By Angelo Barthélemy
First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte by Marie-Guillemine Benoist
Picture courtesy Wikimedia commons.
There was recent discussion on the forum about the myths and truths about someone who is arguably the best military commander that has ever lived. Ask anyone to name the best military commanders from history, and you can be reliably sure that around half a dozen names will feature prominently: Napoléon, Hannibal, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick.
We’re lucky to have someone on this forum who is knowledgeable about one of these, so I’m going to ask a few questions about the Corsican Ogre, and Angelo Barthélemy will answer in the thorough manner we have come to expect. Because it's so thorough, the article will appear in three parts.
Without further ado:
Was Napoléon actually French? Wasn’t he actually from Corsica? Wasn’t Corsica in Perpetual Union with Britain from 1795 (which lasted until 1796, I believe)?
Corsica had been under Genoese sovereignty for centuries. The Corsican language belongs to the Romance family and closely resembles Italian most of all. The nobility of the island was Italian, though part of it strongly felt that its Corsican identity was distinct. By the mid-eighteenth century, Genoese sovereignty was contested more and more: a rather random German adventurer had proclaimed himself king of an independent Corsican state, and the population was in rebellion by the 1760s. Genoa was a far cry from the medieval Mediterranean power it had been commercing from the Baltic to the Crimean peninsula (and a very convenient plague vector), or the city that acted as the Spanish crown’s bank during the sixteenth century. Even more of a spent force than its rival Venice, it simply didn’t have the financial means to pay an army to put down the Corsicans fighting for their independence. It sold the place to France in 1768 and washed its metaphorical hands of centuries of occupation just like that.
France had an interest because its Mediterranean arsenal is located in Toulon and that its occupation of Minorca had come to an end with the close of the Seven Years’ War, reverting to British occupation as it had for decades. That was too close for comfort, and securing bases in Corsica was useful in keeping the British at least somewhat distant. The Corsicans were, if anything, even less eager to have French masters than Genoese and kept their rebellion going. It had all kinds of surprising developments too: they aimed for a democratic constitution and asked no less a luminary than Jean-Jacques Rousseau to draft it. Even though it never had the opportunity to come into effect, it was of great interest to a number of thinkers in Europe and beyond: the Americans studied it a lot when it came time for them to formalise the way they wanted to govern themselves.
One year after the French purchase and subsequent intervention, little Napoléon was born on August 15th, 1769, the fourth child of the Buonapartes, a minor Italian aristocratic family which had moved to Corsica some centuries before. They had strong ties with Paoli, the leader of the Corsican rebellion, but as he was driven to exile by the French and they weren’t, they made do with the new overlords.
Therefore, Napoléon was culturally Italian and Corsican more specifically, with the ties to mainland Italy seemingly severed by Genoa, though contacts did not cease. And he was a subject of the King of France, making him French.
He grew up speaking Corsican, his sole language into his teens, when he moved to mainland France to study at a military school for impoverished nobles. He learnt to speak French, though how easily is often disputed and it took some time for his academic record to improve until he could master the language. What is agreed upon is that he kept a strong accent all his life and spelling mistakes were rather rife in his writing. However, French was the language he chose for his first written work, a strong defence of the Jacobins.
He does not seem to have had an overly strong attachment to France at first, offering to serve in Russia and the Ottoman empire as an officer or an instructor, but this was also at a moment when his family was in rather dire financial straits, with most of his fellow officers leaving the country, and it was a respected practice in the eighteenth century which could lead to high ranks.
This came to nothing and from there, a choice was made for him. With the Revolution ongoing, Paoli returned to Corsica. He wasn’t best pleased that the Buonapartes had decided to work with the French regime and the whole family was soon forced to flee to southern France, while Paoli worked with the British to bring about the rather intriguing but short-lived Anglo-Corsican Kingdom. Napoléon himself never returned to the island and rather resented its people for the ordeals of his family.
