Friday, 16 September 2011

Napoleon and the Reshaping of Europe



"I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe."
(Napoleon Bonaparte)

This particular quote from Napoleon's memoirs, written during his final exile, pretty much sums up the motives that drove him during his years of power and would certainly sound familiar to anyone clued up on the workings of the modern European Union. Between 1799 and 1815 this diminutive son of a Corsican courtier changed Europe almost beyond recognition. Rising through the ranks of the French army and navigating through the political chaos of the French Revolution, Napoleon became First Consul and later Emperor of the French, abolishing the unstable First French Republic but at the same time retaining the core revolutionary principles which had been behind its creation. Utilising his almost peerless skills as a military commander, the Emperor proceeded to expand those principles across Europe, plunging the continent into a state of almost continuous war for two decades.

As French power and influence spread to an extent that the old monarchs of the Ancien Régime could only have dreamed of, Napoleon swept aside old enemies and old institutions, replacing the latter with French revolutionary institutions and setting up new states based along French revolutionary lines. Napoleon came close to achieving his goal of becoming a modern day Julius Caesar but in the end he overstretched himself, allowing a coalition of enemy powers to defeat and overthrow him. His downfall would allow for the return of the deposed Bourbon monarchy but that arrangement, contrived by his foreign opponents, would ultimately fail to sweep away the changes that he and his revolutionary predecessors had introduced. The reforms of Napoleon and his empire had shaken the old  institutions of Europe to their foundations and paved the way for the eventual emergence of recognizably modern nation states.


Background

Napoleon was born Napoleone di Buonaparte in 1769. Hailing from the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon's family was of old Italian gentry stock (the island had been transferred to France from the Republic of Genoa in the year before his birth) and his father, Carlo served as the Corsican representative at the court of the ill-fated French King Louis XVI. It was not until Napoleon was in his early twenties that he changed his name to the more French-sounding Napoléon Bonaparte.

Despite the general lack of opportunities for self-advancement in Corsica at the time, Napoleon's background opened doors for him and in January 1779 he moved to a religious school in mainland France in order to better learn the French language. Five months later he transferred to a military academy where he studied hard and earned praise from his teachers, with one observer suggesting that he would make a good sailor. In 1784 Napoleon's naval ambitions ended when he moved on to the elite École Militaire in Paris and studied to become an artillery officer. Despite having to complete the two-year course in a single year (he was left with a reduced income after the death of his father), he become the first Corsican ever to graduate from the institution, passing out in September 1785. Napoleon became a commissioned second lieutenant in the La Fère artillery regiment and spent the first four years of his army career alternating various undramatic garrison duties with extended periods on leave in Corsica and Paris.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 changed the young Napoleon's life just as much as it changed the course of French history. As France was swept by turmoil and the entire population seemed to be losing their heads (some more literally than others), Napoleon found himself in the middle of a complex struggle between royalists, revolutionaries and Corsican nationalists. Supporting the revolutionary Jacobin faction, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and commanded a band of volunteers. In 1792, as the revolution intensified and the former Louis XVI met his undignified end at the hands of Madame Guillotine, Napoleon somehow earned himself a promotion to captain despite having exceeded his period of leave and even led a riot against a French army. He and his family were forced to flee to the French mainland in June 1793 after a falling-out with the Corsican nationalist leadership.

It did not take long for Napoleon to come to the attention of the revolutionary authorities. Augustin Robespierre, younger brother of Maximilien, was a keen supporter and used his contacts to get Napoleon appointed as artillery commander at the siege of Toulon, where the army of the newly-established French Republic was struggling to dislodge the British troops who had landed there in aid of the town's anti-revolutionary population. Napoleon concocted a plan to capture a nearby hill which would allow the Republican guns to dominate Toulon's harbour and force the British supply ships to withdraw. Napoleon was wounded during the operation but the hill was won and with it the siege. That victory earned him yet another promotion, making him a brigadier general at the age of just 24.

