From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. ClausewitzStudies.org, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.
STRATEGIC OVERVIEW OF THE CAMPAIGN
by Carl von Clausewitz
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French Forces. Creation of the Standing Army
When Louis XVIII left France, the army was by some accounts 115,000 men strong. Bonaparte states that the number of men under arms was only 93,000. On the 1st of June , after ten weeks had passed, the army consisted of 217,000 men. Thus even if we accept the lowest estimate for the royal army as accurate, the actual increase in size amounted to only 124,000 men. While Bonaparte claims that there were also another 150,000 men in depots on the 1st of June, these were obviously not yet organized, because he certainly took all forces that were in any way useful directly to the battlefield.
There could not have been a shortage of manpower, that is to say trained soldiers, because if you add together what Bonaparte had available when the war ended in 1814—the army in Spain and opposing Wellington [in Southern France], the troops in Italy and the Netherlands, and all the fortress garrisons—the French army must still have contained at least 300,000 men. 100,000 prisoners of war definitely came back from captivity, so it seems that Bonaparte could have disposed of more than 400,000 veteran soldiers in 1815.
That there was also no shortage of weapons can be seen in the fact that 150,000 members of the National Guard received arms. Furthermore, the arrangements that Bonaparte made for increasing arms production provide little reason to believe that such a shortage existed. Equally implausible is the assumption that there was not enough cash available initially. We must therefore conclude that, apart from the time required for training, there are definite limits to how fast armed forces can be raised, which are more constrained than they might appear at first glance.
For example, at the end of 1813, after Bonaparte saw his army destroyed at the Battle of Leipzig, replacements over the next three months amounted to only 150,000 men. Going back even farther, we find that at the beginning of 1813, when Bonaparte was almost the only one to return from the army that had been shattered in Russia, the increase in size of his forces from then until the armistice—a period of seven months—only came to about 200,000 men. When considered in relation to the population and strength of France, these increases are quite modest. We must therefore be careful about crediting even the most energetic government—and Bonaparte's can certainly be counted as such—with the ability to mobilize huge numbers based solely on population and wealth. The situation is different with a Landwehr system, or whatever other name one gives it, for which we can take the arming of the French nation in 1793 and 1794 as an example. It is well known how the French fielded such overwhelming masses of troops at that time.
Our own example is similar. At the beginning of 1813 our standing army was 30,000 men strong, and at the time of the start of the campaign in Saxony around 70,000. The increase in size was thus 40,000 in three months. In contrast, the increase by using the Landwehr from that time until the end of August—a period of around four months—was approximately 150,000. It is thus clear that a centralized administration like that of a standing army has much greater difficulty equipping exceptionally large forces within a limited period of time than do provincial administrations spread across the entire country, as long as these act simultaneously and with the necessary zeal. Overall the main characteristic of a Landwehr system is that it is subject to far fewer inherent limitations in wartime than a simple expansion of the standing army, no matter how the latter is done.
Depots and the Armée Extraordinaire
In addition to the 217,000 men that Bonaparte had under arms on 1 June, there were by his own account another 150,000 men in depots. He does not say how many of these were incorporated into the army or at what times, and it seems that up to the middle of June—thus at the decisive moment—no substantial numbers had entered.
In addition he lists an armée extraordinaire supposedly consisting of 196,000 men, mainly militia and naval troops, who were intended to garrison France’s ninety fortresses. It is not certain if these 196,000 men were actually armed. He labels them “effectives,” but because he also uses this term for the 150,000 men in the depots, it remains unclear how many of those 196,000 men were actually under arms.
The large number of fortresses could have swallowed up great masses of troops, but judging by the numbers of armed troops we actually encountered when we entered France, there is good reason to doubt the reality of those figures. According to them there should have been 217,000 men on the frontiers plus another 350,000 men inside France, including those in the depots. However, many of the 90 fortresses were either not garrisoned at all or only lightly manned, as can be concluded from the example of Strasbourg, since Rapp had to throw his whole corps into it in order to be able to defend it. Furthermore, the entire French army in Paris and afterwards behind the Loire was not more than 80,000 men strong, of which at least 40,000 had come from Bonaparte's main army, so the reinforcements could not have amounted to more than 40,000 men. All we want to point out with these figures is that when Bonaparte says that "on June first I had 560,000 men under arms," one should not regard this as a solid fact. If he had actually had such numbers, it would certainly have been poor economy of force for him to bring only 126,000 men with him to the decisive battle on 16 June. The only certainty is that he had 217,000 troops opposing the enemy. The force that was behind the army and in the interior of the country in fortresses may not have been negligible, but as the results prove it was also not sufficient to provide a reliable source of support after a total defeat.
