Published Airpower Journal - Spring 1988
Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.


Some Napoleonic Comparisons

Maj Mark K. Wells, USAF

For the military professional, there is no simple formula to learn warfighting. Gaining that knowledge is a continuous process that is the product of institutionalized education and training, experience, and personal effort.

AFM 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force

DESPITE THE renewed popularity of military history, air force members have different opinions about the value of the discipline. While no one denies its importance in general terms, debates about the proper way to study and use it continue, especially in Air Force institutions like the US Air Force Academy and the Air University.1 By its nature, history is a highly subjective discipline. A "high-tech" service like the Air Force sometimes struggles with subjects not easily quantified or defined by workable equations. Additionally, many Air Force officers, particularly aviators, have a difficult time relating much of the military history they read to what they expect to do in combat. Aviators who are used to dealing with state-of-the-art technology and high-speed aircraft are often reluctant to see any connection between what they are training to do and what was done on any battlefield even 10 years earlier.

Several recent books can help potential combat aviators overcome this difficulty. The best, like John Keegan's The Face of Battle and Richard Holmes's Acts of War, do so by dealing with the human dimension of ground combat.2 It is important for aviators to take this kind of historical analysis one step further, however, and consider the human dimension in air combat. By doing so they can enhance the usefulness of all the military history they read.

In this regard, it is possible to compare air and ground combat in any era. While it is difficult to single out any particular emotion, circumstance, or example of behavior and demonstrate its primacy in ground or air battle, several seem to stand out frequently in combat narratives. These include motivation, action under fire, cohesion, and leadership. A quick survey of the Napoleonic era, to use just one example, will find many comparisons within this framework. Enough comparisons can be demonstrated to validate this kind of approach in other. periods of military history. The goal is to demonstrate the one constant that runs throughout conflict--the role of man.


Motivation, sometimes called the "will to combat," clearly relates to both air and ground engagements. An explanation of the nature and character of motivation has been the subject of many volumes.

The motivation to air combat can easily be identified with nineteenth-century concepts of honor and chivalry. The earliest combat aviators were often compared to dashing cavalrymen of the Napoleonic Wars. Most of the comparisons were driven by the need for governments to create heroes, mired as the armies were in the tragedy of World War I's ground stalemate. The new, glamorous, and relatively clean air war provided the kind of setting necessary for the creation of these heroes.3

A closer examination of typical Napoleonic cavalrymen reveals that these superficial comparisons are more accurate than might be expected. Consider, for example, historian David Chandler's description of Napoleonic hussars as "the darling of the ladies . . . expected to maintain the highest standard of bravery, swaggering bravado, and boasting."4 Such a description could easily fit the stereotypical combat aviator, especially the fighter pilot.

According to Chandler, part of the motivation for cavalry combat was the love of fighting, sport, and hunting. Combatants respected their mounted enemies for holding similar ideas. Cavalrymen were admonished to ride well, die unflinchingly, and acknowledge courageous opponents. So, too, are fighting airmen.5

Examine the words of the famous German ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen. His letters and combat reports are filled with allusions to chivalry, sportsmanship, the cavalier spirit, and hunting. He recorded his impressions of his most famous adversary, Maj Lanoe Hawker, in terms strikingly similar to those used by a participant in a nineteenth-century cavalry duel:

But he was a plucky devil. With me behind and above him, he even turned round and waved his arm at me, as though to say, "How is it going?" He was a fine sportsman, but I knew that in time my close presence behind him would be too much for him.6

Richthofen demonstrates a similar tone when he criticizes his brother, also an ace, for being too much of a shooter and not enough of a hunter. The motivation to combat, Richthofen believed, should be that of the nineteenth-century cavalry competitor, not the hot-blooded zealot.7

Such sentiments are not reserved only for romantic notions of World War I. For example, during the Battle of Britain in 1946, a British fighter pilot described his motivation to combat this way: "It's love of the sport rather than sense of duty that makes you go on without minding how much you are shot up."8

Obviously, sportsman-like competitiveness was not the only motivator for nineteenth-century cavalrymen or for modern aviators. The will to combat must be driven by all intense desire to defeat the enemy. Col Charles H. MacDonald, a World War II ace with 27 kills, put it this way:

