“I shall punish no one; I want to
(Napoleon before leaving Elba, 1815)*
It is often said that the child is the father of the man. As a small boy, Napoleon was pugnacious and feisty, but he had a marked sense of justice and a strong loyalty to his family. He was also very open-handed. Cronin remarks that: “He had a generous nature and would share his toys and sweets with other children without asking a return.” 1 A lot of nonsense has been written about Napoleon having had few friends. In fact, he had many friends throughout his life and he never forgot them. Above all else, he never forgot a kindness shown towards him.
Eleanor Roosevelt said that: “The basis of all good human behaviour is kindness.” 2 Napoleon instinctively knew that and, on many occasions, he demonstrated it with great liberality and genuine personal warmth.
For the women in Napoleon's life the look of love became the luck of love, for he was generous to them all. To his old wet-nurse, Napoleon returned the milk of human kindness. Corsican Camilla had doted on him as a baby and became an honorary member of the Bonaparte clan. She was very religious and when Pope Pius VII came to Paris to crown Napoleon Emperor, she begged to see him. Napoleon dutifully arranged it. Camilla's little Napoleone did her proud. How many divine right monarchs would have personally dealt with such a matter – and for a mere commoner? 3
For his mother, Madame Mere, Napoleon had the utmost respect. She had already had thirteen children by the age of 34 when her husband Carlo died – only eight survived. She was faithful to his memory for the rest of her long life. Stern but loving, her nature was reflected in Napoleon's own behaviour. She was also very careful with money, a trait her son shared.
When he heard of the death of Carlo, Napoleon wrote to console his mother:
Only today has calmed my first sorrow a little, and I hasten to tell you how grateful I am for all the kindness you have shown us. Be consoled, dear mother, circumstances demand it. We shall redouble our attention and our kindness to you, and we shall be happy if by our obedience we can to some extent make up for your dreadful loss of a dear husband... Your affectionate son Napoleon di Buonaparte.” 4
The writer was just fifteen years old.
When he met Caroline du Colombier in Valence, the youthful Napoleon found that his young heart was bursting. Still very shy, it remained a platonic relationship. In 1792 she married a retired army captain and went to Lyon. He did not to see her for twenty years, then, in 1805 he got a letter from her. The once gauche young suitor was about to be crowned King of Italy. Nevertheless, he found time to meet her at Lyon on his way to Milan. As Kemble relates: “In later years her husband was granted an official government post, her brother a lieutenancy, and Caroline herself was appointed lady-in-waiting to Madame Mere. In 1810 her husband was made a Baron of the Empire.” 5 Not a bad return for a few stolen kisses.
Another early flame was Mademoiselle de Lauberie de Saint-Germain. Many years later, she too was made a lady-in-waiting, this time to the Empress and her husband was made a Count. Napoleon liked to be surrounded by people he knew, and particularly dear to him were the friends and loves of his youth. 6
His best friend at the Ecole Militaire in Paris was Alexandre Des Mazis. He was a year older than Napoleon and his drill instructor. After the storming of the Bastille, Alexandre became an émigré. Years later, on 26 April 1802, Napoleon granted an amnesty to Frenchmen living abroad. Forty thousand émigrés returned, and Alexandre was amongst them. Cronin says: “Guessing he was penniless, Napoleon sent him a treasury bill for 10,000 francs and a word in his own hand: ‘Des Mazis, you lent me money once, now it is my turn.' ” 7
Napoleon demonstrated his physical bravery long before he went to war. In 1792, on a hot day in August, he was a witness to the massacre of the Swiss Guards at the Tuileries palace. The National Guard went on the rampage slaughtering up to 800 men. Sickened at the sight of well-dressed women abusing the bodies, Napoleon saw men from Marseille killing the survivors in cold blood. When one of them pointed a musket at a helpless victim, Napoleon intervened: “‘You're from the south? So am I. Let's save this wretch.' The Marseillais either from shame or pity, dropped his musket, and on that day of blood one life at least was saved.” 8
This courageous action encapsulates the essence of Napoleon. It demonstrates his sense of justice, his hatred of the mob, his feeling for his fellow man, and his incipient qualities of leadership. Despite all the slanderous words written about his supposed blood-thirsty nature, he was often deeply moved by the butcher's bill after a great battle – usually caused by subsidies from the English Cabinet – and equally, at the plight of an individual caught in the cross-hairs of a seeming implacable fate.
Robespierre was to opine that: “Clemency is barbarous,” 9 while as First Consul and then Emperor, Napoleon offered clemency even to barbarians – men who would be classed as traitors and rebels by the majority of his fellow citizens.
