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
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 13:20
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    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
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 17:59
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    +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. Commented Jul 7, 2013 at 8:24
  • George Soros, and expert in his field (investments) famously said, "invest, then investigate."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 3, 2014 at 1:02

5 Answers 5


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."


'On s'engage partout, et puis l'on voit' appears in Literarisches Wochenblatt, Volume 3 - but not attrbuted to Napoleon, though he is twice mentioned in the short article. So we are now back to 1819, in Napoleon's lifetime. Perhaps this is a proverb rather than a quotation?


It seems very plausible to attach his quip to Lenin, as the Red October and its aftermath was practically exactly that: take action and see what comes out of it.

It seems very strange to attribute this 'motto' to Napoleon who is often portrayed as far more into planning and strategy and tactics. Well, for most of his career. The beginnings might be a little more like that. And equally coming back from Elba for 100 days also bears a certain resemblance for a fitting description. But then, quotes of spoken words from non-writing military are frequently embellished interpolations, or pure inventions anyway.

Lenin himself wrote exactly this:

Napoleon, I think, wrote: "On s'engage et puis ... on voit." rendered freely this means: "First engage in a serious battle and then see what happens." Well, we did first engage in a serious battle in October 1917, and then saw such details of development (from the standpoint of world history they were certainly details) as the Brest peace, the New Economic Policy, and so forth. And now there can be no doubt that in the main we have been victorious.

Who invented this saying is therefore clearly not Lenin, though very well he may have quoted this on occasion.

But another contender for invention is Yakov Petrovich Kulnev, Russian General famous from the Russo-Turkish-War onwards for extreme bravery:

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In numerous publications of the first half of the 19th century he is credited with formulating this saying.

So by
Georg Wilhelm von Valentini: "Die Lehre vom Krieg: Der Türkenkrieg, Band 3" (Prussian General Staff), Boicke, 1822. (Quoting the phrase from the prior first volume p 309).

From him comes the practical saying (First volume S 309

on s'engage partout, et puis l'on voit!

Apparently this characteristic was repeated during the battle of Battin at the Danube on September 7 during the Campaign of 1809/10.

(Fulltext in French translation: Traité sur la guerre contre les Turcs. Tr. par L. Blesson, in English: Military reflections on Turkey. Extr. and tr. from the treatise on the art of war. By a military ...(seems incomplete))


According to French newspaper, Le Figaro, Napoléon never said that. You can follow this link to check it. A french Author, Julien Gracq, quoted it as Napoleon's tactics in "Un balcon en forêt" (source), and that might be all you can learn in French about that peculiar subject.

  • As far as I understand, The Figaro page just gives a list of quotations and "on s'engage et puis on voit" is not part of it. This is very different from claiming that "Napoleon never said that". Absence of proof is not proof of absence, they say. Gracq's mention is a nice catch, but his novel was written half a century after Lenin's quote (i.e. one and a half century after Napoleon's reign), so it cannot help much.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 6, 2020 at 11:46
  • Le Figaro is quite exhaustive in regards of French "important" figures' quote, they have access to lots of data, be it newspapers, archives, private letters of monarchs etc... And the fact they don't even have something close added to the fact no other sources of this quote happends to be in French, I think it's saying quite a lot.
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 7:17

Bernard Cornwell claims it was Napoleon, that was Napoleon's style also, so it is believable. He would make quick and simple assertions like this, usually a way to start an argument he could win with an example from his campaigns.

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    Sources would improve this answer. Among other things it isn't clear who the "him" refers to - Napoleon or Cornwell.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 11:40

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