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Napoleon is well regarded as stating, prior to Soult's assault on the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz, words to the effect of:

When your opponent is making a false move, it is wise not to disturb him.

The earliest English language rendition of the quote I have found is from G. Twemlow's Considerations on Tactics and Strategy (1855)

The enemy is making a false move, why should we interrupt him?

Similarly, William S. Walsh's Napoleon's Marshals (1891) renders the quote as:

When the enemy is making a false move, it is well not to interrupt him.

Can anyone locate the original French attribution for this quote, as well as the earliest known French rendition for it?


Courtesy of sempaiscuba in a comment below:

The earliest English version is actually in History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, Volume 5 by Archibald Alison pp228-229, first published in 1836.

In that case let us wait twenty minutes; when the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.

The reference to twenty minutes is in consequence to Soult's response on the length of time it would take for his men to scale the Pratzen Heights from their obscured (by mist and smoke) location at its base.


Update - Dec. 18, 2018

Jomini appears to be the oldest extant French recollection of the quote - but was in the Tyrol at the time of Austerlitz on Ney's staff. (see below) Any updates on this would be appreciated.

According to historyofwar.org Dumas was Napoleon's quartermaster during the Austerlitz campaign, and thus quite likely was an eyewitness to the conversation with Marshal Soult. Perhaps Jomini perfected the phrasing of an off-the-cuff remark not immediately recognized by others as profound.

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    The earliest English version is actually in History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, Volume 5 by Archibald Alison pp228-229, first published in 1836. – sempaiscuba Dec 16 '18 at 1:47
  • @sempaiscuba: You claim 1836, but the book states 1841. Is that an error, or is the collection a reprint of some sort? P.S. Thank you. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 16 '18 at 1:54
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    It;s a reprint. The copy on Google Books dates to 1839, but isn't downloadable. – sempaiscuba Dec 16 '18 at 2:00
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    This is not a mere translation from english, but the wording that appears on french websites. The well-known daily newspaper Le Figaro added his citation on their website as "N'interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de faire une erreur."evene.lefigaro.fr/citation/… I don't know where this citation originally came from, though. – Ushiromiya Dec 16 '18 at 14:53
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    @Ushiromiya: Comments are ephemeral and subject to deletion by moderators at any time. Please put that information in an answer. While not sufficiently definitive to become the accepted answer I will certainly up-vote it; plus it becomes an additional resource for other contributors seeking to track this down for me. Thank you in advance. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 16 '18 at 14:57
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The earliest version that I could find in French is

"Quand l'ennemi fait un faux mouvement , il faut se garder de l'interrompre"

which appears in Baron Jomini's Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon, which was published in 1827, some 22 years after the event.


As far as I'm aware, the earliest English version of the quote actually appears in History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, Volume 5 by Archibald Alison, pp 228-229, first published in 1836:

In that case let us wait twenty minutes; when the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him.


Alison gives his sources for the story at the bottom of the page.

sources

(1) Dum. xiv. 160. 161. Jom. ii. 179, 180. Sav. ii. 133, 134. Bign. iv. 444.

The index to those references can be found at the beginning of the first volume.


The earliest of these sources is:

but in his account, Dumas, doesn't actually mention that part of the quote:

Mais au premier rayon du soleil brillant qui éclaira cette mémorable journée , malgré le brouillard encore épais dans les fonds, ils aperçurent les hauteurs de Prazen, qui se dégarnissaient de troupes : le mouvement des alliés était bien prononcé. Napoléon , avant de donner au maréchal Soult l'ordre d'attaquer, lui dit "Combien vous faut -il de temps pour couronner les hauteurs de Prazen? — Moins de vingt minutes, répondit « le maréchal , car mes troupes sont placées ce dans le fond de la vallée : couvertes par les a brouillards et la fumée des bivouacs, l'enc nemi ne peut les apercevoir.— En ce cas, ce dil-il, attendons encore lai quart d'heure."

  • (my emphasis)

The quote certainly appears in Baron Jomini's Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon, published in 1827:

les troupes de Soult étaient massées sur deux lignes de bataillons en colonnes d'attaque dans le fond de Puntowitz. Je demande au maréchal combien de temps il lui faut pour gagner les hauteurs de Pratzen; il me promet d'y être en moins de vingt minutes. — Attendons encore, lui répondis -je... quand l'ennemi fait un faux mouvement , il faut se garder de l'interrompre".

  • (my emphasis)

Baron de Jomini is another of the sources cited by Allison, so this may be the earliest appearance of the phrase in French.

However, as Pieter observed in the comments, Jomini was on Ney's staff in 1805 (fighting with him at the Battle of Ulm), and since Ney was in the Tyrol for the Austerlitz campaign, Jomini could not have been an eye-witness to the event.

It is possible that the witticism attributed to Napoleon in this case is simply a later embellishment to Dumas' earlier account.

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    Great. Jomini was on Ney's staff in 1805, and Ney was in the Tyrol for the Austerlitz campaign, so Jomini is unfortunately not an eye witness. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 16 '18 at 16:22
  • @PieterGeerkens Yes, that was why I mentioned that it might just be an embellishment of Dumas' work. – sempaiscuba Dec 16 '18 at 16:32
  • According to historyofwar.org Dumas was Napoleon's quartermaster during the Austerlitz campaign, and thus quite likely was an eyewitness to the conversation with Marshal Soult. Perhaps Jomini perfected the phrasing of an off-the-cuff remark not immediately recognized by others as profound. – Pieter Geerkens Dec 17 '18 at 19:00
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Napoleon's quote "When your opponent is making a false move, it is wise not to disturb him." is known in France to be:

"N'interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de faire une erreur."

However, I also found a slightly different quote on some french websites:

"N'interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de commettre une erreur."

Essentially, the two verbs mean the same thing (to make a mistake, to commit a mistake) but I'm emphasizing this as I'm guessing the OP wants the original wording.

After some research, I realized that most people wrote this quote using the "faire" verb, and in particular France's well known daily newspaper 'Le Figaro' on their website (http://evene.lefigaro.fr/citation/interrompez-jamais-ennemi-train-faire-erreur-68691.php).

In the end, the first quote SHOULD be te correct, original one, but I have no "official" sources to prove it.

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