Napoleon's ascendancy was threatened only by the downfall of the Robespierres and he spent a period under house arrest following the downfall of the brothers in 1794. Fortunately for him he was returned to favour and took part in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Corsica from the British. His next posting was to the Vendée region, where the Army of the West was dealing with a royalist counter-revolution. Napoleon saw this infantry command as a demotion and did everything he could to get out of it, pleading poor health and seeking a transfer to Constantinople where he might serve the Ottoman Sultan. His refusal to take up his Vendée command led to him being struck from the list of generals in regular service, leaving him with dire financial and career prospects.

A royalist uprising against the National Convention broke out in Paris in October 1795 and this provided the sidelined Napoleon with a path to redemption. Realising that artillery would be the key to holding off the mob, Napoleon's troops seized the guns they needed to protect the Convention at the Tuileries Palace. Over 1400 royalists died and the rest fled, crushing the rebellion and catapulting Napoleon to national fame. The young general was appointed Commander of the Interior and given command of the French Army of Italy. On March 11th 1796, two days after his marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon left Paris to take up his new command.


The First Napoleonic Campaigns

Napoleon led his army on a successful invasion of northern Italy, an area which was heavily contested between France and Habsburg Austria. He drove the Austrians out of Lombardy and proceeded to subdue the Papal States but, despite the prevailing attitude of atheism in Revolutionary France, decided that it would not be a good idea to forcibly dethrone the Pope and evict the Catholic Church from Rome (he feared that doing to would create a power vacuum to be exploited by the Kingdom of Naples). In March 1797 Napoleon changed strategy and attacked Austria directly, forcing the Habsburgs to sue for peace. The Treaty of Leoben gave France control of northern Italy and the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium) whilst secretly promising the Venitian Republic to the Habsburgs. Napoleon reneged on that last part of the agreement and captured Venice for France as well, ending more than 1000 years of its independent existence.

Napoleon during the Italian Wars

Napoleon's successes in the Italian campaign marked his transition into a truly great military leader. The Army of Italy fought 67 actions and won 18 pitched battles thanks to superior artillery and the novel tactics used by Napoleon. 150,000 prisoners and more than 500 cannon were captured during the campaign. Despite his successes and tactical innovations, namely his mastery of deception and espionage on the battlefield, the young general was initially modest about his achievements and claimed that he was merely continuing the battlefield traditions of past military heroes. He described his tactics thus:

"I have fought sixty battles and I have learned nothing which I did not know at the beginning. Look at Caesar; he fought the first like the last."

Napoleon's profile back home in France continued to grow at a rate almost as fast as his victory tally. Even while he was still away in Italy, he was becoming increasingly influential in French politics, thanks in part to the two newspapers he had founded and put into circulation both among his troops and among the civilian population. Discontented royalists were already voicing their concerns about Napoleon's intentions, criticising him and his army for looting Italy and even going so far as to suggest that he might become a dictator. In September 1797 Napoleon responded to these attacks by sending troops to Paris, purging the royalists and concentrating executive power in the hands of the republican camp. This new government was effectively dependent on the backing of Napoleon, who managed to come out smelling of roses in the aftermath of the coup d'état. After negotiating a renewed peace with Austria, the terms of which granted yet more territory and shifted France's eastern frontier to the banks of the River Rhine, Napoleon returned to Paris a national hero.

Next on the French military's agenda was a plan to deal with the old enemy, Great Britain. Napoleon collaborated with the French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, in planning an invasion of England but, after two months of brainstorming, the former concluded that France's naval strength was not yet sufficient to challenge the might of the British Royal Navy, which would have to be overcome for any invasion to succeed. Napoleon instead proposed a military expedition to take control of Egypt, thereby establishing a French presence in the Middle East and disrupting Britain's access to her vital trading interests in India. His plan struck a chord with the French government and they gave it their blessing.

