Thursday, 1 January 2015

Napoleon: the rise

‘Napoleon crossing the Alps’
by Jacques-Louis David
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 

Napoleon institutionalized the changes brought about by the French Revolution and spread them throughout Europe. This makes him easily the most influential figure of the period. He was the heir both of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment and the changes he brought about outlasted his military defeat.

He was undoubtedly a dictator, but he also issued constitutions and through plebiscites claimed to represent the will of the people. (The device of the plebiscite was of course copied by Mussolini and Hitler.)

How did he come to power?

For Napoleon's early life see here.

The Revolutionary Wars

Throughout the entire period of the war from 1792 to 1815 France faced two main enemies: the Austrians on land and the British at sea. The other two great powers, Prussia and Russia, came and went as did the smaller European powers.

The armies of the French Republic, created by the levée en masse of 1793, were composed of patriotic volunteers and newly drafted conscripts. Their numbers reached as high as 800,000, guaranteeing the French numerical superiority of almost 2:1 in important engagements. They did not fight in a line, but skirmished, breaking up into smaller groups to take advantage of the terrain and to fire, from cover, on the enemy, still standing neatly in rows. Following a new strategic doctrine, they abandoned the old regime armies’ slow pace of advance, and moved rapidly, living off the country – a convenient strategy for a bankrupt government!

The beginnings of the rise to power

The wars provided the background to Napoleon's rise to power. He was in Corsica when the French Revolution broke out, but he was back in Paris in the summer of 1792. He witnessed the revolutionary journée of 10 August 1792, which saw the crowd invade the Tuileries and massacre the king's Swiss Guards. Although he sided with the revolutionary Jacobins, he never forgot that sight and was always acutely aware of the dangers of uncontrolled crowd violence.

In July 1793 he was appointed artillery commander of the Republican forces besieging the Mediterranean port of Toulon, which had just handed itself over to the British. It was thanks in part to his strategic brilliance that the port was captured in December and that the British were forced to evacuate.

With the fall of his Jacobin patrons in July 1794 his career suffered a temporary setback, but he was restored to favour when on 5 October 1795 (13 vendémiare, Year IV) he put down a royalist revolt in Paris in a 'whiff of grapeshot'.


In 1795 he he met Josephine de Beauharnais. She was a widow with two children, and six years his senior. She was well known in Parisian society and had had affairs with leading political figures, notably Paul Barras, a leading member of the Directory governmentNapoleon fell passionately in love with her. She became his mistress, and they married on 9 March 1796.

The Italian campaign

Since 1792 revolutionary France had been at war with Austria. 
In 1796 the Directory government resolved that Bonaparte should take the war to Austrian territories in northern Italy.
Therefore, two days after his marriage, he left Josephine to be appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy. 

Napoleon benefited from these changes. He distinguished himself in the war of the First Coalition (1792-7) by defeating the Austrians at Arcole and Rivoli in northern Italy in 1796-7. 

For the way in which the battle of Arcole was spun to make it appear more glorious than it actually was, see my blogpost here

In the spring of 1797 Bonaparte led his forces through north-eastern Italy into Austria, his vanguard coming within 74 miles of Vienna. Austria was forced to make peace and Italy was divided into French and Austrian spheres of influence. This campaign established Napoleon’s reputation as a liberator of peoples, but the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 1797) shows this claim to be spurious: France surrendered Venetia to Austria in return for Venice’s Adriatic Empire along the Dalmatian coast. These were useful stepping stones to the Levant.

For Wordsworth's lament over the extinction of the Venetian Republic see here.

The Egyptian campaign

In late 1797 the Directory endorsed a plan of Napoleon’s for a Mediterranean offensive against Britain. In May 1798 a French expeditionary force landed in Egypt, supposedly to threaten India (though a glance at the map might have shown that this was unlikely!). The French defeated the Turkish armies at the Battle of the Pyramids, but Nelson’s navy destroyed and sank the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, leaving the French army stranded in Egypt.

