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Lenin in his "About our revolution" cites Napoleon as saying «On s'engage et puis… on voit». Loosely translated that is, "One jumps into the fray, then figures out what to do next", or "You commit yourself, then you see."

There are claims that it was Lenin who invented the quote and attributed it to Napoleon, and that Napoleon never said so.

So did Napoleon ever actually say that?

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@coleopterist - the asker is Russian. As far as he's concerned, a French saying doesn't make any sense to be translated, as any cultured person understands French (see: "War and Peace" :) –  DVK Jul 5 '13 at 13:20
Found some secondary sources that claim Napoleon said that in St. Helena, and the quote can be found in his memoirs. However, I couldn't find a (freely available online) French version of the memoirs and can't verify. –  Yannis Jul 5 '13 at 17:59
+1 I think it's a good question. I've known this saying all my life and it has never occured to me to verify its authenticity - it just felt apposite for Napoleon to say that. A quick googling now reveals that this quote was used by Lenin - turns out that that's how it got into the Russophone people's consciousness. But there the trail got cold - I couldn't find out whether Lenin took the quote from a reliable source, "improved" something else Napoleon had said, or just made it up. So, yes, I think it's a good question. –  Felix Goldberg Jul 7 '13 at 8:24
George Soros, and expert in his field (investments) famously said, "invest, then investigate." –  Tom Au Nov 3 '14 at 1:02

1 Answer 1

The attribution certainly predates Lenin. A Google Book search indicates that it was well-established by at least 1890:

"Wenn Napoleon sagte: »on s'engage et puis on voit!« so bezeichnet er damit nur das Verfahren aller selbstständigeren Heerund Trnppenführer." [Monatshefte für Politik und Wehrmacht, p.284, 1889]

"Le mot de Napoléon : « On s'engage et puis on voit » a bien perdu de sa valeur." [Revue d'artillerie, Vol 39, p453, 1891]

"On s' engage et puis on voit," no longer applies. The relative smallness of armies and the smoke of battle allowed of the application of this principle, but now the general is more dependent on the reports of reconnaissances." [Journal of the United States Artillery, Vols 2-3, p119, 1893]

The earliest reference I could find (in a slightly altered form) is in Staff College Essays by Lieutenant Evelyn Baring published in 1870, though this is still 50 years after Napoleon's death.

"Napoleon's motto was, 'On s'engage partout, et puis l'on voit,' which must not be taken to mean that he began a battle without any definite plan at all, but rather that his system of fighting was so elastic that it could bend itself to suit the altered circumstances of any particular case."

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