Military Principles: France

Military Principles: France

France during the 19th century and until the end of WWI was enthralled with the writings of two authors and naturally the exploits of Napoleon when they developed their principles of military operations. The two authors are Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini and Ardant du Picq, both wrote seminal works that were avidly devoured by French military thinkers but for different reasons.

First, and most influential was Jomini, he was a Swiss-born French speaking veteran of the Napoleonic wars who served on the Napoleons staff for much of the Napoleonic wars and wrote The Art of War analyzing Napoleonic tenets and presented what he thought of as the recipe for Napoleon’s success. Jomini propounded several principles of war that French thinkers jumped on. He separated war into three areas, Strategy, Grand Tactics, Logistics, Engineering, and Tactics. We are mostly concerned with what he called Strategy and Grand Tactics. His definitions of these terms follow below the fold.

Strategy embraces the following points, viz.:

1. The selection of the theater of war, and the discussion of the different combinations of which it admits.
2. The determination of the decisive points in these combinations, and the most favorable direction for operations.
3. The selection and establishment of the fixed base and of the zone of operations.
4. The selection of the objective point, whether offensive or defensive.
5. The strategic fronts, lines of defense, and fronts of operations.
6. The choice of lines of operations leading to the objective point or strategic front.
7. For a given operation, the best strategic line, and the different maneuvers necessary to embrace all possible cases.
8. The eventual bases of operations and the strategic reserves.
9. The marches of armies, considered as maneuvers.
10. The relation between the position of depots and the marches of the army.
11. Fortresses regarded as strategical means, as a refuge for an army, as an obstacle to its progress: the sieges to be made and to be covered.
12. Points for intrenched camps, tötes de pont, etc.
13. The diversions to be made, and the large detachments necessary. 

Grand Tactics has a slightly simpler definition.

Grand Tactics, in addition to acts of local execution, relates to the following objects:€”
1. The choice of positions and defensive lines of battle.
2. The offensive in a defensive battle.
3. The different orders of battle, or the grand maneuvers proper for the attack of the enemy’s line.
4. The collision of two armies on the march, or unexpected battles.
5. Surprises of armies in the open field.
6. The arrangements for leading troops into battle.
7. The attack of positions and intrenched camps.
8. Coups de main.

Now these seem fairly involved but in actuality they are not. Jomini concentrated on Lines of Operations and the Decisive Point believing that these two things were all important and that there were only four principles that if adhered to would ensure victory; they are:

1. To throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successively, upon the decisive points of a theater of war, and also upon the communications of the enemy as much as possible without compromising one’s own.
2. To maneuver to engage fractions of the hostile army with the bulk of one’s forces.
3. On the battle-field, to throw the mass of the forces upon the decisive point, or upon that portion of the hostile line which it is of the first importance to overthrow.
4. To so arrange that these masses shall not only be thrown upon the decisive point, but that they shall engage at the proper times and with energy.

Understanding his concentration on Lines of Operation and Decisive points is important to grasp he logic behind French actions in all their major land wars between 1815 and 1918.

The next author that had a large impact on French military thought was Ardant du Picq, a French officer who died in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war but who had written a work later published posthumously titled Battle Studies.  The importance of du Picq’s work is that he claimed to understand the spirit of French troops and claimed that they were the most effective when in the offense because of the nature of French character.  This fit into the 19th century Social Darwinist notions of the time and the French Army bought his premise completely.  Their belief in the power of the offense led to the near ruinous casualties suffered by the French army in the opening months of WWI.

Essentially, the French focused on 3 rules or principles in the years between 1815 and 1918; 1. Lines of Operation, 2. The Decisive Point, and 3. The Spirit of the Offensive.

Lines of Operation is simply determining which line of advance is the most advantageous and that will get the army to the Decisive Point in the most efficient manner.  The Decisive Point is that point of an enemy line or border where he is weakest and least able to resist a determined offense.  The Spirit of the Offensive is the French belief that French troops were poorly suited by temperament for static or defensive operations.  One way to put it is that the French were some of the earliest people to say that the best defense is a good offense.  They learned in August and September of 1914 that that is not always the case when hundreds of thousands of French soldiers were killed or wounded in pointless assaults against German positions.


Jomini, Anotoine Henrie de. “The Art Of War.” Project Gutenberg. September 28, 2004. (accessed October 17, 2010).

[1] Jomini, Anotoine Henrie de, The Art Of War. P. 69

[2] Ibid. P. 70

[3] Ibid. p. 71