A Conversation for Napoleon Bonaparte 1805-1821 - From Empire to Waterloo


Post 1


There are a lot of errors in this piece.

Napoleon was not at the zenith of his power in 1805, the Prussians had yet to attack him and be beaten at Jena, and the Treaty of Tilsit with Russia in 1807 had yet to be signed. His power was greatest in May 1812 at Dresden, just before the invasion of Russia, where most of the other rulers in Europe came to pay him homage at the palace of his ally the King of Saxony.

In 1805 peace was not made with Britain. The writer(s) is confusing the Peace of Amiens, with Britain in 1802-1803, with the peace made with Francis of Austria after the Battle of Austerlitz, the Treaty of Pressburg, December 26th 1805.

Napoleon did not decide to wage an economic war, after Trafalgar it was the only way left for him to put pressure on England to make peace, a fait accompli. He himself still continued to use soap from Birmingham and British razors, and later a million pairs of British boots 'walked' into Russia. Just how seriously he believed he could damage British economic interests is open to doubt.

As to Napoleon redefining nepotism, Walter Runciman says his siblings were far better rulers than the Bourbons they usually replaced. Nelson's cold-blooded execution of Carraciolo in 1799 at the behest of the Queen of Naples, and his lover Emma Hamilton, is a case in point.

Napoleon didn't beat the pride of the Prussian army at Auerstadt - that was Marshal Davout's solitary corps that Bernadotte refused to support. Napoleon won at Jena. Davout gained the honour of being the first into Berlin as a reward. It was on no way a 'typical Napoleonic victory'.

To say Napoleon was 'an unbridled megalomaniac' is like reading the Sun newspaper. What about Francis of Austria 'freeing' all those German-speaking Italians? Or Tsar Alexander 'freeing' all those Poles (most of who preferred to serve with Napoleon)? Alexander went messianic and took his 'crusade' to the Seine. No megalomania there then.

'It is doubtful that he would ever have stopped'. Why did he stop in 1810 then? He had not wanted war with Austria in 1809 - they attacked his ally Bavaria without a declaration of war. Would Austria and Russia ever have stopped attacking him as they did in 1805, 1809, 1814 and 1815?

Being attacked by others is hardly 'overambition' is it?

To speak of his 'rash actions' at Aspern-Essling and Wagram is a distraction. Napoleonic warfare par excellence was catching and annihilating the armed forces of the enemy. At the end of such long supply lines Napoleon had to attack, and he had no idea of what Tsar Alexander might be up to. The Tsar had promised to help him, if Austria attacked, at Erfurt in 1808 - but not one Russian soldier turned up to support him in 1809.

To say it was a 'bizarre move' to marry Marie Louise betrays a total ignorance of Napoleon's domestic plans. He tried desperately to weld the shattered French nation together again, hence he allowed thousands of exiled emigres to return. He allowed commoners to receive the Legion of Honour, not just the military, and he supported the arts, industry and learning. Napoleon was the magnet drawing the French people back together again. Marie-Loiuse was his second choice after the Russians refused him the hand of a Russian princess. By marrying a Hapsburg he demonstrated unequivocally that now was the time to put the Revolutionary past behind - to literally kiss and make-up!

The Russian army did not 'melt away' before his advance. They stood at Smolensk and only abandoned the ridiculous fortifications at Drissa because it was obvious that Napoleon could simply go around them. Drought killed more horses on the advance into Russia than the cold later did on the retreat. Then it was the coldest Russian winter for a 100 years. Boris Uxkull, a Russian nobleman speaks repeatedly of the intense cold in his diary. And Sergeant Bourgogne saw frozen birds literally falling out of the sky. The Russians suffered almost as badly as the French.

In essence, Napoleon deluded himself. He was sure that once a battle had been fought, another French victory would bring Alexander to terms and the old friendship after Tilsit could be restored. But Alexander, who acquiesced in the murder of his own father, Tsar Paul - a friend of Napoleon, was a far more devious character than Napoleon imagined.

One glaring error is to say glibly that 'his popularity amongst his troops was at rock bottom' (that incidently was reached when his men climbed freezing mountains in Spain chasing Sir John Moore out of the Peninsula). Borgogne repeatedly attests to Napoleon's electrifying speaches to the chilled remnants of the Guard, and his best friend Picart lamented amidst the Russian snows; "If we can find the Emperor all will be well!" They did find him, having been lost in the wilderness, and both men survived.

The Prussians were 'liberated' - and boy did the Saxons, Bavarians and sundry other Germans suffer for it. Colonel John Elting, in 'Swords Around a Throne' tells of how the French armies paid their way in Germany - on Napoleon's express orders, while the Prussians simply took everything they wanted as of right. The phrase Prussian jackboots had traction even then.

Napoleon's Marshals saw only the chance that their privileges would be lost - the very privileges that Napoleon has generously showered them with. He ought to have known that a good deed never goes unpunished. He naively believed he would be rewarded with their loyalty. Before Marmont treachorously took his 10,000 men over to the Allies, and before Talleyrand persuaded Joseph Napoleon to flee Paris, taking Marie louise with him, there was every chance of fortifying the capital and repelling the Allies. Napoleon was only six hours away when he heard the terrible news. Even then, if he had pressed on, his own personal appearance would have restored the situation.