Louis-François, Baron Lejeune The Battle of the Pyramids
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

To forestall an Ottoman invasion, Napoleon invaded Syria, but, unable to take Acre in Palestine, his forces retreated on May 20, 1799. The French slaughter of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa is a stain on Napoleon's reputation.

The Brumaire coup

In November 1799 Napoleon deserted his army, took ship to France and overthrew the Directory in the coup d’état of 18-19 Brumaire in which he became First Consul under the Constitution of the Year VIII. He consolidated his power by defeating the Austrians at Marengo in 1800. By the Treaty of Lunéville of 1801 the French annexation of Belgium, Luxembourg and the left bank of the Rhine was confirmed.

This involved a redrawing of the map of Germany. The number of petty states was drastically reduced and most of the free cities were abolished. The reduction of the number of imperial states from more than 300 to fewer than 100 severely diminished the authority of the Hapsburgs.

Emperor of the French

In August 1802 Napoleon proclaimed himself First Consul for Life (‘Constitution of the Year X’) and this was approved by a plebiscite.

On 2 December 1804 he crowned himself Emperor in Notre Dame. This differed significantly from the coronation of Charlemagne, on which it was modelled. The pope came to France to take part in the act. He anointed Napoleon but was not allowed to crown him - Napoleon crowned himself with a laurel wreath.

Jacques-Louis David, ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon as conqueror

Marengo had ended the War of the Second Coalition. After Marengo he  annexed Piedmont and made himself president of the new (and short-lived) ‘Italian Republic’. On 17 March 1805 he established the Kingdom of Italy, with his stepson, Eugène as viceroy. He was now the ruler of some 7 million people. On 26 May he crowned himself in Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, like Charlemagne.

Napoleon was able to take advantage of Britain’s war weariness in the Peace of Amiens (1802). But the peace broke down in the following year, and Napoleon’s concentrated his energies on the invasion of Britain. Between June 1803 and September 1805 some 170,000 men of the Army of England were positioned on the coast between Montreuil and Utrecht ready to cross the Channel.

In 1804-5 Tsar Alexander I negotiated the Third Coalition: Austria, Prussia, Sweden and Britain.

The British victories of Cape Finisterre and Trafalgar in 1805 put an end to the attempt to invade England. However, in October Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Ulm in Bavaria and occupied Vienna. On 2 December he defeated a combined Austrian and Russian army at Austerlitz. The resulting Treaty of Pressburg (Bratislava) eliminated the Austrian position in Italy and turned most of Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine) into a French protectorate. On 6 August 1806 Francis II bowed to the inevitable and resigned the title of Holy Roman Emperor which his ancestors had worn for almost four centuries. He retreated into being hereditary Emperor of Austria. A thousand years of history had come to an end.

Early in 1806 the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples was conquered and set up as a separate kingdom.

The defeat of Prussia

On 14 October 1806 the Prussians were defeated at Jena and Auerstädt. The French occupied Berlin and the royal family retreated to East Prussia. This was Napoleon’s sweet revenge for the Prussian defeat of the French at Rossbach in 1757. What were his feelings as he entered Frederick the Great’s city and viewed his tomb? Prussia’s old enemy Saxony allied with Napoleon and joined the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon created the Kingdom of Westphalia for his brother Jerome and pressurized all the German states except Austria to join the Confederation.

The Treaty of Tilsit

"Tilsitz 1807" by Adolphe Roehn - [1] ;
Joconde database: entry 000PE005057.
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

After several fierce battles in East Prussia in the first half of 1807 Napoleon and Tsar Alexander Isigned the Treaty of Tilsit, marking the end of the War of the Third Coalition. It was an astonishing achievement. The Grande Armée had marched nearly 2,500 miles and fought five great battles. It had destroyed the armies of two Great Powers and defeated those of a third, a record of conquest not seen  since the days of classical antiquity.

Britain was now left alone and in an attempt to defeat her by economic warfare, Napoleon (from Berlin) instigated his ‘Continental System’, an embargo on British goods in the entire European continent.

No comments:

Post a Comment