It was reported last month that skeletons from soldiers who fought at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) were uncovered in Belgium. The Battle of Waterloo (pictured above in an 1815 painting by William Sadler) was the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Let us turn to a brief overview of the career of Napoleon I (1769-1821), would-be conqueror of Europe, which led to the road to Waterlosing.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. He was of Italian descent but the island became a French province the year he was born. From 1284, Corsica was under control of Genoa, but discontent with Genoese hegemony led to mass discontent and revolt. In 1755, Corsica achieved virtual independence under Pasquale de Paoli, but passed to French control upon purchase from Genoa and subsequent defeat of Paoli’s army in 1769. Napoleon attended military schools in France and joined the French Revolutionary Army. His formidable military abilities were soon recognised, such that at the age of 26 he led campaigns against Sardinia and Austria. His fellow Frenchmen may have questioned the bestowal of significant military offices on a young man of non-French extraction, but Napoleon showed through his successful campaigns that to the question of whether he was capable of serving the revolutionary regime, his response would be, ‘Course-I-can!’
Napoleon’s ambitions were political and imperial as much as purely military. Despite an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Egypt, due to the victory of the Royal Navy under the command of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he was not thwarted in his quest for power over France itself. In 1799, he joined a conspiracy to overthrow the Directory which had been ruling the French Republic, and was made First Consul. Having become the supreme ruler in France, he set about reorganising and modernising the legal system and code of laws, the administration of the state, the educational system, and even the church. France became the pre-eminent power of Europe through the establishment of treaties with the Austrians and British in 1801-2. Meanwhile, he sought to secure French power overseas in Haiti in 1802, which led to the betrayal and imprisonment of revolutionary leader Toussaint l’Ouverture. He was not quite emperor, but supreme power over France and its empire was a big Consul-ation prize.
In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French, establishing a court and nobility centered on himself and retracting liberalising aspects of the revolutionary constitutions. Many saw this as a betrayal of the French Revolution; others regarded it as the unsurprising outcome of the violent overthrew of the old regime. The European powers now pitted themselves against Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. Despite victory over his Austrian and Russian rivals especially at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire the following year, his efforts to control the continent and cripple the British economy were doomed. Napoleon’s forces met significant resistance by British forces in the Peninsular War (1807-14), fought in Spain and Portugal, while his invasion of Russia in 1812 famously ended in ignominious retreat due to the harsh winter, poor military infrastructure, and guerrilla attacks from the Russians–leading to nearly half a million deaths in his army. He was forced to abdicate a year after his loss at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, and was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. Napoleon’s imperial overreach was such that he was Russian into the jaws of defeat.
Nevertheless, he soon left Elba, persuaded by his followers and his own vainglory that he could return and successfully conquer Europe. He tried to assure both the royalists in France that he would govern in a kinder, gentler, and more liberal fashion than before, and other European powers that his intentions were peaceful ones, but neither were convinced. He attacked the Prussians, but the better manned army of the anti-Napoleonic forces defeated him at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Under the command of the Duke of Wellington, British, Dutch, Belgian, and German forces routed Napoleon’s army. Napoleon abdicated for the second and final time, and ended his life in exile on the remote south Atlantic island of St. Helena. Despite the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers at Waterloo, few remains have been uncovered, perhaps due to their being converted to fertiliser by locals. If the French emperor had perished in battle and his remains scattered over the fields, he would have lived up to the name of Napoleon Bones-apart.
Till next time,
Early Modern Waterloose cannon Studies Program