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Between 1805 and 1810, Napoleon Bonaparte kept at bay the European armies that sought to undo the modernisation that France and its allies had sought to implement and export after the French Revolution. The seemingly invincible Grande Armée defeated and subjugated all those who opposed them. Yet, despite the unparalleled military superiority, clouds of storm rolled over the French Empire. Discover here how the character of a single man shaped the Europe of his age and delivered a mortal blow to the feudalism of the Ancien Régime.

This the second part of the article. Read the first half here.

1# After Austerlitz

The defeat of the Austrian and Russian alliance in the battle of Austerlitz (modern day Chzekia) proved that Napoleon had engineered a vastly superior army to any contemporaries. With a system of individual corps that allowed them to march separately (thus improving speed and resupply), excellent training and drilling, and overall, a vertical but flexible leadership, the Grande Armée was the first modern and professional army. And one payed by Austria after the latter’s defeat, as accorded by the peace terms imposed by Napoleon. With a new financial crisis straining France’s resources, Napoleon opted henceforth to oblige his defeated opponents to sustain his armies. A body totally devoted to Napoleon, who saw in that man of Spartan habits and candidness to the ranks, one of their own.

The loyal German states such as Bavaria saw their territories increased at the cost of Austria and later Prussia, and would amalgamate in the Confederation of the Rhine, under the leadership of Napoleon, to oppose the crumble Holy Roman Empire under Francis II, also the Austrian Emperor. In the south front new countries emerged and old dynasties faded, when Joseph Bonaparte was installed as the King of Naples, while its former Bourbon masters fled to Sicily with their British allies.

Joseph would waste no time in attempting to implement French policies such as the abolition of feudalism, confiscation of clerical properties (often to the point of bayonet) and an attempt to co-opt the Neapolitan elites like his younger brother Napoleon had done in France with royalists, revolutionaries, and Jacobines. All seemed well in the new French Empire, where the sun of Austerlitz bathed them in glory and a bright, prosperous, future. But was it?

Europe 1806. The Holy Roman Empire that had existed since the 9th century collapsed to the power of Napoleon. On its place he installed a confederation of small and friendly German states known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Source

2# War of the Fourth Coalition

Under Napoleon’s nose, Prussia and Russia begun to machinate against him, and wouldn’t be long before the former, fearful of Napoleon’s further aspirations for German northern states, mobilised against France. This happened so in October 1806, with Russian armies on the way to help the armies of Frederick William III, King of Prussia. But like the Austrians had done in the previous war, the Prussian armies didn’t wait for the distant Russian armies under Alexander I to make their way from the distant border. Napoleon would show them the error of their ways, and routed a contingent in Jena, while Davout, Napoleon’s finest corps’ commander, brilliantly defeated a bigger Prussian force in Auerstedt, on 14th October.

Murat, Napoleon’s cavalry commander (and his brother-in-law after marrying Caroline Bonaparte), begun a ruthless pursuit to the retreating dregs of the Prussians that now fled to Konigsberg, in Eastern Prussia, where they rendezvoused with the Russians. Davout was accorded the honour of leading the triumph parade that entered Berlin on 26th October, and Napoleon, always quick to acknowledge his officers’ worth and initiative, chose instead to go to Postdam and visit the tomb of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia.

In the Prussian occupied territories of the extinct Poland, Napoleon was received as a hero, as he chased the Russian army, his last opponent in this War of the Fourth Coalition. However, his lines of supply were overstretched and winter was upon them, difficulties compounded by the crippling corruption of the army’s providers, a foe that defeated Napoleon’s meticulous supervision over and over again. Moreover, the modern Russian army, created by Peter the Great and hardened under Catherine the Great, was more than a match for the Grande Armée. The Russians were accustomed to winter campaigns, and would use their favourite tactic: turning retreat into a weapon by drawing their foes further away and critically overstretching their supply lines. Commanded by the capable Benningsen, the Russians tested their mettle in the inconclusive battle of Eylau in February 1807, in which only Murat’s cavalry legendary charge saved the day for the French.

