The man they called the "devin de Napoléon" (the man who guessed what Napoleon was about), because he wrote a definition of his way of making war, was born in Payerne (Switzerland), in the Vaud canton on 6 March, 1779, into a wealthy family (1). His father, Benjamin, was mayor of the town and deputy on the Conseil helvétique (Helvetic council). As early as 12 years old he showed an interest for all things military. But the French Revolution prevented him from purchasing a commission as cadet in the Swiss regiment at Watteville, then in the service of France. Thereupon his family sent him, against his wishes, to Basel to train as a banker. In 1796, he was a currency exchange agent in Paris.
Three years later he returned to Switzerland to join the army. After beginning as ADC to the Helvetic minister for war, he was appointed captain, then commandant, and finally Chief of the War secretariat. Jomini was a largely self-taught enthusiast for military strategy, and he became so proficient that during a discussion with friends in Berne at the beginning of 1800 he predicted how the Second Italian Campaign would pan out (the French crossing at Valais and the victory at Marengo).
In 1801, Jomini was once again in Paris, this time working for the military equipment manufacturers Delpont. In 1803, he began writing his Treatise on Grand Tactics (Traité sur la grande tactique). According to his theory, grand tactics was the branch of war studies related to large troop movements, in other the movement of corps and armies, before and during the battle. At this period he approached Murat (the military governor of Paris) asking for a job and was turned down.
However, Ney (who had read the treatise) brought Jomini to the Boulogne camp as a voluntary ADC. In this way Jomini began serving the French army, and his career was long to be linked with Ney's.
In 1804, Jomini published a reworking of the previous treatise, this time entitled Treatise on Grand Military Operations: or A Critical and Military History of the Wars of Frederick the Great as Contrasted with the Modern System in 2 volumes (Traité des grandes opérations militaires, contenant l'histoire critique des campagnes de Frédéric II comparées à celles de l'Empereur Napoléon, avec un recueil des principes généraux de l'art de la guerre).
In his role as attaché to Marshal Ney, commander of the 6th corps, Jomini participated in the Ulm campaign (1805) and gave useful advice to the marshal during the latter's victory at Elchingen (14 October); Ney ignored Murat and moved to cut off the Austrians' last retreat route. On the other hand, since the 6th corps was sent to the Tyrol, Jomini was not present at Austerlitz.
It was when Napoleon was at Schönbrunn in December 1805 that he had Maret read him parts of Jomini's 1804 treatise. The emperor was greatly interested, noting to Maret: "Let them say the century's going nowhere. Here's a young battalion chief, and a Swiss what's more, who can teach us more than my teachers ever taught me, indeed something which few generals understand... How could Fouché have let such a book be published? It's tantamount to teaching my enemies my entire system of war. This book must be seized and the distribution stopped". Maret replied that it was too late to prevent publication, and that, at any rate, if the book were seized this publicity surrounding the seizure would cause more bad than good. Napoleon was supposedly pacified by this: "In fact, he said, I have perhaps overvalued this publication; the old generals commanding against me no longer read anything and could not benefit from its lessons, and the young one who read are not commanders..." (L. Poirier).
Napoleon appointed Jomini as Adjudant-commandant (Staff colonel) and First ADC to Ney. The animosity which Berthier, major general of the Grand Army, was to show towards Jomini dated from this promotion.
In 1806, Jomini predicted the conflict with Prussia and wrote a book entitled Observations on the possibility of war with Prussia and the operations which will probably take place (Observations sur les possibilités d'une guerre avec la Prusse et sur les opérations qui auront vraisemblablement lieu), designed for Marshal Ney, and he published a 5th book of his Traité des grandes opérations.
