Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter IV.
A Warning against the Revival of the Military Ideas of Napoleon.

Jaurès devotes himself in this chapter to a vigorous and eloquent protest against the tendencies of the modern leaders of military thought in France to base the whole system of national defence upon a blind imitation of the Napoleonic ideas of the offensive as the only true principle of military action. This tendency he attributes to the influence of Captain Gilbert, a distinguished writer who published several important essays, Essais de Critique Militaire (1890) and Sept Etudes Militaires (1892) which have left a profound and lasting impression on present military policy and on the teaching of the Ecole Supériure de Guerre.

Gilbert’s teaching is the more dangerous because makes a specious appeal to French patriotism and legitimate pride in the glorious achievements of the Napoleonic period. He argues that Clausewitz and all great German military writers have learned their theory simply from the study of Napoleon; therefore we must study Napoleon at the fountain head; and we shall study him more fruitfully than the Germans, since Napoleon’s methods were designed for French armies and for the French character, Napoleon, (argues Gilbert,) not only inherited the Revolutionary forces but consciously based himself upon the Revolution; he thus seized all the possibilities of the new world which that Revolution created. His method, therefore, is essentially the method which must dominate the modern world; and this method was always based on a’ vigorous, concentrated, purposeful offensive. From which it would follow that the true strategy for France is an offensive strategy.[1]

This is, in brief, the essence of Gilbert’s teaching. While recognizing the generous strength of his mind, Jaures proceeds to point out the fatal consequences which the adoption of his views would entail for France and for national defence.

For in his view, Napoleonism is dead, both in a military sense and from the political point of view. The hybrid system by which he tried to combine the old régime with the new has practically disappeared; and the idealists, whom he contemned, the Jacobins whom he hated, have triumphed in the establishment of the full sovereignty of the people, ruling through its representatives, who carry out its mandates and can be dismissed at will. The last remnant of the Napoleonic régime, the attempt to reconcile liberty of conscience and a state religion, is gone.[2]

Napoleon was in fact the most chimerical of men, the most narrow-minded of ideologues, and the whole body of his ideas is out of date and unsuitable to modern conditions.

Napoleon was never willing to see — he never did see any more of reality than the part which he could make use of for his own purposes. All his thoughts, all his creative energies, were directed to the maintenance of his momentary power. If he had to choose between two solutions of any problem, the one disinterested, far-reaching, satisfying the immediate necessities of the situation and likely to pave the way for better things in in the future: the other selfish, crude, narrow, clear-cut by its very crudity and narrowness, he chose the latter. France, exhausted and torn by civil dissension, needed a strong and impartial government: and Napoleon could conceive of no other means of supplying the need than by crushing out, in pursuit of his own ambition, every chance of liberty, present or future. Every noble impersonal impulse was scouted by him as being vague and illusory; and his views of men and things, clear cut, short-sighted, imperious, were the outcome of his narrow egotism.

Men who only survey the horizon in search of prey cannot be said to have a wide outlook, be their appetite never so large. And the apparent clearness of their plans has no more than a momentary influence on the march of events. If France were to adopt a mental attitude so lacking in breadth, her national genius would suffer a sad decline. Even in the military sphere — since it is an integral part of the intellectual life of the nation — excessive reverence for a man who crushed out so many hopes, sterilized so many germs, dried up so many springs, would exercise a sterilizing and narrowing influence on the mind of the nation. The military theorists who are reviving Napoleonic formulas, already seem to be suffering from this sterilizing and narrowing influence. They are losing the wide sense of perspective as regards both the past and the future. Wrapped up in admiration of the master and of his methods, they fail to do justice to the glorious achievements of pre-revolutionary times. They under-value the military spirit and the technical triumphs of the Revolution. They make insufficient allowance for the new possibilities, as regards defensive action, which would be open to a democratic and peace-loving France, realizing and following her own instincts, she were — as a means of ensuring peace — to carry the principle of the nation in arms to its logical conclusion.

