On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 November 1803

2Napoleon is camped at Boulogne with the Army of England

Boulogne camp stretched along 9 miles of coast as Napoleon appeared to prepare for the invasion of England. He wrote to Jean Jacques Régis de Cambacérès: ‘I’m housed in the middle of the camp and in the middle of the ocean where at a glance it is easy to measure the distance that separates us from England.’

The Army of England absorbed the men from the Army of the West and the Vendée, and was renamed the Army of the Ocean Coasts. By January 1804 it numbered 70,000 men and by March 120,000. Later Napoleon would claim that he was bluffing all along and that he never actually intended to invade Britain. His aim was to intimidate her, lure Austria into a trap and train his army. While some historians believe that, there are many who don’t.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 3 November 1812

2The battle of Vyazma

The French repelled a Russian attempt to encircle Marshal Davout at the start of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Although Ney, Eugène and Poniatowski, who was wounded, came to Davout’s assistance, 3000 French were taken prisoner at Vyazma, which illustrated perfectly the level of demoralisation of the Grande Armée. General Armand de Caulaincourt reminisced, ‘This momentary disorder was conspicuous because it was the first time that this gallant infantry broke ranks and compelled their dogged commander to give ground.’

The retreat from Vyazma was also disastrous for the French and a sign of things to come. The first heavy snow fell on November 4 and temperatures plunged. Frozen soldiers would lie down next to a fire and not have the strength to get up. Those who remained often fell into the hands of the Russian peasants, which in itself was worse than death sentence. The tortures inflicted on French soldiers by Russian peasants, such as skinning them alive, were terrible. One Russian priest called for more humane treatment of prisoners, suggesting drowning them in the river instead.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 October 1785

23Napoleon graduates from École Militaire with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the artillery

When his studies at École Militaire finished, Napoleon wanted to return to Corsica to attend to family matters but it was impossible. The sixteen-year old officer (the term he much preferred to the lowly Second Lieutenant) was assigned to the La Fère Artillery Regiment at Valence-sur-Rhône, in the south of France, where he reported at the end of October.

He would spend ten months at Valence in relative solitude, rarely going out for the lack of means. He divided his time between learning practical artillery and reading everything he could get his hands on. To afford books he often had to skip meals. He was particularly interested in politics and history but the main area of his concern was the Corsican independence. He missed his homeland and longed to go back. ‘Elsewhere they see you rich, noble or learned but in Corsica you brag about your relatives, they are what makes a man praiseworthy or feared,’ he would say.

In September 1786 Napoleon would receive his first of five prolonged leaves of absence to Corsica. Overall he would spend three out of the next seven years on the island of his birth.


On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 October 1797

napoleon-115-obvTreaty of Campo-Formio is ratified by the Directory

The treaty was signed on 18 October by General Bonaparte representing France and Count Philipp von Cobenzl representing Austria. It ended the War of the First Coalition.

Having defeated Austria’s most celebrated generals before his 28th birthday, crossed the Apennines and the Alps, signed peace treaties with the Pope, the kings of Piedmont, Naples and now Emperor of Austria, in eighteen months Napoleon went from an unknown moody soldier to a famous general and the talk of all of Europe.

The defeated Austria was to cede Austrian Netherlands, Corfu and other Venetian islands in the Adriatic Sea. Venice and its territories (Venetia) were divided between the two states. Austria recognised the Cisalpine Republic and the newly created Ligurian Republic. Although the Treaty of Campo-Formio wouldn’t bring a lasting peace to Europe, it secured General Bonaparte’s reputation as a peace giver.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 October 1798

5Revolt against the French rule in Cairo

Napoleon was preparing to move against the Turkish army that was gathering in Syria when the minarets of Cairo rang out for the general uprising. Soon the city was in an open revolt. Overall 300 Frenchmen would be killed, including chef de brigade Dupuy, Napoleon’s Polish aide-de-camp Jozef Sulkowski and 15 of Napoleon’s personal bodyguards. There were rumours that General Bonaparte himself had been killed, which inflamed the insurrectionists even more.

Bourienne reminisced, ‘Bonaparte immediately mounted his horse and, accompanied by only 30 guards, advanced on all threatened points, restored confidence and with great presence of mind adopted measures of defence.’

The revolt lasted almost three weeks and wouldn’t be crushed until November 11th.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 19 October 1799

9Napoleon confronts Josephine

Napoleon had a hero’s welcome on his return from Egypt and was celebrated as France’s saviour, with plays staged in his honour and cries of ‘Hurrah for Bonaparte, he will save the country’ resounding everywhere he went. But Napoleon was too unhappy about his wife’s very public affair with Hippolyte Charles, of which he became aware in Egypt. Josephine tried to end her affair in February, writing to her lover, ‘You can be assured after this interview, which will be the last, that you will no longer be tormented by my letters or my presence.’

Josephine didn’t want a divorce and nor did Napoleon, for all his promises to leave her as soon as he returned to Paris. Politically Josephine was very useful to him with her social skills and connections. When Napoleon arrived home, Josephine wasn’t there. Assuming she was with her lover, he was furious. Unbeknownst to him, she had set out to intercept him on the road but the couple missed each other. When she finally arrived, she found him locked in his bedroom and refusing to speak to her, no matter how much she cried. When nothing else seemed to work, Josephine, who knew Napoleon’s love for his step-children, recruited Hortense and Eugène to appeal to him. Her cunning plan worked and there was a dramatic reconciliation. ‘God did not give me a heart to see tears shed without feeling moved myself,’ said Napoleon. When Lucien arrived the next morning, he was shown into the bedroom where the couple were sitting up in bed together.  Afterwards, Josephine would remain faithful to Napoleon, despite his many affairs.

