This article is also available on
at only $5-53 or £3-45



By John Tarttelin, MA (History)

Dedicated to General Michel Franceschi



“The great works and monuments that I have executed, and the code of laws that I formed, will go down to the most distant ages, and future historians will avenge the wrongs done to me by my contemporaries .”
Napoleon at Saint Helena


Napoleon in Egypt by Gérôme (1868)

“Will there ever be an adequate life of Napoleon?” wrote Lord Roseberry in 1900. 1 Nearly a hundred years later, David Hamilton-Williams stated that: “History has yet to record her final judgment on Napoleon.” 2 Stendhal enthused: “The more that the complete truth becomes known, the more that Napoleon’s greatness will be evident.” 3 Yet, David Chandler called him a “great, bad man.” 4

There appear, at first glance, to be many Napoleons, almost as many as that legion of writers who have executed a non-stop campaign over the past two centuries to blacken his name and destroy his reputation. Most have begun with obvious antipathy towards him and have not allowed facts to come between them and their bile. In their partial accounts they have barely scratched the surface of his complex personality and their angry pens have failed to drown his achievements under their lakes of bitter ink. Over eight generations, more than 250,000 books have been written about Napoleon, so wherein does his fascination lie and why do so many poor historians keep returning to the scene of their crimes, fascinated by the person they despise?

“Here’s a man!” exclaimed Napoleon when he met Goethe at Erfurt in 1808. 5 Having once favoured a literary career, for he himself was a novelist long before he was a warrior, Napoleon the life-long romantic, who had read Werther at least seven times, was happy to bestow upon its author the prestigious Legion of Honor. 6 And when he parted from him the Emperor said: “Come to Paris!” 7 Here was the man who with a little help from Marshal Davout destroyed the Prussian army at Jena-Auerstadt, honoring German culture by saluting its greatest living exponent. Simply a meglomaniac military dictator? Far from it. Napoleon was much deeper than that.

Goethe by Kolbe (1771-1836)

Goethe wore his ribbon proudly for the rest of his life. In Kolbe’s portrait of May 1822, the French rosette is prominent amongst Goethe’s other decorations – exactly a year after Napoleon perished in exile on Saint Helena.

Napoleon was a voracious reader and a discerning one. On campaign, if a book did not take his fancy, it was apt to be slung out of the window of his speeding Berline. Such a missile was a hazard of war that his duty squadron of Guard cavalry learnt quickly to accept. Napoleon was fascinated by other great minds and learned men and he sought them out on the most unlikely occasions.

Jan Sniadecki by Jan Rustem (1762-1835)

In 1812, the year after the passage of a spectacular comet, Napoleon was poised to conquer Lithuania, a whole Russian province, after barely firing a shot. Its capital Vilna lay at his feet. Yet half an hour before his triumphant entry into the city, he sent his aide Count Roman Soltyk on a mission to find one Jan Sniadecki, the Rector of the University. His reputation as a famous astronomer was well-known to Napoleon and he wanted to talk with him. Sniadecki began to put on his silk stockings and dress for the occasion. Soltyk told him: “Rector, it does not matter. The Emperor attaches no importance to exterior things which only impress the common people. Science is the dress of the wise.” 8 The Count knew his master well.

At the onset of his career, Napoleon exhibited both a passion for ancient history and the Orient. Although he admired Frederick of Prussia, his real hero was Alexander the Great. The Macedonian’s empire seemed to shine through the haze of centuries with particular fascination for the young French general and, in a real way, its brilliance could be said to have illuminated his own path and guided him to his own place upon the world stage.

Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus

The French Revolution had swept away the barriers to men of innate talent and ability and Napoleon harboured romantic dreams of his own. To him it was ‘the best of times’ when anything might be possible to a man prepared to seize and control his own destiny.

The expedition to Egypt of 1798 demonstrated his intellectual grasp, his quest for knowledge and his love of adventure. It was a roll of the dice, for the British navy controlled the Mediterranean, but it was a gamble that was to bring prestige and honor to the whole of France. With this in mind, no less than 177 scientists were given places in the flotilla that set its sails for the mystical East, the land of the Arabian Nights. Napoleon had bemused the Directory by insisting that the expedition should seek to advance the “Progress of Knowledge and the Development of Science and the Arts.” As General Michel Franceschi has written: “what distinguished this military operation from all others was the cultural and scientific dimensions which few historians accord its proper value.” 9

Talleyrand, who would later betray Napoleon time after time, played a pivotal role in getting the necessary political support in Paris for the whole project to be given the go ahead. It resulted in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the study of Egyptology, and the eventual uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb. 10 The rest, as they say, is history.

