Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

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Rise to Power
Napoleon in Italy
Napoleon in Egypt
Napoleon as First Consul
Napoleon as Emperor
Napoleon in Spain and Portugal
Napoleon in Europe
Napoleon in Russia
Napoleon on the Defensive
Napoleon and the Hundred Days
Napoleon as Leader

Portrait of Napoleon BonaparteNapoleon I is one of the most famous military and political leaders of History. His political achievements are many and they alone have filled whole books, but I shall focus on his military achievements which are no less remarkable, changing the face of Europe forever and bringing in a new era of warfare - that of the nation at arms. Napoleon was a complex man, who at the start of his career was constructive and took France to new heights of power but by the end had brought her years of war and destruction. Worshipped by his followers and seen as an ogre by his enemies his boundless enthusiasm and limitless ambition are hard to resist. His glory as a military commander is paramount but hundreds of thousands died for his ambition which had an appetite that could not be sated even when he had conquered most of Europe and beyond and had proclaimed himself Emperor of a country which had started out as a revolutionary republic.

Napoleon was born on 15th August 1769 at Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. He was the second son (having 7 siblings) of a lawyer who had minor connections to the aristocracy and was far from wealthy. Much like his contemporary Lord Nelson, Napoleon had no advantage of birth, or family wealth and all that he was later to achieve was due to his own ability and a large amount of being in the right place at the right time. His family were radical in outlook and as a young man he strongly identified with his Corsican heritage. Thanks in part to his mother’s adultery with the French military governor Comte de Marbeuf he began his military education at Brienne military academy and later in 1784 at the Military school in Paris. Here he was commissioned as an artillery officer a year later and with his fathers early death in 1785 he worked hard to complete his studies in a further year rather than the required three years. This was the natural choice of service for the young Bonaparte as he was gifted at science and mathematics, which were essential skills for any artillery officer of the time. Also the infantry and especially the cavalry drew their officers from wealthier and better-connected families. The young Napoleon spent much of the next 8 years in Corsica supporting the Corsican rebel Pasquale Paulo who had been a patron of Napoleon's father. When the revolution broke out the Bonaparte family fled to France and Napoleon became opposed to Pasquale.   He would quite likely have been condemned to obscurity had not the revolution allowed for those with little wealth or influence to advance quickly. Napoleon's skill at the siege of Toulon while only an artillery captain under General Jacques Dugommier was to start Napoleon on the path of greatness; a rise to power that was to be incredibly rapid. Toulon was a major French naval base but loyalist counter revolutionaries handed it over to an Allied army under the command of Admiral Lord Hood consisting of about 16,000 men, including British, Spanish and Émigré French. The Revolutionary forces numbered about 11,000. The siege lasted between 27th August and 19th December 1793 and came to an end when French government forces under the young Napoleon captured Fort Mulgrave and the promontory of L’Eguillette. This gave the French a commanding position over the inner harbour with their artillery and the Allies withdrew.

Rise to Power

Napoleon was promoted to Brigadier-General in December 1793 shortly after his performance at the siege of Toulon. He was also named inspector of the Coast based in Nice in the south of France. He was now 25 with a promising career and although his family were still poor he quickly used his newfound influence to acquire jobs for his brothers, Joseph, Lucien and Louis. Things were about to go sour, as these were the days of the ‘Terror’ in France as Robespierre and his followers hunted down and executed all those suspected of being nobles or royalists. As time went on no one was safe as even Republicans who had made enemies found themselves on the executioners block in front of a baying mob. Napoleon was appalled and when Robespierre’s younger brother asked Napoleon to become the commander of the Paris garrison Napoleon refused. This would have been a promotion but Napoleon probably believed such a position would be very dangerous at the time. Instead the government sent Napoleon on a secret mission to Genoa, but when he returned to Nice, Robespierre had fallen and the new political masters saw his trip to Genoa as treasonable. He was arrested in August 1794 but released after a couple of weeks due to lack of evidence.  He returned to command an artillery unit on the Italian border but when this duty ended he was unemployed and set off for Paris in 1795.

