NAPOELON: IN BRIEF
NAPOLEON THE PERSON
One of the greatest military commanders and a risk taking gambler; a workaholic genius and an impatient short term planner; a vicious cynic who forgave his closest betrayers; a misogynist who could enthrall men; Napoleon Bonaparte was all of these and more, the twice-emperor of France whose military endeavors and sheer personality dominated Europe in person for a decade, and in thought for a century.
His genius is universally admitted, both as a general and an administrator. No general so great has appeared in our modern times. His military career was so brilliant that it dazzled contemporaries. Without the advantages of birth or early patronage, he rose to the highest pinnacle of human glory. His victories were prodigious and unexampled; and it took all Europe to resist him. He aimed at nothing less than universal sovereignty; and had he not, when intoxicated with his conquests, attempted impossibilities, his power would have been practically unlimited in France. He had all the qualities for success in war,--insight, fertility of resource, rapidity of movement, power of combination, coolness, intrepidity, audacity, boldness tempered by calculation, will, energy which was never relaxed, powers of endurance, and all the qualities which call out enthusiasm and attach soldiers and followers to personal interests. His victorious career was unchecked until all the nations of Europe, in fear and wrath, combined against him.
His genius for civil administration was equally remarkable, and is universally admitted. Even Metternich, who detested him, admits that "he was as great as a statesman as he was as a warrior, and as great as an administrator as he was as a statesman." He brought order out of confusion, developed the industry of his country, restored the finances, appropriated and rewarded all eminent talents, made the whole machinery of government subservient to his aims, and even seemed to animate it by his individual will.
Napoleon's personality had a significant impact throughout his career. Many factors helped him rise to fame and enhance his abilities; his almost hypnotic power over his contemporaries; his intellectual capacity; the ability to work for long periods continually; his iron will and irresistible charm all helped during the early part of his career to establish himself at an early age as a very competent general.
He was tolerably well educated, and he possessed considerable critical powers in art, literature, and science. He penetrated through all shams and impostures. He was rarely deceived as to men or women. He could be eloquent and interesting in conversation. Some of his expressions pierced like lightning, and were exceedingly effective. His despatches were laconic and clear. He knew something about everybody of note, and if he had always been in a private station his intellectual force would have attracted attention in almost any vocation he might have selected. His natural vivacity, wit, and intensity would have secured friends and admirers in any sphere.
Napoleon had an unbelievable range of intellectual ability. His power of concentration was enormous as was his memory for detail and facts. It is argued that when on campaign in 1805 one of his subordinates could not locate his division, while his aids searched through maps and papers, the Emperor informed the officer of his unit's present location, where he would be for the next three nights, the status and resume of the units strength as well as the subordinates military record. This out of an army with seven corps, a total of 200,000 men, with all the units on the move.
Napoleon also possess an incredible capacity for work. He continually worked an eighteen to twenty hour day. When necessary he could work for up to three days without rest. He took great interest in even the smallest measures under his command and used his mental abilities to think out military problems days or even months in advance. More importantly he possessed the ability to inspire others. All of these personality traits were to prove invaluable to him in the period up to 1806. It was after this date that things started to work against him.
None can deny him many good qualities. His industry was marvellous; he was temperate in eating and drinking; he wasted no precious time; he rewarded his friends, to whom he was true; he did not persecute his enemies unless they stood in his way, and unless he had a strong personal dislike for them, as he had for Madame de Staël; he could be magnanimous at times; he was indulgent to his family, and allowed his wife to buy as many India shawls and diamonds as she pleased; he was never parsimonious in his gifts, although personally inclined to economy; he generally ruled by the laws he had accepted or enacted; he despised formalities and etiquette; he sought knowledge from every quarter; he encouraged merit in all departments; he was not ruled by women, like most of the kings of France; he was not enslaved by prejudices, and was lenient when he could afford to be; and in the earlier part of his career he was doubtless patriotic in his devotion to the interests of his country.
Moreover, many of his faults were the result of circumstances, and of the unprecedented prosperity which he enjoyed. Pride, egotism, tyranny, and ostentation were to be expected of a man whose will was law. Nearly all men would have exhibited these traits, had they been seated on such a throne as his; and almost any man's temper would have occasionally given way under such burdens as he assumed, such hostilities as he encountered, and such treasons as he detected. Surrounded by spies and secret enemies, he was obliged to be reserved. With a world at his feet, it was natural that he should be arbitrary and impatient of contradiction. There have been successful railway magnates as imperious as he, and bank presidents as supercilious, and clerical dignitaries as haughty, in their smaller spheres. Pride, consciousness, and egotism are the natural result of power and flattery in all conditions of life; and when a single man controls the destinies of nations, he is an exception to the infirmities of human nature if he does not seek to bend everything before his haughty will.
There were yet natural traits of character in Napoleon which call out the severest reprobation, and which make him an object of indignation and intense dislike among true-minded students of history. His egotism was almost superhuman, his selfishness was most unscrupulous, his ambition absolutely boundless. He claimed a monopoly in perfidy and lying; he had no idea of moral responsibility; he had no sympathy with misfortune, no conscience, no fear of God. He was cold, hard, ironical, and scornful. He was insolent in his treatment of women, brusque in manners, severe on all who thwarted or opposed him. He committed great crimes in his ascent to supreme dominion, and mocked the reason, the conscience, and the rights of mankind. He broke the most solemn treaties; he was faithless to his cause; he centred in himself the interests he was intrusted to guard; he recklessly insulted all the governments of Europe; he put himself above Providence; he disgracefully elevated his brothers; he sought to aggrandize himself at any cost, and ruthlessly grasped the sceptre of universal dominion as if he were an irresistible destiny whom it was folly to oppose, In all this he aimed to be greater than conscience.
"It is for my services to France that I claim to be judged. I do not claim perfection. I admit I made grand mistakes; I even committed acts which the world stigmatizes as crimes. I seized powers which did not belong to me; I overthrew constitutions; I made myself supreme; I mocked the old powers of earth; I repudiated the ideas in the name of which I climbed to a throne; I was harsh, insolent, and tyrannical; I divorced the wife who was the maker of my fortune; I caused the assassination of the Duc d'Enghien; I invaded Spain and Russia; and I wafted the names of my conquering generals to the ends of the earth in imprecations and curses. These were my mistakes,--crimes, if you please to call them; but it is not for these you must judge me. Did I not come to the rescue of law and order when France was torn with anarchies? Did I not deliver the constituted authorities from the mob? Did I not rescue France from foreign enemies when they sought to repress the Revolution and restore the Bourbons? Was I not the avenger of twenty-five hungry millions on those old tyrants who would have destroyed their nationality? Did I not break up those combinations which would have perpetuated the enslavement of Europe? Did I not seek to plant liberty in Italy and destroy the despotisms of German princes? Did I not give unity to great States and enlarge their civilization? Did I not rebuke and punish Austria, Prussia, Russia, and England for interfering with our Revolution and combining against the rights of a republic? Did I not elevate France, and give scope to its enterprise, and develop its resources, and inspire its citizens with an unknown enthusiasm, and make the country glorious, so that even my enemies came to my court to wonder and applaud? And did I not leave such an immortal prestige, even when I was disarmed and overthrown by the armies of combined Christendom, that my illustrious name, indelibly engraved in the hearts of my countrymen, was enough to seat my nephew on the throne from which I was torn, and give to his reign a glory scarcely inferior to my own? These were my services to France,--the return of centralized power amid anarchies and discontents and laws which successive revolutions have not destroyed, but which shall blaze in wisdom through successive generations."
There was something new in his system of fighting, not seen at least in modern times,--a rapid massing of his troops, and a still more rapid concentration of them upon the weak points of the enemy's lines, coming down on them like a mountain torrent, and sweeping everything before him, in defiance of all rules and precedents. A new master in the art of war, greater than Condé, or Turenne, or Marlborough, or Frederic II., had suddenly arisen, with amazing audacity and faith in himself.
