Napoleon's Years of Triumph and Fall (1800-1815)

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Butler, Chris. "Napoleon's Years of Triumph and Fall (1800-1815)." The Flow of History. 2007. 11 Nov 2008 .
By 1808, Napoleon was at the pinnacle of power.  He controlled most of Europe to some degree or other.  France was tightly under control and efficiently run.  But forces were converging that would bring the Napoleonic regime crashing down in ruins.
The Continental System and Spanish Ulcer

One power Napoleon could not reach was Britain, whose navy safely sheltered it against any continental invasion.  The ill-fated invasion of Egypt and the Battle of Trafalgar both bore this out.  But Napoleon was determined to bring Britain to its knees, and this time decided to strike the "nation of shopkeepers" where it would hurt the worst: the wallet.  With most of Europe under his control, Napoleon imposed the Continental System to stop all European trade with Britain.  Hopefully, this would strangle Britain economically and force it to come to terms.  And while it did hurt Britain, it also hurt the rest of Europe wanting to trade for Britain's cheaper industrial goods.  By a combination of bribing officials, forging documents to mask the British identity of merchant ships, and outright smuggling, the Continental System leaked like a sieve.  Even Napoleon secretly bought British goods.

One big leak in the system was Portugal, which refused to join the embargo against Britain.  Napoleon decided to plug this leak by taking over Portugal, which he did in several months.  However, in order to reach Portugal, French troops had to cross Spain.  Therefore, Napoleon decided to replace the Bourbon dynasty ruling Spain with a French regime led by his brother, Joseph, figuring the Spanish people would prefer French rule to that of the corrupt monarchy.  However, Napoleon had completely misread the spirit of Spain.
On May 2, 1808, a popular revolt in Madrid and the severe French repression following it triggered a general uprising that spread like wildfire across Spain.  What Napoleon had figured to be a simple operation turned into a full-scale war that dragged on for five years.  The Spanish revolt was the first example of another country's nationalism being turned against France, although it was led largely by priests and nobles who stood for the conservative values of the old regime.
The Spanish method of fighting was ill suited to Napoleon's style of warfare.  Instead of meeting the French in large pitched battles on Napoleon's terms, the Spanish launched hit and run raids to cut enemy communications and supply lines and ambush stragglers and foragers.  Such warfare (called guerilla, meaning "little war") tied down some 360,000 French troops in Spain and Portugal. The desperate fighting for the town of Saragossa alone cost the French 60,000 casualties.  Even a simple messenger going to France required an escort of several hundred cavalry.  This war came to be called the "Spanish Ulcer" since it slowly bled the life out of the French army.  Napoleon himself said the invasion of Spain was the worst mistake of his career.
Making matters worse for the French was British help led by Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) and Sir John Moore.  Wellesley in particular was a capable commander who knew how to use the stark Spanish landscape against the French, tying them down to long supply lines that were vulnerable to guerilla raids.  Bit by bit, the French forces were worn down and driven back.  In 1813 the last French army in Spain was defeated and driven out, leaving behind Joseph's silver chamber pot as a victory trophy to commemorate the "Spanish Ulcer".
Napoleon's invasion of Russia

There were several reasons for Napoleon's decision to invade Russia in 1812.  Czar Alexander I felt snubbed by Napoleon's marriage to an Austrian princess (even though Napoleon had first asked the Czar for a Russian princess and been snubbed).  Mutual jealously between the two rulers, and Russian resentment of Napoleon's revival of Poland (as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw) and the Continental System, which was costing it valuable trade with Britain, also contributed to war.