On arrival he had a stormy meeting with the Minister of war who had offered him an infantry brigade to command but Napoleon refused, wanting to remain with the artillery and he was sent on leave without pay. Lean times followed and he was forced to sell some belongings and even considered traveling to Turkey to become an artillery officer there.  Finally he got work with the Topographical Office. Looking back on this period of Napoleon's career we can see future traits, his love of artillery, his passion and skill for maps and his stormy temper. Things began to look up once more. Lazare Carnot became the new Minister of War and Napoleon befriended the powerful politician Paul Barras. A crisis emerged and this was to become Napoleon's golden opportunity. A group of disaffected Republicans supported by some Royalists started to openly plan a coup and took over the general assembly. Riots broke out and General Menou commanding the Paris garrison failed to disperse the mobs. Rumours started to spread that the Army was siding with the rebels and the politicians started to panic. On 13th October 1795 Barras asked Napoleon to take command and gave him 3 minutes to answer. This was a turning point in Napoleon's career -he agreed but warned Barras “Once my sword is drawn, it will not be sheathed until order is restored”, a statement that echoes down the centuries whenever marshal law is declared in a country. Napoleon now acted quickly. He realised that the rebels had few cannon and ordered a young cavalry officer Joachim Murat to bring forty pieces of field artillery from Sablons into Paris. By morning troops were quickly arriving in Paris and now with his guns Napoleon went to meet the rebel forces that were marching on Tuileries in two columns.  He met the first column at Roch Church and grapeshot from the guns ripped into them clearing the street in minutes. The second column met a similar fate near the Palais Royal. Napoleon's cavalry and infantry mopped up and by ten that evening the rebellion was over.  The next day Napoleon was promoted to General de Division (Major-General) within four days he was made second in command of the Army of the interior, he was a hero and had huge popular support at the age of 26.  It was at this time that Napoleon became enamoured of Josephine de Beauharnais who was 32 and had 2 children. Once more Napoleon was a victim of his own success, the politicians were nervous of having such a powerful and popular general in Paris. Napoleon at this time was not interested in a political career and was delighted when he was appointed Commander of the Army of Italy in March 1796 as he had already drawn up plans to attack Austria via Italy. The government approved this plan.  On 11th March he left for the border as Austrian troops were already gathering there, two days before he married Josephine.

Napoleon in Italy

Napoleon did not receive a very warm welcome from the officers when he joined the Army in Nice on 26th March. Many of them were experienced soldiers who saw Napoleon as young pup, but were ironically to later become famous under his command. They included Massena, Joubert and Berthier and they saw Napoleon as a ‘Street general’, in reference to his actions in Paris and another political appointment forced upon them by Paris. Napoleon found the army well armed but badly supplied and with low morale due to months of back pay owed.  Uniforms were poor and discipline was also weak with only 45,000 of the expected 60,000 men present.  Officers had often risen from the ranks as many loyalist officers had fled abroad; these former NCOs had good practical skills but no experience or training as officers. Despite this the raw enthusiasm of the French Republican troops had served them well and they had driven a variety of invaders off French soil and had invaded Spain, Belgium, Holland and Italy ready to bring Republicanism to the rest of Europe. By the time Napoleon reached his army reality had caught up with the enthusiasm, the government had run out of money and the poorly equipped armies were now falling part. Napoleon acted quickly ordering all looters to face death if caught and started constant drill and parades among the troops. His force of will carried the officers along with him and he began to motivate the men and officers restoring their pride as soldiers of France and their self-belief. Napoleon wrote to the government  “I will maintain order or will cease to command these brigands”. Everyone was kept busy for Napoleon knew that idle soldiers soon lost discipline and became a rabble.  Napoleon also knew that if he did not give the troops a victory the effects of his measures would soon wear off and they would slip back into bad habits.  With the Paris government keen but lacking any kind of plan Napoleon took the initiative. Napoleon decided to strike against Piedmont, the local troops were well equipped but had poor morale as they felt that Austria was using them in its struggle against France with no benefit to themselves. The Austrians for their part distrusted their allies and were poorly although together with allies they out numbered Napoleon's forces by about 10,000.

