Book Review: Guibert: Father of Napoleon's Grande Armée


by Jonathan Abel

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. Pp. x, 280. Maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806154438

Inventing "Napoleonic" Warfare

This, Dr. Abel’s first book, is also, curiously, the first in English devoted to the life and work of mid-eighteenth century French soldier and scholar Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, le comte de Guibert (1742-1790). And a good book it is. Now widely regarded as the most influential military thinker of his times, Guibert learned war early, at 13 accompanying his father, chief of staff to Maréchal de Broglie, on campaign duing the Seven Years’ War and later becoming personally acquainted with Frederick the Great, who showed him great favor,

Abel sets Guibert within the social, intellectual, and military trends of his times. For the French Army, the mid-eighteenth century was not a good time; after Fontenoy (May 11, 1745), the French Army would not win another major battle in Europe in Guibert’s lifetime, a matter about which the soldiers and scholars of the day spilt much ink. So, as he follows Guibert’s career, including his wartime services, duty in the war ministry, and friendship and collaboration with not only Frederick the Great, but also reforming French war minister the Comte de Saint-Germain. As he explores the origins of Guibert’s military thought, Abel examines the writings of many of the pundits of the day, who often prescribed what he terms “Byzantine maneuvers” as the solution to the army’s lack of success. Abel discusses Guibert’s thinking, as expounded in his principal dispuwork, the 1771 Essai général de tactique, as well Prussian Army and the campaigns of Frederick, and also looks at contemporary criticisms of his ideas, many rooted more in office politics or “rice bowl” issues, which ultimately caused him to  be side-lined.

Abel concludes with a look at how Guibert’s military ideas, although initially mostly rejected, were largely adopted by the French Army in the years following his death, These ideas – such as ordre mixte and ordre profond, the corps d’armee, and various ideas about logistical regorm, and how these laid the foundation for Napoleon’s many successful campaigns. There’s much more, as Abel also finds Guibert was a progressive thinker in many areas, supporting political and social reform and the Revolution, as well as writing poetry and plays that earned him membership in the French Academy.

A volume in the University of Oklahoma Press “Campaigns and Commanders”, Guibert is an invaluable addition to the literature on the French Army and on military reform in general.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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