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I've been reading Rothenburg's The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon and Parker's Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, and while I realize there were a number of factors that played into Napoleon's eventual defeat (British economic strength/naval strength, ineptitude of Napoleon's siblings, guerrilla warfare in Spain), it seemed to me as I was reading that one strength of the Napoleonic army seemed to backfire horribly.
(Perhaps simplistic analysis ahead)
The army's ability to forgo food supply trains and live off the land (though the army had to split up to make use of this) gave Napoleonic armies their mobility (allowing Napoleon to pull off some amazing forced marches on his enemies), but at the same time, I wonder if this very tactic alienated otherwise friendly "host" countries and rulers - and perhaps Napoleon's defeat in Spain can partly be linked to this strategic practice (Russia's a can of worms that I'm not going to bother trying to analyse yet)
After all, a Spanish farmer can't be too happy about a bunch of French soldiers coming in and taking his food supposedly by order of King Joseph (José I). He might later join the resistance as a result! Is there any further reading on this subject or can someone who is more versed in Napoleonic diplomacy/strategy answer if there is such a direct connection between a fundamental Napoleonic era strategy and diplomatic/strategic repercussions?
EDIT: I did say this was a simplistic analysis, and perhaps I should have used Russia as an example after all - there are few campaigns that better illustrate the importance of logistics in warfare, and perhaps the argument can be made that the practice of foraging, which had served Napoleon well in central Europe, could not be applied in Russia (scorched earth tactics along with the naturally bad pickings from the environment). So Napoleon overstretched the logistical ability of his army, assuming he could move in the same fashion as he had in Italy more than a decade ago.
Two decrees, that of Berlin in November 1806 and Milan in December 1807 ordered all allies of France, as well as all countries who wanted to be considered neutral, to cease trade with the British. The name ‘Continental Blockade’ derives from the ambition to cut Britain off from the entire continent of mainland Europe. Britain countered with the Orders in Council which helped cause the War of 1812 with the USA. After these declarations both Britain and France were blockading each other (or trying to.)
Napoleon believed Britain was on the verge of collapse and thought damaged trade (a third of British exports went to Europe), which would drain Britain’s bullion, cause inflation, cripple the economy and cause both a political collapse and a revolution, or at least stop British subsidies to Napoleon’s enemies. But for this to work the Continental System needed to be applied for a long time over the continent, and the fluctuating wars meant it was only truly effective in mid 1807-08, and mid 1810-12 in the gaps, British goods flooded out. South America was also opened to Britain as the latter helped Spain and Portugal, and Britain’s exports stayed competitive. Even so, in 1810-12 Britain suffered a depression, but the strain didn’t affect the war effort. Napoleon chose to ease gluts in French production by licensing limited sales to Britain ironically, this sent grain to Britain during their worst harvest of the wars. In short, the system failed to break Britain. However, it did break something else.
How Napoleon Fell from Power and It’s Effects
The fall of Napoleon was a very important time and its effects were devastating, but also, to some, good. The results of his fall from power changed the world forever. Napoleon’s fall from power was a major turning point in world history and had 3 important effects: changed national boundaries, conquered nations were completely rulerless, which lead to rebellions beginning to break out all over the world.
It all started because Napoleon wanted more power. “Napoleons strategy aimed not just at establishing a stable limit to his empire in Europe… (Riley).” Napoleon’s goal was to have an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the other side of Europe. He couldn’t settle for Europe “…but at global domination (Riley).” He planned to achieve this by pure military strength. “Napoleon, his allies and some of his opponents, should be distinguished from that of his implacable enemy, Britain (Riley).” Britain was Napoleon’s biggest enemy. They were a major problem to him. No matter what, he knew he couldn’t beat their naval power.
How did Napoleon fall from power in the first place? In truth, he and his own men caused it. He made 4 major mistakes, and his men made one that lead to another. Napoleon’s four mistakes were the Continental System, the Peninsular Wars, the invasion of Russia, and trying to make people more French. His mens’ mistake was spreading Enlightenment ideas to conquered nations, which lead to nationalism.
The first major mistake that Napoleon made was the Continental System. “Napoleon’s weapon of choice was his Continental system, an economic blockade that sought to prevent Britain from trading at any port in Europe (Hindley).” Napoleon wanted to break Britain down by blockading them from ports, giving them economic problems. It was basically an economic war. But Britain would not be so easily beaten. “Great Britain retaliated by the orders in council, which forbade nearly all trade between England and any nation obeying the Berlin Decree (“Continental System”).” This didn’t end up well for Napoleon. Napoleon and the others blockading him ended up getting blockaded back. Since the British controlled the seas, they, virtually, controlled trade. Napoleon wasn’t able to get some resources because of this.
The second major mistake that Napoleon made was the Peninsular Wars. The Peninsular Wars were the wars that Napoleon fought when trying to take over Spain and other countries in the Iberian Peninsula. This war cost Napoleon dearly. “The French suffered seven thousand casualties and two thousand dead. Graham lost more than twelve hundred (Hindley).” Graham killed and hurt over 7x the amount he lost in the battle! In the end Napoleon lost the Peninsular Wars. Great Britain sent help and, France and Britain together, defeated Napoleon. “As he wrote in his memoirs, ‘that unfortunate war destroyed me it divided my forces, multiplied my obligations, undermined my morale. All the circumstances of my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot (Hindley).’”
Napoleon’s third major mistake was the invasion of Russia. “On June 24 th , 1812 Napoleon crossed the river Niemen and entered Russian territory with a multi-national army of between 600,000 and 800,000 men (Hartley).” He called this army the Grand Army. As Napoleon advanced through Russia, the Russian armies retreated. “As the Russian armies retreated, Napoleon was drawn into the heartland of Russia (Hartley).” While the Russian armies were retreating, they burned down their towns and farms. What Napoleon didn’t realize is that this was part of Alexander’s (the leader of Russia) cunning strategy to defeat Napoleon. He pulled Napoleon deeper and deeper into Russia. Napoleon had left in the summer to reach Russia, but when he got there, it was winter!
Too late, Napoleon realized that he was running out of supplies, and that his men didn’t were nowhere near prepared for a Russian winter! Napoleon’s men starved and froze to death! When Napoleon tried to retreat:
“he found that Napoleon’s army suffered continual harassment from the merciless Russian army. Stalked by hunger, subzero temperatures, and the deadly lances of the Cossacks, the decimated army reached the Berezina River late in November, near the border with French-occupied Lithuania. However, the river was unexpectedly thawed, and the Russians had destroyed the bridges at Borisov. Napoleon’s engineers managed to construct two makeshift bridges at Studienka, and on November 26 the bulk of his army began to cross the river. On November 29, the Russians pressed from the east, and the French were forced to burn the bridges, leaving some 10,000 stragglers on the other side. The Russians largely abandoned their pursuit after that point, but thousands of French troops continued to succumb to hunger, exhaustion, and the cold.” (Napoleon enters Moscow)
The Cossacks constantly harassed Napoleon. “’My cavalry is in tatters, many horses are dying,’ dictated Napoleon, the once-feared leader showing the strain of his calamitous Russian invasion, which halved his army (“NAPOLEON’S LETTER FROM RUSSIA REVEALS WEAKENED EMPEROR”).” ” “The empire lost 570,000 men, 200,000 horses and 1,050 guns (Riley).” The guns could easily be replaced, but not the men and the horses. “By the time Paris received the letter three days later, the Russian czar’s seat of power was in flames and the diminished French army was in retreat ((“NAPOLEON’S LETTER FROM RUSSIA REVEALS WEAKENED EMPEROR”) “The defeat shattered the myth of Napoleonic invincibility and rekindled the coalition against him. (Riley).”