If I were, to pick out the most valuable personal traits of a fighter pilot, aggressiveness would rate high on the list. Time and again, I have seen aggressive action, even from a disadvantageous position, completely rout a powerful Nip formation.9

Colonel MacDonald's comments on aggressiveness and, by implication, resolution may be considered a restatement of the thoughts of a nineteenth-century "ace" of cavalry, Joachim Murat. Murat, a marshal of France, was famous for his incredible bravery and aggressiveness on the battlefield. He was reputedly fond of saying, "Show me a hussar older than 30 years, and I'll show you a coward!"10

While it's not possible to speak for all participants and every engagement, even a superficial analysis clearly shows a connection between the motivation to air combat and the esprit of Napoleonic cavalrymen. Battles in the air can be directly compared to nineteenth-century encounters on this basis.

Figure 1. Under fire images of air combat and
the Napoleonic Cavalrymen

Under Fire

In combat the actual circumstances of directly confronting an enemy can vary widely. despite this, even a cursory examination of combat narratives reveals frequent similarities in the behavior and feelings of participants. In the most general terms, it is fair to say that most combatants feet, at one time or the other, either brave, afraid, aggressive, timid, lonely, or confused. We find these kinds of feelings often expressed in stories of both the Napoleonic period and throughout modern aerial warfare. Moreover, the actual details of engagements in both eras bear a close resemblance.

Eyewitness accounts of air-to-air engagements can sound hauntingly like written histories of cavalry encounters. An American, Oscar LeBoutillier, described a typical World War I dogfight this way:

In those few vicious moments the sky was literally filled with tracers; thin,white threads crisscrossing in every direction. Aeroplanes were everywhere. They flashed in and out of the clouds, above, below, and in front of me. I had my hands full trying to get onto an enemy's tail, avoid a collision, and got a burst off. It was like trying to catch lightning in a bottle!11

LeBoutillier's observations match this description of a Napoleonic cavalry encounter:

The impact would usually result in a melee, in which both sides would lose formation, and the soldiers would mingle in a formless mass of individual combats. . . . It was almost impossible to control cavalrymen who had just sustained and survived an impact and were fighting at close quarters for life, loot, and glory.12

Not surprisingly, these kinds of experiences evoke the strongest emotions in soldiers and airmen. Frequently the violence and stress of their circumstances seems to overwhelm the combatants. That they continue to function at all is a tribute to man's ability to prepare warriors for the impact of combat.

In this regard, aerial warfare is all too often depicted as relatively clean, even antiseptic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Imagine the scene inside a B-17 as it was vividly recorded by a historian of the Schweinfurt raids:

The bombers drive, ahead through a whirlwind of steel splinters slid flame and jagged chunks of red-hot metal. Tire steel is everywhere: it crashes into wings and engines, stores into bulkheads and airplane bodies. And into the bodies of men, spewing out blood, tissue, intestines, and brains.13

Inside the dressed formations of Napoleonic infantry, a soldier's view was not very different from his twentieth-century flying counterpart:

One shot killed and wounded twenty-five of the 4th Company, another of the same kind killed poor Fisher, my captain, and eighteen of our company ... and another took the 8th and killed or wounded twenty-three. . . . At the same time poor Fisher was hit I was speaking to him, and, I got all over his brains, his head was blown to atoms.14

It is remarkable that anybody could function in such an environment. Even so, a look at some of the reflections of combat participants during the actual moment of confrontation finds other comparisons. A high percentage of participants are scared stiff, for example, but carry on despite their fears. Capt Richard S. Drury, an Air Force A-lE pilot, described diving on enemy gun positions during the Vietnam War this way:

I felt a sort of a cold numbness throughout my body as I rolled in on the muzzle flashes below. The tracers came up the way heavy hail comes down from a thunderstorm. I was scared and breathing hard. The pass seemed like an hour, but only seconds passed until I was pulling up and jinking away.15

The torte of Drury's comments, and the physical aspects of his situation are similar to those experienced by Capt Cavalie Mercer near Mont-Saint Jean in 1815. Mercer and his artillery troops, like their aviator counterpart, were the subject of intense enemy fire:

A black speck caught my eye, and I instantly knew what it was. The conviction that one never sees a shot coming towards you unless directly in its lieu flashed across my mind, together with the certainty that my doom was sealed. . . Under such a fire, one may be said to have had a thousand narrow escapes; and made me feet in full force the goodness of him who protected me among so many dangers.16

Even without further examples, it is fair to conclude that much of the physical circumstances and human behavior of combat participants in both the Napoleonic Wars and modern aerial combat are related. This relationship is further demonstrated if we consider cohesion.


