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Book Review: Tactics and
the Experience of Battle

Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, by Rory Muir.
1998, Yale University Press

The modern Napoleonic scholar has a tough job: what, really, remains to be said? What can possibly be added to the literature that, by some counts, exceeds 200,000 books, not to mention articles, monographs and now web sites? And yet Professor Muir has managed to produce a book that should be on the reading list of anyone with an interest in the Napoleonic wars.

First of all, a few words are in order about what this book is not. It is not a recap of the tactics used to win specific battles, nor is it an analysis of tactics of particular nationalities or commanders. There are certainly no shortage of books of this description - Wellington in the Peninsula and Campaigns of Napoleon are two of the better known examples. These kind of books focus on the operational and tactical moves that led to victory or defeat.

So, then, what is this book about? It is a social and military history of Napoleonic battles in general. It describes how battles start, the role of the different arms, the factors leading to victory and defeat, and the aftermath of battle. I suspect there will be a number of insights and possibly surprises for even the well read in the field. Since the book is both a social and military history it addresses battles as a whole, as well as the experiences of the individuals (officers, NCOs and men) involved in it.

The book follows the chronology of battle, from the evening before, through the day of combat to the days following the end of the battle. As we follow events we are treated to detailed chapters covering each component of the army and each component of the battle.

We get a discussion of battlefields - how they are decided, the role various terrain played, and a primer in the tactical merits of various kinds of terrain. Included are perceptive comments on the weakness of Prussia’s position at Ligny, the reason most battlefields were relatively open country, and some reasons for the ferocity of house-to-house fighting. Starting in this, the second chapter, we are introduced to the critical importance of the psychology of the armies involved. In fact, this turns out to be the most dominant theme of the book.

This is followed by discussions of the roles of artillery, light infantry, cavalry and line infantry. These are very interesting looks not just at the training and equipment, but the experience of battle they would live through. Cavalry, for example, typically spent most of the battle waiting, perhaps under fire and this could be very wearing. And on cavalry’s use against infantry, Muir writes “Cavalry was essentially a weapon of fear, and never was this so apparent as in its conflict with infantry. Cavalry would not charge home on steady well-formed infantry: its only hope of success was that the infantry would waver and give way when faced with the threat of its advance” [p.130].

Of particular interest are Muir’s comments on the role of the army commander. Muir’s description is at odds with the view many books or wargame designers hold. First of all, “In a set-piece battle the general had usually done his most important work by the time the first shot was fired” [p. 141]. Far from the “nerve center” of his army, the commander’s role was much more limited. In an era without radio where orders were sent by horseback and could take an hour to arrive, his sphere of influence was fairly small. The officers with the greatest influence were the divisional and brigade commanders. Subordinate commanders have their own chapter, and there’s one on regimental officers.

The chapter on morale and cohesion crowns the theme running throughout the book. It is over simple, but perhaps not too much, to say that most combats were primarily a test of will or nerve, and that battles are the sum of their component combats. Another strength of the book is Muir’s analysis of casualty figures. His analysis shows how casulaties played a smaller role than one might think in determining the outcome of combat. In some cases units might rout having taken very few, and in other cases units will take very severe casualties and still hold. In Muir’s view casualties affect cohesion and it is cohesion that leads to victory, both at a unit level and army level.

Muir’s writing is engaging, lucid, and lively. He makes extensive use of diaries, letters, and memoirs to bolster his arguments, often quoting at length. I found his arguments very covincing and would strongly recommend this to anyone with an interest in the period.

Review published September 23, 2002.

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