Saturday, 4 January 2014
Review: Napoleon 1814: The Defence of France
Napoleon 1814: The Defence of France by Andrew Uffindell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Excellent book: well written, well researched and adds in meaningful ways to other accounts.
Uffindel's main point is that we can't understand the actions and outcome of the campaign of France in 1814 if we look at the military in isolation from the physical, political and social conditions in which it took place. That means his account provides less detail on the battles, but offers a wider scope than traditional military
He starts out with several chapters describing the French and allied armies at the start of 1814, the state of France and the campaign area. In the second part we get an operational overview of the campaign (not much detail on the battles). Next, Uffindel analyses the campaign and the most important strategic decisions. The last part provides and overview of the experience of civilians, POWs and the sick and wounded.
Terrain and weather determined operational and tactical movement, but also led to high levels of straggling and disease. The area in which the campaign was fought was very small and could not support the armies operating in it. The allies faced the dilemma of concentrating for battle or spreading out to ease logistics. The weather was exceptionally cold, even for the time of year.
But the most important decision of the campaign was the allies crossing the Rhine in December, thus denying the resources and men of North-Eastern France to Napoleon, diminishing the credibility of his regime by showing its inability to defend the country and by putting Paris in danger, thus constraining the Emperor to the defence of his capital.
For Uffindel, time was running out for Napoleon. If he had managed to pull off a decisive victory early in the campaign, he could have re-established his credibility and gained the time and space to rebuild his army from conscripts. Many of the steps he took in late 1813, like the silencing of internal opposition and overconfident expressions in the press, gave him only a temporary respite with negative long term repercussions.
The most interesting part of the book is the last. It draws its strength from research in local archives, combined with first hand accounts from soldiers and civilians. It shows the effects of the occupation on communities and the administration (and provides a counterpoint to the French behaviour in foreign territory): provision of food and lodgings to allied soldiers, rape and plunder, collaboration and resistance, the movement of refugees and POWs, the care of sick and wounded.
It also shows the reasoning behind and the limits to Napoleon’s decision not to wage popular warfare. The occupation of north eastern France helped rally that part of the country to him as allied occupation broke the apathy of the population. But militia troops like the Garde National were of questionably quality (especially its leadership) and competed for manpower with the regular army, so they were only levied locally. Popular warfare was only possible if the population still believed in victory and guerilla’s could be supported by field armies. But sending out field armies was not a possibility with Paris under threat and by the time Napoleon made the move in late March, it was already too late.
In many places, the book provides pointers to 1815. It explains why a defensive, attritional strategy was not really and option for Napoleon. He couldn’t count on popular support to hold out, and he couldn’t afford to have foreign armies wage war at his expense on French soil.
And from my reading, the success of French aggressive cavalry tactics in 1814 may have given Napoleon and his senior commanders too much confidence in its application at Waterloo.
Of course, there were also important differences: in 1815 the alliance was much closer knit because many outstanding issues had been solved and Napoleon was no longer a realistic option. The monarchs were also not present, intervening in the direction of the campaign and battles. It made life easier for the generals. The military resources of the Low Countries and Germany were now fully available, shifting the balance further in their favour.
Napoleon also held some advantages. There was an intact army waiting for him and he had more time and space to build up his army and now had the choice where to fight. Popular support may even have been stronger for him in 1815 than in 1814, exactly because the French had experienced occupation the year before. On the other hand, he had lost the full backing of the political and military elite and they now had a legitimate alternative.
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