Bonaparte's Boasting about His Resources
In the end, Bonaparte claims that he would have increased his forces to around 800,000 men by the 1st of October. But if we already have reason to doubt the previous numbers, this is even more the case with those 800,000 men. One cannot ignore the fact that the author of the Memoirs enjoys expounding upon his tremendous efforts and on this occasion—as on so many others in his works—does not stick very closely to the facts. Bonaparte and the authors who support him have always attempted to portray the great catastrophes that befell him as the result of chance. They seek to make their readers believe that through his great wisdom and extraordinary energy the whole project had already moved forward with the greatest confidence, that complete success was but a hair's breadth away, when treachery, accident, or even fate, as they sometimes call it, ruined everything. He and his supporters do not want to admit that huge mistakes, sheer recklessness, and, above all, overreaching ambition that exceeded all realistic possibilities, were the true causes.
If we confine ourselves to an overall impression of the situation, then Bonaparte seems like a land speculator who pretends to be richer than he actually is. He did not have much more than a couple of hundred thousand men available, and he tried his luck with them. Had he succeeded in overthrowing the coalition, or at least in securing France’s borders, then afterward—while still far from having increased his strength—he would have revealed the miserable performance of his opponents by showing how his incomparable boldness had enabled him to accomplish so much with so little. But now that the attempt has failed, and actually seems to have been impossible all along, he does not want to look like a reckless adventurer. Instead he says his preparations were colossal and claims that the French people were making tremendous efforts for him out of enthusiasm and devotion. These are entirely natural expressions of his great vanity and low regard for the truth, but this side of his character reduces his significance as a writer of history far below that of other military leaders whose memoirs have become a primary authority for historians.
We are not wasting time here in some useless speculation, because our evaluation of the strategic relationships of this campaign would be completely different if we could truly believe that Bonaparte had been so confident in the French people, and so successful in all of his preparatory measures, that he might actually have achieved the results that he presents: to have 800,000 men under arms and abundantly provided with all necessary equipment within three months; also Paris and Lyon fortified, the former with 116,000 men and 800 guns, the latter with 25,000 men and 300 guns. Even if the Allies did not actually give him all three of the months he needed to complete this project, namely July, August and September, he still would have drawn closer to this great goal with every month that passed. It could therefore be predicted that if the Allies had advanced toward Paris in July, they would have encountered defensive forces that—in conjunction with the loss of strength that every strategic offensive suffers as a result of the need to secure its lines of communication—would have sufficed to bring the operation to a standstill, and thereby gradually led to the involvement of the entire populace. This would naturally have given the French a far greater chance of success than they had with the offensive that Bonaparte actually undertook. But if all of Bonaparte's numbers are more or less empty boasts, if he had to rest his hopes for a new start solely on an army of 217,000 men, then perhaps this offensive was so obviously the only possible means of resistance that nothing else could even be considered.
Dispositions of the Army
The 217,000 men that Bonaparte had under arms at the beginning of June were divided into seven army corps, a Guards corps, four corps of observation, and an army corps for the Vendée. After deployment they consisted of the following forces:
|1. The main army opposite the Netherlands||130,000|
|The Imperial Guard and five corps|
|2. On the Upper Rhine||25,000|
|a) 5th Corps at Strasbourg under Rapp||20,000|
|b) 1st Observation Corps at Hüningen under Lecourbe||5,000|
|3. Opposite Italy||22,000|
|a. 7th Army Corps at Chamberi under Suchet||16,000|
|b. 2nd Observation Corps in Provence under Brune||6,000|
|4. Opposite Spain||8,000|
|a. 3rd Observation Corps at Toulouse under Decaen||4,000|
|b. in Bordeaux under Clauzel||4,000|
|5. In the Vendée under Lamarque||25,000|
which does not correspond exactly with the number of 217,000 men, but the difference is not significant.
