The Man Who Would Be King

Leaving the Veteran’s Chapel, we stepped back out into the main courtyard of Les Invalides where the Army Museum has arrayed its impressive collection of 60 classical French bronze cannons and a dozen mortars and howitzers along the outer edge of the courtyard, as you can see in this photograph:

Turning around and looking up I was surprised to see, looming above and seemingly glaring down at me, the enigma of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte

Born Napoleone Buonaparte in Corsica, an island off the coast of Italy that had been conquered by France just a few months before his birth in 1769, young Buonaparte was sent by his parents at the age of 9 to a military school in France where, in spite of the fact that French was not his native language, he excelled. He was then admitted into the illustrious École Militaire, the French Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1785 and, at the age of 16, was given a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the French army and posted to an artillery regiment in the south of France.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Napoleone, then 20, took leave from the army and returned to Corsica where he attempted to form a militia in support of the Revolution, only to discover that many of his fellow Corsicans wanted independence from France instead. He was expelled and returned to France in 1793, taking his mother and siblings with him (his father had died of stomach cancer), where he rejoined his regiment, now with the rank of Captain.

In Paris, meanwhile, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antionette, the daughter of the Austrian king, had recently been executed and the new French Republic was now engaged in a civil war with the Royalists. The Royalists were the former nobility and supporters of the monarchy, many of whom had fled beyond the borders and were agitating for foreign intervention to quash the revolution in France to prevent its contagion throughout Europe. Austria, of course, was eager to avenge the murder of its monarch’s daughter, and England was also easily persuaded.

By the time Napoleone returned to France in 1793, a stronghold of Royalists, supported by the British navy, existed at Toulon, France. Napoleone was dispatched to Toulon where he took command of the Republican artillery and defeated the Royalists and the British which earned him the rank of Brigadier General of the Republican forces at the age of 24, making him one of the youngest generals in French history.

The years 1793 and 1794 were the terrible years of chaos in Paris known as the Reign of Terror, during which thousands of people were guillotined by the then-leaders of the Revolution, Robespierre and his cronies, as suspected traitors to the revolutionary cause. Ultimately, things got so out of hand that Robespierre himself was beheaded and a new constitution was adopted, establishing a new government called the Directory, though it proved to be easily corruptible and very weak.

By 1795, the Republic was at war with England, Italy and Austria. That year, Napoleone, now calling himself Napoleon Bonaparte, returned to Paris where he assumed command of the Republican troops in the city and proceeded to put down another Royalist uprising. This time, his reward was command of the Republican Army in Italy.

Napoleon promptly attacked and defeated the Italians, then turned his sights on the Austrians, laying siege to Vienna. An armistice was reached by which Austria gave up the southern Netherlands to France, making Napoleon a hero of the Republic. Only the naval war with Britain remained.

Here’s the dashing young general in uniform:

Most Americans associate Napoleon with what I’ll call the little-big-man syndrome, that is, the small guy with an inferiority complex who acts tough in order to compensate for his size. Its source may be the belief that Napoleon’s desire for conquest was at least partially motivated by his need to show up the aristocratic snobs and bullies he had to deal with as an undersized, foreign student during his time at military school.

I’m guessing that the curators of the Musée de l’Armée are aware of this “Napoleon Complex” theory because the audio guide (finally, a good audio guide!) has an entry asserting that Napoleon was actually taller than the average Frenchman of his day (1.69 meters – 5′ 6″ – versus an average height of 1.60 meters or 5′ 3″). Um, yeah. And how do you prove (or disprove) the average male height in 1800 – why not just say the average was 5 feet and Napoleon was a giant? Napoleon’s own troops called him the “Little Corporal,” but hey, what did they know?

Anyway, here’s Napoleon’s uniform, now on display in the Musée de l’Armée; standing next to it, it’s easy to see that he had a very slight frame:

But let’s get back to the story.

Back in Paris again, Napoleon advised the Directorate that the best way to defeat the British was by occupying Egypt and closing the British trade route to India, thus damaging the island nation economically until it sued for peace. Fearing his growing popularity with the masses, the politicians were happy to send the ambitious Napoleon on a mission to Egypt to prevent him from moving from the military into politics. The mission to Egypt resulted in defeat, though Napoleon was able to maintain his reputation at home in France, to which he returned in 1799.

Meanwhile, the government in France had fallen into disarray and upon his return to France, Napoleon engaged in a coup d’état that replaced the Directory with a 3-man executive called the Consulate. Napoleon – surprise, surprise – managed to maneuver himself into the position of First Consul, the officer who really held all the executive power of the government. He was now 30 years old.

But a new coalition of England, Austria and Russia coalesced, all fearing the spread of the French revolutionary fervor to their borders. In response, Napoleon invaded and defeated Austria in 1800, Russia withdrew from the alliance and England decided not to continue the war alone. By the Spring of 1802, Europe finally was at peace. For the time being.

