... If Napoleon was brilliant at the operational level, there was little glitter and less subtlety on the battlefield. True, he produced a run of successes in his early years, leading up to the triumph of Jena-Auerstadt (1806). Thereafter, for every victory, there was a disaster or near-disaster. He won at Friedland (1807), but only after the bitter winter battle of Eylau; Wagram recovered the near-disaster of Aspern-Essling at huge cost; and there was little to celebrate at Borodino (1812). His flash of genius was apparent at Lützen (May 2nd, 1813), but Bautzen (May 20th–21st) was a draw, and the success of Dresden (August 26th–27th) was followed by the defeats of Kulm, the Katzbach and, finally and decisively, Leipzig (October 16th–19th). After the escape from Elba, Nap oleon’s success against the Prussians at Ligny (June 16th, 1815) was an illusion, shattered the same day by Quatre Bras and by Waterloo two days later.
One common aspect of Napoleonic battles was the blood-letting. Because of his insistence on rapid marching to gain time, the myth grew up that ‘the Emperor uses our legs instead of our bayonets’. Nothing in the history of his campaigns shows this to be true. In battle after battle, the French conscripts would hold on in desperate combat, waiting for support from the rest of the army. Then, when the greatest possible mass had been assembled, the day would be settled – in victory or in a draw – by the crude application of force: massed artillery fire to blast holes in the enemy, and columns of infantry and cavalry pouring in. There is no subtlety here.
A key judgement for any general is to understand what his army is capable of doing, and what is beyond its abilities. In the early years, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was the most capable battlefield force in the world; Napoleon could demand feats of endurance, sacrifice and complexity beyond those of his opponents. But the quality of its later performances declined as casualties took their toll on the troops and on his marshals. After the Russian campaign, Napoleon rarely tried to unite dispersed corps on the battlefield in the presence of the enemy during offensive operations because he could no longer rely on a high-quality holding action to buy time for the assembly of his main army. As performance declined, so the cost of fighting rose still higher. Bautzen cost Napoleon more than 20,000 casualties. Despite Dresden, the French army lost 150,000 men between June and September 1813. Leipzig cost him 70,000 men, including seventeen general officers. These figures equal the very worst days on the Western Front, yet the First World War generals are often vilified while Napoleon’s reputation shines.
In the century after 1815 Napoleon’s legend was dominant: every general wanted to be him, to crush his enemy’s army, march into his capital, and attain the decisive victory. What did not dawn on his admirers, or on those responsible for teaching the military class of the future, was the simple fact that, in the end, Napoleon lost.
Of course, Napoleon himself, writing his memoir, on St Helena, did all he could to disguise this. ...
Napoleon was successful on many battlefields; and he may have been a master of campaigning. However, in strategic terms, he was a failure principally because he never succeeded in transforming a defeated enemy into a willing ally. He won wars, but he never won the peace.