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The amount of historiography covering Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign over most of Europe is exhaustive, even for a figure and period of such importance. Whether focused on his rise to power or his fall from it, nearly every aspect of Napoleon’s twenty-year dominance of the Continent has been examined by historians and strategists aiming either to glorify or vilify his legacy. The attention paid to his fall from power, however, has been overwhelmingly biased towards his personal blemishes and flaws, and fatal mistakes. His growing megalomania, insatiable quest for glory on the battlefield, complicated personal relationships with friends and foes alike, strategic error in invading Spain and Russia, and a fixation on Berlin in 1813 rank among these. From this it is easy to see that the list of charges holding Napoleon in particular accountable for Imperial France’s crumbling is extensive. This essay, however, makes the attempt to diverge from the anti-personality cult aspect of Napoleonic history and limit personal attacks on his character and abilities, and instead focus on outside contributions that his numerous generals made, both in the field and in the political arena, to the fall of the French juggernaut. After all, the Empire that was forged by the sword also fell by it, in no small part due to defeat on the battlefield, and Napoleon couldn’t be everywhere at once.
of 1805 sealed the fate of the Third Coalition, bringing about the necessary (but incomplete) Treaty of Pressburg. (1) However, it is important to note that just weeks beforehand, in October, Napoleon’s hopes for an invasion of Britain were dashed by defeat at Trafalgar. (2) Interestingly enough, such a seemingly important event is not found in any substantial manner in his diary. He does, however, thoroughly condemn Vice-Admiral Villeneuve (commander of the French fleet at Trafalgar) for failing to enact Napoleon’s grand plan to invade England, set to be months beforehand; “I believe that Villeneuve hasn’t enough in him to command a frigate. He has no decision and no moral courage.” (3) As events turned out, Napoleon appeared to be correct in his assessment; Villeneuve quickly canceled the expedition and turned back. Said Napoleon, “Had Admiral Villeneuve, instead of going into Ferrol, merely effected his junction with the Spanish squadron, and made sail for Brest to join Admiral Ganteaume, my army was over, and there was an end to England.” (4) This may explain Napoleon’s lack of interest into what history describes as a decisive defeat at Trafalgar; to him, the chance to crush Britain had already come and gone, squashed by the inability of the Vice-Admiral. The Emperor’s dissatisfaction with some of the army’s leaders is apparent even early on in what has come to be labeled Napoleonic Wars. Despite a clear victory at Ulm and occupation of the Austrian capitol at Vienna, Napoleon wrote to his brother shortly after on 15 Novermber, 1805: “. . . [I] have not had occasion to be very satisfied with Bernadotte. He has lost me a day, and the fate of the world may depend on a day.” (5) It is difficult to tell the circumstances under which Bernadotte was performing, but it is clear that a Russian army was closing in and Napoleon was anxious to engage them; the decisive conclusion of the campaign, Austerlitz, at hand and it was imperative that Napoleon occupy the most favorable terrain possible.
Using personal memoirs of and addresses dictated by Napoleon, as well as the prior work of scholars who have skirted the topic before, this essay aims to show how some of Napoleon’s most trusted lieutenants failed to live up their leader’s high standards of generalship, investigates their strategic and tactical errors, and demonstrates how, ultimately, many of them betrayed Napoleon by defecting to the Allies or turning their backs away when the upper hand was lost. Others were unfortunately killed in battle or in accidents, striking heavy blows to Napoleon’s command ability in dealing with the large enemy forces squared against him in the final, decisive battles. Finally, an overall idea will be drawn of what Napoleon, for his part, could have done to prevent or alleviate the problems caused by some of his generals.
