How far does luck explain the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte? Napoleon Bonaparte like many others rose to prominence during the turbulent times of the French revolution- he was therefore lucky to have been born at such a time in to justify his advancing position. However his reputation as a skilled tactician and strategist enabled him to initially capitalize on the reforms of the French Revolution to improve the lives of French citizens.
Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as an important figure for re-establishing order in France and initially gained the trust and support of his countrymen, winning many great military victories against the nations of Europe. But over time, Napoleon’s lust for power overcame his good economic, political and military accomplishments, and his transformation into a selfish dictator led to his fall. To say he was unlucky at this point is an understatement. Napoleon’s upbringing is one that could be considered unconventional (at first) for a successful ruler of France.
Napoleon was the son of a middle class Corsican family, at a time when Corsica had not even been French for long. Being formerly subject to Genoa, the Corsican people did not speak French but a dialect of Italian. They were, and are, a fiercely independent Mediterranean people, with a Mediterranean temperament. Napoleon was always self-conscious about his humble origins and provincial background. He came from a mediocre family and went to a mediocre military academy, where his schoolmates made fun of his thick Corsican accent.
Despite this however he was lucky in a sense that his noble background afforded him more opportunities than were available to a normal Corsican at the time. In January 1779, Napoleon was enrolled at a religious school in Autun, mainland France, to learn French. In May he was admitted to a military academy at Brienne-le-Chateau. He excelled in various subjects including mathematics and was viewed by one examiner as a candidate for an “excellent sailor”. Napoleon was the first Corsican to graduate from the Ecole Militaire, a testament to his intellectual abilities in the field.
Of course his application to maths determined his specialisation as an artillery officer. This can be considered a stroke of luck in his favour, – one of many that he benefited from – inasmuch as the artillery was the most prestigious branch of the army under the old regime. But the biggest stroke of luck Napoleon had was to be born when he was – in the age of the French Revolution. Napoleon, like many others, was made by the Revolution. The Revolution turned the whole world upside down and presented an ambitious young man (he was always ambitious – a consequence of his resentment at his inferior status) with new and vast opportunities.
Looking again at the perspective of Napoleon’s capabilities as a man rather than his luck during his ascension we must also consider his fluidity. Despite his early one sidedness and his view of himself as a devout Corsican, he was ostracized by his countrymen when trying to attempt to instil himself as the head of the Corsican national government. The Corsican nationalists were inclined to reactionary and monarchist ideas and distrustful of the ideals of the Revolution. They were also distrustful of Napoleon, who had the misfortune of being seen as a Corsican provincial to the French and a French interloper to the Corsicans.
Rejected by his compatriots, Napoleon abandoned all his nationalist ideals. He later became transformed from an ardent Corsican patriot to a fervent advocate of French centralism. In a sense it was luck that Napoleon now saw France as an area would he could advance to power, but there nothing surprising about this sudden turnabout. Napoleon never had any fixed principles about anything, except his own advancement. His early Republican sympathies may have been genuine but they were certainly tempered with a heavy dose of opportunism. He specialised in currying favour with his superiors in order to climb the ladder of careerist advancement.
When it was advantageous to appear as a Jacobin, he donned the tricolour, but later he swung against the Jacobins with equal alacrity when their star waned. Napoleon’s big opportunity came in 1794 at the siege of Toulon. This key Mediterranean port had declared for the English and allowed British forces to occupy it. England was the real bulwark of reaction and bankrolled the wars against revolutionary France that others fought. Napoleon saw his chance to make a mark and did so by conspicuous bravery and a high degree of skill in the use of artillery, which decided the battle in France’s favour.
His rapid rise to fame and success had begun. His next big military success came with the invasion of Italy in the strategic campaign against Austria. It was at this point Napoleon demonstrated excellent qualities as a tactician and a politician. Napoleon vetoed the idea of the Directory atheists to march on Rome and dethrone the Pope as he reasoned this would create a power vacuum which would be exploited by the Kingdom of Naples. Instead, in March 1797, Bonaparte led his army into Austria and forced it to negotiate peace.
The resulting Treaty of Leoben gave France control of most of northern Italy and the Low Countries, and a secret clause promised the Republic of Venice to Austria. Bonaparte marched on Venice and forced its surrender, ending 1,100 years of independence; he also authorised the French to loot treasures such as the Horses of Saint Mark. His application of conventional military ideas to real-world situations effected his military triumphs, such as creative use of artillery as a mobile force to support his infantry. He referred to his tactics thus: “I have fought sixty battles and I have learned nothing which I did not know at the beginning.
Look at Caesar; he fought the first like the last. ” His decision to record his exploits through two newspapers he founded for the army and circulation in France earned him wide critical acclaim. But again he was known to sacrifice military glory in favour of preserving his position, as shown by negotiations in Austria and the treaty of Campio Formio in response to Barras and the French republican allies in control of the French government becoming dependent on Bonaparte following the Coup of 18 Fructidor in order to depose the French royalists who feared Napoleon was becoming a dictator.
