Episode 3: War and the French Enlightenment: Comte de Guibert
In this episode we are joined by Dr Jonathan Abel, Assistant Professor of Military History, US Army Command and General Staff College, the author of Guibert: Father of Napoleon’s Grande Armée (2016) and translator of Guibert’s General Essay on Tactics (2021), to discuss Guibert and his works.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars profoundly affected all of Europe and became watersheds in the history of strategy. Until then, French thinking on war had dominated European discourse for a good two centuries, even though the word ‘strategy’ had not yet been imported into European languages from the Greek.
Crucial among the French thinkers of this period was Comte de Guibert (1743–1790), who has been called the prophet of the wars of the French Revolution, foreseeing the transformation of war into the people’s cause, rather than merely that of their monarchs.
In a republican spirit, Guibert dedicated his first work, the General Essay on Tactics, ‘to my fatherland’ – reason enough to publish it anonymously, even though he noted that the king was part of his fatherland! Guibert – like Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz – changed some of his fundamental views during his lifetime. In his youth, Guibert wrote what would become a bestseller throughout the Western world, in which he made the case for an army of citizen-soldiers who would be unbeatable. However, after fighting in the French conquest of Corsica and then serving in the French War Ministry, he decided that overseas campaigns required a professional army. The arguments he put forward still stand up to scrutiny today.
Jonathan Abel, Guibert: Father of Napoleon's Grande Armée, University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.
Guibert, General Essay on Tactics, annotated and translated by Jonathan Abel, Brill, 2021.
Jean Colin, L'infanterie au XVIIIe siècle. La tactique, Berger-Levrault, 1907.
Jonathan Abel, ‘Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert’ in Oxford Bibliographies Online, 2017.
Senior Associate Fellow
Director, Military Sciences