Road to power
author Maxim Pretula, October 2016
At the moment of Napoleon Bonaparte’s entry onto the political stage in France, the situation in Europe was extremely complex. The French revolution of 1789 had wrought profound changes both in France and on the entire European continent.
At the moment of Napoleon Bonaparte’s entry onto the political stage in France, the situation in Europe was extremely complex, from political, economic and cultural standpoints. The French revolution of 1789 had wrought profound changes both in France and on the entire European continent. The Revolutionary Wars followed, an attempt made by the conservative forces to quell the ideas of the revolution. These created the right environment for young Napoleon Bonaparte’s drive, intelligence, charisma and ambition to propel him to the highest levels of power.

The French Revolution was one of the turning points in human history and happened rather as a long process than as an event. This process was a confrontation between political forces, representing, on the one hand, the social classes which felt oppressed, and on the other hand, the aristocracy, church hierarchy and the monarchy, all wanting to keep the status quo. This process continued to produce social, political and religious change almost ten years after it began, determining the following historical events: the creation of the First French Empire by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Napoleonic Wars.

Cultural and economic aspects also greatly affected the outworking of events at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. The beginnings of the industrial revolution ensured a capacity for mass production of different kinds of goods, including weapons, which contributed to the unprecedented magnitude of military conflicts. The ideas of certain enlightenment authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Locke, who supported radical change in relationships between rulers and the masses, resonated with the aspirations of the oppressed social classes and contributed to the outbreak of the French revolution.

Thus, France was in a completely different position than that of the other European powers. Great Britain, the long-standing rival to French interests, was protected from the spread of revolutionary ideas, due mostly to the fact that it functioned as a constitutional monarchy. The ruling classes of other powers such as Prussia, the Habsburg Empire and Russia however, felt threatened by these changes and reacted by intervening directly in the French domestic conflict, on the side of the royalists. The French revolutionaries strengthened their forces, repelled foreign intervention and, under Napoleon’s leadership, went on the offensive in the so-called Revolutionary Wars.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed the Revolutionary Wars seemed to be more concerned with the fight for political and military supremacy on the European continent, than with the social-political battle of ideas started with the French Revolution. Under the leadership of Napoleon, France began to extend its influence over its neighboring countries, especially the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and the German States. At its climax, the French Empire controlled most of the European continent, imposing the Continental System which severed Europe’s ties with Great Britain.

In these conditions, and in the light of these events, Napoleon Bonaparte’s appearance has been considered by some historians to have been that of the right person at the right time, and by others, as that of a visionary who definitively contributed to changing human history. Truly, besides political and military considerations, this man’s contribution to creating the first codified system of laws in France, a system which incorporated the ideas of the French Revolution, and which has influenced the judicial systems of many other countries to the present day, places Napoleon in the ranks of mankind’s great leaders.

The War of the First Coalition was the first attempt made by the European monarchies to defeat France’s revolutionary advance. The Habsburg dynasty and the royal family of Prussia were watching the events in France with concern. They clearly expressed their intention not to permit the spread of the ideas of the French Revolution and to support the Bourbon royal family. Great Britain joined this alliance. Between 1792 and 1797, great battles were carried out: on one hand, in the east, where the Prussian Kingdom and the Habsburg Empire tried to invade France, and on the other hand in the west, where the British laid siege to the port of Toulon and supported the revolt of the French monarchists in Vendée.

On the 27th of August 1791, the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II, and king Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with the French nobles who had fled France after 1798, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. In this, they expressed their interest in safeguarding the wellbeing of king Louis XVI and his family. They called attention to the grave consequences which would follow if their integrity were attacked. Leopold II considered the Declaration of Pillnitz to be a simple gesture to satisfy the requests of the exiled French nobles. Even so, in France it was interpreted as a serious threat to the revolution and the French Republic.

The war was left unresolved, and the French Republic was literally surrounded by enemy armies. In the following years, the success of the French armies grew. There were few changes on the Alpine border; the French republican army’s invasion of Piedmont was unsuccessful. On the Spanish border, the troops commanded by general Dugommier passed from defense to attack when they invaded Catalonia. On the northern front, the French armies obtained the greatest victories, pushing the Austrians, British and Dutch beyond the Rhine and occupying Belgium, Rhineland and southern Holland.

