9 secrets that made Napoleon’s armies so successful

When we talk about Napoleon Bonaparte than we usually think of one of the greatest military geniuses of all time. But what were the secrets that Napoleon implemented and that made his armies so successful?

  1. Napoleons offensive use of artillery
  2. The high level of Professionalism of Napoleons soldiers
  3. The Motivations of both soldiers & officers
  4. The marching speed of Napoleons armies
  5. Fighting enemy armies individually
  6. Marching separately but fighting united
  7. Intelligence & detailed information about the lands
  8. Napoleons ability to exploit spontaneous opportunities
  9. The personality of Napoleon & his relationship with his soldiers

In order to find out more about what made Napoleon’s armies so successful it might be best to use an example. And what better example to choose than the battle that is generally seen as Napoleons` masterpiece, the battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.

By not only looking at the battle of Austerlitz but also analyzing the weeks and months leading up to the battle we will be able to find 9 secrets that made Napoleon’s armies so incredibly successful.

Are you ready? Let`s get started!

Napoleon’s offensive use of artillery

Napoleon saw the artillery as one of the 3 pillars of his army, not just as a supportive weapon and he was also the first to use artillery offensively.

How did Napoleon use his artillery?

One of Napoleon’s favored strategies was to focus his attacks on a small part of the hostile formation. He did that with his infantry, his cavalry, and his artillery.

By the way. Usually, artillery was used defensively to protect the own Infantry or Cavalry. Napoleon didn`t use his artillery to defend his troops but to attack his enemy`s troops.

To effectively archive that he even created a new type of fast horse-artillery that could keep up with his cavalry and could quickly be moved across the battlefield to where Napoleon wanted to focus his forces.

Additionally, Napoleon also specially used his canons. Since Napoleon had originally trained as an artillery officer he knew exactly how to use canons to their best usage.

Whenever the ground was dry and flat Napoleon used so-called ricochet firing. That meant that the cannonball would not just fly in a curve and then hit the ground but that the trajectory was manipulated in a way that the canon ball would bounce of the ground several times doubling its effective reach.

By the way. The use of both muskets and canons and the thick fog they created (it was called black powder for a reason) was one of the reasons why Napoleonic uniforms were so colorful, dare I say fancy. Please check out my article here with the other reasons why Napoleonic uniforms were so colorful.

The effective reach of a cannon

Apart from cannons, there were also mortars and howitzers. But the 2 latter were mostly used as siege artillery and since I want to focus on field artillery I will exclude both mortars and howitzers in the following.

The effective reach of a cannon was usually between 1050 yards (960m meters) and 1200 yards (1097 meters). On flat and dry ground the effective reach could be doubled by ricochet firing.

How many rounds did a cannon fire during a battle?

The number of rounds a cannon would fire during a battle obviously depended on the battle and where the battle was positioned on the battlefield.

Normally every cannon had between 200-300 rounds of ammunition with it as well as additional ammunition at the baggage train. And in 1812 during the battle of Borodino 587 french cannons fired a total of 91.000 rounds.

These 91.000 rounds were made up of different types of ammunition. Let`s take a look!

Different types of cannon ammunition

There were basically 5 types of ammunition that were used during field battles.

  • Round shot

The round shot was a solid ball of iron that was usually used on medium and long-range. When used against formations it was only effective when that formation was deeply stacked since the round shot had to hit a man to wound/kill him.

  • Shrapnel

Named after its inventor British Lt. Henry Shrapnel in 1784 the Shrapnel consisted of an iron shell that was filled with small iron or lead balls and an explosive charge. When shoot the fuse would be ignited by the propellant charge of the cannon. Ideally, the iron shell would explode over the heads of an infantry formation which resulted in pieces of the shell and the small balls raining on the soldiers below and injuring many more than one round shot could.

  • Canister shot

The canister shoot was a projectile filled with smaller musket balls that turned the cannon into a giant shotgun. Because of that the canister shot was best used in small to medium range.

  • Grapeshot

The Grapeshot was extremely similar to the canister shot but the musket balls that were fired were larger. Just like the Cannister shot the Grapeshot was also used in small to medium range. The Grapeshot got its name because the musket balls were put in a piece of cloth and looked like harvested grapes.

