The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 - 1805 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte 1769 - 1805

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Napoleon's famous hat
...his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men...
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
To do all that one is able to do, is to be a man; to do all that one would like to do, is to be a god.
Napoleon Bonaparte

Undoubted genius, megalomaniac, general, statesman and ruthless dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most flamboyant and controversial characters in world history. In 20 years from the base of revolutionary France he transformed Europe into a largely personal Empire - but his eventual fall was as fast as his meteoric rise to power. To the French for a time he was a superstar, to Europe's monarchies he was 'the enemy of humanity'. His legacy is perhaps the foundation of modern Europe. This Entry traces the major events in the life of the 'little corporal1' that led him to power in France.

The Early Years

Napoleon Bonaparte was born to a middle-class family in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica on 15 August, 1769. Corsica had only just been sold to France by the Italian republic of Genoa and so he was not of French origin2, indeed French was always to remain a second language to him. This has led to comparisons with Adolf Hitler, who also became the supreme leader of a country other than his birth nation. His formative years were quiet for a man who would come to dominate Europe. He was an avid reader and workaholic, proving highly capable in areas such as mathematics (a talent that led to him training as an officer in the French artillery). This was the platform from which he began his rise through the military ranks.

Corsica is an island that to this day has a proud and independent tradition. But in the late-18th Century it sat uneasily in the power of the Bourbon dynasty, headed by the doomed Louis XVI. This led the young Napoleon to have natural leanings towards the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping France and its territories at this time.

The French Revolution

In the latter half of the 18th Century, the French people became progressively unhappy about their treatment at the hands of the rich and decadent nobility. In 1789, a National Assembly in Paris defied the King, representatives of the nobility and the church to demand far-reaching reform of an unfair administration. That summer, the citizens of Paris rose and famously stormed the Bastille prison, starting a chain of events that would see King Louis imprisoned and eventually executed. In 1792, France was declared a Republic by a radical revolutionary government. Their motto was 'Liberté, egalité et fraternité3'. During this turbulent period, France was ruled by various groupings; most famously, for a time, by a bloody regime under the Jacobin group led by Maximilien Robespierre.

The French Revolution removed a lot of the barriers to progress that once prevented the lower classes from attaining positions of influence and power in France. For a man of skill, charisma and talent such as young Bonaparte, this allowed a career progression that previously would not have been possible.

The First Coalition

The French Revolution sent shockwaves through the constitutional monarchies of Europe and there was a rise in anti-royalist political factions. This led to a continent-wide desire to put down this revolution, so several countries of Europe, led mainly by the Austrian Empire, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain went to war against the French Republic with a view to restoring the French monarchy. The death of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, at the hands of Madame Guillotine particularly infuriated Austria (which at the time was ruled by Marie-Antoinette's family).

The first of these grand coalitions led to the rise of Napoleon as first a general of great skill and tenacity, and ultimately to self-styled Emperor. During and after this rise, there were several further coalitions against France. The wars against these later coalitions are regarded as the so-called Napoleonic Wars proper.

In 1779, Napoleon Bonaparte was admitted to the French military academy at Brienne. He was shunned as an outsider by most of his peers but this merely inspired him to throw all his weight into his studies. He did however, have certain connections to the revolutionary leadership in Paris4 and managed after a while, to upgrade to the military academy in Paris. Initially, he wanted to be a naval officer, but he was trained in artillery due to his mathematical bent.

When Austria, Great Britain and Prussia declared war on France in 1792, France found herself at a disadvantage. The terror that had arisen during France's post-revolutionary excesses had killed or driven away many of her finest generals, and at first things went badly for them with their armies consisting largely of poorly-trained mobs under often unimaginative leadership.

In this climate, Napoleon gained his commission as a captain in the artillery and was assigned to units trying to throw out a British garrison from the southern French port of Toulon, where it was aiding a Royalist uprising. The generals in charge of the French units were inadequate and frustrated the young Napoleon. He used his contacts in the central circles of the Directory in Paris to influence the appointment of an elderly general to command the troops. This man was quite happy to take a back seat and let the energetic Napoleon take the lead. Napoleon distinguished himself by taking two crucial forts that guarded the town and throwing out the British fleet from the port. After this (essentially minor) victory, Napoleon used his charisma to claim it as his victory alone. He received several plaudits, his reputation was on the rise and he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General at the age of just 24.

Following this, he joined the campaign in Italy as commandant of the artillery - but this posting was short lived, as the unstable political atmosphere in Paris resulted in a change of regime. The terror in Paris had left the Directory appallingly unpopular, with no one feeling safe from persecution or execution. Robespierre was supplanted and found himself a victim of the Guillotine. Bonaparte, as a known associate of Robespierre, was arrested (on a charge of conspiracy and treason) and imprisoned. Fortunately though, he escaped the Guillotine. When his case came to trial, he was cleared. The sitting judges could only find good military distinction in his career thus far, and he returned to Paris. Here he famously put down a Royalist uprising by ruthlessly firing on French citizens5 and his stature with the revolutionary authorities was assured.