France issued an ultimatum, demanding the Habsburgs renounce all alliances hostile to the republic and withdraw their troops from the French border. The Austrian response was evasive, and the Constituent Assembly voted for war. The French prepared an immediate invasion of the Netherlands, which were ruled by the Habsburgs. They set off from the assumption that the local population would rise against the Austrian domination, as had happened in 1790. However, the revolution had profoundly disorganised the army, and the forces called up were insufficient for an invasion. Following the declaration of war, a large number of French soldiers deserted.

The Dutch rallied to the French appeal to arms against the monarchy and began the Batavian Revolution. Town after town was occupied by the French, the Dutch fleet was captured, and Stadtholder William V, prince of Orange, left the country. His authority was replaced by the parliamentary regime of the Batavian Republic, created by the French armies. Once the Netherlands had fallen under French influence, Prussia decided to leave the anti-republican coalition. It signed the Peace of Basel, giving up the Rhineland to France. In northern Italy, the victory at Loano gave France access to the Italian peninsula.

The Austrians and Prussians went on the offensive, entering France and occupying the strategic fortress of Verdun. The road to Paris seemed to lay open. However, on the 20th of September, at Valmy, the invaders were stopped by the troops of the French generals Dumouriez and Kellermann. Even though the battle was a tactical draw, it was a great boost to French morale. On the other hand, the Prussians realised that the campaign had gradually become longer and more costly than first estimated, so they decided to retreat. The following day, the monarchy was formally abolished. France was officially declared a republic.

The second half of the duration of this war was dominated Napoleon Bonaparte’s entry to the stage. This man, through campaigns in Italy and Egypt, consolidated the fight against European monarchies. Once the French Republic was stabilized, the war began to look more and more like a conflict for obtaining influence and political-economic control of the continent, than the anti-revolutionary battle it had been at the beginning.

The island of Corsica is situated between the island of Sardinia, in the south, and the Piedmont coast in the north. It was once part of the Republic of Genoa, but it won its independence after a revolution. However, this independence was short-lived due to French intervention and occupation of the island. The Corsicans reacted violently, triggering a battle which had a profound effect on the young Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleone di Buonaparte was born on the 15th of August 1769 in Ajaccio, the capital of the island of Corsica. The Buonaparte family had its roots on the continent, having emigrated from the Liguria region to Corsica around the 16th century. His father, Carlo Buonaparte, was a lawyer who at one point represented Corsica in the court of Louis XVI. His family’s social position gave Napoleon the opportunity to receive a good education, where he shone in mathematics, geography and history. His mother, Letizia Ramolino, had the greatest influence on his education, with her discipline forming the volcanic character of the future general.

Napoleon attended the Brienne-le-Château military school, then he was admitted to the École Militaire, an elite educational institution for the military arts. He was the first Corsican to graduate from this institution, preparing to become an artillery officer, at that time considered a superior branch of the army.

Shortly after leaving Corsica, Napoleon published a political pamphlet, ‘Le souper de Beaucaire’ in which he argued for the civil war overtaking France to be stopped. This pamphlet caught the attention of Augustin Robespierre, brother of the revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. He, together with a Corsican compatriot called Antoine Christophe Saliceti, helped Napoleon receive command of the artillery troops participating in the siege of Toulon.

After graduating from military training, Napoleon was appointed officer in an artillery regiment, a position he occupied until after the beginning of the revolution. Before the revolution broke out, he went to Paris on leave, then to Corsica, where he got involved in the battle between royalists, revolutionaries and Corsican nationalists. He was promoted to the rank of captain in the French army, even though he had well overstayed his leave and had caused a revolt against the French troops. Later, conflicts came up between him and representatives of the Corsican nationalists whom he supported, which forced him to leave the island together with his family.

Toulon was one of the French towns in which the royalists rebelled against the revolutionaries. The revolutionary army surrounded the town and began a siege, in which Napoleon fully showed off his qualities, by planning and executing a bombardment of the fortress which forced the defenders to evacuate the town in a short space of time. During the battle, Napoleon was wounded in the leg, but was unable to take time off to recover, since he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and received command of the artillery troops of the Army of Italy. The road towards obtaining power had been opened to him.