  • Shell

The shell was a hollow iron cannonball that was filled with an explosive charge. While the other types of ammunition were usually used against enemy soldiers the shell was used against enemy cannons or wagons

The high level of Professionalism of Napoleon’s soldiers

The soldiers who served in Napoleon’s armies were known for their high level of professionalism. A kind of professionalism that only developed with time. And many of Napoleon’s soldiers had served in the army since the start of the revolutionary wars in 1792.

During countless campaigns and battles, these men had earned a level of professionalism but also a level of trust in the capability of their commander that made them a formidable fighting force.

That kind of experience and professionalism did not only manifest in their capability to keep fighting under bad circumstances but also in their capability of firing 3-4 rounds per minute.

Closely connected to the Professionalism of the soldiers is also their motivation to fight.

The Motivations of both soldiers & officers

In contrary to other European armies of the time the army of Napoleon was a people`s army. Not only the personality of their leader Napoleon but patriotism and the ideals of the french revolution motivated both officers and soldiers in Napoleon’s armies.

Speaking of the personality of Napoleon Bonaparte: That personality was also one of the secrets for the success of his armies. But more on that later.

Another motivation for regular soldiers was the practice of how officers were appointed within Napoleon’s armies.

While the officers in most European armies were aristocrats the officers in Napoleon’s armies mostly came from the ranks and were promoted because of their courage and capabilities, not because of their ancestry!

Let`s look at one of Napoleon’s enemies to find out how Napoleon’s armies differed from other European armies of the time.

The common soldiers in the Russian army were peasants who were more or less voluntarily recruited and who would be released from service after 25 years as free men. But during their time of service, they would always remain, common soldiers, since the positions of officers in the Russian army were reserved for aristocrats.

I think it is easy to see how the possibility to rise through the ranks led to a much higher level of motivation among Napoleon’s common soldiers when compared to the armies of Napoleon’s enemies.

By the way. That closer relationship between officers and common soldiers also shows in the way the Napoleonic armies marched.

Napoleon’s common soldiers and officers (even high-ranking officers) would usually march together. In contrast to that officers in the Russian army would usually accompany their soldiers on horseback.

While that might sound like a smaller detail it had a massive impact on the motivation of the soldiers. Just imagine the difference between marching aside your officer or marching while your officer sits on a horse and urges you to move faster…

The marching speed of Napoleon’s armies

Marching in general, especially the marching speed, is another secret for the success of Napoleon’s armies. Let`s take the battle of Austerlitz as an example.

Months before the battle of Austerlitz Napoleon and the bulk of his army were still at the french side of the English channel where they prepared for the planned invasion of Great Britain.

But things changed and thanks to the diplomacy of the British prime minister William Pitt Russia and Austria could be convinced by Britain to join the fight against Napoleon.

Suddenly Napoleon had a foe in his back. He knew that he had to act quickly and so he ordered his men to start marching east.

To get to the battlefield of Austerlitz Napoleon’s soldiers at the English channel had to march 1056 miles within 3 months! To fasten the march Napoleon ordered to stock 300.000 pairs of boots in Straßbourg, which was halfway to Austerlitz.

The reason why Napoleon was so eager to increase the marching speed of his soldiers that he would order the provision of 300.000 pairs of boots is the next secret to Napoleon’s success!

Fighting enemy armies individually

Napoleon was a firm believer in the strategy that sweat could save blood. And that shows when we look at why he forced his soldiers to march 1056 miles within 3 months.

Napoleon knew that Austrian troops and Russian troops combined could be too much to take on, especially since there was still the danger of Prussia joining the fight against Napoleon.

So when Napoleon ordered his men in 1805 to march as fast east as possible he had the goal in mind to fight the Russian, Austrian, and if necessary the Prussian army separately before they had had a chance to unite and focus their forces.

Let`s look at the weeks before the battle of Austerlitz to see how that worked:

In 1805 a Russian army was on its way to join forces with the Austrian forces. But while the Russian army was still approaching the bulk of Austrian forces were gathering at the city of Ulm under the command of General Mack, who was not the most experienced general to put it lightly.

Napoleon knew that if Russians and Austrians would join forces his army would be outnumbered. So he decided to strike before the two armies were able to join.

