Napoleon’s uber-spectacular, sesquisuperlative (too costly by half) fall from power…

Just to be perfectly clear, I have always tried to avoid writing about this.  In the same way I avoid going places where there were hordes of psychotic birds skydiving at random victims, or the Black Death.   That kind of thing. 

However, there have been a number of searches hitting this blog on the subject of Napoleon’s fall from power–aka the throne of France in 1814–so I dare say that’s my audience telling me something.

So, righto.  Where do we start?  Hmn.

You will perhaps recall that Napoleon in his weird wisdom decided that what he needed to do was invade Russia in 1812?  Yes?  No? 

Well, he did…

Yes, yes, I know, anyone with half an ounce of a brain cell could look at the map, chart the distance between Paris and Moscow and say, “Maybe not…” 

But Napoleon didn’t like being disregarded; he didn’t like people doing other than what he told them to do.  It made him throw things.  And swear.  A lot.  And that’s what the Tsar of Russia was doing–disregarding him and his decrees.

So off to Russia Napoleon went, with some (accounts differ here) 450,000 to 650,000 troops.  He invaded Poland and took that over; he invaded Russia, crossing the River Nieman on 24 June 1812. 

And in September, after tromping thousands of miles, there was a great battle on 7 September at Borodino, where he defeated the Russians (if you can call 35,000+ French casualties a victory). 

The Russians lost over 50,000 men, and they withdrew.  Napoleon took the capital, Moscow, which was then set alight by Russian patriots, led by the Mayor of Moscow.  This made it a little toasty for most of the French troops who were hoping to rest and recuperate there. 

Subsequently, after sitting about in Moscow for a few weeks, imagining that Tsar Alexander would come begging for some kind of truce or treaty–which didn’t happen and wasn’t going to happen–the French left the city for home on 19 October.  But, amidst the early snows and murderous slog home, Napoleon learned of an attempted coup in Paris and promptly abandoned his army and skedaddled it back to France.  He reached Paris on 18 December. 

But the larger part of his army never came back.  Accounts differ–some say as few as 7000 made it back.  Others give the number as closer to 30,000.  Either way, it was a cataclysmic disaster of unimaginable proportions. 

So Napoleon did what any military dictator does, he called for a new Grande Armee to be raised, for a new campaign against France’s enemies in the East. 

Now this was a little tricky, because it wasn’t just troops which Napoleon had lost during the Russian campaign.  He’d lost 150,000 horses, he’d lost all the cannon and muskets and sabres; he’d lost all the cooking pots and mules and wagons.

Equally, you might think, this would be a good time, Napoleon old chum, for a spot of negotiating with the foes…after all, the French and all those inhabiting France’s satellite states are getting a bit resty at the futile loss of hundreds of thousands of their young men.  You might well think that.  Napoleon didn’t.

Napoleon believed his power was based entirely on his military prowess, on conquering more and more land, on accruing more and more plunder–it’s a mighty costly business to pay for an army the size of France’s and he’d already destroyed the economies of all those countries France controlled through the Continental Blockade.  Hence he needed more.  And more.

So.  Napoleon calls for a new army.  His chiefs of staff boggle.  He gets cross and throws things.  They set about it and within a few months have raised a new army of recruits–those who should have been conscripted in 1814 had already been called up, the National Guard of 100,000 men is also drafted into the army and he creates The Young Guard (a sort of new Imperial Guard) in order to lure the French middle classes into sending their sons into the army, rather than buying their way out.  Technically, he once again has an army of 250,000. Or more.

However, off to the East, things haven’t been dull either. 

The Tsar had determined that he was the man to lead the Allies to victory over the Mushroom Corsican.  So he was busy reassembling what remained of his army after Borodino, resting them, calling up thousands of more recruits, getting together lots more horses and supplies and pressing West. 

Also, Prussia’s senior general had defected to the Russian side, along with all his men.  The Prussian king, Frederick William, had instantly denounced this–he was meant to be Napoleon’s ally–but secretly he began negotiations with the Tsar with an eye to switching sides.

Meanwhile Austria was thinking the time might be ripe for a little side-switching too, but was acting coy through the offices of one Clemens Metternich, the Foreign Minister, and when Napoleon requested more troops from them, they declined, saying they were broke. 

And they all of them, together, realise that following the Russian debacle, Napoleon is woefully weakened. 

The Russians press West and the Prussians join them.  Napoleon pushes his army East.   

