The Will to Power
At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since. -Salvador Dalí
How, first of all, was it possible for a poor Corsican boy, born with limited horizons, to scale such heights? By the time he had reached Tilsit in 1807, dictating terms to the Tsar of All the Russians, which represented the peak of his military successes, he was still only thirty-seven. Because of his youth at the conclusion of that most famous run of victories, one tends to forget that he was born under the reign of Louis XV and started his military career under Louis XVI. If he was a child of the ancien régime, he was also very much a product of that event dubbed by Thomas Carlyle "the Death-Birth of a World." He was steeped in the French revolutionary heritage, without which he would surely never have gotten as far as Tilsit.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1785 at the age of sixteen, from the harsh military academy of Brienne, somewhat derided as a "skinny mathematician," this scion of the lesser Corsican nobility made his first real mark on military affairs some eight years later, at the Siege of Toulon in 1793. The key naval base was then held by an English fleet under the command of Admiral Hood; Napoleon, as a twenty-four-year-old artillery captain, was brought in to advise the not very distinguished commander of the French revolutionary forces besieging it. With his genius for the swift coup d'oeil, which was later to stand him in such good stead, young Napoleon Bonaparte's strategy succeeded, and the British were driven out. He became a hero in the ranks of the incompetent revolutionary army (though still unknown outside it), and was promoted to the dizzy rank of général de brigade when still only twenty-four, and made artillery commander to the Army of Italy.
After a brief, fallow period of considerable frustration, his next opportunity came when, by chance, he happened to be in Paris on sick leave during the autumn of 1795. A revolt was pending against the Convention, and Napoleon was called in by his friend and protector Paul Barras (one of the five members of the governing Directoire) to forestall it. He positioned a few guns (brought up at the gallop by a young cavalry captain called Murat) on the key streets leading to the Tuileries Palace. Three years previously he had witnessed the mob storm the same palace, and the weakness of the King on that occasion had made a lasting impression on him. "If Louis XVI had shown himself on horseback, he would have won the day," Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph. He was determined not to repeat the same error and showed no hesitation in giving the order to fire. Discharged at point-blank range, the historic "whiff of grapeshot" of the Treizième Vendémiaire put the mob convincingly to flight. For the first time since 1789 the Paris "street," which had called the tune throughout the Revolution, had found a new master whom it would not lightly shrug off. Barras, grateful but also nervous at having Napoleon so near the center of power, now appointed him-at the age of twenty-seven-commander in chief of the French Army of Italy.
Ever since 1792, France had been at war with the First Coalition of her enemies, who were bent upon reversing the revolutionary tide that seemed to threaten all Europe, and restoring the status quo ante in France. As Thomas Carlyle saw it, the guillotining of Louis XVI ". . . has divided all friends; and abroad it has united all enemies . . ."; on the other hand, in the view of Friedrich Engels and others, had it not been for the stimulating effect of foreign intervention, the Revolution might quietly have choked on its own vomit. The fortunes of war had swung back and forth; lack of adequate preparation and incompetence among the new leaders of the revolutionary French forces had been matched by differences of interest and lethargy among the Allies; the stiff forms of eighteenth-century warfare, unaltered since the days of Frederick the Great, had encountered a new revolutionary fervor, but it was poorly supported with guns and equipment. Marching into France, the Duke of Brunswick and his Prussians were halted and turned about, surprisingly, by the cannonade at Valmy in September 1792, the first harbinger of a new form of warfare.
In 1793 the French forces, resurgent under the organizational genius of Lazare Carnot (whom even Napoleon was to rate "the organizer of victory") and fired up by their first victories to carry the Revolution to all the "oppressed nations" of Europe, swept into Belgium and threatened Holland. By June 1794, Jourdan had chased the last Coalition soldier across the French frontier. The British bungled a landing at Quiberon Bay, while-defeated, and invaded in its turn-Prussia abandoned the First Coalition the following year. But, overextended, underequipped, and unhelped by the dithering and corrupt rule of the Directoire, France's new "Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse" now experienced a series of defeats across the Rhine at the hands of the Austrians.