Boney was a Warrior

By 1796, Prussia and England had abandoned the coalition leaving Austria alone against France. There were two main theatres of campaign, one in Germany and one in Italy under the command of Bonaparte. This was regarded as the poorer of the two campaigning armies, essentially a ragtag mob, and he was not expected to do well. The authorities regarded him with not a little wariness as he was a rising star and was perceived as a growing threat by those in the top echelons of leadership. However, they needed a general of his quality in charge and this campaign saw him roar forth as an unstoppable, raging bull.

His energy and leadership skills led to a retraining of his new army, making it far more battle-ready and disciplined. In addition, during the campaigning in northern Italy, he allowed his troops free reign to loot, pillage and live off the countryside. This made him popular with them and incredibly popular back in France, where war booty was restoring wealth back to a country impoverished by revolution and war6. Furthermore, Napoleon was now recognised as a general and tactician of almost unparalleled brilliance. His armies stunned the Austrians with victory after victory and soon he had thrown them out of Italy altogether - bringing it under French control. He was never far from the action himself, earning his nickname 'the little corporal'7. All this had been achieved with a smaller army than their enemy, by a combination of inventive tactics, swift manoeuvering, daring and not a little hard fighting.

The campaigning of Napoleon in northern Italy led to the Austrians demanding peace, and he now acted without consulting Paris. He signed a treaty with Austria on his own authority which established several Italian republics to be governed by the Italians themselves. For this, he is seen by some as the first person to move Italy towards unification8. His belief in himself as a man of destiny had grown and he now behaved like a king. The French leadership was now on full alert to this successful general with a fiercely loyal army at his back. He was also a celebrity in France, having brought glory and the spoils of a victorious war to their country.

First Consul

After the Italian campaigns ended in such glory, Napoleon was eager for further adventures to raise his stature still higher. In addition, the French leaders were keen to keep him at arm's length and away from Paris. They were enthusiastic therefore, when he hit upon the idea of attacking the Middle Eastern interests of Great Britain (particularly in Egypt) to threaten their route to India. This would hopefully weaken Britain economically. It was they who had largely bankrolled the First Coalition9 against the Republic and would win France the control of further colonies, diverting profits into French coffers. Of course, it would also widen the influence of the revolutionary ideals.

He therefore assembled an army and after first occupying Malta, the French fleet landed Napoleon's expeditionary force in Egypt. A Second Coalition, this time including the Ottoman Empire, lined up against France in 1798. Napoleon wasted no time in winning his first battle upon landing at Alexandria. He then marched on into Egypt and defeated the ruling Mamelukes beneath the shadows of the Great Pyramids of Giza. The French were vastly outnumbered but their superior weaponry won the day. Accompanying Bonaparte were many scientists and scholars keen to have a look at the mysterious and legendary land of the Pharaohs and it was this expedition which discovered the famous Rosetta Stone.

The French army marched on Cairo and took it but suffered a major setback when their fleet was utterly destroyed by the cunning naval action of Admiral Horatio Nelson in what was termed the Battle of the Nile. They were now cut off from their supplies which limited the effectiveness of the Middle Eastern campaign. War continued on into Syria where Napoleon pursued Turkish armies, but plague and local rebellions held back some impressive military successes. Eventually Napoleon returned to Cairo and sailed secretly back to France accompanied by his closest aides.

The war of the Second Coalition had gone badly for France elsewhere and their gains in Italy under Napoleon in 1796 had largely been reversed by 1799. The government in Paris was now deeply unpopular and the timing was ripe for another coup. It was not pleased when Napoleon reappeared suddenly in Paris and staged the Coup de Brumaire10, which saw the Directory abolished. Napoleon seized power to become joint First Consul alongside two others - Abbe Sieyes and Pierre-Roger Ducos.

Napoleon was not a man to share power, however, and soon he was First Consul alone, having moved the others aside through 'early retirement'. He began a military campaign to reverse the losses in Italy, suffered while he was absent in Egypt. This again saw him overcome the hapless Austrians as he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the battle of Marengo. Further victories in Germany cemented the end of the Second Coalition and Austria had to accept Napoleon's terms.

Statesman and Emperor

The Revolution is over. I am the Revolution.
Napoleon Bonaparte, 1799

By the year 1801, Napoleon was, within Europe, to all intents and purposes invincible. The treaty of Amiens in 1802 ended 10 years of war and in a national plebiscite Napoleon was elected First Consul of France for life.

