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Napoleon Boneparte


Disciplines > Warfare > Military commanders > Napoleon Boneparte

In the army | In politics | With troops | Making war| The eventual end | Critical factors | See also


Napoleon Boneparte (1769 - 1815) was born one of 13 Corsican children. He was sent to a French school run on military lines. Small and weak, he won respect through organising war games and maths and science. Never to be an original thinker, his strength lay in the acquisition and exploitation of knowledge.

Lucien, his brother said, presciently, in early letter: 'I have always discerned in Napoleon a purely personal ambition, which overrides his patriotism...He seems to me to have a strong leaning towards tyranny.'

In the army

He joined the army in a artillery regiment, from which experience he learned the power of cannonry and later made great use of them in warfare.

The revolution and war with British in 1793 was his opportunity to gain power. He wrote a political pamphlet supporting the revolution. He gained charge and displayed skill in the retaking of Toulon where he created the 'battery of men without fear' and recruited many to this bold enterprise. After a 7000-man assault, the British fled.

In the battle, he was bayoneted in the thigh, which helped display his courage. As a result, he was promoted to brigadier-general.

He was driven by personal gain rather than duty. Early on, he killed 200 demonstrators to gain favour with authorities, when other soldiers had turned down the request as immoral.

After further action he was given control of the army in Italy, where he reinvigorated a demoralized army and won many battles. After this, he was sent to Egypt, where after two battles he was defeated by Nelson at the battle of the Nile. Nevertheless, e stayed in Egypt to improve their infrastructure.

In politics

Predictably, the revolutionary government fell into corruption, leaving the country ripe for dictatorship. He was installed as 'consul' with several others, but before long, he was First Consul.

He did much good, reforming the corrupt judicial system, created the Banque de France, restructured financial policies, and made education a public service.

He believed the French preferred glory to liberty and slowly replaced revolutionary fervour with enthusiasm for his own person.

Like Julius Caesar, he thought about himself above all else. He did not believe in the pre-eminence of 'The People' and mocked the ease with which he could control them with gesture and display.

He projected a careful mix of the grand and the common, using .every means of propaganda available - the press, war bulletins, the pageantry of a noble empire, the artful creation of his own legend. He would lie as frequently as he thought necessary to ensure success.

In 1804 in a huge ceremony (including a coerced Pope) he crowned himself Emperor. He also appointed many of his family as princes, kings and queens.

He lacked Alexander's political sensitivities and distained all who he had beaten. Eventually, his dominating tactics led to the conquered peoples revolting, and he had non-stop fires to put out.

With troops

He knew how to motivate troops, though was cynical about it.

In his address to the French army in Italy he said 'Soldiers, you are naked, badly fed...Rich provinces and great towns will be in your power, and in them you will find honour, glory and wealth. Soldiers of Italy, will you be found wanting in courage and steadfastness?'

He impressed the officers with his knowledge and strategies, yet his real success was less about his knowledge of rules and strategy, as by by a profound knowledge of human nature in war.

He said 'A general's principle talent consists of knowing the mentality of the soldier and gaining his confidence.' -- Napoleon. Yet he mocked the ease of motivating with simple rewards. Once, when handing out medals, he said 'with such baubles, men are led.'

Nevertheless, he tried to visibly be a soldier amongst soldiers, a father amongst children. He could talk to them, collectively or man-to-man, in their own terms.

In his wars, he lost an estimated 2,500,000 men dead and showed little sorrow at having done so. He was ruthless, self-centred, and arrogant, and yet had the ability to make his men love him even when he sent them to his deaths.

Like other famous commanders, he castigated and punished those who failed him.

Making war

He built a huge military machine, with 400 officers in a central headquarters staff, and about 500,000 in the Grande Armée that was able to fight on a number of fronts at once, allowing him to rapidly expand his empire.

Like Alexander, he took builders, administrators, etc. with him, ruling wherever he was and creating a glorious history.

In 1800 he attacked and subdued Austria. He gave up on invading Britain after Trafalgar (1804). In the Battle of Austerlitz he defeated a massive Austrian/Russian force with a much smaller group through brilliant strategy, well executed.

Prussia declared war in 1806 and were defeated in 1807. France declared war on Portugal in 1807. Spain rebelled then also and it took seven years to put them down.

In 1812 he invaded Russia, which was a famously bad idea. Following scorched earth and Russian winters, he retreated, losing most of his best troops in the process. Of 650,000 that set out, only 75,000 returned.

In Waterloo, his weakened army was beaten by Wellington's Brits, with (if it be known) a little late help from the Prussians.

The eventual end

He was exiled to Elba in 1814 after a forced abdication, but he was back in 1815 and defeated the Prussians again.

After Waterloo, it was the real end and he was sent to St. Helena, where he wrote his reminiscences and died six years later.

After his death, his renown grew further and he was given a state funeral in Paris.

Critical factors

  • He had a mathematical mind, phenomenal memory, boundless energy and prolific imagination.
  • He studied enemy personalities, terrains, supplies and manoeuvres and would consider all eventualities before acting.
  • He could persuade and inspire (although he was cynical about it).
  • He learned deeply from lessons of history and applied strategy well.
  • He was courageous and daring, although he led more from the general's position on the hill.
  • He managed his image well, which was his first concern.

See also


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