Nineteen century military and productivity

History is cool, but how can we learn from it? This month for fun I read several articles about Napoleonic wars. I will use the information within as a metaphor for productivity. Enjoy, and maybe learn something.

Napoleonic quotes

Napoleon is sometimes quoted about leadership. Some of these quotes are misplaced, but I will ignore that. For example

  • If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.
  • An army marches on its stomach.
  • Ability is nothing without opportunity.
  • He who knows how to flatter also knows how to slander.
  • Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
  • Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.
  • History is a set of lies agreed upon.

In fact, Napoleon was just the most magnificent of many colorful generals of his time. Consider Suvorov:

  • Train hard, fight easy.
  • No battle can be won in the study, and theory without practice is dead.
  • Accustom yourself to tireless activity…
  • One cannot think that blind bravery gives victory over the enemy.

What made those generals so witty?

Blind luck and lack of fear

The 19 century war generals were mercurial and fearless.

The beginning of 19 century was strange in the sense of military technology and politics. It was a perfect hybrid of medieval and novel. The cavalry was using armor plates and lances, but the artillery used fine ballistic charts.

Napoleon was an artillery officer, whose hobby was placing kings. Suvorov was an infantry officer who was not afraid to tell his king everything he thought about him. Frederick the Great was a king, but also a great cavalry officer (in one battle 6 horses died under him).

The armor of that period was not adequate, but the firearms were also inadequate beyond 100 yards. On an average bitter campaign, 1/3 of the fighting force could die. When Napoleon went into Russia, both sides lost above 90% of the fighters over less than a year.

While courage was not the only required quality, without courage nothing could be done. The main reason for courage was poor accuracy. At 400 yards, an average musket would hit a company(!)-sized target at 20% accuracy. The cannons and rifles were only marginally better.

Esprit de corp

How did the generals control their soldiers in a highly statistical death parade?

  • Personal example. At the time in Europe, there were no sharpshooters, so generals were easily recognizable and often in front lines of their forces. Horses died under them, they got wounded but they kept pushing.
  • Bravada. Some corps like hussars did not expect a long life. Instead, they used to curse, drink, and claim they could do anything. This was a self-destructive behavior serving a greater cause.
  • Professionalism. Elite infantry was highly professional. The grenadiers used to talk a lot about war and “sharpshooters” used to practice their aim. Basically, these people did not see any existence beyond the military and did not mind dying.
  • Chivalry. Heavy cavalry, like cuirassiers and lancers, were almost medieval melee fighters. They were considered elite troops and had their own codes of conduct. Big men on big horses, they were magnificent.
  • Expertise. Artillery units, and especially horse artillery, actually had a very complex job with many specialized experts. They were proud of their expertise and composure under stress.
  • Competition. The more elite branches got higher salaries, more beautiful uniforms, and respect. Their jobs were dangerous, but they felt on a different level with respect to less elite troops. Hussars were the best in horsemanship, sappers who wore mandatory beards were the strongest infantry, and horse artillery generally felt superior to everybody else as the best damage dealers.

Not so different from the modern business environment after all…


From the analysis of the invalids, about 58% of wounds were musket bullets, with 20% of wounds made by artillery and 20% by cavalry sabers and lances. Only about 2% were made by bayonets, but the psychological effect of bayonet charge was immense. People died like flies, but horses died much faster.

There are multiple stories of 3-6 horses shot under cavalry officers. Horses did not have armor, could not lower their profile, and were overall large targets. So the cavalry losses were huge. The beautiful huge Prussian horses almost disappeared around 1807. After 1812, most of the horses used were sub-standard.

The muskets also took a huge toll. Great French maskets of pre-revolutionary production were substituted with cheaper almost mass-produced equipment. While English introduced some reasonably successful rifles, other nations were less successful.

Artillery almost did not degrade during the wars. It was the personal pride and joy of military leaders. However, there was hardly serious artillery-related progress. English steadily replaced canisters with shrapnel, and that’s about it.

So unlike the 20th century wars, millions of dead and decades of wars introduced technical degradation rather than progress.  Why?

Unbearable death toll

We think that the death toll of the two world wars was unbearable, yet the pressure was mostly on the general population. The death toll in the military was vell below the Napoleonic era. The war production during the world wars was able to cope with the pressure and even research new ideas.

During the Napoleonic wars simply no reserves were left to develop new ideas. Everybody truly capable was serving in the front lines. These were the first national wars with war drafts, yet there was no equivalently patriotic war production effort.

We know something very similar in productivity. Experience is not always a good thing. About 10% of the resources should be left and reserve and spent to develop new ideas and tools. Then the experience generates growth. Otherwise, the experience generates degradation and burnout.

Experienced people with unused reserves of energy are extremely valuable.


