Levée en masse: Napoleon’s legacy to the world

Upon listening to the latest edition of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, the following blog came to mind.

Today, the influence of Napoleon Bonaparte is hardly considered when contemporary strategists pen their tomes on the way of warfare. Today it is all about drones, robots, all forms of automation and cyberspace. And perhaps it is true to say that in our more sophisticated, politically correct world, we are post-heroic, post-modern, post-ideological, post-religious, post-industrial shadows of our former selves. Gone are the 20th Century existential threats to world peace. Gone is NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. But with the demise of these powers which required the mobilisation of national resources in preparation for total war – a peculiarly 20th Century notion of warfare – we now face a very different strategic environment, one that requires much smaller and dare I say restricted or limited force-structures. Perhaps when historians reflect on the international military changes during the early part of the 21st Century, they may suggest that man’s military necessities returned to a default setting of sorts i.e., back to ‘limited war’ settings. Even the mightiest forces (in numbers of personnel) are shrinking, cutting the idea of citizen-forces and conscripts from the equation. Smaller, high-tech, professional forces are certainly easier to fund during a time of austerity and are certainly more appropriate to use where countries no longer confront globalised threats from highly militarised, belligerent powers. But this is also a great leveller. Historically speaking, in the 17th Century, the great powers of Europe balanced off each other in a stable environment where no one great power possessed the means to overwhelm its rival. Today, we are approaching a similar strategic landscape, but on a global scale. Conventional forces around the world are being cut back, and apart from those states that possess nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, no country can actually overwhelm another. The French Revolution was the turning point that broke old Europe’s notions of stability. Mass recruitment of able-bodied men, ‘levée en masse’ created a pool of conventional manpower designed to defend the first republic against the small, professional and mercenary armies of the European absolutist monarchs. It was a game changer. Wielded by the military and administrative genius of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French masses crushed the armies of absolutist Europe and then went on a rampage that saw much of continental Europe under French control from 1799-1814. But during this period of time, the absolutist enemies of France learnt a painful lesson and created their own variants of levée en masse. The post-Bonapartist period saw all European kingdoms and empires retain the ability to mobilise their respective populations and keep larger ‘peacetime’ standing forces in-being. This, coupled with the rapid changes of the industrial revolution that proliferated new military technologies, improved mobilisation schedules. By the eve of World War I, continental Europe was primed for annihilation. Twenty-five years later, with a steeper evolutionary climb by European armed forces, and building on the Bonapartist tradition, European powers fought another savage war. Indeed the idea of levée en masse continued throughout the Cold War period, kept in check only by the advent and proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In an interesting historic counter-factual, would World War III have ignited in central Europe or northeast Asia were there not the fear of weapons of mass destruction overarching and all-destructive, keeping leaders and their ambitions under control? With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the idea of another total war being fought for global supremacy, the vacuum was not filled by states willing to maintain a large force in-being. Quite the contrary, every country sought to capitalise on a ‘peace dividend’. Even states that had long-standing quarrels and skirmishes with neighbours. Today, even the biggest militaries struggle to maintain themselves in the absence of a major threat to global peace. The reasons are complex. Yes, the Global Financial Crisis has impacted on defence budgets worldwide and will continue to do so for some time to come. But the creation of semi-automated and automated weaponry is replacing the need for large numbers of combatants. As force structures shift to accommodate and embed new technologies, larger powers and many medium-sized powers will become equally capable. Manpower won’t matter and certainly won’t intimidate. Does this mean that levée en masse; the legacy of Napoleon has been dealt the deathblow? No. Countries that are poor and underdeveloped will still use a form of levée en masse in order to recruit terrorists, insurgents, militias in numbers, in areas and in ways designed to complicate, confuse and push back against the automated, professionalised mechanised forces of others, Iraq and Afghanistan should act as salutary warnings of things to come.

By Dr. John Bruni, Director SAGE International

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