If I were to describe Waterloo from Napoleon's point of view, it would be very different from that same battle from the point of view of a soldier, or even a cavalry lieutenant in the front ranks. Napoleon's fate is decided on that battlefield as much as the lieutenant's. Napoleon has a better understanding of what's going on all around the field, and he's the one making the large-scale decisions. But Napoleon is not performing feats of personal courage, he is not charging the enemy, he is not meeting the enemy's sword with his own. That's what the lieutenant does.

If Napoleon were to lead the charge, as King Theoden does in The Lord of the Rings, that would be inspiring for his troops, but he would no longer be commanding the battle. Runners from other parts of the battlefield wouldn't know where to find him, wouldn't be able to report to him. And he himself wouldn't be able to transmit orders to the varied divisions of his force.

Is there any way I can have the cake and eat it too? Writing about a pre-modern battlefield, is there any way I can give the reader both the thrill of following the cavalry lieutenant, and the weight of command and tactical understanding that come with following Napoleon?

3 Answers 3


Some Generals fought alongside their soldiers. I did a quick google to confirm and as recent as WWII some generals fought while directing battle.

Caesar was known to join the fray when the issue was in doubt, inspiring his men and giving his loyal legions the desire to not only please him, but protect him.

The further back in history your battle is, the more likely that the leader will lead by example.

The battle scenes in War & Peace have a beautiful balance of this, giving the reader the prebattle prep and then going to the other officers. The general in that situation met with some controversy as part of his overarching strategy involved bringing the French in as deep into Russia as possible, ceding cities if he needed to. His strategy was brilliant and worked, oncoming winter was a weapon Napoleon could not counter.

Have the commander, if popular enough, see that his presence is required at a particular point in battle and get on his horse and ride into the fray.

Caesar, in a desperate situation where he had led his men to attack from a disadvantageous position, took off his helmet and took a shield from a nearby legionary and ran into battle, fighting for his life as well as victory. His men - outnumbered as was often the case - still prevailed as they needed to protect their beloved leader.

Such situations where the general must get his men to rally around him and strike through the enemy are extremely dramatic and dangerous. Alexander was often wounded in battle since he always fought with his men.

If fictional, choose the personality of your commander. Is he the sort whose presence with his men in battle would be enough of an advantage to counter the personal danger and tactical difficulty of the situation? Is he an Alexander who is always shoulder to shoulder with his men? Is he a Caesar who does this when the situation is grim? Had he been less popular, his appearance in battle would have merely reinforced what the men knew - we are losing this one. Rather, they rallied and fought for their general.

When commanders lead from a place within the battle, runners might not find them as easily, but signals still were in place so that reserves could be called in or sent to turn the enemy’s flank if the centre was doing well.


It depends on when and where this story is taking place.

John Keegan, in The Mask of Command, points out the type of warfare (thus the when and where) determines what, in context, makes a successful general in terms of how they behave on the battlefield. By the time of Napoleon, as you point out, heroically charging into the breach is not the way a general is expected to behave, but Wellington (who Keegan used as one of his examples), did put himself at risk because he was close enough to be put under fire. The difference between him and your lieutenant is that at no point did Wellington ever expect to close to direct combat. That wasn't his job, and his soldiers knew it; they appreciated the fact that he was out there risking getting shot, but they didn't begrudge him the fact he wasn't in the melee itself.

On the other hand, based on what we know, Genghis Khan preferred to stand back and observe the battle from the distance, but given the wide nature of Mongolian horse warfare, where you'd have units ranging fast and widely over the battlefield, this makes a great deal of sense.

But by and large, once you hit gunpowder, it's unlikely you're going to get that combination of distance command requires and closeness to the the action if your general is halfway competent, and even then, warfare is dominated by mass formations so one individual is unlikely to make a difference. Except in one type of situation: where everything, even for a moment, goes horribly wrong. And these types of things have happened.

The general is commanding and all of a sudden his command group is surprised by an enemy unit (usually cavalry), the result of which the general and his staff have to engage in close combat to get out of the situation. Typically they get enough warning they ride like hell for the closest friendly unit, but there have been times where they've had to fight off the attack.

So there's your way of having what you want; just for a brief moment, an unexpected appearance of enemy forces out of nowhere forces the general to fight for their own life, up close and personal, until things are stabilized. It's not about cooly commanding the army any more, it's about going steel-to-steel in close quarters, probably on horseback, until the attack is beaten off, nearby units can respond, or the fight takes them near friendlies who drive off the attackers. It's not going to happen very often, but the Napoleonic age is where it certainly could.


Generals are where they are needed most

Disclaimer: Historical fiction isn't my area of expertise, most of this is drawn from fantasy works instead. I think some of it is useful though.

The best way to get this balance is too remember that often generals or leaders are exceptionally talented fighters as well. They will always be in the place where the are most useful to the battle.

In the lead up and early stages of a battle, commanders are needed in tactical discussion. You can set the scene for the fight with the viewpoint of a command tent. Organise your troops, assess the terrain, make clever plans, all that can be best done from the more detached viewpoint.

When the heat of battle arrives and plans begin to come undone the best way to show the frantic struggle and gore-y detail is with a solider on the front-line. If you want to follow a single character throughout you can have them move from the command tent to the thick of the battle. When the battle heats up there is little the command can do to turn the tide from the backlines. A seasoned veteran with his elite bodyguards charging in can turn a fight however.

A book that did this well is Ranger's Apprentice: Oakleaf Bearers. It's a children's fantasy series but the characters are all elite soliders and leaders. Example under the spoiler below.

During a war they take command positions and are involved in setting up the tactics. Initially the battle is described from a commanders viewpoint, we get an overview of the entire battlefield as plans are enacted.

However as the war beings to turn against them the fighting moves to a closer perspective. Now the characters are leading smaller units, rushing about the field to where the fighting is heaviest. We get some high level description of the battle as they move from one place to another and some hand to hand fighting when they are engaged.

In the final stages of the battle everything is POV focused. Combat is purely hand to hand fighting for survival and we have no perception of how the rest of the battle is going.

Using this technique of closing in the perspective shows the increased desperation of the battle. It also gives the opportunity to make the outcome of the battle uncertain in the moment. By moving the POV with our character we can choose whatever perspective we like to create the greatest impact on the reader.

Alternatively if a general actually fighting hand to hand is too unrealistic you can have multiple POV characters and switch between them throughout the battle.

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