It was not unlucky that this happened, as Napoleon handled the situation effectively and was able to continue his quest for power. His capacity as a strategist in military campaign against nations hostile to France continued to shine when he conceived an expedition into Egypt in order to seize it and thereby undermine Britain’s access to it’s trade interests in India.
Although this invasion failed, mostly due to his loss in the battle of the Nile against Horatio Nelson, Napoleon- unlike his later years was able to take defeat well, speeding up the retreat by poisoning plague stricken men- this supposed act of fratricide was deemed necessary by his supporters given the continued harassment of stragglers by Ottoman forces, and indeed those left behind alive were tortured and beheaded by the Ottomans. Back in Egypt, on 25 July, Bonaparte defeated an Ottoman amphibious invasion at Abukir.
The coup of Brumaire in 1799 while being the main event for Napoleon’s ascension to ruler of France largely defines how far his luck went in his rise to power. The reasons for General Bonaparte’s coup may have lain more in his defeats than by his victories. In November 1799, France was suffering the effects of military reverses brought on by Bonaparte’s adventurism in theMiddle East. The looming threat of opportunistic invasion by the Second Coalition had provoked internal unrest, with Bonaparte stuck in Egypt. When he returned he stormed into the chambers escorted by grenadiers.
At this point his ineptitude at speechmaking failed to impressed the dissolutioned directory, and he was heckled out and even assaulted at the council of Five Hundred. It was only by the intervention of his brother Lucien that he was spared great injury or death, and lucien’s skill at organising the troops to expel the violent deputies from the chamber shouting “kick ‘em all out! ” and dispersing the council. This spelled the end of the directory and the establishment of the consulate. Napoleon had hoped that the his French empire would last for centuries, but the reality was much more disconcerting.
His downfall however was not so much attributed to bad luck as it was his ego and complacency due to his earlier military successes. Two main things contributed to his downfall, Economics and Military failure. In the Treaty of Tilset, Napoleon established the continental system which basically was a boycott of selling and buying of goods with the British. He realized that England depended heavily on other countries to buy from and sell to.
However Napoleon underestimated the fact that England could trade with the U. S and controlled India (even though he tried to stop British Trade with India in his invasion of Egypt) and was not limited to Prussia, Russia and Austria. The continental system did not hurt England as much as he had hoped, but it hurt other countries because they loved English goods and got them any way they could. This was also just another reason for the Austrians, Prussians and Russians to rebel against him. Napoleon tended to try and get his way in negotiations by shouting at those who didn’t agree with him, and on one occasion physically assaulted an Austrian diplomat who disagreed with his demands.
Napoleon believed military dominance was sufficient to impose his will on Europe, but this necessitated constantly keeping a large army in the field, which strained French finances and alienated the ordinary population of Europe, as French troops lived off the country when campaigning or stationed abroad. His failure to compromise through diplomacy after military victories meant he was never able to consolidate his gains long term and confirm them through any prolonged period of subsequent peace. Napoleon was never accepted as ‘one of them’ by other European rulers.
His practice of dethroning monarchs and replacing them with members of his own family, who had no right to them and who were certainly no better as rulers, scared all other European monarchs, who were afraid they might be next. Napoleon didn’t really understand seapower, nor its importance and how to use it effectively. The French navy got few resources-manpower and money being directed mainly to the army. This left the French fleet underequipped, undermanned, and undertrained, which led to a drop in morale and its easy defeat in battle.
No attempt was made to rebuild the French fleet after Trafalgar, global naval supremacy being left wholly in British hands. Napoleon didn’t realize that this would have long term economic effects as well as military ones. In the Treaty of Tilset, Napoleon established the continental system which basically was a boycott of selling and buying of goods with the British. He realized that England depended heavily on other countries to buy from and sell to.
However Napoleon in a moment of political ineptitude underestimated that though was that England could trade with the U. S and and controlled India (even though he tried to stop British Trade with India in his invasion of Egypt) and was not limited to Prussia, Russia and Austria. The continental system did not hurt England as much as he had hoped, but it hurt other countries because they loved English goods and got them any way they could. This was also just another reason for the Austrians, Prussians and Russians to rebel against him. Instead of crippling the British economy, it crippled that of much of Europe.
Britain had responded with Orders in Council, a close blockade of Europe’s major ports that cut off all foreign seaborne trade to continental Europe. This impoverished many people, denied Europe’s aristocracy luxury goods, and led to endemic smuggling that undermined the economy of France and other European states. When Napoleon created the Continental System, Portugal refused to comply with a treaty that would severely weaken its trade. Promptly, the French marched in with their armies and overran Spain and Portugal.
The Spanish people feared that the Catholic Church would be thrown aside by the French, causing unrest. In addition, Napoleon further humiliated the Spanish by deposing their king, to whom the Spaniards were loyal, instead putting his brother on the throne. This was the spark that would set off the true Peninsular War with constant guerrilla warfare that would end with Napoleon losing 300,000 troops by 1813, after 5 years of fighting. Harsh treatment of the population, in particular atrocities committed by French troops against any resistance by the peasantry, led to a opular Spanish uprising against French occupation forces in 1808.