Although he was heartbroken over his wife’s infidelity, when Napoleon came to power, he made no attempt to punish Hippolyte Charles.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 18 October 1812

18The Grande Armée begins its withdrawal from Moscow

Napoleon stayed in Moscow for six weeks, waiting to hear from Alexander and hoping to make peace. But winter was fast approaching and there was no word from the Russian Emperor. On the 13th, Napoleon finally gave the order for evacuation. As the Grande Armée began withdrawing from Moscow on the 18th, they were taken by surprise by an attack from Kutuzov at Taroutino, also known as Winkowo, in which Murat lost 2000 killed and wounded. Napoleon himself left Moscow on the 19th, taking the Southern route towards Kaluga, which he nicknamed Caligula. His plan was to reach the fertile Ukraine, while receiving reinforcements from Smolensk

Thus, the retreat from Moscow would look like strategic withdrawal rather than a retreat. Unfortunately for Napoleon, it wasn’t to be. General Dmitry Dokhturov blocked the Grande Armée at Malo-Yaroslavetz, which became the third largest battle of the campaign. The French successfully captured and held the town while the Russians withdrew. When Napoleon described Malo-Yaroslavetz as a victory, one of the officers said, ‘Two such victories and Napoleon would have no army left.’ Indeed, the ultimate consequences of this battle were disastrous for Napoleon, who became convinced that the Russians would contest the Southern route bitterly and decided to withdraw northwards towards the supply depots of Moscow/Smolensk route along which they had come the previous month. ‘Things are getting serious,’ he told his master of the horse, Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt. ‘I beat the Russians every time and yet never reach an end.’

Choosing this route was to be a fatal decision for the Grande Armée. The only explanation for one of the most fateful decisions of Napoleon’s reign is to be found in the letter he told Berthier to write to Junot: ‘We marched on the 26th to attack them but they were in retreat. Davout went in pursuit of them but the cold and the necessity of offloading the wounded made the Emperor decide to go to Mozhaysk and from there to Vyazma.’ This explanation makes little sense. Never before had the needs of the wounded determined the strategy of the campaign. And if the Russians were indeed retreating, then why not take the Southern route? Comte de Ségur would later say that Malo-Yaroslavetsk was the point at which the great Empire began to crumble to the ground.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 October 1815

17Napoleon disembarks on Saint Helena

It is with good reason that Saint Helena has been described as further away from anywhere than anywhere else in the world. It is nothing but a spec in the South Atlantic Ocean, 4,000 kilometres east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,950 west of the southern coast of Africa. ‘It is not an attractive place. I should have done better should I have stayed in Egypt,’ remarked Napoleon sadly, possibly foreseeing that he was going to die on the island.

For the first seven weeks of his stay on Saint Helena Napoleon resided at the Briars, with the family of East India company superintendent William Balcombe. This was the happiest period of his exile. He stroke up an unlikely and innocent friendship with 14-year old Besty Balcombe that lasted until she left the island with her family. Although she was brought up to believe that Napoleon was a two-headed monster who breathed fire and ate little children, the deposed Emperor soon won her over with his charm, as he often did with most people he met. ‘I never met anyone who bore childish liberties so well as Napoleon. And even though I often tried his patience severely, I never knew him to lose his temper,’ she later wrote. Napoleon and Besty were both heartbroken when the Balcombes were banished from the island for having become too close to Napoleon.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 16 October 1796

16Napoleon creates Cispadane Republic

With minimum input from the Directory, Napoleon proclaimed the establishment of Cispadane Republic, formed from the provinces south of the Po, including Modena, Bologna, Ferrara and Reggio Emilia. In Cispadane Republic, whose name translated as ‘By the banks of the Po’, Napoleon implemented all the usual reforms he would carry out in all the territories he was to conquer later. Feudalism was abolished, civil equality was decreed and a popularly elected assembly was instituted.

Napoleon, who was actively involved in the writing of the Constitution, was bringing political unity to the region that hadn’t known it for centuries. This was the first step towards Resurgimiento, which would eventually create a unified Italy three quarters of a century later. Cispadane Republic was short-lived, however. The following year it would be merged with the Transpadane Republic (until recently the Duchy of Milan) to form the Cisalpine Republic.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 October 1785

17Napoleon meets Joséphine de Beauharnais

Some historians believe the future Emperor met his wife-to-be at the house of Paul François Barras, the member of the Directory and Josephine’s former lover. Napoleon’s secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, however, tells a completely different story in his memoirs. According to Bourrienne, Josephine’s son Eugene presented himself to General Bonaparte in order to solicit his father’s sword. Napoleon liked the boy and granted his wish. When Josephine learnt of the kindness the young general showed to her son, she called on him to thank him in person.

Napoleon fell in love with Josephine during this first meeting and the couple soon married. Meneval, who became Napoleon’s secretary after Bourrienne, recalled that ‘Josephine was irresistibly attractive. Her beauty was not regular but she had la grace.’ Although it was true love for Napoleon, it wasn’t quite the case with Josephine, who married for security and would very soon embark on a passionate affair. Despite her initial lack of emotion towards her husband, the couple would later settle into a comfortable marriage and everyone, especially his army, would see Josephine as Napoleon’s good luck charm.