The Charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte …

Posted on December 31, 2008. Filed under: Personalities, The French Contribution |

As for me, I have the gift of electrifying men” – Napoleon Bonaparte

“That devil of a man exercises a fascination on me that I cannot explain even to myself, and in such a degree that, though I fear neither God nor devil, when I am in his presence I am ready to tremble like a child, and he could make me go through the eye of a needle to throw myself into the fire” General Vandamme, on Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was a French military and political leader who had a significant impact on the history of Europe.  He ruled France as First Consul of the First French Republic and as Emperor of the First French Empire.

Born in Corsica he was trained as an artillery officer. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution when he snuffed out the dying embers of that Revolution with a ‘whiff of grape shot’.

He was then given comnand of an army in total disarray. He shaped it into a fighting force with his charismatic oratory and having invaded Italy captured it in a classic campaign.

As a military orator, as a general addressing his troops, Napoleon was  unsurpassed’.

‘He invented a style of eloquence reminiscent of Caesar – brief, bold, declarative, familiar yet imperial in its bold sweep and cadence. It made an instant appeal to valor and the soldiers of the Republic died for him unquestioningly’.

‘As a parliamentary speaker, confronted by a hostile or doubtful audience, he was a failure. His forte was not debate or eloquent persuasion but crisp proclamation, announcing his victories or his sovereign decisions. His genus rapidly put him in  a position where only the latter were needed”.

He spoke in a clipped, terse, passionate style, with an effect which  startled the world.

In 1799, his only talented brother, Lucien, helped him stage a coup d’état and installed him as First Consul. Five years later he crowned himself Emperor of the French. Lucien refused Napoleon’s diktat to give up the woman he loved and so banished himself to England

In the first decade of the nineteenth century (“Roll up that map of Europe – it will not be needed these ten years” – Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister, like his father, of England), he turned the armies of France against every major European power and dominated continental Europe through a series of startling military victories – epitomized in battles such as Austerlitz , Friedland, Vimiera, Badajos, Salamanca, Tolouse – indeed some 60 major battles!

He led successful campaigns against the First and Second Coalitions arrayed against France. He maintained France’s sphere of influence by the formation of extensive alliances and the appointment of friends and family members to rule other European countries as French client states.

As long as he stayed married to Josephine, a woman of easy virtue, his star remained in the ascendant. Having divorced her, he could either marry into the Russian or Austrian Monarchy. He chose the Austrian Monarchy.

His invasion of Russia in 1812 marked a turning point in his fortunes. His Grande Armée was wrecked in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig, invaded France and exiled him to the island of Elba.

Less than a year later, he returned (‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’ – his sentence which can be read backwards) and was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

Napoleon spent the last six years of his life under British supervision on the island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. The autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer though Sten Forshufvud and other scientists in the 1960s conjectured that he had been slowly poisoned with arsenic.

Napoleon scored major victories with a modernised French army and drew his tactics of concentration and ‘shock’ from different sources. His campaigns are studied at military academies the world over and he is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest commanders.

While considered a tyrant by his opponents, he is greatly remembered for the establishment of the Napoleonic Code, which laid the administrative foundations for much of modern Western Europe.

Here follow some of his more relevant observations –

A leader is a dealer in hope.

I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other.

If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering an undertaking, I have meditated long and have foreseen what might occur. It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and preparation.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind.

Water, air, cleanliness – these are the chief articles in my pharmacy.

There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.



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One Response to “The Charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte …”

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“This is a subject of which my heart is full and I am unwilling to suppress the choronicling of its spontaneious sentiments”. So here goes –

To reinforce the above observation it may be noted that Napoleon’s chief of staff, Berthier, who had been with him in his astonishing victories, committed suicide by jumping out of a window when he heard that Nopoleon was marching on Paris after getting out of his first prison in Elba; (“Able was I ere I saw Elba” – the guys sentence which can be read backwards), as he thought that he had been disloyal.

And there was Marshal Ney, sent to sieze Napoleon outside Paris, who seeing his old Master unbotton his tunic and ask Ney’s men to shoot him, crossed over with his entire join the march on Paris.

On the other hand was the German Goethe, who demurred when the Frenchman, who at the zenith of his glory, asked him to chronicle his life in the only meeting of the two giant souls.

Then there was his own brother, Lucien, who was the only capable person in the Corsicans family members, each of whom were incapable clowns and dunces but were made Kings and Princes. Lucien had refused to relent and give up his love for the English woman whom he made his wife and as a result spent the entire period of his brothers glory in banishment in England. And Lucien was the man who helped make his brother the First Consul in the first place. This was when Napoleon had been hissed out of the Chamber of Deputies but Lucien with his speech, courage and wile had taken charge and having turned them around, made them endorse his brother as First Consul.

Another point to note. So long as the little Corsican remained married to the loose and unfaithful Josephine, his star remained in the ascendant. Once he chose to marry into the Austrian dynasty and not the Russian dynasty, his star turned descendant.

The Corsican’s mother never left her simple home and outlived her great son.

One could go on … Emil Ludwigs bio of the man is recommended for the lay reader.

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