Woman at WorkThe Psychology of War


While the theory and terminology was not developed, both Napoleon and Wellington well understood the psychology of war. This is well illustrated in the following quotes.

'Why, to say the truth, I am thinking of the French I am going to fight: I have not seen them since the campaigns in Flanders,* when they were capital soldiers, and a dozen years of victory under Buonaparte must have made them better still. They have besides, it seems, a new system of strategy which has out-maneuvred and overwhelmed all the armies of Europe. 'Tis enough to make one thoughtful; but no matter. My die is cast, they may overwhelm me, I don't think they will outmaneuvre me. First, because I am not afraid of them, as everyone else seems to be, and secondly, because if what I hear of their system of maneuvre, is true, I think it a false one against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half-beaten before the battle was begun - I, at least, will not be frightened beforehand.'
Arthur Wellesley to John Wilson Croker, quoted in the latter's diary entry for 14th June 1808.
*in 1793-94
' ... in war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.'
Napoleon - maxim

While both men used psychology, and often used similar techniques, they used it in different ways. Wellington dominates in the following mainly because I am more familiar with the detail of his campaigns. There's just too much of Napoleon most of it part of an enormous hagiography or of an equally enormous demonography. I don't have time to track down the facts about his campaigns.

The aura of invincibility

Both Napoleon and Wellington understood the value of a reputation for winning. Their presence on the battlefield was equivalent to the addition of several battalions. Napoleon carefully nurtured this reputation, rewriting the record of at least one of his early victories (Marengo) to increase the size of his part and add to his reputation for prescience and invincibility. Wellington first used the "aura of invincibility" method in the Mahratta War, where he moved well into Mahratta territory with a small force, relying on a string of victories to keep the uncommitted Mahratta tribes on his flanks neutral.

It is often said that Wellington was over cautious in the Peninsular, only fighting battles when he was certain of victory. The usual reason given for this is his consciousness that he was responsible for England's one and only field army. This is only one of a number of reasons why Wellington was so cautious:

  1. The need to develop an "aura of invincibility" around the small Anglo-Portuguese army, building the confidence of its members, and destroying the morale of the opposition. This led to the situation where British and/or Portuguese troops would stand in almost impossible situations, whereas the French would get nervous as soon as they saw a few Allies. Wellington out-bluffed the French on a number of occasions (not the least being Quatre Bras) because of the reputation he had carefully built.
  2. The need to build a reputation among the Spanish generals and the Spanish guerilla leaders. His influence as the man the French couldn't beat was much greater than that of the totally unknown British general. This enabled him to influence the guerilla leaders, giving good advice and coordinating their actions with that of the British army. Eventually it also led to him being appointed Captain-General of the Spanish armies (at least for a while).
  3. The need to husband his resources, since he commanded the only significant British field army. Most of Britain's military resources were tied up in garrison duties around the world. British troops were to be found in Malta, Minorca, Sicily, Canada, the Caribbean, the Cape of Good Hope, India, Java, and Australia. This swallowed up the bulk of Britain's regiments. The bulk of what was left were with Wellington in the Peninsular. In the beginning if he lost a battle, it was likely that the troops would be withdrawn. Later, his good record gave the government the confidence to reinforce him.

The power of noise and silence

Meanwhile the English, silent and impassive, with grounded arms, loomed like a long red wall; their aspect was imposing - it impressed novices not a little.

Napoleon was well versed in the effects of noise on an opponent. Part of the effect of an initial artillery barrage was the overwhelming noise: of the guns firing; of the shot whistling through the air; of the thump of balls hitting the ground; of the explosion of shells; and of the screams of those hit. This was followed up with the steady, characteristic drum beat of a French advance. The mass of men advancing (initially at least) in column were encouraged to add to the effect by shouting in time with the drums 'Vive l'Empereur'!

In contrast Wellington used silence as a weapon as well as noise. The regiments were encouraged to stand still and silent while under attack, until the last possible moment when they would fire a volley before charging with a roar. Partly this was a matter of control; troops who were shouting and yelling would not be listening for, and would be unable to hear, an order, but there is little doubt Wellington also understood the impact of the long silent red line, and fostered the legend.

Hearts and Minds

Another aspect which Wellington understood (and he was well in advance of his time in this) was the principle of winning the hearts and minds of the local inhabitants in whose country he was campaigning. From his earliest days in India, Wellington insisted on respect for the local inhabitants. His men were there to fight armies, not the civilian population. The result of this was that he rarely had trouble with the civilian population, even in France.

This was one aspect Napoleon failed to grasp; he believed in the effect of terror and intimidation. The population must be too scared to resist. As a result the French army ended up being hated everywhere, even in France.

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Last update 18/4/03