Napoleon’s fourth major mistake was trying to make people more French. He wanted people to obey French customs and laws, and to do the same things as French people. This enraged many people. Peoples wanted to rebel against him because of this. Some did, but most people didn’t, even though they wanted to.
Napoleon’s mens’ first mistake was to spread Enlightenment ideas. The French, during the French Revolution, had used Enlightenment ideas and the American Revolution as motivators to rebel against the absolute monarch. When his men spread Enlightenment ideas, particularly John Locke’s ideas, people were inspired to fight for freedom. Many rebels were inspired by his ideas of “natural rights.” These rights are the rights of life, liberty, and property. Another of Locke’s ideas was consent of the governed. This means that the government can’t do ANYTHING without the permission of the people. This would allow people to decide on laws and not just have them passed without a personal say in it. Lastly, was the idea of a social contract. This means that if the government doesn’t do what the people want, they take too much power into their own hands, or do anything else that the people don’t agree with, they have the right to rebel against the government, abolish the government, and form a new one to replace the old one.
This led to the sixth, and final, mistake that caused Napoleon’s fall. Since people didn’t want to turn to French customs and laws, the birth of nationalism happened. What is nationalism? It is loyalty to your country and to your culture. It is the belief that your biggest loyalty is not to your country’s leader or border, but to aspects of common history, language, religion, and nationality. Napoleon’s men also His soldiers also spoke about changes in the government and revolution. People in many of the countries he had conquered began rebelling against him.
His problems with rebels didn’t stop in Europe. People were even rebelling in the New World! Haiti, under French occupation at the time knew that Napoleon was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. They took the chance to rebel. With Toussaint L’Overture as their leader, they rebelled against Napoleon. He sent soldiers to handle it, but they couldn’t stop the mass rebellion. Napoleon said that he wouldn’t harm Toussaint and said he wanted to meet him, and Toussaint came with official papers from Napoleon stating that they would meet peacefully. Under Napoleon’s orders they betrayed the peace and took him prisoner. He was put in a French prison up on a mountain, and his punishment was to die from cold and starvation there. But Haiti still won freedom, the 1st Latin American country to gain independence, and the first successful slave revolt (to win a country).
With Haiti to take care of, Napoleon was distracted. He decided to give up on Haiti, signing a treaty declaring their independence. He also sold a big chunk of land in the New World to the U.S. (the Louisiana Purchase, because he decided that both weren’t worth the effort.
The first effect of Napoleon’s fall from power was that national boundaries were out of place. During the Napoleonic Wars, many countries borders were changed (many of them smaller). To fix this problem, the Congress of Vienna was made. What is the Congress of Vienna? It is a group of delegates from Austria, Britain, Russia, Prussia, and France. Austria, Britain, Russia, the Netherlands and Prussia were the key ones who helped to defeat France, but the Netherland wasn’t included in the Congress of Vienna. Austria, Britain, Russia, and Prussia felt that France shouldn’t be invited, considering that they had created the problem in the first place. Austria’s delegate was Prince Klemens von Meternich. Britain’s was Lord Castlereagh. Russia’s was Alexander the first. Prussia’s was Frederick William the third. And France’s was Charles Maurice de Tallyrand. They decided to make compensation to some nations. The Congress of Vienna gave some nations more land to make it up. The nations that they gave land were the ones who had fought to help defeat Napoleon. The Netherlands received Belgium. Russia got Finland and part of Poland. Prussia got the other part of Poland. And Great Britain got control of various colonies.
The second effect was that the conquered nations were completely leaderless. Napoleon had taken all their positions as ruler during the Napoleonic Wars. After his defeat, the Congress of Vienna had to fix this problem as well. To solve this problem, the Congress of Vienna reinstated the absolute monarchs who had ruled before Napoleon took control of their nations. Absolute monarchs are kings that have full power, and you have to do whatever they say without question. The absolute monarchs quickly went back to their old ways. They were conservators, wanting to return things how they were the previous era before. They wanted to stay with traditional ideas. The absolute monarchs and the other upper-class people wanted to stay in power. The absolute monarchs wanted to keep all the power for themselves as before. But the Liberals didn’t want this. These were people who said that individuals have certain innate rights and liberties. They loved the Enlightenment ideas, and the idea of nationalism. Radicals also wanted this, but they were willing to actually DO something. The absolute monarchs and upper-class people/nobles reacted by ignoring them, acting as if Enlightenment ideas didn’t exist, as if they wanted to erase it out of peoples’ minds. They completely ignored them.
This lead to the final reason. Radicals wanted rights and they were willing to fight for it. Rebellions began breaking out all over Europe. Nationalists rebelled against the absolute monarchs. They resentment of the traditional ideas and the conservationist drove them over the edge. They wanted to be self-ruled, self-governed, have control over their own lives and not be bossed around by the government. Inspired by the victory of the American Revolution, by Enlightenment ideas, and by the idea of nationalism, Radicals led these rebellions and nationalist movements. The Liberals followed the Radicals’ lead and rebelled with them.
The fall of Napoleon was a major turning point in world history. It was caused by the Continental System, the Peninsular Wars, the invasion of Russia, trying to make people more French, and the spread of Enlightenment ideas, which lead to nationalistic ideas. The effects changed the world as well. Many nations had boundary changes, rulerless nations swept countries into confusion, and there was widespread rebellion against absolute monarchs and other rulers. These changes caused a major difference in human history. The world was changed as the people of their time new it. It caused many things that otherwise wouldn’t have happened to happen in recent and the present-time world.
Columbia University, Press. “Continental System.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. History Reference Center. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Hartley, Janet. “Napoleon In Russia.” History Today 41.1 (1991): 28. World History Collection. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Hindley, Meredith. “The Spanish ULCER: Napoleon, BRITAIN, And The Siege Of CADIZ.” Humanities 31.1 (2010): 18. History Reference Center. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Riley, Jonathan. “How Good Was Napoleon?.” History Today 57.7 (2007): 37-39. History Reference Center. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
Napoleon: the rise and fall of a dictator
Napoleon was a soldier who made himself Emperor of the French and defined early 19th-century Europe through the Napoleonic Wars. Follow the ups and downs of the great conqueror, who was born a Corsican outsider but rose to become Europe's greatest military mind, only to spend his final years as an exile on St Helena
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Published: April 6, 2021 at 5:02 pm
Each day at Longwood House was not very different from the last. The man living – or confined – there would be awoken early, sip a cup of tea or coffee in his white pique dressing gown and red Morocco slippers, then wash from a silver basin.
Mornings could include a ride around the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, 1,000 miles from anywhere, but he found it humiliating to be followed by a British officer so put a stop to these excursions.
Instead Napoleon kept himself to the damp, windswept and rat-infested house, which stood alone so as better to be guarded by 125 sentries during the day, 72 at night. He staved off boredom by taking long baths, reading, talking with companions and dictating his memoirs.