There are a few skirmishes and clashes, in which the Prussians and Russians triumph over the French–and this confirms their optimistic belief that they can indeed win against the French and defeat Napoleon. 

Then there are two battles, namely at Lutzen and Bautzen on the 2nd and 22nd of May 1813 respectively, where Napoleon triumphs over the Allied forces. 

But at this point, there’s a catch.  And that catch is manpower.  Because from here on out, Napoleon really can’t afford his victories, let alone defeats.  Also, the area of Europe where they’re all located, Saxony, can’t feed the troops.  It’s that simple.  Saxony, Prussia, the German states, have all had troops marching through their territory for too long and there’s just nothing left–no food, no fodder for the horses. 

Oh, and it’s done nothing but rain for weeks so all the roads, such as they are, are a foot-deep in mire, and the soldiers and horses keep losing their shoes in the mud. 

Plus, now Napoleon’s facing two armies.  And he needs to man all the fortresses along the Elbe to keep the Allies from pushing into France proper–and that requires more troops, troops he hasn’t got. 

The Allies propose a truce.  Napoleon jumps at the opportunity.  He calls up more recruits.  

The Russians and Prussians consolidate their gains, they secure their supply lines from Russia, they rest up.  Great Britain offers subsidies of £7,000,000 (yes, that’s right 7 million quid) to Russia and Prussia to continue the war against France–which they accept.  Britain also offers Sweden a million pounds in subsidy so they’ll bring 30,000 troops to fight on the Allied side on the Continent. 

Austria tries to negotiate with Napoleon–suggesting they pull back to France’s natural borders and we’ll all be friends again–which yields nothing because Napoleon won’t budge on being European supremo.  So the Austrians join the Russians and Prussians.

Hence, you might say that, at this juncture, the Allies have all the advantages:  lots and lots of troops, horses, supplies and money. 

Autumn advances and so does Napoleon…he brings his barely trained troops to battle at Leipzig on 16 October–he is convinced that a decisive win against the Allies will finish it.  Decisive wins in the past have always had this effect and he’s sure of himself. 

The Allies advance on the city from three directions–the northwest, the south and the east.  Battle commences on the 16th in what is called the Battle of the Nations.  By the 18th, Napoleon and his remaining 160,000 men are nearly surrounded by 295,000 Allied soldiers, launching six massive attacks along the length of the front.

You can guess the result.  By the early hours of the 19th, his ammunition supplies and troop numbers dwindling, Napoleon makes plans to withdraw.  It has been a decisive victory all right.  For the Allies. 

Napoleon loses around 73,000 men as well as guns, muskets and deserters.  Three of his Marechals die and 36 French generals are captured.  The Allies sustain some 54,000 casualties.  A decade of French hegemony east of the Rhine is finished. 

The French withdraw west.  Typhus is now running rampant in their ranks–probably some 25% of their troops are infected.  Supplies are low or non-existent. 

In the next weeks, the Allies capture another 10,000 stragglers from the French army.  And now, to top it all, the weather turns bad.  Really bad.  Late autumn 1813 into spring 1814 is one of the coldest and rainiest on record. (January 1814 sees the Thames freeze over, for weeks…)

The Allies gather at Frankfurt for weeks to discuss how to pursue the war and the defeat of Napoleon.  The Prussians and Russians are all for pressing ahead and exploiting French losses to the best of their advantage. 

But Austria insists this is the time to negotiate with Napoleon–surely, now, he’ll agree to a peace:  he’ll give up the previously conquered countries that make up the French Empire, France can go back to being just France again, and he or his young son can remain on the throne.  Right? 


The Allied leaders eventually agree-ish to split their forces and invade France from several different directions.  The Prussians from the north-east, through Holland and Belgium, the Russians and Austrians up from the south-east through Switzerland. 

And don’t forget, Wellington and the British forces are pushing the French out of Spain and will soon cross into France, from the south-west.

And it’s this division of Allied forces and attacks that really do for Napoleon in these last desperate months.  He had called for 280,000 new recruits to bolster his army.  But basically, because he’s lost 1,000,000 men (yes, that’s right, one million men) or two armies of some 500,000 men each, in just two years, there’s no one left. 

France has not, in all the years of the Napoleonic wars, had French troops quartered on their own land and eastern France is desperately poor.  They don’t have enough to feed themselves, let alone troops.  Indeed, even the Prussians, who planned to pillage as payback for their years of the receiving end of such treatment from the French, are astonished at how impoverished is the barren countryside.  The rural roads are seas of mud.  Communications–ha ha, what’s that?  There’s no cavalry nor horses left for either reconnaissance missions, foraging or even drawing the guns and supplies.  Napoleon has mostly refused to arm the population or encourage nationalist resistance to the invaders because he fears a subsequent uprising against himself. 

