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Napoleon Bonaparte

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A Return to War
Nevertheless, Europe was not at peace for long. Napoleon Bonaparte's fame, ambitions and character were based on conquest, making it almost inevitable that his reorganised Grande Armée would fight further wars. However, other European countries also sought conflict, for not only did they distrust and fear Bonaparte, they also retained their hostility towards revolutionary France. If either side has sought peace, the battles would still have continued.

More on Napoleon's Empire.
How Napoleon kept in control.

For the next eight years Napoleon dominated Europe, fighting and defeating a range of alliances involving combinations of Austria, Britain, Russia and Prussia. Sometimes his victories were crushing - such as Austerlitz in 1805, often cited as the greatest military victory ever - and on other occasions he was either very lucky, fought almost to a standstill, or both; Wagram stands as an example of the latter. Bonaparte forged new states in Europe, including the German Confederation - built from the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire - and the Duchy of Warsaw, whilst also installing his family and favourites in positions of great power: Murat became King of Naples and Bernadotte King of Sweden, the latter in spite of his frequent treachery and failure. The reforms continued and Bonaparte had an ever-increasing effect on culture and technology, becoming a patron of both the arts and sciences while stimulating creative responses across Europe.

Napoleon’s Failings
Napoleon also made mistakes and suffered setbacks. The French navy was kept firmly in check by their British equivalent and the Emperor's attempt to tame Britain through economics - the Continental System - harmed France and her supposed allies greatly. Bonaparte's interference in Spain caused even larger problems, as the Spanish refused to accept Napoleon's brother Joseph as ruler, instead fighting a vicious guerilla war against the French invaders.

The Spanish 'ulcer' highlights another problem of Bonaparte's reign: he couldn't be everywhere within his empire at once, and the forces he sent to pacify Spain failed, as they often did elsewhere without him. Meanwhile, British forces gained a toehold in Portugal, slowly fighting their way across the peninsula and drawing ever more troops and resources from France itself. Nevertheless, these were Napoleon's glory days, and on March 11th 1810 he married his second wife, Marie-Louise; his only legitimate child - Napoleon II - was born just over a year later, on March 20th 1811.

1812: Napoleon’s Disaster in Russia
The Napoleonic Empire may have shown signs of decline by 1811, including a downturn in diplomatic fortunes and continuing failure in Spain, but such matters were overshadowed by what happened next. In 1812 Napoleon went to war with Russia, assembling a force of over 400,000 soldiers, accompanied by the same number of followers and support. Such an army was almost impossible to feed or adequately control and the Russians repeatedly retreated, destroying the local resources and separating Bonaparte from his supplies.

The Emperor continually dithered, eventually reaching Moscow on September 8th after the Battle of Borodino, a bludgeoning conflict where over 80,000 soldiers died. However, the Russians refused to surrender, instead torching Moscow and forcing Napoleon into a long retreat back to friendly territory. The Grande Armée was assailed by starvation, extremes of weather and terrifying Russian partisans throughout, and by the end of 1812 only 10,000 soldiers were able to fight. Many of the rest had died in horrible conditions, with the camp's followers faring even worse.

In the final half of 1812 Napoleon had destroyed most of his army, suffered a humiliating retreat, made an enemy of Russia, obliterated France's stock of horses and shattered his reputation. A coup had been attempted in his absence and his enemies in Europe were re-invigorated, forming a grand alliance intent on removing him. As vast numbers of enemy soldiers advanced across Europe towards France, over-turning the states Bonaparte had created, the Emperor raised, equipped and fielded a new army. This was a remarkable achievement but the combined forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria and others just used a simple plan, retreating from the emperor himself and advancing again when he moved to face the next threat.

1813-1814 and Abdication
Throughout 1813 and into 1814 the pressure grew on Napoleon; not only were his enemies grinding his forces down and approaching Paris, but the British had fought out of Spain and into France, the Grande Armée's Marshalls were underperforming and Bonaparte had lost the French public's support. Nevertheless, for the first half of 1814 Napoleon exhibited the military genius of his youth, but it was a war he couldn't win alone. On March 30th, 1814, Paris surrendered to allied forces without a fight and, facing massive betrayal and impossible military odds, Napoleon abdicated as Emperor of France; he was exiled to the Island of Elba.

The 100 Days and Exile
Undoubtedly bored and aware of the continuing discontent in France, Napoleon made a sensational return to power in 1815. Travelling to France in secret, he attracted vast support and reclaimed his Imperial throne, as well as re-organising the army and government. This was anathema to his enemies and after a series of initial engagements Bonaparte was narrowly defeated in one of history's greatest battles: Waterloo.

This final adventure had occurred in less than 100 days, closing with Napoleon's second abdication on June 25th 1815, whereupon British forces forced him into further exile. Housed on St. Helena, a small rocky island well away from Europe, Napoleon's health and character fluctuated; he died within six years, on May 5th 1821, aged 51. The causes of his death have been debated ever since, and conspiracy theories involving poison are rife.

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