Gardening became another keen hobby as he considered it expansion of territory against his jailors. In the evenings, he entertained his few friends with a five-course meal and reciting French writers such as Molière, Corneille and Racine.
The longer he could make these last, he remarked, meant a “victory against time”. After retiring, he slept on an iron camp bed, a reminder of his glory days in battle. This is how Napoleon passed the final five and a half years of his life in the wake of the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
This had been the man who conquered continental Europe the greatest military mind of his, perhaps any, time a man whose battlefield nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, had described him as being worth 40,000 men. He had risen to be emperor of France, then fallen to be prisoner of St Helena.
Napoleon on St Helena: how exile became the French emperor’s last battle
He’d already escaped one island internment, but Napoleon’s banishment to St Helena in 1815 was permanent. All at sea in the Atlantic, the fallen French ruler’s final years were a battle of a different kind…
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Who was Napoleon?
Napoleon’s career began 30 years before Waterloo, in 1785, when he graduated from the military academy in Paris. Although skilled in his studies and a ravenous reader of military strategies, it had been a trying education for the Corsican-born Napoleone di Buonaparte (he changed it to the more French-sounding name in 1796) as classmates always regarded him as an outsider, not helped by his strange accent.
When his father died, the 15-year-old became head of his family. He ended up bringing them to France in 1793 after relations in Corsica, where he had advocated independence from the French, broke down. Yet while the beloved homeland rejected him, his adopted nation offered opportunities to flourish.
Revolution swept through the country bringing about a new era, allowing the ambitious Napoleon to rise through the ranks. For his pivotal role in capturing the city of Toulon from royalists, during which he picked up a wound to the thigh, he became a brigadier-general at the age of 24.
Coming to the rescue of the republic again in October 1795, he quashed a revolt in Paris that threatened to overthrow the National Convention. For this, he became military adviser to the new government, the Directory, and commander-in-chief of the French Army of Italy.
Just before leaving on his highly successful Italian campaign, Napoleon became utterly besotted by, and married, a woman six years older than him, a widow of the guillotine named Joséphine de Beauharnais. The countless letters professing his love (often using extremely fruity language: “A kiss on your heart and one much lower down, much lower!”) did not stop her taking another lover. When he got suspicious, his tone dramatically shifted: “I don’t love you, not at all on the contrary, I detest you. You’re a naughty, gawky, foolish slut”.
Was Napoleon a good commander?
While his marriage may have been tumultuous, the same could not be said about his record on the battlefield. The campaign gave early demonstrations of his military prowess: devastating speed of soldier movement, marshalling a mobile artillery, and concealing his true deployments to trick the enemy. The ‘Little Corporal’ returned to France a hero.
Napoleon became the Directory’s only choice to lead their desired invasion of Britain. Although he quickly dismissed that idea, declaring that the French stood little chance at sea against the British Navy, he did suggest that an attack on Egypt could cripple British trade routes to India. It was a canny move and got off to a victorious start in mid-1798 with Napoleon’s 30,000 men flowing through Malta, landing at Alexandria and overcoming Egyptian forces at the battle of the Pyramids on 21 July.
By using defensive ‘squares’, the French reportedly lost only 29 men in exchange for thousands of cavalry and infantry. The campaign, however, fell apart when the British obliterated the fleet at the battle of the Nile on 1 August.
With his army stranded on land, Napoleon marched into Syria in early 1799 and began a brutal series of conquests, only being halted at Acre, in modern-day Israel. Napoleon had a reputation for being loved by his men, but theories also suggest he tested their loyalty dearly by having plague-ridden soldiers poisoned so they would not slow the retreat.
Yet this ultimate failure did nothing to ruin Napoleon’s reputation or rise to power. Internal rifts and military losses had made the French government vulnerable, and he spotted an opportunity. Abandoning his army and hightailing it back to Paris, he and a small group staged a bloodless coup on 9 November, making him, at the age of 30, the most powerful man in France.
The uncertainty that let Napoleon become First Consul had persisted since the start of the French Revolution, so he knew he needed stability. A military man to the core, he went on a characteristic offensive by driving the Austrians out of Italy at the battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800, while back home he set about building and reorganising his new Grande Armée and establishing new training academies.
By 1802, he had managed to buy himself time by signing the Treaty of Amiens with the British to restore peace in Europe, albeit an uneasy one. It only lasted a year.
What defined Napoleon’s years as First Consul were his wide-ranging reforms, designed with a mix of pragmatism and Enlightenment thinking. The Napoleonic Code rewrote civil law, while the judicial, police and education systems all underwent significant changes.
Napoleon improved infrastructure founded the country’s first central bank instituted the Légion d’honneur to recognise military and civil achievements (it remains the country’s highest decoration) and completed the Louisiana Purchase, where France sold huge tracts of land to the United States for millions. And although far from religious himself, Napoleon signed the Concordat in 1801 with the Pope, reconciling the Catholic Church with the Revolution.
Keeping things civil: the Napoleonic code
Near the end of his life, Napoleon declared: “My real glory is not the 40 battles I won, for Waterloo’s defeat will destroy the memory of as many victories. What nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code.”
The Napoleonic Code replaced the confusing, contradictory and cluttered laws of pre-revolutionary France with a single, up-to-date set of laws.
It took four years for the country’s top jurists – with the help of Napoleon himself – to draft its 2,281 articles. Enacted on 21 March 1804, the code concerns individual and group civil rights, as well as property rights compiled with a mix of liberalism and conservatism. So while all male citizens were granted equal rights, the code established women, in keeping with the general law of the time, as subordinate to their fathers or husbands.
Written so clearly and rationally, and with a desire to be accessible to all, the code was introduced to lands under Napoleon’s control and went on to influence civil codes around Europe and even the Americas. Its impact can still be seen in laws today.
How did Napoleon become emperor?
All the while, Napoleon made himself more powerful. In 1802, a referendum overwhelmingly anointed him as ‘consul for life’, a title that nonetheless still proved insufficient. Following the uncovering of an assassination attempt, Napoleon decided the security of his regime depended on a hereditary line of succession, so he made himself emperor. So France went from monarchy to revolution to empire in 15 years.
At Napoleon’s lavish coronation at Notre-Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804, Pope Pius VII presented the crown to the new emperor, who took it and placed it on his head, demonstrating how he reached the pinnacle of power in France by his own merit.
The corpulent ceremony must have upset a great number of revolutionaries, who saw too many similarities with the pomp of the royals they had removed. Their concern would only be exacerbated when Napoleon became King of Italy in 1805, handing out titles to family and friends, and creating a nobility once again. He wanted the countries of Europe to see that France reigned supreme, but this inevitably meant war.
The battle of Trafalgar (Horatio Nelson in his finest, if final, hour) once again confirmed British naval superiority and spoiled Napoleon’s hopes of an invasion for good. On land, though, the Grande Armée seemed invincible, thanks to their leader’s brilliantly conceived and executed strategies.
Napoleon demonstrated a mercurial ability to adapt to changing circumstances and still make quick commands. A year to the day after his coronation, he won his most spectacular victory at the battle of Austerlitz, followed by defeats for the Prussians and the Russians.
The resulting Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, signed on a raft in the middle of the Neman River, allowed Napoleon to return to France for the first time in 300 days. It added Russia to his ‘Continental System’ too – an attempt to diminish the British economy by forbidding trade with European powers and putting a price on their ships. Not all countries complied enthusiastically though. The most reluctant was Portugal, of which Napoleon then prepared another invasion.