It was at this point that Napoleon was sent to Italy by Barras to wrest the initiative from the Austrians. He found the army unpaid, hungry, poorly equipped, and on the verge of mutiny. Stendhal cites the example of three officers who owned but one pair of shoes, one pair of breeches, and three shirts between them; elsewhere in The Charterhouse of Parma, he relates how, at Napoleon's legendary action on the Bridge at Lodi, another French officer had the soles of his shoes "made out of fragments of soldiers' caps also picked up on the field of battle." By his extraordinary capacity to inspire, Napoleon totally transformed the forces under him within a matter of days, and over the next eighteen months caused them-with minimal resources-to win a series of victories. These ended with the Battle of Rivoli, as impressive a battle as any the world had yet seen. By October 1797, Napoleon captured 160,000 prisoners and more than 2,000 cannon, and chased the Austrians to within a hundred miles of Vienna. Here, for the first but not the last time, he forced the beaten Austrians to sign a peace with France, thus marking a definitive end to the wars of the First Coalition.
The victorious young general now became the idol of France, his star irresistibly in the ascendant as he returned in triumph to Paris. "You are the hero of all France," the Directoire told him. Even his recently married Josephine was dubbed "Notre Dame des Victoires" on the streets of Paris. "From that moment," Napoleon wrote after the first Italian campaign, "I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee from beneath me, as if I were being carried into the sky." In France, now, one man and one man alone could claim a prestige that was unsullied. For France-and for Europe-it signified that the war party had triumphed.
Following Napoleon's Italian victories, at the Treaty of Campoformio (October 17, 1797), France was ceded Belgium and control of the left bank of the Rhine. Henceforth the Belgians were "as much French as the Normans, the Alsatians, the people of Languedoc or Burgundy . . ." But could the English ever be persuaded to accept this notion of a French Belgium? In return for Venice and its territories, Austria recognized France's establishment of an Italian satellite state, the Cisalpine Republic-from which seed, eventually, was to germinate the modern united nation of Italy. Of her foes of the First Coalition, only England remained at war with France, but with no weapon to strike at her across the Channel; so France contented herself by extending her empire at the expense of both enemy and allies. After Campoformio, however, in exchange for a durable peace, England too declared herself ready to accept France's "natural frontiers" and even to hand back colonies captured during the past hostilities. At last, it seemed, revolutionary France was offered the security for which she had fought so passionately the previous five years; it looked like a good time to make peace with England.
Nothing, however, succeeds like success, and it now went to the weak head of the Directoire. But Napoleon discreetly-and temporarily-made himself invisible, out of sight of Frenchmen who feared the advent of a Cromwell. He remarked at this time:
Great events hang by a thread. The able man turns everything to profit, neglects nothing that may give him one chance more; the man of less ability, by overlooking just one thing, spoils the whole.
Back in 1790, the Constituent Assembly had declared the noble ideal: "The French nation renounces the undertaking of any war with a view to making conquests, and it will never use its forces against the liberty of any people." But, not unlike the heirs to Lenin in the twentieth century, the Directoire, inflated by Napoleon's achievements, now let itself be enticed into graduating from a basically defensive war, with an aim of saving the Revolution and securing France's frontiers, to one of expansion and enrichment. It is instructive that France's wars of aggrandizement began, not under the Consulate or the empire, but under the revolutionary movement. In France, the new hero was put in command, briefly, of the Army of England, charged with carrying the war across the Channel. The previous year, 1797, General Hoche with 14,000 troops and 16 ships of the line had made an abortive descent on Ireland, which had been disrupted by storms. After an inspection in January 1798 of the 120,000 troops mustered between Étaples and Walcheren for an invasion attempt, Napoleon abandoned the idea as "too chancy to risk la Belle France on the throw of a dice." Instead, he placed in the mind of the Directoire the idea of striking at British sea power by a campaign in Egypt, and in the eastern Mediterranean-the key to England's empire and trade in the Orient.