Napoleon's expeditionary force managed to elude the pursuing Royal Navy and arrived in Alexandria on July 1st 1798, having already captured the strategic Mediterranean island of Malta from the Order of the Knights Hospitaller with the loss of just three men (the French-born knights disliked their Prussian Grand Master and had no desire to fight against their fellow countrymen). The French immediately began a successful campaign against the ruling Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks, Egypt's ruling military caste. After perfecting his tactics at the Battle of Shubra Khit, Napoleon led his army of 25,000 to a great victory against a larger Ottoman/Mamluk force at the Battle of the Pyramids, fought within sight of the famous ancient monuments. Napoleon's victory gave rise to the legend that a French cannon was responsible for blowing the nose off the Sphinx, although there is evidence which proves that the nose was missing well before 1798, namely sketches drawn by Frederic Louis Norden in the late 1730s.

Napoleon Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Napoleon's successes in Egypt brought him close to achieving his ambitious plans for the Middle East but his efforts were ultimately undone by the British, who were not intending to stand by and watch this French upstart threaten their interests. On August 1st 1798 a British fleet commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had been shadowing the French expedition across the Mediterranean, located and destroyed Napoleon's ships at the Battle of the Nile. Frustrated by the British and Egyptian uprisings against the French occupation, Napoleon moved his army north into the Ottoman province of Damascus (modern day Syria and Galilee).

Throughout early 1799 several coastal towns in the Damascus province were captured, including Haifa, Jaffa, Arish and Gaza. The assault on Jaffa was particularly brutal, with Napoleon ordering the execution of over 1400 prisoners after it was discovered that many of the town's defenders had been captured by the French before (Napoleon viewed their return to action as something of a parole violation). By this stage, the French army was being weakened by disease and supply problems, leading to a failure to capture the fortress city of Acre. In May 1799 Napoleon and his men returned to the relative safety of Egypt, struggling to stay ahead of the harassing Ottoman forces who mercilessly tortured and beheaded any unfortunate French stragglers. Upon his return to Egypt in July, Napoleon regained some of his lost pride by repelling an amphibious Ottoman attack at Abukir.


Ruler of France

While away in Egypt, Napoleon used newspapers and dispatches to keep up with events back home in France and elsewhere in Europe. He was dismayed to learn of a continuing series of French defeats at the hands of the Second Coalition and resolved to rectify the situation by returning to France. In August 1799 he took advantage of the British absence and set sail for France, despite having received no orders to do so (such orders had actually been sent but a combination of distance and poor lines of communication meant they failed to reach him). By the time Napoleon arrived back in Paris that October, France's military situation had improved but her government was effectively bankrupt, having been almost constantly at war in the decade since the Revolution.

The republican leadership was becoming increasingly unpopular and Napoleon was soon approached by one of its leaders, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, and asked for his support in a plot to overthrow the constitutional government of the First Republic. Napoleon agreed and soon other key figures were on board, including Talleyrand and Napoleon's brother Lucien. On November 9th 1799, Napoleon was charged with the safety of the legislative councils after the plotters spread false rumours about a Jacobin uprising. The following day, the deputies realised that a coup was afoot and attempted to remonstrate with Napoleon, who promptly sent in troops to sieze control and disperse those legislators who opposed the takeover. This left only a rump legislature, which promptly named Napoleon, Sieyès and Roger Ducos (another conspirator) as provisional Consuls in charge of administering the government of France.

In the aftermath of the 1799 coup, it had been expected that Sieyès, as the mastermind behind the whole thing, would be the one to dominate the government. This didn't happen as he ended up being outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by Napoleon. Napoleon drafted the Constitution of the Year VIII, secured his own election as First Consul and took up residence at the Tuileries Palace, the former Paris residence of the Bourbon Kings of France. He was now the undisputed ruler of France but it was not long before he had to get back in the saddle and return to Italy, where the Habsburgs had managed to regain the ascendancy.

In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the Alps and arrived back on his old Italian stomping grounds. This second campaign did not begin well as the First Consul made a series of uncharacteristic strategic mistakes, leading to one of his armies being besieged by the Austrians at Genoa. The timely arrival of reinforcements allowed the French to regain the upper hand and they scored a key victory at Marengo, bringing Austria to the negotiating table. Napoleon's brother Joseph led the French delegation but negotiations were frustrated as the Habsburgs, emboldened by British support, refused to recognise the French gains in northern Italy. Napoleon responded with a direct and successful attack against Austria, forcing the Habsburgs to back down. A peace treaty was signed in February 1801, by which Austria recognised the French territorial gains of 1797.