Initially, French troops marched through Spain with the permission of king Charles IV and occupied Lisbon, inciting revolts on the Iberian Peninsula. Napoleon escalated by appointing his brother Joseph as the new Spanish King and personally leading his Grande Armée across the Ebro River.
During that 1808 campaign, he crushed the Spanish and drove the British troops to the coast, before having to turn his attention to a new Austrian threat in Bavaria. There, as the Peninsular War continued, Napoleon lost to an army at least twice the size of his at the Battle of Aspern-Essling in May 1809. He quickly avenged his first defeat in a decade at Wagram, his largest engagement to date with his 154,000-strong force beating back 158,000 Austrians.
By 1811, Napoleon’s empire was at its greatest, encompassing Italy and parts of Germany and Holland. And he finally had a male heir. As he had no children with Joséphine, he divorced her and swiftly married Marie-Louise, the 18-year-old daughter of the Austrian Emperor. She gave birth to a son, named after his father and given the title ‘King of Rome’. Napoleon had been the most powerful figure in Europe for more than a decade, and now looked to establish a dynasty.
What was Napoleon’s downfall?
Then came a blunder, a fatally arrogant overreach, which brought his empire crumbling down. “In five years,” he declared, “I shall be master of the world. There only remains Russia, but I shall crush her.” Having amassed an immense force of more than 600,000, Napoleon marched into Russia in June 1812 to deter them from forming an alliance with Britain and to drag them into line over the Continental System. By the time the dregs of his Grande Armée stumbled out that November – some 400,000 having perished from starvation, a freezing winter and a merciless foe – many thought Napoleon could never recover.
Suddenly, the political map of Europe shifted. Countries defied Napoleon by pulling their soldiers from his ranks. The British, Spanish and Portuguese pushed the French back over the Pyrenees in the Peninsular War and another coalition formed against him. Napoleon still proved formidable on the battlefield, but the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813 saw the Russians, Prussians, Austrians and Swedes achieve the decisive victory. The ‘Battle of the Nations’, as it became known, left 38,000 French dead or wounded and 20,000 captured.
France found itself attacked on all frontiers and its people, who had cheered Napoleon when he seemed invincible, now grew discontent over the ongoing wars, conscription and the numbers dying in battle. The legislative assembly, the Senate and his own generals turned on Napoleon, and on 6 April 1814 the emperor was left with no choice but to abdicate. In his place, the monarchy would be restored to France under King Louis XVIII.
Elba and the Hundred Days
It was agreed to send Napoleon into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would have sovereignty, an annual income and a guard of 400 volunteers. Perhaps to go out on his own terms, the 45-year-old attempted suicide by taking a poison pill he had carried since Russia, but it had lost its potency and failed to kill him. Instead, he arrived on Elba on 4 May, and many thought that would be the end of Napoleon.
They were wrong. His time on the island lasted less than a year. Facing a life on Elba without his wife and son (who had been sent to Austria), being denied his income and being aware of how the Bourbon Restoration of the monarchy rankled with the French people, he plotted a return.
Napoleon landed in France on 1 March 1815 with a guard of several hundred soldiers and headed north to Paris, gathering support along the way. When he reached the capital on 20 March, Louis XVIII had already fled and Napoleon, with an army already behind him, took power immediately. So began his second rule, known as the Hundred Days.
With an alliance of Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia preparing for war against the “Corsican ogre”, Napoleon wasted no time mustering 120,000 men for an offensive strike into Belgium. He landed the first blow at the battle of Ligny on 16 June, but at Waterloo could not repeat his earlier military glories. Following his final defeat, Napoleon abdicated again on 22 June and went back into exile. This time, though, the British chose their distant, remote territory St Helena as Napoleon’s prison.
Napoleon’s second exile on St Helena
It took ten weeks for HMS Bellerophon to get to the South Atlantic island and it soon became clear early on that any hope of escape – and there were plans – would be extremely slim. The British had Napoleon constantly under watch and the sight of an approaching boat would signal some 500 guns to be manned.
So Napoleon, cut off from the world he had shaped for so long, settled into a life that would be nothing but tedious when compared to the achievements of his life. All he could do was relive them for his memoirs, which have helped define his legacy and reputation ever since. Napoleon’s health began to fail in 1817, limiting what he could do with his days even further.
He died, likely from stomach cancer, on 5 May 1821 at the age of 51, lying in that iron camp bed that reminded him of how he once conquered Europe.
St Helena will be hosting a series of events and special projects ahead of the bicentenary death of Napoleon in May 2021. To find out more visit napoleon200.org and plan your trip with St Helena Tourism.
The lasting impact of Napoleon's actions
In events known as the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue slaves started in 1791 a rebellion against French colonial rule, with governor Toussaint Louverture emerging as a revolutionary leader. The insurrection had successfully driven France to first abolish slavery across its empire in 1794.
Napoleon sent troops to overthrow Louverture and restore colonial order. Louverture was deported to France. Meanwhile, his fellow revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue were determined to resist Napoleon's reinstatement of slavery in 1802 and fought a brutal year-long war against the French. There are accounts of extreme violence.
Toussaint Louverture was the most prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution
In 1803, they defeated Napoleon's army. The following year, the revolutionaries set up an independent and free nation — Haiti. It was the world's first republic founded by former slaves and it banned slavery and the slave trade.
"Napoleon's defeat in Saint-Domingue is a little-known story. He lost the prized colony, sold Louisiana to the US and turned the page on the colonial project," Dominique Taffin said.
The consequences of Napoleon's actions, however, lasted long after the French exit from Saint-Domingue — in Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion Island, slavery remained in place until the French definitively abolished it in 1848.
Haiti too paid a heavy price. In 1825, France imposed an indemnity of 150 million francs (the modern equivalent of $21 billion / €17.5 billion) on Haiti, under threat of war, in order to compensate former slaveholders. Haiti didn't finish paying it off till 1947.
Was Napoleon's own strategy the cause of his downfall? - History
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history's best land generals. From a small island called Corsica, Napoleon joined the French army and quickly rose up in ranks. He eventually became the governor of France, and while he had that power, he made himself emperor. He ruled for over a decade and took over most of Europe. Eventually, the European powers took Napoleon out of control of France, and he got exiled from his country. The continent moved on and Napoleon died, but someone who had that much control must have had some sort of effect on the continent, and Napoleon was no exception. Napoleon’s biggest effect was the spread of nationalism, which later cause great World Wars.
As Napoleon expanded the French Empire, he took over many countries and led them to find an overpowering sense of nationalism. Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a nation. When his armies marched through other countries, it made them want to be strong with each other and support their country and keep other countries out. The countries set up stronger border controls to keep other people out and that troubled relationships with other countries. As time went on, the countries began to dislike each other and tension in Europe was high, and high tension leads to wars. These high tensions would lead to the biggest wars in the world.
Along with nationalism spreading throughout Europe, countries started to really focus on what a citizen really was, and this caused many controversies later. European countries started to put up boundaries around their countries and they didn't allow certain people in and out of them. For example, Germany kicked out all Jewish people and all Gypsies because of their strict nationalism laws. Germany did not allow certain people in their country because of the bold border that they put up. Along with Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Netherlands also put up strict laws. In the World History textbook, Beck shows how independent nations became, when he said "Switzerland was recognized as an independent nation" (672). With new countries creating their own idea of what a citizen was and what nationalism was, war began to break out. The Council of Vienna helped implement this idea because countries started to become more independent. It also separated many countries and got rid of many laws that were established during 19th century France.