His position in the army of the French Republic offered Napoleon the chance to fully demonstrate his capabilities. In Italy, he managed to separate the troops of the Sardinian Republic from those of Austria, and then defeat each separately. At the same time, he became more and more influential in the political backstages of France, planning an invasion of Great Britain together with Talleyrand, France’s foreign secretary. Not having a fleet capable of challenging the supremacy of the Royal British Fleet, they decided instead to cut off Great Britain’s access to its possessions in Asia by invading Egypt.

The moment of Napoleon’s appointment as commander of the artillery troops of the Army of Italy coincided with the Thermidorian Reaction, in which several revolutionary leaders belonging to the Jacobite group were removed from power and executed. One of these leaders was Maximilien Robespierre, and Napoleon, through his association with Maximilien’s brother, Augustin Robespierre, was also under suspicion. He was under arrest for two weeks, but the accusations against him were later withdrawn. In the context of the imminent military conflict between France and Austria, Napoleon was asked to plan an attack on the positions of the Austrian army in Italy.

Between 1793 and 1796, in western France, the Vendée Revolt took place. This revolt was extremely violent, and the government troops of the French Republic received orders to pacify the region through any means available. Napoleon received a command post in the Western Army, which fought in the battle. He refused appointment as infantry general, invoking health grounds, since he considered this position to be a demotion. Instead, he asked to be appointed to the Bureau of Topography of the Committee of Public Safety.

Due to his refusal to participate in the Vendée campaign, Napoleon was placed in reserve, however, shortly after this moment, another unexpected event gave him a new opportunity to demonstrate his talent. The royalists organized a new revolt against the republican regime. Paul Barras, one of the leaders of the Thermidorian Reaction, took into consideration Napoleon’s results and behavior during the Siege of Toulon. Thus, he asked him to organize the defence of the Tuileries Palace, the headquarters of the National Convention, legislative assembly of the French Republic.

The Tuileries Palace was the scene of the massacre of the Swiss Guards, following the insurrection of the 10th of August 1792, a decisive moment in the overthrow of the French monarchy by the revolutionaries. Napoleon realized that the palace could be defended solely by the use of artillery and, to this end, ordered the procurement and positioning of large cannons around the palace. After the assault, the royalists were repelled, and the streets of the town were emptied, by using grapeshot ammunition, which was very efficient against the infantry.

The victory over the royalists in Paris raised Napoleon’s prestige, and he suddenly became a favorite of the leadership of the French Republic and its new government, the Directory. Napoleon was promoted to the position of Commander of Domestic Affairs and received command of the Army of Italy. In this period, Napoleon met Joséphine de Beauharnais, whom he married, later making her the empress of the French Empire instituted by Napoleon.

Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy was also his first great success as a general. He first defeated the Sardinian Kingdom’s army through able maneuvers, then he obtained a series of victories against the Austrians which brought his army to within almost 100 km of the capital of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna. The Austrians requested peace, and the French Republic obtained control of Piedmont, Sardinia, Lombardy and the Netherlands. This significantly contributed to France’s victory over the First Coalition, by taking Austria and Sardinia out of the Coalition.

The first stage of the campaign took place on the border between France and the Piedmont Province of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Napoleon managed to pass between the Piedmont army and the Austrian army, separating them. Initially, the French troops suffered a minor defeat in the locality of Voltri, near Genoa. In the following confrontations, Napoleon took into account the fact that the Austrians could not come to the aid of the Piedmont army. Taking advantage of this opportunity, he gained further victories, forcing the Kingdom of Sardinia to request peace and leave the First Coalition against Republican France.

The Austrians withdrew to the east, organizing defensive positions around the town of Mantova, in the Lombardy region. The Austrians sent forces several times to break the siege of Mantova. Napoleon won several victories against these forces, at Castiglione, Bassano, Arcole and Rivoli. The defeat at Rivoli brought about the collapse of the Austrian front in Italy, forcing the Austrians to retreat to the north-east, while the Austrian garrison in Mantova surrendered.