At the end of September 1806, Napoleon summoned Jomini to Mainz to ask him for information on Prussia and its army. The emperor expressed a wish for Jomini to remain with him. Jomini replied: "If your majesty allows, I shall join him in four days in Bamberg. – Who told you I was going to Bamberg? – The map of Germany, Sire. – The map? There are one hundred other routes on that map in addition to the one to Bamberg. – The map of Germany and your operations at Ulm and Marengo. In order to do to the Duke of Brunswick what you did to Mack and Mélas, you have to go to Gera, and to go to Gera, you have to go via Bamberg. – You're right, be in Bamberg in four days time; but don't say anything to anyone about it, not even Berthier: no one must know that I wish to go personally to Bamberg" (2).
The campaign of 1806 panned out exactly as Jomini had predicted it would. Jomini was at Jena with Ney and entered Berlin with the Grande Armée.
In 1807, Jomini wrote a paper designed to show Napoleon that «the re-establishment of Poland without the agreement of the three powers which had partitioned that country was a pipe dream... and that even the unlikely event of success would embroil France in eternal wars to support this structure without foundations». It met with Napoleon's disfavour; the emperor did not like his general getting involved in politics.
At Eylau, Jomini was in the cemetery, alongside Napoleon, under a hail of bullets. On suffering an attack of rheumatism, he was to ask for (and obtain) four months leave. Following a proposal made by Caulaincourt, the emperor made Jomini Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur, as a result of his actions at; he was later to be made Baron de l'Empire (letters patent, 27 July, 1808) (3).
Jomini was then to be re-instated as chief of staff of the 6th corps (Ney), despite Berthier's opposition.
In September 1808, the 6th corps was sent to Galicia, Spain, where disagreements between Ney and Soult caused huge difficulties. Ney was even to fall out with Jomini at this time. Ney was furious to discover that Jomini was thought to be the marshal's «prompt», taking all the decisions. Jomini was called to Vienna after Wagram (6 July, 1809).
He was affected to Berthier's staff (18 November, 1809). His relations with the Major General were not good. Jomini asked Larrey for a medical certificate and Berthier for six months leave; the request was immediately granted.
During the summer of 1810, Jomini received a mysterious offer from a colonel based at the Russian embassy in Paris, suggesting that he enter the service of the Tsar (Russia having become France's ally after Tilsit). Jomini was told: Napoleon doesn't value you, you haven't got what you deserve; the Tsar on the other hand knows your worth and is ready to take you on and shower you with advantages. This argument touched a soft spot for Jomini; he had for many years been obsessed with the idea that the French had not been giving him what he deserved.
Despite hesitating, Jomini in the end wrote to Berthier on 28 October, 1810, offering his resignation and waited for his passports so as to be able to go to Russia. In the meantime, the chargé d'affaires de l'ambassade for the French embassy in Berne sent him an order to go immediately to Paris and to present himself to Minister Clarke twenty-four hours after arrival in the capital. Clarke received Jomini and persuaded him to withdraw his resignation, telling him that Napoleon knew his situation and handed him a promotion to Brigadier General, signed by the emperor (7 December, 1810), to Jomini's satisfaction.
Napoleon made Jomini head of the historical department of the headquarters of the Grande Armée, under Berthier (29 January, 1812) and asked him to write the history of the emperor's campaigns since 1796. But here again Jomini came up against Berthier, since Berthier had also started this project. The chief of staff did not help Jomini in his work in the archives.
During the Russian campaign, Jomini was appointed governor of Vilnius (11 August, 1812). The house in which resided with Minister Maret still exists (Répertoire mondial des souvenir napoléoniens, p. 630). In his administrative work, he was to clash many times with the governor general of Lithuania, general Hogendorp. Harsh words were exchanged between the two military administrators. Hogendorp: "I have never seen such extreme and blind self-obsession»; Jomini: «I have never had to suffer such a haughty little corporal...".
Jomini was subsequently moved to the post of governor of Smolensk. During the retreat from Russia, Napoleon received him at Bohr (23 November, 1812). The emperor agreed to alter his route and to use that proposed by Jomini, thereby gaining a dozen leagues. Furthermore, Jomini pointed out to Napoleon a shallow part of the Berezina for the army crossing. At the end of the retreat, Jomini (suffering from bronchitis or pleurisy) received the order to return to Paris.
