Victorian Warfare 1: Heirs of Napoleon


This will be the first in a series of posts on the evolution of warfare in the Victorian Period. While Queen Victoria actually reigned from 1837 to 1901, we will be more generally considering the period which began immediately after the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and came to a close with the First World War (1914). This relatively peaceful century may not have known the sort of continent-shattering wars that characterized adjacent eras, but it was a vital link in the chain of strategic, tactical, and technological evolutions which brought about the forms of modern warfare. Furthermore, the military affairs of the period are still commonly misunderstood. When referred to at all, the tactical systems in particular are referred to as “Napoleonic,” used in the sense of a derisive sneer synonymous with unthinking butchery of the common soldier.

The truth is not so simple. A more studied appraisal must conclude that Victorian military methods adapted to changing technological and social conditions no slower than those of any other period and, to make a more general point, that proposed revolutions in military matters should be greeted with skepticism. We are biased towards remembering the ideas like tanks or screw-propelled ships, that worked despite skepticism, over those like the all torpedo-boat navy concepts of the Jeune-École in France that failed despite institutional enthusiasm. Many new ideas sound better than they work when put to the ultimate test.

The “Napoleonic” appellation is certainly deserved, but those who apply it pejoratively often lack an understanding of precisely what the word actually describes, other than men marching shoulder to shoulder. Victorian military methods represent the ultimate development and adaptation of the Napoleonic approach to warfare, so this first post will consist of a description of the Napoleonic military revolution’s key elements and how they carried over into the Victorian age.

Napoleonic Warfare

During the  Frederickian period in warfare which preceded the French Revolution, armies tended to be smaller and moved primarily as a unitary block. Campaigns were conducted in a slower, more deliberate manner focused on avoiding battle, if possible. Armies were typically drawn up with the infantry in two lines and the cavalry formed on the flanks. Frederick’s favorite tactic was the “oblique approach” in which he fixed the enemy with one part of his army, doing everything he could to convince them it was the whole, while the other part marched around to attack them in their flank or rear.

The Battle of Leuthen. Note the two parallel lines of the infantry and the position of the cavalry on the flanks.

The elements which distinguished Napoleonic warfare were:

1) Heavy reliance on skirmishers operating independently to fix and demoralize enemy units. Skirmishers were detached from their parent battalions  and operated out in front to screen the advance or delay an enemy attack. They fought singly or in in pairs and sought cover and concealment where possible.

French skirmishers firing from cover. Painting by Guiseppe Rava.

2) Infantry maneuvering in compact columns rather than cumbersome lines. Only in the immediate presence of the enemy would the column open out into line formation. After an exchange of fire, the engagement was to be decided by a bayonet charge. The typical maneuver element was the battalion column composed of four to six companies (themselves in line formation 3 ranks deep), with the column either one or two companies wide. A full strength company numbered around 140 men of all ranks. Depending on the circumstances, the column might just close up and assault without deploying into line.

Battalion formed in column.

3) Extensive use of combined arms. On the strategic/operational scale, the army was broken into “corps,” each containing infantry, cavalry, and artillery and capable of operating independently. Tactically, infantry maneuvering in columns allowed the cavalry to advance among and alongside them; this allowed the cavalry to immediately exploit gains made by the infantry or throw themselves on an overwhelming enemy to buy time for the infantry to retreat. Artillery would operate in direct support of offensive or defensive actions.

The attack on Le Haye Sainte during the battle of Waterloo. Note the cavalry on the left flank of the French columns and the artillery batteries operating among the columns of both armies.

4) Mass, conscript armies inspired by nationalism. In the Frederickian period, most armies were composed of men forcibly recruited and kept in service only by the threat of violent punishment. If commanders dispatched men to skirmish, they might never see them again. These armies tended to be small (by later standards) and difficult to replace if lost. The Napoleonic period, on the other hand, was the beginning of the “nation in arms;” whole peoples roused to action by patriotism. War was increasingly seen as an activity of the whole country and People rather than just the king, and young men became eager to volunteer. New armies could be raised “out of the ground” after a defeat, and as these patriotic sentiments spread from France to her enemies she lost one of the advantages that had helped her achieve such stunning results.

Development After Napoleon

Warfare of the Victorian age was marked by the development and perfection of Napoleonic techniques, as well as by periodic reactions against Napoleonic tactics in particular. The first of these reactions immediately followed the Napoleonic Wars. Fearing that if the People saw themselves as necessarily involved in war they might also start to think themselves necessarily involved in government, France especially tried to “turn back the clock” with a return to Frederickian tactical ideas, like having the infantry maneuver in line instead of the more flexible column and reducing the amount of authority ceded to commanders of companies and battalions. Their counterparts in Prussia, though, grasped the nettle and the first set of post-war regulations for their army was thoroughly Napoleonic, especially in its heavy focus on skirmishing and enabling the initiative of lower level commanders.

Other reactions would occur for reasons of technological rather than political change, specifically the increases in range and lethality of weapons. The French after the introduction of the single-shot breech-loading Chassepot rifle in the 1860’s and the British after their mauling at the hands of Boer guerrillas armed with modern bolt-action rifles in 1899 would both argue that the offensive-minded Napoleonic tactical systems of their respective decades were outdated and should be replaced by more defensive minded ideas.

The Chassepot rifle was accepted into the French army in response to the introduction of the similar Dreyse “needle-gun” by the Prussians. Both were bolt action single-shot rifles that used integrated cartridges made of paper. They both also used black powder and were capable of around 10 aimed shots a minute with an effective range of 600 yards.

In terms of strategy and logistics, the products of the industrial revolution supercharged the ability of armies to move rapidly and coordinate their actions in the field, the key features of Napoleonic strategy. Railroads allowed whole armies to be shifted in days and the telegraph and field telephone helped generals keep track of the ever increasing number of corps that could be equipped by ever expanding arms factories. Developments in agriculture allowed the population to explode and the size of armies along with it.

The above trends: increase in the size of armies, increase in the speed at which they could be strategically moved and coordinated, and increase in the lethality of weaponry were the defining factors of warfare in the Victorian age. Tactics had to learn to cope with these changes, but with little assistance from technology. Armies could be moved around a country in days by railroad, but battalions still had to advance against the enemy on foot. The telegraph might let a corps commander coordinate his divisions with unparalleled efficiency, but a Colonel had to rely on couriers and a Captain had only his voice. About the only improvements seen by the actual fighting men were ever deadlier rifles and artillery. The growth in this imbalance combined with the dense rail and road networks of Western Europe would lead ultimately to the frustrating, bloody stalemate of the First World War. Despite the modernity of strategy and logistics, the absence of compact radios and powerful internal combustion engines chained tactics to the best that could be done with strong legs and a loud voice.

The questions that forthcoming posts will attempt to answer will be:

1) How specifically did technological advances change the way wars were fought at different times during this period?

2) How successfully were Napoleonic tactics adapted to increasingly modern conditions?

The answers, especially to the second question, might surprise you.


One response to “Victorian Warfare 1: Heirs of Napoleon

  1. This is very interesting material. I wonder how involved the family Krupp influenced the outcome of these battles. What I gathered from the book was that whomever they sold their arms to would win the battle. The Krupps were a very influencial family for many years. Please comment.

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