Book Book

Book Review:

Napoleon's Last Victory
and the Emergence of Modern War

By Robert M. Epstein

University of Kansas Press. 1994. 215 pp.
$14.95 (paperback available at

Reviewed by Sir Kenneth "Muddy" Jones, K.G.
Anglo-Allied Army

Napoleon's Last Victory

When Bill Peters asked me to join the playtesting team for the forthcoming Wagram pc game, I had to admit to myself that I really didn't know much about the Franco-Austrian War of 1809. I mean, I know who won, and I knew the names of the major battles, but I was mostly ignorant regarding the strategic and tactical details of this great Napoleonic campaign. I wasn't even sure about geography or the timeline. So, on my next visit to the public library I searched the titles and came up with an interesting treatise on the subject by Robert Epstein, who in 1994 was a professor of history at the School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As I mentioned, I was looking for a book that would give me an overview of the campaign and provide some insights into the strategy and tactics employed by Napoleon and Austria's Archduke Charles. Epstein's book easily provided these details and then proceeded to educate me about why this campaign stands apart from previous Napoleonic conflicts.

In Napoleon's Last Victory, Dr. Epstein places the 1809 Franco-Austrian War in the context of the evolution of warfare in the nineteenth century, arguing quite persuasively that important aspects of military modernity appeared within the 1809 campaign. From the beginning, Epstein's goal is to educate the reader, not just in the details of the campaign but its place in the evolution of warfare. He does this by beginning the book with a definition of modern warfare. "War is modern," he writes, "when it has all of the following characteristics: a strategic war plan that effectively integrates the various theaters of operations; the fullest mobilization of the resources of the state (which includes the raising of conscript armies); and the use of operational campaigns to achieve strategic objectives in the various theaters of operations. These operational campaigns are characterized by symmetrical conscript armies organized into corps, maneuvered in a distributed fashion so that tactical engagements are sequenced and often simultaneous, command is decentralized, yet the commanders have a common understanding of operational methods." Moreover, he argues that in modern war victory is achieved, not in one decisive action, but by the cumulative effect of tactical engagements and operational campaigns.

Once Epstein has laid the groundwork with this definition of modern warfare, he proceeds very methodically to show the reader that these attributes can indeed be found in Napoleon's 1809 against the Hapsburg Empire. In the 1809 campaign both sides had strategic war plans that encompassed different theaters of operations (primarily the Danube and Italy). Both France and Austria mobilized the resources of their states on a large scale that included the use of conscription and appeals to nationalism. And both armies had adopted the corps system that allowed them maneuver their armies across broad fronts that stretched hundreds of miles.

According to the author, there were several ramifications of the armies organizing into corps. First, the distributed maneuver of corps and divisions through a theater of operations required a new command structure wherein the supreme army commanders (Napoleon and Archduke Charles) had to rely fully on the initiative and tactical abilities of their subordinate commanders. Second, the use of the corps system also enhanced the operational resilience and tactical power of both sides that led to frequent stalemates and prevented the collapse of either side after a tactical defeat. None of the major battles in the 1809 campaign (Ratisbon, Eckmuhl, Sacile, Piave, Aspern-Essling, Wagram) were stand alone decisive victories. Rather, the fighting can be seen as a series of related engagements. Along the Danube the fighting from Thann-Ratisbon to Eckmuhl, Eckmuhl to Vienna, and the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram represented sequential battles. In Italy, the uprising in the Tyrol, the battles of Sacile, and Piave, and Prince Eugene's subsequent invasion of Austria were also fought sequentially, and simultaneously with those in the Danubian theater. Third, the corps system enhanced the use and coordination of mixed arms. This, in turn, increased the amount of firepower (especially from artillery) and battlefields became more deadly. The increase in firepower favored the defense and reduced the ability of the tactical offense to achieve victory. The war became one of attrition and the end result became dependent on the cumulative effect of battles and campaigns in which the side with the greatest resources won. Hence, as Epstein points out, the 1809 campaign with massive and fairly evenly matched armies, its multiple theaters of operation, new command and control systems, increased firepower, frequent stalemates, and large scale slaughter, had more in common with the American Civil War and subsequent conflicts than with the decisive Napoleonic campaigns that preceded it. This was the beginning of modern war.

As you can probably tell, this book is more for the student of warfare than for one who simply enjoys a more detailed and personalized account of a battle or a campaign. The book lacks any first person accounts of the action and omits tactical detail in favor the bigger picture. What the book does, however, and what its author intended to achieve, is to convey a holistic picture of the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 and demonstrate how the dynamics of this war created a new type of warfare.

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