On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 September 1784

15Napoleon takes his final exams at Brienne-le-Château

The future Emperor passed his exams easily and in October entered École Militaire in Paris on the left bank of the Seine. Compared to Brienne, École Militaire was an elite institution, with three changes of linen a week, good meals and more than twice as many servants as there were students. Syllabus covered the same subjects as Brienne, with the addition of musketry, military drill and horsemanship.

Napoleon, who was the first Corscican to attend the school, continued to excel, especially in mathematics and geography. When he took his final examination at École Militaire, he came 42nd out of 58 candidates. This was not at all bad, considering he sat his exams after only one year instead of customary two or three.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 September 1812

fireofmoscowNapoleon enters Moscow

When Kutuzov decided to surrender Moscow, he said, ‘Napoleon is a torrent but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ Moscow was deserted when the French arrived. Out of 250,000 inhabitants, only around 15,000 stayed on, many of them non-Russian. On September 13 Napoleon received the president of the Moscow University and the delegation of French Muscovites, who told him that no deputation of notables would be coming to surrender the city keys and offer the traditional gifts of bread and salt. Instead, an enterprising old peasant offered the Emperor a guided tour of the city, which Napoleon declined. ‘There at last is that famous city. It’s about time,’ exclaimed Napoleon when he sighted the city walls.

Only the Imperial Guard and the Old Guard were billeted inside the city, with the rest of the army remaining outside. Napoleon occupied the Kremlin, the residence of the Tsars. ‘The city is as big as Paris,’ the Emperor wrote to Marie Louise, ‘provided with everything.’ But Napoleon spoke too soon. That very evening fire broke out across the city. It was the Russians, who, in abandoning the city, wanted to make it as uninhabitable for the French as possible. The city’s governor, Fyodor Rostopchin, had released the prisoners, ordering them to burn Moscow. As the Russians retreated, all the firefighting equipment was removed from the city. ‘I’m setting fire to my mansion,’ Rostopchin wrote to the French on the sign at his own estate in Boronovo outside Moscow, ‘rather than let it be sullied by your presence.’

The fire couldn’t be contained. Napoleon was forced to leave the city and set up headquarters at Imperial Palace of Petrovski six miles away. ‘When I got to Moscow, I considered the business done,’ he later said. He claimed that he could have stayed in Moscow throughout winter had it not burnt. In retrospect, it would have been better for the French had the whole city been raised to the ground, as that would have forced them to retreat immediately.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 13 September 1771

13Bonaparte family is admitted into nobility

Napoleon’s father Carlo could now legally sign as de Buonaparte for the first time and sit in the Corsican assembly. And most importantly, he could apply for royal scholarships for his sons, whose education he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. To receive the scholarship, each pupil had to prove that he was noble, that his family couldn’t pay the fees and that he could read and write French.

Napoleon, whose native language was a Corsican dialect not unlike Genoese, didn’t speak a word of French until he was 9 years of age. In order to remedy the situation, in January 1779 Napoleon would be sent to Autun in Burgundy. He would speak French with a heavy Corsican accent for the rest of his life.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 7 September 1812

18The Battle of Borodino

Borodino was the bloodiest single day battle in the history of warfare until the twentieth century. It was a major engagement during Napoleon’s Russian campaign fought under the walls of Moscow. ‘Soldiers, here is the battle that you have so long desired,’ Napoleon declared in his proclamation. On the eve of the battle he told General Jean Rapp, ‘Fortunate is a liberal mistress. I often said so and now begin to experience it. This poor army is much reduced, but what remains of it is good. My guard besides is untouched.’ Just before the battle, Napoleon exclaimed, ‘It’s a little cold but here comes a nice sun. It’s the sun of Austerlitz.’ Although Borodino was technically a French victory, it was far from the triumph Austerlitz had been.

The Russian general Pyotr Bagration was mortally wounded during the battle. Under the cover of darkness, Kutuzov withdrew, having suffered an immense number of casualties, probably around 43,000. The Russian commander promptly wrote to the Tsar, claiming a glorious victory. His claim was false. After all, Napoleon remained in the possession of the field of battle and was able to advance to Moscow. However, the French Emperor failed to gain the decisive victory he needed, partly because of his reluctance to deploy his Old Guard to pursue the Russians. In that sense, both commanders had lost Borodino. Kutuzov was unsuccessful at protecting Moscow and Napoleon did not destroy the Russian army as he absolutely had to in order to force Emperor Alexander to the negotiating table. ‘I’m reproached for not getting myself killed at Waterloo,’ Napoleon later said at Saint Helena. ‘I think I ought rather to have died at the Battle of the Moskova.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 6 September 1812

6Napoleon receives a painting of his son

Napoleon was on the field of battle at Borodino when the portrait arrived, painted by François Gérard and depicting the King of Rome, Napoleon II in his cradle. ‘Napoleon received the painting with an emotion that he could hardly contain and set it up on a chair outside his tent, so that his men could admire their future Emperor,’ reminisced one of the officers.

