Born on Corsica in 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the ranks of the French Army to become one of the greatest Generals and strategists the world has seen. The others would be Caesar and Alexander, his heroes. All three had their effective lives cut short. When soldiery was their forte, they expected loyalty. In the end none of them got it.
He was the Emperor, his empire stretched from Madrid to Moscow and Hamburg to Rome. It was centred on Paris, it was centred on him. He spread the Enlightened message, fired in the crucible of the Revolution. Liberty, education, freedom of worship, freedom of opportunity, an enlightened legal code, meritocracy, healthcare, science and industry, an end to slavery of all kinds and an engagement in the state for all citizens.
Bonaparte was born into a family of minor nobles on Corsica. It was owned by Genoa, then found independence and was bought by Louis XV, at the time of Napoleon’s birth. He moved to France for his education. His heavy Corsican accent set him apart and it never left him. He did well at school, always reading. He moved on to military school, and despite poverty, he studied hard and excelled.
In 1789, the French Revolution had taken hold of Paris. Famine, injustice and a bloated aristocracy and church had inspired the people to sweep aside the ancien regime. New exciting philosophies of Voltaire and Rousseau were the driving force for a new world order. But by 1792, the City of Light had turned to barbarism. There were massacres in the jails and the terror, where the Guillotine claimed many, for more and more trivial crimes.
By 1794 things had moderated, but by 1795 there was another rising on the streets of Paris. Onto the world stage stepped Napoleon Bonaparte. He was an officer in the prestigious artillery. His task was to suppress the resurgent Revolutionaries. He took his cannon onto the streets of Paris. He took up positions at strategic points, and when the mob threatened, he sprayed them with grapeshot. This ruthless action, put down the riot and moved the power from the revolutionary sections to the military. Or as history will show, to him.
He had made a name for himself, but the Austrians were threatening. The enemy since the regicide of Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, they held northern Italy and were likely to invade Savoy and Provence. Their goal to reverse the revolution and reinstall the monarchy.
Napoleon was tasked with taking them on in Italy. He travelled to Nice, where he found his army in a sorry state. Cold, hungry, badly equipped and with low morale. He met his other commanders, all older than him. He assessed their ability and impressed them with energy, positivity and bombarded them with questions. He had already formed a strategy from reading about a mountain campaign. As always, he was a soldier’s General. He was obsessed with shoes and boots, and rightly so since they had to do so much marching. He was an expert at supply and formed forward supply depots. He studied the military history, terrain, weather and agriculture of Northern Italy and drove his revitalised troops at the occupying Austrians. Always outnumbered, he relied on swift movement and striking at the weak spot in the enemy defences. If the Austrians were divided he would strike one group, before swiftly marching to defeat the other before they could regroup. He would always keep his different army groups within one day’s march, so they could focus their fire at one point.
The main target was the imposing fortress of Mantua. He started to besiege it, the Austrians came to relieve it, but their old and ponderous movements were picked off by the now energised French. A crucial battle to take the bridge at Arcole, nearly came to grief when he tried storming the bridge with his men under fire. One soldier had the foresight to push him into a ditch to protect him. His men loved him, and he cared for them. He encouraged banter from the soldiers. They would shout cheeky comments and he would respond with a witty riposte. He was one of them, and knowing their mind, he knew how to instil the vital Esprit de Corps.
Italy was conquered within a year, Napoleons victories overshadowing the more important Armies on the Rhine.
His next task was to attack the real enemy, the British. Sitting behind the un-crossable English Channel, they controlled the seas and trade. They already had reformed Government, but kept their monarchy, they were flooding the world with their manufactured goods from their industrial revolution and they had defeated the French many times over the last 100 years increasing their empire.
It was decided to strike at Egypt and threaten British India. Napoleon took a force and defeated the Egyptians, but the French were in turn defeated by the desert, plague and local politics. Napoleon was called back to Paris as the Directory Government was failing.