The next year brought the next campaign, this time against the Fourth Coalition headed by the Prussians. In an even quicker and more decisive campaign than the one a year before, Napoleon was able to crush the Prussians with the assistance of his finest general, Marshal Davout; they scored double victories at Jena and Auerstadt, respectively; after these decisive blows, “the Prussia of Frederick the Great had ceased to exist.” (6) Even then Napoleon still had cause for grievance, again with Marshal Bernadotte. Days after the battle he wrote to the general that troubled him so: “It is not my habit to recriminate over the past, since it cannot be altered. Your corps was not in the battle [of Jena], and that might have proved disastrous.” (7)
Napoleon Bonaparte as an individual is easily regarded as one of the most brilliant military commanders of all time; most historians and armchair generals are hardpressed to find a replacement in their top-three lists. He scored a multitude of famous victories over his long career, from a formative score at Marengo the masterpieces of Austerlitz and Jena. It is true that he also suffered debilitating defeats, from the skirmish at Aspern-Essling to crushing blows at Leipzig and the final straw at Waterloo. Napoleon had help in his endeavors throughout, both successful and failed, by the host of Marshals of France and their lieutenants. Napoleon’s first campaigns as head of the newly created French Empire were outstanding and unrivaled successes. His masterful victory at Austerlitz at the end
In 1809 Napoleon suffered the death of one of his Marshals for the first time when, having lost his legs during the defeat at Aspern-Essling, Jean Lannes succumbed to his wounds. Napoleon said of the Duke of Montebello’s death, “My sorrow is as deep as yours. I lose the most distinguished general in my armies . . .” (8) Montebello’s death was the first of many such 8
casualties and defections that would deplete Napoleon’s abilities in the field. Despite the loss, Napoleon pressed on against the Fifth Coalition. The campaign ended with victory at Wagram, after which the Austrian government was again forced to surrender and sign the Treaty of Schonbrunn. (9) However, at Wagram Napoleon lost a second Marshal, this time to ineptitude. Bernadotte, again the primary recipient of Napoleon’s scorn, was finally dismissed in the midst of battle: “I relieve you, sir, from the command of a corps which you handle so badly.” (10) Ironically Bernadotte, after being stripped of command and title, went on to become elected King of Sweden and later bitter enemy of Napoleon, contributing to his final fall.
decisive victory against the largest Spanish force in the region, Bessieres failed to follow up and destroy the remnants. Along with Dupont’s defeat, this meant that “the initial illusions of conquest were utterly shattered and several years of bitter warfare lay ahead.” (16) In Portugal, General Junot was forced to evacuate in the face of vigorous British intervention, fortunately saving 25,000 troops in one of the few brilliant strokes of the Peninsular War. Understandably, “Napoleon was both amazed and infuriated by this series of reverses,” (17) and, having freed himself after defeating the Fourth Coalition, decided to finally conduct operations in Spain personally. Within a month he had retaken Madrid, spending the rest of the year fighting the British presence that had precluded a subsequent reconquest of Portugal. Unfortunately, Austrian mobilization once again forced his departure. Though is designated replacement, Marshal Soult, completed the work of crushing the British expedition, French fortune ended there. A general war of attrition followed after Soult’s invasion of Portugal failed and Marshal Ney’s objectives in the northwest were unfulfilled. At the very time of Napoleon’s crossing of the Danube in his victorious 1809 campaign against the Austrians, the last French troops were being thrown out of Portugal; while Napoleon was defeating the Fifth Coalition at Wagram, his lieutenants in Spain were locked in a grinding campaign in Aragon that accomplished little. Napoleon remarked to one of the generals, “It seems to me that the Spanish operations are being poorly conducted, and so poorly conducted that I foresee a catastrophe unless more vigour is imparted to the movements of the columns.” (18) Fighting of such an unfavorable sort – a veritable meatgrinder that devoured French manpower – continued for the next few years until 1812, when a new British commander, Arthur Welleslay, later Duke of Wellington, inflicted a smashing defeat on the French at Salamanca. Madrid was lost soon after, the ebb tide of French power in Spain gaining ever more momentum. In an ironic spout of hapless foreshadowing, Napoleon had lamented little more than a month before Salamanca that “I cannot appoint a commander-in-chief for all my armies in Spain, because I can find no one fit for the job.” (19) However, even after disaster in Russia, 200,000 French troops remained in Spain in the spring of 1813, when Wellington began his conclusive offensive that culminated in the Battle of Vitoria; it was the nail in the coffin for French forces in Spain. Headed by a new commander, General Gazan de Peyriere, the army fought for eight hours before being signaled for withdraw, almost inexplicably, by its nervous commander. Gazan’s retreat created a gap in the lines that Wellington easily exploited, causing a general rout of the French forces; the remnants managed to limp back to the French border, but “Spain was lost” once and for all due to the blunder of General Gazan, whose “skills were not up to command in a battle of such importance.” (20)
