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"Napoleon and diversionary attacks on battlefield?" Topic

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763 hits since 12 Feb 2021
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Comments or corrections?

redcoat12 Feb 2021 2:15 a.m. PST

Hi all,

I believe Napoleon launched a diversionary attack on Hougoumont at Waterloo, to try to get Wellington to commit reserves to its defence. Had this worked – had the Duke taken the bait – he would not have had the resources to resist Napoleon's main attacks elsewhere.

So where else did Napoleon use this diversionary gambit? Austerlitz was a different kind of diversion, in that he duped the Allies into attacking his 'weak' right, and thereby weakenening themselves on the Pratzen Heights, where he was subsequently able to smash through.

So, again, where did Napoleon use probing or diversionary attacks, on the offensive, to force his opponent prematurely to commit his reserves?

Thanks in advance for any help!

Prince of Essling12 Feb 2021 4:55 a.m. PST

Bautzen comes immediately to mind – where Napoleon had Oudinot & MacDonald attack the Russo-Prussian left wing. Czar Alexander became fixated with the threat and committed a good portion of his reserves leaving the allies vulnerable to the planned strike by Ney's wing. Fortunately for the allies this was not delivered as Napoleon had anticipated. If it had the 1813 campaign might well have ended on the field of Bautzen with the capture/death of the Czar & the King of Prussia, and Austria not daring to enter the war.

redcoat12 Feb 2021 5:13 a.m. PST

Ooh, that's good, Prince of Essling!

Any more? Any that actually came off as intended?

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 6:23 a.m. PST

They are not 'diversionary attacks' but supporting attacks to the main effort.

At Waterloo, Napoleon did not want Hougoumont as an objective, but merely to mask it during the main attack. Jerome and his corps commander erred in engaging in costly attacks against the farm.

The planning for Bautzen had been excellent on Napoleon's part, but he erred greatly in entrusting the enveloping attack of the allied right flank to Ney and his incompetent chief of staff, Jomini.

Oudinot and Macdonald both accomplished their assigned mission on the allied left, supported by Marmont on their left. Ney, who commanded not only his own corps, but also the corps of Victor, Lauriston, Reynier as well as Sebastiani's cavalry corps, failed to mass his command, attacking piecemeal and launching uncoordinated attacks against the allied right.

Napoleon planned an envelopment of the entire allied right which would have destroyed the allied army. Ney's overly cautious commitment of his command and the loss of command and control of his different corps allowed the allies to withdraw reasonably intact and the result was only an 'ordinary' victory and not the planned battle of annihilation.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 6:31 a.m. PST

Austerlitz is an excellent example not only of a main (against the allied center) attack and a supporting (against the allied right) attack, but also an economy of force operation on the French right flank by Davout.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 6:31 a.m. PST

Maybe not a diversion but Napoleon's abandoning the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz and persuading the Allies to attack his right flank was a brilliant feint

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 7:01 a.m. PST

It was also baiting a trap…

redcoat12 Feb 2021 7:56 a.m. PST

That's interesting, Brechtel. How would you define a 'diversionary attack', if you call what Napoleon did at Hougoumont a 'supporting attack' – would a 'diversionary attack' have to be something *off the battlefield*? i.e., something at the operational level, rather than the tactical level?

If I read you right, in what I say above, are there well-known examples of this? (I bet Italy 1796-97 would provide a few.)

Lascaris12 Feb 2021 9:01 a.m. PST

Jena-Auerstadt was supposed to be a pinning attack while Davout and Bernadotte came behind the Prussian left. We know how that turned out.

Ereimover12 Feb 2021 9:13 a.m. PST

In 'Les Carnets de la Campagne n1 Hougoumont' the author Bernard Coppens describes on p22 'Plan de Bataille' how 2nd corps was ordered to keep pace with the 1st corps: "Le 2e corps s'avancera mesure pour garder la hauteur du comte d'Erlon." There is no mention of 'a diversion'.
Napoleon had a simple and brutal plan: to pin the enemy with the 1st corps on the right hand side of the road, and the 2nd corps on the left hand side. The other corps would be used to smash through the centre.
For Wellington, the strength of Hougoumont was clear, but Napoleon had no idea as he could not see the farm.
I think this theory is refreshing and explains how the events developed…

BillyNM12 Feb 2021 9:14 a.m. PST

Bottom line is Napoleon would've won by his calculus whether or not the diversion aimed at Hougoumont worked. What his calculus didn't allow for was the Prussian turning up, of course it was part of Wellington's calculus and surprise surprise he was right but the timing was perhaps not all he was banking on so – a close run thing.