The army aimed at the Netherlands was originally supposed to be 20,000 men stronger, but these were sent to the Vendée to deal with the immediate threat that had appeared there.
To be sure, Bonaparte had thereby concentrated his forces to a high degree against Blücher and Wellington, because he opposed the 220,000 Allied troops facing him on this front (which represented about one-third of the total enemy strength) with 130,000 men, that is to say more than two-thirds of the total forces he had available to place on the borders. Nevertheless, we are tempted to say that he, the great master of the art of concentrating his strength at the decisive point, had fragmented his forces in this case. The troops on the Upper Rhine and those facing Italy and Spain were obviously insufficient even to make a show of defending the rivers and mountains that lay before them, yet they were not absolutely indispensable merely for garrisoning the fortresses. And considering that Bonaparte might have gained another 20-30,000 men for the main army out of the 55,000 stationed on the borders if he had immediately abandoned [his efforts to defend] the countryside, then it seems like a huge mistake not to have made the utmost efforts to assemble all of his strength at the decisive point. For in a position such as his, this appears to be the only thing that could have saved him. There is no doubt that another 20-30,000 men could have been very decisive in the battles of 16 and 18 June, even though it cannot be assumed that this would have guaranteed a French victory.
However, if we put ourselves in Bonaparte's position when he was forming and equipping his forces, we must step back from such a judgment. In analyzing strategy the main thing is always to put yourself precisely into the position of the individual who had to take action. This is often very difficult to do, of course. The vast majority of strategic criticisms would either disappear completely or be reduced to minor, theoretical differences if writers would want or be able to analyze all situations in such a manner.
Since Bonaparte was preparing to oppose all of Europe, he naturally had to consider the defense of all of his borders. He therefore placed small portions of his standing army on the borders of southern Germany, Italy, and Spain in order to form nuclei around which newly-raised forces could form. They were the cadres for the corps he intended to create there. When he gave these orders, there was no way he could predict in which particular week hostilities would be started by one side or the other. Nor could he know just how far his various rearmament measures would have proceeded. While he could generally foresee that his efforts would never enable him to assemble enough forces on the Upper Rhine to oppose the expected main enemy army there on anything like equal terms, he could still hope that a substantial force there would at least cause the usual initial delays, uncertainty, and caution found at the opening of any campaign, thus gaining time and slowing the enemy advance so that he would have time to rush there with his victorious main army from the Netherlands. We are not merely speculating that he saw the situation like this; rather, we have taken it from his memoirs. It makes a big difference whether or not a border is completely devoid of forces to defend it, especially when rivers and mountains pose an obstacle to the attacker, as is here the case with the Vosges, the Rhine, the Jura, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. If there is absolutely nothing in a province, then even the most indecisive, ponderous opponent, even the hundred-headed headquarters of a coalition army, is practically forced to advance, instead of being provoked by resistance into Daun-like caution. Thus even the smallest force can cause substantial delays and indecision.
Another reason why Bonaparte could not consider completely stripping his eastern borders of troops was the impression this would have made on the French populace. He would thereby have been seen as giving up half of the Empire, thus exposing the complete weakness and uncertainty of his position. This would have had serious repercussions among the political parties in the country, as well as for the results of the rearmament effort. One could even go so far as to say that he would have been forced to keep troops in most of provinces in order to guard against the possibility of royalist uprisings. Finally, one should not overlook the fact that under the original plan the main army was supposed to have been 20,000 men stronger, and that the emerging danger in the Vendée forced Bonaparte to send some of the troops intended for the main army back to the Loire.
In mid-June the circumstances were such that he faced a force of 220,000 under Blücher and Wellington in the Netherlands, against which his 130,000 men had little likelihood of success, and on the Upper Rhine he could oppose the large [Austro-German] army of Schwarzenberg with just 30,000 men, even including the sixteen National Guard battalions he sent to Rapp. Bonaparte may well have wished he could completely eliminate the inadequate forces on the other borders in order to have a greater chance, or better yet complete certainty, of success in the Netherlands, but it was no longer possible to change all this at the last moment. He therefore had to try his luck with the 130,000 men that he had on the northern frontier.