Napoleon then did what was to become his trademark tactic; he struck at one foe in force and defeated them in time to concentrate on another. His army moved fast - he struck on 12 April at Montenotte crushing the Piedmontese forces and then two days later he finished off the rest of the Piedmont Army and some Austrian forces at Dego. The powerful Austrian army under General Beaulieu arrived too late and its initial successes against French forces led the General to underestimate Napoleon. The Austrians started to fall back carefully as they now realised Napoleon had a larger force than them. On 28th April the Piedmontese asked for an armistice, the Paris convention prevented Napoleon negotiating diplomatic terms so he quickly gave the Piedmontese terms that would take them out of the war, which they accepted. The local population now became increasing hostile to the retreating Austrians. On 9th May the French crossed the Adda River and beat off the Austrians in a series of brief engagements, the Austrians now continued to retreat out of Lombardy. The French now paused to loot and replenish themselves also seizing Italian gold reserves, this band of brigands that was the French army now provoked an up rising in the city of Pavia which Napoleon ruthlessly crushed and the city was sacked, so much for liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Austrians were determined to strike back and gathered more troops including some from the Kingdom of Naples. The Austrian army advanced in 3 columns but Napoleon defeated each in turn before they could regroup and concentrate against him. Things were not all going well for Napoleon, he now had a huge area to control with a dwindling force, promised supplies and reinforcements had not arrived. By August the Austrians had massed again but yet again divided their army, Napoleon struck on 8th September and spilt the Austrians yet again a move made possible only by his confidence and ability and helped by rigid and slow moving Austrian army.  Back in Paris Napoleon was compared to Hannibal and his reputation increased. Napoleon knew to secure his victory he had to do what no other French army had done, drive the Austrians out of eastern Italy.  The Austrians also planned to drive the French out

Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcola, 15 November 1796
Napoleon at the Bridge of Arcola, 15 November 1796

In November 1796 the Austrian General Alvinzi led 60,000 men against Napoleon's 36,000. On 17th November Napoleon out manoeuvred the Austrians at Arcole and forced the Austrians to retreat. In January 1797, now reinforced Alvinzi tried again but was defeated at the battle of Rivoli, the Austrian garrisons then started to surrender. Napoleon now struck at Pope Pius VI who had sided against the French Republic. Bonaparte’s army marched into the Papal States who offered little resistance with the Pope signing a peace treaty at Tolention on 19th February. Napoleon now finally received reinforcements with 20,000 men under generals Delmas and Bernadotte arriving. Archduke Charles now led the Austrians in a final attempt, which was out matched by Bonaparte’s skill once again, on 7th April he was at Loeben only 115km from Vienna and on the 18th April hostilities ceased.  The French retreated back to Italy and set up the Cisalpine Republic with the final treaty of Campo-formio being signed on 17th October 1797. Napoleon returned to Paris in December, a hero, having achieved what no French general had ever done before despite never having commanded an army in the field only a year and half before.  At 28 years old he had out manoeuvred and out fought a superior Austrian army time and time again, his popularity was very high. Unsurprisingly this worried the government. Another campaign would have to be found for the young hero of the Republic somewhere far from Paris.

