Napoleon Bonaparte in 1794 Words

I always wondered why Napoleon Bonaparte was considered a great military strategist, even though he lost 3 entire armies over his career.  I read a 900 page biography of Napoleon this summer to help me understand his supposed brilliance.  This biography is so detailed as to include such facts as Napoleon had a good report card when he was 12 years old.  I’m writing this essay for those readers who have some interest in Napoleon, but not enough to care about what grades he made in school.

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Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was a good, hard-working tactician in his earlier years.

Napoleon was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica near the coasts of Italy and France.  His family was of Italian descent and would be considered upper middle class by today’s standards.  His family sent Napoleon to military school in France when he was 10 years old, and he stayed there for 8 years, rarely seeing family members.  A French scholarship covered most of his expenses.  Napoleon was a voracious reader, spending much of his time in the library, and he had few friends.  He became an artillery officer, but most of his early years were spent on approved and unapproved leaves of absences.  He was busy straightening out the family business on Corsica (a silkworm orchard) because his father had died at a young age.  Also, he was reluctant to take part in a French Civil War between royalists and Republican revolutionaries.  He first distinguished himself as a competent military man when the artillery unit he commanded helped the French repel a British occupation of the French port of Toulouse.

European powers were almost constantly at war during this time period.  England used its powerful navy to dominate overseas trade, while France contested with Austria over all the little kingdoms that today make up Germany and Italy (neither of which existed as a country yet).  Victory in a battle usually meant the winner could insert a puppet king on the throne of a little kingdom.  Austria was mostly winning these battles when Napoleon was put in charge of the French army in northern Italy.

Napoleon enjoyed a rapid rise in rank for 2 reasons: his ability, and because most of the older French officers consisted of aristocracy that had been purged during the French Revolution.  Still in his mid-twenties, Napoleon commanded a French army that defeated the Austrians and conquered all of Italy except for Sicily.  Meanwhile, other French generals were losing against Austria in Germany.  Napoleon became a national hero and developed a cult of personality following because of his great military victories.

The French government next assigned the task of conquering Egypt to Napoleon as a way to counter British control of the Mediterranean.  At this time the Ottoman Empire owned Egypt, and it was defended by primitive mercenaries known a Mamluks who fought on horseback with spears and muskets.  The more technologically advanced French army easily outclassed them and conquered Egypt.  Napoleon dreamed of conquering the land all the way to India, like his hero, Alexander the Great, so he led his force across the Sinai desert and into what today is Israel.  The French army murdered prisoners and shot women and children during their advance.  Napoleon’s advance was finally stopped at Acre, a fort just north of the location of modern day Haifa, Israel where a cruel Arab king and his Jewish general organized a defensive stand with help from the British navy.  Napoleon was forced to withdraw his forces back across the Sinai desert because the British navy had blockaded his supplies from crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  Without orders Napoleon snuck across the Mediterranean in a boat, leaving his army to succumb to the plague and a British expeditionary force a few years later.

France was a democracy during this time, the only one in Europe, but it was weak.  The executive branch was run by a committee. France was at war with everybody, highway robbery was common, there was a royalist revolt in 1 province, overseas trade was ruined, and taxation and conscription were unpopular.  Elections were fraudulent, and government corruption was the norm.  A few politicians along with the police and the army decided to use Napoleon’s cult of personality popularity to stage a coup d’état and establish a stronger more autocratic government.  This is how Napoleon was installed as the leader of France.

Napoleon was a competent administrator.  He took measures to stabilize the economy and reduce the rampant armed robbery.  He married Josephine shortly before resuming France’s war with Austria.  While he led the French army across the Alps to reconquer Italy (France had lost it when Napoleon was in Egypt), Josephine had an affair with an Austrian military officer.  After Napoleon discovered this betrayal, Josephine never cheated on him again, but Napoleon had at least a dozen mistresses and fathered at least 2 illegitimate children during their marriage.  He was no great lover, though.  His mistresses referred to him as the 3 minute man.

Napoleon didn’t believe in royalty and thought people should achieve their rank through their ability, like he did.  Nevertheless, he made himself an emperor for life and installed his brothers on the thrones of Naples and Spain.