The ideas of a perfect citizen carried out throughout time and ended up having major effects on not just Europe, but the whole world.
The long lasting effects that nationalism brought were extreme. Essentially, the World Wars were caused because of the idea of nationalism and the idea of what a true citizen was. Like I stated earlier, Germany created strict citizenship laws and those laws were a key cause to the World Wars. Along with the citizenship laws, the many treaties that Napoleon attempted to create caused later effects. The treaty between France and Austria signed during Napoleon's reign later affected the Treaty of Versailles. Overall, both World Wars were essentially caused by Napoleon's reign and the events that took place after he died.
Napoleon – Hitler, the improbable comparison
A purely ideological interpretation of history can impel historians to form erroneous conclusions on the nature of regimes and historical fact.
The Napoleonic episode offers a case study.
For a long time, historians were unable or unwilling to avoid simplification. Two sides – those “against” and those “for” Napoleon – clashed on a sterile battlefield where ideological monocausality defined the wars fought by the various European powers.
It is thus that one school of history, in a rather authoritarian step, came to place the First Empire in the category of “military dictatorship” with the aim of enhancing the Revolution's prestige: I sought to refute such a conclusion at the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe just a few years ago, and I shall not be returning to it here.
It is in a slightly similar vein, however, that this article will seek to discuss a more contemporary branch of this tree of historiography.
In general terms, this particular branch maintains the following idea: that the Napoleonic Wars can be reduced to a history in which a benevolent and liberal Britain rose up initially against bloodthirsty Jacobinism, and subsequently against Napoleon, to prevent the continent from falling under the yoke of a “tyranny” intent on subjugating it.
Thus Britain's Endseig was one of “good” over “evil”, a Manichaean vision which denies the inherent complexity of our world and its history. Such is the view presented, for example, by Henry Kissinger, in his synthetic work on European diplomacy.1
In a wild and anachronistic turn for the worse, this simplified, ideological vision was magnified further with the arrival of an even more absurd theory, one which enjoyed a certain success with a general public all too fond of simple ideas. It can be summarised in a single phrase: just like Hitler , Napoleon was defeated by the true defenders of common freedom.
This startling approach went on to find its methodological footing at the heart of one of the 1980s' burgeoning trends, the comparative biography.
This vogue enjoyed enormous success, notably with the monumental comparison of Hitler and Stalin, by Alan Bullock. In this case, the historian was comparing the biographies of two individuals who had lived and come up against each other at the same time and in the same context.
Whilst nevertheless requiring a sensitive touch, this new craze had a chronological and factual basis that could be, at a push, built on the idea of a shared time-period and the fact that the protagonists were involved in the same events.
However, this comparative trend opened the door – initially in the English-speaking world and subsequently in continental European historiography – to unrestrained comparison between Napoleon and Hitler.
This time, any basis for such an approach was found in alleged similarities, coincidental evidence and strained connections pushed to breaking point. The authoritarian imperial regime became the father of totalitarianism, Fouché's police force the inspiration for the Gestapo, Napoleon's policy of Jewish integration the template for the holocaust. French conquests became the precursor to Nazi Germany's territorial gains and in the figure of Napoleon can be seen the model for the Führer.
This comparison had previously been made on occasions but, it should be said, in more circumspect and homeopathic doses.
Even during World War Two, British authorities were already comparing Operation Sea Lion to the Boulogne camps. Stalin called on his fellow citizens to withstand the invasion in 1941 just as their ancestors had done in 1812. And in the 15th May 1942 issue of La France libre – published in London since November 1940 – we even find an article comparing the Russian campaigns of Napoleon and Hitler, concluding that Hitler's army would get its comeuppance just as the Grande Armée did.2
Up to this point, however, such comparisons had been carefully judged, used for illustrative – and not comparative – purposes. Their authors were careful not to push the comparison too far, even warning their readers that in history such comparisons can be misleading. They knew all too well that to formulate a comparison over an interval of one-hundred-and-twenty years made little sense.
But with so little care going into these new comparative biographies, such prudence was subsequently deemed unnecessary.
The Napoleon-Hitler comparison reached its apex with the publication in 1988 of Desmond Seward's Napoleon and Hitler. A comparative biography ,3 well-known amongst Anglophone historians.
In this little book slickly produced and written with enough references to appear serious at first glance, the author shows no caution beyond the introduction. And even there, although he initially reminds the reader that Churchill (in his memoirs) and Pieter Geyl (in Napoleon: for and against ) dismissed any possible comparisons between the emperor and the Führer, it is only to make brushing aside their reluctance that much easier later on. Seward attributes their caution to political motives in the former (best not upset the French) and a clearly defined hierarchy of hatred in the latter: Geyl certainly hated Napoleon, but he hated Hitler even more and it is essentially this that drove him to separate the two in terms of their regimes and their ambitions.
Seward clearly feels no need for such restraint. And although he himself admits that his hypothesis may appear at times slightly exaggerated, it is justified by his own primary research, his life's work, the study of political megalomania.
What follow are the central elements for his comparison:
– Poor background and youthful ambition
– Continued thirst for power
– A coup d'état to achieve power
– The goal of, in the one case, creating a new France and, in the other, a new Germany
– The use of war to expand their influence
– A desire to conquer Europe
– A shared failure to conquer Russia
– Attempts to defeat Britain with a continental blockade
– Resistance to the regime: in Spain for Napoleon, in all the occupied territories for Hitler
– Downfall follows defeat by a coalition of countries
– The story comes to an end with their respective countries in ruins.
Any normally constituted historian would, upon reading this book, be shocked at the shortcuts taken, the absence of discussion, and the author's lack of objectivity. This is without even taking into account the complete lack of understanding of the nature of the two periods being studied.
You too would probably be shocked if you read this shrewdly written text with its combination of Manichaean themes, penchant for the spectacular, and abundance of smoke and mirrors.
As much can be said for a more recent work published in France: Le crime de Napoléon .4
The murky hypothesis, in basic terms, is as follows: during the Saint-Domingue expedition, Napoleon attempted to organise the mass-genocide of the island's black population and even put in place the first gas chambers in his bid to carry out this extermination.
Those interested in the details should read Pierre Branda's in-depth breakdown, published just after the release of this virulent tract.5
It should nevertheless be noted that this work, published just a few days before the bicentenary of the Battle of Austerlitz, garnered a lot of attention, thus affording its author the opportunity to boast of having driven the government to cancel its commemorative events. The truth is far more boring: the French government, as we are all aware, had planned nothing to mark the event. There was never anything to cancel.
If we were to analyse, point by point, the elements behind the Napoleon-Hitler comparison offered by Seward and Ribbe, it would soon become apparent that their theories are built on nothing but historiographical sand.
But we know all too well that when it comes to this sort of book, a point by point dissection means nothing. Far easier to amass counter-truth upon counter-truth, offering the faintest of ideas but nevertheless leaving the reader with a vague conviction that soon becomes very hard to shake.
You might say that true historians would never fall into such a trap.
The study of history is an apprenticeship in complexity, providing us with the tools to rationalise, to think objectively, and to avoid rigid conclusions which only result in shortcuts being taken.