A year before dismantling the Fifth Coalition, Napoleon began the first of two major conflicts that would prove to spell doom for the French war machine. Motivated by a desire to complete the Continental System by extending it to the Iberian Peninsula (11), Napoleon intervened militarily. Portugal was conquered, in only two weeks, towards the end of 1807; the next year a coup in Spain was engineered from without that placed Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. However, the invasion of the latter was to prove costly. Napoleon’s principle loss at the outset was the resignation, in protest, of his foreign minister, Talleyrand, who up to that point had “dominated the early-Napoleonic era with a skill that has rarely been equaled.” (12) Entrusting his generals with the execution of the pacification effort, Napoleon oversaw affairs in France and the rest of Europe, which was still volatile. Unfortunately for the Emperor, “many of the marshals and generals employed in the Peninsula were unsuited and inexperienced in the independent command of large armies and, without Napoleon close at hand to guide them, put in performances ranging from mediocre to bad.” (13) This was apparent within weeks, when General Dupont was defeated at Baylen by Spanish insurgents, losing in the process twenty thousand veteran troops. Napoleon was incensed: “Brute! Fool! Coward! Dupont has lost Spain to save his baggage! It’s a spot on my uniform! . . . One can see clearly enough, by General Dupont’s own report, that all that happened resulted from his inconceivable folly.” (14) From that point on the fighting in Spain was to be a struggle against odds, with the Spanish continuing to turn against King Joseph and the British involving themselves in the fight. While Dupont was heading to disaster in southern Spain, other general were failing to pacify the eastern sections of Valencia and Catalonia. General Moncey was thwarted, despite best efforts, from taking the former (15), while General Duhesne completely bungled the siege of Gerona and nearly lost the regional capitol of the latter at Barcelona. His replacement, StCyr, fared better but still failed to secure the province. To the north, Marshal Bessieres quickly conquered the important city of Volladolid, but his lieutenants failed to Saragossa on his eastern flank. Also, after securing a 9
Emperor, who was able to panic the Allies sufficiently, and that Napoleon’s agreement to an armistice was surprising and untimely. Leggiere agrees with Thompson in declaring that the battles were indecisive, the overall campaign strategy dubious, and the tactical “failure in North Germany was [due to] the ineffective officers who commanded the operations,” (31) implicating Ney especially. Judging from diary entries, Napoleon apparently considered both parts of the campaign highly successful. Unfortunately for him, however, another of his better marshals was lost at Bautzen; Jean-Baptise Bessieres, a veteran of all the Empire’s campaigns, was killed by a musket ball.
Greater than the so-called ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was the disaster of the 1812 Russian campaign. Napoleon entered Russia with an army that numbered at least 400,000, if not more. (21) Within three months the army had entered Moscow, but the Russians didn’t submit as expected. After wallowing in the capitol until the Russians were moved to burn it, Napoleon was forced to order a withdrawal. Right then, “on 5 December 1812, the Grand Armee died,” (22) when Napoleon took leave to return to France. Why did he leave the army? At that moment a former general named Malet was attempting a coupe to overthrow Napoleon in absentia, claiming the Emperor to have been killed in Russia and falsely announcing the dissolution of the Empire. (23) It’s safe to say that the Grand Armee was in fact murdered by the treachery of one of Napoleon’s own former commanders.
During this campaign Napoleon had dispatched his trusted and able Marshal Ney, along with over 80,000 men, to take Berlin in the hopes that doing so would force Prussia to capitulate once again. Ney, however, failed to take the city in the first attempt, mistakenly turning back to engage a field army at Bautzen. After this blunder Marshal Oudinot was given the same task with some 25,000 men. He was defeated by Prussian General Bulow the same day that the armistice was signed. (32) The summer armistice Napoleon signed in June of 1813 was broken by yet another Austrian mobilization, a result of souring negotiations; once again the Grand Armee was beset by a large coalition. Immediately Napoleon again surged towards Berlin, sending Oudinot and the sixty-thousand-strong Army of Berlin, which was again repulsed just twelve miles from its objective. Giving Ney another shot at the city, Napoleon grasped at the city one more time. Ney’s repeat failure ended up stalling Napoleon’s entire offensive — “the misfortune that has overtaken the Berlin army prevents my pressing on further” (33) — and set the stage for later defeat. The autumn campaigning season saw the Allies with the initiative and numerical superiority, leading Napoleon down the road towards the decisive ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig. Three days’ fighting saw the defection of the Saxon Army and the sudden return of Bernadotte, this time in the opposing ranks. Napoleon’s army was routed; his Polish and German allies were lost; Murat defected to the Allies, taking his Kingdom of Naples along with him (34); the Emperor, in an untenable position, was forced to retreat into France. During the retreat Napoleon lost yet another able commander, when the Polish General Poniatowski drowned in the Elster River following the loss of the only bridge out of Leipzig. The nephew of Poland’s last king, Poniatowski was the embodiment of Polish national identity and struggle, and this death took from Napoleon an exceedingly capable, enthusiastic, and loyal leader. As if things could not be any worse, the only up to then undefeated general, “Iron Marshal” Davout, was trapped in Hamburg with 100,000 men; neither he nor his troops would leave the city until the end of the war. The loss of his service and army, coupled with Poniatowski’s death, removed sorely needed leaders that were becoming increasingly short in supply.