He now began a series of reforms in France aimed at cementing the ideals of the revolution and healing the large rifts that had polarised French society. He enshrined in law many of the ideals of equality that had started the revolution and a series of codes were written down as French law (the 'Code Napoleon' is still at the core of French law to this day). He allowed people to once again practice Roman Catholicism without fear of persecution, which healed a rift with the Vatican. New science was embraced by the Bonapartist regime, the metre and the kilogram11 are something we all have to thank (or despise) Napoleon for. A new system of honours was brought in and Napoleon rewarded the successful people of the country with titles regardless of their background. However, this practice was hated by the old Jacobin revolutionaries, who viewed it as the creation of a new aristocracy. Old Royalists and Jacobins alike were not comfortable with Napoleon's government and there were a number of attempts on his life. This brought out a darker side of his regime: these assassination attempts were used to ruthlessly eliminate his known enemies and a new military police force - the Gendarmerie - emerged. There was an element of the police state to Napoleon's France, but it was markedly more popular than the terrorist regimes of the Jacobins.

In 1804, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France12 taking the title Napoleon 1st and is said to have grabbed the crown out of the Pope's hand and put it on his head himself during his coronation at Notre Dame. His wife Josephine was proclaimed Empress.

Emperor Napoleon? Eyebrows were raising in old revolutionary circles. Were the revolutionary ideals of Napoleon beginning to slip?

The Zenith of Power

Napoleon was not perfect and his dizzying rise to power had perhaps gone a little to his head. He often thought he could do no wrong - yet he could - and some of his miscalculations were to lead to serious consequences. Possibly his first major mistake was 'disposing' of a Royalist figurehead, Duc d'Enghien. This man was kidnapped from a neutral country and then summarily tried and executed without the benefit of a defending lawyer. It caused uproar in Europe and the ruling monarchies of the continent, still raw from repeated humiliating military defeats, turned against him forever and formed a Third Coalition determined to remove him from power.

The Third Coalition comprised the ever present Great Britain and Austria along with Russia, Sweden and some minor German principalities. Napoleon resolved to defeat this coalition by forming the greatest army in the world and he amassed and trained a huge body of troops near Boulogne. This was Napoleon's Grand Army and it was to terrorise Europe in the years to come. It 'marched on its stomach', ate food from strange new tin cans, fought in columns and destroyed nearly every army in its path during its glory days.

Napoleon was determined to strike first, as beating a united enemy would be much more difficult than taking them out one by one. His initial plan was to invade England but this was scuppered by Nelson's finest hour when he defeated a combined French/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. This left Britain as the world's leading naval power until the World Wars of the 20th Century. Britain and the coalition were delighted with this and thought the time was ripe to invade France en masse. Separate forces were to invade Italy and Bavaria, both of which were under control of the French. They assumed the Grand Army was still at camp in Boulogne, but thought wrong.

In secret, Napoleon had moved the bulk of his Grand Army into Bavaria and, with a brilliant piece of manoeuvering, encircled an Austrian army under the unfortunate General Mack before he knew what was going on. Mack was forced to surrender with barely a shot being fired. Napoleon then moved on Vienna and forced a Russian army into retreat following a series of battles. Decisively, he then met the combined Austrian and Russian forces near the Austrian town of Austerlitz. Here he had his finest military hour. The combined allied armies were superior in guns and numbers to Napoleon's forces, yet by masterful tactics he set a trap for them by faking weak forces and ceding tempting high ground to his enemies. Just when the allies thought they had him on the run, Napoleon unleashed a huge attack in the centre that split the two allied armies and they were routed. The Coalition's armies were defeated once more and Napoleon's star was only shining brighter. The Third Coalition ended, as had the first and second, in humiliation at the hands of Napoleon.

Upon hearing of Bonaparte's triumph at Austerlitz, William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Great Britain, sadly remarked...

...roll up that map of Europe, it will not be needed these ten years.

Napoleon had been lenient with the Austrians in the treaty following the defeat of the Second Coalition; he was harsher this time. France now had large portions of German and Italian territory ceded to her and Napoleon was feared by all in Europe. What would he do next?

  • For insight into the lives and deaths of other figures from the past, step back in time with BBC History.

1A nickname he earned from his troops - he never actually held the rank of corporal. The popular idea of Napoleon being 'little' may have arisen from inaccurate translation of old French feet into English measurements. The height of five feet two inches, recorded at his autopsy, actually equates to five feet six and a half inches in English measurements, which was about average height for a Frenchman of his day. An alternative explanation is that he was mostly accompanied by men of his Imperial Guard, who were taller than average, creating the illusion that Napoleon was short.2His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was a lawyer whose family - of ancient Tuscan nobility - had emigrated to Corsica in the 16th Century.3Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood.4In particular he became well acquainted with Robespierre's brother.5This legendary 'whiff of grapeshot' further advanced his level of notoriety.6Interestingly, it didn't worry the locals too much either as they regarded this behaviour as little different to that meted out to them by their old noble masters.7Loading field guns in the thick of the fighting was a job usually done by corporals.8Napoleon, despite his later reputation, was certainly a progressive force within Europe.9...and would bankroll the rest. Bonaparte always blamed Britain for the continuous warring during his time in power.10Brumaire was the name of a month in the new calendar introduced by the Revolutionaries.11The metric system.12Inspiring Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. Prior to this, Napoleon had been Beethoven's idol. His self-proclamation as emperor ruined this and the symphony became a lament to a fallen hero rather than the originally intended tribute.

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