Summer brought relief, and Napoleon conclusively defeated Bennigsen in the battle of Friedland, 14th June 1807.  On the 7th of July, in Tilsit, Napoleon and Alexander met and arranged peace, by securing Russia’s neutrality and their commitment to keep a continental blockade to fend off British vessels from European harbours. Prussia on the other hand, lost half of their territory, which saw the birth of the Duchy of Warsaw, one of Napoleon’s most loyal and committed satellite states.

Napoleon and Alexander met on a pavillion built on a raft on the River Neman. Painting by Adolphe Roehn, 1807. Source

3# The values of the French Revolution

While Napoleon ripened the fruits of a hard-won war, he could rest easy because he knew the home front was in good hands. Cambacérès, who had been Napoleon’s co-consul, worked hard to modernise France. Some of his projects, fully approved by the Emperor, are amongst the most important in modern politics. His was the responsibility to establish the Napoleonic Code and in securing justice for the subjects of France and his satellite states. Some breakthroughs like public trial or juries were installed, to the bafflement of the nobility elsewhere, who were accustomed in dealing their own partial justice and in submitting to none themselves.

Napoleon in 1806. Painting by Édouard Detaille. Source

Moreover, a new generation of civil servants, judges, gendarmes, officials, and army officers, were being groomed to one day lead the country by merit. Not out of birth privileges like those the nobility were accustomed to enjoy. But true to his policy of ralliement and amalgament, Napoleon also sought the support of the conservative sectors by creating a new Imperial nobility. Conversely, he kept Fouché, his chief of Police at hand, to deal with the counter-revolutionary factions, specially on the rural west of the country, who resented the army conscriptions and the loss of predominance of their beloved Church.  

For all his criticism of being authoritarian and arbitrary, Napoleon wagered for teamwork and merit in order to create a just, equal, and modern world, if void of political independence. Although none of his opponents who criticised him led an exemplary democracy, precisely. 

4# Napoleon’s family and the Continental Blockade

With Prussia and Austria licking their wounds, and Russia safely tucked under the continental blockade, Napoleon could focus now in securing that no British goods ever reached Europe.  The Berlin Decrees sought to achieve that, by closing the wealthy harbours of northern Europe, who would see their main source of income depleted and their young men recruited into the growing French machine of war. Specially bad it was for the once commercially prosperous Kingdom of Holland, whose former ties with Britain (the house of Orange had ruled both once at one point), made it a duplicitous and potentially dangerous corner of his empire to the eyes of Napoleon.

His brother Louis was made king of the country in 1806, but fell out of his older brother’s favour in 1810 after constantly failing to provide troops and ships for the war effort. Moreover, Louis, who was married to Hortenese (daughter of Josephine de Beauharnais and thus step-daughter of Napoleon) had a troubled relationship with her. Hortense was Napoleon’s favourite, he even loved her far more than his siblings, and her three sons and Louis’, were Napoleon’s choice for his heirs, before he sired his own in 1811.

Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland. His mistreatment of his wife Hortense and his failure in carrying Napoleon’s instructions verbatim led to his kingdom being annexed by France in 1810. Painting by Charles Howard Hodges, 1809. Source

In Napoleon’s eyes all his brothers and his sisters (except Caroline) failed to put France first before the kingdom that the strength of his armies had given them. He only saw how they squirmed out of the conscription quotas he gave them, or failed to enforce the blockade, which foundered due to smuggling and the circumventing of the French laws by providers, and the existence of black markets for British and foreign products. Nonetheless, Napoleon’s brothers, specially Joseph and Louis, were constantly under pressure, in countries where they were rightly despised as foreign puppets of the French, and whose genuine sympathy for the plight of their new subjects led them to clash with their increasingly demanding brother, who needed to pay his campaigns.

