Napoleon and Psychological Warfare


In 1796, at the age of twenty-seven, Napoleon Bonaparte was given command of the French army in Italy where he won a series of stunning victories. His use of speed, deception, and surprise to overwhelm his opponents is well known. In this selection from a proclamation to his troops in Italy, Napoleon also appears as a master of psychological warfare.


Napoleon Bonaparte, Proclamation to the French Troops in Italy

(April 26, 1796)


In a fortnight you have won six victories, taken twenty-one standards, fifty-five pieces of artillery, several strong positions, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont [in northern Italy]; you have captured 15,000 prisoners and killed or wounded more than 10,000 men.... You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, camped without brandy and often without bread. Soldiers of Liberty,' only republican troops could have endured what you have endured. Soldiers, you have our thanks! The grateful Patrie [nation] will owe its prosperity to you....

The two armies which but recently attacked you with audacity are fleeing before you in terror; the wicked men who laughed at your misery and rejoice at the thought of the triumphs of your enemies are confounded and trembling.

But, soldiers, as yet you have done nothing compared with what remains to be done.... Undoubtably the greatest obstacles have keen overcome; but you still have battles to fight, cities to capture, rivers to cross. Is there one among you whose courage is abating? No.... All of you are consumed with a desire to extend the glory of the French people; all of you long to humiliate those arrogant kings who dare to contemplate placing us in fetters; all of you desire to dictate a glorious peace, one which will indemnify the Patrie long the immense sacrifices it has made; all of you wish to be able to say with pride as you return to your villages, "I was with the victorious army of Italy!"


The Man of Destiny

Napoleon possessed an overwhelming sense of his own importance. Among the images he fostered, especially as his successes multiplied and his megalomaniacal tendencies intensifed, were those of the man of destiny and the great man who masters luck.

Selections from Napoleon


When a deplorable weakness and ceaseless vacillations become manifest in supreme councils; when, yielding in turn to the influences of opposing parties, making shift from day to day, and marching with uncertain pace, a government has proved the full measure of its impotence; when even the most moderate citizens are forced to admit that the State is no longer governed; when in fine, the administration adds to its nullity at home the gravest guilt it can acquire in the eyes of a proud nation--I mean its humiliation abroad--then a vague unrest spreads through the social body, the instinct of self-preservation is stirred, and the nation casts a sweeping eye over itself, as if to seek a man who can save it.

This guardian angel a great nation harbors in its bosom at all times; yet sometimes he is late in making his appearance. Indeed, it is not enough for him to exist: he also must be known. He must know himself. Until then, all endeavors are in vain, all schemes collapse. The inertia of the masses protects the nominal government, and despite its ineptitude and weakness the efforts of its enemies fail. But let that impatiently awaited savior give a sudden sign of his existence, and the people's instinct will divine him and call upon him. The obstacles are smoothed before his steps, and a whole great nation, flying to see him pass, will seem to be saying: "Here is the man!"

.. A consecutive series of great actions never is the result of chance and luck; it always is the product of planning and genius. Great men are rarely known to fail in their most perilous enterprises.... Is it because they are lucky that they become great? No, but being great, they have been able to master luck.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on Napoleon:


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a leading German author and polymath whose collected works fill over 140 volumes. He searched for the mysteries of nature and human experience in his lyrics and verse and considered the political order in The Sorrows of the Young Werther and Faust. In Werther, Goethe explained that despair was the only reaction one could have in the face of the Old Order, while in Faust he preserved the Romantic notion of the pursuit of supernatural power. Like his fellow Romantics, he viewed the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon as the dawn of a new and heroic ep-och that ushered in a new world.


Now Napoleon-there was a fellow! Always enlightened by reason, always clear and deci-sive, and gifted at every moment with enough energy to translate into action whatever he recognized as being advantageous or necessary. His life was the stride of a demigod from battle to battle and from victory to victory.... it could ... be said that he was in a perma-nent state of enlightenment, which is why his fate was more brilliant than the world has ever seen or is likely to see after him.


John Adams on Napoleon


John Adams (1735-1826), a well-read teacher and lawyer, championed American independence when British measures infringed on colonial liberties and self-government, wrote most of the Massachusetts State Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and served as Federalist President of the United States during the stormy years of trouble with France in the late 1790's. Adams distrusted popular government and strived to create and maintain dignity, ritual andauthority inhis administration


What a mighty bubble!! What a tremendous Waterspout has Napoleon been according to his Life written by himself? He says he was the Creature of the Principles and Manners of the Age. By which no doubt he means the Age of Reason. I believe him. A Whirlwind raised him and a Whirlwind blowed him away to St. Helena. He is very confident that the Age of Reason is not past, and so am I; but I hope that reason will never again rashly and hastily create such Creatures as him. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Humanity will never again, I hope, blindly surrender themselves to an unbounded Ambition for national Conquests, nor implicitly commit themselves to the custody and Guardianship of Arms and Heroes. If they do, they will again end in St. Helena.


A Soldier's Letters to His Mother: Revolutionary Nationalism

Francois-Xavier Joliclerc


Despite tremendous internal difficulties, including counterrevolutionary movements in a number of provinces, French armies held back foreign forces after war broke out in 1792, but by 1794 the French forces had made gains even beyond the 1789 borders. Part of the reason for this success was the nationalistic enthusiasm that developed along with the revolution. This nationalism is demonstrated by the following letters from Francois-Xavier Joliclerc, a conscript in the French army, to his mother.