Napoleon in Egypt

In February 1798 Napoleon inspected his new command, the French army assembled on the Channel coast awaiting the planned invasion of Great Britain. Napoleon quickly saw (much like many leaders in history before and after him) that such an invasion had no chance of success unless the Royal Navy was neutralised, something that was a long way from happening. Napoleon had no intention of being stuck at home so he suggested a new plan to the Directory. His plan was to strike at Britain’s source of her wealth, her colonies in India and her sea trade. French Naval power was doing little towards this so Napoleon suggested an invasion of Egypt, which would threaten British assets. The French government for their part would be glad to get rid of this young, successful and popular General who they saw as useful asset but also correctly as a future political threat. In May Napoleon sailed for Egypt with the 40,000 strong Army of the Orient, while the threat of a French invasion would keep the Royal Navy close to home.  He quickly captured Malta and then landed in force at Alexandria 1st July 1798. The port was quickly overrun as was much of the Nile Delta with the Battle of the Pyramids 21st July seeing the smashing of a larger Mameluke army with great loss, with Cairo being captured the next day. Despite such successes things were about to take a turn for the worse for the French.  On 1st August Nelson destroyed The French Fleet in Aboukir Bay, cutting the French Army and Napoleon off in hostile territory with a Turkish Army now gathering in Syria in preparation to attack the French.

Napoleon took the offensive leading 8,000 men into Syria in February 1799. In March he captured El Arish and Jaffa and on 17th March laid siege to Acre. The French émigré Phelippeaux and a British sailor Sir Sidney Smith defended the town. In mid April Napoleon defeated a Turkish attempt to lift the siege at the battle of Mount Tabor, but disease was now taking its toll on the French and Napoleon abandoned the siege in late May.  In a shadow of future events Napoleon then had a grueling retreat back to Cairo and by the time the expedition had returned to Cairo 25% of his men had been lost. In July a large Turkish army of 18,000 arrived in Aboukir having been transported by British ships from Rhodes. Napoleon attacked on 25th July with only 6,000 men . During the battle Marshals Lannes and Murat distinguished themselves and the Turks were once again routed. Napoleon could see no progress in Egypt so with unrest at home he slipped away from his army on a frigate and was back in Paris by October 1799.

Napoleon as First Consul

On returning to Paris he found a power vacuum. Internal unrest and foreign threats to French gains made the situation unstable. Although the foreign threats had been stabilised by others, Napoleon carried out a coup on 9th November 1799 and installed himself as ruler of France with the title of First Consul. He was 30 years old and a victor in a dozen battles with a great military record, now to maintain the power he had usurped he needed more victories. During the winter of 1799-1800 Napoleon raised a new army at Djion and planned to strike against his old enemies the Austrians in Italy once again. The snows had hardly melted on the St Bernard Pass when Napoleon crossed over into Lombardy quickly taking Milan and Pavia. Genoa fell to the Austrians when Marshal Massena was forced to surrender and Napoleon with a dispirited army ran into an Austrian force about the same size as his army at Marengo on 14th June. This was to be one of Napoleon's greatest battles. The Austrians attacked with vigour and drove the French forces back two miles, but then Napoleon rallied his forces and counter attacked the over extended Austrian line. Kellerman and his cavalry served Napoleon well and the Austrian army routed. The battle gave the French control over the Po valley and another French victory in Germany in December forced the Austrians into the Peace of Luneville in February 1801. Britain was now alone against the French and ceased her hostilities in March 1802 with the Peace of Amiens.  By May 1802 Napoleon had been voted First Consul for life by a referendum, he was now well on the road to becoming a dictator. Within a year Napoleon's ambitions led to new hostilities with Britain and under the guise of securing France from any loyalist conspiracies Napoleon had the First Consul title converted to a hereditary title and he became Napoleon I, Emperor of France. Napoleon's conceit was boundless and with the Pope in the background he crowned himself! He was now a military dictator and his power was absolute, his revolutionary ideals dead and buried.

