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.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 22 August 1799

5Napoleon informs General Jacques-François Menou that he is leaving Egypt for France

As early as July, Napoleon had written to the Directory, exaggerating the reality and preparing for his triumphal return: ‘We are masters of all the deserts.’ When he learnt that most of the territory he gained in Italy had been lost to the Allies, Napoleon knew the time had come to leave Egypt. Although he had been often accused of abandoning his troops, in reality he was marching to the sound of the guns. As France’s best general, it made little sense for him to remain in Egypt when France itself was under threat of invasion.

Napoleon left a long letter of instruction to General Jean Baptiste Kléber, leaving him in charge. Kléber was not impressed, telling his staff, ‘That bugger has deserted us with his bridges full of shit. When we get back to Europe, we’ll rub his face in it.’ He wouldn’t be able to do so, however, having been assassinated in June 1800 by a 24-year old student named Soleyman El-Halaby.

Napoleon sailed for France with most of his senior staff, including Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Jean Lannes and Auguste de Marmont. ‘Don’t fear anything. We’ll soon be in Paris and we’ll find a lot of beautiful women and a lot of money. You’ll see, we’ll be very happy,’ he told Roustam, a Mamluk slave boy who was presented to him by Sheikh of Cairo and would be his faithful bodyguard for the next 15 years. It was clear from these words how much Napoleon had missed France.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 20 August 1812

Kutuzov1Tsar Alexander replaces Pyotr Bagration with 67-year old Field-Marshal Prince Mikhail Kutuzov

The move was popular with the Russian army. Napoleon, too, was delighted. He had already defeated Kutuzov once at Austerlitz and this change of command led him to believe that the decisive battle he wished for wasn’t too far off. He was under the impression that the Field-Marshal had been summoned to command the army on the condition that he stops the retreat and fights.

In reality for two weeks after his appointment Kutuzov continued retreating towards Moscow. He stopped at a village 65 miles to the east of Moscow called Borodino, where he waited for the French. He knew that the Russian people would not forgive him if he gave up Moscow without a battle. Despite the supply difficulties Napoleon decided on August 24 to follow Kutuzov. ‘Peace is ahead of us,’ said Napoleon, believing that Kutuzov would never surrender the Holy City of Moscow, the heart of Russia, and the Tsar would have to sue for peace.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 17 August 1812

17Battle of Smolensk

Smolensk was the first major battle of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Because the city was well protected by walls and ravines, the Russian army under the command of Barclay de Tolly was able to retreat eastwards after suffering losses of around 6,000 men.

During the battle Smolensk caught fire, which Napoleon observed from his headquarters. Comte de Ségur said that ‘the Emperor contemplated in silence this awful spectacle.’ French troops entered the city on the 18th to find it deserted. When Napoleon heard that the Russians had sung Ta Deum in celebration of their supposed victory at Smolensk, he said, ‘They lie to God as well as to men.’

At the counsel of war Napoleon held in the city, he exclaimed, ‘Scoundrels, abandoning such a position. Come on, we have to march on Moscow.’ Everyone but Davout was in favour of stopping at Smolensk. Davout argued that ‘it is only in Moscow that we would sign a peace treaty.’ Napoleon agreed, even though he would years later admit that marching on Moscow was a mistake. ‘I should have put my soldiers in quarters at Smolensk for the winter,’ the former Emperor would say on Saint Helena.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 16 August 1798

16Marriage of Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte and Désirée Clary, ex-fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon met Désirée in Marseilles in 1793 and they became engaged. He broke off the engagement when he met and fell in love with Josephine.

Even though she never married Napoleon, Désirée would still be a queen. In 1798 she married Bernadotte, who would become a Napoleonic marshal and the king of Sweden.

Marrying Désirée made Bernadotte brother-in-law to Joseph Bonaparte, who was married to Désirée’s sister Julie. Bernadotte and Désirée had one child, King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway. It is ironic that Bernadotte, who was an ardent Republican, would be the only one of Napoleonic marshals and Imperial family to create a lasting royal dynasty.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 15 August 1769

andrea-the-elder-appiani-napoleon-bonaparte-1769-1821-as-king-of-italy-1805Napoleon is born in Ajaccio, Corsica

‘She was on her way from church when she felt labour pains,’ Napoleon would later say of his mother Leticia, ‘and had only time to get into the house when I was born, not on the bed but on a heap of tapestry.’ The name his parents chose for the future Emperor was unusual but not unknown, appearing in Niccolò Machiavelli’s History of Florence and being the name of one of his great-uncles. He was born to a relatively modest family of Tuscan aristocrats whom he would raise to kings, princes and princesses.

