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The Art of Warfare
on April 25, 2005
Gunther Rothenberg's "The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon" is a highly readable survey of the changes in the art of war during the 23-year conflict spawned by the French Revolution and the Wars of Napoleon. Despite its brevity, "The Art of Warfare" is remarkably comprehensive, addressing weapons, tactics, strategy, and supporting military services such as engineering and medical care. Rothenberg provides a short synopsis of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and commentary on the military establishments of the principal combatants.
Rothenberg rightly devotes much of the book to the innovations of the French Army as it evolved under the necessity first of defending the Revolution and then under the hand of its martial Emperor, Napoleon I. The concept of the nation in arms made possible mass armies which often overwhelmed the small professional armies of its adversaries. Lack of training led to an emphasis on shock in battle, produced by fast moving infantry columns, massed artillery fire, and operational maneuver against the flanks and rear of opponents. Rothenberg notes the effects of a persistent French failure to build a robust supply system. French soldiers in the field were expected to forage to survive. The Army as a whole was forced to disperse to find food, and Napoleon had to rely on exquisite timing to mass his forces in time for battle. The lack of a supply train imparted operational mobility, but when foraging failed, as it did in Russia, or provoked guerrilla war, as it did in Spain, French soldiers starved or were picked off in ambush.
The many success of the French Army prompted varying degrees of emulation by the Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and British armies. The Prussians sought most to copy the French methodology, while the British prefered to enhance the professionalism of their forces rather than build a mass army.
Rothenberg wrote "The Art of Warfare" in 1978. Close students of the Napoleonic Wars will find a few mistakes, and the volume has a surprising number of misspellings. However, these imperfections really do not detract from what is an excellent work.
This volume is highly recommended to the student looking for a manageable introduction to the Napoleonic Wars, and to the serious student as a superb companion volume to the longer operational-level histories. The casual reader with some background in military affairs may also find this book a worthwhile read.