The 'scourge' - a really neutral word that. The writer then says he wrote requesting peace in 1815 but 'this man's ambition' was a factor again. He can't have it both ways.

Napoleon was not 'captured' he sought asylum with his greatest enemy - Britain. He gave himself up voluntarily. After all, one of his brothers had preceded him, as had the 310lb Bourbon Louis XVIII. Napoleon had a lot of support in England, crowds flocked to see him. As Frank McLynn says, he was the sensation of the hour. The cabinet panicked and shipped him to Saint Helena. Had his British supporters got him ashore there was no law that could have forced him to leave again. A new law would have had to have been passed specifically in Parliament, where the former Emperor had a lot of support.

In conclusion, this article ought to be completely re-written.



Post 2


Hello, I am the offending author.

You may be surprised to hear that I partially agree with you. I cringe a little at these two articles in places now having read more and learned more since I first wrote them four or five years ago. I've also never considered them an academic piece of history and always thought that a proper historian would probably be rather horrified.

You could be a little less brusque though if you don't mind me saying so. Although I can understand it since you were given a bit of overly rough treatment in Peer Review I thought. You are welcome to help improve it in the update forums if you wish. Also your post already helps improve it, the entire point of the discussion forums below articles here.

I wrote this after watching a fascinating documentary on the life of Bonaparte on one of the history channels some years ago and discovering that the entire content of this guides articles on Napoleon consisted of 1 article which was "I was able 'ere I saw Elba" in its entirety. smiley - laugh
So sadly my amateurish effort is all there is (or was at the time) and I don't claim to be an expert.

Having said that I'm not sure I entirely agree with everything you say. I had to divide this article up into two and it was too long, hence the slightly inaccurate description of the Zenith being after Austerlitz.
I also had to sum up entire military campaigns in a couple of sentences so I'm not really surprised the phrasing isn't really to everyone's tastes.

Whether his family were more able rulers than their predecessors isn't really the point is it? He indulged in rampant nepotism, no two ways about it.

Many of the points you criticise I took from professional academic historians and I bow to their superior knowledge - e.g. the point that he would never have stopped. Embarking on an unwinnable war against the Russians was overreaching himself in my book. The russians primary tactic in everything I've read was to reatreat and not take on the master tactician if they could avoid it. That's melting away I think, if you don't like the phraseology that's your problem. This was also the tactic used in the liberation of Prussia. One thing I'd now like to include was the policy of not directly fighting forces under his direct command up until the Battle of the Nations.
Again I took the words 'bizarre move' from an academic historian - can't remember who I'm afraid.

Overall I don't think it's all that bad although some points I would concede are incorrect. I tried to get a balanced view of him overall - I don't like the British demonising of him, nor do I like the viewpoint you appear to take which seems rather worshipping of him. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I'm sure we can agree that he is a fascinating figure smiley - smiley

Anyway, as I said, you are free to help make changes and suggest an update via Peer Review which I would support if I agree with the changes as I am all for improving the quality of these articles smiley - ok


Post 3


Thank you for your balanced response - the first one I have received on these august pages. Having been castigated by young tyros in the peer review, who weren't even born when I began my career as a history teacher in 1977, I admit to shooting from the hip in response.

You are obviously anxious to hack your way through the jungle of historical controversy on your way to the path of truth. And we all learn the more we read, our views being modified by each author whose work we study closely.

What has horrified me are the repeated lies told about Napoleon, it is not just parochial, nationalistic bias, it is such sloppy history - something which also offends me. You might be surprised that I can criticize him along with the best of them. But when around nine out of ten British historians castigate him for, it seems at times, merely being born, I feel someone ought occasionally to put the other side. After all, isn't the most British thing of all to support the underdog?

The English crews of the Bellerophon and the Northumberland, who actually grew to like Napoleon when they met him in person, were far more 'British' in my view than the scions of privileged families who took it for granted that they should have everything simply because of their accident of birth.

Napoleon himself, incidentally was far prouder of his domestic achievements than his military exploits - which were usually foisted upon him by the divine right monarchs of the period. He knew that, no matter how many times he defeated them, they would still be kings, whereas, if he lost badly once, that would be the end of his Empire, and so it proved. Therefore, it stands to reason that he would not keep pushing the boat out simply for the sheer hell of it.

There is also a Wellington-Sharp cult now, thanks to Bernard Cornwall, who people need to be reminded is an author, not an historian. I like Sean Bean, he's a Sheffelder from my neck of the woods, but Sharpe is not history and the 95th Rifles did not save civilization as we know it.

I agree that his biggest mistake was the invasion of Russia. But we only know that with hindsight. Most of the soldiers at the time, including his foreign allies, were convinced that he would be victorious once again. Anthony Brett-James' eyewitness history proves this, by repeating the letters many of the officers and men wrote home at the time. And the officer corps of the time, be they Prussian, Bavaria, Italian or whatever, were professional soldiers who made a career out of fighting for whomsoever. Marshal Augerau is a classic example as he fought for Russia, Prussia, and maybe even Turkey before supporting Napoleon.