Michael Westman12 Feb 2021 11:42 a.m. PST

Napoleon's goal was always to force his opponents to commit their reserves first, though oftentimes he didn't have enough intelligence to plan, such as at Jena. Often he would commit to the battle while waiting for a flanking column to strike the decisive blow, such as Davout and Ney at Eylau, Davout at Wagram, Ney at Bautzen, and perhaps Ney at Ligny.

Bautzen might be the best example of a diversionary attack in a battle, but on a more operational scale, the Landshut maneuver with Massena's corps is a good example.

It's not clear what Napoleon hoped for by the attack on Hougoumont. It was obvious he didn't want to commit more than Jerome's division. But it contributed to the attack plan falling apart. As Ereimover mentioned, Bachelu's division, and perhaps Foy's, was supposed to keep pace with d'Erlon's corps, but when one of Foy's brigades was committed at Hougoumont, Bachelu's division moved to the left.

Robert le Diable12 Feb 2021 11:44 a.m. PST

"as he could not see [Chateau Hougoumont]"

One contributor here, quite recently – three or four months – mentioned that according to his own account N apparently was quite unaware there was even a building complex there. Presumably, in addition to its being concealed by trees, it had not been marked on what maps were available to the French at this time. I can't recall which of the many threads includes this information.

Michael Westman12 Feb 2021 11:46 a.m. PST

Napoleon's plan starting falling apart early when the British cavalry ruined d'Erlon's corps. Lobau's two divisions had just come up behind d'Erlon when they were already routed. It was like Eylau; Napoleon's main attack was severely repulsed but the wrong side showed up on the flank.

Personal logo SHaT1984 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 11:59 a.m. PST

Austerlitz is an excellent example … but also an economy of force operation on the French right flank by Davout.

"Economy' meaning no troops at all. It wasn't a plan I'd suggest, to force men in a weary state to march even further and launch into battle as they arrived, at the enemy point.
It was several hours of bravado and near-misses that in other hands, may well have turned out differently.

What made Austerlitz such a French victory, apart from the other 'mishaps' that went the French way, was the completely useless Russian commanders of their left attack 'wing' who sat on their backsides to a large extent holding a third of their army immobile and in less than 'offensive' terrain for nearly 4 hours as the battle was lost behind them on the hill*.

Yes in 'accordance' with orders they didn't agree with or did not understand, blindly ignoring the tactical situation in front of them etc..

Being constrained by an extremely smaller and strung out force, reinforced only by the erratic arrival and piecemeal threat of Davout and one (eventually) solitary Division of his III Corps.

*[And that, came as a great suprise because no-one made a reconnaissance by cavalry before 'Soults' troops arrived at the heights. I'd suggest the greater surprise was by the French who had expected a 'walk in the park' effort to take them. I can only infer that the man himself had banned any intrusion that may have 'tipped-off' the allies.]

Jena-Auerstadt was supposed to be a pinning attack

Jena was to be an encirclement, just like Marengo, Ulm etc.
Auerstadt was just a marching point and not in the plan at all.

Yet again we dismiss the gaming folklore that the 'great battles' of the era were always set-piece affairs, planned and staged by great minds. All utter garbage.

Both of these were encounter battles as troops arrived on the field and made use of the terrain, neither fixed in place nor as 'linear' in deployment nor coordination as they were often presented.