By any definition, cohesion is one of the most important human elements in any combat. Gen S. L. A. Marshall's classic work Men Against Fire identified it as the difference between defeat and victory when in contact with the enemy. Soldiers who maintain group integrity and feel the common bonds of support consistently perform better when engaged. Marshall's research pinpointed cohesion as the pivotal factor in ground combat participation.17 For infantry men or cavalrymen of the Napoleonic era, this meant advancing and using their weapons against the enemy.

Loss of cohesion can lead to disaster, especially in offensive operations. Consider for a moment one of the more famous incidents relating to this situation. It occurred at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Early in the engagement, French infantry advanced against Wellington's left center. Met by steadfast British infantry and artillery, the French were repulsed. Wellington thereafter directed the British cavalry to charge and complete the rout. The French fled, but the British horsemen, excited by their victory, lost all cohesion. A participant observed:

In fact our men were out of hand . . . every officer within hearing exerted themselves to the utmost to reform the men; but the helplessness of the enemy offered too great a temptation. If we could have formed a hundred men we could have made a respectable retreat, and saved many; but we could effect no formation, and were as helpless against their [counter] attack as their infantry had been against us.18

The British unit's failure to maintain cohesion was caused by its members eagerness, over aggressiveness, and eventual panic. It led to their destruction. Cohesion is no less important to the combat aviator.

Among other things, formation flying is designed to foster teamwork, mutual support, and cohesion.19 From the earliest days of aerial combat, loss of formation or loss of cohesion often proved fatal. This principle was frequently demonstrated during World War II.

As an example, lot us look at the account of US Navy ace Edward "Butch" O'Hare as he described attacking a much larger group of Japanese fighters:

The entire enemy formation scattered as we tore into them. They broke up into sections and singles, climbing vertically in panic to gain precious altitude. . . The battle seemed to last an hour, but actually it lasted only a few minutes. . . The record credited our lonely eight Hollcats with 23 confirmed kills and 11 probables.20

In O'Hare's dogfight, the Japanese were not able to maintain any kind of defensive cohesion and were defeated.

The accounts of rarely publicized Soviet-Israeli dogfights over the Suez Canal in 1970 repeat the message of the previous passage. According to Israeli participants, the Soviet MiG pilots tended to lose cohesion, even break up and panic, as soon as the engagement started:

In the words of one of the Israeli pilots who participated in that encounter, the Soviets flew into combat like a bull after a red flag. As though they were knocking their heads against a wall. They were like ripe fruit waiting to be picked.21

These comparisons to the unfortunate British cavalry more than a century before are obvious. Whether forces are engaged offensively or defensively, cohesion can become a vital measure of success.

Another dramatic example of the importance of cohesion to nineteenth-century battlefields was the use of the square. Employed by infantry to defend itself against cavalry charges, the success or failure of the formation was absolutely dependent on the integrity of its component sides. If, as in the Battle of Quatre Bras in June 1815, an infantry square's cohesion was broken, disaster could result: "The 2nd Battalion 44th Regiment was attacked in the rear by the Lancers, who were slaughtering our supernumeraries and rear rank men."22

If, however, the square managed to maintain its cohesion, it was generally impervious to even the most violent mounted attack. Only with the help of artillery might the normal outcome be changed. Attackers therefore made great efforts to bombard the square with missile weapons in the hopes of making it disintegrate. Timely charges were designed to complete its dissolution.