Returning to France, Napoleon set up camp on the Channel coast at Boulogne and began to plan an invasion of Britain. Both countries had grown tired of the war, however, and the British were ready to make peace. Terms were agreed in the 1801 Treaty of Amiens but it was not an easy peace. Britain refused to abandon Malta and continued to criticise the increasingly aggressive French foreign policy, namely Napoleon's annexation of Piedmont (another Italian state) and the creation of a new Swiss Confederation. In May 1803 Britain re-declared war on France and Napoleon's invasion camp was reassembled. Only the continued presence of the Royal Navy prevented the French from being able to cross the English Channel.


Napoleon's Reforms

Beginning during his stint as First Consul, Napoleon initiated a series of lasting reforms, including higher education, a tax code and improved road and sewer systems. In May 1802 the Legion of Honour was introduced, replacing the old royalist decorations and orders of chivalry, as a means of recognising and encouraging civilian and military achievements. The Legion of Honour remains the highest decoration in France to this day. Napoleon himself solidified his grip on power when the Constitution of the Year X was ratified. Article 1 of this new constitution proclaimed Napoleon as permanent ruler of the nation:

"Article 1. The French people name, and the Senate proclaims Napoleon-Bonaparte First Consul for Life"

Napoleon's Concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VIII was instrumental in reconciling his regime with the Catholic faith, which had been brutally suppressed in France in the years since the Revolution. Roman Catholicism was restored as the majority religion of France but the balance of power between church and state, a highly contentious issue in the years before the Revolution, was decisively redressed in favour of the state. Greater religious toleration was introduced, including the emancipation of both Protestants and Jews. This allowed the religious minorities to leave their ghettos and assimilate into French society, which Napoleon believed would benefit the country as a whole. His accommodating attitude to the Jews in particular drew a mixed reaction at home and abroad, with the Russian Orthodox Church even going so far as to denounce Napoleon as the "Antichrist and the Enemy of God".

The one reform programme that Napoleon as perhaps best remembered for, however, was his introduction of what became known as the Napoleonic Code, something for which he later hoped to remembered more than for his great victories on the battlefield. The Code was based on French Revolutionary principles and, by creating a single clearly-defined set of laws, replaced the old feudal and royal laws which many people found to be confusing and contradictory. Its provisions included the prohibition of all birth-based privileges, establishing merit as the principal qualification for government office, allowing for freedom of religion and making divorce more accessible. Judges were prohibited from refusing justice on the grounds of insufficiency of the law, meaning that they were now required to interpret the law before passing judgement.

This new civic code, introduced in March 1804 and imposed throughout the French Empire, revolutionised the way in which countries were run and it continues to have relevance today amidst the constitutions of various European, African and American nations. It would go on to make a particularly strong impact in the German and Italian states that fell under Napoleon's influence, sweeping away their outdated feudalism-based systems and setting them on the road to unification and nationhood. With that in mind, the Napoleonic Code played a significant role in the development of both nationalism and the concept of the modern nation state.


Empire and War

The appointment of Napoleon as First Consul certainly helped to stabilise the volatile post-revolution political climate in France but the enemy factions continued their plotting. Napoleon faced several attempts on his life by the royalists and Jacobins between 1799 and 1804. Napoleon's response to the discovery of a Bourbon-sponsored conspiracy in January 1804 was to recreate the hereditary monarchy in France. It would not be the Bourbon pretender Louis XVIII as King, however, but Napoleon as Emperor. This turn of events came as a shock to republicans but Napoleon argued successfully that a Bourbon restoration would be made all but impossible if the Bonapartist succession were entrenched in the constitution. The introduction of the Napoleonic Code reassured the people that the values and principles of the Revolution would be safeguarded under the new regime.

