The 5 Biggest Lessons from the Napoleonic Wars

Even though military tactics and strategy have changed dramatically, there are still important concepts to be learned…

This year marks the bicentennial of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, after Napoleon, one of history’s greatest generals and tacticians (but only an okay grand strategist) was defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, marking the end of almost two decades of continuous warfare. The Napoleonic Wars still contain many valuable military, political, and diplomatic lessons for us today because they spanned so many types of personal, political, and military situations. Here are five lessons from the Napoleonic Wars:

Never underestimate British finance.

Napoleon—and Hitler—are famously known to have met with the reversal of their fortunes through invading Russia. Yet, in both cases, the wealth and resources of the British played a major role in their downfall. Despite Britain’s comparatively small population and territorial base, it alone among European countries was able to fight Napoleon nonstop (except for the short Peace of Amiens from 1802-1803, Britain was at war with France from 1793-1815 while other states alternated between war, peace, and alliance with France).

It could do this because of its modern banking and financial sector that depended more on credit and loans than actual revenues and land. Not only could the British pay to keep their navy and army in the field continuously without ruining their economy, they were able to subsidize their allies. The British consistently subsidized both great and minor powers; by 1813, the British subsidized up to 450,000 Austrian and Russian soldiers, offsetting France’s demographic advantage. The rise of British power and the fall of French power was really the story of marshalling economics, something Napoleon should have thought about when he referred to Britain contemptuously as “a nation of shopkeepers.”  

Know how to handle Russia.

Invading Russia is unlikely to go well because of the country’s huge strategic depth; armies can simply retreat east into Siberia and fight a war of attrition while winter defeats the invaders. However, as Napoleon discovered initially, it is possible to defeat Russia and come to terms with it in limited warfare outside of or on the periphery of Russia’s borders.

In fact, some of Napoleon’s greatest victories saw the defeat of Russian forces combined with Austrian or Prussian forces. In 1805, the French defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, followed by more fighting with the Russians until 1807, when Napoleon decisively defeated the Russians at the Battle of Friedland in East Prussia. Napoleon was then able to make the Peace of Tilsit with Russia that left both countries at peace and in alliance, a fact that mainly worked in the favor of France.

Yet Napoleon squandered away this advantageous peace by taking actions that were against Russia’s interests and brought few or minor gains to France, such as strengthening his newly revived Poland or forcing Russia to stop trading with Britain. Thus the seeds of his disastrous 1812 campaign against Russia were planted. Once the French army suffered hundreds of thousands of losses in Russia, the momentum turned decisively in Russia’s favor and its armies eventually made their way west to Paris.

Fighting against a weaker enemy in the Middle East is an uphill battle.

The French army led by Napoleon that invaded Egypt in 1798 was vastly superior in a conventional sense to the loosely-organized Mamluk force they defeated decisively at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798. The hard part started after this—and not only because the British destroyed the French fleet, cutting off their access to France. Napoleon then had to accomplish the task of ruling over Egypt with only a small force of loyal Frenchmen in proportion to the native population; he faced multiple revolts.

To cope, Napoleon took on many of the outward characteristics of a Muslim ruler, proclaiming himself a friend of Islam and the French muslims (with a lower case) because many at this time were deists and had rejected the Trinity. This didn’t stop a revolt in Cairo in October of that year, which Napoleon had to brutally put down. Meaning the Mamluks melted into the desert.

Napoleon later advanced into the Levant and laid siege to the city of Acre in 1799, held by the Ottomans. He suffered one of his few direct setbacks there until later on in his career due to resistance, foreign help, and disease. Defenders of the citadel were especially fierce as it was thought that Napoleon would be free to march to Constantinople if he took the fortress. Ultimately, as the months wore on, Napoleon realized that taking the city was not worth the loss of time and resources needed for such an endeavour. Fighting in the Middle East is hard because of the climate, the innumerable armed factions, and the protection the desert and natives offer to rebels.

Know when to stop.

Unlike many other conquerors, and contrary to popular thought, Napoleon was not a warmonger. Most of his initial campaigns were fought to protect France and the French Revolution against attack from the British, Austrians, Russians, and Prussians.