Even though his name was transliterated to Bonaparte, the Italian version remained in use long after by his opponents, especially when they wanted to show him as a foreign usurper. In 1814, Chateaubriand portrayed him thus with the immemorialy French royal family in a pamphlet entitled Of Buonaparte and the Bourbons. He chose to publish it courageously after the fighting was over and Napoléon several dozens of kilometres away, about to abdicate, and with several hundred thousand troops standing between the two of them.
The Imperial Coat of Arms (1804-1815)
If Napoléon's identity had remained in flux longer, either because he felt more attached to the Corsican cause with Paoli not turning against his family, or he found gainful employment in another army, things will change. And soon.
First, it's possible that there is less drive in taking Toulon in 1793, where Bonaparte commanded the artillery, though as the British managed to sail out of it with what they didn't burn out of French Mediterranean squadron in tow, it does not make that much difference. Perhaps the Royal Navy has even more captured ships to crew. One feels for the extra impressed sailors.
Second, the War of the First Coalition does not end as soon as it did, and nowhere near as decisively in favour of the French. When he was appointed commander-in-chief for the Army of Italy, Bonaparte was still seen as a talented but very junior officer, put in charge of a secondary theatre and given orders to hold territory, never mind actually pushing back the enemy. Three months later, he had made one member of the coalition drop out of it, and a year afterwards he had, of his own authority, forced the Austrians, the last continental power still in the fight, to give up as he was marching on Vienna. This is roughly akin to the contingent that was set to land in Gallipoli had instead turned to Alexandretta, won, marched inland, dictated peace terms to the Ottoman Empire and went on its merry journey to Berlin until the Reich threw the towel in, all the while the Western Front not moving an inch.
Since it is unlikely in the extreme for another general to be able to replicate such a feat, I think the war would eventually end out of exhaustion, and France would not be holding the rest of peninsular Italy through the sister republics.
This in turn butterflies away the Egyptian expedition. Napoléon Bonaparte was not the only one to have designs on it in a rather fantastical plan to link with Tipu Sultan of Mysore and cock an early snook at Wellesley but he was probably the only one to muster the political will for the expedition... if only because he was successful enough that the Directoire found it best to have him outside France rather than inside plotting a coup (quite rightly, considering subsequent developments).
This means the Knights Hospitaller keep control of Malta longer. And this changes the character of the Nahda, the Arabic Renaissance of the nineteenth century which saw the rise of Arabic nationalism. Though Bonaparte's expedition was far from the only driver, it's often observed in the writings of the actors of the Nahda itself that it did act as a catalyser. The rapidity with which Mamluk rule crumbled was a severe shock to the system as was the inability of the Ottoman empire to effectively counter the French, the rapid shift to rule through terror and repression of the French after a short-lived attempt at adopting some of the local customs remained a powerful trauma in Egyptian society. It fostered the rise of Muhammad Ali and the decline of the Ottoman empire as this acted as further confirmation that it would be the sick man of Europe and drew away resources that could have been used to fight further Russian encroachment in the Caucasus and the Danubian plain.
Napoléon Bonaparte having a different cultural identity would of course ripple much beyond, but by 1800 this would have already affected enough to make the Mediterranean world a much different place, to say nothing of France's inner politics, a survival of the Holy Roman Empire and more.
Was Napoléon short?
No, not particularly. He was not even the shortest Napoléon to reign over France; that’s his nephew, who received the nickname The Small from a rather vindictive Victor Hugo. His son was quite tall.
He was of average height for the time. The confusion emanates from the difference between French and English feet as units of measurement, pointing to the need to have well-regulated, clearly defined units, like the système métrique, though I’d be remiss if I did not point out that Napoléon never liked the system himself, probably owing to not having grown with it, and he did delay its adoption throughout France.
By the time the confusion could have been cleared, Napoléon was the sort of worrying man in a position to threaten Britain. It was best if the bogeyman could be a figure of ridicule and a source of less fear.
If Napoléon had been actually tall rather than average-sized enough for people to make the honest mistake of thinking him small or doing on purpose for satire, then the Napoleon complex, which actual research suggests doesn't exist, probably never comes to life. Pop psychology will have to rely on other discredited chestnuts such as Stockholm syndrome.
An Army marches on its stomach. So why did the French Army typically live off the land and forage? Did Napoleon even say that?
