...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.
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 fall was as fast as his meteoric rise to power had been. 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 the modern Europe. This article will trace the major events in the life of the 'little corporal'1 that led him to power in France. The second article will tell of how his excessive warring eventually led to his downfall and exile.
The Early Years
Napoleon Bonaparte was born to a middle class family on the Mediterranean island of Corsica on 15th August, 1769. Corsica had only just been sold to France by the Italian republic of Genoa and so he was not of French origin. French was always to remain a second language to him. This has led to him being compared to the later Adolf Hitler, a man from an ostensibly foreign land becoming the supreme leader.2
His formative years were quiet for a man who would come to dominate the world but he proved highly intelligent in areas such as mathematics and was an avid reader and workaholic. His talent for mathematics was later to lead to training as an officer in the French artillery and this was the platform with which he began his rise through the military ranks.
Corsica is an island that to this day has a proud and independent tradition and 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 were getting progressively more unhappy with their treatment at the hands of the rich and decadent nobility that had ruled their land for the previous centuries. In 1789 a National Assembly in Paris had defied the King and the representatives of the nobility and the church to demand far-reaching reform of an unfair administration. In the summer, the citizens of Paris rose and famously stormed the Bastille prison, beginning 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 fraternité.'
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 had 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 would not have been possible before.
The First Coalition
The revolution in France sent shockwaves through the constitutional monarchies in Europe and there was a rise in anti-royalist political factions throughout the continent. This led to a continental wide desire to put down this revolution and 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 where Marie-Antoinette's family were on the throne.
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 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte was admitted to the French military academy at Brienne. He was shunned as an outsider by most of his peers and this led him to throw all his weight into his studies. He did however, have certain connections to the revolutionary leadership in Paris4 and so 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.
In 1792 the war of the First Coalition broke out when Austria, Great Britian and Prussia declared war on France in an attempt to put down this dangerous revolution that threatened their own thrones. The Terror that had arisen in France in the post-revolutionary excesses had killed or driven away many of France's finest generals and at first things went badly for the French with their armies consisting largely of poorly trained mobs under sometimes unimaginative leadership. In this climate, Napoleon gained his first commision 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 poor 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 French troops. This man was quite happy to take a back seat and let the energetic Napoleon lead in reality and Napoleon distinguished himself by taking two crucial forts that guarded the town and throwing out the British fleet from the port with great destruction. After this (essentially minor) victory, Napoleon used his charisma to claim it as his victory alone and received many plaudits. His reputation was on the rise and he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
Following this he joined the campaigning in Italy but this was short lived as the unstable political atmosphere in Paris had led to a regime change. The Terror in Paris had left the Directory appallingly unpopular with no-one feeling safe from persecution and execution. Robespierre was supplanted and found himself a victim of the Guillotine. Bonaparte, being a known associate was arrested and imprisoned and a similar fate seemed to be awaiting him, also. Fortunately for him, 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 Italy and one in Germany. The French army in Italy was now given to Bonaparte to lead. This was regarded as the poorer of the two campaigning armies, essentially a ragtag mob, and Napoleon was not expected to do well. The authorities regarded him with not a little wariness as he was a rising star and was begining to be seen as a threat by those in the top echelons of the 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 that made them 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 amongst his troops and incredibly popular back in France where war booty was expanding the country's coffers and restoring wealth back to a country impoverished by revolution and war.6 Furthermore, Napoleon was now revealed as a general and tactician of almost unparalleled brilliance. His armies stunned the Austrians with victory after victory and soon he had thrown the Austrians out of Italy altogether bringing Italy under French control. He was also never far from the action himself and was termed 'the little corporal'
by his own men as he was seen loading field guns in the thick of the action, a job usually done by corporals. All this had been achieved with a numerically inferior army by a combination of inventive tactics, swift manoevering, daring and not a little hard fighting.
The campaigning of Napleon in northern Italy led to the Austrians suing for peace and he now acted without consulting Paris. He signed a treaty with Austria on his own authority which established several Italian republics which were governed by the Italians themselves. For this he is seen by some as the first person to move Italy towards unification. 8
His belief in himself as a man of destiny had grown and he now behaved like a king. The French leadership were now on full alert to this brilliant general with a fiercely loyal army at his back. He was also a superstar celebrity in France having brought glory and the spoils of a victorious war to their country.
After the Italian campaigns ended in such glory Napoleon was eager for further adventures to raise his stature further. In addition, the French leaders were keen to keep him at arms length and away from Paris. They were enthusiastic therefore, when he hit upon the idea of attacking the Middle East interests of Great Britain, particularly in Egypt. This would hopefully weaken Britain economically. It was they who had largely bankrolled the First Coalition
against the Republic and would win France colonies for their own profit. 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 this year 1798. Napoleon wasted no time in winning his first battle upon landing at Alexandria. He then marched on into Egypt and defeated the ruling Marmelukes 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 Pharoahs. It was this expedition which discovered the famous Rosetta Stone.
The French army marched on Cairo and took it but suffered a major set back when their fleet was utterly destroyed by the brilliant naval action of Admiral Horatio Nelson in what was termed the Battle of the Nile. They were now cut off from their supplies and from then on, this limited the effectiveness of the Middle East campaign. War continued on into Syria where Napoleon pursued Turkish armies but plague and local rebellions held back some impressive military successes and eventually Napoleon returned to Cairo and sailed secretly back to France with his closest aides.
The war of the Second Coalition had gone badly for France elsewhere and their gains in 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. The government was not pleased when Napoleon reappeared suddenly in Paris and was even less pleased when he staged the Coup de Brumaire10 which saw the Directory abolished and Napoleon sieze power to became joint First Consul alongside two others - Abbe Sieyes and 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 now began a military campaign to reverse the losses in Italy that had been suffered when he was absent in Egypt. This again saw him defeat the hapless Austrians as he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the battle of Morengo. 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 at 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 and this 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. This latter business was hated amongst the old Jacobin revolutionaries and was seen 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 and these assassination attempts were used to ruthlessly eliminate his known enemies, 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 that had preceded it.
In 1804 Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France
12 taking the title Napoleon the 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 named Empress.
Emperor Napoleon? Eyebrows were having a hard time staying lower than the forehead in old revolutionary circles. Were the revolutionary ideals of Napoleon begining 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. This caused uproar in Europe and the ruling monarchies of the continent, still raw from repeated humiliating military defeats were turned against him forever and now formed a Third Coalition determined to remove him from power.
The Third coalition involved the ever present Great Britain and Austria along with Russia, Sweden and some minor German principalities. Napoleon resolved to defeat this coaltion 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', it ate food from strange new tin cans, it fought in columns and it destroyed nearly every army in its path in 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 plan was scuppered by Nelson's finest hour when he defeated a combined French/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. This left Britain the leading naval power in the world until the world wars of the 20th century. Britain and the coalition were delighted with this and thought the time was ripe to simultaneously invade France. Separate forces were to invade Italy and Bavaria, both of which were under control of the French, it was thought that the Grand Army was still at camp in Boulogne. They thought wrong.
In secret, Napoleon had moved the bulk of his Grand Army into Bavaria and with a brilliant piece of manoevering, encircled an Austrian army under the unfortunate General Mack before he knew what was going on. He was forced to surrender with barely a shot being fired. He 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 Napoleon 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?
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 of his time in power.
10Brumaire was the name of a month in the new calendar introduced by the Revolutionaries.11The metric system12Inspiring Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. Prior to this, Napoleon had been Beethoven's idol. His self proclamation as emperor ruined this and his symphony became a lament to a fallen hero rather than the originally intended tribute.