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Making Sense of Napoleon

A Guest Post by Gareth Williams

What can I add to the vast body of words already written about Napoleon Bonaparte. Who am I to think I have something more worth saying? My interest in Bonaparte started with a gift. My paternal grandparents gave me a wonderful little book about the battle of Waterloo which divided the engagement into sections with maps and illustrations. I was hooked and it was Napoleon rather than Wellington who captured my imagination.

Why, you may ask? After all, I was a British schoolboy. Should I not have celebrated Wellington’s victory, the product of a European coalition of forces? Perhaps, but there is something magnetic about Bonaparte’s ultimate defeat, just as there is about the audacity that brought him back from Elba, a prize-fighter convinced he has one great bout left in his ageing body. Besides, how could my fascination be unpatriotic when it was Napoleon who suffered the ultimate defeat, exiled to the wastes of the south Atlantic on the tiny island of St Helena?

It is tempting to retell the highlights of his story. To point out his many civil achievements overshadowed by his military notoriety. To revisit his turbulent personal life and the evergreen story of a fading mistress made Empress of the French but cast off, in an echo of Henry VIII when an heir was not forthcoming. To tread the slopes of Austerlitz once again, marvelling at Bonaparte’s ability to move troops more deftly than opposing commanders.

I have sustained my interest in this much lampooned figure, the over-compensating, diminutive figure, raging at the world. I have learned he was of about average height and that French was awkward on his tongue. Indeed, it is worth reflecting on his early years, the years before any outside his family had heard of him, indeed, before Napoleon Bonaparte was his name. It is a sobering thought that this man who came to dominate Europe was only very narrowly born a Frenchman at all. In 1768 a formal treaty ceded Corsica to France, following a rather shabby transaction a few years earlier, in which the Genoese sold the island via an intermediary to the French Crown. Napoleone Buonaparte was born just a year after that treaty and his mother tongue was Corsican and he was fluent in Italian, only beginning to learn French at school.

Despite being the third son of a minor noble family, there was nothing in his early life to suggest he would one day be the most famous man in Europe. He was sent to mainland France to continue his education at military school. He excelled at maths and history but did less well at French. His halting speech was one of the reasons he was bullied by his classmates. He withdrew into his books. It is an irony that one school report suggested he would make a good sailor, given the constant frustrations he experienced confronting the Royal Navy once he rose to power.

So how did this rather unhappy schoolboy who graduated 42nd in a class of 58 become Emperor of the French? I am tempted to base my explanation on the foundations of the French Revolution. This turbulent event in French history went through a number of phases, growing more and then less radical over time. In the heady days of 1793, having pivoted from Corsican nationalist to French republican, Bonaparte caught the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, the effective government of France under Robespierre. He was awarded the post of artillery commander of revolutionary forces trying to oust the British from Toulon.

His success was nearly for nought as Robespierre fell and he was briefly placed under house arrest. But his technical skills were sorely needed and he was soon released. On 5 October 1795 or 13 Vendemiaire he deployed his ‘whiff of grapeshot’ as Thomas Carlyle called it, to help defeat a Royalist uprising, earning the gratitude of the National Convention.

Within weeks, Josephine was in his arms and he was given command of French forces fighting in Italy. It was during this campaign, often acting on his own initiative, that his reputation was cemented. A combination of telling victories and the negotiation of a peace treaty he had no authority to sign fuelled the kind of self-propaganda that continues to conflate his actions with myth to this day. From first lieutenant in 1791 to brigadier-general in 1793. When else could a young man have risen so fast? After all, he languished as a second lieutenant for nearly seven years before the opportunities of the revolution opened up in front of him.

He returned from Italy as a national hero and within two years had engineered a coup that saw him established as First Consul of the Republic, standing at the very pinnacle of republican government.

