Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them

Monday, June 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon believed above all, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), in the maintenance of strong esprit de corps:

‘Remember it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps,’ he was to tell Joseph in 1807, ‘which can be destroyed in an instant.’ He had formulated a number of ways to raise and maintain morale, some taken from his reading of ancient history, others specific to his own leadership style and developed on campaign. One was to foster a soldier’s strong sense of identification with his regiment. In March 1797, Napoleon approved the right of one, the 57th, to stitch onto its colours the words ‘Le Terrible 57ème demi-brigade que rien n’arrête’ (The Terrible 57th demi-brigade which nothing can stop), in recognition of its courage at the battles of Rivoli and La Favorita. It joined other heroic regiments known by their soubriquets such as ‘Les Braves’ (18th Line), ‘Les Incomparables’ (9th Légère) and ‘Un Contre Dix’ (One Against Ten) (84th Line) and showed how well Napoleon understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier and the power of regimental pride. Plays, songs, operatic arias, proclamations, festivals, ceremonies, symbols, standards, medals: Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them.


On campaign Napoleon demonstrated an approachability that endeared him to his men. They were permitted to put their cases forward for being awarded medals, promotions and even pensions, after which, once he had checked the veracity of their claims with their commanding officer, the matter was quickly settled. He personally read petitions from the ranks, and granted as many as he could. Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort, who served him on many campaigns, recalled that Napoleon ‘heard, interrogated, and decided at once; if it was a refusal, the reasons were explained in a manner which softened the disappointment’. Such accessibility to the commander-in-chief is impossible to conceive in the British army of the Duke of Wellington or in the Austrian army of Archduke Charles, but in republican France it was an invaluable means of keeping in touch with the needs and concerns of his men. Soldiers who shouted good-naturedly from the ranks would often be rewarded with a quip: when, during the Italian campaign, one called out a request for a new uniform, pointing to his ragged coat, Napoleon replied: ‘Oh no, that would never do. It will hinder your wounds from being seen.’


He would later on occasion take off his own cross of the Légion d’Honneur to give to a soldier whose bravery he’d witnessed.


Napoleon genuinely enjoyed spending time with his soldiers; he squeezed their earlobes, joked with them and singled out old grognards (literally ‘grumblers’, but also translatable as ‘veterans’), reminiscing about past battles and peppering them with questions.


He also ensured that wine from his dinner table was always given to his sentries.


His constant references to the ancient world had the intended effect of giving ordinary soldiers a sense that their lives – and, should it come to that, their deaths in battle – mattered, that they were an integral part of a larger whole that would resonate through French history.


Napoleon taught ordinary people that they could make history, and convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment, an epic whose splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries to come.

During military reviews, which could last up to five hours, Napoleon cross-examined his soldiers about their food, uniforms, shoes, general health, amusements and regularity of pay, and he expected to be told the truth. ‘Conceal from me none of your wants,’ he told the 17th Demi-Brigade, ‘suppress no complaints you have to make of your superiors. I am here to do justice to all, and the weaker party is especially entitled to my protection.’ The notion that le petit caporal was on their side against les gros bonnets (‘big-hats’) was generally held throughout the army.


Napoleon learned many essential leadership lessons from Julius Caesar, especially his practice of admonishing troops he considered to have fallen below expectations, as at Rivoli in November 1796.


Far more often, of course, he lavished praise: ‘Your three battalions could be as six in my eyes,’ he called to the 44th Line in the Eylau campaign. ‘And we shall prove it!’ they shouted back.


Napoleon’s rhetorical inspiration came mostly from the ancient world, but Shakespeare’s St Crispin Day’s speech from Henry V can also be detected in such lines as ‘Your countrymen will say as they point you out, “He belonged to the Army of Italy.” The avalanche of praise he generally lavished on his troops was in sharp contrast to the acerbic tone he adopted towards generals, ambassadors, councillors, ministers and indeed his own family in private correspondence. ‘Severe to the officers,’ was his stated mantra, ‘kindly to the men.’

Efficient staff-work helped Napoleon to ‘recognize’ old soldiers from the ranks, but he also had a phenomenal memory. ‘I introduced three deputies of the Valais to him,’ recalled an interior minister, ‘he asked one of them about his two little girls. This deputy told me that he had only seen Napoleon once before, at the foot of the Alps, as he was on his way to Marengo. “Problems with the artillery forced him to stop for a moment in front of my house,” added the deputy, “he petted my two children, mounted his horse, and since then I had not seen him again.” ’94 The encounter had taken place ten years earlier.


  1. Ezra says:

    According to Sir John Keegan the great captains as they are called have had a flair at theatrics used to inspire the troops.

  2. Bomag says:

    Our civilian leadership today is starkly the opposite: bureaucracies are opaque and unresponsive; leadership informs citizens that they have sinned and fallen short of the grace of the State, and as punishment must accept a boot coming down on a human face, forever.

  3. Phileas Frogg says:


    Well said.

    I’ve come round to the conclusion that the highest expression of human loyalty and love can only ever be directed towards another person. States, traditions, cultures, etc, are all just abstractions that detach us from the true objects of our loyalties: Our neighbors, our friends, our parents, our ancestors, our children and our God; real people, to whom we can owe real loyalty, not some intellectualized abstraction to whom we have falsely conflated nostalgia or affection for the genuine article.

    It’s why faith in Jesus is so powerful. He’s not merely an abstraction, some being beyond our comprehension (though He is that as well) He’s a flesh and blood person. The Incarnation is perhaps the most audacious claim in Christianity, with the most profound effect.

    It’s actually why Trump scares the Clowns so badly, he’s tapping into (badly and imperfectly), the desire for personalized political loyalties that have laid dormant for decades in the American heart. The Managerial Class can’t stand it, because it’s beyond their comprehension and ability to control. They call it a cult because they have no comparable word for genuine personal loyalty. They scream that he’s against the system, and are shocked to discover that people aren’t actually loyal to a system, they are only ever, at best, comfortable and cooperative with a system.

  4. Albion says:

    As an Englishman, I have little love for Nappy and his lust for control of Europe. However, I cheerfully concede he knew how to be a general, even if his reputation was built primarily on unloading cannon in the face of gathered French citizens unsure about the actions of the power-crazed ‘Revolutionaries’ who had grabbed control of France.

    In addition to the above by Bomag and Phileas Frogg, there is a principle inherent in all men that they can recognise–and respond to–real leaders. One of our issues today is the plethora of non-leaders who are installed at the top of the tree; we can neither follow them nor believe in them.

    But there is good in this. Few of us are now easily misled by their feeble minded self-glorification, and with it are increasingly aware increasingly of a shallow media and grotesque ‘entertainment’ industries, all aided by monstrous, misshapen bureaucracies that dominate every aspect of life. As a consequence we can see where real value exists, primarily in home and families along with people of our own persuasion. Long may it last.

  5. VXXC says:

    All true.

    However you can’t bullshit the troops.

    Now Napoleon didn’t forget that….

    Our political leaders, our sacred civilians who sold us out never knew that…

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