A Salute to the Military Genius, Napoleon Bonaparte

Death and despair as Napoléon and his Grand Army retreat from Russia. Artist: Adolf Northen
Death and despair as Napoléon and his Grand Army retreat from Russia. Artist: Adolf Northen

by Ray Setterfield

October 30, 1784 — Aged 15, Napoléon Bonaparte was admitted to the elite École Militaire in Paris on this day. It was the start of a soldierly career that came to see him acknowledged as a military genius and one of the finest commanders in world history. He fought 60 battles, losing only eight.

But he was by no means just a soldier. He brought fundamental liberal reforms to countries that he conquered and controlled throughout Europe. And his Napoleonic Code – replacing a patchwork of feudal laws – has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations right up to today.

As British historian Andrew Roberts has noted: “The ideas that underpin our modern world – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on – were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoléon.

“To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”.

Born Napoleone di Buonaparte in 1769 at Corsica, his father was the Mediterranean island's representative to the court of French King Louis XVI. As a child Napoléon spoke Corsican and Italian and did not begin learning French until he was about ten years old.

When he was married in 1796 at the age of 27 he finally changed his name to the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte.

Within a year he graduated from the École Militaire and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant just after his 16th birthday.

He was serving as an artillery officer when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. There were opportunities to grasp in the turmoil that the Revolution brought and Bonaparte took full advantage. Rising through the ranks, he became a brigadier-general at the age of 24.

He successfully battled against enemies of the Revolution, then in 1799, he staged a coup d'état, appointing himself First Consul. Five years later the French Senate declared him France’s first Emperor.

Under Napoléon, France waged the Napoleonic Wars, which were to last for 23 years. Every European great power took part but within ten years most of the continent was under his control or direct influence.

Then came the great mistake. Rejecting repeated advice to abandon his plan, Napoléon decided in 1812 to invade Russia – just as, 130 years later, ignoring history, Adolf Hitler would do the same. The results were catastrophic for both dictators.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Napoleon's Grand Army were killed or badly wounded. Out of an original fighting force of 600,000, just 10,000 soldiers survived to fight another day.

The Russians employed their scorched earth policy, retreating across their vast territory as the French advanced, but destroying all the local resources and cutting off Napoleon's army and horses from food and supplies.

There was one major battle – Borodino, just outside Moscow. About 44,000 Russians and 35,000 French were killed or wounded in the fighting.

Napoléon was to record in his diary: “The most terrible of all my battles was the one before Moscow. The French showed themselves to be worthy of victory, but the Russians showed themselves worthy of being invincible.”

After the Russians set fire to Moscow rather than let it fall into Napoléon’s hands, the great retreat began. His army walked through snow that piled up to their knees, enduring starvation as well as the extremes of weather and attacks by vengeful Russian partisans. Nearly 10,000 men and horses froze to death on just one night.

It was the beginning of the end for Napoléon. In 1814 Allied forces invaded France and forced the politically weakened Emperor to abdicate. He was kept on the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany but, astonishingly, the resourceful leader escaped the following year and took control of France again.

This was too much for the Allies including the UK, Russia, Austria and Prussia, who poured troops into Belgium and took on Napoléon at the Battle of Waterloo, just outside Brussels. He was defeated and captured.

The British exiled him to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. There, apparently believing he would be poisoned, he wrote in his will: “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of that French people which I have loved so much. I die before my time, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins.”

But it was not to be. He died in 1821, aged 51, most likely from stomach cancer. Napoléon was buried on the island and his remains were not returned to France until 1840 where they are entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris.

***On a personal note, the phrase “not tonight, Josephine,” seems destined ever to be attributed to the Emperor. Marie-Josephe-Rose de Beauharnais was a 32-year-old Paris socialite and widowed mother of two when she first met 26-year-old Napoléon.

They were married in 1796 and according to many accounts Josephine was sexually demanding, sometimes to his discomfort. Both parties in the marriage went on to have a string of lovers but she failed to produce a son. Desperate for a legitimate heir, Napoléon divorced her in 1810 to seek another wife. 

***On a musical note, in modern times the name Waterloo, where Napoléon was finally defeated, was to take on the meaning of a watershed moment, with people “meeting their Waterloo”. In 1974 the song by that name was the winning entry for Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest, launching the pop group Abba to international fame.

Released as their first single, it became a Number One hit across the world, racking up sales of about six million copies – one of the best-selling pop songs ever.

Published: October 21, 2019

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