Napoleon Bonaparte of France - Famous and infamous Rulers
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09-05-2019    47 times
Napoleon Bonaparte France

Born on 15 August1769 in Ajaccio, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte was the second of eight surviving children born to Carlo Bonaparte, a lawyer and Letizia Romalino Buonaparte. In his early years, Napoleon attended school in mainland France, learned the French language and graduated from a French military academy in 1785. After that, he started his life as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment of the French army. During the early years of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, Napoleon was largely on leave from the military and home in Corsica, where he became affiliated with the Jacobins, a pro-democracy political group. Within three years revolutionaries, the monarchy was overthrown and a French republic was proclaimed. However, after a clash with the nationalist Corsican governor in 1793, the Bonaparte family fled their native island to mainland France, where Napoleon returned to military duty.

During the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), a period of violence against enemies of the revolution, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the army. However, when Maximilien Robespierre was guillotined in July 1794, along with his brother Augustin Robespierre, Napoleon was briefly put under house arrest, as he was associated with them. But, as he helped to suppress a royalist insurrection against the revolutionary government in Paris in 1795, he was promoted to the rank of the major general and in 1796, commanded a French army that defeated the larger armies of Austria in a series of battles in Italy. In 1797, the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed between the conflicting countries, which yielded territorial gains for the French.

Napoleon, by François Baron Gérard, c.1805.
Napoleon, by François Baron Gérard, c.1805.

In 1998, the five-person group, called the Directory, proposed Napoleon to lead an invasion of England. However, Napoleon knew that France's naval power was not strong enough to confront the British Royal Navy. He, therefore, proposed to invade Egypt to wipe out British trade routes with India and establish a French presence in the Middle East, linking with Tipu Sultan of India, an enemy of the British in India. Eluding pursuit by the Royal Navy, General Bonaparte and his army landed at Alexandria on 1 July 1798 and on 21 July, scored a victory against the Mamluks, the military rulers of Egypt, at the Battle of the Pyramids, fought around 24 km from the pyramids. However, his goal to strengthen the French position in the Mediterranean was stalled for the time being, as the British fleet under Sir Horatio Nelson captured or destroyed all but two French vessels in the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798.However, Napoleon moved an army into the Ottoman province of Damascus (Syria and Galilee) in early 1799 and conquered the coastal towns of Arish, Gaza, Jaffa and Haifa, but failed to reduce the fortress of Acre. He stopped the invasion there, marched back to Egypt with his army in the month of May and on 25 July, defeated an Ottoman amphibious invasion at Abukir.

The Battle of Abukir, by Antoine-Jean Gros 1806
The Battle of Abukir, by Antoine-Jean Gros 1806

While in Egypt, Napoleon was informed about the uncertain political situation in France. He also learned that France had, in the meantime, suffered a series of defeats in the War of the Second Coalition. The ever-ambitious Napoleon did not want to miss the situation and without receiving any order from Paris, he left his army in charge of Jean Baptiste Kleber and sailed for France on 24 August 1799.

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Napoleon returned to a hero's welcome in Paris and on 9 November 1799, the Directory was overthrown by a coup d’etat, known as the coup of 18 Brumaire. It resulted in the formation of a three-member Consulate to replace the Directory and Napoleon became first consul, which made him France’s leading political figure. In June 1800, his forces defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo, and drove them out of Italy, which established his power and position as the first consul. Apart from that, the Treaty of Amiens was signed by France and Britain in 1802, to end the decade of constant warfare, bringing the Revolutionary Wars to an end.

To restore peace and stability in the post-revolutionary France, Napoleon centralised the government, reformed the pre existing banking system, Judiciary and education system, supported science and arts and sought to improve relations with the Pope, which became strenuous during the revolution. He also implemented the Napoleonic Code on 21 March 1804, to streamline the French legal system, which still continues to form the foundation of the French civil law.

