Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Transport, the Napoleonic wars and the digital ...

August 05 2019

Summer is a good time to wander off the beaten track while at the same time continuing to address a subject that is dear to my heart: transportation. But why associate it with Napoleon and digital economy? The answers are in this first part of our series of parallels between the Napoleonic era and our own.


Logistics have their origins in the art of war. As early as 1838, the Swiss general, Antoine-Henri de Jomini, who fought in Napoleon’s army, laid the foundations of modern logistics. He wrote the "Summary of the Art of War", becoming the first military theorist to devote pages to logistics, in a chapter entitled "Logistics, or the Practical Art of Moving Armies".

1 / In what way did logistics become a key factor in the Napoleonic war?

The changes during the eighteenth century made troop movements crucial and made the rapidity of armies a strategic capability. To gain in rapidity, Napoleon exploited (without inventing) two major innovations of the French army: the "Gribeauval" system, which standardised the French artillery with the objective of having a more mobile artillery, and also the divisional system, which consists of splitting the army into standard units of the same strength, made up of the three arms (infantry, cavalry and artillery). From the Boulogne Camp, these divisions reach strengths of between 25,000 and 30,000 men and so become army field corps. They make it possible to fight a war by embracing the whole theatre of operations, while facilitating and speeding up the movements of the army.

Liberation from supply constraints

Thanks to these two innovations, Napoleon can organise his army into units each containing, besides the infantry, powerful and very mobile artillery, and also cavalry. During the manoeuvring phases, he can now separate his units - into moderate sizes - so that they can live off the land in independent territories; and thus, the army can exploit a wider area to feed itself. At the same time, these units, with multi-arm combat capability, are relatively invulnerable from attack, despite being isolated. They have the capacity to resist against an enemy army long enough to allow Napoleon to fly to their rescue with other units that are only a short distance away.

These innovations ease the constraints on the Napoleonic army. This organisation makes it possible to avoid a certain number of supply convoys and thus accelerates the movements of the army.

Disperse to live, concentrate to fight

Napoleon's strategy is to look for a configuration for a "decisive battle". It is a question of bringing the opposing armies to face each other in a such a position that the enemy is cut off from a means of retreat, and so forced to stand and fight. The key for Napoleon is, at a carefully chosen moment, to be able to converge his units quickly with their powerful and mobile artillery. Both in order to create a situation where battle cannot be avoided and also to have forces superior to those of the enemy in order to secure victory (see the article of The Conversation: "Jomini, "Napoleon’s visionary" who invented logistics ")

The Napoleonic disruption comes from a methodical application of a system of standardisation and grouping of arms into divisions. This is the base that allows the acceleration of the movement of armies, and the manoeuvring of the enemy so as to achieve numerical superiority in the desired location, and so bring about its annihilation.

2 / What is the common link between our two eras?

What is the relationship between our current economic reasoning and the systems of war that prevailed over two centuries ago? From an economic point of view, we have been witnessing over the last few years a shift from a rationale that could be described as siege warfare (or one of holding ground, static) to a rationale of mobile war.

In the "old" economy, the rationale is aimed at gaining a share of the market from one’s competitors by scrabbling back a few percent with a better product, a better service while remaining profitable. All the business functions in a company serve this purpose but in a more or less scattered order. This is the reign of the silo approach. The objectives can be divergent. The existence of competitors is recognised and accepted: their defeats are measured by the decrease in profitability and loss of market-share.

In the new world, cash is available. Short-term profitability is no longer a priority. The key is the rapid access to new territories, the domination of competitors thanks to that revered driving force: innovation. All the functions of the company act in unison. Internal and external communication and data exchange are essential because they ensure business development and strengthen team morale.

When all is said and done, our economy 4.0 is just like the Napoleonic wars!

3 / And what about transport in all this?

It is both, an essential cog in the old and the new economies and a new domain to conquer. Of course, 99% of the components of any product purchased will continue to be transported by road.

But new challenges are associated with transport:

- Reduction of its ecological footprint,

- Seamless Integration into Supply Chain networks (see our article "The structural organization of transport: from decentralization to integration").

- Means to bolster its image in order to attract drivers.

Just as Napoleon had created the army’s trains, in 1800 (artillery train) and in 1807 (supply train) in order to improve supply to the armies or had reorganised the cavalry into divisions to increase its punching power, it falls to us to be this new architect who can supply the benefits from all the digital breakthroughs in an effort to restore transport to its former "imperial" glory.

See you next week for our second instalment dedicated to ... the Battle of Jena and the Apple iPhone!

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With more than 20 years of experience in the international supply chain, William works as a road transportation expert for Upply. Entrepreneur by nature, he has successively worked in operational and functional management among various industries, such as chemistry, automotive and building materials; alternately shipper and service provider.
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