The Napoleonic Wars in 10 Questions

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

  1. What is the point?
  2. What does victory look like?

  3. Who is the enemy?

  4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

  5. How could you defeat the enemy?

  6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

  7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

  8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

  9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

  10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

  1. Or, are they due to the nature of war?
  • What is war?

  • To break these down somewhat:

    1. What is the point?  This really threw my students at first, because in a military history class it is easy to lose sight of this basic question. So, what was the POINT of all this fighting? Hundreds of thousands died during the Napoleonic wars. What is/was the point?
  • What does victory look like? If you know what you’re fighting for, perhaps you can describe how the world looks after you’ve “won.” This sparked a lively debate over Napoleon-as-traditional-strategist, versus Napoleon-as-gangster-antistrategist.

  • Who is the enemy?  The answer, naturally, somewhat eventually, was Britain, which some folks might disagree with, but which seems to be the logical and dominant interpretation. The consequences of this for analyzing the Napoleonic Wars, however are considerable for undergraduates, and especially for those who have a vested interest in understanding the use and utility of force.

  • Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.    They got a kick out my caveat on this, but the purpose was to show them how to manage their own questions. Just because you have a question that doesn’t fit at the moment doesn’t mean that you have to ditch it. Keep it, put it aside, keep writing, and adjust as necessary.

  • How could you defeat the enemy? Now we’re starting to drill down, using historical examples from the data we have to work with. Continental System, naturally; but also a critique of comparative economies, the often-overlooked strain on Britain, and the relationship between continental interests and the “global economy” of 1800.

  • Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable? Now we can play with counter-factuals, which any honest historian will cop to using. The fact is, the way I see it they are simply exercises in logic that test our argument. So we can link Question #1 to #6, and can scaffold our question backwards to the data.

  • Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?  This brings us to one of the fundamental questions about using violence: what can you solve with it? At this point, whether analyzing the question from Napoleon’s viewpoint or the Allies, students are realizing what a complicated thing the use of military power actually is. They are also beginning to realize that some of the biggest concerns for militaries have their answers outside the strictly military sphere. From the allied governments’ perspective, more manpower = political reform = why are we doing this??

  • Now, can you defeat the enemy? And now we can ask this question.

  • If you can’t, then why are you using military force? This prompted my students to think about how many assumptions we tend to make about war. It doesn’t usually deliver what is wanted, it can only solve some problems, not others, and in Napoleon’s case it really does seem that it was all he knew (Yes, yes, I know, reforms and all, but he did say that he should have replaced all his marshals, and Mundy’s recent book makes this point as well).

  • Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations? This brings us out to the macro level again. Operations because events matter as well, and there should always be space for the argument that, if ONLY Napoleon had committed the Guard at Borodin, or if ONLY Ney hadn’t been late at Bautzen, “things would have been different.” Policy and Strategy because these are the big “so what” levels. But, we can go further, because human experience isn’t a matter of choosing from three options.

  • So, let’s move to the metaphysical level:

    1. Or, are they due to the nature of war?  We can talk about chance, chaos theory, emotions. Can you do everything right and still lose, because that’s war for you? Not comfortable questions, either for my students or for students in general who live in a results-oriented, fault-assigning society. (Ok, that’s another topic entirely)
  • What is war? And there we have it. The fundamental question, that everyone was aware of, and Clausewitz couldn’t get out of his head. I have to say, it was very gratifying to see the fascinated looks on their faces when I moved the boards up and revealed these last two questions.

  • Anyway, this was one of my favorite lessons in the fall semester, because it took my students through a whirlwind of Socratic, dialectic, even scholastic argumentation about the “big questions” of Napoleonic warfare, and led them to the big questions. Because war is too serious a thing not to ask them.

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