It does not take a great deal of imagination to compare the Napoleonic infantry square to a World War II B-17 combat formation. Created by Gen Curtis E. LeMay precisely to improve cohesion and defensive firepower, the "combat box" was also only as good as its components.23 German attempts to destroy the cohesion of the combat box and to break up a formation of bombers sound just like the combined attempts of French cavalry and artillery to reduce British squares at Waterloo.

[1943] As the stream of Flying Fortresses neared the target, a definite change in the pattern of attacks emerged. The masses of twin-engine strikes sent rockets into the midst of the formations, scattering the planes and diluting the effectiveness of their defensive fire screen. The moment a cripple showed, a swarm of single engine fighters immediately pounced to deliver the coup de grace.24

[1815] Late in the day the French had brought up two guns on the crest of our position, which fired grape into our square with very deadly effect. . . Though suffering sadly, and disordered by our poor wounded fellows clinging to their comrades thinking they were being abandoned, our little square retained its formation, and we reached the hedge.25

For a more up-to-date comparison to air combat, we need only look to the B-52 cell and trail formations used in the Linebacker bombing campaigns over North Vietnam. It is possible to think of the electronic countermeasures of the cells as contiguous sides of a defensive structure. It should come as no surprise that the North Vietnamese attempted to bombard the sophisticated B-52 "squares" in a way similar to their nineteenth-century French counterparts. North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile barrages appear designed to break the integrity of the cells and bomber streams as they approached the target area.26 Dealt with individually, the B-52s were far more vulnerable.


In the often chaotic conditions of battle, the psychology of leadership remains timeless. Despite individual styles, successful combat leaders often seem to share several common personality traits.27 The circumstances under which these traits manifest themselves also share a resemblance.

Consider, for example, the courage and determination of nineteenth-century British officers as they tried to rally their men to attack the enemy. A foot soldier had this to say about the impact of his commander:

General Graham at this critical moment darted to the front, and by one short word, loud and inspiring, made nought of the [French] marshal's bravery and combinations. The word was, "Charge!" Like electric fluid it shot from the centre of the British line to the extremities of its flanks, instantaneously followed by the well-known thundering British cheer, sure precursor of the rush of British bayonets.28

A century later, Capt Eddie Rickenbacker would have a similar electrifying effect on the 94th Aero Squadron as it faced mounting casualties. A veteran who observed Rickenbacker notes the former racing car driver's role:

He drove himself to exhaustion. He'd fly the required patrol. Then he and I would come back to the field, have a cup of coffee, get into our second ships and go hunting by ourselves. Most of the pilots he killed never knew what hit them. Out of the sun, a quick burst and gone . . . he developed into the most natural leader I ever saw.29

Gallantry in combat can also be a common denominator of any age and situation. Frequent circumstances exist where individual acts of heroism sound almost identical. Judge the similarities in these examples of courage in the face of adverse odds; the first from the Napoleonic era and the second from World War II:

He was a brave fellow, and bore himself like a hero; with his sword waving in the air, he cheered the men on, as he went dashing upon the enemy, and hewing and slashing them in tremendous style. Fine fellow! His conduct indeed made an impression upon me that I shall never forget.30

In company with the other fighters, First Lieutenant DeBlanc instantly engaged the hostile planes, and aggressively countered their repeated efforts to drive off our bombers. . . DeBlatic courageously remained on the scene despite a rapidly diminishing fuel supply and, boldly challenging the enemy's superior numbers of float planes, fought a valiant battle against terrific odds.31

Some may yet contend that these kinds of comparisons are too contrived. It is fashionable nowadays to point to the incredible acceleration in the technology of warfare and argue that the fundamental nature of combat has changed.32 If this argument is valid, any comparisons between modern warfare and warfare of the past are meaningless. In the slanted logic of this line of reasoning, machines are more important in war than man.