Whatever the reasons, Napoleon was determined to crush Russia.  Instead of relying on the typical Napoleonic blitzkrieg, he decided to use the weight of numbers, some 600,000 men drawn from all over his empire, to crush his foe.  In June 1812, the Grand Army of France entered Russia.
However, the heat of the Russian summer was almost as taxing on the French as the cold of the winter would be. In addition, the Russian “scorched earth” policy of burning anything of use to the French also wore them out.  Garrison duty, desertions, and even suicides from despair over the endless march reduced the French army to 125,000 men by September when the Russian General Kutozov was finally forced to make a stand at the village of Borodino some 70 miles west of Moscow, a battle in which the Russians lost 40,000 and the French 20,000. Russian tactics, however self-destructive, were wearing down the Grand Army.
The Russians left Moscow to the French, but little else in the way of food and other supplies.  Soon after its occupation, Moscow mysteriously went up in flames, thus denying the French any shelter as well.  Napoleon, hoping the Czar would come to terms, waited until October 19 to evacuate Moscow and head home.  By then it was too late.  The Russian winter was quickly setting in.
By Russian standards it was not such a bad winter.  But for an army that had brought mosquito nets for continuing its campaign into India, it was a disaster.  Men froze from exposure to the elements and starved as supply lines broke down and the surrounding scorched earth yielded little or no food.  Many of the French horses died simply because Napoleon had refused to let them be shod for ice.  With each day, the situation became more desperate and the retreat degenerated into a rout.  At the Berezhina River, total chaos ruled as the mob of French soldiers crowded frantically onto two bridges to escape oncoming Russian forces.  One of the bridges broke under the weight of the crowd and thousands drowned or were crushed in the ensuing panic.  An island that formed over the pile of bodies still stands as a grim reminder of the French disaster in Russia.  Of 600,000 men who invaded Russia, only 55,000 made it back.  Napoleon's message to the French people upon returning from this disaster was: "His majesty's health has never been better."
The end of the Napoleonic Empire

Napoleon's defeat in Russia was a signal to the rest of Europe to rise up against French rule, and Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Britain formed a new coalition to liberate the continent.  Napoleon still had some fight left in him and raised new armies to defend his empire.  However, the emperor was not as sharp as he used to be and he wasted men on needless marches and countermarches.  The year 1813 saw heavy fighting as the allies pushed the French back across Germany.  The decisive battle came at Leipzig in the "Battle of the Nations" where 300,000 allies and 190,000 French desperately fought for three days. ..The remaining French forces quickly retreated across Germany while the rest of Napoleon's empire in Holland, Italy, and Spain threw off the yoke of French rule.  In fifteen months of disastrous campaigning, Napoleon had lost one million men.

Yet he refused to accept a settlement that would leave him with France. However, France was now worn out by nearly a quarter century of warfare.  The ranks were now filled with the "Marie Louise Boys", called that since they were too young to shave, but not too young to die for their emperor.  While Napoleon showed flashes of his old brilliance in hurling one invading army after another back from French soil, it was still too little too late.  On April 13, 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate [give up his throne].  The man who just recently had ruled most of Europe now had to leave France in disguise to save himself from mobs of French people bitter over having suffered so much from his wars.
However, Napoleon was not quite through.  The allies had generously given him the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba to rule, even with an army of 900 men.  In 1815 he escaped to France, seized control of the government, and fought one last battle against the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies near the Belgian village of Waterloo.  It was a poorly run battle on Napoleon's part and ended in total defeat for the French.  This time Napoleon was exiled to the island of St. Helena off the southern tip of Africa.  He died there in 1821.


1) Describe Napoleon’s plan to “bring Britain to its knees” (a.k.a. the Continental System).

2) How did this plan also hurt the rest of Europe?

3) What mistake did Napoleon make in trying to force Portugal to follow the Continental System embargo?

4) What caused the war against Spain to become known as “the Spanish ulcer”? Why did Napoleon refer to this as the worst mistake of his career?

5) How did each contribute to war between Russia and France?

a. Grand Duchy of Warsaw? b. Continental System?

6) List 2 ways that the Russian weather contributed to the defeat of the Grand Army of France in Russia.

a. b.

7) What made the French defeat at Leipzig (1813) the “decisive battle” of the war between the allies and the French?

8) After his abdication on April 13, 1814, Napoleon was exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean called Elba. What do you think helped him escape back to France to seize control of the government?

9) What effect did Napoleon’s loss at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) have on his career and his life?

10) Overall, what do you think was Napoleon’s greatest mistake? How could someone who ruled almost all of Europe fall from power so quickly?

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