Who was it? Hercules a captain who took several trumpetters along the river and crossed behind the Autrians, told to sound the charge over and over so they believed they were to be attacked from the rear. That was the only true diversion- I'm just at a loss (and its too early to find) which '96-'97 Italian battle it was.
regards d

Delort12 Feb 2021 2:39 p.m. PST

I think Brechtel is right; Napoleon did not want to capture Hougoumont, his main effort was always going to be in the centre. The reason so many French troops ended up getting tied down into assaults on the chateau is well summed up by the British historian Fortescue; 'A fortified position, when defended with all its strength, gains an importance in the eyes of the attackers that is far above its actual tactical advantage.'

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 2:46 p.m. PST

Hercule and the trumpeters were allegedly at Arcole.

nsolomon9912 Feb 2021 4:36 p.m. PST

Eylau fits the bill. The main body was a frontal pinning force with Davout and Ney to deliver blows from either flank.

Personal logo SHaT1984 Supporting Member of TMP12 Feb 2021 6:43 p.m. PST

Hercule and the trumpeters were allegedly at Arcole.

Thanks for doing my work for me ;-)

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP13 Feb 2021 2:52 p.m. PST

From Definitions and Doctrine of the Military Art by John Alger:

Main attack: 'A force that receives the benefit of the favorable positioning of the reserve…and the artillery assets…'-15. It can also be termed the 'main effort.'

Supporting Attack: 'That portion of the attacking force that contributes to the success of the main attack by controlling terrain, destroying enemy forces, or deceiving the enemy.'-15

It can also be defined as 'any attack whose importance is secondary to that of the main effort' and is 'characterized by lack of depth, reduction of reserves to the minimum, maximum firepower in the attacking echelon, wide zones of action, and usually limited objectives.'-15.

Economy of Force is one of the Principles of War and is the corollary of mass. 'Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts…Minimum essential means must be employed at points other than that of the main effort. Economy of force requires the acceptance of prudent risks in selected areas to achieve superiority at the point of decision, and places a premium on flexibility of thought and action. Economy-of-force missions may require limited attack, defense, cover and deception, or retrograde actions.'-10.

This clearly defines and demonstrates Davout's actions on the French right flank at Austerlitz.

Senarmont's artillery employment on the French right flank at Ocana could also be considered an economy of force operations.

Diversion: 'Operations intended to draw the attention and forces of the enemy from the area of a major operation. There are two types of diversions: demonstrations and feints. Demonstrations seek to divert the enemy without engagement; feints seek to divert the enemy by the taking of a shallow objective.'-17

Pire's initial employment at Waterloo was a demonstration. The French actions against Hougoumont could be initially be described, and was probably Napoleon's intent, as a feint. Unfortunately it turned out to be a supporting attack when Jerome tried to take the farm by feeding in more troops, for an objective that Napoleon never wanted.

Delay: 'An operation in which a force conducts any or all types of combat operations in order to gain time for something else to happen-for example, time for reinforcements to arrive, time for forces to concentrate elsewhere, or time for other forces to withdraw.'-25.

Lannes actions at Friedland against the Russians to gain time in order for Napoleon to arrive with the main army is a textbook example of a delaying operation. Another is the battle of North Point in 1814 outside of Baltimore.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP14 Feb 2021 5:31 a.m. PST

@SHaT1984 "Thanks for doing my work for me ;-)"

Well, as I must have read about this episode five or six times in French and German to translate it into English, maybe I can claim it was my work too! ;-)


Bloody Big BATTLES!

Clausewitz on 1796:

Clausewitz on 1799:

Personal logo SHaT1984 Supporting Member of TMP14 Feb 2021 1:49 p.m. PST

>>Well, as I must have read about this episode five or six times in French and German to translate it into English, maybe I can claim it was my work too! ;-)

No problems Chris, I was complimenting you on giving the answer.

Ijust wasn't up to scanning a bunch of books in my library to find the hidden treasure at 6am in the morning! I did sneek a peak in 'The Gamble' but it wasn't there for me to find.!
cheers d

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP14 Feb 2021 2:49 p.m. PST

Cheers d. My compliments to you too on your regular generous and knowledgeable contributions to TMP.

Murvihill15 Feb 2021 6:50 a.m. PST

Hougomont was a diversionary defense, in that it drew in Jerome's corps in a pointless attack.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP15 Feb 2021 6:52 a.m. PST

An excellent point and well-worth being discussed. Well done.

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