In 1793, he was posted to Portet. He took part in an attack against National Guardsmen from Marseille who had seized Avignon. Frenchmen blasted away at their countrymen and civilians were killed. Such atrocities made a mockery of his youthful ideals of equality and liberty. Deeply upset, he had what, in effect, was a nervous breakdown and he went to Beaucaire to recuperate. There he wrote Le Souper de Beaucaire – a personal tract against the brutality of civil war. 10
That same year, the British navy was supporting 18,000 foreign soldiers who had seized Toulon. Thanks to Napoleon's well-placed cannon, the invaders withdrew. The bestial Stanislas Freron had purged Marseille, now the reptilian Fouche was let loose on the unfortunate inhabitants of Toulon.
The latter wrote in a veritable ecstasy to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris : “We have only one way of celebrating this victory; this evening 213 insurgents fall under our thunderbolt. Adieu, my friend, tears of joy flood my soul...we are shedding much impure blood, but for humanity and for duty.” 11 Years later, Fouche tried to arrange for Napoleon to be captured by the vengeful Allied armies after Waterloo. He nearly succeeded. Back in 1793, Napoleon for his part was demonstrating his humanity.
A family of noble birth, called de Chabrillan were imprisoned by fanatical revolutionaries in Toulon and their prospects were grim. Napoleon brought up some empty ammunition boxes in which he secreted the terrified victims and sent them to Hyeres from where they emigrated. Had their absence been discovered, citizen Bonaparte might well have taken their place. 12
With the Whiff of Grapeshot in 1795, Napoleon effectively saved the gains made by the Revolution. As a reward he was given command of the Army of the Interior. “Now our family shall lack nothing,” he wrote. He gave his mother 50,000 louis; had Joseph made a Consul in Italy ; Lucien a Commissioner in the Army of the North; Louis became his aide-de-camp; and Jerome went to a good school. Napoleon wrote to Joseph: “You know, I live only for the pleasure I can give my family.” 13
Eventually, he made his brothers and sisters kings, queens, princes and princesses. Joseph, the eldest, became King of Naples and then King of Spain. Napoleon was proud of his family even though they all let him down in one way or another. Joseph, for example, abandoned Paris at a crucial time in 1814, leaving the city in the scheming paws of Talleyrand. As always, Napoleon forgave his siblings. He told Las Casas at Saint Helena : “Joseph would be an ornament to society wherever he might happen to reside; Lucien, an ornament to any political assembly; Jerome, had he come to years of discretion, would have made an excellent ruler; I had great hopes for him. Louis would have been popular, and a remarkable man anywhere.” 14
Nepotism yes, but loving one's family is not a crime; forgiving their errors is a mark of maturity and compassion. And his brothers and sisters were far better rulers than the odious Bourbons they usually replaced.
Napoleon was also generous to strangers and even enemies. In 1800, he crossed the Alps via the Great Saint Bernard Pass on a mule guided by Pierre Nicholas Dorsaz. The mule slipped and nearly took him over the edge of a precipice – but Dorsaz saved him. Finding that the peasant's dream was to own a farm, a field and a cow, enough for him to get married, Napoleon ordered 1,200 francs paid to him for his “zeal and devotion to his task.” The normal fee for a guide was 3 francs! 15
In a review at the captured Austrian palace of Schoenbrunn in 1809, he recognised a soldier who, nine years before at the siege of Acre in Syria, had risked his life to recover Napoleon's hat. He was given 50 francs. 16
When Captain Goedeck, a popular commander of the garrison of Wrietzen, was given a gift by thankful citizens, he suggested that the money be spent on five paroled Prussian officers who were in extreme want. When Napoleom heard of this he said: “Express to him my satisfaction and let me know what I may do for him.” 17
Nothing impresses a generous man like the generosity of another.
After the great victory of Austerlitz, the Emperor adopted the orphans of dead soldiers. He arranged for places to be found for the boys when they grew up and marriages were arranged for the girls, their dowries paid for by the state. When the Bourbons returned to power in 1814, they shut down the Invalides because it cost 700 francs a year to provide for each veteran, and sent them back to their own villages with 250 francs instead. Similarly, the orphans were kicked out of their boarding schools and sent packing. Of course, many of the children had no homes to go to. Such was the beneficence of the great house of Bourbon. They really knew how to take the biscuit. 18
At Wagram in 1809 Napoleon promised impressed Austrian boatmen 6,000 francs each for ferrying a scouting party across the Danube, then in spate. When his men returned with three Austrian prisoners, Napoleon doubled the reward - 12,000 francs, a colossal sum in those days. He ordered their release remarking: “that it might not be said that any soldiers, even enemies, had spoken to the Emperor of the French without receiving some benefit.” 19
In his will, he left ‘20,000 francs to a brave inhabitant of Bocagnano' in Corsica who rescued him from brigands during his time there in 1792-93. 20
Bravery always impressed Napoleon. When the siege of Mantua in Italy ended in 1797, in Cronin's words: “The Directors wanted Napoleon to shoot Wurmser, a Frenchman who had taken (up) arms against France, but Napoleon, who respected Wurmser's courage, disregarded the order, and allowed him to return to Austria.” 21 Not for the last time, Napoleon was magnanimous in victory. This was a quality which the so-called Allies utterly lacked.