The National Guard
The actual arming of the people, that is to say the establishment of the National Guard, deserves a closer look.
In April Bonaparte had the idea of arming all male inhabitants between 20 and 60 years of age and organizing them into more than 3,000 national guard battalions, which would have given him over two million combatants.
This gigantic concept was unquestionably less than sound. It required three main elements: the unity of the people, enthusiastic energy on the part of his supporters, and the necessary equipment. It does not take much to see that of these three elements, the first was not present at all, the second only in insufficient quantity, and the third was even farther from being able to satisfy such an extravagant requirement.
It is not just this expanded mobilization that we must consider illusory, but also any sort of general arming of the population. This was not possible under the circumstances. Bonaparte most definitely felt this and expressly conceded as much when he spoke of the necessity of reducing the 44,000-man strong Parisian National Guard to 8,000 men while instead increasing the light infantry of the Parisian suburbs from 15,000 to 60,000. The situation in the Vendée and in the south also shows clearly that the cooperation of these departments could not be counted on. Bonaparte writes that even the mood in the northern departments was poor and unreliable.
The result was that he limited his entire program of arming the people to just 248 elite [National Guard] battalions with a total strength of 150,000 men.
Of these, 16 battalions were sent to strengthen General Rapp, 16 battalions to General Suchet in the Dauphiné, and finally around 20,000 men to Bordeaux and Toulouse. Thus approximately 40,000 men of the National Guard were deployed in the field. That leaves around 110,000 National Guardsmen who—along with naval troops, veterans, voluntarily reenlisted retirees (mostly officers and non-commissioned officers), and finally individuals still in the depots—made up the fortress garrisons and all the other forces located in the interior of the country.
An Attack on the Allies in April
Bonaparte asks himself if on the 1st of April he could and should have taken all troops available at that time and attacked the Allied forces located in Belgium and on the Rhine. Three factors, he says, forced him to abandon this idea.
1) In the north he had only 35,000 men available. In order to advance with this force into Belgium he would have had to strip bare all of the fortresses in the northern provinces. However, sentiment there was too unfavorable for them to be left to their own devices.
2) He did not want to appear to be the aggressor.
3) The Bourbons were still fomenting unrest in the south and west, so it seemed essential to him to force those princes to leave French territory and nip the internal war in the bud.
While the nature of Bonaparte’s position makes the second reason seem like an illusion, a pretense at legal relationships, the other two reasons are quite compelling.
His failure to conduct such a precipitate attack is often seen as one of his great mistakes, but if we evaluate such an attack from the point of view of the Allies, there is even less reason to believe that it would have proven fruitful.
On the 1st of April the English-Hanoverian army under the Prince of Orange numbered 20,000 men and the Prussian army under General Kleist 50,000. Wellington arrived from Vienna early in April, and Bonaparte always had to reckon with this possibility. 70,000 men under Wellington and Kleist might well have been placed in some difficulty by 35,000 men under Bonaparte, but it is completely unreasonable to assume that he could have dealt them a decisive defeat and smashed their armies. On the contrary, that would have been the most unlikely outcome of all. If Bonaparte's success against these two leaders had consisted simply in forcing them to give up part of the Netherlands, then such a result would not have been in any way decisive. Even gaining the Belgians—if that had been so certain as Bonaparte believed—would not have added much weight to counterbalance the overall situation.
Nothing is more important in strategy than ensuring that the forces that are to carry out an attack are not used in vain, that is to say, that they are not merely thrust into the air. But that is basically how an operation against Wellington and Kleist would have to be viewed, even if it had been successful.
Of course, if we only consider the force ratio of 35 to 70, then there was no reason for Bonaparte to expect better odds at a later time. Yet the issue is not just the likelihood of victory but also its impact. It is clear that a victory over one-tenth of the enemy’s forces cannot be as decisive as one over a third of them. But if even a victory over this third (assuming that he won the Battle of Belle Alliance [Waterloo]) would still have left Bonaparte’s ultimate success very much in doubt, then it is impossible to see how an unimportant victory such as one over Wellington and Kleist could have brought significant results.
