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Napoleon – Myths and Misunderstandings

by Caporal Duncan Miles


François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand’s verdict on Napoleon Bonaparte was that ‘During his life the world slipped from his grasp, but in death he possesses it’. Now, nearly 200 years since Napoleon’s death, he seems to be as popular as ever and still generates a sense of awe and fascination in many people. Prompted by the first episode of the recent BBC1 television series ‘Heroes and Villains’, which looked at the beginnings of Napoleon’s career with particular focus on the siege of Toulon, I was interested to read various reviews in the newspapers, many of which expressed a very stereotyped view of Napoleon. On the BBC Radio Wales programme, ‘Something Else’ with Patrick Hannan, broadcast on 11 November 2007, there was a discussion about Napoleon and a panel attempted to answer the question ‘why the on-going fascination with a short Frenchman who is probably more famous for his defeats than for anything else?’ When the panel were invited to say what they knew about Napoleon one person said that all they knew was that he created Chicken Marengo and that his horse was also called Marengo. They considered that Napoleon had a typical chip on his shoulder being of short stature and that despite pretending to want a unified Europe he was simply a bullying dictator who was eventually beaten by the British.

As I listened to this discussion I was surprised by the views and stereotypes that were expressed. A few facts first of all. Napoleon was not short, he was about 5’6” or 5’7” which were about average for a Frenchman of the period. He genuinely wanted a unified Europe and longed for a European peace. Britain in particular was reluctant to have a settled peace especially when the French posed such a potential threat on land and sea to Britain’s trade and prosperity. The breaking of the treaty of Amiens by the British is a prime example. Napoleon was bound to war simply to retain his thrown. Unlike other sovereign states whose leaders would remain in power, should they be defeated in battle Napoleon simply could not afford to loose a fight. As an example when rumours reached France in 1812 of Napoleon’s death in Russia political movements, financed by English gold, attempted to usurp his thrown and overthrow the Napoleonic reign. The legitimacy of his sons claim to the throne was simply overlooked by those keen to usurp power within France.

Although the general population within Britain viewed Napoleon as a dangerous ogre capable of stepping across the channel and destroying civilisation, this populist view was created through a vociferous political campaign of black propaganda with pamphlets and newspapers painting Napoleon as a usurper to the throne and murderer of Sovereigns. This helped to ensure that the general population focused less on their poor living conditions and the quality of Government and much more on the fear and threat of invasion. However this fear of the ogre was hardly apparent given the numbers of British tourists who flocked to France during the peace of Amiens and at other periods throughout the Consulate and Empire. Indeed there was a general fascination and grudging respect for Napoleon and for what he had achieved in France. When he surrendered to Frederick Maitland RN aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15 July 1815, after his defeat at Waterloo, he was initially taken to Torbay, then Plymouth and finally Berry Head. Although never being given the chance to actually step ashore hundreds of small sailing vessels visited HMS Bellerophon purely to allow their occupants the opportunity to catch a glance of Napoleon. People travelled from near and far to see him. The British Government fearful of a popular rising within Britain against them, and alarmed at the almost magnetic attraction that Napoleon appeared to be having on the population, refused to allow Napoleon onto British soil and after much delay and prevarication decided to send Napoleon to exile in St Helena.

No other human being had managed to sweep back into power quite like Napoleon did from his first exile to Elba. Not a single shot was fired throughout his march from the Golfe Jaun, through Sisteron, Grenoble and finally to Paris. Soldiers flocked to his Eagles and an initially anxious population soon cheered his arrival and anticipated a return to peace, prosperity and advancement. The Bourbon King was not missed. The national hero and saviour was back and the legend of Napoleon was firmly established. Political and intellectual elites within Britain and across Europe were quite simply captivated by Napoleon’s progress and legacy. It was no surprise therefore for the British Government to try and quell this surge in populist and intellectual fervour for Napoleon.

So why is there this on-going fascination with Napoleon and confusion about the myths surrounding him? Well for me it goes back to my childhood when I first became interested in Napoleon. I hope that my experiences go someway to answering that question. I think it was the colour and flair of the uniforms, the spectacle and pageantry of the period and the unique legacy of a single man that attracted me. Other periods of history appeared quite drab in comparison.

I can’t think of too many people who have had a period of history named after them. So you get the Napoleonic Wars, you get Napoleonic France and even Napoleonic Europe. There are even Empire and Consulate period fashions in dress and architecture.

More books have been written about Napoleon than anyone else in history, something in the egion of 300,000 separate titles.

As for the man himself I simply find it incredible that someone from a family of minor nobility in Corsica could rise to become Emperor of France and to rule most of Europe. Of his seven brothers and sisters he created three Kings, one Queen, one Prince and two Princesses.