Wishing to prevent the Austrians from having time to regroup, Napoleon advanced, crossing into Austria and confronting, for the first time, Archduke Charles, Field Marshal of the Austrian army. This man proved to be one of the most able military commanders of the Habsburg army; however, on this first confrontation, Napoleon gained the victory in the mountain locality of Tarvis, forcing the Archduke to retreat. Then he advanced to Leobon, a town 100 km from Vienna, forcing the Austrians to request peace.

Through the Peace Treaty of Campo Formio, France obtained control of Piedmont, Lombardy and the Netherlands. At the same time, Austria withdrew from the First Coalition, leaving Great Britain without an ally in the fight against the French Republic. This treaty also proposed the creation of a Congress of Rastatt, in which general peace would be negotiated between France and the Holy Roman Empire. The treaty also included a secret clause, in which the Venetian Republic was ceded to Austria. Napoleon would occupy and order the sacking of the city, ending its 1,100 years of independent existence.

Napoleon’s victories in the Italian campaign were primarily due to his use of the artillery as a mobile force, ready to offer support to the infantry troops wherever necessary. The organization of the troops, supplies and movements in order to be able to surprise his enemy while still hiding his own maneuvers, contributed in great measure to the success of the French armies. Napoleon himself later said of the 60 battles he fought, that he didn’t learn anything new that he didn’t already know at the beginning.

His success in Italy transformed Napoleon into a hero of the French Republic, and he was received with honors in Paris. During the campaign, Napoleon was not completely unaware of what was happening in the country. Realising that the successes he obtained could only be substantiated if he obtained political influence, he founded two newspapers and created political alliances with representatives of power. He was also involved in the coup of 4th September 1797 against the royalists. Supported by the republicans, Napoleon rose to the position of controlling them and, together with Talleyrand, foreign secretary, began to plan the invasion of Great Britain.

The War of the Second Coalition was a continuation of the battle of the European monarchies against the French Republic. It took place after France’s success in the War of the First Coalition and after the Basel peace. Made up of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal and other countries, the coalition initially enjoyed success against the French, but after a short space of time, Russia withdrew. This sparked a series of events which led to the weakening of the Coalition and its later defeat by Napoleon and his generals.

During Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt, the French army advanced in Italy, occupying Rome and Naples. However, in the north, close to Verona, the French were defeated, and command of the allied forces was taken over by the Russian general Suvorov. Suvorov retook Milan and Turin, and later gained victory at Trebbia, forcing the French armies to retreat towards Genoa and the Alps. Command of the French troops was taken over by General Moreau; however the situation did not change much, with the French army being almost completely driven out of Italy.

In the north, the Danube Army, as the French observation corps stationed on the Rhine was called, advanced towards the east. There they engaged the Austrian troops commanded by Archduke Charles in the battle of Ostrach. The Austrians came out victors, with the French suffering significant losses and retreating towards the west, to Messkirch and later Stockach and Engen. At Stockach, the second confrontation between these two armies took place, with the Austrians obtaining a decisive victory and moving forward towards the eastern borders of France.

After its defeat in southern Germany, the remains of the Danube Army entered Switzerland, where they joined the Army of Helvetia commanded by General Massena. The Austrians went after them, engaging the French troops in the first battle of Zurich. After the victory gained there, Archduke Charles was sent to Rhineland, and the remaining allied troops were defeated by the French in the second battle of Zurich. The remaining allied troops were made up of Austrians, commanded by General Hotze, and Russians, commanded by General Korsakov.

The end of the campaign in Switzerland coincided with Napoleon’s return to France. It also led to his appointment as Consul and the initiation of the second campaign in Italy. This led to the complete defeat of the Austrians, the occupation of northern Italy and the signing of the Treaty of Lunéville. Strategic and tactical errors committed by the allies in Switzerland decisively contributed to this result. The errors included sending Archduke Charles to Rhineland after the first battle of Zurich and delaying Suvorov’s troops in order to engage in the second battle of Zurich.