In 1813, Napoleon appointed him chief of staff of the 3rd corps, under Ney (4 May). In this position he played a role in the victory at Bautzen (21 May, 1813). Ney recommended him for promotion to Divisional General, but Berthier (never Jomini's friend) removed Jomini's name from the promotions list, arresting him for not having sent his fortnightly reports.
Disgusted, Jomini took advantage of an armistice to leave the French army to join the other side (after all, he was not French), joining Langeron in the service of the Tsar Alexander I (14 August, 1813) as military adviser. The die was cast...
He is said to have remarked to close friend the day before changing sides: "Tomorrow, I shall have abandoned a flag which never appreciated me, which brought me only humiliation, and which was not that of my country". Most embarrassingly, on the same day Ney, who had gone directly to the emperor (behind Berthier's back) on behalf of his "stubborn Swiss", was to receive in Dresden Jomini's promotion to divisional General!
When Jomini met Alexander in Prague, the Russian emperor informed him that he was not the only adviser in the coalition army: General Moreau had beaten him by a few hours.
"Moreau! But Sire, my situation had nothing in common with that of General Moreau. I am not French! If this had not been so, I would not be here" (4).
Jomini's departure caused a scandal amongst French ranks. His action was seen as desertion and betrayal. There was even a rumour that Jomini had given the allies Napoleon's campaign plan. Jomini denied this and, on St Helena, Napoleon backed him up. Napoleon is said to have noted to Montholon: "They are wrong to say that General Jomini revealed my secret campaign plans to the allies... This officer did not have the emperor's plans... And, even if he had had them, the Emperor would not accuse him of the crime they attribute to him. He did not betray his colours like Pichegru, Moreau... He had suffered a great injustice; he was blinded by a honourable sentiment. He was not French; patriotism did not hold him back". Jomini was then appointed lieutenant general and ADC to the Tsar Alexander I, and he was to advise the allies during the campaigns of the end of 1813, 1814 and 1815. However, he refrained from participating in the operations against France and retired to Zurich.
In 1815, he entered Paris with the Tsar and was nearly cashiered from the Russian army for having so warmly defended Marshal Ney (5).
Jomini also participated in the Congresses of Vienna (1814-1815), Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) and Verona (1822). His position was however delicate, suspected on the one hand by the Russians for his career in France and distrusted in France because his period of Russian service. And in Alexander's entourage he came up against the opposition of Russian officers (just as he had with Berthier).
In Russia, Jomini continued his career, becoming military preceptor to the Grand Duke Nicolas (1822), ADC to Tsar Nicolas I (1823), founder of the Military Academy of St Petersburg, General in Chief (1826). In 1828 he led the campaign against Turkey and the siege of Varna with Nicolas I. In 1837, he was appointed as teacher to heir to the Grand Duke, the future Alexander II, and during the Crimean War he was adviser to Nicolas I (1854-1855).
He then retired to France, where he advised Napoleon III for the Italian campaign (1859) and died on 22 March, 1869, in Paris at the age of ninety. He was buried in Cimetière de Montmartre, in the 11e division.
In 1812, Jomini married Mlle Roselle, from Fontenay-sous-Bois (near Paris). One of their sons had a career in the Russian army; the other, Alexandre (1814-1888), had a career in the Russian diplomatic service. Two of their daughters, Alexandrine and Valérie, married in Paris, Valérie to Alfred de Courville, descendants of whom were Maurice, and later Xavier de Courville, Jomini's great grandson and author of the book: Jomini ou le devin de Napoléon (Paris, Plon, 1935).