Napoleon designated his brother-in-law, the King of Naples Joachim Murat, as his replacement; without the Emperor at it’s head, however, the army had no effetive leader. Murat was a well-respected former marshal, but he “rarely excelled when placed in independent command.” (24) Tasked with regrouping what was left of the Armee in order to put up a resistance against renewed Russian vigor, the Neapolitan king was simply “not up to the great task.” (25) As it seemed, during this pivotal stage, neither were most of the other commanders. Three of them left the army for France, two were injured badly enough to preclude command, and one – Marshal Ney – stayed with his army but did not actively command it. Murat, in his false preponderance, could do little to maintain order. In frustration he too abandoned the Armee, handing command over to Prince Eugen de Beauharnais, while Marshals Davout and Macdonald became the only two remaining to exercise real control over the remaining forces. Simultaneously the Prussians under General Johann Yorck, defected against Napoleon, making French presence in Poland and Prussia untenable. (26) Napoleon later admitted to Murat’s wife: “Your husband is very brave on the battlefield, but weaker than a woman or a monk when out of sight of the enemy.” (27) During the four months Napoleon was in France, he managed to raise a new Grand Armee of some 200,000 men, though he severely lacked cavalry. (28) With this new force he devised a campaign designed to “sweep the enemy back beyond the Nieman (River, in today’s Lithuania and Belarus).” (29) To this end, he began a drive through Saxony in April of 1813, while further north an offensive against the Prussian capitol of Berlin was launched. That same month former Marshal Bernadotte, now the elected King of Sweden, signed an alliance with Russia. (30) There is disagreement amongst the sources as to the effectiveness of the 1813 campaign: Thompson asserts that the major battles at Lutzen and Bautzen were indecisive, forcing Napleon to seek an armistice he didn’t want; Hamilton-Williams contends that the two battles were clear victories for the 10
Leipzig and the resulting retreat into France, coupled with the earlier mentioned rout in Spain, had put Napoleon in an extremely difficult situation; his Empire was falling apart all at once. Negotiations to end the war again faltered and the Allies poured across the French border. The Emperor engaged in a brilliant and hardfought series of defensive engagements, but could not stem the overwhelming numbers lined against him. While he was trying to save what he could of France, Paris was presided over by former minister Talleyrand, who “had been guaranteed riches, advancement and a free hand in the restoration of the Bourbons”, alongside the nominal King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, “who had abandoned his brother’s sinking ship to look after his own interests.” (35) Of the two, the former hurt Napoleon the most. Talleyrand succeeded in turning General Marmont, one of the Napoleon’s most faithful, against the Empire’s cause; Marmont then negotiated the capitulation of Paris, on 31 March. (36) Four days later Napoleon, outmaneuvered by the Allies and his own countrymen, was left with little choice but to announce his abdication from the throne. Just days later he found himself on the island of Elba, but not for long. By March of the next year he was once again on French soil, rejoined by some of his former Marshals, which included Ney, Dabout, Massena, Soult, and Grouchy. For a hundred days they again attempted to save France from an overwhelming invasion by the Allies.