To quote the late historian, David Chandler I think Napoleon can be described as a ‘great bad man’. And that is where the fascination comes from. He achieved much of what he did through the feat of arms nevertheless the legacy that he left behind just about outweighs the cost in lives.

He became a legend during his own lifetime and although demonised by the English Government he was clearly admired by many of the UK population. I think there has always been a fascination between England and France although it is often disguised as a sort of loathing teetering on hatred. Scratch below the surface and I think we really admire, respect and envy each others countries and cultures. Even with the recent meeting between President Zarkozy, The Queen and Gordon Brown reference was made by the President to Waterloo and the love hate relationship between the two nations.

Napoleon used marketing and publicity to great effect with the great painters of the times showing him in glorious poses, bulletins and newspapers heralded his successes and despite the appearance in the French language of phrases like ‘to lie like a bulletin’ this publicity gave people a sense of belonging and national pride. It is no wonder that at every challenging time in history since the Napoleonic wars that the French people reflect upon and draw strength from the legacy of Napoleon.

His life is a real rags to riches and back to rags again story, with love affairs, marriages and battles in between. On his return to France from exile on Elba in 1815, he managed to take over France from Louis 18th without a shot being fired. The imagery of regiments refusing to fire upon him, one of his ex-marshals simply being entrapped by his charisma and swaying to his will, is simply magical.

Even during his final banishment to St Helena, his legend grew. Rumours circulated about his escape, others rumours that he was systematically being poisoned in captivity by the English. When his body was finally returned from St Helena to Paris for reburial, nearly 20 years after his death, his body was found to be wonderfully preserved as if he was simply sleeping. What other ingredients do you need for a wonderful and ever lasting legend?

As for achievements, he won numerous battles against the odds, only marginally loosing at Waterloo to a combined British and Prussian army. He is often quoted as the father of modern warfare. Yet there are many more wonderful achievements and legacies that he has left us, some of which are listed below:

• He was the first person to dream of a unified Europe and very nearly achieved it.

• He started great road building programmes throughout the empire and even insisted that the builders planted trees either side of the roads to provide shade for travellers – what a wonderful eye for detail.

• He ordered the building of new municipal buildings, canals, new sea ports, and even invented the house numbering system of odd and even in Paris.

• He created the Louvre.

• He initiated the first fire brigade in Paris.

• Instituted the Bank of France to improve the economy, and replaced the paper currency with coinage because people had confidence in coinage.

• He helped America to become a major world player through his sale of Louisiana Territory.

• He rewrote the civil codes / laws of France known as Code Napoleon which still survive in France today and have been used in many other countries. These laws included the judiciary, religious freedom, helped to remove the feudal order, introduced individual freedom, introduced women’s rights (especially around marriage, property and divorce).

• He set up schools and teacher training.

• His soldiers even found the Rosetta stone which was the start of the science of Egyptology.

He had an amazing intellect, worked tirelessly and has been quoted as being able to dictate four letters to four secretaries at the same time, paragraph by paragraph without ever being reminded where he left off.

He knew the returns of all his army units, knew all his officers by name regularly recognised and spoke to soldiers in the rank and file, all of which inspired tremendous loyalty and feats of arms.

Even 200 years down the line at the various bi-cenntenial reenactment events taking place throughout Europe a similar effect is apparent. At Jena near Berlin I was in a unit of about 120 soldiers, waiting for orders to move off to begin the fight against the Prussians. There was a chill in the air, with mist floating a few feet above the ground. Then in the distance rising up out of the mist we saw a horseman, with his now famous bicorn hat, he was on a white horse with his entourage. It was Napoleon played by an American actor called Mark Sneider. Simultaneously our whole unit shouted out “Vive L’Empereur”. Napoleon slowly raised himself in his saddle, looked in our direction and tipped his hat towards us. It actually brought a tear to our eyes. At the Waterloo reenactment in 2007 we were standing in line behind Napoleon and his eight Officers on horseback. As we cheered the allied artillery starting firing at us, pyrotechniques were going off everywhere and we were covered in dirt and smoke. The horses in front of us became quite skittish and their riders struggled to control them. That was all except for Napoleon’s horse which stood bolt upright and still, almost as if it was proud to be carrying the modern day legacy of 200 years of history.

During the parade at the end of the battle Napoleon rode past the cheering crowds of spectactors and reenactors. He stopped his horse by our unit and said “vive le quarante-cinqième”. This sent shivers down our spines and was a very emotional moment. If an American can generate that feeling in an Englishman, 200 years after the event simply by representing Napoleon, I don’t see how the myth and legend of Napoleon will ever die.