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Napoleon Bonaparte 1805-1821 - From Empire to Waterloo

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This article begins with Napoleon at his zenith of power after his victory over the Third Coalition at Austerlitz. To find out about his ascent to power, read the preceding article.

War, Economic and Military

In 1805 Napoleon was victorious over the Third Coalition and peace was made with Britain. However, neither side, enemies of old, had any intention of this being the end of it. Napoleon, now master of large parts of continental Europe and allied with the Spanish, decided to wage an economic war against the British. With this tactic he hoped that Britain would no longer be willing or able to afford to finance another war against him. He established the so-called Continental System which was effectively a set of economic sanctions imposed on Great Britain. No-one in Europe under Bonaparte was to 'buy British.' This was not as easy as it sounded as Britain was now in the full throes of the industrial revolution and cheap mass-produced goods were available from both the British Isles and its empire. There was reluctance from the masses under Napoleon to give up their good silks and other luxuries that they got from this source. Where Napoleon's orders were carried out, smuggling ruled the day and elsewhere, the System was ignored.

The Spanish Ulcer

With the Continental System in place, Napoleon found that it was ineffective. One major leakage of British goods was found in Spain where they were getting through via Britain's ally Portugal. Bonaparte therefore decided to invade and occupy Portugal, attempting to neutralise this problem in the best way he knew. Spain was an ally of his and so he, with their permission, sent an army into Spain to attack the British in Portugal. He now, however, made another grave error.

The Spanish were not happy with their king and revolutionary factions (inspired by the precedents set by France) in Spain were supportive when Bonaparte decided to remove him from power. However, they were very keen to see his popular son take over and so were deeply miffed when Napoleon declared his own brother King of Spain. By this stage Napoleon had redefined the word 'nepotism' and had members of his direct family installed as kings of Belgium, Italy and Spain, among others. The installation of Joseph Bonaparte as king so infuriated the Spanish that a major revolt took place and Napoleon not only had to wage war against the British and Portugese but also the Spanish peasantry. This war on several fronts in Spain was a nightmare for the French army. Not only did they have major military enemies including the emerging Arthur Wellesley1 but they had to put down a civilian uprising of terrible ferocity. Moreover, Bonaparte's men could not live off the arid Spanish terrain as they had lived off the land in central and southern Europe. This was the first time a war had been extremely costly for Napoleon and as it dragged on it became a haemorrhage of both men and finances. The Spanish would not be put down and the word 'guerilla' 2 came into the world's vocabulary. The Spanish irregulars knew their homeland like the backs of their hands and hid in the hills, constantly raiding French convoys. Even messengers needed brigade-size escorts to prevent successful ambushes and through such ambushes, Wellesley learned the contents of many of Napoleon's 'secret' communiques. Eventually, Napoleon appeared in Spain and his military expertise again threw back his enemies - but he was now fighting on more than one front and could not be everywhere at once.

The Peninsular War or the 'Spanish ulcer' as it became known would seriously weaken the French war machine and dragged on from 1807 until 1814 when Napoleon was first forced to abdicate.

Conqueror of Germany

Prussia had been an ally in the First Coalition against the French Republic but had largely sat on the fence since. By 1806, however, Napoleon's growing influence over the western German prinicipalities was becoming more and more alarming to them and they now threw their lot in with Russia and Saxony in a new coalition against France. It was a disastrous move - the Grand Army was unleashed once more with terrible effect.

As soon as Prussia became hostile, Napoleon invaded and within days was at the outskirts of Berlin, having beaten the pride of the Prussian army at Auerstadt. Here, the Prussian army was defeated by a French army less than half its size with the French initially thinking that they were simply cutting supply lines for the main Prussian army. A typical Napoleonic victory.