With England's Pitt still under the misapprehension that Napoleon was heading for Ireland, he sailed for Egypt. His strategic intent was to sever at a stroke England's lifeline to her empire in India, and then-like Alexander the Great-move on to regain French possessions and conquer India itself. Had he succeeded, it would have been a historic-if not a decisive-event, but it was to prove, militarily, his most disastrous campaign to date, while the naval failure would dog him all the way to Trafalgar. Ensuing operations followed the familiar course, with Napoleon winning round after round on land, such as at the Battle of the Pyramids, where he declared with high melodrama, "Soldiers!" "Forty centuries behold you!"); and with Nelson sweeping the seas at the battles of Aboukir Bay and the Nile. The fighting moved up into Palestine and the Levant, and in his massacre of prisoners at Jaffa, Napoleon revealed himself at his most ruthless and cruel. The twenty-nine-year-old, who had recently issued inspiring instructions for the creation of an Institute of Science and Art in occupied Cairo-this man of so many contradictions-now gave orders to quell insurgents by "levelling the Grand Mosque" and "slicing off the heads of all prisoners caught in arms." His own forces were decimated by plague (to which Napoleon himself seemed miraculously immune), and the French Revolution's General Kléber growled that he was "the kind of general who needed a monthly income of ten thousand men." Encouraged by British naval successes, before the end of 1798 a Second Coalition comprising England, Naples, Austria, Russia, and Turkey had come into being, and had begun to threaten the French position in both northern Italy and the Netherlands.
Meanwhile news reached Napoleon that at home the wobbly Directoire was in deep political trouble. Abandoning his battered army in the Middle East and dodging Nelson's patrols, Napoleon hastened back to France, landing secretly at Fréjus on October 9, 1799. In Paris, he found the Directoire tottering. After a brief moment of historic indecision, when it was not certain whether his grenadiers would support him or arrest him, until Murat shouted, "Vive la République!" and "Vive Bonaparte!" on November 9 (8 Brumaire in the Revolutionary calendar), Napoleon effected a coup d'état that ended the rule of the Directoire. "Hypocrites, intriguers!" he castigated them, promising that he would "abdicate from power the instant the Republic is free from danger." He then established himself as First Consul, with a tenure of ten years and dictatorial powers greater than those of Louis XIV at the height of his glory. Both within France and beyond, this was heralded as signifying the end of the Revolution. At home no one disputed the legality of the new regime. In the words of the French historian André Maurois, "France had not been raped; she had yielded."
Tactfully, the new master now dressed himself in civilian clothes to stress the fact that, rather than rule as a general, his priority would be domestic issues. In Russia, the mad Tsar Paul-already at odds with his Austrian ally over Italy-withdrew from the Coalition; in France, even the critical Madame de Staël was delighted, though her father, the banker Necker, cautioned: "Your nerves are overwrought . . . unfortunately, everything rests on the life of one man."
The war, however, still continued. Consolidated in power politically, Napoleon set off once more to chastise the Austrians. By an astonishing feat of transporting an army of fifty thousand secretly over the eight-thousand-foot Great St. Bernard Pass, still covered in snow in May of 1800, Napoleon struck the unwary Austrians from the rear. June brought him his stunning victory at Marengo, north of Genoa. It was a copybook classic of maneuver; though, as was characteristic of Napoleon, the panegyrical bulletin he issued afterward (aimed in part at further terrifying a demoralized foe) made it sound rather more a calculated, according-to-plan result than was actually the case, and disallowed the element of opportunism that had played an integral part in the victory, as it so often did in his other triumphs. It was a small consolation that, the following summer, General Abercrombie's British expeditionary force was to defeat Napoleon's abandoned Army of the Orient and expel the last Frenchman from Egypt; for the Second Coalition had now collapsed in ruins.
The losers were punished in the peace, with the Austrians forced out of most of northern Italy, and a smarting England agreeing to part with most of her recent colonial acquisitions, including Malta. Napoleon was left-for the time being-in unchallenged military supremacy; and a grateful France confirmed him Consul for Life-in a plebiscite, by a huge majority of 3.5 million to eight thousand. On the other hand, Nelson at Copenhagen (April 2, 1801) had once again demonstrated to Napoleon the impotence of his attempts to gain control of the seas. Neither side was particularly happy with the peace terms, England deeply concerned by Na-poleon's hegemony over Europe and resentful at her territorial deprivations, and France soon finding England in default for not withdrawing its forces from Malta. Nevertheless, for the first time in a decade, a glimmer of lasting peace flickered over the battered European nations, and, once again, it looked like as good a time as any for bringing the sequence of wars to a definitive end. But peace was to prove illusory. As Napoleon had written prophetically to his lieutenant and potential rival, Moreau, during the more ecstatic moments of 1800: "Greatness has its beauties, but only in retrospect and in the imagination."
Copyright © 2004 by Alistair Horne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.