Through the Egyptian expedition, Napoleon wanted to take Great Britain out of the war. This goal was hard to obtain, since any attempt to cross the English Channel was hindered by the strength of the British Royal Navy. Thus, Napoleon proposed indirect action, against Great Britain’s economic interests. Through this tactic, Great Britain was deprived of the resources necessary to wage war.

The Egyptian expedition began with a rigorous and completely secret planning stage. Although around 40,000 soldiers had begun to be concentrated in the ports of the Mediterranean, their destination was known only by Napoleon and a close circle of those in his command. Besides the military objective, another special interest in carrying out this expedition was a scientific one, since Egypt was seen at that time, in western Europe, as the cradle of human civilization. A great number of researchers joined the expedition, including Napoleon, who had recently been admitted as a member of the French Academy of Science.

Approximately 25 km from the Great Pyramids, the French army met an army of around 25,000 Egyptians. Using square formations of the infantry, the French managed, with minor losses, to repel the attack of the Mamluk cavalry. After this victory, the French army advanced to Syria, where it took part in a series of confrontations, of which the siege of the town of Jaffa proved to be extremely brutal. At Acre, the French troops were forced to retreat, unable to occupy the town and continue their journey towards the north.

At the same time, the British fleet dealt a strong blow to the French plans of controlling Egypt. The Royal Navy came upon the French fleet anchored at Abukir and destroyed most of the French warships. The Battle of the Nile, as it was called, tipped the balance in the favor of the British, on the seas. The French managed to control Egypt for the following years. Even so, Napoleon’s plans of co-opting the Indian princes and overthrowing British rule in the Middle East and Asia were stopped.

The first stop for the French fleet was in Malta, where the French troops were involved in a short confrontation with the Order of the Knights Hospitaller who governed the small Maltese archipelago at that time. The Hospitallers surrendered, and Napoleon easily obtained a strategically important port in the central area of the Mediterranean Sea. The fleet continued its voyage to the east and, managing to avoid the British Royal Navy, landed in Alexandria.

After landing, the French army occupied Alexandria and set out in two separate directions, towards Cairo. On the way to Cairo, the French army was attacked by Egyptians led by Murad Bey. The French used the opportunity to practise defensive techniques against enemy cavalry, and came out victorious. They later used these techniques to the fullest in the Battle of the Pyramids. The French fleet reached the Abukir gulf, where it took up defensive positions in case of an attack by the British fleet. Keeping the French fleet intact was essential for the success of the expedition.

During the whole of the Egyptian expedition, Napoleon kept in touch with the flow of events in France and Europe. The War of the Second Coalition had begun, and the French Republic had suffered a series of defeats to the allies in Germany. Without receiving orders to this effect, and in secret from his own troops, Napoleon took advantage of the retreat of the British vessels from the Egyptian coast and set off for France. The Egyptian expedition was far from being a success; however Napoleon was received as a hero in Paris, with popular support becoming priceless in the political battle he was about to fight.

Napoleon allied himself with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes and Joseph Fouche, members of the Directory, and with his brother, Lucien Bonaparte, representative of the Council of Five Hundred. Together with these allies and the minister Talleyrand, he organized a coup d’etat in which the Directory was overthrown. Napoleon was named consul for the next ten years, together with two other consuls appointed by him, whose roles were purely consultative.

The coup d’etat of the 9th of November 1799 was masked by another coup d’etat. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, seeing that Napoleon enjoyed a large following from the populace, tried to use this circumstance to his own benefit. After the dissolution of the Directory, Sieyes drew up the New Constitution of the French Republic, in which Napoleon’s powers were limited. However, Napoleon, managing the situation with skill and hiding his intentions from all those involved, stepped in and intervened when the document was being written. Submitting it to a general vote, he obtained the position of consul and all the powers pertaining to the position.

Through the consulate, Napoleon installed a political system which has been called by some historians ‘a dictatorship by plebiscite’. In truth, the new Constitution, voted in by over 90% of the electorate, foresaw a political organization in which most of the power in the state was concentrated in Napoleon’s hands. On the other hand, this really was supported by a large percentage of France’s population who, after many years of political and military conflicts - both domestic and foreign - wanted a strong leader who would bring stability to the country.

