Levée en masse: Napoleon’s legacy to the world

Upon listening to the latest edition of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, the following blog came to mind.

Today, the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte is hardly considered when contemporary strategists pen their tomes on the way of warfare. Today it is all about drones, robots, all forms of automation and cyberspace. And perhaps it is true to say that in our more sophisticated, politically correct world, we are post-heroic, post-modern, post-ideological, post-religious, post-industrial shadows of our former selves. Gone are the 20th Century existential threats to world peace. Gone is NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. But with the demise of these powers which required the mobilisation of national resources in preparation for total war – a peculiarly 20th Century notion of warfare – we now face a very different strategic environment, one that requires much smaller and dare I say restricted or limited force-structures. Perhaps when historians reflect on the international military changes during the early part of the 21st Century, they may suggest that man’s military necessities returned to a default setting of sorts i.e., back to ‘limited war’ settings. Even the mightiest forces (in numbers of personnel) are shrinking, cutting the idea of citizen-forces and conscripts from the equation. Smaller, high-tech, professional forces are certainly easier to fund during a time of austerity and are certainly more appropriate to use where countries no longer confront globalised threats from highly militarised, belligerent powers. But this is also a great leveller. Historically speaking, in the 17th Century, the great powers of Europe balanced off each other in a stable environment where no one great power possessed the means to overwhelm its rival. Today, we are approaching a similar strategic landscape, but on a global scale. Conventional forces around the world are being cut back, and apart from those states that possess nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, no country can actually overwhelm another. The French Revolution was the turning point that broke old Europe’s notions of stability. Mass recruitment of able-bodied men, ‘levée en masse’ created a pool of conventional manpower designed to defend the first republic against the small, professional and mercenary armies of the European absolutist monarchs. It was a game changer. Wielded by the military and administrative genius of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French masses crushed the armies of absolutist Europe and then went on a rampage that saw much of continental Europe under French control from 1799-1814. But during this period of time, the absolutist enemies of France learnt a painful lesson and created their own variants of levée en masse. The post-Bonapartist period saw all European kingdoms and empires retain the ability to mobilise their respective populations and keep larger ‘peacetime’ standing forces in-being. This, coupled with the rapid changes of the industrial revolution that proliferated new military technologies, improved mobilisation schedules. By the eve of World War I, continental Europe was primed for annihilation. Twenty-five years later, with a steeper evolutionary climb by European armed forces, and building on the Bonapartist tradition, European powers fought another savage war. Indeed the idea of levée en masse continued throughout the Cold War period, kept in check only by the advent and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In an interesting historic counter-factual, would World War III have ignited in central Europe or northeast Asia were there not the fear of weapons of mass destruction overarching and all-destructive, keeping leaders and their ambitions under control? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the idea of another total war being fought for global supremacy, the vacuum was not filled by states willing to maintain a large force in-being. Quite the contrary, every country sought to capitalise on a ‘peace dividend’. Even states that had long-standing quarrels and skirmishes with neighbours. Today, even the biggest militaries struggle to maintain themselves in the absence of a major threat to global peace. The reasons are complex. Yes, the Global Financial Crisis has impacted on defence budgets worldwide and will continue to do so for some time to come. But the creation of semi-automated and automated weaponry is replacing the need for large numbers of combatants. As force structures shift to accommodate and embed new technologies, larger powers and many medium-sized powers will become equally capable. Manpower won’t matter and certainly won’t intimidate. Does this mean that levée en masse; the legacy of Napoleon has been dealt the deathblow? No. Countries that are poor and underdeveloped will still use a form of levée en masse in order to recruit terrorists, insurgents, militias in numbers, in areas and in ways designed to complicate, confuse and push back against the automated, professionalised mechanised forces of others, Iraq and Afghanistan should act as salutary warnings of things to come.

By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International

3 THOUGHTS ON "Levée en masse: Napoleon’s legacy to the world"

  1. Greg Chalik on November 24, 2013 at 11:26 am said:

    t seems to me that the over-reliance on technology, particularly use of drones for targeted killing of jihadist leaders in the WAT is in error. It only creates splinter cells of even more violent terrorists bent on avenging their fallen leadership, and creates intelligence vacuums when existing organisational networks are destroyed and need to be re-identified.

    Every war presents the military command with its own unique set of problems, and it seems to me that evaluating contemporary strategies based on either Iraq or Afghanistan in not warranted. Napoleon too faced an epidemic of desertion in the Army of Italy, appalling logistics, cavalry without horses, and subordinate officers not at all offensive-minded. In effect his particular brand of conducting campaigns ended Levée en Masse, but at that time the future was not looking ‘rosy’ at all for the general Bonaparte.

    What followed in Europe was not an emulation of his methods, but a reaction to them. Rather than the adoption of the manoeuverist mindsets, they adopted the attritionist mindsets which eventually led to the entrenchment across the sub-continent in 1915. That is, rather than creating the unstoppable force to crush the enemy at a single and vital strategic point and end the conflict, the Great Powers sought a ‘solid front’ strategy, defending everywhere, and eventually lining their borders with fortifications of Vauban’s dreams.

    The USA escaped this experience in body, but not in mind. The aircraft are the long range artillery, and the drone is the longest precision artillery of them all. Still, when the real work of fighting had to be done, it took very well trained infantry, even if SEALs, to bring one phase of the war to end. Nothing new there. Fast moving light infantry using all available cover demoralise the enemy with precision fire at close range, only to evade close order combat when challenged. There is nothing new under the Sun.

  2. Gordon Fowkes on November 24, 2013 at 11:41 am said:

    The concept of “Center of Gravity” (COG) is widely credited as the big contribution that Clausewitz is said to have developed, The widely credit part needs to be examined as “On War” was compiled by his wife, and we are seeing what she saw as important. Clausewitz’s other writing like “On strategy” reads like a field manual, short sharp and precise.

    For those facing a really long book to read, I suggest reading the first two chapters and the last two with trying to describe what is a COG. It’s different and it changes throughout his book. What On War is, is a personal blog which allows Clausewitz to air out the blurbs of the day. He died before the first draft cut to size.

    The Concept of COG that shows up on PowerPoint suggests that any clown except the enemy can figure it out, and act decisively on self adulation. Millions have died over the notion that a commander or operations person can devine the mind of the enemy before enemy has devined yours.

  3. Bill Riggs on November 29, 2013 at 6:26 am said:

    For developed countries, there needs to be a serious discussion of mobilization issues. Reserve forces play a strong role in “non-offensive defense” strategies, and to my knowledge, no one has come up with an acceptable approach to rapid and effective force generation when more than half the force structure is in the reserve components. As Mr. Bruni points out – adoption of complex technologies makes the problem more difficult, but should not cloud our minds. We need a better system to track both those who have obtain skills (howbeit rusty) from prior military training and those who have potential to learn quickly. What this means for selective service is a non-random draft mechanism that targets the critical path taken by accessed personnel during force generation and thence into action.

    An interesting example from the WWII era – my mother’s brother (also named William) was a high school dropout, but an experienced mechanic by the time WWII started. He spent the first years of WWII in Baltimore, building airplane engines, and was therefore exempt from the draft as having critical labor skills. He fought to join the Navy, and was eventually allowed to do so. But the Navy, putting the need for his skills over his patriotic desires, kept him in a San Diego repair depot for the rest of the war, and he was never deployed overseas.

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