Sunday, 22 September 2013

An Age of Tough Commanders?

After my extensive post yesterday, I wondered if perhaps the burden of command was heavier in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars than in the 18th century in Western Europe and later in the 19th century.  Like yesterday, I´m inviting you to think with me here.

More than in the previous and following ages was Napoleonic (and revolutionary) leadership based on the physical courage and stamina of the men involved. This had much to do with the changing social and political conditions where merit and ability became more important than pedigree and court favouritism. General officers were not expected to just direct the battle from the rear, but to intervene tactically and inspire their men by example.

This is most evident in the case of the French marshals, despite Napoleon´s political considerations in his selection. But it is unlikely that Blücher could have risen to such high status in an earlier of later age. He loathed politics and with boorish manners he was unlikely to gain favour in court. Only his ability, popularity and drive and the desperate state of Prussia  in early 1813 secured his return to command .

It would appear to me, but this is something I need to back up at some point, that the average age of general officers in Napoleonic armies (with that of the coalition forces following behind the French at a respectful distance) was considerably lower than before and even after. The physical requirements and selection criteria for promotion on merit probably both worked to this end, although of course Blücher is the odd one out in this case.

In the later age, with armies growing even larger and availability of comfort increasing, field commanders were less exposed to the fighting and moved with greater ease. Long distances could be traversed by train and later motorised transport. And although general officers kept getting killed, this was more often the result of distant artillery and air bombardment than of exposure in the front line.

It seems that Eisenhower suffered stress mostly from the office politics of his staff  and the quarrels of his subordinates. Generals leading their men into battle became rare, like Rommel (who incidentally also wrote many letters to his wife relating his health problems). In that sense, he was one of the last heirs of the Napoleonic legacy.

Would you agree=


  1. Good thought provoking posts

    I think C-inC's mostly were less likely to be killed in the battles as they tended to be that bit further back in that period but Corp commanders were more likely to be injured or killed on the field of battle. How many times did Napoleon put himself right in the front line? Same with Wellington? Blutcher may well be the exception indeed


    1. Hi Ian,

      well, Wellington was enough in the thick to have quite a few staff officers killed around him at Waterloo, but since he was a conservative chap, he might have preferred to remain at the back at other times. Napoleon was in the thick of it in the early days and in 1814. But marshals and even most allied generals were close enough to get killed.


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