Napoleon as Emperor

Between 1803 and 1805 France faced only Britain as an enemy. The Grand Armee Napoleon had created now sat idle around Boulogne with hundreds of ships waiting in the channel ports. The invasion depended on the crushing of British Naval power and Napoleon's plan to use French and Spanish fleets to achieve this failed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  Despite Naval superiority Britain’s army was too small to act against the French without European allies and following Trafalgar and British diplomacy a new coalition formed against the French in 1805 with the French facing Austria, Russia, Sweden and Naples. Napoleon moved with great speed and secrecy with his Grand Armee advancing quickly up the Danube backed up by superb logistics. He quickly encircled the hapless Austrian General Mack at Ulm in October 1805. Mack was forced to surrender 30,000 men and 65 guns a crushing blow to the Austrians. Napoleon invaded Austria in early November and occupied Vienna on 13th November he left 20,000 men to guard it while he took the remaining 65,000. The allies had 19,000 Austrians at Prague, 90,000 Russians and Austrians under Kutuzov at Olmutz and another 80,000 Austrians south of the Alps.  These enemies converged on Napoleon believing him trapped and brought him to battle at Austerlitz 2nd December 1805. This was to be one of Napoleon's greatest victories. Napoleon deliberately over extended his right wing to lure the allies into concentrating against it. Once the allies were committed he sprung the trap and smashed their centre splitting the army in two and carving it up. Marshall Soult delivered the key attack on the Pratzen heights and then rolled up the allied left wing. Marshalls Lannes and Bernadotte crushed the right wing. The French lost 9,000 men compared the Allied losses of around 26,000, within a month Austria withdrew from the war.

During 1806 Napoleon formed his Confederation of the Rhine and then turned to attack Prussia. Prussia had been preparing for war as they were threatened by the French domination of the Rhine area. Napoleon didn’t give them a chance as his army invaded in three large columns spread out over 30 miles. Screened by cavalry it covered an impressive 15 miles a day outflanking the Prussians and ending up nearer to Berlin than the Prussian army. On 14th October 1806 100,000 French smashed the 51,000 strong Prussian army at the battle of Jena. At the Battle of Auerstadt to the north 63,000 Prussians assaulted Davout’s 27,000 French for six hours without victory, when news of Jena reached them they broke. The day cost the Prussians 25,000 dead and wounded and the same amount captured, the Prussian army was virtually destroyed on that one day.

The winter of 1806-07 saw Napoleon overrun Prussia and advance into Poland. In January 1807 the Russians invaded Prussia to battle the French and the two enemies met at Eylau on 7th February 1807.  A bloody clash ensued with 67,000 Russians against 50,000 French. At the end of the day the Russians withdrew after suffering 25,000 casualties while inflicting around 19,000. In June the Armies clashed again at Friedland, a force under Marshal Lannes held the Russian advance while Napoleon brought his main body of troops to bear in a concentrated attack. The Russians were crushed and left 25,000 dead on the field of battle. Tsar Alexander now lost the heart for any more conflict and at Tilsit in July 1807 he agreed a Peace treaty with the French Emperor. The Prussian were also involved and suffered greatly with the French gaining much territory and the Duchy of Warsaw. Napoleon was now at the height of his power and ruler of most of Europe.

Napoleon in Spain and Portugal

Unable to invade Britain his last great enemy Napoleon was determined to cripple her financially. He tried to enforce a commercial quarantine making it illegal for any European country to trade with Britain. Portugal could not afford to comply and in 1807 a French army passed through Spain and into Portugal. The weak Spanish monarchy had been pressurized into helping the French and was removed in 1808 with Spain occupied and Napoleon placing his brother Joseph on the throne. This was one of Napoleons greatest mistakes and would ultimately be a major factor in his down fall. The Spanish rose in revolt what was to be called a Guerrilla war with the major conflict becoming known as the Peninsular War, which was to last between 1808-1814. The Spanish Guerrillas were bloody thirsty and brutal and tied up increasing numbers of French forces only to disappear like mist when threatened by battle. Spain gave the British an arena to battle the French and the Spanish uprising became a beacon of hope to all the Europeans under French masters. Napoleon himself played little part in the war only being involved in 1808. The war was a constant bleed on French resources and troops. The later successes of Lord Wellington shattered the myth of French invincibility and British and Portuguese forces were later to invade France from Spain. French difficulties in Spain encouraged the Austrians to once more go to war against Napoleon. Napoleon's spies informed him of this and he returned from Spain in January 1809.