You might think such books as Napoleon and Hitler and Crime de Napoléon would be quickly forgotten after all, they could hardly figure in any academically-inclined historical approach to the subject.
These works from Seward and Ribbe frequently crop up in the bibliographies of otherwise well established authors with a healthy respect for an academic approach to history. They subsequently find themselves occupying a place within the historiography of the Napoleonic period they in no way deserve.
Controversial they may be, but in being cited, these books gain an aura of respectability.
Their ideas certainly have a habit of reappearing where you least expect them.
Although unreferenced, Seward's hypothesis can be found between the lines of a book many historians across the globe – myself included – consider to be a masterpiece, the magnificent The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 by Paul W. Schroeder.6 In it, this great historian writes:
“In the history of international politics, Napoleon does not really resemble Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, William II, Stalin, or other real or supposed aspirants to European empire or hegemony. The only one to whom he can be compared is Adolf Hitler […]. Hitler did it for the sake of an unbelievably horrible ideal Napoleon for no underlying purpose at all.” 7
With this short extract, Schroeder kills two birds with one stone, if you will pardon the expression. Not only does he compare Napoleon to the most hated of all conquerors, but he also denies him any sort of vision or affiliation to the Revolution. Quite an achievement. Although easy to disprove – even without trying to paint Napoleon as some sort of angel utterly lacking in ambition – remarks like those above, given weight by the author's authority on the subject, continue to encourage a simplistic and reductionist view of European history between 1800 and 1815. One such example, presented with no small verve it must be said (although not enough to excuse it its faults), is David Bell's The First Total War .8
With such godfathers, the equation Napoleon equals Hitler still has room to run. Arguments to the contrary, such as those presented by Steven Englund in his article for the Revue des Deux Mondes , or the few pages I have written refuting the opinions held by Seward and Schroeder, count for little, particularly in the Anglophone world.9
Just as it would never cross the mind of a musicologist to suggest Beethoven was inspired by The Rolling Stones, any historian or normal reader knows that it would be impossible to attribute any sort of “Hitlerism” to Napoleon, and with just cause. All you need do is examine the chronology in order to dismiss this fallacious enigma: you cannot compare two individuals, let alone two phenomena, whose histories are located two centuries apart. The hypothesis Napoleon equals Hitler is simply impossible. I hardly need point out that, by definition, an individual cannot be inspired by someone whose rise to power came one hundred and twenty years later.
And as far as Napoleon as a source of reference for Hitler goes, an argument often used by certain historiographical schools to reduce the French emperor to little more than a murdering autocrat and annihilator of so-called European liberties, this can also be challenged.
It is true that, in addition to Bismarck, Hitler admired Napoleon. He paid a short visit to Les Invalides in 1940 and appeared profoundly moved before the emperor's tomb. And in his diary, Goebbels often compares Hitler to Napoleon… although only to rank him above the French emperor. In his heart, Hitler believed himself unique and German . Any reference to what he considered to be the decadent ideas of the Enlightenment was to be rejected France, in his eyes, was the arch enemy of the German nation. The pages of Mein Kampf are littered with such references: the war of 1806 forms the basis for the two countries' rivalry, the war of 1870 the first taste of revenge. After his invasion of the Soviet Union, he considered any comparison to the emperor to be entirely inappropriate. It's not hard to understand why. All the biographies of the Führer underline these aspects of his character anyone still sceptical should read the section dedicated to this topic in Ian Kershaw's monumental work on Hitler.10
Even attempted in the right direction chronologically-speaking, the comparison is hardly convincing. There is no shared historical basis for it. Moreover, such comparison could only be made in specific and extremely localised circumstances, circumstances quite unlike those at the beginning of the 19th century.
If we attempt to analyse Seward's hypothesis – something we accept to do only with great reluctance – we come to realise that he has quite deliberately fiddled with the historical facts.
The two men's origins, both social and – I would argue – sociological, are fundamentally different. Their education and upbringing were not the same. The circumstances surrounding their development differ fundamentally. Their political agendas share nothing in common. Napoleon created the French Empire and conquered a large part of Europe before being defeated. Hitler founded the Third Reich, also came to dominate the continent and, like Napoleon, saw his career end in catastrophe. But Napoleon did not destroy France. Nor did he destroy Europe. His legacy was subsequently celebrated, embraced and expanded on. His life's work continued after his exile and death: administration, education, legal codes and institutions left by him still abide in form. No moral stain could ever make him as abject, scorned or diabolical a figure as Hitler. We can dispute his achievements, debate his motivations, even challenge the “White Legend” version of his life, but Europeans today do not feel the same violent contempt for him as they do for the memory of Hitler.
Need I emphasise any further just how different in nature their respective legacies are? Hitler left behind him nothing but an immense “moral trauma” (Kershaw's words) which could only ever inspire condemnation.
Analysing in turn each detail of the comparison would be effectively acquiescing to an impossible discussion. It would be a virtual acknowledgement that the wars of 1792-1815 can only be seen as ideological wars, thus reducing their importance and separating them from a complex history of events, ideas, economic factors and, above all, age-old geopolitical concerns.
1. Explain why Napoleon was considered the hero of the hour. 2. Give an example of a Napoleonic military success and failure. 3. How did Napoleon’s coup d’etat affect power in France? (What type of leader did he become and how did he legitimize it?) 4. Why was Napoleon able to concentrate on domestic reforms in 1802? 5. How would you evaluate Napoleon’s reforms in the following areas?
What was the problem? How did he attempt to solve it? Evaluate his reform Economy
6. Why do you think that the French people and the Pope supported Napoleon’s decision to make himself an emperor? 7. Give two (there are many more) examples of how Napoleon betrayed the goals of the Revolution in France and elsewhere. 8. Give three reasons why Napoleon agreed to the Louisiana Purchase. 9. Analyze the long and short-term significance of the Battle of Trafalgar.
10. A***Required of Honors Students Napoleon was a man of the Enlightenment. He believed in reason and felt that religion was at most a social convenience. Yet he moved away from the de-Christianization policy of the National Convention. Analyze Napoleon’s new church policy from the perspective of the French people, the Church and Napoleon.
Napoleon’s Empire Collapses pp. 234-237
11. What were two results of the Peninsular War?
12. Why did Napoleon invade Russia?
13. Defend the Czar’s decision to use the scorched-earth policy. 14. What surprise was waiting for Napoleon in Moscow?
15. How did nature help defeat the Grand Army?
16. How might Napoleon’s last bid for power, the Hundred Days, have ended differently? Or was that even possible? 17. Elba is to Leipzip what St Helena is to Waterloo. Explain. 18. Read Visual Summary of French Revolution and Napoleon on page 242 19. Give at least two reasons why the Continental System was doomed to failure. 20. How was the United States affected by the Continental System? 21. Why did.
The 5 Biggest Lessons from the Napoleonic Wars
This year marks the bicentennial of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, after Napoleon, one of history’s greatest generals and tacticians (but only an okay grand strategist) was defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, marking the end of almost two decades of continuous warfare. The Napoleonic Wars still contain many valuable military, political, and diplomatic lessons for us today because they spanned so many types of personal, political, and military situations. Here are five lessons from the Napoleonic Wars:
Never underestimate British finance.