By forcing his men to march even faster Napoleon was able to encircle general Mack and the bulk of the Austrian forces. More than 22.000 Austrians including general Mack surrendered on 20 October 1805.

After that Napoleon was able to march into the Austrian capital Vienna without any violence while the Russian army withdrew after they had gotten notice of the fate of their Austrian allies.

By taking the bulk of the Austrian army out of the equation Napoleon had evened the odds and would be able to defeat the Russian army and their greatly reduced Austrian allies at the battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805.

Marching separately but fighting united

Now one might think that Napoleon would have kept his corps closely together. But that was not the case. Not only was it a necessity for encircling an enemy that each corps could function on its own, but it also made supplying the army during the march much easier.

For example. The army that fought at the battle of Austerlitz had marched in 7 separate marching columns.

That had several benefits. Apart from making it easier to supply the army it also disguised the exact number of soldiers.

The downside was that the entire march had to be perfectly planned so that all the separated units would appear on the battlefield at the same time. In order to secure the smooth and punctual arrival of his troops, Napoleon had another secret.

And that secret was Napoleons obsession with Intelligence and collecting detailed information about the lands his armies crossed and the battlefields they would fight on.

Intelligence & detailed information about the lands

During the march to the battlefield of Austerlitz Napoleon turned his carriage into a mobile command center from where he would hand out orders and receive pieces of information not only about the location of his units but also about the territory ahead and the movements of his enemies.

While his light Cavalry would explore the routes Napoleon would extensively study his large collection of maps. And Napoleon also used a widespread net of local spies and guides.

But the use of local spies and guides was obviously tricky since nobody could stop them from selling their insights to Napoleons’ enemies. Because of that Napoleon did not only give false commands in front of the local spies but also ordered his soldiers to behave when marching through neutral territories.

The behavior of his soldiers secured Napoleon that the civilians of the neutral territories his armies passed were not hostile against the French and more willing to provide information or work as guides.

Napoleons ability to exploit spontaneous opportunities

When it comes to Napoleons’ qualities as a military leader there is one especially remarkable thing to mention: Napoleon was able to quickly adapt to new opportunities while overthrowing his entire battle plan.

Once again the battle of Austerlitz is a good example: Originally Napoleon had planned to focus his attacks on the left-wing. But when looking outside on the morning of the battle he saw that the entire field was shrouded in a thick fog.

And Napoleon used that fog.

He overthrew his original plan of focusing his attacks on the left wing and decided to attack in the center instead. He knew that due to the geography of the battlefield the Russians would not expect him there and he also knew that the fog would give him the cover his soldiers needed to get into position unseen.

While that capability to adapt to new opportunities was one of the qualities making Napoleon so interesting there were other trades to his character that were also a major factor in the success of his armies!

The personality of Napoleon & his relationship to his soldiers

The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his soldiers has been the topic of debate for quite some time.

On the one hand, you have a Napoleon who had no hesitations to abandon his armies and safe himself. An example of that kind of behavior is not only the catastrophic retreat from Russia during the winter of 1812 or during his expedition into Egypt from 1798-1801.

But on the other hand, we also have to recognize that Napoleon was incredibly popular among his soldiers. Something that can`t be said about most leaders of other European armies of that era!

In stark contrast to other armies were common soldiers and officers (not even speaking of generals) would not even march together fraternizations between Napoleon and common soldiers were relatively common.

Oftentimes Napoleon would leave the carriage that he used as a mobile command center and march a few miles among his soldiers. Other stories tell about Napoleon falling asleep after having shared a meal with a group of common soldiers.

It is not entirely clear if these gestures were genuine or if they were carefully planned to create a certain legacy around the person of Napoleon Bonaparte. But whatever the answer to that question is: Napoleon had the unconditional loyalty of his soldiers even when he returned from his first exile.

Actually, the unit of soldiers that was sent out to arrest Napoleon after he had escaped his first exile on the island of Elba immediately switched to Napoleons’ side.

And there we have it. 9 secrets that made Napoleon’s armies so successful. And while the success of Napoleon and his armies was only short-lived it changed the face of Europe. But how Europe was changed by the Napoleonic wars is a story for another time.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the world of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


R. Holmes: The Napoleonic Wars (2019).