The rest of Prussia soon followed. Napoleon occupied Berlin and then pursued the Russian armies into their own territory (in what is now Poland). He took Warsaw but was held up by winter in 1806/1807. In February 1807 in a terrible battle, fought during a blizzard at Eylau, both sides took upwards of 20,000 casualties but Napoleon held the field. Following this he trapped the Russian army against a river at the Battle of Friedland and so ended the Fourth Coalition. Russia sued for peace and a Polish republic of Warsaw was set up. Prussia was occupied, having been comprehensively conquered. With the Peninsular war not yet having begun in earnest this was the furthest Napoleon would take territory and hold it. He was now master of France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Things were never to go his way so well again however.

The Fifth Coalition

By now, the French armies had swept all before them in a series of wars that had not all been started by Napoleon. Always against him were the forces of Britain and Austria and the military strategies and technologies of the Napoleonic armies had been displayed to terrible effect. The lessons of this had not gone unlearned, however, and Bonaparte's enemies were begining to assemble formidable, state-of-the-art armies themselves. As he eventually took on all his enemies at once, he gradually found that those opposing him had learned some of his methods and were now much tougher nuts to crack. In addition, had he maybe lost the odd war or two then he may have ultimately fared better but as we all know, there's nothing like winning all the time to really irritate your opponents and harden their resolve. Napoleon had also grown to be an unbridled megalomaniac and conquest made him thirsty for more. It is doubtful that he would ever have stopped. He was always an opportunist, probably without a grand plan, and success in battle led him to further battle and so on in a vicious circle that ultimately led on to overambition and disaster.

By 1809, Napoleon was thoroughly mired in the Peninsular War in Spain. Austria, having rebuilt its armies and studied the new warfare that Napoleon had shown them, decided, alongside their British allies, that it was once more time to try and depose him.

Again they resolved to strike at France through Bavaria, a long-conquered French satellite. They would come up through the Alps via Italy. Initially, they were highly successful as they threw back French forces which for once were led by poor generals, but soon the Emperor himself would appear and with his brilliance and aura the Austrians were thrown back into their own country. The main events of the campaign then took place along the Danube river.

The retreating Austrians were torn in two by a lightning-swift thrust of Napoleon's forces and each had to retreat across the Danube while being harried by the French. It seemed that utter defeat would again engulf them but Napoleon was now over-confident and pushed on too far. With the Austrians across the river, he sent his armies against them - but the vanguard of his army was cut off on the opposite bank by the destruction of a bridge and was faced with the might of the entire Austrian army. This force was under the command of two of his top marshals and with a distinguished defensive action managed to escape. However, Marshal Lannes, a friend of Napoleon and one of his top generals, was killed in the action. After this, Napoleon proceeded with more caution and finally defeated the Austrians at Wagram in another bloody battle that cost both sides heavy casualties.

This battle ended the war of the Fifth Coalition but with his rash actions of the Danube campaign and the growing problems in Spain, his reputation for invinciblity was getting seriously dented. Furthermore, the French no longer had the cause of liberté on their side; Napoleon was now seen as an out-and-out conqueror and it was his enemies who cried freedom. He would soon embark on highly-controversial private life affairs and a campaign that would cost him everything, but for now the Austrians were forced to join in the Continental System and again give up territory.

Divorce and the search for an heir

Since 1796, Napoleon had been married to his beloved Josephine. A beautiful Paris socialite, she had been instrumental in his introduction to both the powerful and the influential in the post-Revolutionary city. Both had had affairs but they loved one another and remained friends until her death in 1814. Napoleon had been Emperor now for nearly six years, yet despite an illegitimate son, he had no heir for the new Bonaparte dynasty he wished to create. Reluctantly therefore, in 1809, he divorced Josephine as she was now in her forties and unlikely to provide an heir. He told her he still loved her but statehood must not have a heart. In an extremely controversial move some months later he married the 19-year-old Austrian princess Marie-Louise. This was a bizarre move as not only was she a member of the Austrian royal family that were traditionally his enemies but she was also the niece of the ultimate hate figure in France of that time, Marie-Antoinette. This infuriated the old revolutionaries and turned many in France against him. However, she did her duty and was to provide a son, François, who he would not often see but nevertheless named King of Rome. François - to posterity, Napoleon the 2nd, never to reign - had a short and unfortunate life. When Napoleon was deposed Marie-Louise took him to Austria where he lived out his life as a virtual prisoner and died of consumption aged only 21.

