napoleon - First Consul of France and Emperor

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A Peace of Cake - a peace loving Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on 15 August 1769 in Corsica. He had a classical military education. In the French army he was initially quite successful but soon faced a few drawbacks in Corsica. As a consequence he was even dismissed from the army. Because of the shortcut of French soldiers in 1792 he applied again and was promoted captain. His talent in strategy and tactics in warfare led to success in the siege of Toulon. His political ideas favoured his career after the French Revolution in 1789 and he soon became leader of a great part of the French army.

Ruler and emperor

The Directory which ruled France after the Revolution was unable to cope with the economic and military problems. People were displeased with the course of stately affairs and the influence of the royalists was growing. While on a military expedition in Egypt, Napoleon decided – without an official order - to leave his troops and return to Paris in order to organize and strengthen the French military forces against Britain. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, one of the Directory's five directors, saw Napoleon’s return to Paris as an opportunity for his plot to overthrow the constitutional government and establish a Republic with a strong military leader. Under the pretext of an imminent revolt of Neo-Jacobites, he had Napoleon‘s army „secure“ Paris on 9 November 1799. As a consequence the parliament – the council of the five hundred - was evacuated to the castle of Saint-Cloud, “guarded” by military troops outside of Paris.

Becoming aware of the ongoing conspiracy, the representatives wanted to arrest the “dictator” Napoleon. But his brother ordered the military to evacuate the assembly. With Napoleon and his army breathing down their necks, the representatives were then “convinced” to accept the change towards a republic ruled by Napoléon Bonaparte as the first consul together with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Roger Ducos. Napoleon had Sieyès write a new constitution, which became effective on 24 December 1799. Napoleon made himself emperor in 1804 and ruled until 1814.

The Napoleonic Wars

After 1799 Napoleon started different military campaigns, also known as the Napoleonic Wars. Europe was a very complex and instable patchwork of territories, kingdoms, alliances, interests and colonies. In 1802 he united Italy under his rule and when Russia and Austria planned to invade France in 1805, Napoleon’s troops crossed the Rhine to fight them off successfully in battles at Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena. As part of different coalitions throughout Europe he had enough military power and strategic talent to remain on the winning side and thus enlarge the influence and territory of France considerably. Napoleon' s army had been defeated on several occasions, especially at sea where the French navy was no match for the British fleet. After the defeat at the battle of Trafalgar and at other sea battles, the invasion of Britain – his arch-enemy – was never a serious option. Apart from this and some minor battles lost at land, he always defeated the enemy in the end. But Napoleon’s aim was not only to enlarge the French territory and secure a stable situation in Europe but also to spread his ideas of an ideal form of “civil organisation” of a nation or republic. The ideas of his “Code Civil” written in 1804 have become a cornerstone of most constitutions in Europe. It grants freedom of religion and prevented corruption and privileges based on birth. However, Napoleon nominated family members and friends to high and influential posts throughout his career. By 1812 the French Empire, its satellite states and allied forces spread from Spain to the Russian border and from Sweden to Italy.

The turning points

Under the pretext of reinforcing the Spanish army in their battle against the Portuguese in 1807, Napoleon stationed 300,000 men in Spain, but then replaced Spain's ruler Charles IV by his brother Joseph. As a result the Spanish army started a revolt but was defeated by Napoleon's troops. However, over the following years many French troops were needed to keep the various riots and civil wars in Spain at bay. In his memoirs Napoleon wrote that this was the starting point of his later decline and defeat.

The more obvious drawback in Napoleon's military success came in 1812 when the French alliance with Russia began to weaken and the possibility of a Russian attack on the French Empire seemed possible. Against the advice of many, he built up his “Grande Armée” to almost 700,000 men – the biggest army ever up to this time – to attack Russia in the summer of 1812. But he had underestimated the logistics involved in such a big undertaking. His army was drastically reduced to about half its number by fighting activities, disease and hunger when arriving at the gates of Moscow in September. The city was burning and empty, food and wood and everything useful had been destroyed by the retreating Russian forces. After another month of cold despair in Moscow the French soldiers finally retreated. Repeatedly attacked by parts of Russian troops and exposed to the Russian winter only about 40,000 survived the journey back. Another 80,000 survivors had deserted earlier in the course of the campaign in which almost 600,000 men died on the French side alone.

The decline

After the disaster in Russia Napoleon had less than 20,000 soldiers and hardly any cavalry or equipment left. The losers of earlier coalitions saw this as an opportunity to defeat Napoleon. Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and of course Britain and Russia joined to form a coalition. After initial defeats they won over Napoleon's troops – by now grown again to 350,000 men – at the Battle of Leipzig, the largest battle in Napoleon's career with over 90,000 soldiers killed. After some more battles the coalition took Paris in March 1814. Napoleon wanted to free Paris but after a mutiny of his generals he had no choice but to abdicate. He had to exile to Elba and attempted suicide with a poisonous pill but failed. After a year on Elba he fled and headed for France. A French regiment was sent to intercept him. But Napoleon's reputation as the glorious leader of the French army won the soldiers over and they marched with him to Paris. Louis XVIII fled and Napoleon ruled for another 100 days during which time he recruited an army of 200,000 men. They met the oncoming forces of the allies in the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. After winning the battle the coalition army marched into Paris and re-established Louis XVIII on the throne. Napoleon exiled to Saint Helena, where he died on 5 May 1821.

Napoleon is a very ambiguous character. He was courageous, determined and brave. He was a brilliant and charismatic military leader and strategist and insisted on his "Code Civil". In the first and second Coalition wars he defended France successfully. However, he started several more campaigns and he did not hesitate to sacrifice nearly 2,000,000 soldiers in some of the bloodiest battles of all times and brought despair and hardship on millions of civilians including women and children. He was arrogant and selfish, crowned himself emperor, cheated on his wife, rulers and governments alike.

The painting

My painting is based on the Napoleon marble statue in front "Les Invalides" in Paris. The broken sword (not present in the original statue) and the painting's title suggest, that maybe surrender and peace would not only have been the much easier but after all the far better option.

To learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte see also the following links

Napoleon - Life and History - Napoleon in European History