Jaurès proceeds to emphasize the magnificent military achievements, based upon a profound grasp of true military principles, of the great generals of the time of Louis XI, Turenne and Condé, as proof that many of the principles attributed to Napoleon had been practised by men whose genius Napoleon himself was the first to recognize, but who receive but scant notice from Gilbert in that writer’s desire to extol his idol. Jaurès protests, too, against the idea that any model, however admirable, can be slavishly imitated for all time; and he pleads for a complete freedom of mind, for that attitude of philosophic thought of which Clausewitz was the great exponent. Moreover, he claims that the essential features of the military system which Gilbert attributes to Napoleon were all created by the Revolutionary minds and that, as a matter of fact, Napoleon, far from having developed and improved that system, really restricted and weakened it.

In technical matters, in strategy and in tactics, the Revolutionary leaders introduced new methods, and Bonaparte could do no more than improve the mechanism, and, increase the practical utility, of the ideas they had originated. Nay, more, the military achievement of the Revolutionary France was infinitely greater than that of Napoleon. The boldest and most far-reaching innovation, the element which, adapted to modern needs, can be best turned to account for the future, was abandoned by Napoleon. The unparalleled achievement of the Revolutionary leaders was that while inspiring a whole people with military ardour they created organized and disciplined armies by the force and enthusiasm of an ideal.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the immense enthusiasm of the revolution, with its rousing spirit of self-sacrifice in the ideals of liberty, produced in the military sphere a marvellous organization and the most perfect discipline; all this despite the chaos, riot and disorder which characterised the first ragged armies of revolutionary France. And these facts have a most important bearing on the question of the future military system of France.

The question is whether modern France should look to the Republican, or to the Napoleonic period, for instruction as to the scientific training of officers and the organization of national defence. It would, of course, be absurd to expect to draw definite formulas from either period. It is however safe to say that for twentieth century France, whose strength will depend on the genuineness of her democratic principles, and on her ability to shape he military system in accordance therewith, the Republican tradition remains far more fruitful than the Napoleonic.

The curious thing is that those who, like Gilbert, warn France against a sort of Prussomania, a slavish imitation of German military methods, are the very men who lead France astray from her own real traditions; the Napoleonic system has far more in common with the Prussian, both politically and in a military sense, than with the spirit of Revolutionary France, as mirrored in its armies and their superb and disciplined enthusiasm.

The German Empire represents a compromise between the historic Prussian ideals of the Hohenzollerns and the historic European ideals of the Revolution, just as the empire of Napoleon was a compromise between the Roman monarchical tradition and the French Revolution, the latter clement having been so far degraded as to be no longer a principle, but a force capable of being subdued and made use of. Hence, on the military as on the political side, in both cases we perceive an element of incompleteness, of lack of assimilation. When Napoleon was engaged in the supreme struggle against invasion, he did not venture to try to rekindle in his subjects the passion of enthusiasm, which they had felt during the revolution. epoch. And the German Empire, with its autocratic diplomatic system and its militarist system, by which the principle of the Nation in Arms is cramped and half paralysed by the class spirit, would certainly not have its disposal, in a great national crisis, the same resources as an enthusiastic and thoroughgoing democracy. France stands alone among the nations by virtue of her republican Revolution, by virtue of her open adherence to the principle of absolute democracy. France is the only nation in Europe which, in order to develop the democratic element to its fullest extent, on the national and military side as on the political and social side, only needs to be true to her own instincts, to realize and to develop her own tradition.

The misconceptions which underlie Gilbert’s deductions from the study of Napoleon have also misled him in his interpretation and appreciation of the great German master Clausewitz, whom they admired so much because his analysis of the greatest traits in Napoleon’s system of military thought. Hence he and his disciples accuse Clausewitz of inconsistency because he insists upon the superiority of the defensive, in spite of the clearness with which he brings out the marvellous results which Napoleon achieved by a bold, rapid, and concentrated offensive. But there is no inconsistency. Clausewitz is great enough to see both sides of the question and to see them whole; above all, he is never hypnotised by one theory to the exclusion of another; he is not ridden by the obsession of the “offensive” which has apparently captured the military thought of France by the attraction of a sort of curious boldness. Thus he insists over and over again on the advantage of the defensive, and nowhere more than in his treatment of the campaign of 1813-14.