Thus Bonaparte correctly abandoned the idea of falling on the Allies at the very first moment, and instead waited for a time when a force would be gathered against him whose defeat would be worth the effort.
Bonaparte also raises the question of whether he should have remained on the defensive or instead attacked a portion of the Allied forces before they had all assembled, so as to place himself in a more favorable position from which to sustain himself afterward.
However confident he may have been about his rearmament efforts, he foresaw that before he could complete them, an enormously superior force would advance against him. He personally believed that 600,000 men would oppose him, but in fact between 600,000 and 700,000 appeared. If we compare these numbers with the 200,000 that he had in the field and add to them another 50,000 who were in the fortresses with which the enemy would come into contact, there still remains a superiority in numbers that even a Bonaparte had reason to fear.
Under these circumstances, the first thought had to be of defense. In particular, a defense in which he withdrew into the interior of the country, on the one side toward Paris, on the other side toward Lyon. This defense indeed would have been greatly strengthened because it would have brought into play a large portion of the French theater of operation and a number of fortified places, specifically Paris and Lyon, the former with 116,000 men and the latter with 25,000.
The immensely important advantages of such a form of resistance would have been:
1) Additional time. The main battles would have occurred four, six, or even eight weeks later, because one can never calculate how much time can be lost by indecisive commanders.
2) The weakening of the enemy force resulting from an extended theater of operations, in which a number of fortresses would have to be surrounded, and a number of roads secured by garrisons.
3) The increasing involvement of the French people, which could have become a true war of insurrection.
These three things, which constitute the essential advantages of a strategic defensive and whose effectiveness increases the farther the defense can be drawn back into the interior of the country, are offered by Bonaparte himself as the best arguments in favor of the defensive. And these arguments would have been so overwhelming that there could have been no question of any other form of resistance, provided the unspoken supposition on which they all depended had been true.
This supposition is of a loyal, devoted, undivided, and enthusiastic people. But this was inconceivable, because even though the Bonapartist party had grown stronger in 1815, it was still just one party, which was opposed by the royalists and the republicans. Even if we admit that the latter stood more for the Bonapartists than against them, they were still two separate elements.
As a result, the whole support of the people for providing regular and irregular assistance would have been weakened. In those parts of the country occupied by the Allies, a political party in opposition [to Napoleon] would have arisen and the defender, instead of feeling himself at home and in strength and comfort, would have been in an uncertain position, almost as if in a foreign land.
One subject that requires special consideration, moreover, is the capital. Every capital has great strategic importance, but some more than others. This is greater in those that embody the concept of a capital, and most of all where there is a knot of political parties. This was the case with Paris. Bonaparte had to hold Paris at all costs, and for this reason his entire strategy revolved around this strongpoint. Now Bonaparte had in fact already given thought to fortifying and defending Paris, but this gigantic project was completely illusory as long as he could not count on the undivided support of its inhabitants. That he could not is proved by his intention to disarm the Paris National Guard and replace it with another force based on the lower classes. Even if he did not have the courage to carry out this plan, it does show how much he feared the portion of the Parisian populace that was not completely loyal to him. The opposition Bonaparte encountered in the Legislative Assembly makes the political uncertainty of his position in France quite apparent. As long as he did not demand anything more than the relatively indirect efforts required by expanding the army, as long as he fought the war on foreign territory or on the borders, and did so more or less successfully, his uncertain situation would remain satisfactory and the preponderance of his intellect and his luck would continue. But as soon as direct, widespread, and prodigious efforts became necessary, as would be the case in a defense conducted in the interior of the country, then Bonaparte's precarious relationship with France would no longer have proven strong enough. The tool would have broken in use.
Bonaparte felt all of this clearly. If he does not state it explicitly in his memoirs, it is only because of his desire to appear as the idol of the French people. Nevertheless, he is forced to speak of the resistance in the western provinces and the uncertain spirit of the northern ones.
In such a situation Bonaparte must have considered the role of a defender like Alexander of Russia to be unsuitable, favoring instead one like Alexander of Macedonia. He therefore preferred to place himself at the head of his excellent army and trust his fate to his lucky star and to his flashes of genius in bold ventures, rather than count on a more favorable development of the overall situation, which he could not contemplate with much confidence.
