Riding with Napoleon


In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.


Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.

Le mythe du plan Schlieffen

SchlieffenEn juillet 2014, je visitais le système de tranchées allemand de Bayernwald sur le saillant d’Ypres en Belgique. Dans ces tranchées reconstituées et ouvertes au public, j’ai marché brièvement sur les traces des soldats qui combattaient pour le Kaiser sur le front ouest. Et cela a aiguisé ma curiosité au sujet de la perspective allemande de la Première Guerre mondiale.

Me questionnant à savoir ce qui avait conduit les troupes allemandes à effectuer ce séjour prolongé dans la boue des Flandres, mon intérêt s’est tout naturellement porté sur le fameux plan Schlieffen, sur les épaules duquel tant d’observateurs et de généraux de salon font porter la responsabilité du début des hostilités au mois d’août 1914.

Il me fallait donc lire Alfred von Schlieffen : L’homme qui devait gagner la Grande Guerre par Christophe Bêchet (Éditions Argos). Et ce fut une excellente décision, qui m’a permis de bien comprendre à quel point le mythe entourant ce plan ne correspond pas du tout à la réalité.

« Un des premiers stéréotypes en vogue dès la fin du premier conflit mondial fut de présenter le plan Schlieffen comme un plan de guerre millimétré, ne laissant aucune place à l’initiative des officiers chargés de l’exécuter. » Au surplus, il y a « […] confusion le Grand Mémoire [réputé être l’inspiration du plan Schlieffen] de 1905/1906 et le plan Moltke de 1914. »

L’historien Christophe Bêchet parvient à illustrer que le Grand Mémoire n’était pas « […] la preuve tangible d’une volonté préméditée d’agression de la part de l’Allemagne. » Bien au contraire.

Pour ne citer que quelques exemples, l’autre expose que :

  • Les plans comme ceux échafaudés par Schlieffen alors qu’il était à la tête du Grand État-Major allemand (1891-1906) l’étaient dans une perspective de la continuation de la politique par d’autres moyens;
  • Contrairement à ce qu’on pourrait être tentés de croire, la France était la société la plus militarisée en 1914;
  • Le Grand Mémoire constituait donc un plaidoyer pour l’accroissement des effectifs militaires de l’Allemagne;
  • Schlieffen y prévoyait une guerre sur un front seulement, les Russes ayant été vaincus lors de la guerre russo-japonaise de 1904-1905;
  • Schlieffen « […] avait toujours refusé avec la plus grande fermeté d’envisager dans ses prévisions la possibilité d’une guerre totale, une longue guerre de tranchées dans laquelle les nations épuiseraient toutes leurs ressources. »;
  • Schlieffen était donc un adepte du Blitzkrieg (guerre de mouvement);
  • Le Grand Mémoire était maximalement un concept opérationnel dans lequel Schlieffen planchait notamment les moyens à utiliser pour conduire la guerre moderne.

Fort de ces notions incontournables, il appert de constater que la situation à laquelle Moltke le jeune fut confronté à partir du mois d’août 1914 dépassait largement les paramètres envisagés par Schlieffen de son vivant.

Comme quoi les plans de guerre résistent rarement au concept de friction tel que conceptualisé par Clausewitz et qui accompagne la conduite des hostilités.

Très bien écrit et solidement documenté, le Schlieffen de Christophe Bêchet est donc un ouvrage à lire pour tous ceux et celles qui s’intéressent non seulement au premier conflit mondial, mais également au dépassement des mythes dont nous sommes trop souvent prisonniers dans notre compréhension de l’histoire.


Christophe Bêchet, Alfred von Schlieffen : L’homme qui devait gagner la Grande Guerre, Paris, Éditions Argos, 2013, 214 pages.

Why Vladimir Putin came to occupy the driver’s seat

TheEdge2It is too easy, in the Western context, to perceive the armed forces as a ceremonial tool used during commemorations and the military sector as a greedy budgetary expenditure for governments. As Mark Urban writes in his recent and sublime book, The Edge: Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End?, “[…] most of the European public has been conditioned by education and popular culture to be repulsed by war, yet has little experience of it.” (p. 49).

Alas, this far too common perception and phenomenon associated with blind pacifism ignores the deep currents of history. Since time immemorial, armies have been used to conquer, defend, impress or intimidate. I know he’s been quoted already too many times for any reference to him to be original, but Clausewitz said it best when he said that: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Failure to take these factors into consideration will come to a price to those who are guilty of ignorance. The future of the world will not solely be influenced by the tectonic plates of the economy, but also by the capacity of the emerging power to promote and defend it with the bayonet and the fighter jet. China, for instance, has understood that lesson very well.

We can’t say the same about Western countries, the United States chief among them. Outside the high-flown discourse they articulate and promote, Washington’s capacities to implement it in a concrete military way are decreasing. “What seems clearer is that many in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have not yet registered how old much of the United States military equipment has become, how far its numbers have already fallen, and how projected cuts will make it impossible for America to have the kind of military reach it used to.” (p. 79-80). In other words, the Emperor is loosing his clothes.

Enter Russia. One of the main gaps in how the West perceives Vladimir Putin is the fact that the Russian president is a keen student of history. Incidentally, one of the only observers not to fall in the trap of assuming that Putin is a shallow brain is journalist Ben Judah – but that’s another story.

Mark Urban notes that Russia has “[…] the will to use its armed forces to re-draw the map and [is] also reaping the dividends of a long reinvestment in these capabilities.” (p. 86) Vladimir Putin knows that, on the ground, good and modern tanks are better than eloquent United Nations resolutions or huge vocal protests without consequences. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel reportedly once said: “in a man-to-man fight, the winner is he who has one more round in his magazine.”

For Vladimir Putin, military power is not just a beautiful toy to be displayed on the parade square or during commemorations, but a powerful and meaningful political tool. They’ve been an essential part of history making for ages and the Russian president knows that more than many other statesmen. That’s why he will, most probably, remain in the driver’s seat for many years to come.

All in all, Mark Urban’s book is one of the very best I have had the pleasure of reading since a long time. To be honest, I was sad to finish it. Short, very well researched and thought provoking, it should have a place on the bookshelves of any policymaker or serious student of history.