Coronation portrait of Napoleon

On May 18th 1804 the French Senate vested the republican government in the Emperor as head-of-state. On December 2nd, in what was described as a masterpiece of modern propaganda that blended Roman imperial pageantry with legend of Charlemagne, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French in the presence of Pope Pius VII at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Although the coronation ceremony had been meticulously planned in advance and carried out to the letter, rumours persisted soon afterwards that Napoleon had snatched the Imperial Crown from the Pope to avoid showing any signs of subjugation to the Holy Father's authority. Six months later, the French conquests in northern Italy were consolidated when Napoleon was crowned King of Italy at Milan Cathedral on May 26th 1805. Eighteen Marshals of the Empire were created from amongst Napoleon's top generals in order to secure the allegiance of the army. Rulers and observers from around Europe followed the events in France with increasing concern. The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, a longtime admirer of Napoleon, was disappointed by the turn towards imperialism and subsequently scratched his dedication to the new Emperor from his 3rd Symphony.

Napoleon had bigger issues to contend with than brassed off composers, however, for France's enemies were circling and hoped to strange the new empire at birth. By 1805 the British had persuaded both Austria and Russia to join them in a Third Coalition against France, triggering war once again. Napoleon knew that tackling the Royal Navy head-on was never likely to produce a favourable outcome so instead he divised a plan to lure the British fleet out of the channel by breaking the French navy out of its Mediterranean ports (where they were pinned down by a British blockade) and using it to threaten the West Indies. It was hoped that this would lure the bulk of the Royal Navy across the Atlantic, allowing the ships of France and her ally Spain to secure the English Channel for an invasion of Britain. This plan failed, however, as the British reaffirmed their naval supremacy at the Battle of Cape Finisterre. The French fleet scampered away to the Spanish port of Cadiz, ending for good Napoleon's hopes of invading the British Isles.

With his ambitions now limited to continental Europe, Napoleon pulled his army back from the Channel coast and turned east towards Austria and the German states. On October 21st 1805 the French encircled and captured an advancing Austrian army at Ulm in Bavaria, taking 30,000 prisoners. It was a great victory for Napoleon but the good feeling was somewhat soured when news came through that Admiral Nelson and the Royal Navy had inflicted a total defeat on the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place the day after the events at Ulm. Nelson had been killed but the British were now totally unchallenged at sea. On land, however, they were powerless to stop the Napoleonic military juggernaut, which now stood on the verge of redrawing the political map of Europe.

On December 2nd 1805, the first anniversary of Napoleon's coronation, the Emperor achieved what was perhaps his greatest victory of all. His army, having invaded the Austrian province of Moravia, roundly defeated a combined Russian and Austrian army at the Battle of Austerlitz, taking Austria out of the war and effectively bringing an end to the Third Coalition. Napoleon commemorated his victory with the construction of the Arc de Triomphe whilst the defeated Habsburgs were obliged to hand over substantial territories and give up the dominant position in Germany that they had enjoyed for centuries. In 1806 the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated the imperial throne, dissolved the 868-year-old Holy Roman Empire and became Emperor Francis I of Austria, a title which he had created for himself two years previously having anticipated  Napoleon's plans for Germany.


Master of Europe

With the Holy Roman Empire gone and Austria now a reluctant ally, Napoleon completely reorganised the German states into a new political entity known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Most of the German sovereignties, including Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse willingly joined this pro-French alliance which streamlined more than a hundred former states into around forty larger ones. The Napoleonic Code was enacted throughout the Confederation and the Emperor himself was named as its honorary Protector, reinforcing the status of its members as French puppet states. They would go on to provide vital troops and materials for Napoleon's future campaigns.

France retained direct control of the German land west of the Rhine whilst a new state, the Kingdom of Westphalia, was established in the area that had been British Hanover. Westphalia was intended as a Napoleonic model state and the Emperor's brother Jérôme Bonaparte was installed as monarch, as per Napoleon's policy of using friends and family members to reinforce his influence around Europe. Joseph Bonaparte, the oldest of the Emperor's brothers, became King of Naples in 1806, further consolidating French control in the Italian peninsula. Another brother, Louis was installed as King of Holland in 1806 and reigned there until 1810 when Holland and a swathe of northern Germany were annexed by France in order to protect the North Sea coast from British incursions.