As for his writings, in addition to the remarkable Treatise on Grand Military Operations (Traité des grandes opérations militaries), he also wrote Les principes de la stratégie (1813), L'histoire critique et militaire des guerres de la Révolution, 1792-1803 (15 vol. 1820-1824), La vie politique et militaire de Napoléon (14 vol. 1827, a huge publishing success), Précis de l'art de la guerre (2 vol., Paris, 1838).
Shortly after Jomini's death, Sainte-Beuve wrote a short book on him entitled, Le général Jomini, Étude (Paris, Michel Lévy, 1869).
"Jomini's influence on military thinking was huge and lasted long after his death; for many military men, Jomini was the translator of the secrets of Napoleon's genius. If Napoleon was the god of war, wrote Antoine Grouard, then Jomini was his prophet". To make war into a science, Jomini set himself the task of establishing principles which were as fixed as the laws of physics. For him, the recipe for victory was "to mobilise, at a decisive point and at the right moment, more forces than the enemy". As with many theoreticians of war, he had a tendency to apply principles where there were was sometimes only intuition, chance or accident (Lee Kennett).
Finally, it is interesting to compare Jomini's ideas with those espoused by the Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz, in his work Vom Krieg / On war (6).
Clausewitz was struck by the phenomena of mass conscription and the ideological war waged by the French Revolution and famously concluded that "war was merely the continuation of politics by other means".
Jomini, however, was not as systematic as Clausewitz. "Clausewitz, he noted, is too sceptical as regards military science... ". In fact, "Jomini's thought did not include high politics. He had closely examined Napoleon actions on the ground, and Napoleon himself was the very opposite of a theoretician, he was theory incarnate. Jomini considered it therefore useless to try to create a 'philosophy' of war. For him, all that was required was to explain the skill of the past masters... Jomini identified examples and rules, whilst Clausewitz sought the essence... placing the act of war in the political domain" (Pierre Naville).
Two ideas shed light on these differences of conception. On the one hand, Jomini was not interested in politics. That for him was "Napoleon's private hunting ground" (nor should we forget Jomini's unfortunate piece on the resurrection of Poland). Clausewitz on the other hand had experienced at first hand the sham of the catastrophe at Jena and the collapse of Prussia, leading him to politics. Jomini had not had the same intellectual crisis (L. Poirier). These reasons show why Jomini explained the phenomenon of war stricto sensu (7).
Author: ALLÉGRET Marc
Journal: Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
(1) Payerne (Vaud) is 50 km S.-E. of Berne. Jomini was born at the address 48, Grande Rue (Répertoire mondial des souvenirs napoléoniens, p. 537).
(2) On St Helena, Napoleon remembered this conversation regarding the «rendez-vous in Bamberg».
(3) This was to be confirmed in the Almanach de l'Empire of 1810, p. 259.
(4) A few days later, during the Battle of Dresden (27 August, 1813), Moreau had both his legs blown off by a cannon ball, dying later of his wounds.
(5) See Éric Perrin, Le maréchal Ney (Perrin 1993, p. 324).
(6) Vom Krieg (On war), the book by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was published after his death by his widow Marie von Clausewitz (3 vol. 1832 to 1834).
(7) Sources: Xavier de Courville, Jomini ou le devin de Napoléon, Centre d'Histoire de Lausanne, 1981, (first edition, Paris, Plon, 1935, preface J. Bainville); Antoine de Jomini, Les guerres de la Révolution, 1792-1797, de Jemmapes à la campagne d'Italie, Hachette Littératures, 1998, extracts chosen and discussed by B. Colson, postface L. Poirier; Dictionnaire Napoléon, entry “Jomini”, by Lee Kennett, p. 973; entry «Stratégie napoléonienne», by J. Garnier, p. 1596; entry «Tactique napoléonienne», by J. Garnier, p. 1615; G. Six, Dictionnaire des généraux et amiraux de la Révolution et de l'Empire, t. 1, p. 603, entry “Jomini”; Napoléon, éd. Rencontre, 1969, t. 10, p. 178, entry “Jomini”.