The attack that followed was the charge of the Old Guard, Napoleon’s final desperate gamble to break Wellington’s center before Blucher could close. It failed, and the battle turned to a rout as the French army fled the field in the wake of rapidly advancing British and Prussian columns. Waterloo was finished, and so was Napoleon. (39) Soon after the battle, Ney returned to Paris and declared to the Chamber of Peers, “There is no other means of securing the public safety but to make proposals to the enemy at once.” (40) This traitorous and hypocritical advice, coming from the man who contributed to the recent defeat, helped seal the final fate of Napoleon. The Chamber requested that the Emperor abdicate a second time, and under the circumstances there was little choice but to acquiesce, this time for good. It has been shown that, through a series of triumphant victories and tragic defeats spanning a decade, Napoleon was accompanied along the way by a host of hand-picked Marshals and generals of France. Some of them gained renown and everlasting glory for their services. Others earned a warrior’s death on the battlefield. Still others, however, would become infamous to history for their own blunders or, worse yet, their treachery. Although as head of state and commander-in-chief of France and her armies, the large burden of overall responsibility always laid with Napoleon, the significant contributions of his lieutenants clearly played a definitive role in the fate of both Empire and Emperor.
Waterloo was the culminating event of those hundred days, the decisive moment which was to make or break Napoleon once and for all. While he possessed the immediate tactical advantage – the opportunity to engage the main British and Prussian forces separately – the former, under Wellington, was able to hold the French armies back long enough for the Prussians under Blucher to engage in battle as well. According to Napoleon’s memoirs, during the fight a critical error by one of his closest marshals contributed to the final defeat. Chaboulon, ex-secretary to Napoleon, explains” Marshal Ney, carried away by his reckless courage, forgot the orders of the Emperor [to hold his ground]. He charged the enemy at the head of Milhaud’s cuirassiers and the light cavalry of the Guard, and succeeded, amid the applause of the army, in establishing himself on the heights of Mont St. Jean, till then inaccessible. This ill-timed and hazardous movement did not escape the Duke of Wellington. He ordered his infantry to advance, and fell upon us with all his cavalry. (37) Ney forced a fight that was unnecessary and that he was unprepared for. The final engagements of the battle ensued, the French army losing far more men than it could afford to. Chaboulon continues: “Meanwhile our cavalry, weakned by a considerable loss and unequal contests incessantly renewed, began to be disheartened, and to yield ground. The issue of the battle appeared to become doubtful. It was necessary to strike a grand blow by a desperate attack. The Emperor did not hesitate a moment.” (38)
1: J.M. Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 234.2: Ibid. 3: Napoleon Bonaparte, The Corsican (New York: Houghton Mufflin, 1930), 204. Compiled by R.M. Johnston. 4: Ibid., 206. 5: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 176. 6: Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall, 292 7: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 252. 8: Ibid., 304. 9: Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall, 299. 10: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 317. 11: David Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A history of the Peninsular War (New York: Norton, 1985), 6. 12: Ibid., 10. 13: Ibid. 14: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 179. 15: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 57. 16: Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War, 81. 17: Ibid., 93. 18: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 315. 19: Ibid., 338. 20: Natalia Griffon de Pleineville, “Fighting for Napoleon,” History Today, Apr 2003, Vol.53 Iss.4. Admittedly, up to that point Gazan possessed an impeccable record. The problem was that he, like nearly
all the Napoleonic generals, had little ability when it came to exercising independent command and lacked the initiative and confidence erquired. The fault for such deficiency surely lies both with Napoleon and the generals themselves. 21: Frederick C. Shneid, “The Dynamics of Defeat: French Army Leadership, December 1812-March 1813,” The Journal of Military History, Vol.63 No.1, 7. 22: Ibid. 23: David Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon: The Final Betrayal (New York: Wiley, 1996), 64. 24: Ibid., 9. 25: Shneid, “The Dynamics of Defeat”, 12. 26: Ibid., 16. 27: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 369. 28: Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon, 29. This number includes about 60,000 men remaining in eastern Europe from garrisons and the Russian campaign, and 140,000 new conscripts from France 29: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 371. 30: Thompson, Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall, 345. 31: Michael V. Leggiere, “From Berlin to Leipzig: Napoleon’s Gamble in North Germany, 1813”, The Journal of Military History, Vol.67 Iss.1, 58. 32: Ibid., 40. 33: Bonaparte, The Corsican, 397. 34: Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon, 57. 35: Ibid., 105. 36: Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon, 110. 37: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourriene, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (New York: Scribner’s, 1891), 219. 38: Ibid. 39: De Bourriene, Memoirs, 219. 40: Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon, 246.