War With Russia

At the end of the Fourth Coalition, Russia had reluctantly agreed to be France's ally but this was about as reliable as an alliance of France and England was likely to be. The Continental System was not good for Russia's economy and was largely ignored, thereby increasing tensions between the two countries. By 1812, Napoleon had had enough and amassed his grandest army yet - a body of 600,000 men consisting of not only French but allied3 armies also. The primary intention was to intimidate Russia into applying the sanctions against Britain effectively.

The Tsar responded by sending two massive armies of his own to guard against a French invasion. Napoleon's intimidation did not work and the Tsar's forces could not prevent an invasion. On 24 June, 1812, Napoleon embarked on the now notorious and doomed campaign against Russia. 4 The Russian armies melted away before Napoleon's advance just as they did before Hitler's Blitzkrieg in 1941 and the vast distances in the world's largest country were the undoing of Napoleon's Grand Army.

The Russian tactic was to give space and bide their time. If they could avoid all-out battle with France's supreme tactician then eventually winter would set in and no army in the field could live off the Russian Steppes in winter. To this end, they practised a scorched-earth policy, burning the land and property of Russia behind their retreat, not allowing the army of Bonaparte to live off the land. This drained Napoleon's resources and stretched his supply lines to the limit. The retreat ended some 70 miles shy of Moscow and a vast battle ensued. Under the Russian general Kutusov, a veteran of the Third Coalition, a body of 120,000 men met Napoleon's 133,000 strong army at Borodino. The battle was indecisive but left more than 30,000 casualties on each side. Napoleon now advanced again and achieved what Hitler did not - he occupied Moscow.

The Moscow Bonaparte marched into was nearly empty as the Russians had evacuated it. He walked through the empty halls of the Kremlin thinking that the Russians would now sue for peace. They did not, and were now busy setting fires raging in the occupied city. Napoleon hung on in Moscow waiting for Russian envoys but eventually realised that time was not on his side and the French army began a retreat racing against time to beat the coming winter. They were overtaken and with not enough winter clothing and few supplies faced a harrowing march back to home which most would not make. They took supplies looted from Moscow but Cossacks were now on their trail and harried their supply wagons all the way. The Russian peasants were under orders (and not unwilling) to accommodate French soldiers and then kill them in their vodka-ridden sleep. Some had their throats cut and other froze to death while still more were killed by maruading Cossacks. By the time Napoleon arrived back in French-controlled territory his army was decimated. Only 25,000 men had made it from the original half-million. His army's reputation was in ruins, his army was in ruins and his popularity amongst his troops was at rock bottom. His old enemies spied weakness and pounced.

German Liberation and the Battle for France

With his Grand Army literally on its last legs, the Prussians saw their chance and, breaking their alliance with France, formed a Sixth Coalition with Russia and Sweden and proceeded to defeat the French army and liberate Prussia from Napoleon's cosh.

Encouraged by this, they now amassed a huge army and invaded France itself. A British army under Wellington was now advancing through Spain and about to invade France in a second front from the south. His back against the wall, Napoleon again shone as the brilliant general he was, winning a sequence of battles with weak and barely-trained troops.5 However, he was now hopelessly outnumbered as all his enemies were united against him and France faced total defeat.

Napoleon's marshals saw that they would now not win and on 6 April, 1814 Napoleon was forced to abdicate. He was exiled to the Italian island of Elba with a personally-chosen court of 600 to accompany him. The allies restored the brother of the dead French king to the throne, Louis XVIII and Napoleon was awarded a pension of two million francs a year to hopefully keep him quiet.