The French army, partly through the organisation provided by Lazare Carnot during the revolutionary period, partly through Napoléon and his administrators, had absolutely superb logistics, both for food and ammunition, throughout France, the Low Countries, Italy, and most of Germany, territories that were under its dominion for most of the imperial period. There were immense flour stores set up in the great city centres, and portable ovens able to bake bread.
However, those did not apply beyond the places it controlled and Napoléon’s generalship relied to a great extent on his manoeuvres at an operational level, though it did not come to bear this name until much later. This relied on his ability to make sudden lunges into enemy territory. The organisation of the French divisions into semi-independent corps of about twenty thousand soldiers, marching on parallel axes and capable of support within roughly a day, greatly helped this by lessening the stress on lines of communication, the securing of which had made eighteenth century armies so ponderous. Napoléon and his troops enjoyed great advantages in that way, but that meant they had to rely on themselves to find part of their daily rations as there’s a limit to what people can carry individually or with the beasts of burden of their units, and their speed often made it impossible for most of the carts to follow.
Memoirs after memoirs of retired soldiers talk of how frequent it was for fatigue to make it impossible to keep up with the rest of the unit. From one third to half of the numbers Napoléon had available at the start of his campaigns were not there at the battles around which they culminated. Some were left behind as garrisons, a lot couldn’t keep up the pace. Wheeled transport with bread and meat aboard fared worse than them (priority being given to wheeled artillery, caissons, and ammunition carts.). As such, it was necessary to live partly off the land. French soldiers became infamous for their “rapines”, the act of stealing food. Even when they felt inclined to be honest, their IOUs were not worth much.
This worked well enough in agriculturally rich land, such as Germany or Northern Italy: a speech by General Bonaparte makes a direct reference to it in his first independent command in 1796 to his demoralised, underfed, underclothed, underarmed soldiers. It also helped that the campaigns were so short: the carts would turn up eventually. The 1806 campaign against Prussia lasted only three weeks. However, when the moves were across poorer lands, such as Poland in the 1806-07 winter (with mud and snow completely disrupting lines), Spain throughout the Peninsula War (with the addition of a very active hostile population engaging in guerrilla activities), or Russia, where a scorched earth strategy was applied and the campaigning lasted months, made foraging harder.
Finally, while campaigning was itself fairly short, occupation wasn’t. The French troops and their allies held garrisons throughout Europe for sometimes more than a decade. They were usually quartered among the population, able to draw food and lodging. That in itself was onerous enough that it had been used as a tactic to force Protestants to convert by Louis XIV, and the Americans so hated it that the Third Amendment strictly restricts the practice. But conquering soldiers abroad do not always restrict themselves to simply taking food, and some commanders did not much care to impose discipline over them.
And Napoleonic occupation imposed a final burden in the form of tribute paid in the peace treaties. Some of it was compensation to defray the cost of occupation, some were penalties for waging war against France and committing the sin of losing. Some was paid through taxes, some through appropriation of art, but the last often done extralegally as a way to line up the pockets of French generals, Masséna and Vandamme being particularly notorious for it. Even in the case where countries got compensation at the Vienna conference, one can imagine how passingly rare it must have been for the common citizenry to get reimbursed from the cost the French army had been to them.
Given how Napoléon operated as a commander, it is unlikely that the common soldiery would not have to turn to rapine to improve their rations as they outpaced their supply trains. However, should he decide not to take the actions that led him to depose the Spanish royal family in 1808, some of the most egregious acts against local people that Goya vividly and hauntingly illustrated in The Disasters of War, would not have cause to arise as the French army would not be waging a counter-guerilla. This is within Napoléon's power. It is unlikely that he would break every officer that sought to enrich themselves but he could have set up more rigorous penalties for a number of them that were brazenly flouting norms on behaviour at war. Likewise, it's possible that by being more lenient in the peace treaties, he would not have found himself fighting war after war for nearly two decades, thus draining the people of Europe's resources one way or another, though that is not something that falls solely on him but he did not improve matters.
Part 2 of the discussion will continue in a fortnight.
Discuss this article here.