In a staged coup, he claimed power in a triumvirate, with him as the military arm. But soon he came to dominate them and was made consul. His popularity maintained his position, a man of action, a man of the people and a dynamic and successful military leader. It is always a temptation to put a man like that in charge. But politics is more about manipulation and compromise.
His underlying hatred of the British remained. He imposed the ‘continental system’ on the rest of Europe. This would ban trade with the enemy to bring them to their knees. As we shall see later, it did not help Europe much either. For instance, some of his armies needed uniforms that were manufactured in the north of England. He started planning for an invasion of the south of England. He built barges to cross the channel and drilled the men repeatedly. But the underlying problem was the Royal Navy. He could only lure them away and hope to sneak across the sea, once on English soil, the French would overpower the smaller British army, and they knew it.
Napoleon did try for peace with the British many times, but the young Prime Minister Statesman, William Pitt was not for talking. The British opposed the Republic on principle and would only accept a return to the monarchy. There was a treaty of Amiens, but both sides did not comply with it and mutual mistrust threw Europe back into the maelstrom of War.
At home, Napoleon threw his energy into reforming France and the growing number of client kingdoms, in the enlightened way. He started a grand programme of education, he organised the army in efficient ways and he wrote the Napoleonic code. This new legal system, which is still in place in many parts of Europe, is a triumph of reason, logic, equality and liberty. He was greatly assisted by Cambaceres, who was his minister in charge, especially when he was away at war.
He was a master of propaganda and greatly inflated enemy losses and deflated his own. He would hold plebiscites which were quite frankly an affront to democracy due to the cheating. Although it was never likely that he was going to lose. He had many paintings commissioned, showing him in a resplendent light. He was crowned as Emperor, by the Pope in December 1804. The Cult of Personality had started.
He still planned to invade England in 1805, he relied on his fleet occupying the Royal Navy while his well-trained army crossed. But Pitt had formed the third coalition against him. He was bringing in Austria too, and when that happened Napoleon knew he had to fight them. His army camped in the north of France, marched towards Vienna. Unknown to him, his navy had been smashed by the English under Nelson at Trafalgar and were not a force anymore. He brilliantly outmanoeuvred the Austrians at Ulm and by December 1805. He faced them and the Russians at Austerlitz.
It was the classic Napoleonic battle. He checked the battlefield, as always. He knew that this was the place to fight. It was as if he pulled the enemy’s strings. He tricked them into attacking his deceptively strong right, and crushed the weakened centre, holding the left. He pushed the Austrians and Russians back inflicting massive casualties with a decisive and famous victory. He was able to impose his terms, but they may have been too onerous for the Austrians to accept for long.
He then turned on the Prussians the next year. An action against their rear-guard at Jena was matched with a glorious victory at Auerstadt by Davout. The Prussians were utterly beaten, Napoleon turned to fight the Russians. A punishing campaign in Poland led to peace negotiations at Tilsit. Napoleon met Czar Alexander, and they became close. The main problem was the Continental System, that the rest of Europe did not like. The British could still trade with other parts of the world and Europe was denied. But peace was made and the two parted as friends.
But a marriage alliance was necessary. His wife Josephine was divorced to facilitate this, but he had been making noises to the Austrians and the Russians. One party was going to be disappointed. He chose the Austrian Marie Louise and the relationship with Alexander started to deteriorate.
He had decided to attack the Portuguese, who were the Brits oldest allies. Victory was achieved in 1808, but he wanted to replace the Spanish king. Spain is a country with difficult terrain. Lisbon had to be resupplied by land. The country is excellent for Guerrilla activity, and the Spanish had a proud tradition of resisting enemy invasion. Wellington landed in Portugal and with a small force, was able to defend his position. He built the Defensive lines of the Torres Vedras and burnt the crops in front of him. The combined British, Portuguese and Spanish force would bleed Frances resources, like an ulcer, for five years. Wellington waited until 1813, and attacked pushing into France. Napoleon had met worthy rival and had to fight on two fronts.
