Saddles and Sabers: Napoleon Bonaparte’s Contributions to Modern Warfare

Napoleon Bonaparte participated in an important evolutionary period in modern warfare that occurred from about 1760 to 1914. During this period, warfare transformed from relatively small-scale limited warfare fought by poorly trained conscripts and a handful of mercenaries to global, fully industrialized total war. This evolution began with Frederick II of Prussia and his establishment of the canton system that effectively marked the beginning of standing, trained militias. The evolution culminated with World War I, which was the first fully industrialized total war on a global scale. This evolutionary period is important to modern warfare because many of its effects on warfare have endured well into the 21st Century.

Revolution in military affairs

The late 18th Century through the early 20th Century was a period of astounding change in politics, economics, culture and warfare. These changes were gradual but nearly constant over a period of roughly 160 years. Several changes in military tactics, organization and technology – as well as political and social aspects of warfare – occurred from the late 18th Century to the early 19th Century that constitute a revolution in military affairs (RMA). The synergy of the French Revolution and the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte caused this RMA. The French Revolution created the favorable conditions in the social, political and military realms, but it took the dynamism, organizational skills and military genius of Napoleon Bonaparte to bring the RMA to fruition.

There is not one agreed-upon definition of an RMA. The definition of RMA used for this article is “the assembly of a complex mix of tactical, organizational, doctrinal and technological innovations to implement a new conceptual approach to warfare or to a specialized sub-branch of warfare.”1 The elements of an RMA are characterized by changes in the nature of and purpose(s) of war itself. More than the advent of a particular technology, an RMA is normally the outcome of underlying processes – ideological, political, social, economic and demographic.2 Similarly, an evolution in warfare changes how wars are fought, driven by the same underlying processes but taking a much longer time to occur. A simple way to quantify this is that an RMA occurs within a lifetime, and an evolution in warfare occurs over a longer period.

The evolution of modern warfare began with the Seven Years War from 1756 -1763, which involved most of the great powers of Europe and provided the impetus to sustain the practice of maintaining a standing military force. The Age of Reason throughout the 18th Century – which emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition – promoted scientific thought, skepticism and intellectual interchange. The Age of Reason also had a catalytic effect on scholars of politics and warfare. Men such as Clausewitz and Jomini were doubtless affected by the Age of Reason and produced the foundations of modern military doctrine.

The American Revolution from 1775-1783 represents a transitional period between the limited wars in Europe in the 18th Century with small professional armies and limited goals, and means and the advent of the mass national warfare that arose during the French Revolution. The French Revolution from 1789-1799 was driven by radical social change and political upheaval, and had a fundamental impact on French history as well as modern history worldwide by introducing mass politics and mass warfare to Europe – and ultimately to the world. The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815 were propelled by mass national warfare and can be considered the first total war.

The Industrial Age circa 1760-1830 resulted in a transformation from hand production to machine production as well as a flurry of technological, economic, social and cultural changes that resulted in a permanent impact on warfare. The Industrial Revolution changed both why and how warfare is conducted. The temporal overlap of the Napoleonic Era and the Industrial Revolution allowed Napoleon to make advancements in equipment and weapons.

The American Civil War from 1861-1865 exemplified the requirement for an industrial base to conduct large-scale sustained combat. The American Civil War was observed by military leaders from Europe, who took the lessons-learned from that conflict and applied them to their own militaries. An example of this is the Prussian army. The Wars of German Unification from 1862-1871 generated technological advancements in transportation, logistics and weapons, but, more importantly, it produced the modern staff as well as the modern command-and-control system. This further served to professionalize the military as well as to develop the organizational structure and systems that would be used by European militaries at the start of World War I.

The evolution culminated with World War I from 1914-1918, which resulted in the first fully industrialized total war on a global scale. The scope of the war and the technological advancements it bore were unimaginable prior to its commencement and were of a level of significance that serves to simultaneously mark the end of an organizational evolution in warfare and the beginning of a technological evolution in warfare. The RMA caused by Napoleon is a critical element to this evolutionary period because of the changes he implemented in the conduct of war from 1803-1815.

Napoleonic Era

It is almost impossible to discuss the RMA caused by Napoleon Bonaparte without first discussing the French Revolution because the two are inextricably linked. The social, political and military elements brought about by the French Revolution made Bonaparte’s ascension to power possible. He likely would not have made captain, let alone colonel, had not the hereditary norms of French society been undone by revolution.3

The French Revolution had a profound, lasting impact on European politics, society and economics. It brought mass politics and mass warfare to Europe and ultimately to the world. Furthermore, it replaced the old nation of king, nobles and the church with a new nation of citizens who were theoretically free and equal under the law and had an ethnic identity.4 The desire for liberty and the societal discontent with feudalism spread across Europe and irrevocably changed political structures across the continent. The sense of nationalism specifically would have profound effects on warfare in raising large armies and fueling the conflicts into ever-larger scale. The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars called for a mobilization of the population. Not only would young men participate, but also women, old men and even children would participate in the war effort by producing weapons, uniforms and supplies. This marked a significant milestone in military history and is considered by many as the first total war.5

One of the most obvious changes during the Napoleonic Era was the increase in size of the French army and subsequently that of other European countries. Under Napoleon, French resources were devoted to the military with unprecedented consistency. From 1800-1811, Napoleon raised 1.3 million conscripts and 1 million more from 1812-1813.6 “The levee en masse gave France a numerical superiority over her enemies, a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of manpower which allowed her two or three times as many losses as her opponents,” according to Hew Strachan.7 The vast size of Napoleon’s army drove the requirement for a better system of organizing and employing it. Napoleon implemented the corps system, which became one of his most enduring achievements.