This view is not supported by eyewitness evidence from contemporary battlefields or air combat engagements. Admittedly, many things have changed in conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. The physical factors of battle are different. The size and composition of forces vary greatly. Spatial and geometric relationships are altogether different, as are terrain and logistical factors. All these aside, several noted experts would agree that the combat psychology of participants in both eras remains essentially the same. In the words of one:

Combat psychology constitutes the most stable, most timeless dimension of war. While the political goals of a particular conflict, weapons technologies, and above all else, the tactics appropriate against a given adversary on a given day can all change virtually overnight, "combat is combat and a combatant is a combatant."33

On this basis, combat comparisons from any era and any form of warfare remain valid. Short of experiencing combat or spending a great deal of time with combat veterans, about the only way to learn of the nature of war is to study firsthand accounts. Even so, it is very important that potential combat aviators do not confine themselves strictly to the observations of past aerial warriors. As we have seen, there are enough similarities in the Napoleonic era to justify a lifetime of study in that one period alone. The same is true for virtually any age of conflict.

Ultimately, the question for all those with the potential for serving in combat must be, "How can I improve my understanding of myself and the nature of war?" The answer can begin with a comparative study of the human element in military history.


1. Presentation at Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala., 6 November 1986.

2. See Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (New York-. Macmillan, Inc., 1986),30; John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976), 78; S. L. A. Marshall, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978), 38.

3. Ezra Bowen, Knights of the Air (Epic of Flight Series) (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980), 18.

4. David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan Inc., 1966), 354.

5. Floyd Gibbons, The Red Knight of Germany: The Story of Baron von Richthofen, Germany's Great War Bird (Garden City, N.Y.,. Doubleday, Page and Co., 1927), 38.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, trans. Peter Kilduf and ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff (Fallbrook, Calif.: Aero Publishers, Inc., 1969),103-4.

8. Lord Charles Moran, The Anatomy of Courage (London: Constable, 1946), 78.

9. Gene Gurney, Five Down and Glory (New York: Ballentine Books, 1958), 118.

10. James P. Lawford, Napoleon: The Lost Campaigns (New York: Crown Publishers, 1977), 19.

11. Dale M. Titler, The Day the Red Baron Died (New York: Bonanza Books, 1970), 111.

12. Nigel de Lee, French Lancers (London: Almark Publishing Co., Ltd., 1976), 29.

13. Martin Caiden, Black Thursday (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1960),179.

14. Keegan, 160-61.

15. Richard S. Drury, My Secret War (Fallbrook, Calif.: Aero Publishers, Inc., 1979), 42.

16. Cavalie Mercer, Journal of the Waterloo Campaign (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1870), 327.

17. Marshall, 149-50.

18. Maj Gen H. T. Siborne, Waterloo Letters (London: Cassell and Co., Ltd., 1891), 61-62.

19. ATC Manual 51-4, Primary Flying, Jet, 1982, 7-1.

20. Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver, Fighter Aces of the U.S.A. (Fallbrook, Calif.: Aero Publishers, 1979), 235-36.

21. Benjamin S. Lambeth, Moscow's Lessons from the 1982 Lebanon War (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corp., 1984), 28.

22. Siborne, 380.

23. Guy Woodward, "The Allied Bomber Offensive Against Germany," Strategy and Tactics, May-June 1971, 5.

24. Caiden, 220.

25. Siborne, 330-31.

26. Air War--Vietnam (New York: Arno Press, 1978), 281-89.

27. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 104.

28. Robert Blakeney (28th Foot) quoted by Ned Zuparko, "Charges, Firefights and Morale," part I, Empires, Eagles and Lions, March 1983, 12.

29. Bowen, 171-74.

30. Rifleman Harris (95th Rifles) quoted by Holmes, 343.

31. Constable and Toliver, 258-59.

32. Lt Col Clayton R. Newell, "Operating in the 21st Century," Military Review, September 1986, 9.

33. Lt Col Barry D. Watts, The Foundations of U.S. Air Force Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1984), 112.


Maj Mark K. Wells (USAFA; MA, Texas Tech University) is a flight commander with the 559th Flying Training Squadron, Randolph AFB, Texas. A senior pilot with more than 2,300 flying hours, he has served as an assistant professor of military history at the assistant professor of military history at the US Air Force Academy; a T-37 instructor at Reese AFB, Texas; and an aircraft commander in KC-135s at Fairchild AFB, Washington. Major Wells is a Distinguished Graduate of the Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College. He has written book reviews for the Air University Review and the Airpower Journal.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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