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Recalling the men who fought Napoleon

Enlightenment ideas helped to create the French Revolution, but the Revolution (1789-99) debased the Enlightenment by exalting the tyranny of ideology over the liberty of the individual. As a result it descended into violent chaos. Napoleon Bonaparte's career was a product of that chaos.

During his long and bloody butchery, Napoleon attacked and plundered Italy, treacherously turned his guns on the Knights of Malta, who had defended Europe from Muslim pirates, conquered the Mamelukes in Egypt, met with defeat at the hands of the Royal Navy, deserted his troops, managed to engineer a propaganda victory and a coup d' etat and to have himself crowned Emperor of France in 1804 and went on to conquer most of Europe, leaving death and destruction in his wake.

He described his terrible conquest as a beneficent plan to create the common fatherland with Paris as the capital of the world. In 1805 he assembled a French and Spanish fleet to gain control of the English Channel and invade Britain.

Opposing Napoleon

In April, 1805, Charles Middleton (Lord Barham) became First Lord of the Admiralty when William Wilberforce and Parliament forced his predecessor to resign because of corruption. Parliament's ethical move will have tremendous implications.

Lord Barham was no youngster. He was 79 years old, an abolitionist and incorruptible. He had spent years rebuilding the Royal Navy. He was also a master naval strategist with strong nerves, and he worked out a plan with Commander Horatio Nelson to defeat the French Navy at sea and prevent the planned invasion.

For his part, Nelson has taught individual officers to think for themselves. They loved him for this, and they excelled in executing his strategy.

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Horatio Nelson was twelve when he enlisted in the Royal Navy. Though often seasick, he adored the sea and the Navy, and became a captain at 20.  He lost his right eye to debris from a French shot, but undaunted continues to lead his men.  Well-liked, he often plans his tactical moves with them, and was famous for clapping the telescope to his blind eye so he could ignore a signal to withdraw.

Nelson takes on the French and Spanish fleets outside Cadiz at the Battle of Trafalgar. He has broken with the rigid tactic of fighting battle in line, and initiates a new plan for pell-mell battle. As the fleets close, he signals, England expects that every man will do his duty. The battle rages furiously. Nelson, as usual, is on deck, leading his men. A bullet fired by a French sniper hits him, and breaks his spine. He is carried below, and lives just long enough to hear that the Royal Navy is victorious. The Brits have ended the threat of a French invasion - this time.

1808 - 1813 Napoleon invades Portugal and seizes Spain; Britain goes to their aid

Napoleon has lost at sea, but not on land. He defeats the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz, and in 1806, establishes a continental blockade to isolate Britain and destroy Britain's economy. When Portugal refuses to join the blockade, French and Spanish armies invade Portugal.

In 1808 Napoleon turns on his Spanish ally, and in an 'invasion of stealth' seizes Spain. The Spanish Army falls apart.

But like all tyrants, Napoleon goes too far. The people of Asturias and Madrid begin spontaneous, popular uprisings. When Napoleon has their citizens massacred, rebellions break out all over Spain. The British Army arrives to help the Portuguese and Spanish.

Napoleon leads 300,000 men into Spain in an avalanche of fire and steel. The Spanish people and British army resist valiantly, but to no avail.

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Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Unable to marry the woman he loved because he had 'no prospects', Wellesley threw himself into military service. His first campaign in 1794 proved educational - he later laconically observed that it had at least taught him what one ought not to do; and that is always something. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) He becomes famous for avoiding gaudy uniforms, wearing instead a simple civilian hunting coat.

It is only in 1811 that the tide begins to turn. General Thomas Graham and the skill and phenomenal courage of British soldiers prevents a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Barroso. (Bernard Cornwell's novel, the Peninsula Campaign, describes the heat of the battle and the courage of British troops.)

Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley leads British, Portuguese and Spanish troops to victories across Portugal and Spain and finally to the Battle of the Pyrenees. Fighting far from his supply lines against equal numbers of French, Wellesley wins with a brilliant strategy. Meanwhile, in 1812, Napoleon, enslaved by his megalomania, invades Russia with half a million men.

1813 - 1814 In the snow, the Allies resist

The Russians fight bravely at the bloody Battle of Borodino, and lose half their army. Rather than be ruled by Napoleon, the heroic Russian people abandon Moscow and their houses and possessions. Moscow is lost, but the abandoned city swallows Napoleon's army the way sand swallows water.

Confronted with a Russian Army that refuses to surrender, with his own soldiers more interested in plunder than in fighting, and with winter advancing, Napoleon retreats. His men die, killed by Russian irregulars, disease, cold, and starvation. Napoleon abandons his men, fleeing in his coach to France.

But once again he pulls an army together. (What were the French thinking?)

In 1813, Prussian, Dutch, Russian, Swedish and Austrian allies defeat Napoleon's forces at Leipzig. Brits under Wellington invade France from the south. They force Napoleon into exile on the island of Elba. Less than a year later, he escapes.

Napoleon's Waterloo

In France, Napoleon regroups, and musters another vast army. (Really, what were the French thinking?) The Congress of Vienna declares him an outlaw. The allies again unite. In an attempt to divide and defeat them separately before they are ready to meet him, Napoleon invades the Netherlands.

Wellesley, now the Duke of Wellington, is placed in command of British forces. He is joined by disorganized allies and weak armies. They meet Napoleon at Waterloo.

The battle appears lost many times, but Wellington remains both highly skilled and extremely cool and courageous. His strategy in selecting the ridge he held while the Prussians fell back was brilliant.

He managed to be in the crucial place at the decisive instant everywhere in the battle. Men fell all around him. He was never hit. 'I made my campaigns of ropes', he once remarked. 'If anything went wrong I tied a knot; and went on. . .' Wellington's inexhaustible energy and powers of physical endurance enabled him to cover the whole area of most of his battles, and his unruffled manner (the product of will-power and self-discipline) had a moral effect on both officers and men. . ..constantly on the move, encouraging his troops at each crisis, rallying wavering units (not always successfully), [he met] the inevitable set-backs and misfortunes of the fluctuating fighting with the uncomplaining good humour which was one of his greatest qualities on the battlefield. (Oxford DNB).

Brits and the allies refuse to give up despite appalling losses, and they defeat Napoleon. General Baron Jomini later wrote that their victory was due to -

the admirable firmness of the British infantry, joined to the sang-froid and aplomb of its chiefs.

On July 15th 1815, Napoleon asked for political asylum from British Captain Frederick Maitland on HMS Bellerophon. He was permanently exiled to windswept St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

No sense of humour

In a telling little episode recounted by Peter Coborn in the Daily Telegraph, Napoleon is said to have complained bitterly to the British Ambassador, Whitworth, about the mockery he was subjected to at the hands of [British] satirists and pamphleteers.

Whitworth shrugged his shoulders, and told him 'Britain's rulers were used to it.' Not surprisingly, a general willing to abandon his men and devastate Europe could not take a joke.

There are leaders today without a sense of humour. Beware of them.

If you knew nothing about the European Union except that it had adopted the Napoleonic Code, you would know enough to be fairly warned.

Comments (2)

jlh:

"Really, what were the French thinking?"

Add the tagalong Germans and it still applies. We may yet witness another replay of the Pyrrhic Victory.

GW:

A superb post. You cover historical matters better than any on the web. I am submitting your post to the Watcher's Council this week.

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