Although the concept of organizing armies into division and corps was developed before the French Revolution, Bonaparte was able to make the corps system work more effectively than it had previously. He did this through decentralized maneuver and centralized control. By moving the corps separately, but within supporting range, Bonaparte was able to increase speed of movement, decrease the speed of employment in battle and decrease the burden of logistic support. Also, Bonaparte developed an effective staff that could manage the flow of communication between the separate elements and effectively control them. These new corps were organized as combined-arms units and consisted of cavalry, infantry and artillery. Because of their structure and supporting staff, the corps operated effectively, both as individual units and in concert.8 Both Napoleon’s system of organization and tactical-maneuver techniques are still studied and used in modern militaries.

The classic Napoleonic maneuver technique was the so-called manoeuvre sur les derrie`res. In its ideal form, one corps, having made contact with the enemy, would conduct a feint to the enemy’s front, while the main force would fall on the enemy’s rear.9 Although Bonaparte was not the first to conceive of this maneuver, he was the first to consistently gain success by its employment with a large force – due primarily to his ability to maneuver more quickly than his adversaries as well as to his improvisational leadership style. Also, Bonaparte combined speed, firepower and protection in a lethal combination. He achieved speed through his rapid deployment from movement formations into maneuver, firepower by massing forces at the decisive point and protection by masterfully using terrain such as rivers or hills to protect his flanks and rear.

An artilleryman himself, it is not surprising that Napoleon was a strong supporter of the employment of artillery. The artillery arm’s major contributions include increased mobility, improved quality of the cannons and more effective employment by means of combining the effects of artillery with that of infantry and cavalry.10 Under the Napoleonic system, artillery became a decisive arm and was used to spearhead an assault by creating a breach in an enemy’s line, which could be exploited by infantry and cavalry.11 As in other aspects of the RMA, Napoleon exploited the changes in government resulting from the French Revolution, which allowed the nation to mobilize the industrial base for warfare. The government controlled prices and wages in the arms industry, which also increased the number of state-run weapons factories. Scientific research was systematically put at the service of the national defense industry.12 The result was that the French army would be equipped with a greater quantity and quality of cannons relative to its adversaries.

The immense size of Napoleon’s army created new challenges for logistic support. It could not remain stationary for very long and requisition enough food and other supplies to sustain it. Napoleon wrote, “To know … how to draw supplies of all kinds from the country you occupy makes up a large part of the art of war.”13 The French army, therefore, became very skilled at foraging during campaigns. Also, a revolution in agricultural techniques occurred in Europe during the early 18th Century, which increased productivity. The potato was grown in larger quantity and proved a portable, ready-to-eat food source.14 This allowed the army to move more quickly and cover greater distances than before. Easing the burden of logistics was a critical enabler to Napoleon’s style of maneuver.

Another critical enabler to Napoleon’s style of maneuver was an increase in the experience and professionalism of his soldiers and their leaders, which would allow decentralized maneuver and increased speed on the battlefield. The army under Napoleon mirrored the cultural shift away from civil aristocratic leadership during the French Revolution. The practice of merit-based promotion was introduced and expanded during this era. Many French officers at the beginning of Napoleon’s reign were promoted from the lower ranks, which provided an unprecedented level of professionalism, experience and motivation in the French officer corps. Napoleon personally benefitted from this system, which allowed his own ascendance in the ranks and therefore made the RMA possible.

Viewed from a holistic perspective, the Napoleonic RMA was the result of a combination of many factors. Some of the elements were present in the late 18th Century such as French tactics, equipment and artillery doctrine. The French Revolution provided the context with which social and political change could coexist in a synergistic fashion with military reforms.15 Mass politics and warfare propelled the Napoleonic Wars and ultimately changed modern warfare. As we revisit the definition of RMA (“the assembly of a complex mix of tactical, organizational, doctrinal and technological innovations to implement a new conceptual approach to warfare or to a specialized sub-branch of warfare”), it is clear that Bonaparte’s contributions did in fact constitute a revolution in military affairs.


1 Stephenson, Scott, “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea,” Military Review, May/June 2010, ProQuest.

2 Knox, MacGregor, “Mass Politics and Nationalism as Military Revolution: the French Revolution and After,” The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, editors MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2001.

3 Flynn, M., “Paradigm Shift: The French Revolution and Napoleon,” Marine Corps University lesson card, Lesson 5106-14.

4 Knox.

5 Bell, David A., “Total War,” Military History, Vol. 24, No. 2 (April 2007), military and government collection, EBSCOhost.

6 Black, Jeremy, Western Warfare, 1775-1882, Durham, GBR: Acumen, 2001; e-book.

7 Strachan, Hew, “Napoleonic Warfare,” European Armies and the Conduct of War, London: Unwin Hyman, 1983.

8 Black.

9 Strachan.

10 McConachy, Bruce, “The Roots of Artillery Doctrine: Napoleonic Artillery Tactics Reconsidered,” The Journal of Military History 65, No. 3 (07, 2001);

11 Ibid.

12 Strachan.

13 Paret, Peter, editor, “Napoleon and the Revolution in War,” Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1986.

14 Strachan.

15 Liaropoulos, Andrew N., “Revolutions in Warfare: Theoretical Paradigms and Historical Evidence – the Napoleonic and First World War Revolutions in Military Affairs,” The Journal of Military History, No. 2 (04, 2006); from accountid=14746.