5# The Spanish problem

Napoleon’s need to control all the European coastline led him to set his eyes on the Spanish Bourbons, whom he despised as much as he did their Neapolitan cousins. Initially such animosity didn’t stop him to deal with Carlos IV of Spain, with whom he accorded the division of neutral Portugal, suspecting the country to be a depot for British products into the continent. Carlos IV agreed for French soldiers under Murat to pass through his kingdom on their way to Portugal, but their presence upset the Spaniards, who already preferred Carlos’ son, the future Ferdinand VII, and wished him to take over his father and dismiss the hated Manuel Godoy, the king’s chief minister and the main architect behind the dealings with the French.

On 18th March 1808 this boiling hatred for Godoy erupted and his palace, and that of Carlos IV in Aranjuez were ransacked. Murat briskly proposed that Napoleon should mediate between father and son, and both agreed to meet him in Bayonne. The French Emperor had had plans to remove them both from the picture however, and carted them both away after Bayonne, while Joseph Bonaparte was extirpated from Naples and given the kingdom of Spain in return. Murat and his wife Caroline (Napoleon’s sister) were given Naples.

Needless to say, the Spaniards, already fed up with the French garrisons in their country, seethed with indignation at the removal of their beloved Ferdinand, and on 2nd of May 1808, with Joseph barely unpacking his suitcase in Madrid, a massive revolt broke out, known as the Dos de Mayo Uprising. In Madrid the revolt was quickly crushed by French muskets, which provided inspiration to Goya for his famous painting.

El Tres de Mayo, painting by Goya, 1814. It depicts the French repression to the rising. Source

It was only the beginning of major troubles for Napoleon. The countryside rose in arms and soon the few French soldiers in Spain (together with Joseph) were forced to retreat north, to Burgos, and later to Catalonia, to dig up behind the River Ebro. In Portugal things got out of hand real quick too, when British regulars led by Arthur Wellesley (Future Duke of Wellington) landed to support Portugal and the Central Junta that took charge of Spanish resistance.

The failure of the Central Junta to establish a proper military command, and the broken quality of Spanish regiments was a factor that ironically played to their advantage, for time and again the French would be denied a decisive battle like those of Austerlitz, Auerstedt, or Friedland. Irregular terrain and lack of proper roads (even for the low standards of the time) would play against the French regulars, who despite counting on better discipline and skills than their foes, found it hard to counter their guerrilla tactics.

6# The Peninsular War

This major setbacks to his plans for Spain and Portugal’s subjugation, were the first sign to Napoleon that taking possession of Spain had been a grave mistake. Like Naples, but on a bigger scale, the strongly Catholic and rural population resented the French presence and rejected their reforms, such as the abolishment of feudalism and the attempts to modernise the country in the line of the other conquered territories.

Coming from meeting Alexander I in the Congress of Erfurt to discuss a potential contingency plan against Austria’s possible re-emergence, Napoleon arrived in Spain at the head of 100.000 troops and entered Madrid by December 1808, with the Central Junta falling back to Seville. Napoleon took his displeasure and ire upon the clergy and churches, abolishing the first and despoiling the second, a sign of his latent revolutionary beliefs.

This second attempt to reinforce the French positions in Spain saw them well entrenched in the centre and in Catalonia (the gateway to France) while Moore, at the head of 45.000 British regulars opted to draw the French north, into Galicia and away from the Central Junta in Seville. Moore would die in combat to save their Spanish allies, in one of the most selfless actions of the Napoleonic wars. But that wouldn’t spare him Westminster’s criticisms to his memory, to the bafflement of Napoleon, his rival, who only had words of praise for a soldier’s sacrifice.  

Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and former King of Naples. François Gérard, 1808. Source

Napoleon would return to Paris on the 23rd January 1809, where news of a conspiracy reached his ears. It seems the plot was still on its embryonic stages and no concerted action had been planned yet. Their brains were Fouché, Napoleon’s chief of Police, and Talleyrand, his former minister of foreign affairs. Both had come to mistrust Napoleon’s recent decisions, such as the War in Spain, fearing they would partake of their master’s eventual downfall. And despite knowing, the Emperor took no action against them, the vendetta that so much had characterised his fellow Corsicans, wasn’t part of his ethos.

Perhaps it should have been, for unbeknownst to him, Talleyrand constantly relayed information to Alexander I of Russia and to the Austrian ambassador for France, Metternich. In Austria winds of war blew over court, fanned by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stadion, and despite all the information that Talleyrand had provided them, warning them of the dire consequences of a war with France, Stadion lobbied Francis to declare war.

On 8th February, Austrian armies moved with hostile intentions, this time with the army reformed in the Napoleonic lines of column and mass fire, and under the competent leadership of the Archduke Charles.

7# The War of the Fifth Coalition

The war of the Fifth Coalition, once more sponsored by British money, was the biggest concentration of armies of the day, with well over 200.000 men on each side. Convinced that their foe couldn’t effectively field a large army with most of their effectives in Spain, Austria fielded Napoleon alone once more, and despite defeating him in the battle of Aspern-Essling, the carnage of the subsequent battle of Wargram convinced Charles and Francis to sue for peace, one which Napoleon was only too glad to accept. Around 33.000 Frenchmen and allies were dead or wounded, including many officers and generals, for unlike the aristocrats commanding any other army in Europe, the officers of the Grande Armée led from the front and with example, often paying with their lives.

The army was Napoleon’s chosen family, one that stood loyal, and amongst their ranks he felt the happiest. Amongst his many faults, indifference to the suffering of his soldiers like Hitler or Stalin’s, wasn’t amongst his faults. And amongst all this lost young lives one that he grieved above all was that of his friend, the Marshal of the Empire Jean Lannes.

Napoleon surveys the field during the Battle of Wargram, July 1806. Painting by Horace Vernet, 1836. Source

In that summer of 1809 Napoleon proceeded with the annexation of the Papal States, which had been already occupied since February 1808. The Pope Pius VII retaliated by excommunicating Napoleon and his thugs without wording a name: … all those responsible for attacks committed on Rome and in the States of the Church. Napoleon’s shrugged and kidnapped the Pope. Just kidding, although it seems his orders were dubious and it was interpreted so, with Pius duly removed from Rome and exiled to Savona.

This didn’t damp the spirit of resistance of the Romans, which proceeded to sabotage the French authorities under General Miollis in a very peaceful but effective way. Passive resistance instructed by Pius, together with the boycott of their celebrations like St Napoleon’s day on 15th August, were simple methods that made the Holy See seem a victim of French arbitrariness rather than the millenary source of oppression and cruelty that it truly was.   

8# Napoleon and Wellington  

Meanwhile the end of the war in the Iberian Peninsula seemed to be nowhere near. All Napoleon’s caution and respect were reserved for regulars like the British, while the militias and irregulars commanded by the Junta Central in Spain were regarded as mere rabble. And unlike the previous campaigns, such disdain for the enemy translated into a lack of concern for the climate, communications, or a failing to account for the tenacity of Spaniards and Portuguese.

Soult and Victor’s two-pronged attack into Portugal was ultimately repelled and the initiative passed to Wellington and Cuesta (Commander-in-chief appointed by the Junta Central) who intended on destroying Victor’s army in Talavera de la Reina (southwest from Madrid), but their inability to work together forced them to a retreat towards Portugal to avoid being cut off by Soult’s corps that swept from the north towards their rear.  

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Painting by Francisco Goya between 1812 and 1814. Source

With Wellington and his men hemmed in Portugal, the road to Seville was open, and in January 1810 three French corps attacked the Junta Central in Madrid, forcing them to retreat to Cadiz. In the north progress was made when the French recaptured Zaragoza and Girona after dogged resistance, and on February 1810, Catalonia was annexed to the French Empire all but in word, its strategic situation being of importance to Napoleon.   

