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Napoléon: What Made Him Great?

By Rafe Blaufarb
8/30/2017 • Military History Magazine

A talented combat leader, the diminutive emperor was also a shrewd judge of human nature.

President Harry S. Truman once defined a leader as “a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.”

That gift of being able to inspire others to enthusiastically undertake unpleasant tasks is especially critical in the armed forces, where the unpleasantness of the tasks, not to mention their potentially fatal consequences, can be extreme. A combat leader faces the most difficult of motivational challenges: to get soldiers to willingly forgo the most basic of human instincts, namely comfort and self-preservation. The incentives that grease the wheels of civilian society—money and other material benefits—are of little avail on a battlefield. How, then, can wartime leaders induce their subordinates to sacrifice fundamental self-interest for the good of the collective military endeavor? Napoléon Bonaparte believed he knew the answer: “It is with baubles men are led.” And judging by the legendary devotion of his troops, his answer seems valid.

The baubles to which Napoléon referred were the badges and ribbons of the Légion d’honneur. Created by him in 1802, the order was awarded without regard to rank and thus intended to motivate even common soldiers by appealing to their sentiments of ambition and pride. Still in existence today, it exemplifies Napoléon’s greatest contribution to the art of modern military leadership—the democratization of honor.

Although Napoléon did not invent the notion that ordinary soldiers were amenable to the call of honor, he was among the first leaders to make it the basis of his leadership style. Before the 1789 French Revolution all European armies had been organized along similar hierarchical lines. Whether in France or England, Prussia or Russia, noble officers dominated plebeian soldiers whom the former viewed as inferior beings requiring strict discipline and corporal punishment.

In the mid–18th century, however, French officers began to question the social assumptions underlying the existing military order. Calling for root-and-branch reform after the humiliating debacle of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), they pleaded that their soldiers were fully fledged Frenchmen capable of higher sentiments and could therefore be spurred to greatness through appeals to their sense of honor. While the reformers made no headway against the entrenched military aristocracy, their writings influenced a generation of younger officers, including an artillery lieutenant named Napoléon Bonaparte. He is known to have read Comte de Guibert’s General Essay on Tactics (1772) and was doubtless aware of Joseph Servan’s The Soldier Citizen (1780), a call for the type of patriotic army the revolution would soon spawn and Napoléon would eventually command.

Although the French Revolution created the first national army of citizen-soldiers in modern European history, France’s successive revolutionary governments did not seek to motivate the troops by appealing to their sense of honor. This was deliberate, for the revolutionaries dreaded decorations and distinctions of any sort. Their fears were twofold. First, they believed that honorific awards would give rise to hierarchies at odds with égalité (equality), keystone of the republican military and social order. Second, they worried that if a general could bestow distinctions, he might also hijack the loyalty the army owed to the republic, thus threatening the revolution’s hard-won liberté (liberty) with the specter of military dictatorship. Thus, rather than instituting a democratic system of military decorations, the revolutionaries simply abolished all extant awards from the old monarchy. When Napoléon took power in 1799, France awarded no military decorations.

Napoléon rejected the rigidly egalitarian strain of republicanism that had prevailed during the previous decade. The revolution, he realized, had made it possible to implement the pre-1789 reformers’ suggestions to motivate the common soldier by appealing to his sense of honor. With the onset of peace with the British in 1802, he seized the opportunity to institute the Légion d’honneur, both to reward those who sacrificed their personal interests for his regime and to encourage others to emulate them.

Meant to distinguish public service in all domains, civil as well as military, the new decoration was also a reaction against the rampant speculation and profiteering of the later revolutionary years. Like many other professional officers of his time, Napoléon believed that wealth often reflected egotism and, in the absence of other qualifications, was no basis for a healthy social order. “A rich man is often lazy and without merit!” he wrote. “Wealth is the fruit of theft, of plunder.…How can we found a notabilité [elite] on wealth thus acquired?” Accordingly, the order would be granted to individuals who had displayed superior merit in the public service, whether in military, administrative, judicial, educational or artistic capacities. It would, Napoléon hoped, form a bulwark against the materialist ethos that had spread in France since 1789 and at last fulfill the revolution’s meritocratic promise.

The decoration itself comprised an ornate five-armed badge suspended from a red ribbon. More  opulent badges and ribbons distinguished superior ranks in the order. In keeping with the principles of the revolution, membership in the order did not grant professional privileges like those enjoyed by the aristocracy before 1789, such as exclusive access to high rank and accelerated promotion. It did, however, confer certain benefits. The principal of these, the prestige of inclusion in an elite group of the nation’s bravest warriors, was more highly prized than its tangible perquisites—a small annual pension to supplement one’s pay, precedence in public processions and access for one’s children to special state preparatory schools.

The first great distribution of decorations took place on Aug. 16, 1804, at a vast ceremony at the Camp de Boulogne, the assembly point on the English Channel for the army Napoléon was gathering to invade Britain. Thereafter, he made it a point to continue granting the award publicly. After battle it was his custom to assemble regiments that had particularly distinguished themselves and ask the officers to designate the bravest soldiers for immediate inclusion in the order. Such instantaneous and visible recognition of battlefield accomplishment could not help but inspire the entire army to further deeds of valor. Napoléon’s army highly prized the Légion d’honneur during his 15-year rule, and subsequent governments retained the order, despite their general antipathy toward Napoléon himself. It is, perhaps, the most durable of all Napoleonic institutions.

The order was the most visible of a range of initiatives Napoléon introduced to forge a previously unprecedented bond between his armies and himself. To show he was one of them, Napoléon did something no European head of state had done since Frederick the Great of Prussia—he personally led his army in battle, sharing not only its risks and hardships, but also the glory he publicly and gratefully acknowledged its brave soldiers had won on his behalf. But unlike Frederick—a rigid disciplinarian who rigorously enforced social distance between noble-born officers and common-born soldiers—Napoléon encouraged a real sense of camaraderie between himself and his men. The soldiers of his Grande Armée came to feel deep affection for the general they called their “Little Corporal”—a nickname that itself testifies to the democratic bond forged between Napoléon and his men. Far from taking umbrage at the moniker, Napoléon appreciated it, as it advanced his overall leadership strategy. To further fortify the connection between himself and his men, Napoléon visited the soldiers by their campfires (most famously, on the eve of Austerlitz), chatting with them about home and expressing his confidence they would do well the following day. He made an effort to memorize the names of his men and address them by such, often accompanying his banter with a pinch of snuff and, as was his habit, a pinch on the cheek.

To what extent these actions were heartfelt or calculated for dramatic effect is difficult to say. There is no doubt that Napoléon, more than any other general of his time, appreciated the power of public relations. He was one of the first generals to publish special newspapers and bulletins for his army and seldom set out on campaign without printing presses. Was Napoléon, then, just a cynical manipulator? Had he uttered his famous remark about “baubles” out of contempt for the stupidity and weakness of his fellow man? Perhaps. But to focus on Napoléon’s innermost sentiments (probably unfathomable in any case) is to miss what made him unique as a military leader. Whether calculating or genuine, Napoléon ushered in the modern age of military leadership by expressing his belief that ordinary soldiers were both worth the effort to inspire them and capable of responding to it.

 

For further reading Rafe Blaufarb recommends his own The French Army, 1750–1820: Careers, Talent, Merit, as well as The First Total War, by David A. Bell, and Napoléon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

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