Such considerations are in this case much more important than a simple preference for attack. The latter can determine the actions of a commander in smaller, less decisive situations that do not place his entire existence at risk. But it cannot be considered in a case where a far greater destiny is at stake. There is probably no other commander who preferred the attack for himself and his army as much as Frederick the Great. Nevertheless, in 1761 he occupied the camp at Bunzelwitz when the situation forced him to pin all of his hopes on waiting.
Attack on Wellington and Blücher
Even before the Russians had arrived, and before the great Allied army on the Upper Rhine had assembled, there was already an Allied force in the Netherlands and on the lower Rhine for Bonaparte to contend with. This force was substantial enough that a decisive victory over it would greatly benefit his overall position, yet not so large that he could hold no hope of a successful outcome. Bonaparte was both willing and able to begin the war against this force before the others had crossed his frontiers. He chose the last possible moment, when Schwarzenberg had nearly assembled his forces and the Russians were only about fourteen days’ march away. He probably delayed attacking until so late because most of his forces arrived only during the last few days. Otherwise it would have been decidedly more advantageous to have begun earlier, so as to have enough time to smash this force on the Lower Rhine before the others could begin to influence the situation.
The fundamental concept that Bonaparte adopted for the campaign was to burst forth with an attack on the Allied army in Belgium and on the Meuse, because it was the first one present and thus the first one capable of being brought to battle; because it was closest and thus the first one that could be reached; and because it was commanded by the most enterprising leaders and therefore the ones to be feared most. He therefore assembled a disproportionate part of his army against them, as we have already seen. There was certainly nothing better for him to do: This was indeed the only way—given his extremely difficult and precarious situation—for him to attain a more solid position. Only by a splendid victory over Blücher and Wellington, the two generals in whom the Allied sovereigns placed their greatest confidence, and by the total destruction of their armies, could he strike a blow that would cause admiration in France, dismay among the Allies, and astonishment in Europe. Only then could he hope to gain time and increase his power by a few more steps, thus becoming more of a match for his opponents. If he failed to gain this victory, or if it did not deter the Allies from immediately invading France, then it would be impossible for him to save himself from a second downfall.
In the first half of June, the forces that the Allies set into motion against Bonaparte had the following strengths and dispositions:
|1. The army of the Netherlands
Wellington in Belgium
consisting of English, Hanoverian, Dutch,
Brunswick, and Nassau troops
|Blücher on the Meuse||
|Germanic Confederation troops on the Moselle||
|2. The Russian army, on the march towards the Middle Rhine||
|3. The Austrian army, together with Germanic Confederation
troops from Southern Germany, on the Upper Rhine
|4. The Austrians and Sardinians in Italy||
Against these masses the French had approximately:
|Total in the field||
If we add to these about 80,000 men from the fortress garrisons, who could have come into action during the course of the campaign, then the French with their 275,000 men are supposed to hold their own against 665,000 men or even defeat them. But the Prussians alone had another 100,000 troops moving up, namely the Guard, the 5th and 6th Corps, and several regiments belonging to the other four corps. Later on, the Neapolitan and Danish troops would have to be taken into account as well, along with the new corps being raised in Germany, such as the Prussian 7th Corps in Westphalia.
To get the better of such overwhelming forces would require almost a miracle, and Bonaparte's attempt in his memoirs to use the campaign of 1814 as proof that such a miracle was possible is mere sophistry. The successes that he had gained against the Allies in February 1814 were not tactical victories over an enemy two or three times his superior, for he defeated the forces one at a time, and in each engagement he had either superior or roughly equal numbers. Nor did these victories lead to overall strategic success against the whole alliance, for the campaign ended in his downfall. These victories were the result of well arranged operational combinations and tremendous energy. The fact that all their outstanding results could not bring about a favorable outcome for the campaign as a whole, however, shows the insurmountable difficulties that occur once a certain disproportion of forces is reached.
We do not mean to suggest that it was totally impossible for Bonaparte to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Rather, we are saying that in wars between civilized societies, where the forces and the mode of employing them are not very different, numbers generally decide more than has usually been admitted. Thus the numbers shown here—according to all theoretical and historical probability—had already determined the outcome of the war in advance.