9# Napoleon’s wives and son

It had been on his mind all those years, but finally Napoleon took a fateful personal decision, although one that was to affect his Empire too. On his return to Paris after the peace treaty with Austria on October 1809, Napoleon told Josephine about his wish to divorce. The seeds of doubt had been planted some time ago, specially after meeting Maria Walewska during his time in Warsaw in 1807, and who bore him an illegitimate son. With Josephine they had failed to procreate, and learning he could do so with other women, and the need to sire an heir to secure his throne, overrode his strong feelings for Josephine.

He had just survived an assassination attempt, the Staps Incident, and his once iron health had deteriorated after the strain of power. He was 40 years old and he wouldn’t trust any of his siblings to succeed him. Moreover, he knew that his apparent heirs, Hortense’s and Louis’ sons, Napoleon-Louis and Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the future Napoleon III), would be rejected by his siblings, who shared a strong distaste for Josephine’s family.

Empress Josephine in her coronation robes. Painting by Baron François Gérard 1807-8. Source

Although he intended to marry a Russian princess to secure his alliance with Alexander I of Russia, Talleyrand’s ambiguous loyalties made sure his plan foundered, therefore forcing him to opt for another match, the daughter of Francis of Austria, the 18 year old Marie-Louise, of the Habsburg house. With this marriage, Francis hoped Napoleon would cease to carve his remaining Empire, which had lost all the Italian coast after the recent war.

On April 1810 Napoleon and Marie-Louise were married first in a civil, and then a religious ceremony, in which the Bonaparte’s hostility to the bride wouldn’t fail to appear in the sister’s refusal to carry Marie-Louise’s dress, and which many in the Church failed to acknowledge as legitimate. A few months later she became pregnant with the future Napoleon II.

Empress Marie Louise of the French. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin. Source

10# Napoleon and his army. Masters of Europe

The divorce with Josephine was hard for both. Despite their infidelities and her coldness that sometimes almost bordered indifference, he always wrote to her after every battle. She had become his confidant and even after the divorce he wouldn’t cease to write or treat her with respect and friendship. Perhaps she didn’t deserve him, but she still was the woman of his destiny, and divorcing her was one of the hardest decisions of his life.

Nonetheless, his relationship with Marie-Louise was good, for it wasn’t in Napoleon’s nature to be resentful or vengeful against anybody except his own family, whom unlike any other royal families of the time, he was prone to snap at and even remove from their privileged positions, as he did with Louis in 1810, annexing the Kingdom of Holland to France. Or the constant humiliations to Joseph, as he allowed his generals in Spain to flout his authority.

The Napoleonic Empire at its maximum extent, 1812. Author:  Alexander Altenhof. Source

In that sense, Napoleon was different and often angry, perhaps with justification though, at what he perceived to be his own family’s indifference to the sacrifice of his soldiers. The army, the apple of his eye, whose veterans were given lands for their service, on the Roman fashion of Augustus’ times. The grognards (the grumpy) the nickname given to the French soldiers, were the family he had raised and whose destiny was tied to that of their commander-in-chief, as well as, the fortunes of those who depended on Napoleon keeping his string of victories.

For all his military power he never felt entirely secure on the throne. His blockade repeatedly failing to keep British products off Europe, the Church hell-bent in depicting him as the Anti-Christ, and with revolts on his western departments and in Italy and Naples, the benefit of hindsight would prove his insecurities right. His Empire, his projects, rested entirely on the sword of his Grande Armée, and as it has been rightly put by Paul Schroeder, Napoleon’s wars came when he did not want or plan them. The sun of Austerlitz was gone by 1810, but Napoleon was still the undisputed master of Europe, and the seeds of his fall were planted, but still yet to grow.

If you like the history of the Napoleonic Wars and want to learn more details about the man behind the legend that changed history for good, don’t hesitate to read this biography of Michael Broers