Despite what he had achieved in Germany, the largest and most powerful German state of all still remained outside Napoleon's sphere of influence. Prussia had rapidly emerged as a significant European power during the previous century and, up until this point, had largely stayed out of Napoleon's business. The defeat of Austria and the shift in the balance of power in central Europe had concerned the Prussians, however, and in 1806 King Frederick William III took Prussia into the Fourth Coalition alongside Britain, Russia, Saxony and Sweden. The well-drilled and professional Prussian army moved south into Saxony, awaiting the inevitable attack from Napoleon and his German allies.

The French army enters Berlin

Napoleon's army defeated the Prussians in a lightning fast campaign, the decisive confrontation being the battle of Jena-Auerstedt on October 14th 1806. Eleven days later the French army entered Berlin, the Prussian capital. Frederick William III and the remnants of his army fled to Königsberg in East Prussia but soon the French were there as well, fighting a number of bloody clashes with Tsar Alexander I's forces near the Russian border. In December, Saxony abandoned the coalition and joined the Confederation of the Rhine, earning it an elevation from electorate to kingdom. The War of the Fourth Coalition was brought to a close in July 1807 when Napoleon made peace with both Russia and Prussia. Prussia was left utterly humiliated, losing half of its territory and having to cover the costs of maintaining the French occupation forces. Former Prussian lands in Poland were reorganised into another French puppet state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which would be ruled by Napoleon's new ally, King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony.

The main outcome of Napoleon's victory against the Fourth Coalition was the creation of the Continental System. This was a French-enforced Europe-wide boycott of British trade, a measure which they hoped would hit the British where it hurts the most and force them to sue for peace. All the nations of mainland Europe, including Britain's defeated coalition partners, were expected to join the system but Portugal refused to comply, triggering another campaign known as the Peninsular War. Napoleon gained Spanish backing for an invasion of Portugal, which took place in 1807. French troops began to occupy Spain itself in February 1808, citing a need to reinforce the country against the British and Portuguese as reason for doing so. Joseph Bonaparte was transferred to Madrid and replaced the Bourbon Charles IV as King of Spain, with Napoleon's brother-in-law Joachim Murat replacing Joseph as King of Naples.

The Spanish army continued to resist the French occupation with some success until Napoleon defeated it and retook Madrid. Much of the Spanish population was also hostile and the Portuguese, now reinforced by British troops, continued to hold out. Before Napoleon was able to finish the job, Austria broke its alliance with France in 1809, forcing the Emperor to leave for Germany. 300,000 of his best men were left behind to deal with the Spanish insurrections and the Anglo-Portuguese army commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley. Napoleon was able to deal with Austria but the "Spanish Ulcer" drained 70 million francs per year from his treasury and gradually ground down his forces in the Iberian peninsula, handing the initiative to the coalition forces.

Elsewhere in Europe, French influence continued to expand. A British attempt to open a second front in Holland was beaten off in late 1809 while the Papal states in Italy were annexed by Napoleon due to the Catholic Church's failure to support the Continental System. Pius VII responded by excommunicating the Emperor, who responded in turn by abducting the ailing pontiff and keeping him in French custody. He would not return to Rome until 1814. Relations with the church were further strained in 1810 when Napoleon divorced his barren wife, Empress Joséphine and married Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria in the hope of fathering a dynastic heir. A son, also named Napoleon, was born in 1811.

Napoleon's French Empire at its greatest extent (1812)

In 1810 the Swedish court, perhaps hoping to curry favour with Napoleon, selected the popular Marshal of France, Jean Bernadotte, to succeed the heirless Charles XIII as King of Sweden. Bernadotte had been a long-time rival of Napoleon but had got away with his indiscretions because he was married to the Emperor's ex-fiancée, Désirée Clary. After some initial reluctance, Napoleon gave his consent to the appointment and Bernadotte became Crown Prince and commander of the Swedish armed forces, eventually becoming King in 1818. The descendants of Bernadotte and Clary continue to occupy the throne of Sweden to this day.


