Table of Contents


As emperor of Europe, Napoleon could have lived to a ripe old age, He could have enjoyed a life of unparalleled pleasure and luxury. And when his time had finally come, he could have left the empire to his heirs.

Instead, Napoleon was left to die on the island of Saint Helena, lonely and miserably. Why? Because Napoleon never read this book: Essential Strategy.

Of course, Napoleon was no fool. He enjoyed great political and military successes. But the final verdict must be that Napoleon failed. He failed to achieve his ultimate goals.

Strategy is the noble of art of achieving your goals. And because one learns more from failure than from success, we can learn a lot from Napoleon.


It is January of 1812. All of Europe is at Napoleon's feet, except for England. The conquest of this wet, misty island has become his obsession. But Napoleon has already lost the sea-battle of Trafalgar (1805). And so he has given up hope of a direct maritime assault.

Napoleon needs to think of something different. He enacts a boycott of England (the so-called Continental System). But if that is hard on the English, it is also damaging to the European continent.

In 1811, the boycott is breached by Russian smugglers. Abject poverty leaves the Russians little choice. Of course, Napoleon instructs Russia to enforce the Continental System. But Alexander I is a weak czar and the Russians can not do without this scarce source of income. Alexander is unable or unwilling to stop the smugglers.

la Grande Armée

Napoleon decides to make an example of Russia. On land, his armies are invincible. Napoleon raises la Grande Armée, an army of half a million man. He is going to crush the weak Russian army.

Napoleon's problem is that the Russia is even weaker than he thinks. Fearing a coup, czar Alexander has abolished the army's central command. Russia has two separate armies, under separate generals. Both Russian armies are equally weak. And while Alexander defers to his generals for the important decisions, he micro-manages the saddling of the horses.

When the Russians learn of Napoleon's march, they intend to do as their honor instructs them. They want to meet Napoleon in battle, in order to suffer a crushing defeat. In those days, the motto was: better dead than a coward. Of course, it helps that death was to be borne by foot soldiers, while the officers had to live with the shame of cowardice.

scorched earth

However, the absence of military hierarchy reduces the Russian army to such chaos that it fails to meet the enemy in battle. And as they try to get organized, the Russians start retreating. Thus they stumble onto the tactic of the scorched earth.

Napoleon has not foreseen this scenario. His army is not equipped with tents, his soldiers sleep in the open air. To prevent the perennial theft of army equipment, the French soldiers march in boots with square noses. Indeed, theft has come down dramatically as the boots are easily recognizable as property of the army. The downside is that they are unsuited as footwear, certainly on long marches.

The rest is history. The Russians never give battle. As temperatures drop in the fall, la Grande Armée ends up deeper and deeper in the hinterland. Napoleon has no choice but to march on Moscow. But Moscow has little military significance; at the time Petersburg was the Russian capital.

Although the Russians have partially burned Moscow, Napoleon does find provisions and protection from the bitter cold. However, messengers bring alarming news. There has been an (unsuccessful) *coup d' état *in France. And an English army is on the march in Spain.

the retreat

October 20th, Napoleon decides to leave Moscow and march back to France. The retreat becomes fatal. Temperatures drop to - 35º Celsius. The land has already been foraged on the march to Moscow, so nothing edible is left. Cannibalism becomes the only way to survive.

Amazingly, la Grande Armée is still superior. Cold and hungry as they may be, the French handily win several battles, only to continue their retreat.

Of Napoleon's soldiers, only one out of five survives the Russian campaign. For Napoleon, it is the beginning of the end. Weakened by the Russian campaign, he ends up losing everything at Waterloo.

strategic analysis

What went wrong in 1812? I will argue that Napoleon was a great tactician, but a poor strategist. This implies that strategy and tactics are two different things. Many people use both terms interchangeably. But the US military makes a clear distinction, which we shall follow.


Strategy is concerned with identifying motives. What are your true, ultimate motives? What are you really trying to achieve? These are the strategic questions.

Strategic motives should be put in writing. A motive might appear simple and self-evident in the mind, but can prove befuddled and ambivalent in writing.

To be meaningful, strategic motives need to be defined narrowly. It is certainly true that a company has 'making money' as a motive. But identifying the motive so broadly is not helpful for good strategy.


Next, we ask the tactical questions: What is conducive to our motive? And what is detrimental?

Back to 1812. Napoleon's ultimate motive is to conquer England. His first tactic was a maritime assault, which failed at Trafalger in 1805. Next, he employs the Continental System as a tactic. So far, so good.

Once the boycott was breached, Napoleon might have considered some punitive action. If that proved impossible, Napoleon should have acquiesced. After all, the Continental System is merely a tactic.

Instead, he uses his best army to attack Russia. Napoleon goes all-in. That is a strategic mistake. Napoleon confuses his tactical goal (enforcing the Continental System) with his strategic motive (the conquest of England). Going all-in to achieve your ultimate motive may be justifiable. But going all-in for a mere tactical goal, is inexcusable.

Napoleon's problem is not that the Russian campaign is executed poorly. He could have wintered in Moscow. And even in retreat, la Grande Armée wins its battles. Napoleon's problem is that he should never have been in Russia at all.

What lessons can be drawn from Napoleon's downfall? Good strategy:

The above is a nice, first attempt at a Theory of Strategy. However, it is not yet complete. In Essential Strategy we will develop a better, yet practical Theory of Strategy. We will also look at paradigm and information, and how those influence the quality of decision-making.