Consider: The divisions within French society revealed in these letters; why such sentiments among soldiers are so important and how political leaders or military strategists might capitalize on them; whether the nationalism revealed in these letters is inherent in the nature of the French Revolution or in any particular phase of that revolution.


13 December, 1793

My dear mother,

You continue to point out to me, in all your letters, that we must get out of the army, cost what it may. Here are the difficulties and the obstacles that I can see.

First of all, it is difficult to find replacements despite the enormous sums that are expended for this purpose. Secondly, we have just had a call-up of men eighteen to twenty-five; and the call-up of those from twenty-five to thirty-five is being prepared. As soon as we got home, we would have to get ready to go back, regretting the money we had spent. Thirdly, when la patrie calls us to her defense, we ought to fly there as if running to a good meal. Our life, our wealth, and our talents do not belong to us. It is to the nation, la patrie, that all that belongs.

I know well that you and all the others in our village do not share these sentiments. They are not aroused by the cries of an outraged fatherland, and all that they do results from being compelled to. But I have been brought up in conscience and thought, and have always been republican in spirit, although obliged to live in a monarchy. These principles of love for la patrie, la liberte', la re'publique, are not only engraved in my heart, but are deeply etched and will remain there as long as it will please the Supreme Being to sustain in me the breath of life.

Even if it cost me three quarters of my possessions to have you share these sentiments with me, I would gladly part with them and consider it a very small sacrifice. Oh, if only one day you could know the price of liberty and lose your senseless attachment to material things.


30 May, 1794

What about my lot? I am at my post, where I ought to be, and every good man who knows what's what ought to fly to the aid of his country in danger. If I should perish there, you ought to rejoice. Can one make a finer sacrifice than to die for one's country? Can one die for a more just, glorious, and fairer cause? NO! Would you rather see me die on a mattress of straw in my bed at Froidefontaine [his home village] working with wood or stone?

NO, dear mother. Think that I am at my post and you will be consoled. If your conscience reproaches you in some way, sell even the last of your petticoats for la patrie. She is our only rudder, and it is she who guides us and gives us happiness....

Your son, Joliclerc


 Moniteur, March 1815

 The following headlines appeared in the French newspaper Moniteur in March of 1815. These banners announced Napoleon's return from Elba to Paris. What do they tell you about the return of Napoleon?
 March 9  The Monster has escaped from his place of banishment.
 March 10  The Corsican Orge has landed at Cape Juan
 March 11  TheTiger has shown himself at Gap. The Troops are advancing on all sides to arrest his progress. He will conclude his miserable adventure by becoming a wanderer among the mountains.
 March 12  The Monster has actually advanced as far as Grenoble
 March 13  The Tyrant is now at Lyon. Fear and Terror seized all at his appeaance.
 March 18  The Usurper has ventured to approach to within 60 hours' march of the capital.
 March 19  Bonaparte is advancing by forced marches, but it is impossible he can reach Paris.
 March 20  Napoleon will arrive under the walls of Paris tomorrow.
 March 21  The Emperor Napoleon is at Fountainbleau
 March 22  Yesteday evening His Majesty the Emperor made his public entry and arrived at the Tuileries. Nothing can exceed the universal joy.


The Thoughts of Napoleon

The following are excerpts from the diary of Napoleon. Note the date of each excerpt and think of what event has either just taken place or is about to occur. How do Napoleon's thoughts reflect the historical events of his life and times?

Soldiers, you are naked, ill fed! The Government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you display in the midst of these rocks, are admirable; but they procure you no glory, no fame is reflected upon you. I seek to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honor, glory and riches. Soldiers of Italy (referring to the French army stationed in the Italian Alps) would you be lacking in courage or constancy? (March 27, 1796)

Paris has a short memory. If I remain longer doing nothing, I am lost. In this great Babylon one reputation quickly succeeds another. After I have been seen three times at the theatre, I shall not be looked at again. I shall therefore not go very frequently. (diary 1798)

This little Europe affords too slight a scope. I must go to the orient; all great reputations have been won there. If the success of an expedition to England should prove doubtful, as I fear, the army of England will become the army of the East, and I shall go there. The East awaits a man... (diary 1798)

If the press is not bridled, I shall not remain three days in power. (diary 1799)

What a tiny is imagination! Here are men who don't know me, who have never seen me, but who only knew of me, and they are moved by my presence, they would do anything for me! And this same incident arises in all centuries and in all countries! Such is fanaticism! Yes, imagination rules the world. The defect of our modern institutions is that they do not speak to the imagination. By that alone can man be govened; without it he is a brute. (diary 1800)

The presence of a general is necessary; he is the head, he is the all in all of an army. It was not the Roman army that conquered Gaul, it was Caesar, it was not the Carthaginians that made the armies of the Roman republic tremble at the very gates of Rome, it was Hannibal. (diary 1801)

My power proceeds from my reputation, and my reputation from the victories I have won. My power would fall if I were not to support it with more glory and more victories. Conquest has made me what I am, only conquest can maintain me. (diary 1802)

I shall repress the journals a little, make them produce wholesome articles. I shall in form the editors of the newspapers that are widely read in order to let them know that the time is not far away when, seeing that they are no longer of service to me, I shall suppress them. The revolution in France is over and now there is only one party in France and I shall never allow the newspapers to say anything contrary to my interests. They may publish a few little articles with just a bit of poison in them, but one fine day I shall shut their mouths forever. (diary 1805)



"Ah, who is it dares interupt me in my progress?"Why 'tis I, little Johnny Bull, protecting a little spot. I clap my hands on, and damn me if you come any further, that's all!"