In 1812, he had fallen out with the Russians. There had been no marriage alliance and they were not happy with the enforcement of the Continental System. Alexanders advisers pushed him to prepare for war, Napoleon struck first and hoped to defeat them in Poland. But their tactics were not what he expected. They retreated and kept retreating, they burnt crops. Napoleon obsessed with hunting down his enemy pushed further and further into Russia. Starvation, typhus and other diseases claimed many lives before the Battle of Borodino, which only happened in September not far from Moscow. It was perhaps the bloodiest battle of modern times with 80,000 casualties. But the French had won and advanced into the city where Napoleon expected to finally win. But the Russians had retreated and burnt the city.
The hot summer encouraged Napoleon to march home. But with October came the rains, the mud and then the bitter cold. What started as an army of 450,000 ended with 40,000 surviving a miraculous crossing of the Berezina river. The Russians had lost 150,000.
His enemy had learnt from him. Scorched earth, harrying tactics to a greater enemy and an utter ruthlessness in being prepared to self-sacrifice to deny the invader. His great Generals, like Bernadotte, had started to desert him and he was losing the men. Having made himself the Emperor, the war had become personal and there had always been enemies that thought he was an upstart. There were those within who started to believe the same and others who were jealous. Most people were just exhausted from 20 years of war.
He managed to enlist a new army, but he was taking on everyone else. He had a few victories, but was surrounded and defeated vastly outnumbered at Leipzig. He retreated to France, but his enemies declared they were fighting him not France and a tired country betrayed him. He was exiled to the Italian island of Elba.
Even then he was energised to improve the island and wait for a new opportunity. In the spring of 2015 he got it. The returning monarchy had been a disaster for France and he escaped and galvanised the country to fight once more. Eventually his new army took on the allies in Belgium. But he was passed his best and so were his Generals. The famous Battle of Waterloo, which on paper he should have won, turned into a rout with heavy losses. A catalogue of mistakes, led to Wellingtons defence and Bluchers attack. The Old Guard had one more attack and symbolically fell back. It was finished.
So was the Emperor. He was exiled to the rock of St Helena in the South Atlantic, never to return. He died in exile in 1821. France would continue to have years of upheavals in 1830, 1848, 1871 and 1968. The political change happened with the people on the streets. Europe would continue to seek change through political upheaval. Nation building in Italy 1861 and Germany in 1871 and other places. The horror of total War in the 20th Century, a War against the people, not considered by Napoleon even at his most ruthless. Britain would go on the same, already stable in its constitutional monarchy and protected by the Royal Navy, their Empire would go on and on.
But as for the man himself, maybe he started to believe his own propaganda. There were great Generals, but what about politicians? There clearly was personal hatred from his enemies. History has been unkind, not surprisingly those around him resented his power, ability and the horror of war that they blamed on him. Much of this article derives from a new book Roberts (2014) Napoleon the Great Penguin. Many primary sources derived from his copious letters and writing have been used to seek the truth that can never be fully found.
His life is a story we can look back on, but his legacy is the map of Europe, the export of Enlightenment principles and the Napoleonic Code to enshrine the principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, throughout Europe.
Napoleon was a man of the people, through his brothers the soldiers and it is the people who should define his legacy. Two years ago, me and a fellow historian friend of mine, attended the 200 year re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo. We sat in the stands of the vast field in Belgium, on the French left flank. An unmistakable figure rode past with hat on and a hand in his waistcoat. In true Brit football fan style (two World Wars and one World Cup!), we booed him in jest. But the crowd from around the world, raised a cheer to the little General from Corsica.
That cheer reverberates down the years, a testament to the man and his work. There are as many opinions as there are people. Clearly the British are not positive. But the man took France, Europe and the World a giant step towards a better and more equal place. The cost in blood was enormous, only out-matched by the carnage of two World Wars. He was an egalitarian and was a man of the people, but perhaps his failing, like his heroes, Caesar and Alexander was that there was no one to match him or equal him.
So, whatever your opinion of Napoleon, charge your glasses with whatever precious spirit comes to hand, raise it proudly and defiantly and shout. “Vive L’Emperor” and drain every last drop!