Napoleon was a doting father and incredibly proud of his son. ‘Gentlemen,’ he told everyone who would listen, ‘if my son was 15, believe me he would be here in place of that painting.’ The next day he said, ‘Take it away, keep it safe. He’s too young to see a battlefield.’ Napoleon II was indeed only 18 months old. The painting was lost on the retreat from Moscow but Gérard had made copies.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 1 September 1814

1Marie Walewska arrives on the island of Elba

Marie Walewska, who divorced her husband in 1812, remained loyal to Napoleon but only stayed with the deposed Emperor for a couple of nights. Although Napoleon was happy to see Marie and their son Alexandre, he was still hoping that his wife Marie Louise and his legitimate son would join him on the island. Therefore, he didn’t think having Marie on Elba was a good idea, especially since everyone on the island thought Marie was in fact the Empress, and even the mayor came to pay his respects.

Napoleon set aside and decorated rooms for Marie Louise and the King of Rome in both of his residences but they would never arrive. The Empress soon wrote to Napoleon, telling him she was forced to return to Vienna. By then she was already involved in a passionate relationship with the dashing one-eyed general Adam Albert von Neipperg, who was sent by Francis I to escort Marie Louise and prevent her from joining her husband. Neipperg promised Francis: ‘In six weeks, I will be her best friend and in six months her lover.’ They married shortly after Napoleon’s death.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 29 August 1812

18French army enters Vyazma to find it empty of its 15,000 inhabitants

At the start of his Russian campaign, Napoleon was pursuing the Russian army to force a decisive battle. He was hoping to catch up with the Russians at Vyazma but found it had retreated once more.

When Napoleon was told that a Russian Priest had died from shock at the news of his approach, he ordered him to be buried with all military honours. One possible reason of the priest’s shock was the fact the Russian Orthodox Church issued a proclamation, in which it declared Napoleon an anti-Christ form the Book of Revelation.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 August 1802

elba-map-bigIncorporation of the island of Elba into France

Little did Napoleon know that a little over a decade later he would spend 11 months in exile on the island. When Elba was ceded to France, Napoleon wrote of its two harbours, its mild climate and its rich iron mines as valuable for France. When he became its monarch in 1815, he would call it an Operetta kingdom.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 24 August 1798

24First meeting of Institut d’Égypte

Institut d’Égypte was inaugurated by Napoleon, with himself as vice-president and Gaspard Monge as president. The Institute was divided into 4 sections: mathematics, physics, political economy and the arts. It met every 5 days.

At Napoleon’s suggestion, the Institute discussed various practical matters at its opening session, such as improving the army’s baking, making Nile water drinkable, whether watermills or windmills were better for Cairo, producing gunpowder and the state of the Egyptian law and education. Napoleon tried to use Enlightenment science and reason to win over the Egyptians, even suggesting the construction of an astronomical observatory.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 23 August 1805

220px-Karl_Mack_von_LeiberichNapoleon executes his famous ‘pirouette’ during the War of the Third Coalition

The newly renamed Grande Armée was positioned at Boulogne, ready to invade England, when Napoleon decided to move his troops south to attack the Allied forces. Napoleon called it his pirouette. He achieved his goal of surprising the Austrians by imposing the total news blackout about troop movements and telling Joseph Fouché to forbid all newspapers from mentioning the army ‘as if it no longer exists.’

The 7 corps of the Grande Armée under Marshals Murat, Davout, Ney, Lannes, Soult and Bernadotte totalling over 170,000 men raced eastwards at record speed, crossing the Rhine on September 25. ‘Finally everything is taking on colour,’ Napoleon said that day. It was the largest single campaign ever conducted by French troops.

Thanks to this swiftness of movement and the element of surprise, on October 16 Napoleon succeeded in encircling Austrian General Karl Mack, who had captured the city of Ulm and was waiting for Russian reinforcements under General Mikhail Kutuzov. This placing of his troops around Mack’s line of retreat without suffering a single casualty and before the Austrian commander even knew what was happening is one of Napoleon’s greatest military achievements.

‘There is no further premise to negotiate with the Austrians except with cannon fire,’ he told Bernadotte. Mack surrendered Ulm on October 20, together with 20,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 59 field gun, 300 ammunition wagons, 17 generals and 40 standards. When asked by a French officer who he was, the Austrian commander replied, ‘You see before you the unfortunate Mack.’ He was indeed unfortunate. He was convicted of cowardice by a court-martial, deprived of his rank and imprisoned for two years.

Napoleon wrote to Josephine, ‘I carried out all my plans, I have destroyed the Austrian army simply by marches.’