Once his position and power were ensured in the country, Napoleon concentrated on the international situation which, at that time, was not looking good for France. During his Egyptian expedition, the Austrians had occupied northern Italy again, and the allies of the Second Coalition seemed confident in their success against the French Republic. Thus, Napoleon planned a second expedition in northern Italy, crossing the Alps through the northern part of Piedmont. The Austrians laid siege to Genoa, which was defended by a French army led by General Massena. This enabled Napoleon’s forces to pass through the mountains unhindered and move into position.

The confrontation between the Austrian troops and Napoleon’s army took place at Marengo. Initially, the Austrians, who outnumbered the French, managed to push them west. What looked like a defeat of the French troops was transformed however into a defeat of the Austrians. This was due to the intervention of the division led by Decaix, one of Napoleon’s generals, but mostly due to Napoleon’s strategic retreat in the initial stages of the battle. During the retreat, the French troops didn’t lose their cohesion for a single moment, which allowed for a counter-attack, resulting in the collapse of the enemy lines.

Although the victory in Marengo increased Napoleon’s prestige in the country, Austria was not yet willing to give up the fight and acknowledge the territories obtained by the French Republic in the Treaty of Campo Formio. Napoleon ordered one of his generals, Jean Victor Marie Moreau, to attack the Austrian troops in southern Germany. Moreau gained a decisive victory at Hohenlinden. The Austrians were forced, under these circumstances, to sign the Treaty of Lunéville, in which Austria acknowledged the Treaty of Campo Formio.

The Treaty of Amiens was signed by Great Britain and France and brought an end to the Revolutionary Wars. This treaty brought temporary peace to Europe and allowed Napoleon to consolidate his power in France. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of France. One of the hidden reasons for this coronation was Napoleon’s desire to do away with all claims to power of the Bourbon Family. Several assassination attempts were made on Napoleon, supported by the Bourbon Family and by their royalist supporters.

Through the Treaty of Amiens, Great Britain was obliged to withdraw its armies from its newly-conquered territories in Asia and Africa, while France gave assurances concerning ending its expansionist policies in Europe. The peace which was ensured by the treaty gave Napoleon the necessary breathing space to consolidate his power in France. The first step in this process was appointing himself as life-long consul. Concerned about ensuring the necessary resources for a war which seemed imminent, Napoleon attempted to reorganize the French colonies, and sold the colony of Louisiana on the American continent.

At the same time, Napoleon used the assassination attempts to justify modifying the constitution, proclaiming himself emperor of the new French Empire. The coronation ceremony took place on the 2nd of December 1804, a moment immortalized in an official painting by artist Jacques-Louis David. Papa Pius VII participated in the ceremony, together with representatives of the old monarchic regime and the republican regime. Napoleon wanted to create a new dynasty which would enjoy the support of all the political and religious powers of the time.

Napoleon’s appointment as consul attracted the opposition of royalist supporters, who planned several unsuccessful assassination attempts on his life. Napoleon discovered that these conspiracies were secretly supported by members of the Bourbon family who wanted to restore the monarchy. At the advice of his foreign minister, Talleyrand, he ordered the arrest of the Duke of Enghien who, after a short military trial, was executed. This event awoke the animosity of the European royal families against Napoleon and contributed to the alliance of these families in the War of the Third Coalition.

Neither Great Britain nor France respected the conditions of the Treaty of Amiens. The British did not withdraw their troops from Egypt, and Napoleon directly intervened in the domestic policy of the German States and the Swiss Confederacy. Napoleon planned an invasion of Great Britain, preparing an army of approx. 200,000 people in Boulogne, in northern France. An invasion of Great Britain never materialized due to the force of the Royal Navy; however this army represented the core of Napoleon’s army, the so-called Grand Armée, which would fight the Napoleonic wars.

These aspects, together with the general lack of trust which persisted between Great Britain and France, led to the declaration of war in 1803 by Great Britain. This was the beginning of the War of the Third Coalition, an alliance which also included Russia, Austria and Sweden. It was also the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, lasting over the next 12 years, which extended from France to the eastern part of the continent in Moscow, leading to Napoleon’s greatness and ultimately to his final fall.