Self coronation on December 2nd 1804
Self coronation on December 2nd 1804

In January 1804, his police uncovered an assassination plot against him, which was ostensibly sponsored by the Bourbon family, the former rulers of France. To expand his power, Napoleon used this plot of assassination to justify the creation of an imperial system, based on the Roman model. On 18 May 1804, the Senate conferred on him the title of the ‘Emperor of France’ and on 2 December 1804 he solemnly crowned himself, consecrated by Pope Pius VII, in an opulent ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

SJosephine de Beauharnais
Josephine de Beauharnais

Initially, Napoleon was engaged on 21 April 1795, to Desiree Clary, whose sister was married to Napoleon’s elder brother Joseph. But, soon he became involved with Joséphine de Beauharnais, a stylish woman of many love affairs, six years his senior. She was the mother of two children and the widow of General Alexandre de Beauhamais, who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Finally, Napoleon broke the engagement to Clary on 6 September and married Joséphine on 9 March 1796, in a civil ceremony.

Tutorial at home
Tutorial at home

However, as Napoleon had no offspring of his own with Josephine, he had their marriage annulled, more than a decade later, in 1809 and married Marie Louise, the daughter of the emperor of Austria, in 1810.The following year, Marie Louise gave birth to their son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, who later came to be known as Napoleon II and was given the title king of Rome. Apart from his son with Marie Louise, Napoleon had several illegitimate children, as well.

Marie Louise
Marie Louise

Till 1815, France was engaged in a series of major conflicts with various coalitions of European nations, known in history as the Napoleonic Wars. The British wiped out Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, but in December of that same year, Napoleon achieved one of his greatest victories at the Battle of Austerlitz, where his army defeated the Austrians and Russians. It resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine.

In September 1806 Prussians attacked France, but were defeated on 14 October at Jena and Auerstadt. Though the Russians resisted better at Eylau in February 1807, they were also routed at Friedland in June. The Russian emperor Alexander I met Napoleon at Tilsit and on a raft anchored in the middle of the Nemen River, they signed treaties that created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, which in effect, divided control of Europe between the emperors, Alexander taking the east and Napoleon the west. While in Warsaw, Napoleon fell in love with a Polish patriot, Countess Marie Walewska and had a son by her.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon knew that, it would be unwise to invade England, so he opted for a large-scale economic warfare against them by closing all of Europe to British merchandise. However, from the beginning, England’s old ally Portugal was reluctant about it, since the blockade would mean its commercial ruin. Unhappy with Portugal’s attitude, Napoleon negotiated a secret treaty with Charles IV of Spain and sent his force to invade Portugal. On 17 October 1807, about 24,000 French troops crossed the Pyrenees with Spanish cooperation, headed towards Portugal and occupied Lisbon. This would eventually become the Peninsular War, a six-year struggle that significantly eroded the French strength. The prolonged presence of Napoleon’s soldiers in the north of Spain and the French agents’ continuous interference and involvement in Spanish internal affairs, attempting to incite discord between members of the Spanish royal family, finally led to the insurrection. Eventually, in November 1808 the Grande Armee, under the Emperor's personal command, rapidly crossed the Ebro River and inflicted a series of crushing defeats against the Spanish forces. On 4 December, Napoleon entered Madrid with 80,000 troops and unleashed his soldiers against Moore and the British forces. Consequently, the British were swiftly driven to the coast, and they completely withdrew from Spain after a last stand at the Battle of Corunna in January 1809. However, the war did not end there. The conflict took the shape of the brutal guerrilla warfare that engulfed much of the Spanish countryside and by1814, after scores of battles and sieges throughout Iberia, the French were pushed out of the peninsula by the Allies.

In 1810, Russia withdrew from the Continental System and Alexander was suggested by his advisors to invade the French Empire and recapture Poland. As soon as he received the intelligence reports on Russia's intention, Napoleon expanded his Grande Armee to more than 450,000 men and ignoring repeated advice not to invade the Russian heartland, led his massive army into Russia in the summer of 1812.