Triumphant, Napoleon’s supporters decided to put a referendum to the French people, asking them to answer the question: shall Napoleon be named Consul for life? The people said “yes,” also granting him the right to name his successor. The vote: 3,572,329 for, 2,569 against, at least that’s according to the count made by the supervisor of the election, Napoleon’s brother, Lucien – lucky coincidence, that. Napoleon was now a king in all but name

Napoleon now turned his attentions to improving the homeland, establishing a new, unified legal and court system, creating the Bank of France, establishing a new system of secondary education and engaging in public works projects – essentially, creating the building blocks of the modern French nation. He also continued a gradual expansion of French domination of the entire European continent. The British became alarmed and in 1803, declared war on France once again.

Supposedly, to strengthen the nation, Napoleon thought it would be best if he gave himself a new title: “Emperor” sounded good. And so it was that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I in 1804 and granted princely titles to his relatives, putting them in charge of his European conquests as monarchs.

Here’s the new Emperor, complete with scepter and crown of gold:

The Emperor drew up plans to invade England, but the British were able to trap and defeat the French navy at Trafalgar, putting an end to those designs. The British were also able to establish yet another coalition of nations to oppose Napoleon, this time including Austria, Russia and Naples.

Napoleon got down to business, set aside his fancy uniform and adopted the grey flannel overcoat. He was a soldier at heart and military adventure is what he lived for and he endured all the discomforts of his soldiers when at war. Here’s one of his coats and bicorn hats, along with his field tent, displayed in the museum:

In 1805, Napoleon soundly defeated the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz and Naples was surrendered. In 1806, Prussia declared war on France and Napoleon defeated them, too.

But the British persevered. Without a navy, Napoleon was unable to invade England, so he attempted to attack economically by outlawing the importation of British goods throughout the European continent. But it was impossible for France to enforce this dictate and goods flowed into Portugal. Napoleon sent troops into Spain in order to attack Portugal, but the Spaniards opposed his forces with guerrilla tactics, something that Napoleon’s troops were unable to defend against, so he brought them back to France.

Emboldened by France’s “defeat” in Spain, the Russian tsar reneged on his peace treaty obligations with France and, in 1812, Napoleon headed for Moscow with a huge army, to which he added as he marched, but the russians would not meet him on the field, electing, instead, to burn the city. Having stretched his supply train too far, Napoleon had to retreat to France, losing over 80% of his men to desertion and the cold of Winter.

[Friedrich Jakob Jungck (1783-1860), my maternal great-great-great-great-grandfather, living in the Rhineland-Palatinate of Germany in 1812, was conscripted into Napoleon’s army as it marched through the region. He was forced to march with them to Moscow where he was wounded in the calf. He was one of the lucky few to survive the ordeal, but, returning home, he found his mill destroyed and all he owned lost. He claimed that all his French blood drained out through the wound he received in Russia. He emigrated to America in 1830.]

Now the conquered territories rebelled, and in October 1813 at Leipzig, a coalition of troops from Austria, England and Russia soundly defeated Napoleon’s army. In January 1814, Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to the island of Elba. A year later, he escaped Elba and returned to France where he was welcomed by the populace, raised an army and proceeded to attack a Prussian army on the Belgian border. England immediately responded and on June 17, 1815, Napoleon literally met his Waterloo and final defeat. This time, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land, where he died in 1822, most likely from stomach cancer like his father, perhaps explaining his typical pose, hand inside coat on his irritable stomach.

To add insult to injury, the Bourbons were restored to the throne in the person of Louis XVIII, the brother of the executed Louis XVI, who was succeeded by another brother, Charles X, in 1824; the Bourbon dynasty finally ended in 1830, following which the next king was Louis-Philippe of the Orleans family who ruled until the Revolution of 1848.

In 1840, Napoleon’s remains were brought back to Paris from St. Helena by King Louis-Philippe and entombed under the gilded dome of the royal chapel of the Église du Dôme at Les Invalides.

If Napoleon could look up from his crypt, this is what he would see:

It’s an impressive monument to the man who would be king.

At the beginning of this post, I called Napoleon an enigma because, in spite of the being the great general of the French Revolution who helped throw off the cloak of monarchy, as soon as he could find a way to do it, Napoleon participated in a coup d’état and installed himself as Emperor and essentially re-established feudalism in Europe by setting up his relatives as the princes of the conquered territories! Hey, what happened to those revolutionary ideals of of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, and fraternity)? All for one and one for himself, I guess; or, as the saying goes: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

To my astonishment, I discovered while reading about Napoleon that after the Revolution of 1848, Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, was elected President of the Second Republic of France. Emulating his uncle, he staged a coup d’état in 1851 and established himself as Emperor Napoleon III, a title he held until the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He was exiled to England where he died in 1873.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t think I’ll ever understand French politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s