Napoleon—and Hitler—are famously known to have met with the reversal of their fortunes through invading Russia. Yet, in both cases, the wealth and resources of the British played a major role in their downfall. Despite Britain’s comparatively small population and territorial base, it alone among European countries was able to fight Napoleon nonstop (except for the short Peace of Amiens from 1802-1803, Britain was at war with France from 1793-1815 while other states alternated between war, peace, and alliance with France).
It could do this because of its modern banking and financial sector that depended more on credit and loans than actual revenues and land. Not only could the British pay to keep their navy and army in the field continuously without ruining their economy, they were able to subsidize their allies. The British consistently subsidized both great and minor powers by 1813, the British subsidized up to 450,000 Austrian and Russian soldiers, offsetting France’s demographic advantage. The rise of British power and the fall of French power was really the story of marshalling economics, something Napoleon should have thought about when he referred to Britain contemptuously as “a nation of shopkeepers.”
Know how to handle Russia.
Invading Russia is unlikely to go well because of the country’s huge strategic depth armies can simply retreat east into Siberia and fight a war of attrition while winter defeats the invaders. However, as Napoleon discovered initially, it is possible to defeat Russia and come to terms with it in limited warfare outside of or on the periphery of Russia’s borders.
In fact, some of Napoleon’s greatest victories saw the defeat of Russian forces combined with Austrian or Prussian forces. In 1805, the French defeated the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, followed by more fighting with the Russians until 1807, when Napoleon decisively defeated the Russians at the Battle of Friedland in East Prussia. Napoleon was then able to make the Peace of Tilsit with Russia that left both countries at peace and in alliance, a fact that mainly worked in the favor of France.
Yet Napoleon squandered away this advantageous peace by taking actions that were against Russia’s interests and brought few or minor gains to France, such as strengthening his newly revived Poland or forcing Russia to stop trading with Britain. Thus the seeds of his disastrous 1812 campaign against Russia were planted. Once the French army suffered hundreds of thousands of losses in Russia, the momentum turned decisively in Russia’s favor and its armies eventually made their way west to Paris.
Fighting against a weaker enemy in the Middle East is an uphill battle.
The French army led by Napoleon that invaded Egypt in 1798 was vastly superior in a conventional sense to the loosely-organized Mamluk force they defeated decisively at the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798. The hard part started after this—and not only because the British destroyed the French fleet, cutting off their access to France. Napoleon then had to accomplish the task of ruling over Egypt with only a small force of loyal Frenchmen in proportion to the native population he faced multiple revolts.
To cope, Napoleon took on many of the outward characteristics of a Muslim ruler, proclaiming himself a friend of Islam and the French muslims (with a lower case) because many at this time were deists and had rejected the Trinity. This didn’t stop a revolt in Cairo in October of that year, which Napoleon had to brutally put down. Meaning the Mamluks melted into the desert.
Napoleon later advanced into the Levant and laid siege to the city of Acre in 1799, held by the Ottomans. He suffered one of his few direct setbacks there until later on in his career due to resistance, foreign help, and disease. Defenders of the citadel were especially fierce as it was thought that Napoleon would be free to march to Constantinople if he took the fortress. Ultimately, as the months wore on, Napoleon realized that taking the city was not worth the loss of time and resources needed for such an endeavour. Fighting in the Middle East is hard because of the climate, the innumerable armed factions, and the protection the desert and natives offer to rebels.
Know when to stop.
Unlike many other conquerors, and contrary to popular thought, Napoleon was not a warmonger. Most of his initial campaigns were fought to protect France and the French Revolution against attack from the British, Austrians, Russians, and Prussians.
However, his fault was that he was a micromanager and could not let things go. His micromanagement extended to him offering unsolicited advice on all sorts of mundane or personal matters. Extended to political issues, this tendency sometimes bore fruit, like the Napoleonic Code of law that is the basis of most European law codes today. Often though, his obsession for scrupulously maintaining his system throughout Europe caused him to overextend.
After 1807, Napoleon was pretty much the master of Europe, having secured peace with Russia and knocking out Prussia. Though still at war with the British, they could not do much alone against him. However, Napoleon maintained an obsession with knocking the British out and stamping out trade with that country as part of his Continental System. That led to his invasions of Spain and Portugal in 1808 as well as his later invasion of Russia in 1812. He thus threw away his advantageous position and got bogged down in multiple wars of attrition, essentially helping the British. At the same time, his constant meddling in the affairs of his allies made them less likely to support him and more likely to turn against him. After his Russian campaign, there were many times he could have made peace as he was losing but ultimately he could not stomach peace on someone else’s terms. Thus France lost most of the land gained during Napoleon’s wars.
Offer the defeated enemy a generous peace.
After the (first) defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the victorious allies gathered at the Congress of Vienna. The Congress, which lasted until 1815, was praised by Henry Kissinger who argued that it was an example of how to conclude a successful peace unlike the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 after World War I that unraveled in two decades. The system that emerged from the Congress of Vienna, the Concert of Europe, maintained a balance of power that prevented a general European war until 1914.
This feat was accomplished by skilled diplomats such as Metternich (Austria) and Talleyrand (France). The trick was to give no country complete satisfaction or dissatisfaction in regards to their strategic and territorial interests. Multiple states both lost and gained territory. The aggrandizement by victorious powers such as Prussia and Russia was limited.
Most importantly, the major defeated power, France, was offered a generous peace and was soon allowed back into the European system with dignity. While France lost all the territory it gained during the Napoleonic Wars, it kept all of its original territory. This prevented resentment that could have led to revanchist tendencies and instability in the new European system. Unfortunately, the French themselves failed to apply this lesson of generosity after the defeat of Germany in World War I.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an assistant editor at the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@AkhiPill.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Achim55 (Napoleon at the Pyramids in 1798 by Antoine-Jean Gros)
The Comeback Trail
On March 20, Napoleon reached Paris with the support of the masses ringing in his ears. Despite his claims to want peace, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia were wary. Together, they signed what amounted to a declaration of war.
Events moved swiftly, and the restored French emperor had little time to organize. With enemy armies massing on France’s northern frontiers, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to put together a volunteer force to supplement the standing army at his disposal. But even in this diminished state, the French army was a fearful opponent. Its troops were experienced fighters, and its commander still inspired passionate loyalty. (Here's how Napoleon fed his army.)
The allied forces consisted of British, German, Belgian, Dutch, and Prussian troops, who were divided up into various detachments on the border between France and present-day Germany. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, patiently decided to wait for the enemy to attack rather than force their hand.
Napoleon himself, brimming with confidence, was planning for a decisive victory. Ignoring advice to postpone engagement, he left Paris on June 12, 1815, to join up with his army in Belgium—where Wellington’s troops and Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussian army also lay in wait. On June 14, he signed a proclamation: “The honor and happiness of our country are at stake and, in short, Frenchmen, the moment has arrived when we must conquer or die!”
A double battle took place on June 16 in Quatre-Bras and Ligny both were French victories, although neither was a fatal blow to Napoleon’s enemies. On June 17, heavy rains soaked the ground and the French soldiers. The wet fields and muddy roads became a swampy mess.
Waterloo & Beyond: 5 Mistakes That Doomed Napoleon
Two hundred years later, Napoleon continues to be relevant today.
June 18 marks the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great defeat at Waterloo, the battle in today’s Belgium that ended his career. Waterloo has since become a byword for a final crushing defeat. Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars were an important watershed in history and there is renewed interest in this period today.
