The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature 

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

When after his coronation in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte started his military campaign to conquer the whole of Europe there was hardly anyone who could stand in his way. His military strategies were so unique that the opponents had no clue about how Napoleon and his forces were able to move around so fast on a battlefield. It was really a revelation how Napoleon manoeuvred his forces. It was like a grandmaster at the top of his game aggressively controlling the centre of a chessboard, not giving an inch to his opponent.

Napoleon more or less continued this supremacy through his constant successes in the Napoleonic Wars until 1811-12. But it all changed after his siege on Russia. A military campaign that started in the Russian summer of 1812 and lasted till the dreaded Russian winter more or less destroyed Napoleon's reputation as the Master of Europe.
King Alexander of Russia was a shrewd man and he knew that Napoleon was coming to Russia with the sole aim of crushing his ego. So he kept on stalling Napoleon's advances as his armies kept on retreating after minor skirmishes. These retreats kept on infuriating Napoleon's plan of securing a swift victory as he was dragged deeper and deeper into Russia's vast expanses.
To begin with, the summer wasn't very favorable to Napoleon as he lost a large part of his army to typhus and other diseases. Meanwhile the iconic Russian military commander Mikhail Kutuzov kept on playing his games, engaging with the Napoleon forces and then disengaging at the opportune moments, pulling Napoleon further into the heart of Russia with the impending winter set to turn the tide in Russia's favor.
But Napoleon being Napoleon was committed to show King Alexander and the Russians his true might. And show he did! Leo Tolstoy's famous book War and Peace (The 2016 BBC adaptation of the epic is really an essential viewing bears a testament to Napoleon's exploits in Russia. Despite losing his soldiers at a rapid rate Napoleon continued on with his famous march to Moscow.
On 14th September, the French forces finally occupied Moscow following their remarkable but tightly fought win in the Battle of Borodino wherein the Russian forces under Kutuzov finally chose to hold their ground and fight Napoleon's forces until the end instead of retreating as usual. By the time Napoleon's forces conquered Moscow the city was already abandoned and subsequently it was set ablaze as the Russians would rather have their iconic city burnt to ashes than fall in the hands of Napoleon. Fortunately for the Russians, they had shifted their capital to St. Petersburg (around 450 miles from Moscow) about a century back.
Now, Napoleon stayed in Moscow for 5 weeks, waiting for a peace offer that never came. He even wrote to King Alexander in St. Petersburg but he didn't get any reply. Finally, Napoleon lost his patience and on 19 October he left Moscow and started his retreat. Had it not been for the dread of the Russian winter and dearth of resources he surely would have stayed longer in Moscow and perhaps even would have marched towards St. Petersburg. But the weather and logistics for once got the better of him.
As soon as the French forces began the retreat, King Alexander, who was playing the waiting game thus far, suddenly sensed blood and unleashed his fury to capture Napoleon and destroy the retreating French forces. Lack of food for the men and fodder for the horses, hypothermia from the bitter cold and guerilla warfare from Russian peasants and Cossacks led to great losses as the French forces got reduced to merely 10,000 soldiers.
But the winter didn't make it easy for the Russian forces as well. They too faced repeated failures in their quest to capture Napoleon and stop the French forces from retreating. These difficult times saw the best of French engineering as some crucial bridges were constructed in record times by the French engineers (most of whom froze to death while constructing them) to ensure passage for the retreating French forces with the temperatures dipping below -30 degrees Celsius.
On 5 December, Napoleon left the army and finally managed to reach Paris, traveling mostly incognito at a breakneck pace. On 14 December 1812, the campaign ended after nearly six months, with the last French troops leaving Russian soil. It was a colossal disaster for Napoleon and France as countries which had forged alliances with France out of fear now saw an opportunity to defy Napoleon. The subsequent years would see Napoleon taste many more defeats and his dominion would gradually be reduced to the original borders of France.
But in 1814, with his back against the walls, Napoleon would yet again give a demonstration of his mastery on a battlefield when during his famous last stand he would put up a valiant show against enemy forces (almost the whole of Europe against France) closing in from all directions. At one point, he succeeded in defeating the Allied forces 4 times in 6 days, inflicting severe damage (almost 4 times as his own). Although he would be ultimately forced to abdicate his crown and serve an exile on the Island of Elba (as the numbers game eventually got the better of him), he would nonetheless succeed in demonstrating the world once and for all that Napoleon Bonaparte was indeed the ultimate master of war, if there ever was one.
Lord Wellington who is attributed with the honor of defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (a decisive loss for Napoleon that put a definitive end to his reign; the 1970 film Waterloo starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte though terribly underrated is a truly brilliant film to watch about the Battle of Waterloo) a year later in 1815 (after Napoleon's miraculous return from exile) famously said that he learnt more about the genius of Napoleon on a battlefield from his aforementioned campaign in 1814 than anything else, proving that Napoleon's war strategies were widely studied even during his time by his opponents.
Napoleon merely ruled over France for 10 years but during this time he was truly the Master of Europe as even the mighty Great Britain failed to challenge his might (though Britain remained a force to be reckoned with in the sea, Napoleon was unmatchable on the land). Napoleon thanks to the Napoleonic Code (the first modern legal code to be adopted with a pan-European scope, and it strongly influenced the law of many of the countries formed during and after the Napoleonic Wars) was instrumental in paving the way for a liberal and prosperous world in the centuries that followed.
Had Napoleon triumphed in his quest to unify Europe it is believed that Europe would have succeeded in surpassing the US as a superpower for several centuries to come. But even though he failed he managed to cement his name alongside Caesar and Alexander the Great. And, of course, his warfare techniques are studied till date. The mighty Great Britain has produced so many famous kings and queens. They even had a writer like Shakespeare to embellish their achievements. And yet none of them can claim to have shaped and influenced Europe the way one Napoleon Bonaparte did.

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