How Good Was Napoleon?

Serving general and military historian Jonathon Riley uses his personal knowledge of command to assess Napoleon’s qualities as a strategist, operational commander and battlefield tactician.

Surrender of Madrid (Gros), 1808. Napoleon enters Spain's capital during the Peninsular WarBy 1805, the year that Napoleon became sole head of state and supreme warlord of France, the notion of strategy was recognizably modern. Joly de Maizeroy had written in Théories de la Guerre (1777): ‘Strategy ... combines time, places, means, various interests and considers all ... [Tactics] reduces easily to firm rules, because it is entirely geometrical like fortification.’ Achieving strategic objectives through means as diverse as diplomacy, economic power, information warfare and military power is not too far from this line of thought. The sort of strategy practised by Napoleon, his allies and some of his opponents, should be distinguished from that of his implacable enemy, Britain. Its worldwide empire, economic base, and naval reach, all meant that it was able to conduct strategy through other means than military power.

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