The First
Total War

Napoleon's Europe and
The Birth of Warfare
As We Know It

David A. Bell
(Houghton Mifflin)
Metternich claimed that Napoleon told him, "I grew up on the battlefield. A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men." The singular lesson of the Napoleonic Wars --- 1792 - 1815 --- was that soldiers' lives became alarmingly cheap. It was what Bell views as the coming of a new concept: "Total War." It all began in a western district of France called the Vendée, with a rebellion; it ended with scorched earth, villages burned to the ground, crops and livestock destroyed, and 250,000 men, women, and children dead. "What made it total was rather its erasure of any line between combatants and noncombatants and the wanton slaughter of both --- and at the behest of politics more than military necessity. It was

    a witches' brew of hatred, fear, fantasy, and pure folly; its execution an unmitigated horror, and conterproductive to the extent that it spurred further resistance.

But then, Bell concludes, "extermination of the enemy, as opposed to disarming it, has hardly ever served a serious military purpose. 'We destroyed the village in order to save it...' It is General Salomon's excuse: to defeat the enemy, we must become him." In La Vendée, the seeds of "the march to the Sea," "the Rape of Belgium," the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were planted.

§     §     §

  • In 1804, when Pope Pius handed the crown to Napoleon, the "Counsel for Life" placed it on his head, turned to his brother Joseph and murmured si babbù ce vede --- "if only Dad could see us now."
  • Napoleon could be a bit lusty in his correspondence with Joséphine. Even in battle, he wrote, was thinking of "your little white breast, springy, so firm ... and the little black forest, I send it a thousand kisses."
  • He could also be a bit nippy towards her, too: "I no longer love you at all. To the contrary, I hate you. You are fiendish, awkward, stupid and decrepit ... Beware, Joséphine! One fine night the doors will be smashed in and there I will be in your bed. Remember! Othello's little dagger!"
  • In 1790, the French Revolutionary Assembly met in a long and malodorous hall known as The Manège. the conservatives clumped together on the right side of the hall and their opponents on the left. "The very geography of the Manége contributed to the polarization, while also engendering the 'left-right' terminology that the world has known ever since."
  • Napoleon's earliest successes had much to do with the fact that he scarcely ever slept, he had a near-photographic memory, and that he had "phenomenal energy and capacity for work." "As proof, one need only consult the nearly two thousand letters he wrote or dictated in the years 1796 and 1797 alone, which take up over a thousand tightly packed pages of his General Correspondence. "In it, we see him taking charge of matters ranging from the number of carts needed to carry a regiment's paperwork to the amount of munitions carried by soldiers to the position of drummer boys in a marching column."
  • Another character in the Napoleonic Wars was Major Joseph-Léopold Hugo. His son Victor wrote that he would, in his old age, bore dinner-table companions with the story of the dramatic chase in the Abruzzi. "He would wrinkle up his nose like a rabbit --- a characteristic expression of the Hugos --- wink as though he had a new joke up his sleeve, and then tell us what we had already heard twenty times before."

§     §     §

The First Total War is concise, explicit, exacting, horrific, and a wonderful piece of writing. We here see war being transformed from a game between gentlemen to a punishment aimed at all: soldiers, generals, adults, children, the old and the young alike. There may have been writers from the 18th Century --- Fénelon, Diderot, and d'Alembert, for example --- who saw war as "violent" and "savage," losing out to peace, Enlightenment and commerce. "War is a convulsive and violent sickness of the body politic; this body is only healthy --- that is to say, in its natural state --- when it is at peace."

The Revolution and its aftermath --- and the likes of Robespierre, Hugo, Napoleon, and Clausewitz --- made a mockery of this dream. The latter wrote presciently, "Formerly ... war was waged in the way that a pair of duellist carried out their pedantic struggle. One battled with moderation and consideration, according to the conventional proprieties."

    The war of the present is a war of all against all. It is not the King who wars on a king, not an army which wars on an army, but a people which wars on another, and the king and the army are contained in the people.

The author concludes, "That true and natural course involved the commitment of every possible resource and all possible violence, of the sort France had inflicted on his fatherland [Prussia.] No wonder that he quoted Thomas Hobbes' famous phrase. It felt like a war of all against all, indeed."

--- Jean Stockman
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