Big Battalions: The Napoleonic Legacy

John Terraine studies the effects of Napoleonic doctrine upon the leadership of mass armies in the Industrial Age.

John Terraine | Published in History Today

In October 1914 Mr. Lloyd George, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was visiting the Western Front. The so-called “Race to the Sea” was over; the encounter battles that had marked the climax of the simultaneous attempts of both sides to outflank the opposing line had ended in deadlock; in the First Battle of Ypres, and in the innumerable forgotten, but desperate, grapples along the front from Flanders to Switzerland, the structure of the War as it was largely to remain for over four years was being moulded. Already the symptoms of persistent deadlock were visible.

Lloyd George was calling upon General de Castelnau, commander of the French 2nd Army, an officer with a very high reputation for strategic ability who was later to rise to positions of special eminence at the General Headquarters of the French Army. Lloyd George wrote:

“His personality created a deep impression on our minds. He was a short man with a high forehead and intelligent dark eyes— quiet and grave in demeanour. ... I asked how many men were under his command, and he said there were nine corps. ‘Well,’ I remarked, ‘that is a greater army than Napoleon ever commanded in any single battle.’ His answer was a kind of soliloquy. ‘Ah, Napoleon, Napoleon.’ If he were here now, he’d have thought of the ‘something else’.”

This remark had a profound effect upon Lloyd George which time did not diminish. Writing of a much later stage of the War, he said:

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