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Napoleon and football

by bdietrich on February 2, 2013

Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t much of a couch potato, but he probably would have watched the Superbowl. Football is our sport closest to early 19th Century warfare.

There was more clarity to conflict then than today’s terrorism-and-guerilla tactics. The Ravens and Forty-Niners will line up at scrimmage like the French and British at Waterloo. The goal line was the enemy’s capital. And generals could slug it out (the ground game) or try a campaign of maneuver (the passing game.)

Napoleon was a master of both. His first service was at the siege of Toulon, a kind of fourth-and-one head-butt that the invading British and royalists lost. In contrast, his first command as a general in Italy was all about speed and maneuver. He had the smaller team and made up for it by out-marching the Austrians.

I‘m no expert at football. For my Ethan Gage novels, however, I’ve picked up knowledge about Napoleonic warfare. Ethan has been at the Battle of the Pyramids, Siege of Acre, and Battle of Marengo, and for the upcoming “The Barbed Crown” (May) he winds up at the naval battle of Trafalgar.

Napoleon faced many of the same dilemmas as the modern football coach. Ninety percent of his work was before the game, training and supplying the army so it had the energy to fight. Sad-sack soldiers couldn’t reach the battlefield on time, and hungry ones didn’t fight very well. His army at Austerlitz was so good because it had logged “time at the gym,” in his case three years of training for an invasion of England that never happened.

He beat the Austrians and Russians in part because he could maneuver more quickly, could extend his supply lines, and could shoot faster and more accurately. He actually gave French troops target practice, a much-neglected exercise at a time when muskets were inaccurate.

He never claimed to be an innovator, but he devoured military history. At the end of his career, he remarked he knew all the essentials of military strategy at its beginning. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest summed it up best: “Get there fastest with the mostest.”

Just as a football offense has runners, receivers, and blockers, and a football defense has multiple layers (linebackers) to stop an attack, Napoleonic warfare was a complex chess game of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. It was all about tradeoffs. Every general would like more cannon, for example, but each battery took dozens of horses for guns, ammunition, men, food, horse feed, and repairs.

Cavalry was great, but Napoleon could never get enough good horses, and a good horseman took years to train.

Just as football teams gravitate to either size or speed – and try to have some of both – Napoleon had to choose between line infantry and all the other formations that made their attacks and defenses effective.

Napoleonic warfare was as simple as football: line em up and bang away. And it was as complex as an encyclopedic playbook. Bonaparte was a master at getting the right unit in the right place to check the enemy and decide the battle. Here it might be an artillery barrage, there a cavalry charge, and on this one an infantry attack, just like plays in football.

Just as naval warships had to swing sideways to present their guns to the enemy, armies had to be adept at switching from columns – the best for marching ahead on roads or cross-country – to lines or squares, the best for presenting a maximum number of guns to blaze. Troops drilled endlessly to be able to do this in what was a literal “fog of war,” the incredible smoke of black powder firearms.

Then there were the trick plays. The Duke of Wellington was expert at shielding his troops out of sight below the brow of a hill and then springing them on an advancing enemy.

After losing his army in Russia, it was a desperate fourth quarter for Napoleon. He made some great plays but the Waterloo campaign was pretty much a Hail Mary pass. It came up just short.

The coach didn’t just get fired. He was exiled to St. Helena.

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