The Turning of the Tide

By the End of 1810 Napoleon was the almost undisputed lord and master of western and central Europe. The only unresolved issue, apart from the ongoing campaign in Spain and Portugal, was what to do about Russia. The Russians were doing everything possible to avoid joining the Continental System and Tsar Alexander I was under increasing pressure from his nobles to break off the alliance with France which had been established after the defeat of the Fourth Coalition. In 1812 the vast Russian army began preparations for an invasion of Poland and perhaps even France itself. When Napoleon got wind of these plans, he went against the pleas of his military advisers and gathered an army of over 450,000 men, drawn from all corners of the empire, for an invasion of Russia.

On June 23rd 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armée crossed the River Niemen and entered Russia. The Emperor hoped to achieve a quick and decisive victory over the Russians and force them to make peace on his terms but the Russians refused to play ball. The Russian army's notoriously incompetent officer corps had been revitalised in recent years by the importing of decent foreign-born commanders who recognised the need to trade space for time. With this in mind, the Russian armies avoided a confrontation and retreated, drawing the French army deeper and deeper into the vastness of the Russian hinterland. As they pulled back they carried out a textbook scorched-earth policy, denying food and shelter to the advancing enemy whose own supply lines became dangerously overstretched and vulnerable.

On September 7th the Russian army finally stopped to give battle at Borodino, less than 80 miles short of Moscow. The Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest day of fighting in the entire Napoleonic Wars with some 44,000 Russian and 35,000 French casualties. It was something of a victory for Napoleon but it was not the decisive encounter he was looking for. The Russians left the field and continued their retreat in good order, leaving the road to Moscow open. Napoleon's troops entered the city on September 14th and found it to be almost totally abandoned. That same day fires broke out in the city and burned out of control for four days. The cause of Moscow's destruction remains a disputed issue, with some blaming Russian saboteurs and others maintaining that the fires were started accidentally by French troops.

Napoleon's Withdrawal from Russia by Adolph Northen

Napoleon and his army, greatly depleted by death and desertion but still some 100,000 strong, stayed in Moscow for a month but the anticipated peace feelers from Alexander I in St Petersburg never came. Fearing that that the empire might not hold together for much longer in his absence, Napoleon ordered a retreat and his army left Moscow in mid-October for the long journey home. During the long and painful retreat, the remnants of the once-mighty Grande Armée were constantly harassed by the Russian army and ravaged by the famously unforgiving Russian Winter. Of the 450,000 troops that began the campaign, less than 40,000 managed to make it back to the relative safety of Poland. Napoleon had already left by then, having raced back to France ahead of his army after hearing the news of an attempted coup.


Napoleon's Downfall

Napoleon managed to cling on to power but the catastrophe in Russia had destroyed his aura of invincibility and left his military clout gravely weakened. There was a lull in the fighting during the first half of 1813 while France and Russia rebuilt their forces but soon Napoleon was forced to face the full might of the Sixth Coalition. Austria and Prussia, seizing the opportunity presented by Napoleon's weakness, broke their alliances with the Emperor and joined with the Russians in a campaign to break French power in Germany. Meanwhile, the British and Portuguese had effectively liberated Spain from French rule and were threatening France from the south. To the north, Crown Prince Bernadotte turned against his former master and brought Sweden into the coalition.

Facing the challenge head-on, Napoleon assumed command in Germany and did initially did well with his rebuilt army, defeating the coalition at the Battle of Dresden in August 1813. The turning point came in October when the French were pinned down by a much larger coalition force near Leipzig in Saxony. The three-day encounter, known as the Battle of the Nations, was the largest battle in European history prior to the First World War, involving some 600,000 troops. The French fought magnificently but were ultimately overwhelmed by the enemy forces which were led by the most illustrious commanders the coalition had to offer, including Bernadotte, Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly (Russia), Prince Karl Philipp of Schwarzenberg (Austria) and Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher (Prussia).

Napoleon and what remained of his army scrambled back to France in preparation for the inevitable invasion. The Confederation of the Rhine crumbled as its member states jumped ship and joined the coalition, leaving France's eastern frontiers vulnerable. In October 1813 the British army in Spain crossed the Pyrenees and invaded southern France. February 1814 saw the main invasion from the east as Russian, Austrian and Prussian forces entered France. In a series of battles known as the Six Days Campaign, Napoleon won several victories but none were significant enough to get him out of the bleak situation he now found himself in. The numerical superiority of the coalition armies prevailed and in March, Paris fell to the Russians.