The Pyramids fascinated the whole French Army

Can anyone seriously consider Wellington, Kutozov or Archduke Charles engaging in such a mission? It wasn’t just as a military leader that Napoleon was in a league of his own.

The awe of the Orient held even the common soldier under its spell. At the first sight of the pyramids of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the French Army burst into a spontaneous round of cheers and applause. They were sons of the Enlightenment, some more sophisticated than others, but they were all adventurers and conquerors too, in the intellectual sphere as well as in the martial arena. Napoleon played to the national love of drama and spectacle when he declared on the eve of the Battle of the Pyramids: “From the top of these monuments, forty centuries are watching you!” They were each about to have their moment in history.

Cairo street scene

Many of Napoleon’s officers were intelligent, cultivated men, not at all the second-raters he was supposed to surround himself with according to some disparaging historians. Furthermore, Caulaincourt, his Grand Equerry, never spared the Emperor his most forthright opinions and he was respected all the more by Napoleon for it. Caulaincourt’s manner was so gracious that even the Tsar became his friend when he served as ambassador to Russia. Narbonne, the former Minister of War for Louis XVI and a major confidant, was another Napoleon listened to carefully. He nearly always asked for the opinions of his chief subordinates and even if he didn’t follow their advice, he weighed it all carefully. And his reading was so comprehensive that he knew of historical precedents for most of the paths he was to tread.

Napoleon inspired confidence in his men and in France at large. The outburst of popular joy at his return from Elba attests to this. Yet this support is often ignored by British historians who see his return simply as a declaration of war upon the Allies! The same Allies who were almost at war amongst themselves thanks to Castlereagh’s machinations and especially his betrayal of Prussia. This could have had calamitous consequences at Waterloo, because Gneisenau detested the British thanks to such treachery and only Blücher’s hatred of Napoleon and his sworn word to support Wellington at Mont Saint Jean led to over 40,000 Prussians engaging upon a very dangerous flank march between Grouchy at Wavre, and Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo, just in time to save the Duke.

British square at Quatre-Bras by Lady Butler

Blücher had been knocked off his horse at Ligny and Gneisenau wanted to retreat back to the Prussian homeland. Had his bruised and battered superior not turned up, Wellington would have been scuttling back to Brussels under cover of the 20,000 British troops he had posted at Hal for just such an eventuality. The man with the brass-plated smile nearly put the final nail in the coffin of Anglo-Prussian relations. His squalid suicide draws a veil over the unfortunate British Foreign Minister and the masque of Castlereagh.

Blücher on the battlefield

Napoleon had a human touch, he was happiest when he was amongst his soldiers unlike the monarchs of the ancien regime who lauded it over all they surveyed with their arrogant adherence to the doctrine of Divine Right. On the eve of Austerlitz, Napoleon astounded his Marshals and aides by discussing – literature.

After a few hours’ sleep, he made the final inspection of his troops only to stumble on the way back to his tent. A startled grenadier lit a straw torch to reveal the mud-splattered Emperor standing before him. “Vive l’Empereur” rang out and soon dozens more torches were lit on either side, and the acclamation swelled to a crescendo. Napoleon smiled. “This is the most beautiful day of my life! You are my children!” he said, but then his expression changed. He knew that within hours, many of them would be dead. 11

The victory at Austerlitz was total and complete. It was said after the battle that: “The English are merchants of human flesh. There can be no doubt, in the quarrel with England, France is right.” 12 But this wasn’t said by Napoleon, it was the remark of the Austrian Emperor Francis II who had been lured into declaring war against France by a huge English bribe. Francis II knew that he had been duped by the British. It would not be the last time. Even when he was a grandfather to Napoleon’s child, he allowed the sparkle of English gold to outweigh both his common sense and his national interest.

Napoleon led from the front, he literally put his own life at risk alongside that of his men. This physical bravery they could all identify with. It was a matter of honor not to flinch when under enemy fire. At Borodino, French cavalry withstood an intense artillery barrage, without hope of retaliation, for hours, in order to hold the line - Napoleon’s Grand Army had been much reduced in numbers during its march into Russia. A third of the men and horses were blown away. Foot soldiers charged into battle for him under withering fire, to the accompaniment of admonishing cries by their officers with comments like: ‘Raise your heads lads, those are bullets not turds!’

At Fere-Champenoise in March 1814, Pacthod’s 3,000 men had been constantly assailed by 20,000 Allied cavalry. After covering four miles under constant artillery bombardment and repeated cavalry charges, what was left of his squares finally surrendered. It was a brilliant display of courage under fire, worthy of the 300 Spartans. Pacthod offered his sword to the Tsar who had been stupified by what he had seen with his own eyes. Such an example of fortitude against overwhelming odds amazed him. When Alexander returned the sword as a mark of respect, his aide enquired: “Are you Napoleon’s Imperial Guard?” The reply will echo down the centuries: “No sir, you were lucky, we are only the National Guard!” 13

The Retreat by Prianishnikov

After all, these men were fighting for Napoleon, their legitimate Emperor, acclaimed by the French people and sanctified by the Pope himself. The fact he wasn’t there in person that day did nothing to reduce their stalwart adherence to his cause.