Instead of facing the French army, the Russians adopted a cunning strategy of retreating whenever Napoleon’s forces attempted to attack. Consequently, Napoleon’s troops gradually and inevitably trekked deeper into Russia. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the indecisive Battle of Borodino in the month of September. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s forces marched on to Moscow, only to discover an almost deserted city. Before evacuation, the retreating Russians set fires across the city to deprive the enemy troops of supplies. After waiting a month for an expected Russian surrender that never came, Napoleon faced the harsh reality of the onset of the cruel Russian winter. Due to lack of supply and sufficient warm clothing, Napoleon was compelled to order his starving and worn out army to leave Moscow. But, the retreat also proved to be disastrous, as his army became the target of a series of sudden and unexpected brutal attacks of the merciless Russian army. Finally, out of 600,000 troops who began the campaign, only around 100,000 made it out of Russia.

Retreat from Moscow, by Jerzy Kossak
Retreat from Moscow, by Jerzy Kossak

During the catastrophic Russian invasion, French forces were also pushed out of the Iberian Peninsula by the combined army of the Spanish, Portuguese and the British. A crucial blow followed in 1813, when Napoleon’s forces were defeated by a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian and Swedish troops in the Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of Nations. After the war, Napoleon retreated to France, but by March of 1814, it became crystal clear that the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte was all set to face a certain defeat. The French economy was at lurch. There were shortages of everything, which include guns, gunpowder, uniforms, food, and manpower. In that grim situation, the coalition force stormed and occupied Paris on 30 March. Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814 and the Bourbon Monarchy was re-installed in the form of King Louis XVIII. According to the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, a Mediterranean island off the coast of Italy, with an annual income of two million francs to be provided by France, and a guard of 400 volunteers, while his wife and son shifted to Austria.

Napoleon knew that his enemies wanted to banish him to a distant island in the Atlantic, since Elba is too close to France and to Italy. He accused Austria of preventing his wife, Marie-Louise and his son from coming to join him. However, in the meantime the lady had taken a lover and had no intention to go to that distant island, far from the attractive life in Paris and live with her husband. In addition, the French government refused to pay Napoleon’s allowance, so that he was in danger of being reduced to penury.

Napoleon's return from Elba
Napoleon's return from Elba

Before completion of a year in exile, Napoleon escaped Elba and sailed to the French mainland on 26 February1815 with a group of more than 1,000 supporters and on March 20, he returned to Paris like a thunderbolt. He was welcomed by cheering crowds and was brought back to power as the embodiment of the spirit of the Revolution. The unpopular Louis XVIII fled to Belgium, as he realized that he had little political support. On 13 March, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw and four days later, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia each pledged to put 150,000 men into the field to end his rule.

As the allied troops were stationed in Belgium, Napoleon marched into Belgium and defeated the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June1815. However, two days later, on June 18, he faced the British army under Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, near Brussels. When the French had almost won the Battle, the Prussians arrived to reinforce the British and the French were crushed.

Napoleon's return from Elba
Napoleon's return from Elba

Longwood House, Saint Helena

The parliament again forced Napoleon to abdicate and on 15 October1815 he disembarked in St. Helena, the remote, British-held Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon settled down to a life of routine and seldom had he gone out in the open. The life of seclusion and monotony was imposed upon a man, who for 20 years of his life had played a great role in the world, fought and won many a battle, ruled a vast empire and had several times marched across Europe along with his army. Probably his inactivity and depression contributed to the quick deterioration of his health. He showed the first signs of illness at the end of 1817 and died possibly from stomach ulcer or cancer at 5:49 PM on 5 May 1821, at the age of 51. Despite his wish to be laid to rest the banks of the Seine, among the French people, he was unceremoniously buried on the island. Much later, in 1840, his remains were returned to France and entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris.

Napoleon
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Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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