‘What a novel my life has been,’ Napoleon once said. More books have been written about Napoleon than anyone else in history and with good reason. His rise, his fall and 15 years in between are all part of Napoleonic legend that has captivated and will continue to captivate historians and general public alike. Through his sheer ability and true to his words, ‘In every soldier’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton’, Napoleon rose to the rank of brigadier general at the age of 24, became First Consul of France at 30 and the Emperor of the French at 34. He instituted a meritocracy in France, surrounding himself with people of talent from all classes of society. At the height of his power Napoleon controlled most of Continental Europe and installed his siblings on various European thrones. Religious toleration, army and educational reforms, balanced national ledger and equality before law are only a few examples of what Napoleon had given France. And now, 200 years on, Napoleon’s legacy lives on – parts of Code Napoleon still remain in legal codes of 40 countries on five continents, including America and Japan.

Napoleon’s military ability is the stuff of legend. His sworn enemy, Duke of Wellington, thus answered the question of who he considered the best captain of his age: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’ He would add that Napoleon was worth fifty thousand men on the field of battle. Napoleon’s foreign minister, the treacherous Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, thus described Napoleon: ‘His career is the most extraordinary that has occurred for one thousand years. He was clearly the most extraordinary man I ever saw, and I believe the most extraordinary that has lived in our age, or many ages.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 12 August 1800

12A commission is set up to write the Civil Code

The members of the commission included the country’s leading jurists and politicians, such as Préameneu, Tronchet, Portalis and Maleville. Napoleon was heavily involved in the creation of the Code, chairing no fewer than 55 out of its 150 preliminary sessions and frequently intervening on matters of particular interest, such as divorce, adoption and the rights of foreigners. The two questions he most often asked about any new piece of legislature were: is this fair and is this useful? The Code reflected many of Napoleon’s believes, as well as his hard work. It truly deserved being called the Code Napoleon.

The new Code helped cement national unity by unifying the laws of France for the first time, providing stability after the chaos of the Revolution, and simplifying 40,000 decrees and laws that have been passed by various revolutionary governments. 42 regional laws were enforced into a single unified body. Essentially a compromise between Roman and common law, the Code confirmed the end of ancient class privileges and the ecclesiastical control over all aspects of French society except primary education. ‘Law must do nothing but impose a general principle,’ Napoleon said. ‘It would be vain if one would try to foresee every possible situation.’ The Code ensured that all were equal before the law and free from arbitrary arrest. Religious toleration was established, all adult men were allowed to engage in any occupation of their choosing and to own property.

Napoleon would bring the Civil Code to all his conquered territories. ‘The Romans gave their laws to their allies. Why should France not have her laws adopted in Holland?’ Napoleon wrote to his brother Louis. In some places, such as Naples, the Code Napoleon was unpopular. In others it was adopted eagerly and retained even after Napoleon’s fall. It survived in the Prussian Rhineland until 1900. Belgium, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Monaco and France still use it to this day. Aspects of it remain in a quarter of the world’s legal systems as far as Japan, Egypt, Quebec and Louisiana.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 11 August 1812

11Napoleon gives orders to leave Vitebsk and move on Smolensk

‘His Majesty rides much less quickly these days. He’s put on a good deal of weight and rides a horse with greater difficulty than before,’ reported one of his officers.

And yet, when Napoleon moved at top speed, water had to be poured over the wheels of his carriage to prevent them from overheating. He was hoping to force a decisive battle at Smolensk, certain that Emperor Alexander wouldn’t give up this great Russian city without a fight. Napoleon needed an impressive victory to force Alexander to the negotiating table.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 10 August 1792

21Napoleon witnesses the assault on the Tuileries Palace during the Revolution

Napoleon’s contempt for the king increased when the mob returned to arrest the royal couple and massacre their Swiss guards.

Napoleon left his lodgings and went to watch the events from a friend’s house on the Place du Carrousel. Seeing a well-dressed young officer, the crowd stopped him and ordered him to shout: ‘Vive la nación.’ Which, as he recalled decades later, ‘As you can imagine, I hastened to do.’

When he moved to the Tuileries Palace seven years later, he had the bullet holes of that day effaced form the building.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 9 August 1794

9Napoleon is arrested

Napoleon was close to Maximilien Robespierre’s younger brother Augustine, which naturally put him under suspicion after Robespierre’s fall. Napoleon was arrested at his lodgings in Nice. He spent a day in a fortress there before being transferred to Fort Carré in Antibes. He was familiar with both fortresses, having inspected them officially earlier in his career. Napoleon would remain a prisoner for ten days.

Out of self-preservation Antoine Christophe Saliceti did nothing to help his protégé, going as far as ransacking Napoleon’s papers in search of evidence of treachery. ‘He barely deigned to look at me from the mighty height of his greatness,’ said Napoleon, who was in grave danger.

During those dark days of the Revolution, innocence didn’t protect from guillotine. Even Napoleon’s proven heroism fighting for the Republic couldn’t save him. ‘Men can be unjust towards me, my dear Junot,’ he wrote to his faithful aide-de-camp, ‘but it suffices to be innocent. My conscience is the tribunal before which I call my conduct.’

Although Junot was ready to break Napoleon out of jail, Napoleon said to him, ‘Do nothing. It will only compromise me.’ The Thermidorians were not as bloodthirsty and ruthless as the Jacobins, however, and the future Emperor of the French was released for lack of evidence on August 20th.