Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon I) or Napoleone di Buonaparte was born on 15 August 1769 in Corsica and died in captivity in 5 May 1821 in the island of Saint Helena. He was a formidable French leader and military genius and the most of the 19th century politics of Europe was shaped by him during his reign.
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Napoleon came into prominence during the formation of First French Republic and after that he led numerous campaigns that showed his military brilliance particularly against the formidable foe when the coalition attacked France twice. These are termed as the battles against First and Second Coalitions. Soon after, with the help of coup d’état during the summer of 1799, he became First Consul. In 1804, the entire French Senate backed him and he became an autonomous leader of France and was announced as the Emperor of the French. (Schom, 54)
The Napoleonic Wars followed after this proclamation and the French under his able leadership won several victories against all the foremost military and political power of that time in Europe. These victories brought great glory to France and the country became the foremost substantial power in the parameters of continental Europe. Not only this, Napoleon Bonaparte used his influence and diplomacy to form numerous alliances that made it possible to rule the comparatively weaker states and treat them as client states of the French Empire.
However, the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte started with the invasion of Russia during 1812. His plans were to invade with his Grande Armée comprising of the largest army of the era and capture Moscow before the winter. But the Russian Czar Alexander chalked out a master plan. He followed the scorched earth technique by burning every corn on the way of the invading French army and restored the power of the Russian army by not involving into direct conflict with the French. (Fremont-Barnes, 121)
The army lacked supply due to this strategy, it slowed down immensely and eventually when they reached Moscow they found a completely burned down city and the winter was approaching fast. Russia being a decentralized country made it possible for the Czar to evacuate Moscow without any military and administrative damage. Napoleon Bonaparte had no other option but to return to France in the middle of the severe Russian winter. This caused great deaths and out of the 2 million soldiers only 25 thousand returned home. Napoleon was never able to rebuild his army. (Chandler, 78)
The weak army also invited threats from the coalition and on 1813, in Leipzig the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon and he was forced to resign. He was exiled to island of Elba but could not contain him. He recaptured his position within a year and gained control of France. This made the coalition attack him once again in the battleground of waterloo.
The Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) could be referred to as a landmark battle in the context of European history as well as from the point of view of military campaigns. The chief architect of this victory was Duke of Wellington. The composition of the Duke of Wellington’s army was chiefly made up of a force of 67,000 Coalition army personnel, comprising of soldiers from United Kingdom, Austria and Russia, with the aid of 60,000 Prussian army lead by Gebhard von Blücher. (Schom, 156)
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Wellington’s army had 150 guns, 6000 artillery, a force of 11000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry. Out of this 67000 strong army only 24000 were genuinely British by birth. 3000 of this army was from Nassau and 6000 were from Brunswick. Hanover send 11000 men and Netherlands contributed with 17000 men. It is believed that this troop was ill equipped and weak in the context of military campaigns. But at the same time it should also be mentioned that Wellington’s army was a regular troop. (Fremont-Barnes, 67)
The main weakness of the Armee Du Nord lied in the second in command of French side Michel Ney. He was a pragmatic and energetic person but strategically he was weak. In the absence of Napoleon his presence proved to be extremely detrimental for the French Army. However, the main weakness of the Armee Du Nord was in numbers. They had only 69000 men in contrast to 67,000 Coalition and 60000 Prussian troops. (Fremont-Barnes, 71)
The command of the French side lacked the high moral that is needed for a battle of such decisive measure and incompetent leaders like Nay, at least in the context of strategic movements, increased more difficulties for the French commander. However, there were problems and tensions for Wellington too as regarding the composition of many high ranks they were imposed by the Duke of York. It has been said that the army appeared like a cross between militia and regular troops and they were very inexperienced and young.
The Prussian army played a very important role in the Waterloo campaign. They acted as an important force to offer the vital and conclusive blows to the French Army during the last phases of the battle. The Prussian army was lead by Gebhard von Blücher as an able commander and was comprised of important military personalities like Gneisenau, Friedrich von Bülow, Graf von Ziethen and Georg von Pirch. Georg von Pirch operated the II corps while Graf von Ziethen commanded the I corps while Friedrich von Bülow led the IV corps. The Chief of staffs Gneisenau was a very efficient campaigner. Apart from the regulars the Prussian Army had a militia regiment called the Landwehr. These people were very efficient and professional in nature. (Fremont-Barnes, 81)
All these factors backed by a very excellent man management technique made this force a tremendous enemy for the French command as it was found during the later stage of the battle when the cavalry charge by the Prussians, especially the charge by IV corps, paved a lot of way for Wellington’s victory.
It could well be mentioned that the political situation of Europe during the 1815 spring was quite tense. Napoleon was trying to regain his grip on Europe after his return from Elba. At the same time the Seventh Coalition was forming up with United Kingdom, Austria, Russia and Prussia forming an alliance that termed napoleon as an “outlaw”.
The main objective of the Battle of Waterloo from the point of view of Napoleon Bonaparte was that the invasion of Belgium would engage the coalition into battle and once the coalition was defeated it would be just a matter of time that the entire Europe would fall to him. This was logical from Napoleon Bonaparte’s view as the defeated coalition would not be able to present a unified force in near future and within that time he would easily take each enemy individually and defeat them one by one.
The result of this campaign was extremely detrimental for the French empire and soon it was dominated by the coalition force and Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated after loosing his final battle of Issy. He was captured and exiled in St Helena. In 1821 he died. (Chandler, 142)
There could be a lot of assumptions to the scenario if Napoleon Bonaparte had won the Battle of Waterloo. But it could well be concluded that the entire history of Europe would have been different. There would have been a huge French empire starting from the coasts of Spain in the west to Russia in the east and the empire would have engulfed the whole of northern Europe including UK. Apart from the empire in Europe there would have been a worldwide military force and dominance by the French. The colonial empires of the early 20th century would have been ruled by the French government alone making it an unfathomable power in the world that would have ruled like the past kingdoms like the Romans or the Mongols.
It is said that the situation during the post-Revolutionary France was in a state of disarray and anarchy. Napoleon was the one to put an end to this political crisis. But his methods of suppressing lawlessness and restoring peace can be termed as work of tyranny. He was not much concerned about the evils of war or the deaths caused by these wars. All he was interested in was the confirmation of supreme political power. He was a military genius without doubt and an able administrator to control state mayhem but he lacked the statesmanship needed in the time of peace.
Chandler, David. Napoleon. NY: Leo Cooper, 2002.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. Wellington: Osprey, 2004.
Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life. London: Harper Perennial, 1998.