Napoleon in Europe

In April 1809 the Austrian Archduke Charles led an army into Bavaria and another under Archduke John crossed the Alps into French held Italy. In response the Tyrol rose in revolt against French rule. As always the Emperor moved quickly taking command of the Grand Armee in April 1809 and quickly taking action. He forced the Austrians back at the battles of Abensberg, Landshut and Eggmuhl. Napoleon was slightly wounded at Ratisbon on 23rd April. The French troops were exhausted but had inflicted 30,000 casualties in seven days and although the main Austrian Army remained the French now had the initiative. In May Napoleon forced a crossing of the Danube but was unable to reinforce his bridgehead and had to withdraw with heavy losses, although he did inflict slightly more on the Austrians this battle of Aspern-Essling is regarded as Napoleons first major defeat. Marshal Lannes was also killed during the battle. Meanwhile French forces had forced the Austrians out of Italy and Napoleon now concentrated a larger and better-prepared army to cross the Danube in June. He massed nearly 200,000 men and gained strategic surprise by crossing the Danube at night to face Archduke Charles 140,000 men before 50,000 Austrians under Archduke John could join them. This was the battle of Wagram, which was to cost both sides in excess of 30,000 dead and force the Austrians to once more sue for peace. As can be seen Europe was now learning to mobilise huge armies to face the French and the huge number of dead and wounded was starting to drain Napoleons resources, his ambition was starting to decimate a young French population. The year 1810 is regarded by many as the height of Napoleons power but with rising death toils and trouble in Spain the clouds of his future downfall were gathering. European armies were learning, especially the Austrians and although defeated during the Wagram campaign the margin of victory was narrowing and the European monarchs knew this.

Napoleon in Russia

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812 -
The Road to Moscow

With relations worsening between France and Russia, British diplomatic pressure persuaded Russia and Sweden to withdraw from Napoleon's Continental System and sign a treaty with Britain in June 1812. Napoleon was about to make the mistake that would cost him his Empire. He gathered 450,000 troops in Poland and on 24th June he crossed into Russia to crush her once and for all.  Of this huge army only 200,000 were French the rest were made up of troops from allies and subject nations across Europe. Russian troops in the immediate area amounted to about 215,000 but the French advance was delayed by heavy rain and bad weather, a taste of things to come.  Like they would do in the future the Russians fell back destroying all resources as they went increasing the huge supply demands on the invaders. After a few brief clashes the Russians continued to fall back and in August came under the command of Kutuzov.  Napoleon had planned to winter the Army at Smolensk, but Russian forces and the logistical problems force him to try and bring the Russians to battle in a decisive encounter. The result was the battle of Borodino 7th September 1812, during which Napoleon's generalship was less than impressive, possibly due to illness. The battle was a pointless bloodbath in which the Russians were defeated with the loss of 40,000 men and the French suffered 30,000 casualties. The French now entered an empty Moscow and found it devoid of much needed supplies and on fire soon after they entered.  The forward elements of the army number about 100,000 men with the rest spread out all along the line of advance, morale was poor particularly among the allies and raids against the French supply lines by Russian Cossacks were taking a toll. Facing 110,000 well-supplied troops under Kutuzov the French began the famous retreat from Moscow on 19th October 1812. The snows came early and the retreat became a disaster, men starving, horse often eaten by the men and harassing attacks by Russian irregulars and Cossacks. Ney’s Rearguard fought bravely but the Army was doomed, with only 37,000 effective troops under Napoleons command when it reached the bridgehead at Berezina in late November. The defence allowed most of the French to cross but by the 8th December only 10,000 effective troops remained. The Russians who had suffered very heavy casualties halted the pursuit but the French had lost 300,000 men. Napoleon's army was destroyed, many veteran troops had died, tens of thousands of military horses, thousands of wagons and hundreds of guns. Europe now rose against the weakened Tyrant, many states had uprisings and many allies now deserted, and it was the beginning of the end.