I do not pretend he was a man without flaws. Far from it, he was riddled with contradictions. A nationalist who becomes a republican but then administers the coup de grâce to that great political experiment, having himself crowned emperor of the French by Pope Pius VII. Well, let’s not forget his ego: stoked by his successes, he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head. Certainly, he grew to have unshakable faith in his own abilities; he talked of establishing a ‘career open to talents’ in place of the hierarchical oppression of royalist France’s rigid society but ended up reintroducing a plethora of titles that spawned a new nobility. It is not difficult to imagine Robespierre’s ghost haunting the Emperor’s dreams.

So, one excuse for my obsession is Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to ultimate power over much of the continent. But the other side of the story is one of decline and defeat. He stubbornly squandered men shoring up his brother’s regime in Spain. He arrogantly marched his Grande Armée into Russia only to face a foe who did not fight by his rules and allied themselves to brutal winter conditions. What must the sight of Moscow burning, torched by the Russians themselves, have done to him? He abandons his troops on the frostbitten slog back to France, galloping ahead of his defeat to paint an altogether rosier picture of the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of men lost.

That should have been the end, surely? And yet, he cobbles together another army to face yet another European coalition marshalled against him. Was he an ogre addicted to warfare? He would say not. He claimed he only fought because Britain and her allies would not leave him in peace. There is a kernel of truth here, a reason why seven coalitions ranged themselves against France between 1793 and 1815.

Britain, with her almost bottomless coffers, was not prepared to see the divine right of hereditary monarchy challenged by an upstart example of something else, be it a ragged republic or an upstart with dynastic ambitions. Viewed from this perspective, the revolutionary and Napoleonic era looks like a mere blip bookended by monarchy. But that is to miss the point. What is France now? The Fifth Republic. Who dominated French politics between 1848 and 1870? Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, first President of the Second Republic and then, as Napoleon III, Emperor of France!

In the end, then, Napoleon’s story is compelling as much for what it drove others to do as it is for the litany of victories on the battlefield or character flaws played out on the largest stage imaginable, stretching from Syria to Louisiana, often constrained by no more than the powder and sinews, decks and cannon, stoicism and leadership of the Royal Navy.

Judged by the standards of the twenty-first century, Napoleon Bonaparte fares badly, and few outside Moscow would want to see his like again. But by the standards of his time, he was no more profligate with his men and resources than his enemies, he just did not fit their vision for the future of Europe. And how often has there ever been unanimity on that?

(All images from Wikipedia Commons)

Gareth Williams

Wet-plate collodion method portrait by Simon Riddell

Needing Napoleon was Gareth Williams’ first novel. He studied history at Cambridge which led to a career as a history teacher. Now retired, he lives on the magical Isle of Skye with his wife, Helen, and their Pyrenean Mountain dog, Sophie. He played rugby until he was forty-eight, only giving it up after breaking his back in a 400-foot fall down a mountain. When he is not writing, Gareth loves the outdoors and is working his way through all 282 Scottish mountains over 3000 feet. He is also an ardent skier. The sequel to Needing Napoleon was published in March 2022 and the third instalment of what has become The Richard Davey Chronicles is due out this autumn.

Richard thinks he has nothing to lose. He’s an orphan, a loner, an outsider. A history teacher who takes refuge in the past.

A chance encounter in Paris offers a thrilling alternative to his humdrum existence. But he has always played it safe. Can he break the habit of a lifetime and seize his chance?

He has always believed Napoleon could have defeated Wellington at Waterloo. Now he has the chance to prove it. The chance to live a life he could only dream about. The opportunity to put his mark on the past.

He just has to be willing to live the rest of his life more than 150 years before he was born.

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2 commentaires

Maggie Scott
Maggie Scott
14 août 2022

Any author who can see all sides of such a controversial figure gets my vote, especially when he breaks free of the chains of traditional British views on the subject. Williams also gets an up-vote because his book is French-oriented, and there are precious few of those on the ground. But he gets the biggest vote because of Sophie, his Pyrenean Mountain dog. I have one as well--Baby Beau, my Great Pyrenees, the best breed on the planet. BTW, Napoleon was the second son; Joseph the eldest, chronologically speaking. 😊

Gareth Williams
Gareth Williams
15 août 2022
En réponse à

I am tempted to agree with everything you say, Maggie, especially where dogs are concerned!

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