The armies of the late 1700’s would have looked familiar to Julius Caesar. Thousands of men marching down roads in thin columns with hundreds of supply wagons following behind. The wagons were unable to move across the muddy roads and often forced all the troops to stop and camp whenever the weather turned bad. Opposing armies lumbered slowly across the countryside until they eventually met at the field of battle. The soldiers fanned out into lines that were two men deep with one line firing while the other reloaded. The supply wagons were positioned behind the attacking lines and shuttled food and ammunition up to the fighting and the wounded back to be cared for.
The tactics of war also remained unchanged since Roman times. Generals commanded the forces from the back of the battlefield with scouts in the front closely observing enemy movements. The scouts would carry information back to the generals, who would make decisions and send their orders back to the front.
These tactics led to long, drawn out battles with enormous casualties on both sides. Often the “victor” would be too demoralized to pursue the vanquished and both armies would retreat back to friendly territory.
Napoleon knew there had to be a better way to fight wars and to organize an army. He was born in Corsica – the son of a minor aristocrat who served in the court of Louis XVI. His family connections got him into several elite French military academies where he trained to become an artillery officer.
Napoleon came to power during the French revolution. He was given command of a small battery of canons during the British siege of Toulon. Napoleon was shot in the leg but still managed to use his limited force to capture a key hill allowing him to place canons that overlooked the entire city and forcing the British to evacuate. After this victory he was given control of the French army in Italy. He was only 24 years old.
Napoleon started studying ways he could organize his army - how could he command such a large group of people but still retain the flexibility that he had with his smaller artillery units? Steeped in the philosophy of the French revolution he took the controversial approach of radically decentralizing his command. He broke the army up into smaller divisions of 20,000 men who were commanded by field marshals. These marshals had nearly complete autonomy as long as they followed the strategic objectives outlined by Napoleon. Napoleon replicated this decentralization into the rest of the division and allowed Lieutenants and Sergeants complete control over even smaller groups of men as long as their actions were aligned with the field marshal.
Napoleon also introduced a technical innovation into his army – the backpack. All of his soldiers carried 60 pounds packs that provided them with enough food and water for a week. They also were taught to live off the land by hunting and foraging. This decoupled the soldiers from the slow supply caravans and allowed them to remain independent for long periods of time.
With smaller forces that did not need to be connected to the supply lines Napoleon was able to invent a new kind of fighting – maneuver warfare. Instead of one combined force, Napoleon would send several small and decentralized units into battle that could rapidly respond to changing conditions. These units did not have to wait for a long decision making loop with a general in the back of the field – all decisions were made by the commanders in the unit who had the best perspective on the battle. Napoleon learned how to shorten his OODA loop and gain a huge advantage over his competitors.
Napoleon used this shortened OODA loop at the Battle of Ulm. Under the leadership of General Mack, the Austrian army was marching toward the city of Ulm over the only road that could support a caravan of troops in excess of 60,000 men. Napoleon navigated his decentralized units around the advancing Austrian forces using narrow access roads and forest trails. Napoleon was able to slot in behind the Austrians which effectively cut off their supply and communication lines. Mack knew his men wouldn’t last long without supplies and reinforcements and surrendered the entire Austrian army before the fighting even began.