Napoleon on the Defensive

In February and March 1813 a new coalition formed, consisting of Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Britain. 100,000 allied troops gathered in the Elbe valley while Napoleons conscription system provided a fresh 200,000. On paper this was a vast amount but in reality many were young, poorly trained and few veterans survived Napoleons ambition had bled France dry of young men. Napoleon advanced towards Leipzig in April 1813 intending to take the battle to the allies but was surprised on the march and fought a battle near Lutzen, it was a draw and it was clear that Napoleon could still show some of his old skill and would have won the day if he had not had such green troops. On 4th June Napoleon secured and Armistice, which lasted till August and in this rest period both sides, built up their forces for the final clash. Austria finally entered the war on the 12th August and Napoleon now faced 3 allied armies, 230,000 in Bohemia, Blucher with 195,000 in Silesia and the renegade former French Marshal Bernadotte with 110,000 Prussians and Swedes in the north.  Napoleon had about 300,000 men, but the allies picked away at Napoleons outlying forces without engaging the main body, Bernadotte and Blucher achieving victories at Grossbeeren and Katzbach during August. Napoleon did achieve some successes at Dresden but the net was closing in. On 16th October the battle of Leipzig was fought (also know as the battle of the nations). This was one of the largest battles in history and had one of the largest death tolls of any battle in history with about 60,000 dead on each side according to some records. Napoleon was defeated but the allies failed to trap and destroy his retreating army, with Napoleon defeating 40,000 Bavarians at Hanau on 30 October with ease. Napoleon could have secured a favourable peace at this point but he refused the allies' offers and in January 1814 the invasion of France began, with Allied troops invaded from all routes even British forces under Lord Wellington attacking from Spain.  Napoleon fought brilliantly and won eight battles but against such a huge force and with the young conscript army under his command he had little chance and was driven steadily back. Finally cornered, ill and exhausted Napoleon abdicated on 11th April 1814. He attempted to persuade the allies to accept his infant son as his successor but they refused. He was exiled to the Island of Elba with a token force of his beloved guardsmen and Louis XVIII was returned to the throne of France. The victors settled down to redraw the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, but Napoleon had one last throw of the dice to make.

Napoleon and the Hundred Days

In March 1815 Napoleon left Elba landing at Cannes on the 1st March. The Bourbon monarchy sent troops to arrest him, but they quickly rallied behind their beloved Emperor, as did the Generals sent to “bring him back to Paris in an iron cage” as Louis requested. He marched into Paris triumphant and prepared to meet the quickly mobilizing allied armies. With all the hallmarks of his old speed and vigour within a few months he had an army of 188,000 with another 100,000 in depots and training camps hurriedly training another 300,000. In his Army of the North centred around Paris he had 124,000 but many of his old Marshals were either dead or not willing to follow their old leader, years of constant warfare had left most of his veterans dead or crippled.  He filled his command staff with loyal but often less than capable officers and Napoleon himself was suffering from bouts of illness, which left him indisposed at crucial moments. In early June Napoleon moved to crush his enemies before they could mass in overwhelming numbers with the Anglo-Prussian armies in the Low Countries being the most important target. Blucher had 124,000 Prussians under his command while Lord Wellington had a mixed bag of British, Dutch, Hanoverian and Brunswick troops.

When Napoleon seized Charleroi on 15th June, Blucher acted quickly concentrating his army at Sombreffe while Wellington was 15 miles away to the west showing great caution until he was sure of Napoleon's intentions. The key crossroads of Quatre Bras lay between the allied armies. Knowing this Napoleon sent Ney with 25,000 men on 16th June to hold the crossroads while Napoleon attacked Blucher's 83,000 Prussians with 77,000 French at Ligny. Napoleon soon had the Prussians in full retreat and all was going to plan as long as Ney held Quatre Bras. Napoleon was soon to be disappointed. Ney possibly suffering from what is now called post traumatic stress had believed the crossroads to be held in far greater strength than it was and his hesitation allowed Wellington to bring up reinforcements. Finally Wellington withdrew on the 17th but not before each side had lost 4500 men and a 20,000 strong French corps under D’Erlon had spent all day marching and countermarching between the two battlefields. With Ney's forces tied up Napoleon committed 33,000 men under Grouchy to pursue the Prussians, which was to cost him dear in the later battle.