A British army sent to Portugal invaded Spain in support of the uprising,and its operations in conjunction with Spanish guerrillas caused the so called “Spanish ulcer” which diverted troops and resources away from Napoleon’s main army and forced France into a war on 2 fronts. But possibly the greatest blunder of Napoleon was his decision to invade Russia. Under pressure from important nobles who were losing money, the Tzar withdrew from the Continental System.
Napoleon determined to invade Russia in 1812 so as to force Russia back in. ossibly due to his inflated ego in becoming the superior leader and incessant wanting of more land, he was convinced that Moscow was the heart of Russia and was determined to march there directly and take control. Napoleon was overconfident in that he allowed himself only nine weeks to defeat Russia and return to Italy and so did not provide cold weather gear for his soldiers nor frost nails for his horses. At the point of his expedition he was initially unlucky that the Russian army did not decide to fight face to face, although their initial retreat and the Russian Autumn inticed Napoleon too much, and he was lured deeper into Russia.
The Russians instead implemented a scorched earth policy, destroying and burning anything worthy of supply and nourishment for Napoleon’s men, stretching the French emperor’s supply lines still further and demoralising his army. When the French and Russians finally met head on at the Battle of Borodino on 7 September, it was the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the Napoleonic Wars; it involved more than 250,000 soldiers and resulted in at least 70,000 casualties. The French captured the battlefield, but failed to destroy the Russian army.
Moreover, the French could not replace their losses whereas the Russians could replace theirs. Napoleon was caught out by the Russian tactics, but could not adapt to them effectively due to his overreliance on previous tried and tested techniques, thinking he could still win the war on his standard strategy, he was badly wrong. Napoleon entered Moscow on September 14, after the Russian Army had again retreated. But by then the Russians had largely evacuated the city and even released criminals from the prisons to inconvenience the French; furthermore, the governor, Count Fyodor Rostopchin, ordered the city to be burnt.
Alexander I refused to capitulate and the peace talks that Napoleon initiated failed. In October, with no clear sign of victory in sight, Napoleon began his disastrous Great Retreat from Moscow, during the usual autumn Russian mud season. Napoleon at this point found himself amongst a disorganised militant force that could only retreat via a single route easily blocked by the Russian army thanks to inadequate maps and intelligence gathered on the Russian geography and Topography: the aforementioned mud made the retreat slow and bloody, with better clothed Cossack troops able to strike with impunity against the confused French army.
In the following weeks, the Grande Armee underwent catastrophic blows from the onset of the Russian Winter, the lack of supplies and constant guerilla warfare by Russian peasants and irregular troops. When the remnants of Napoleon’s army crossed the Berezina River in November, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained; the Grand Armee had lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured. Napoleon then abandoned his men and returned to Paris to protect his position as Emperor and to prepare to resist the advancing Russians.
This disaster encouraged the formation of the Sixth Coalition, Prussia and Austria quickly joining Russia and Britain in arms against Napoleon. The strain of fighting a multi front war became apparent to him The Peninsular War (known to the French as the Spanish ulcer) combined with the Russian disaster of 1812 to weaken him so much that he was exiled, for the first time. When he returned in the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s downfall was that he did have so much power. He promised peace to the other European Powers if they let him have the throne.
However, no-one could bear to see the man who once ruled most of Europe in power again, so it was off to war. This conflict led to Waterloo, and his final exile. In conclusion it was a combination of luck based on skill and merit that allowed Napoleon to ascend to power from such a foreign position leading the French to establish great military successes In his early years. The great French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte had initially capitalized on the reforms of the French Revolution to improve the lives of French citizens.
However his focus on conquering Europe had eventually overridden his economic and military accomplishments. His previous successes exacerbated his ego to the point at which he became complacent with his standard tactics both on the battlefield and in the council. A sequence of poor diplomacy and belief that he could hold the European countries together by sheer force led to European countries rising in vengeance, such as the Spanish ulcer. Napoleon’s failure o deal with these threats and subsequent failing to enforce the ill fated continental system meant his empire was being dismantled piece by piece. Another reason for his downfall was his war tactic of constant Napoleonic Warfare. His main goal was to completely destroy the enemies army to the point where they no longer had the men to fight. But, this also caused heavy causualities on his side. Also, during his Invasion of Russia, he was hurt by the infamous Russian winters.
When he retreated from Russia, almost all of his men got left behind (along with Michael Ney) and were completely annihilated by the enemy forces. After this, he suffered because of his army, or lack thereof. The resultant strain of fighting a multi front war against the united European forces was more failure of effective leadership than simple bad luck. Although he successfully returned from exile in the Hundred Days, his military defeat at Waterloo was the final nail in his coffin.
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