How good was Napoleon really?

It is one of the things I hear asked of me often; “So how good was Napoleon really?” – followed by the inevitable; “Yes, but he lost…so he can’t have been that good!” – It is a hard one to get out of!

Let’s set matters straight. For myself, Napoleon was the greatest general or military commander the world has ever seen. The briefest look at his victory count tells you pretty much everything: He fought sixty battles..sixty! That’s ten more than Caesar. It is more than Wellington, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Marlborough and Frederick the Great put together…and still then by a little way.

Of those sixty, he lost seven, and only two of those were major defeats; Leipzig – where the armies of the entire world surrounded him, and Waterloo – where he fought two armies with one, and against the very best commanders the allies had. Of the others, we might say that they were setbacks from which he quickly recovered and beat the enemy roundly the next time.

Yes, he still lost, but then who hasn’t? How many generals from history can you name who have survived a career of fighting and come away with not a single defeat or reverse? Alexander the Great, Jan Ziska, Marlborough, Wellington (if we close our eyes to the Burgos debacle) Marshal Luxembourg…a few others, but not that many. Caesar fought fifty battles and lost two, Hannibal – perhaps the greatest battlefield general in the world, still lost half a dozen battles, Gustavus Adolphus lost at least two and the incomparable Turenne lost three – “A general who remains undefeated cannot have been very long at his trade” as that great man himself said.

But let us focus on the victories – all fifty three of them, fought in France, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Egypt, Syria, Spain and probably a few other places too. In snows, in mountains, in deserts, in plains – pretty much anywhere a man could place his feet, Napoleon fought and won.

The people he fought were often more numerous and as well armed, and their commanders were no slouches, either. His first opponents; Generals Beaulieau and Colli were veterans of the seven years war, both noted for bravery, ability and coolness under fire. When Napoleon gained his first command at the age of twenty-six, Beaulieau had declared that he would teach this young pup of a Bonaparte some manners, but within a month, Napoleon had already wrecked both of his opponents’ armies. He had started with a frozen, ragged, starving army of scarecrows with no ammunition for their guns and facing two enemy armies, but he had moved like lightning, raining blows upon his opponents and darting left and right, smashing them at Montenotte, Dego, Millesimo, Ceva, Mondovi and Lodi and sending them reeling in panic and confusion. This was a man of twenty-six years old in his first command. Suvurov – the greatest general of that age, had watched on with interest and wrote that the boy Bonaparte was a magician; that he turned mountain ranges like they did not exist and that he moved like the wind – “My God, how he moves!” as he said himself.

From then on, every single one of Napoleon’s battles was something special, something never before seen in the annals of war. Something new, crushing, devastating and unforseen – and every one of them was different. Many commanders had a style or a way of fighting which suited their tastes or the qualities of their army, but not Napoleon. He could do anything!

He crossed the Alps like Hannibal to get behind his enemies in Italy and beat them at Marengo, he tore apart the armies of Austria and Russia at Austerlitz, flummoxed and shredded the Prussian army at Jena as if they were rank amateurs and not the finely-honed professionals of Frederick the Great, ground the dogged Russians out by attrition at Eylau and Friedland until even they could not take the punishment, and brutalised the Austrians of Archduke Charles at Wagram so bloodily that they would never dare to rise up against him again. These battles were bigger than anything ever seen before, and each was a model of brilliance and perfection. Throw what or whom you liked at Napoleon and he could adapt, overcome and defeat it. One thing began to become clear after Wagram though; his battles were becoming less pretty and less imaginative. By turns they were bigger, more protracted and more brutal than those before, and often without the same outstanding results.

Many say that Napoleon was past his best, that he became complacent and lost in his own dream – and maybe they are right. After the failure of the Russia campaign though, something hit him, and even Napoleon seemed to have learned the error of his ways, for cut off and surrounded by the Russians in the deep snows around Krasnoe he cast off his Emperor’s robes to reveal what had been beneath them all along; the uniform of a General of France. “I am tired of playing Emperor!” he had roared, with such a note of derision that we may guess he had been fooling himself for too long; “It is time to play General!” – And with that he surged forward at the head of his men and gave the Russians a beating which allowed him to escape. Napoleon was back.

Now in Germany, and with the armies of Russia and Prussia massing against him, Napoleon’s generals urged him to make peace, stressing that there was no army to fight with. But Napoleon made one out of bits and pieces and led them out, hammering the enemy with his army of conscripts and old men at Lutzen and Bautzen. The battles were bloody and brutal, but at Lutzen he had ridden all day in the front line and led up attack after attack, and at Bautzen he very nearly had his most brilliant victory yet, which was snatched from him at the last moment. The Napoleon of old was back and in charge, but his army was not the army of Marengo, of Austrelitz, of Jena or of Friedland. The allies, now joined by Austria attacked him at Dresden, but here he handed them the biggest single defeat he had ever given them. Still, by now, it was not enough.