The allies were finally convinced this scourge had been defeated but were not counting on Napoleon attempting one final swansong. The French were less than pleased with the hated Bourbon dynasty once more in charge of their country and Louis displeased the British immensely when he refused to pay Napoleon his promised pension.

Faced with potential starvation in Elba and encouraged by his mother6, Napoleon made a landing in southern France only ten months after his exile to Elba had begun. The French king knew of this landing very quickly due to the new semaphore communication system instigated by Napoleon and watched warily. Napoleon was very careful not to fire on French citizens this time and as he marched north his old comrades and armies once more flocked to his side. The king and his government in Paris fled and Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France for the second time.

Naturally, the other powers in Europe reacted with alarm and a Seventh Coalition was formed against Napoleon. Bonaparte himself was no longer particularly keen to fight and sent urgent messengers to Austria, Prussia and England, indicating that he had no expansionist ambitions this time and wished France7 to be left in peace. His messages were returned unread and unopened and Europe's armies once more went on the march. They wanted to put an end to this man's ambition once and for all.

Napoleon struck first, again with the purpose of defeating his enemies while their armies were still divided. He launched a campaign in Belgium aimed at striking at Wellington's British troops while the Prussian armies were yet to arrive. This campaign began with success but his marshals did not carry out his orders effectively and at the Belgian village of Waterloo on 18 June, 1815 Napoleon's last army was crushed by the combined Prussian and British armies. However, at Waterloo, Napoleon did not surrender8. He fled and tried to take a ship to America where he proposed to hide out, but the British were blockading the ports of France and he was recognised. Captured, he was escorted to the remote British Island of St Helena9 and for the rest of his days was watched by an enormous naval escort and garrison. There, he wrote his memoirs and in 1821 died at the age of 52, much to the relief of Europe's royalty.

France, the army, Josephine.
- The dying words of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Not until 1840 did the British allow his body to be returned to the French. In what amounted to a state funeral, the streets of Paris were lined by Napoleonic war veterans as his body was laid to rest in Les Invalides where it lies to this day, next to that of his son.

His Legacy

Napoleon Bonaparte began from humble origins and went on to lead Europe for a time, but his career rose and fell like the tide. A French European Empire emerged between 1792 and 1814 but his life and ambition was not wholly wasted and Napoleon is perhaps the father of modern Europe.

The laws, which were written down by Napoleon's administrators from over 14,000 decrees by the French revolutionary directory, still form the basis of French law to this day. Indeed, the 'Code Napoleon' has been adopted by more than 70 countries worldwide.10 He left behind an education system that is still at the heart of western education today, a system that essentially guides people towards middle class aspirations. He left a strong Prussia behind him, leading ultimately to the unification of Germany and Italy was to join in the formation of the modern nation states. Additionally, the Napoleonic wars had seen Britain achieve world naval dominance and become the first modern superpower. Bonapartism lived on for a time in France and his own family would return to political prominence. His nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte would, whilst sitting as French President in 1851 stage a second 'Coup de Brumaire' and declare himself Emperor Napoleon the 3rd, a regime that was to last until the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 but would have none of the impact of its predecessor.

Seen as a saviour by the masses, a conqueror by his enemies and as a military leader to compare with Caesar and Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte was the sort of character history throws at us only once in several generations. Our world would probably have been the poorer for his absence.

1Soon to be Duke of Wellington.2Guerilla is Spanish for 'little war.'3Puppet.4Doomed, but it inspired a really cool overture by Tchaikovsky.5His finest forces were lying dead on the freezing plains of Russia.6In addition, his spies revealed much French discontent with the restored monachy.7Now restored to her 1792 borders.8Is there a song in that?9A small remote island in middle of the South Atlantic ocean.10In modified form - they were a work of their time and were not, for example, particularly up on sexual equality.

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