Napoleon and Sun Tzu

A reader writes:

Your web-page states that Napoleon made use of "The Art of War". I spent eight years studying Napoleon's early career, and never discovered a single piece of evidence to show this. On the other hand, it is quite clear that he made use of the writings of the great French strategist, Pierre Bourcet, as well as those of the Chevalier Du Teil, among others. Napoleon didn't really need to read "The Art of War" because European writings contained all that he needed to develop into a great general. Yours, Martin BB.

I want to thank Martin for the feedback. We often get the opportunity to discuss these issues with scholars whose interest overlaps with our own and a Napoleonic scholar is a welcome addition to our sources. Our website may well be passing on an legend, based upon the time that Sun Tzu’s work was first published in the west in French and Napoleon’s rise. But it is worthwhile to document why I personally believe that this connection is real.

This connection has been floating around in the Sun Tzu world for almost a hundred years since the rumored association was recorded at least since with the publication of the Giles English version in 1910. I have also heard that Napoleon carried Machiavelli’s Art of War, not Sun Tzu’s.

Establishing the facts of this matter, one way or another may be impossible. As you know, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Especially in this case since the first chapter of Sun Tzu instructs its users in secrecy, a precept that I may violate, but that a real general fighting real wars certainly would not. Good strategy itself would involve misleading everyone about your strategic approach and its sources.

What we do know is that the work of du Teil, Bourcet, and Feuquieres, de Broglie, Gribeauval, Guibert and others were all part of Napoleon’s methods and all their tactical systems were formulated before the advent of Sun Tzu in French. Though I would not claim to be an expert because most of this work falls into the area that we describe as tactical techniques, as opposed to strategy. For example, du Teil’s work was on the use of artillery, specifically the focusing of massive firepower at a specific point (also a favorite topic of von Clausewitz). Traditional strategy concerns itself more with the timeless mental processes of the contest than the specific tools and techniques of a specific technology. Sun Tzu’s work, for example, never mentions any specific types of forces or weapons, concentrating solely on the mental aspect of the competition. By this definition, the work of Bourcet and de Broglie was more strategic, though focusing on the tactical techniques of moving forces, the concept of a doing this as a “plan with branches” is timeless strategy.

One of our interests at the Institute is how, throughout history, the same strategic concepts are rediscovered because of the inherent nature of human competition, hence a subject for scientific study.

However, there are many innovations that we see from Napoleon that have no root in his era of military methods. Indeed, the modern Western study of the more abstract and scientific principles of strategy start with Napoleon (via Clausewitz and Jomini, who called his work also The Art of War) because Napoleon introduced them. While these strategic innovations could certainly have been Napoleon’s independent creations, all are also found in Sun Tzu, and given the timing, the advent of this particular form of strategy in the West with the advent of the book is an interesting coincidence, if it is indeed a coincidence.

While the ideas such as the focus or massing of forces at a specific place (Sun Tzu's concept of focus) existed in France before Napoleon and Sun Tzu’s translation, the overall use of Sun Tzu’s specific methods of adaptive strategy arrive to Europe suprisingly complete with Napoleon. His methods might be described as the special combination of speed, adaptation to situations as opposed to planning (not so much Bourcet’s “plan with branches” as Sun Tzu’s method of branches “seeking an opportunity”) and, specifically the use of what in Chinese is called Cheng and Ch’i, which was, prior to Napoleon, unique to Sun Tzu.

Going into more detail on this point, the essence of Cheng and Ch’i is the combination of direct methods and surprise in a very specific way. Others such as Capt. J. Colin and General Camon, have described the unique aspects of Napoleon’s strategy as moving quickly and secretly past the enemy's flank to get on the hostile line of communications. To do this, Napoleon created a direct attack against the enemy's front to occupy them. This is Sun Tzu’s cheng or direct attack, that meets the enemy. Napoleon then used a broad flanking or turning maneuver to move quickly to the enemy's rear with a small force to spread dismay and confusion in the defender's ranks. This is pure ch’i as described by Sun Tzu. That the final blow as usually the massing of artillery fire, ala du Teil is a technical point, since strategically, the battle is won by the ch’i or surprise, which sets it up that attack.

As someone who is a specialist in Sun Tzu’s work, I look at every description of Napoleon’s methods and see the connection to Sun Tzu. Starting with Clausewitz and Jomini, the new ideas and even terminology that existed only, to my knowledge, in Sun Tzu’s work prior to Napoleon starts coming into currency for the first time in the west. When I go down a list of Napoleon’s maxims, (for example here), I can see those that came from du Teil and Bourcet, but the vast majority of them (perhaps 75%) seem to be direct application of ideas expressed in a similar way only in Sun Tzu work prior to Napoleon.

The more specific the reference, the clearer the connection. For example, when Napoleon writes (according to Paret, Craig and Gilbert in Makers of Modern Strategy), “To know…how to draw supplies of all kinds from the country you occupy makes up a large part of the art of war,” Napoleon is, to my ears, quoting directly from Sun Tzu and offering an idea that, as far as my research goes, originated in the west, either with Napoleon or from Sun Tzu through Napoleon. Again, this could be coincidence.

Sun Tzu's strategy is the study of the natural systems of competition and those systems are independent of those who document them. But this is why the connection between Napoleon and Sun Tzu persists and why I suspect that it is real.