On April 4th Napoleon was confronted by a delegation of French army leaders, led by his top general, Marshal Michel Ney. Napoleon was convinced that the army would carry out his wish to recapture Paris but the generals asserted that the troops would follow their orders rather than his. Without the support of the army. Napoleon had no choice but to abdicate and his wish to do so in favour of his son was firmly rejected by the coalition powers, who were set on a restoration of the old pre-revolutionary monarchy. On April 11th 1814 Napoleon abdicated unconditionally. The Act of Abdication, signed at the palace of Fontainebleau, read:

"The Allied Powers having declared that Emperor Napoleon was the sole obstacle to the restoration of peace in Europe, Emperor Napoleon, faithful to his oath, declares that he renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to do in the interests of France."

Under the terms of his abdication, Napoleon was banished to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. In September 1814 the victorious powers met at the Congress of Vienna with the aim of deciding the fate of Napoleon's empire. Territory all over Europe changed hands whilst the Bourbon monarchy of Louis XVIII was restored to France in an attempt to return the continent to a pre-revolutionary footing. The delegates at the Congress may well have believed that they could just sweep aside Napoleon's legacy but the former Emperor was not to remain out of the way for long.


The Last Waltz

During Napoleon's time on Elba, he was separated from his wife and son (both were in Austrian custody) and cut off from the allowance promised to him by the Treaty of Fontainebleau. He became aware of rumours that he was about to be moved to a more remote location in the Atlantic and decided to act first. On February 26th 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and headed back to France, where he arrived two days later. The 5th Regiment of Foot was sent south to intercept him and the two parties met just south of Grenoble. Napoleon stood before the soldiers and dared them to kill him, to which the soldiers responded by immediately joining his cause. Napoleon's support swelled even more as he headed north towards Paris and he arrived in the capital on March 20th. With Louis XVIII having already fled the country, Napoleon took back control and resumed his imperial title.

As one might expect, the news of Napoleon's return to power with almost the full backing of the French military and civilian population went down like a lead balloon amongst those at the Congress of Vienna, which was still taking place. The coalition powers declared Napoleon an outlaw and the big four nations; Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, bound themselves to each put 150,000 men into the field and end his rule for good. By the beginning of June 1815 Napoleon had regrouped his army and planned an offensive campaign that would drive a wedge between the British and Prussian armies that were converging on France from the northeast. The French Army of the North, with the Emperor at its head, crossed the frontier into the southern Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) and met the main Anglo-Dutch coalition army south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo. Its commander was the hero of the Spanish campaign, Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had recently been honoured for his efforts with title of Duke of Wellington.

The British contingent of Wellington's army consisted mostly of second-line troops as the experienced veterans of the Peninsular War were still in North America following a recently-concluded war against the United States. During the first phases of the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18th 1815, the raw British troops held good defensive positions on the wet and muddy terrain and managed to withstand repeated French assaults. Napoleon came close to victory but the arrival of Blücher's Prussian army overwhelmed his right flank and the French army was eventually driven from the field in disarray. The battle, the campaign and Napoleon were finished. Defeated and in poor health, the Emperor abdicated for the second and final time before handing himself over to the British. His return to power had lasted barely a hundred days.

Napoleon had hoped to either gain political asylum in Britain or escape to the Americas but instead he was sent into exile once again, this time to the isolated island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. Guarded round the clock by British soldiers, the former Emperor spend six years on the island and suffered from increasingly bad health, which he believed was caused by a British attempt to poison him. Napoleon died of stomach cancer, aged 51, on May 5th 1821 and was initially buried on the island. It was not until 1840 that his remains were removed from Saint Helena and returned to France for a full state funeral and internment amongst the nation's other great military heroes at Les Invalides in Paris. Napoleon Bonaparte was gone but the world he left behind, having learnt some important lessons in governance, law and military practice, would never be the same.

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