A peace treaty with England didn’t last long, and Napoleon planned to invade England.  He organized a massive army on the northern coast of France and Belgium.  Austria took this as an opportunity to resume their war with France–a big mistake.  Napoleon was able to rapidly move his army from northern France to Germany where he surrounded and crushed the Austrian army and its allies at Austerlitz.  Napoleon didn’t invent the corps level of operations that allowed him to execute this remarkable feat, but he was the first in history to use it.  Armies used this operational method through WWII.  It allowed for more flexibility and mobility.  Unfortunately, this great land military victory was offset at the Battle of Trafalgar where his navy was wiped out by the British navy.  This led to a long standstill with England, but the Austrians were forced to surrender when Napoleon occupied Vienna.

Napoleon had French, German, and Polish troops under his command.  Nevertheless, Prussia (now just a province in east Germany) decided to fight a war with Napoleon.  Napoleon’s army kicked Prussia’s ass at the Battle of Jenna.  Then he kicked Prussian and Russian ass at the Battle of Eylau. The allies were forced to agree to a peace agreement at Tilsit that overwhelmingly favored France.  Napoleon also used forces to occupy Spain, sticking his brother on the throne.  A long, brutal, and bloody guerrilla war was fought in Spain throughout the rest of Napoleon’s reign.  However, Napoleon sold North America west of the Mississippi to the U.S. because he knew he couldn’t hold that territory, now that he had no navy to speak of. During 1809 Austria declared war on France again and yet again Napoleon’s army kicked their ass, this time at Wagram.  Napoleon now schemed to make Austria a permanent ally.  He divorced Josephine and married Maria-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian king.  This did foster an alliance between the 2 countries, but it didn’t last when Napoleon started losing battles.

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This was the greatest extent of Napoleon’s Empire.

Napoleon’s economic dominance of Europe demanded that all countries under his influence stop importing British products.  Russia refused to boycott English goods, and Napoleon decided to force them to comply.  He led the French army in an invasion of Russia, hoping the Austrians would help him.  Austria officially agreed but didn’t really.  Napoleon’s overreach led to his downfall.

The Russians avoided major battles and fought rearguard delaying actions as they retreated.  The goal was to lure Napoleon’s army deep into Russia where his supply lines would get too thin and his soldiers would starve.  The strategy worked.  Typhoid fever and starvation took an high toll.  The Russians scorched earth strategy meant there was no food along the main roads.  Groups of soldiers leaving the main roads to forage in the countryside were murdered by Cossacks (irregular Russian cavalry).  Finally, the Russians stood and fought 1 major battle at Borodino in front of Moscow.  The French won, but it was an exhausting fight.  The Russians burned down Moscow, and there was no food for the French army when they captured it.  Napoleon mistakenly thought the Russians would surrender when he captured Moscow, like the Austrians did when he captured Vienna.  Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat back to Germany, and the Russian winter and the Cossacks pretty much destroyed what was left of the French army.

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Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.  There was no food and temperatures fell well below zero everyday that winter.  They returned on foot…they were forced to eat all their horses.

The next spring, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England all ganged up on France.  Austria and Prussia, tired of getting their asses kicked by Napoleon, adopted his tactics and were much tougher opponents now.  Astonishingly, Napoleon was able to assemble a formidable army from remnants, new recruits, and troops from occupied Spain; but without much cavalry because they had eaten so many of their horses during the Russian campaign.  But now, Napoleon was outnumbered by at least 3-1.  He won a few more battles, but some of his generals and their army units defected to the allies, and he was forced to abdicate his throne.  He was sent into exile to the Italian island of Elba.

Less than 1 year later, he escaped from the island with 1100 men including 80 of his household servants, and he traveled through France gaining defectors from the army.  Napoleon was still popular within the army but was not well liked by the nobility and working class merchants who were tired of their sons dying in his constant wars.  Nevertheless, he regained the throne.  The allies went back to war with France, and this time Napoleon met his match in Belgium against the British general, Wellington.  When military historians war game the Battle of Waterloo, the French side usually wins.  But by now Napoleon was fat, tired, and out of shape.  He reminds me of an ex-champion boxer who makes a comeback when he is past his prime but just doesn’t have it any more.  Napoleon and his officers made numerous blunders that turned potential victory into disastrous defeat.  Napoleon abdicated his throne again and surrendered to the British.

The British sent Napoleon to exile on the rocky island of St. Helena in the middle of nowhere.  This time there was no escape.  He died in 1821 at the age of 51 from stomach cancer after suffering horribly.  Stomach cancer was a disease inherited within his family.  His father, brother, 2 sisters, nephew, and 1 of his illegitimate sons died of stomach cancer–most during middle age.

Reference:

Roberts, Andrew

Napoleon: A life

Penguin Books 2014

 

 

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