The mere presence of Napoleon had an electrifying effect upon his troops.

In 1812, lost in the snowy wastes of Russia, demoralized and freezing to death, Bourgogne and his friend Picart, the regimental marksman, were almost in despair. But they were men of the Guard. Picart said: “Cheer up, mon pays...if we are lucky enough to find the Emperor, it will be all right.” 14They did, and along with the other survivors of the Imperial Guard they fought at the Battle of Krasny where, as the Denis Davidov said: “The Guard with Napoleon passed through our Cossacks like a ship armed with a hundred guns passes through fishing boats.” 15

Vastly outnumbered, exhausted, beleaguered, their courage never deserted them, for they fought for such a man, and he in turn, was lucky to enjoy such loyalty and devotion.

Napoleon was ever approachable by his men. Often his aides and superior officers were shocked at the familiarity he allowed them to express, especially his Guard. His ‘Grognards’ – grumblers – could do no wrong and he seemed to know them all individually. Bourgogne records an episode in regard to a Sergeant Pierson. On July 4th 1812 at Vilna, Pierson was on guard over big ovens being constructed to bake bread for the Army. Napoleon came to see how things were getting on. Pierson took advantage of this to ask for a decoration. “Very well,” the Emperor replied, “after the first battle!” It wasn’t until March 16th 1813 that Pierson was able to remind him of his promise. “True,” Napoleon smiled, “at the works at Vilna.” 16 Pierson did have a distinctive ugly face but Bourgogne adds: “What a memory the Emperor had!” 17

Captain Coignet gives other examples of the closeness Napoleon felt towards his Guard. During the Waterloo campaign he was baggage-master-general and quartermaster of the palace – a big title for the smallest member of the Immortals. Sent on horseback to reconnoitre troops on a distant hill by Napoleon himself, he killed an English officer in a cavalry duel and returned to his Emperor. “Well, old grouser, I thought you would be captured...You have done well.” Turning to a Marshal he added: “ Make a note of this old grouser. After the campaign, we will see him.” 18 Sent later on another mission to find General Gerard at Ligny, he is addressed as if he were a personal friend of the Emperor’s. This rapport with the common man was unheard off amongst the rulers of Europe at that time.

At the end of that long day of June 18th 1815, the last glimmer of twilight was fading on the brilliant empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Coignet relates how Napoleon wanted to enter the square commanded by Cambronne, but the Generals protested: “What are you doing?” they cried...His design was to have himself killed. Why did they not allow him to accomplish it? They should have spared him much suffering, and at least we should have died at his side; but the great dignitaries who surrounded him were not anxious to make such a sacrifice.” 19

It was like a throwback to the mythic times of the Dark Ages and the belief that a lord’s retainers should die with their master or else face unending shame. Little Coignet was prepared to die by Napoleon’s side.

Such was the loyalty commanded by Napoleon, the one-time writer whose romantic nature and multi-faceted genius overawed his contemporaries. Here’s a man! The real Napoleon.


© John Tarttelin 2009






International Napoleonic Society publications. Quoted on inside back cover

4. DAVID CHANDLER said this in the Great Commanders video series about Napoleon. The original quotation comes from Clarendon’s description of Oliver Cromwell in his history of the English Civil War.


6.…The Sorrows of Young Werther was written by Goethe in 1774

7. HORST HOHENDORF op.cit., p.52

8. ANTONY BRETT-JAMES 1812 (1966) pps.45-46


10. Without Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt there would have been no real understanding of Egypt. His campaign made the Orient fashionable and turbans became all the rage for the ladies of Paris. More importantly, because of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion was able to decipher hieroglyphics for the first time. The famous ‘forty centuries look down on you’ remark was said just before the Battle of the Pyramids. FRANCESCHI Ibid., p.30

11. GENERAL MICHEL FRANCESCHI AUSTERLITZ (2005) International Napoleonic Society publications p.26

12. Ibid., p.35



15. PAUL BRITTEN AUSTIN 1812 THE GREAT RETREAT p.179. Colonel Denis Davidov was a leader of Russian partisans.

16. BOURGOGNE op.cit., p.254

17. Ibid., p.254

18. COIGNET op.cit., p.268

19. Ibid., p.272



3. ANTONY BRETT-JAMES 1812 (1966)


This article is also available on
at only $5-53 or £3-45