French fortress after fortress, all along the borders, fall to the Allies.  With the remnants of his once-invincible army, Napoleon dashes from one encounter with the Allies to another while his generals, with smaller forces, do the same, trying to repel the Allied invasion:  Champaubert, Vauchamps, Soissons, Nangis, Montereau, Troyes, Craonne, Reims, etc…many of these are French victories.  But the situation is desperate and Napoleon cannot afford the loss of a single man, whatever you call it.

Then Tsar Alexander does a canny thing–while Napoleon is looking in the other direction, he leads his troops to Paris.  Napoleon doesn’t realise he’s been hoodwinked until the 27th March, by which time, it’s too late.  On the 28th, it was decided that the Empress and Napoleon’s young son should leave the capital.  Neither of them will ever see Napoleon again. 

The French, led by Napoleon’s older brother Joseph (formerly King of Spain) put up fierce resistance on 30 March.  Yet eventually, anxious to avoid a full-scale sacking and the accompanying loss of life for the Parisians, they capitulate. 

On Sunday, 31 March 1814, Tsar Alexander led the triumphant Allied troops into Paris. 

Finally, on 6 April, at Fontainbleau, after days of argument with his generals who insist the war and France are lost, Napoleon abdicates. 

So now you know the barest facts of the history.  (And, incidentally, the historic structure of my next two novels.) 

Yet while this little recitation may provide you with a few names and dates, it obviously gives only a hint of the human cost of this war–for example, for every city where there was a battle, that’s a city the micro-economy of which has been destroyed, its occupants fled or killed, its markets and houses and bridges reduced to rubble.  And through my work as a novelist I can bring you this story, this fuller more human sense of the enormity of Napoleon’s mad determination to cling to power. 

(For a more thorough examination of this segment of the Napoleonic wars, may I suggest you look into Professor Dominic Lieven’s superb Russia Against Napoleon.  It is by far the most well-written and interesting history of this phase of the wars, and also makes use of the latest research.)

So there you go.  Any questions?  No?  Excellent…

And now I think I deserve a cup of tea…


9 comments on “Napoleon’s uber-spectacular, sesquisuperlative (too costly by half) fall from power…

  1. You know, you ought to write a history book. “Everything you ever wanted to know about Napoleon but were afraid to ask.” Seriously, though, you’ve managed in a few thousand words to encapsulate the madness of a pyschopath. So similar to Hitler’s final days. Also, even without the description, the devastation of Europe is masterfully depicted in a few strokes of the pen. Well done, M.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      This is going to sound like waffle, but frankly, I think writing straight history would depress the heck out of me. At least if I stick to historically accurate historical fiction, I can throw in a joke or two now and again. But thank you for the compliment.

  2. russiansnows says:

    I enjoyed your summary. I just wrote a work of historical fiction on the Russian campaign and would like to point out that Napoleon left Moscow on October 19, but didn’t leave his army until December 5 after hearing about an attempted coup. I realize your outline greatly compressed the time periods, but didn’t want people to think Napoleon left his army directly from Moscow.
    My sequel will cover the 1813-14 time period also. I think it will be interesting to explore what it would have been like for the French people to have an invading army in their country after years of military success.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes. The Malet coup–which is under-reported and has been the subject of a certain degree of disinformation, mainly that the General Malet was pretty much working alone, which he wasn’t. I refer to it in rather more detail in my last novel, Of Honest Fame.

      And yes, I did condense. More than you know! Ha ha.

      But one keeps looking at the word count and striving to bring it down and keep it down for the blog so as not to bore the readers senseless and therefore lose them. There were so many battles and skirmishes in those last few months but had I included all those names I can guarantee at least half of my readers’ eyes would have glazed over, so that defeats the purpose, you know?

      However, I do take your point and have updated the post accordingly.

      And yes, for the French to experience an invading army. And for Paris to be invaded. (Both of these unprecedented in the modern era.) And how different was what the invaders found both from what they anticipated and what Napoleonic propaganda latterly has said they found. A very interesting conundrum.

  3. Undine says:

    A great post for those of us who haven’t closely studied the history of his downfall.

    Love the headline, too.

  4. Debra Brown says:

    I’ve been forced to add War and Peace to my movie list.

    What can I say about Napoleon? Sheesh, the little twit.

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