The Italians fought magnificently for Napoleon in 1812, especially at Malojaroslavets. Why would they have done that if they weren't professionals fighting for a man they were literally prepared to die for? As were the Poles - as loyal as Napoleon's Guard and just as brave. Their taking of the pass at SomoSierra in Spain is breathtaking in its audacity, a greater feat than the later Charge of the Light Brigade.

Had Napoleon put Eugene in charge in Vilna in 1812 when he had to dash back to Paris after the Malet conspiracy (with the support of all his senior officers incidentally), the remnants of the Grand Army would have fared much better. Here we get to the nepotism issue. Eugene was his adopted son, but Murat was a king and second only to Napoleon in the new aristocracy of mainly 'commoners' inaugurated by Napoleon. Hence the weeping cavalier, pining for his family in sunny Naples, who was braver than even Ney when he led his cavalry into battle was a disastrous choice. He soon skeddaled and Eugene had to pick up the pieces.

The highest form of nepotism was, of course, the royal families of the time. Hence 'Monsieur', the Comte d'Artois, believed he had been put on earth by God himself to rule the poor peasants with divine right. Louis XVIII believe the same. We got rid of that nonsense during the time of Cromwell. People often forget that there was a Revolution here 150 years before the French one - they were johnny-come-latelys. Divine right was an anachronism that was glaringly wrong to the majority of Frenchmen at the time. However, after the chaos of the Revolution, Napoleon knew that there had to be order in society. Hence he created his own nobility. Although he believed in careers open to talent and every soldier having a 'baton in his knapsack', he wasn't for democracy as we know it. The kings of the time, however, harked back to the time of Solomon!

As Runciman, Abbott, Cronin and Elting make clear, Napoleon was leagues ahead of the other rulers of his period. And he was far more popular than any of them - the Italians and Poles also revered him. In the depths of Russia, given help by Lithuanian peasant, Bourgogne and Picart, lost members of Napoleon's Guard, wanted to pay their protector. All the old man wanted was a shiny button with Napoleon's face upon it! How did an ignorant old peasant, whose house was buried in the depths of the Lithuanian forest, even know about Napoleon? But such was his effect upon Europe at that time.

Heine was a German fan of Napoleon as were Goethe and the later philosopher Nietzsche. When Heine was visiting England, he made a trip to the London docks. He saw lots of Moslem vessels and, being a friendly chap, he wanted to greet their crews. He called out 'Mohammed' and was greeted by a host of grinning faces. The foreigners were obviously anxious to give a suitable reply. To a man, they cried' Bonaparte!"

I could go on, I have read a couple of hundred books about Napoleon, roughly three against to every one for him. But most of the 'against' happen to be written by British authors. Why aren't I surprisedsmiley - smiley Goethe wore the Legion of Honour medal given to him by Napoleon when he had his portrait painted by Kolb in 1821, the year of the Emperor's death.

Heine worshipped Napoleon all his life. Like all great men, he had his faults, but he was a far better man, ruler, husband, and son than the rank lowlife that adorned the European thrones of his time. The Bourbons paid thousands of francs for writers to disparage him. Pitt and D'Artois' terrorism was hidden even from the full British Cabinet, let alone Parliament and the people.

One final note. Why was Wellington short of cavalry at Waterloo? Because British politicians used most of their cavalry to keep the people down at home. Peterloo should be as well known to our fellow citizens as Waterloo - but it ain't.



Post 4


Ah yes the Peterloo massacre - that is one thing rarely mentioned in the UK. The UK now is not the same as it was then and the ideals of Waterloo and the general Napoleonic wars are now painted as a fight for freedom against oppression. That is about as innacurate as one can get to be sure.

You clearly know a lot more about this subject than I. smiley - smiley
It did occur to me earlier the point about Royalty being as you call it the highest form of nepotism - you are of course correct in that. "Redefining nepotism" was myself just indulging in some hyperbole I think. I guess my original point really was that the revolutionary ideal of ability being the prime determinant of getting to positions of power and responsibility doesn't really fit hand in glove with making one's son King of Rome and Brother King of Spain. smiley - winkeye

>Napoleon himself, incidentally was far prouder of his domestic achievements than his military exploits<
And those achievements have stuck of course - even in the UK the system is far more 'napoleonic' than many would care to admit I think. Certainly it's closer to that than the regime of Pitt the Younger. Wasn't William Wilberforce subject to accusations of daring to entertain seditious forces such as Benjamin Franklin?
How does the UK regard Benjamin Franklin now? smiley - bigeyes

It's always good to reexamine things. It's odd you showed up now as I was reminded I'd written these articles the other day when someone on the site decided that Napoleon was "first and foremost a mass murderer". Oh dear, I wonder how they feel about Nelson or Wellington? Both were real butchers.
History is written by the victors and sadly that sort of thing is the prevailing opinion among the masses it seems.

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