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Napoleon Bonaparte – Military Leader

Napoleon Bonaparte – Napoleon 1 (1769-1821)

Napoleon dominated the art of warfare amongst the European powers in the period 1796 to 1815.  Napoleon was a military genius in the strategic and tactical handling of armies and although he provided no large scale reforms of armies, or their equipment and techniques, he excelled at the refinement of an art that already existed.

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. The later point was especially significant when he took command of the Army of Italy in 1796 at the age of only 27.

Napoleon – Intellectual Ability

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 – Capacity for Work

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.

Napoleon – Inspiring Others

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. This position is supported by Rothenburg who argues that “He (Napoleon) inspired Frenchman and foreigners alike with fierce loyalty and devotion.”

Napoleon – Egypt and Italy

He married Josephine de Beauharnais in 1796, before going off to lead the poorly equipped army based in Italy. The Italian campaign was a success over the Austrians.

He set his sights on British domination and planned to attack at Egypt, then India. While he won a number of triumphs along the way, his fleet was destroyed by Nelson at Abu Qir in 1798.

The Ottomans then declared war on France, but were defeated by Napoleon in Egypt. Back in France, the government was in crisis. Napoleon secretly left Egypt for Paris, where he conspired to stage a coup d’etat and was named first consul on 9 November 1799. Notable battles followed, including a victory at Austerlitz over the Russians and Austrians (1805) and a cruel defeat again at the hands of Nelson at Trafalgar (1805). Napoleon’s relatives and loyalists were installed as leaders (in Holland, Westphalia, Italy, Naples, Spain and Sweden).

The Peninsula and Russia

In 1810, he had his childless marriage annulled and re-married in the hopes of getting an heir. Napoleon II was born a year later.The Peninsular War of 1808-14 saw the beginning of Napoleon’s decline. Costly defeats, an empire that was unexpectedly difficult to control and growing unrest with his iron will all contributed. His invasion of Russia cost him further. His Grande Armee of 500,000 men would be virtually destroyed during 1812 and Napoleon returned to Paris in December with fewer allies then he started with.

Napoleon – The End

The Allies defeated him in battle over the course of the next two years, and finally, on March 31, 1814, Paris fell. Napoleon abdicated to Elba. There Napoleon learned that the French, and especially the army, were unhappy with the treatment of the restored Bourbon leadership. He took this opportunity to march on Paris and reinstate himself for his fateful ‘100 Days’. The Battle of Waterloo ended his brief reign. He surrendered to Britain, hoping for leniency, and instead was exiled to St. Helena.

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