The bulk of the army, probably 2/3 of it, was infantry. Infantry was relatively easy to train and use. At the same time, it was very flexible. Most regiments had two elite unites: heavy infantry for bayonet charges and skirmishers/sharpshooters for fire support. The elite infantry was disciplined, professional, and brave. The bulk of the regiment, 4/6 of it, was made from normal people.

During the battle of Gettysburg, some (20000+) weapons misfunctioned and were sent for inspection. Apparently, soldiers loaded the weapons but forgot to shoot them. So they had multiple bullets stuck in the barrel, up to 24 in one case.

Also, the soldiers often faked being wounded or were too eager to treat their wounded soldiers. Since the horses did not like stepping on corpses, the fakers usually took cover behind the bodies of the really dead. A less than brave regiment was actually a big issue, because it could be decimated by all other corpses.

Experienced infantry regiments could march almost three times more than inexperienced. And then they could take their aim when shooting. And when charging they were unstoppable. French guard regiments or Suvorov’s elite regiment dealt devastating blows to x3 larger enemy forces. This was the effect of focused discipline bought by drills and war experience.


Some people think that the Napoleonic army could not use a cover or deploy sharpshooters. This is not so. There were line formations, often used by elite sharpshooter groups with devastating firepower. Only these formations were prone to flanking attacks by cavalry, so the flanks needed to be protected.

A square formation was used against cavalry.  A line of a column could form a square in a minute to deal with a charge. A square would be a wall of bayonets from all sides, virtually unpenetrable by cavalry. Elite grenadiers and sharpshooters were often protected by less experienced troops. This formation was painfully vulnerable to artillery, especially the mobile horse artillery bringing the cannons where they were needed.

Infantry could also charge as a column, usually against other infantry, lead by massive grenadiers. These were the strongest and most experienced soldiers. In front of the grenadiers were their most elite troops, sappers, with huge axes to clean any wooden defenses.

Suvorov used sharpshooter lines against Polish columns, squares against Turkish cavalry, and column against French squares. He was a true General of the infantry.

When you think about the pros and cons of mindmaps, mental palaces, and stories, compare them to the onslaught of 19th-century infantry formation for some perspective.

Stupid officers

Artillery officers had to plan a lot of things, including strategic placing of tools, logistics, and discipline. They were truly sharp. Infantry officers were fatalistic and disciplined beyond words. Cavalry got the bravest, flamboyant, and reckless officers.

These stupid officers gambled, slept with wives of officers of other corps, conducted duels. They were beautiful, noisy, and utterly self-destructive. The cavalry generals we. Some of them were really poetic, romantic, and possibly delusional.

French general Lasalle has won several battles using his bravery and bluff.

Lasalle had been intimately connected with Joséphine Berthier and Lasalle immediately proposed to her. Napoleon gave Lasalle 200,000 francs towards the nuptials. When they met, Napoleon asked, “When is the wedding?” Lasalle replied, “Sire, when I have enough money to buy the wedding presents and furniture”. Napoleon said, “But I gave you 200,000 francs last week, what did you do with them?”. Lasalle replied, “I used half to pay my debts and have lost the rest gambling”. Napoleon merely ordered his aide Duroc to give Lasalle another 200,000 francs. When a prefect asked why Napoleon didn’t discipline Lasalle for his conduct, Napoleon responded that “It only takes a stroke of a pen to create a prefect, but it takes twenty years to make a Lasalle”.

The cavalry charge saved Napoleon in Jena (1806), performed on stunning Prussian horses. In Waterloo substandard french horses were used, and the charge failed, leaving thousands of french corpses.

We can use bravery and bluff to get what we want once or twice. But eventually, the risk will not pay off. Reducing the risks is a wiser position.

The aftermath

During several decades, the best of the best in Europe died on the battlefields. There was no technical progress. Newly introduced rockets and rifles were no match for medieval concepts. Cavalry units with lances [unarmored, well trained on small and maneuverable mounts] ruled the charge, and armored cavalry [heavy men in heavy cuirass on huge horses] ruled the melee that followed. Artillery [especially horse artillery] usually decided the outcome of the battles. Yet the heavy lifting was done by disciplined and heavily drilled elite infantry.

During the wars, millions of lives were lost. French used most of their able young men  (possibly 90%) and courage. Poles, the most elite and loyal pro-french troops, lost hope. Austrians lost their prestige and they never recovered. Prussia lost many magnificent horses and cavalrymen but soon recovered. Russians lost 90% (!) of their young nobles, and those who came back brought revolutionary ideas.

The best thing we have from the carnage, are the stories and quotes of the generals, who were the true superstars of the era. And some classical literature was written by the nephews of the heroes. Like Leo Tolstoy’s “War and peace” inspired by a general, count Pyotr Tolstoy.

Napoleonic wars kept the European powers preoccupied long enough for the USA to become a superpower. The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana by the United States from France in 1803.  I think Americans won from these wars more than any other nation…

Battle of Borodino

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