What we are here discussing is not a sullen, despairing, unchangeable defensive, but a defensive full of eagerness, ready to take the offensive whenever occasion offers. If this interpretation of Clausewitz is correct, the action of the allies in the German campaign of 1813 may be called defensive for the following reasons. First and foremost, all the moral forces of the nation are brought into play: hearts are filled with slowly gathering hatred of the invader. For years before — ever since the battle of Jena — the idea of defending the country at all costs had been taking shape as part of the national military system. Finall y, the Prussians, forbidden by Napoleon to maintain an army of more than 40,000 men, had resorted to two methods of making this restriction of no avail: they had built up a first line army which, within a few months could be mobilized to a strength of from 120,000 to 150,000 men; and they had “completed their military system by adding to it the idea of defending their territory by means of auxiliary troops.” That is to say, the arrangements made for a rapid increase in the first line army had been supplemented by “the creation of a national militia.”

Here we have enthusiastic approval of a national defensive campaign. It should be remarked that the defensive character of the campaign did not prevent the army from undertaking a vigorous offensive at a chosen spot: nor did it prevent offensive action by the whole army after a period of time spent in gathering reinforcements.

And, when the steady defensive had succeeded in wearing out the enemy and had given time for the accumulation of great forces, the Allies were able to turn the defensive into the vigorous offensive, which overthrew Napoleon at Leipzig. It was then that the great leader found his methods incompatible with a true defensive; or, rather his political career had made it impossible to organize the defensive force of France, still potentially vast, against the invaders.

When Napoleon was invaded, when he was reduced to defending French soil against the armies of Europe which he had so often scattered to the winds, his tactics should probably be looked upon as being, so to speak, a continuation of his offensive tactics rather than as being a serious attempt to organize defensive operations. To organize a national defensive, a commander must have time at his disposal and a nation at his back. In Napoleon’s case the nation was worn out. He had exhausted its material resources and its confidence. The country was no longer able to supply him with men: even the moral support of the nation could no longer be counted upon. If Napoleon had been able to feel sure that Paris would hold out he might have been able to withdraw his troops far enough to gain time for the organization of fresh units. Paris, however, was exhausted and no more to be counted on than the rest of France. So Napoleon, although he was reduced to defending himself, was not able to change his tactics from the offensive to the defensive in any real sense.

But this failure of a defensive, which was not really a defensive — since all the essential conditions of defensive operations were wanting — does not disprove the value of defensive tactics undertaken as the necessary forerunners of a vigorous offensive.

It is much to be regretted that our military theorists — even those who praise Clausewitz for having grasped the extent and the greatness of Napoleon’s methods, should omit all mention of the approval which Clausewitz bestows the defensive. And yet they know that Clausewitz was by no means of a timid or shrinking nature. If at the very time when Napoleon — acting on the offensive attained the most striking and terrible results, Clausewitz gives his verdict in favour of the defensive, the reason is that he was able to grasp the total meaning of a tragic period rich in lessons of all sorts. It would be dangerous if writers were led, by a sort of obsession in favour of Napoleon, to misrepresent the meaning of facts. It would be fatal if, actuated by a prejudice in favour of an immediate and superficial offensive, which as regards France is inconsistent with existing conditions, our leaders were tempted to risk the safety of the country. It would be least equally fatal if, unable to decide between their fondness for the offensive and the conditions which make defensive tactics necessary for France at the outset of a campaign, they were to hesitate and be lost amid the conflicting opinions. It is for France itself to take charge the problem. Her life is at stake.

1. A fuller summary of Gilbert’s views will be found below, in the Appendix I. — Editor.

2. Jaurès refers to the abolition of the Concordat — Editor