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Napoleon Bonaparte

“Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law…

The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill. Some of his techniques he learned from the ancients — especially his heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar — and others he conceived himself in response to the circumstances of the day. The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds. A more unexpected aspect of Napoleon’s personality that also came out strongly over the course of researching this book was his fine sense of humour. All too often historians have taken seriously remarks that were clearly intended as humorous. Napoleon was constantly joking to his family and entourage, even in the most dire situations.

Napoleon’s love affair with Josephine has been presented all too often in plays, novels and movies as a Romeo and Juliet story: in fact, it was anything but. He had an overwhelming crush on her, but she didn’t love him, at least in the beginning, and was unfaithful from the very start of their marriage. When he learned of her infidelities two years later while on campaign in the middle of the Egyptian desert, he was devastated. He took a mistress in Cairo in part to protect himself from accusations of cuckoldry, which were far more dangerous for a French general of the era than those of adultery.

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Sphinx

Yet he forgave Josephine when he returned to France, and they started off on a decade of harmonious marital and sexual contentment, despite his taking a series of mistresses. Josephine remained faithful and even fell in love with him. When he decided to divorce for dynastic and geostrategic reasons, Josephine was desolate but they remained friendly. Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, would also be unfaithful to him, with an Austrian general Napoleon had defeated on the battlefield but clearly couldn’t match in bed…

Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humor and capacity for candid self-appraisal. He could lose his temper — volcanically so on occasion — but usually with some cause. Above all he was no totalitarian dictator, as many have been eager to suggest: he may have established an unprecedentedly efficient surveillance system, but he had no interest in controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives.

Overall, Napoleon’s capacity for battlefield decision-making was astounding. Having walked the ground of fifty-three of his sixty battlefields, I was astonished by his genius for topography, his acuity and sense of timing. A general must ultimately be judged by the outcome of the battles, and of Napoleon’s sixty battles and sieges he lost only Acre, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, La Rothière, Lâon, Arcis and Waterloo. When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’

He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment and a story whose sheer splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries. He was able to impart to ordinary people the sense that their lives—and, if necessary, their deaths in battle—mattered in the context of great events. They too could make history. It is untrue that he cared nothing for his men and was careless with their lives. He lost a friend in almost every major battle, and his letters to Josephine and Marie Louise make it clear that these deaths, and those of his soldiers, affected him. Yet he could not allow that to deflect him from his main purpose of pursuing victory, and he would not have been able to function as a general if it had, any more than Ulysses Grant or George Patton could have done.

Napoleon certainly never lacked confidence in his own capacity as a military leader. On St Helena, when asked why he had not taken Frederick the Great’s sword when he had visited Sans Souci, he replied, ‘Because I had my own.’”


From the introduction to Andrew Robert’s new biography, published November 4th last year, Napoleon: A Life.

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Napoleon Bonaparte