The world of Napoleon, with its multiple great powers, shifting alliances, realpolitik, and need for battlefield skills more closely resembles the modern world than World War II or the Cold War. Therefore, a study of Napoleon is very relevant for today’s policymakers.
Napoleon was one of history’s greatest tacticians, though his abilities as a grand strategist and statesman were perhaps more limited—or at least subordinate to his ambition, that double-edged sword that both spurs men toward glory but also snatches it away from them. For a few years, from around 1805 to 1812, he was the undisputed master of Europe, yet by 1815, he was exiled to an isolated British island in the South Atlantic, having narrowly escaped being shot by the Prussians.
What happened? How did this genius end up on the path to downfall?
Here are five mistakes that doomed Napoleon.
Napoleon insults Talleyrand
Although Napoleon understood diplomacy and statecraft, he was definitely more adept as a soldier and administrator. Napoleon faired well diplomatically during the early period of his rule, however, this was due mostly to the skills of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.
Talleyrand was considered one of the most adept, skilled diplomats in European history—in 1815, he secured a peace for France that was extremely lenient considering the history of the previous two decades—but was also known for holding a grudge. Under his watch, and Napoleon’s military prowess, France was able to excel geopolitically because Talleyrand managed to prevent all of Europe’s powers from allying against France and got many countries to throw their lot in with Napoleon.
Napoleon, however, began to shut Talleyrand out of power because the latter was corrupt and grew rich through war related speculation (these charges were true). He also began to oppose Napoleon’s adventures in Spain and his harsh treatment of defeated Prussia and began “counseling” the Tsar and other foreign leaders. However, Talleyrand really turned against Napoleon sometime around 1808-1809 when Napoleon, suspecting him of treason, publically berated him, calling him a “shit in a silk stocking,” adding that he could “break him like a glass, but it's not worth the trouble.”
Surprisingly, Napoleon thought this was the end of the matter and continued seeking the services of Talleyrand, even restoring him to full power by 1813. During this time, Talleyrand passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others. Strangely enough, he was never caught and Napoleon seemed unaware of these activities, especially since Talleyrand had a personal reason to see Napoleon gone. Talleyrand continued to serve a number of French regimes and foreign powers for the rest of his life.
Napoleon embarks on the Peninsular War in Spain
Napoleon embarked on the Peninsular War in Spain—a long, unnecessary, guerilla struggle—that wore down his forces from 1808 to 1814. The Peninsular War marked the point where many of his enemies, both internally and externally, began to realize that Napoleon was overstretching and started working to bring him down. The Peninsular War led individuals such as Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Talleyrand, and the British general the Duke of Wellington to all realize that Napoleon did not know when to stop.
By 1807, France was at peace with all her neighbors minus the British, having defeated the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, coming to favorable terms with all of them. Napoleon was the master of Europe but he failed to convert this into a lasting peace.
The Peninsular War began initially because Napoleon wished to invade Portugal to prevent it from trading with Britain. As with the invasion of Russia, this was hardly necessary and cost far more than it was worth. In the process of invading Portugal, Napoleon also became involved in a succession issue between the Spanish king and his son and ended up placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne—an action that completely lacked foresight, failed to take the conditions and wishes of the Spanish into consideration, and smacked of nepotism from a man famed for promoting meritocracy.
Inexplicably, Napoleon would continue to promote and place members of his largely incompetent family on thrones throughout Europe, alienating many countries and bringing him little benefit. In Spain itself, French troops fought brutally against armed bands and civilian populations, leading to its estrangement from the population. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of French troops that could have been used elsewhere were bogged down in guerilla warfare against Spanish insurgents aided by British troops under Wellington for seven years.
Napoleon invades Russia
As is widely known today, invading Russia with a large army from the west is generally not a good idea. This was not as widely known in 1812, however, and having defeated the Russians in numerous pitched battles in Germany, Napoleon was confident of victory in Russia.
Napoleon’s first mistake was invading Russia at all: it was totally unnecessary. One of the primary reasons for the invasion was to enforce the Continental System, a blockade aimed at preventing the British from trading in any ports across the continent. Yet, the invasion of Russia strengthened the British position by providing it with an ally willing to openly trade with it. And the French goals were not nearly important enough to justify the invasion, which was overreach and hubris.
One he commenced his invasion of Russia with the 600,000-men strong Grande Armée, Napoleon failed to achieve the conditions required for a typical Napoleonic victory—utilizing his tactical genius to defeat his enemies in a pitched battle. Russian armies kept on retreating and refused to fight until the Battle of Borodino, near Moscow, which was indecisive.
Afterwards, Napoleon occupied Moscow but failed to take into account that the Russian way of waging war did not conform to his expectations. He thought that occupying Moscow would force the Russians to come to terms instead the Russians burnt down Moscow. Napoleon simply could not cope with the combination of logistical challenges and issues of scale on a territory geographically and culturally distinct from the conditions he had mastered.
As a result, the normally goal-oriented Napoleon could not achieve his aims and was instead forced to retreat from a ruined Moscow in winter. A combination of weather, disease, desertion, and attacks reduced his army to less than 80,000 troops by the time they left Russia. To summarize the totality of Napoleon’s mistakes during the Russian Campaign: he was unable to adapt his brilliant thinking beyond the localized context of the battlefield.
Napoleon leaves Elba
After his first defeat and abdication in 1814, Napoleon was offered fairly generous terms for one who had earned the enmity of the other great powers of Europe. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, off the coast of Italy, but he was confirmed as the sovereign of that island, and had contact with many of his friends, family, and supporters throughout Europe. This was a much better deal than execution or his eventual fate as a semi-prisoner on St. Helena in 1815.
However, his fate was sealed when he escaped from Elba and returned to France, ensuring that he would not get such a deal again, as other European powers decided that he was too close for comfort and stability.
Napoleon should have never left Elba the conditions for future victories were minimal, and he knew it. He took a big risk in returning to France, but he succeeded in regaining power there. However, even if he had won at Waterloo, it is doubtful he could have lasted in power for long because all the other powers of Europe were arrayed against him and had sworn to remain at war until his defeat. The armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia were all amassed on France’s borders, boxing Napoleon in. Napoleon’s prior victories were won when he took the initiative, striking away from France and when all his enemies were not coming at him at once.
Additionally, his enemies had adapted their tactics accordingly to defeat Napoleon and his Marshals and knew to go after the French armies without Napoleon at their head.
Historian Andrew Roberts argues in his recent book Napoleon: A Life that Waterloo was a battle that Napoleon could have easily won—the younger Napoleon at least.
Napoleon is thought to have made multiple errors during the course of and run-up to Waterloo that sealed his fate. Napoleon left his best general, Louis-Nicolas Davout back in Paris to head the War Department instead of bringing him along to fight. Davout had single-handedly defeated the main Prussian army in 1806 at Auerstedt with only one corps, 28,000 French soldiers against 63,000 Prussian soldiers.
Instead, Napoleon brought with him another general, Michel Ney, who commanded the left wing of the French army at Waterloo. Ney’s cavalry are thought to have erred in charging British soldiers too late, not using infantry or artillery support, and failing to render the British cannons inoperable. It seems odd that Napoleon, being an obsessive micromanager, could overlook this aspect of the battle.