Heavy rain turned the battlefield of Waterloo into a muddy morass the next day and the stage was set for Napoleons last defeat. Wellington deployed his troops behind a low ridgeline to protect from artillery on the 18th June, Grouchy having lost contact with the fleeing Prussians in the heavy rain; there was now nothing between the two Allied armies.  Hoping for the ground to dry out to allow his big guns to move more easily Napoleon delayed his attack till noon wasting further time. The details of this historically significant battle can be found elsewhere on this web site but it was a bloody slogging match closely fought over two strong points of La Haye Saint and Hougmount farms in which neither general showed much tactical flair, each sides' cavalry showed great bravery and recklessness and heavy casualties were suffered on a battlefield 1 mile by 1 ½ miles which had nearly 140,000 combatants on it at the start.  Grouchy's failure to reengage the Prussians was to prove decisive as they reached the battlefield late in the day but in time to have an enormous impact, Napoleon possibly ill showing no tactical flair. Defeated, his army scattered or dead, Napoleon abdicated for a second time on 21st June 1815. He was exiled to the South Atlantic island of St Helena under a watchful jailor with no chance of escape. His health rapidly deteriorated and he died on 5th May 1821.

Napoleon as Leader

Napoleon is without doubt one of the greatest leaders in military history, his skill as a general both tactically and strategically is without question, his rise to power astounding. Few men in history have had such an impact on world history and he easily ranks along side such leaders as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Like those leaders he was an authoritarian leader and a dictator whose skill was matched by his ambition, one of those who did not know when the possible ended and the impossible began.  He was ruthless and would tolerate no argument, which produced a cadre of Marshals capable of carrying out orders well but having never learnt to think and act for themselves. This was to prove disastrous as at Waterloo and in the later stages of the Napoleonic wars. Wellington said that Napoleon was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield but he was just one man who could not be everywhere at once, as the Empire was faced with war on several fronts, the Emperor could not be everywhere. How different the outcome of the Peninsular War would have been if Napoleon had been there is an interesting hypothetical question.

Napoleon was a tremendous innovator and administrator (although ably assisted). His skill with logistics and the ability to raise tremendous amounts of manpower was at times amazing. He changed the face of warfare from the sport of kings to the nation at arms, with the whole nation being placed on a war footing, conscription, mass production and truly a nation under arms, the beginning of modern ‘Total War’. He also instigated many fiscal, legal and educational reforms in France but those are not within the scope of this article. As a leader of men he was a great motivator and orator, he knew how to inspire fierce loyalty bordering on worship despite the fact he would cynically send tens of thousands to their deaths if it suited his purpose. He made a point of walking the line of troops before a battle and recognising a veteran or two and taking to them of old times, a human touch that some have suggested was staged to raise morale, something that would not have been beyond him. He knew how to raise morale and get the best from weak troops and knew the value of praise and both monetary rewards as bestowed on his Marshals and less tangible rewards such as medals as with the Legion De’Honour he instigated.

Militarily he honed the Corps system of army groups able to function completely independently with their own logistics, scouts, command, artillery etc which allowed him to time and time again to divide his enemies with a smaller force holding a much larger enemy while he concentrated and destroyed another enemy force. He enlarged the cavalry and once again made it a real battlefield shock force not just scouts and pursuing forces and in many battles large devastating cavalry charges turned the tide. Most famously he made use of the column formation for his infantry, which proved a very successful mobile formation against such linear armies as that of Austria and Prussia, with only the tactical skill of Lord Wellington being able to regularly defeat it. As a former artilleryman he increased the size and number of guns and the Napoleonic artillery made great progress towards its modern form in both technology and tactics.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T (7 January 2006) Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_napoleon.html

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