8 – Napoleon

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© Bob Denton 2014

8.1  The Rise of Napoleon
Corsican roots

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 in Ajaccio, Corse (Corsica) to a family that was noble though by any measure aristocratic; they were of Italian extraction hence the original spelling of their name. He was the second eldest of eight surviving children.

Corsica had been regularly invaded and occupied down the years – Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Byzantines. From the 13th century it was controlled by the Genoese.  

In 1729 Pasquale Paoli launched the Corsican Revolution to seek to eject the Genoese.  In 1764 the Genoese asked for French help and they occupied the ports and castles to subdue Paoli’s rebels. A separate benefit to France was that this would stop the British taking it as a base.

As a result in 1768 France received Corsica as part of the Treaty of Versailles, buying it from the Genoese. The notion they could be sold as a chattel infuriated Corsican republicans. Paoli was supported by Napoleon’s father (Carlo) and mother (Letizia).

Trying to gain full control of the island, French forces lost the battle of Borgo in late 1768. Boosting the force to 24,000 troops they succeeded by winning the battle of Ponte Novu, and had control of the island in the year of Napoleon’s birth.

As a child Napoleon was said to play only with a sword and a drum and his drawings were always of soldiers in battle (surely fairly normal for a boy?). At his school the pupils were split in to two groups either that of Carthage or of Rome. Napoleon was allocated to that of Carthage, but knew they had been regularly defeated by Rome, so he swapped places with his older brother, Joseph, to be on what he considered to be the better side.

His brother and he were enrolled in a school in Autun, Burgundy. As a Corsican Napoleon was bullied here as he struggled to learn to speak French; in Corsica they had spoken Italian. Understandably they changed the spelling of their name to Bonaparte.

His father took him out of the Autun school after just three months and Napoleon was granted a scholarship to pursue his interests in soldiering – he was nine years old. He attended this Benedictine-administered military academy at Brienne in the Champagne region of France. He was there for five years from 1779 to 1784 within a strict regime that isolated its sixty students from their families. The school at Brienne is today a museum dedicated to Napoleon.

His fellow students considered him aloof and called him la paille au nez (straw on nose) as they thought it sounded like Napoleon. However one winter he commanded enough respect that when he proposed a practical pursuit of lessons that had been having on the construction of fortifications he got the others to do his bidding. They built a fort of snow under his direction and then two teams were agreed to attack and to defend their fort. Napoleon was the general directing both sides.

In 1784 he moved on to the Military Academy in Paris, graduating from here he became a second lieutenant of artillery. He was back in Corsica in 1793 when his father clashed with Pasquale Paoli and they were forced to flee to France.

Napoleon had become associated with the Jacobins, often writing articles in their support and became a favourite of Augustin Robespierre, when he and his brother held sway during the Reign of Terror.

His actions at Toulon, with Augustin’s continued support, saw Napoleon promoted to brigadier-general at just 24 years of age. Augustin and the Committee of Public Safety welcomed Napoleon’s success and decided to reward this by putting him in charge of the artillery of the French Army of Italy. While waiting for this news to be confirmed he carried out an inspection of the French Mediterranean coastal defences.

Revolutionary forces already occupied the County of Nice and parts of Savoy but the First Coalition forces were being assembled to sweep through this region.

Napoleon devised a plan, the Saorgio Offensive, to attack the Kingdom of Sardinia with its capital in Turin. This would be a direct assault against the First Coalition and therefore won the support of Augustin Robespierre. The Robespierres still had six or seven months before their fall from grace. The overall commander of the French Army of Italy had little choice but to accept the proposal from this in-vogue artilleryman.

In May 1794 a major grain convoy was being shipped from the United States. The British Channel Navy was determined not to let it through and this led to several skirmishes that culminated in the two fleets meeting each other on the 1st of June off the French island of Ushant.

The number of British ships was greater but the French had larger and stronger vessels with greater gun power.  Both fleets were severely damaged though both sides claimed victory, though France had lost seven (sunken) ships while the British ships were damaged but not lost. Significantly the convoy the French were protecting did manage to land its vital grain supplies.

In June 1794 General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan and his Army of the North proved victorious in the battle of Fleurus which led to their takeover of the Habsburg Netherlands, aka Belgium. Significantly this victory was the first military action that used an aircraft when l’Entreprenant, a reconnaissance balloon was used to advise Jourdan of the Austrian forces’ movements and deployments.

This land battle was costly to the French in terms of casualties and the victory had been somewhat unexpected, but it meant the Coalition forces withdrew from the region back over the Rhine.

What this did achieve was a release of tension in France, if they were no longer facing imminent invasion then the Reign of Terror was no longer necessary. The victorious force had been accompanied by a member of the Committee of Public Safety, Louis de Saint-Just.

Saint-Just arrived back in Paris in July (or 9 Thermidor) just in time to be arrested alongside the Robespierres by the National Convention deputies- an event known as the Thermidorian Reaction. The Robespierres, Saint-Just and others were promptly guillotined.

Because of Napoleon’s closeness with the Robespierres in August 1794 he was suspended from his duties and briefly put under house arrest and his loyalties questioned. He was released after two weeks and back at duty in a little over three weeks; with command of the artillery of the Army of the West.

While serving with this army he became engaged to Désirée Clary, though she would later marry Marshal Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, who Napoleon would later appoint as King Charles XIV John of Sweden, she took the name Queen Desideria as his consort.

In June 1795 he was offered the appointment as General of Infantry and refused the posting, as a result in August his name was struck from the active list.

Napoleon’s reputation was restored by October 1795 when he was appointed as Division General of the Army of the Interior to handle royalist insurrections in Paris. By the end of the month he succeeded Paul-François de Barras as the commander of the Army of the Interior when he was elected to the Directory.

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Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014