“His presence on the battlefield is worth 60,000 men!”
This is the next in a series of posts examining the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusual for Deadliest Blogger, this will be primarily in video format; posting compelling biographical material.
Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode his world like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, he established a new order and left France a mythic hero to surpass Charlemagne. He began his career during the last days of the reign of King Louis XVI, as a young officer of artillery. When the Revolution swept away the monarchy, he pledged loyalty to the new Republic.
Napoleon first made his mark in 1794 as the commander of the artillery during the Siege of Toulon. The following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, by unleashing artillery fire into the crowd (the “whiff of grape shot”). He was rewarded with command of the French Army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy; all this at the age of 27.
Once in command of his own army, the young Bonaparte went from victory-to-amazing-victory, never looking back.
After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reins of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français). At the head of a well-trained and drilled “Grande Armee“, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.
But after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations; financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually beaten and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away; and one-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.
In February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Ney promised the King he would bring “the Ogre” back to Paris in a cage. Instead, he and the veterans he commanded rallied around their former master; and the Bourbon’s once again fled France. Returning to Paris, Napoleon was once again firmly in place as Emperor of the French.
Immediately the Allied Powers prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. At Waterloo, Napoleon faced the combined Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies; as well as the most capable of his enemy’s generals: the Duke of Wellington. A “near run thing”, he lost this, his last battle; and with it his throne and freedom.
He was taken by the victors to exile on St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic. He died there on May 5, 1821. His legacy is still debated. What is not is his extraordinary genius for war.
HERE IS MORE ON THE GREAT CAPTAINS OF HISTORY: