This essay will not focus upon the success of Napoleon but rather where he made poor judgement as well as the other factors for his decline however the failings of Napoleon are closely linked to his greatest innovations and successes. As a result of research it will not take into consideration many political reasons and the situations of other nations. Furthermore, due to France not being a great sea power, even under Napoleon, this essay will not focus upon sea battles. Introduction: Napoleon’s conquest of the continent has spawned a vast array of work, detailing huge areas of the subject, innovating warfare.
The historical records of the Napoleonic era span from Napoleon’s hand in the rediscovery of the Rosetta stone (Benjamin, 2009) to his interactions with Josephine de Beauharnais (Chandler, 1966). Napoleon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821), born in Corsica to a family that were between the rich upper class aristocrats and the middle classes of Corsica. They were relatively rich, for the island, and maintained nobility status even after the acquisition of the originally Italian island to France.
Due to uneasy tension on the island following the loss of the Italian island, in 1768 (Lonely Planet, 2016) to the French Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, attempted to appease the new French regime. It was evidently successful as he was rewarded with a scholarship for Napoleon to the military college of Brienne in France (McLynn, 2002). Kick starting the military career of Napoleon. In mainland France their wealth could’ve counted for nothing. In 1784, Napoleon went on to a French military academy, Ecole Militaire. Directly following this the teenage Napoleon, age 16, became an officer, a Second Lieutenant in the artillery.
In 1789, the French Revolution really gets underway and Napoleon sides with the threat to the crown. By 1792 France was officially a Republic, it was during the early years of the revolution that Napoleon requested leave of the military and returned to Corsica. Whilst on leave Napoleon became connected a pro-democracy group resulting in a clash with the governor of Corsica, Pasquale Paoli a nationalist. The clash resulted from several factors, firstly Napoleon was in Corsica, commissioned to take a survey of her maritime ports, this was fine with Paoli however he was against the newly democratic France.
When one of Napoleon’s brothers, Lucien who was safe in the safety of Toulon, publicly denounced the Pauli party as counterrevolutionary. Leading to Pauli having to declare his ideal of an independent Corsica. Resulting in the entire Island rising up in revolts against France, Buonaparte and the occupying soldiers (Chandler, 1966). Resulting in a chain of events where the Bonaparte family were forced to leave Corsica and seek refuse in Toulon. From here Napoleon continued his military career.
It was this pro-democracy group, led by the revolutionist Maximiliem Robespierre (Chandler, 1966), during a period Dr Marisa Linton calls “the Reign of Terror” (1793-1794) (Linton, 2013; Dwyer, 2013) where Napoleon was promoted to captain and then brigadier general. How battles were won and fought: Before delving further in this essay, it is important to understand how battles were fought and wars won in the 18th century and early 19th century. Line infantry were the main combatants of an army, formed in ranks and columns, varying in size there were three main formations most common in the Napoleonic Era.
Often several ranks deep these soldiers would listen out for orders from NCOs who would wheel these troops (Non-Commissioned Officers, commonly leading lines and invoking moral in the troops). Manoeuvring these lines were often done in columns as it was far easier to manoeuvre through terrain (Arnold, 2016; Chandler, 1966). Ranks are another of these formations, impossible to manoeuvrable in mountainous terrain it was mostly deployed in combat or just prior. Lines enabled a greater surface area for volleys to be shot, maximising enemy casualties (Arnold, 2016).
This does however expose a greater number of soldiers to enemy fire, to reduce casualty soldiers would have spacing between their neighbours of about half a pace, roughly half an arm’s length apart. The final formation was a square, to combat the effectiveness of cavalry against lines in the field. A square strikingly resembles a hollow square with 3-4 ranks on all sides, NCOs and high ranking staff. The first rank would commonly kneel with a bayonet attached to their musket or rifle allowing the ranks behind them to continue volley fire.
The kneeling also enabled troops to secure the butt of their firearm against the ground, preventing the inevitability of a horse’s momentum sailing through the square (Moreloc, 2015). The Grande Armee and Napoleon’s Glory Years of 1805/1806: To truly judge Napoleon’s downfall, it is important to compare the successes of his glory years The Grande Armee was Napoleon’s “sophisticated weapon of war” (Chandler, 1966), designed to decimate all its opposition, eventually due to the nature of Napoleon’s command this would undermine him.
Originally formed between 1800-1804, it took old revolutionary ideas and concepts innovated by Napoleon touch to truly become a war machine. According to Chandler, the army consisted of seven corps d’armee, containing two to four infantry divisions. In 1796, before the creation of the Grande Armee, General Bonaparte innovated the existing divisions by distributing cavalry to each corpse, forming the remaining heavy cavalry into a new corps of its own to act as an army reserve (Dean, 2016; Chandler, 1966).
Another one of Napoleon’s ideas was to standardise cannons throughout all of his armies so that any artillery man is compatible to any cannon, something unheard of in Europe at the time. Furthermore, cannons were light to enable the fast movement of a corps. So the most common corps would consist of cavalry, cannon and infantry. These corps were meant to be their own individual units capable of sustaining fire and returning it, in this way Napoleon built an army upon several self-containing corps.
It is however important to acknowledge that Napoleon had borrowed this idea from General Moreau from the French Revolutionary era, they also were only effective in numbers and in a position when one corps could assist another because each corps could engage enemies for several hours at a stalemate yet they relied entirely on comrade corps coming to the rescue to prevent total decimation from a much larger army. Napoleon, reassuring his belief in the corps, writes: “Here is the principle of war – a corps of 25,000-30,000 men can be left on its own.
Well handled, it can fight or alternatively avoid action, and maneuver according to circumstances without any harm coming to it, because an opponent cannot force it to accept an engagement but if it chooses to do so it can fight alone for a long time. ” (Dean, 2016) Napoleon’s faith in his corps is not unfounded as the success of his campaigns can be linked with several distinct features of this battle particularly and from Napoleon’s quote it is clear that Napoleon knew that his system of warfare had a greater capacity for success than any of his rivals.
It is clear to me that the real benefit of these corps being so self-contained is that it enables Napoleon and his marshals to be adaptable in the field. This pays Napoleon greatly as the battle of Austerlitz, which is regarded by contemporaries as one of his greatest victories. In this battle Napoleon was engaged in a pitched battle against Russian and Austrian forces, almost twice the size of Napoleon’s forces with him at the time. Prior to the engagement Marshal Davout summoned by Napoleon force marches the III corps d’armee from Vienna, over 140 kilometres in just over 48 hours, with only 13 hours of rest (Chandler, 1966, p. 49).
This swift response in almost unheard of in absolutely every other nation before Napoleon yet moving entire corps of men from miles away is something Napoleon did several times. Upon reaching the battle field Napoleon used another one of his innovative tactics, creating a screen of cavalry along the river Morava (Chandler, 1966) preventing the main body of Le Grande Armee, Davout’s III corps d’armee and Bernadotte’s I corps d’armee, from being fully scouted by the allies.
On the right flank, Davout held in the wake of the main Russian offensive, preventing disaster and holding the allies long enough to secure Napoleon’s victory (Gallaher, 1997). From this battle we see two of Napoleon’s greatest strengths, his deceptive capabilities in the middle of war showed through the use of a screening of cavalry and the manoeuvrability of his corps d’armee. Famously, the subject of Napoleon’s corps is summed up with a French Infantryman, “the Emperor has discovered a new way of waging war; he makes use of our legs instead of our bayonets.
This new method of war was really dependant on three factors: the French corpses were independent and therefore capable of traversing terrain a larger marching army would be hindered by; the lack of supply convoys and the mantra of “living of the land” this spawned (Chandler, 1966) ; finally, the ability of Napoleon as a commander to impose his will upon others and inspire masses of men (Chandler, 1966; Grubin, 2000; Dean, 2016). The penultimate point will be developed further later in the section revolving around Napoleon’s mistakes in Russia.
Napoleon proved himself as a commander of men in multiple battles, arguably the most successful period of Napoleon’s reign being from 1805-1806 most notably the battles of Austerlitz, Ulm and Jena. It was in Austerlitz especially that Napoleon shows how effectively he can handle his men, the Grande Armee (200,000 men (Chandler, 1966)) led by Napoleon defeated in battle the combined force of 400,000 Russian and Austrian forces (Dean, 2016).
Furthermore, Davout, for the cost of 8,000 casualties had captured 3,000 and killed 12,000 of the Russian forces (Dean, 2016). Almost single handed, Napoleon expanded French power and territory from its pre-revolutionary state to an empire dominating Europe. One of the many ways in which Napoleon did this was through his rewards system, empowering his men to be brave in order to achieve great honours.
One of these ways to encourage his men was to form the Imperial guard (Chandler, 1966; Dean, 2016), the elite, which drew the best troops from the other French armies, it was an honour to be part of the elite core in a similar way to modern day where being part of the SAS is a great honour. However, this had an impact on the quality of the linesmen as veterans remaining in the regular infantry dwindled new conscripts replaced them attributing to, what many scholars agree on, the poorer line performance following 1807/1808 (Chandler, 1966; Dean, 2016; Grubin, 2000).
Peninsula Invasion Occupying Spain and Portugal in 1808-1811 may have been the beginnings of the end for Napoleon. His marshals were unable to cooperate with each other leading to poor cohesion between his corps which relied so heavily on their ability to reinforce one another in a way which was meaningful to the outcome of battle, moreover his marshals on the whole were incapable of independent leadership.
Furthermore, Spanish guerrilla warfare as a result of Napoleon abdicating King Charles IV and then replacing him with his brother, Joseph, resulted in the inability for the corps d’armee to communicate between corps combined with Napoleon’s inability to adapt to the changing situation leads to the situation commonly referred to as the “Spanish Ulcer” (Dean, 2016; Grubin, 2000).
The inability of Napoleon’s marshals to adequately cooperate and communicate become evident in his peninsula campaign. Considering Napoleon’s requirements for a general to become a marshal, in practice, appears to relies upon the candidate to be capable to follow orders rather than have a military flair (Dean, 2016) with the exception of a few of his marshals such as Davout this led to the situation in Spain becoming worse and worse after Napoleon left Spain in 1809 (McLynn, 2002).
Napoleon arranged himself as the emperor of the peninsula through betraying Charles IV on the grounds of him breaching the continental system, devised by Napoleon himself to embargo trade with Britain and the continent theoretically starving her as well as reducing her sphere of influence in the continent. Opposition of French rule in Spain and the organised revolt of the local populous lead to an ineffective campaign draining roughly 300,000 troops a year from France (Brown, 2016).
Moreover, Spain was supported by Britain, led by the Duke of Wellington, who succeeded in making an alliance with rebel Spain, causing France to face an equal land army whilst also under the pressure from Guerrillas’ intercepting French messages. Russian Invasion One of the most famous campaigns in history is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia most notably because of how brilliant Russia was in defending its land however through careful study of the events of the campaign Napoleon’s reasons and decisions for this campaign show were the true flaw was.
By 1810 the title of “Emperor” seems to have impacted Napoleon’s decision making, if that was not already obvious in his ludicrous decision to remain in Spain, leading to some questionable reasons to invade Russia. G. Chandler suggests the step towards Russia “effectively compromised any remaining chance of survival for Napoleon and his Empire. ”
First of these catastrophic mistakes is the decisions behind his war on Russia; to preserve the continental system and to further feed his ambition to be Emperor of Europe. In 1810 Russia decided to relax the continental system (Landis, 2009) which breached the terms of the treaty of Tilsit that was put in place following the 3rd Coalition war (Chandler, 1966) where Napoleon defeated the Tsar Alexander of Russia.
Arguably Napoleon was in the right to wage war with Russia, for a power house like Russia to disregard the embargo of England may cause other nations suffering economically to trade with Britain for example the Netherlands however when Britain was suffering with famine even Napoleon traded wheat to Britain showing that this system was loosely followed by the very person who had created it. As a result, it seems preposterous for Napoleon to decide to wage war against Russia.
Other factors may have influenced the decision to war with Russia, prior to 1810 Poland had been dissolved into several provinces claimed by Austria, Prussia and Russia (Chandler, 1966) the treaty of Tilsit established the Duchy of Warsaw as a French satellite state. Further tension developed when Napoleon refused to sign a treaty with the Tsar to prevent the Duchy of Warsaw expanding into Russian territory. This may have influenced Napoleon’s decision to war with Russia because as little success in the Peninsula campaign may be frustrating for Napoleon who had enjoyed so much more success