The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Readers who lose patience with the excessive technical detail of most military historians will find Gunther Rothenberg’s approach refreshing. Instead of giving us every specific of each battle accompanied by obscure diagrams full of incomprehensible arrows, he gives us the essence of battle strategy and tactics, accompanied by diagrams of exceptional quality and clarity. Moreover, Rothenberg does not merely focus on the military details of military history; he also exhibits a serious interest in the social and political causes and consequences of that history. He seems as comfortable when he is describing the limitations of the late eighteenth century rifle and musket as he is in discussing the adverse impact of the ideas of the French Revolution on the treatment of prisoners of war.

Although from 1790 to 1820 Western Europe was shaken severely by the struggles of the French revolution, in fact, the art of warfare changed very little. This relative stagnation was partly the result of technical limitations which could not be overcome at the time. The results of such limitations can be easily seen by examining the deficiencies of the chief infantry weapon of the time: the musket. This weapon had a smooth bore and was loaded with improperly fitted balls, propelled by a charge initiated by a flint spark. The smooth bore and the irregularities in the shape of the balls were enough in themselves to interfere significantly with accuracy. In addition, the delayed charge caused the weapon to shake, and the absence of a rear sight made aiming difficult. In any case, the inaccurate front sight was often obscured by a fixed bayonet.

These deficiencies were evident when the musket was functioning well. However, this was seldom the case. The principle of interchangeable parts was well known, but the industrial revolution had not progressed far enough to translate theory into practice. Therefore malfunctions were common. In addition, the cumbersome firing mechanism was subject to fouling after a relatively small number of shots. The rifle, which existed at the time and was eventually to replace the musket, was certainly more accurate; but, as with many new inventions, was fraught with mechanical difficulties rendering it generally ineffectual as a battlefield weapon.

The inaccuracy and short range of the musket dictated battlefield tactics. Aiming of weapons made no sense and was forbidden. A slow advance in line, pointing and rapidly firing muskets, was the preferred tactic. This maneuver would create a hail of musket balls which would inflict wounds on the enemy in a manner analogous to the way buckshot effects a flock of wildfowl.

This tactic of pointing and rapid firing was necessarily engaged in at short distances. In fact a British ordinance officer estimated that “a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him, and as for firing at 200 yards you might well fire at the moon.” Even at the short ranges of battle, it took a great many rounds to inflict a single casualty. At Vittoria it required 450; and since the average soldier fired sixty rounds at the battle, it took between seven and eight infantrymen, firing steadily, to wound or kill one of the enemy.

This wounded soldier—whether he was hurt by a musket round, a saber cut, or a cannon ball—could expect little in the way of medical attention. The wounded would lie out on the battlefield for hours, perhaps days, after battles were fought. They would die of shock, infection, or they would bleed to death. When they needed medical services, they were often not much better off. There existed no antiseptics (the germ theory of disease had not yet been formulated), anesthetics, or plasma. About all that army surgeons—there were never enough of them and many were ill-trained—could do was saw off a limb and apply a bandage. No wonder a cynical soldier stated that a wounded man’s best medicine was a cannon ball.

Still, soldiers were more likely to die from disease than from battle wounds. In the Peninsula campaign the British army lost 33,819 troops, but only 8,889 were lost from combat-related injuries. In a dramatic...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 937.

Contemporary Review. CCXXXII, March, 1978, p. 164.

Horn Book. VII, October, 1978, p. 4.

Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1406.