Napoleon's genius lay not in revolutionizing of warfare itself, but in the refinement of existing means. He did not propose any drastic changes in tactics nor invent a new method of waging warfare, instead he excelled at the tactical handling of the armies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Napoleon established himself as a great leader of men during the revolutionary period with the siege of Toulon and his triumphs in Italy in 1796. These talents were refined and reached their height during the battles of Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena in the period of 1805-1806. Towards the end of the Empire the weaknesses of Napoleon as a military commander became more evident. His insistence on the micro management of the army and the awarding of Marshal batons to those who excelled under his leadership, but who possessed no great talent for individual command, worked to his determent. The strategic failures of the decisions to invade Spain and Russia and the inability to keep the other major European powers divided proved disastrous. The increasing size and static nature of armies and the increasingly murderous nature of warfare during the latter part of the Empire revealed Napoleon's inability to adapt to the changing shape of war. It is in the light of his triumphs and later failures that Napoleon's traditional reputation as a great military leader must be judged.
One of the most important factors of Napoleon's personality and its effect on his abilities as a military commander was his genius to inspire others. Contrary to the beliefs of Count von Wartenburg, Napoleon was eminently aware of the impact of morale on modern warfare. He believed in the maxim that "morale is to the physical as three is to one", further emphasizing the point while in exile on St Helena: "Moral force rather than numbers, decides victory." It was through his system of awards an appealing to soldiers "soul in order to electrify the man" that Napoleon was so successful in obtaining unquestionable obedience from his rank and file.
With relations worsening between France and Russia, British diplomatic pressure persuaded Russia and Sweden to withdraw from Napoleon's Continental System and sign a treaty with Britain in June 1812. Napoleon was about to make the mistake that would cost him his Empire. He gathered 450,000 troops in Poland and on 24th June he crossed into Russia to crush her once and for all. Of this huge army only 200,000 were French the rest were made up of troops from allies and subject nations across Europe. Russian troops in the immediate area amounted to about 215,000 but the French advance was delayed by heavy rain and bad weather, a taste of things to come. Like they would do in the future the Russians fell back destroying all resources as they went increasing the huge supply demands on the invaders. After a few brief clashes the Russians continued to fall back and in August came under the command of Kutuzov. Napoleon had planned to winter the Army at Smolensk, but Russian forces and the logistical problems force him to try and bring the Russians to battle in a decisive encounter. The result was the battle of Borodino 7th September 1812, during which Napoleon's generalship was less than impressive, possibly due to illness. The battle was a pointless bloodbath in which the Russians were defeated with the loss of 40,000 men and the French suffered 30,000 casualties. The French now entered an empty Moscow and found it devoid of much needed supplies and on fire soon after they entered. The forward elements of the army number about 100,000 men with the rest spread out all along the line of advance, morale was poor particularly among the allies and raids against the French supply lines by Russian Cossacks were taking a toll. Facing 110,000 well-supplied troops under Kutuzov the French began the famous retreat from Moscow on 19th October 1812. The snows came early and the retreat became a disaster, men starving, horse often eaten by the men and harassing attacks by Russian irregulars and Cossacks. Ney’s Rearguard fought bravely but the Army was doomed, with only 37,000 effective troops under Napoleons command when it reached the bridgehead at Berezina in late November. The defence allowed most of the French to cross but by the 8th December only 10,000 effective troops remained. The Russians who had suffered very heavy casualties halted the pursuit but the French had lost 300,000 men. Napoleon's army was destroyed, many veteran troops had died, tens of thousands of military horses, thousands of wagons and hundreds of guns. Europe now rose against the weakened Tyrant, many states had uprisings and many allies now deserted, and it was the beginning of the end.
Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.
The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.
New York Times
- The French historians say this was because of the harsh Russian winter.
- According to Leo Tolstoy (in the book 'War and Peace') it was because of the strong nationalistic spirit of the Russian people.
- Historian Dominic Lieven says in his new book Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace that it was owing to to its military excellence, superior cavalry, the high standards of Russia’s diplomatic and intelligence services and the quality of its European elite. Thanks to the intelligence he obtained, Alexander was able to outwit Napoleon, anticipating his invasion. (Economist)
Adapted by Didier Decoin (Les Miserables, Jakob the Liar) from Max Gallo's bestselling novel, this epic production explores the private struggles, political intrigues and bloody battles that marked Napoleon's tempestuous rise and rule.
Directed by Yves Simoneau (Nuremburg, Amelia Earhart), NAPOLEON boasts an extraordinary international cast featuring Isabella Rossellini, Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich and Christian Clavier.
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