After this disaster, the allies – now joined by Sweden led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law and former Marshal Bernadotte, hit upon a new plan. Unable to defeat Napoleon “Whom only God alone could beat” – as the Tsar Alexander said after Bautzen, they determined to attack his armies wherever he was not, to concentrate against them and destroy them piece by piece until he was surrounded. This new initiative – the ‘Trachtenberg Plan’ worked to perfection, and Napoleon’s armies were battered and defeated at Kulm, Katzbach, Gross-Beeren and Dennewitz. everywhere he showed himself, they retreated and concentrated elsewhere, until closing in from all sides, they trapped him at Leipzig – the greatest battle the world had ever seen until the first world war, and known as “The battle of the Nations”.

Here Napoleon fought for three days in a circle as his German allies deserted him in the middle of the action, going over en masse to the enemy and leaving gaps in his lines which he desperately tried to plug. By the third day, each side had lost 50,000 men and Napoleon decided to pull back over the river Elster to save his army, blowing the bridge up behind him. Then disaster struck; a Corporal guarding the bridge took panic and lit the fuse, blowing the bridge sky high and forcing the French army to swim for its life as the allies closed in. Twenty thousand men were left to fight a desperate rear-guard action on the east bank until their ammunition ran out and they were forced to surrender. Napoleon had lost 73,000 men at Leipzig, the allies 54,000 – all because of a bridge.

By now, everybody was closing in and from all sides, and Napoleon was left with a tiny army and forced to defend France, but here something interesting happened. Maybe it was the reminder of his earlier days when France was surrounded and fighting for its survival with tiny and ragged armies, but the Napoleon of Montenotte, of Dego, Mondovi and Lodi suddenly flared brighter than ever before. No longer the man of the vast slugging-match battles, Napoleon became again that lithe, super-fast animal of which Suvurov had written years before. The country was in the gravest danger, the army was but a skeleton and the entire world was closing in, but Napoleon would not give up.

Dashing for the Prussian headquarters at lightning speed, he attacked them at Brienne, forcing them back and almost capturing the Prussian commander marshal Blucher. The Prussians brought up Russian aid and fought him for two days in a blizzard at La Rothiere, from where Napoleon, in danger of being surrounded, again pulled back. The allies closed in around him once more but he struck like lightning. In six days he wrecked army after army at Champaubert, Montmirail, Chateau Thierry (where he almost cut off and captured an entire corps) and then at Vauchamps. For losses of 3,400 men he had caused 18,000 casualties to the enemy, but still he was not done, and now dashed to the west to face an army which was coming up on Paris from the south.

At Mormant he crushed a force of 4,000 allied cavalry and then the next day hammered the main allied army at Montereau and bowled them back over the river Yonne. Two days, two battles, 10,000 casualties to the allies, 3,000 to Napoleon. And still he was going.

Swinging north now, he went after the Prussians who were reforming, hit them at Craonne, where they fought him doggedly, but then came up short at Laon, where the Prussians held a great hill in strength, from where they pounced upon one of his detached corps. Two more battles in four days; 9,000 casualties to the allies, 12,000 to Napoleon. Surely they had him now?

Napoleon swung south, to where the Russians were advancing to close the trap against him and now demolished them at Rheims with losses of 6,000 to his 700 and then dashed on to strike the Austro-Russian army at Arcis where he fought for two days with 20,000 men against an army of 80,000, successfully disengaging after the enormity of the task overcame his army, though leaving the enemy with 4,000 casualties to 3,000 of his own. Still undeterred, he now swung around behind them, crushed another allied corps at St. Dizier, severing the allied supply lines and then circled around behind them again aiming to get to Paris, but the capital had been surrendered just before he got there and he was now forced by his generals to abdicate to save the country.

This, they say, was a man past his prime…savour that for a moment. He had been rebutted at La Rothiere and Laon, but not crushed, never beaten, and had handed the allies ten defeats in the space of five weeks!

Finally we cut to Waterloo – the last waltz of Napoleon, and once again, just as in his first ever campaign, he faced two armies under experienced veteran commanders. This is the only time in his career that Napoleon used the same plan twice, and he now moved between the allied armies of Wellington and Blucher as he had those of Beaulieau and Colli nineteen years before, advancing with the speed of an avalanche, catching them separated and unprepared and smashing Blucher’s Prussians at Ligny. Now he concentrated against Wellington at Waterloo, but here all went wrong that could go wrong. Subordinates let him down, misunderstood orders and 33,000 men went wholly missing until the Prussians came up on his flank, and Wellington, who had proved immovable all day, led the advance to sweep him from the field.

This was the only time in his career that Napoleon had been truly swept away, and it was his last battle. Still he came close, so very close to winning it; “The damned nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” as Wellington himself said.

So how good was Napoleon really? – Incomparable. Magnificent. Brilliant.

And to the usual “But he lost in the end” reply, I shall say this…did he? Go to Waterloo and you’ll believe that you are at the site of a French victory. All of Europe still uses Napoleon’s set of laws and infrastructure. Long after people have forgotten Wellington’s name, that of Napoleon will still be remembered – indeed because of Napoleon they will never forget Wellington. In a thousand years time they will still talk of Alexander, of Caesar and of Napoleon, and really that’s all he ever wanted.

So did he lose? – In the end, only a fool could say yes.


One thought on “How good was Napoleon really?

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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