Time after time, they attacked him: “In 1800, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1809, and 1814 his enemies struck first...” 22 After he had destroyed their armies, Napoleon replaced the arrogant, divine right monarchs back on their corrupt thrones. As Runciman states: “The Allies pursued Napoleon to his downfall. Their attitude during the whole course of his rule was senselessly vindictive...The exile of St. Helena acted differently... He made what he wished to be lasting peace, and allowed the sovereigns to retain their thrones. How often did he carry out this act of generosity towards Prussia and Austria ...” When defeated, they became “grovelling supplicants for mercy, which he never witheld.” 23
As Napoleon himself said to Caulaincourt, his ambassador in 1814: “These people will not treat; the position is reversed; they have forgotten my conduct to them at Tilsit. Then I could have crushed them; my clemency was simple folly.” 24
Even those who betrayed him spoke of Napoleon's generosity. Elting mentions that: “In his Judas memoirs, Marmont confessed that Napoleon never forgot any kindness done or service rendered him.” 25
To his own soldiers, he could be very tolerant. When Lannes spent 300,000 francs too much on uniforms, suckered by the criminality of the clothing contractors, Napoleon forced him to repay the money himself. Augereau bailed him out, but he was still disgraced. Napoleon, having made his point, then sent Lannes to Portugal as his ambassador, a very lucrative role indeed. Jean Lannes swore at Napoleon on occasion and the Emperor liked him all the more for it. But His Majesty was a great stickler where money was concerned as his old friend Bourrienne found out when he embezzled funds. Bourrienne was given a second chance but let Napoleon down again, after which he wrote some very unreliable memoirs about his former master for royalist readers, before going mad. Bourrienne is often quoted today as telling the gospel truth and is loved by one-sided British ‘historians'. Elting thought him so unreliable he refused to use any of his ‘memoirs' which are “mendacious and worthless.” 26
Napoleon gave new generals 20,000 francs; and 1,000,000 francs to all the marshals in the 1809 Austrian campaign. He also gave gifts to deserving soldiers. Elting adds: “Part was natural generosity: a man who lived simply and saved his money, Napoleon could be imperially munificent.” 27 Sadly, those to whom he gave the most, were usually the ones that betrayed him. But even Ney, who led the marshals' rebellion in 1814 was given another chance at Waterloo, despite him bragging to Louis XVIII about bringing Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage. Before Mont Saint-Jean, it was Ney's talent that had gone rusty and he threw the French cavalry away.
The rapport Napoleon had with the common soldier is legendary. At a review, a corporal of the Guard stepped forward and asked his Emperor for an advance in pay of 300 francs for the benefit of his sick mother. Napoleon suggested 1,000 francs instead, in the form of a treasury order. French bureaucracy being what it was, his old mother might be dead long before she saw a sou of it the corporal inferred. With some choice language, the Emperor of 20 million French and the overlord of tens of millions of others, dug into his own pockets, grabbed a handful of gold coins and told him to be off. 28
Before he died, Napoleon remembered everyone in his Will who had ever done him a favour and all the children and families of those that had died in his service. 29 And with the utmost self-control, tolerance and generosity, when still in charge of his vast domains, he refused to execute men like Talleyrand, Fouche and Bernadotte, self-seeking, grasping traitors that were not fit to be in the same room as him. Even though he had evidence of their double-dealing and treachery, Napoleon let them live. Why? Because Bernadotte was married to Desiree Clary whom Napoleon had once loved, and her sister was married to his brother Joseph – so ‘Pretty-Legs' Bernadotte was a member of his family, and gained sanctuary thereby. Talleyrand had once been his friend and had helped him in his early career. And even Fouche who, if kept in solitary confinement in a locked room, would have started to scheme and plot against himself, had done his duty on occasion.
So, Napoleon stayed his hand – and those three brought him down. The common soldier and the mass of the French population could hardly believe it. It is hard to believe even to this day.
John Tarttelin FINS