle of Napoleon’s warfighting philosophy for modern warriors to take heed of is that of the field of battle. In the modern age, this can mean the digital battlefield as well as a geographic one, but warfighters should not be driven to a course of action by their enemy, but rather, prepare the battlefield themselves and draw the enemy in. Napoleon directly speaks to this when he states that ‘It is an approved maxim in war, never to do what the enemy wishes you to do, for this reason alone, that he desires it. A field of battle, therefore, which he has previously studied and reconnoitered, should be avoided, and double care should be taken where he has had time to fortify or entrench. One consequence deducible from this principle is, never to attack a position in front which you can gain by turning.’
Intangibles such as patriotism are just as important to the modern warrior as in Napoleon’s time. When a soldier is motivated and fighting for an ideal larger than themselves, this elan can serve as a force multiplier by itself and potentially carry the day. The Battle of Benghazi in 2012 is an example of this when militants attacked two American facilities in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. In the ensuing battles, six members of the Annex Security Team fought off dozens of attacking militants. Fighting to save your fellow Americans was a strong motivator against overwhelming odds, thus proving the value of patriotism. Napoleon specifically mentions the importance of patriotism in his Military Maxims when he says ‘…A love of country, a spirit of enthusiasm, and a sense of national honour, will operate upon young soldiers with advantage.’