3 – Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon is probably one of the most divisive figures in world history. Those who support the idea of the ‘great’ Napoleon would point to his multiple successful campaigns. Those who believe he is overrated can reference the high casualty rates he suffered throughout his military career. Certainly, the Corsican-born, self-proclaimed Emperor of the French, is one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of all time.
He enjoyed a string of impressive successes until his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. As future dictators were to discover, attacking Russia was a case of biting off more than he could chew and he suffered defeat after enormous casualties on both sides. After being exiled to Elba by his enemies in 1814, Napoleon escaped and raised yet another army. At the end of the One Hundred Days, he endured his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
Right up until 1812, the French army fought like a well-oiled machine during the Napoleonic Wars. He utilized conscription and created the efficient Grand Army, and the relatively short supply trains he used enabled the French to move much faster than other armies of the age. Perhaps his biggest mistake was ‘overreaching’ by attempting to invade Russia. It has to be said that the Russians enticed him into the invasion by violating the Continental System.
Napoleon used revolutionary tactics and was unquestionably a great leader of men, but it could be argued that he doesn’t deserve his place in the pantheon of all-time legendary military commanders. While the Grand Army’s ‘living off the land’ tactic worked well in central Europe, it was useless when invading Russia. It was also ineffective in Spain during the six-year Peninsular War due to the less fertile lands. The angry Spanish used guerilla-style tactics to ensure the French were not able to send small foraging parties.
In contrast, Wellington’s army established better relations with the Spanish and even paid for the food. His army moved at an almost glacial rate in comparison to the French but was better fed and rewarded with decent intelligence reports from the locals. In the end, the allies were able to push the French out of Spain.
Over the entire course of the Napoleonic Wars, some five million soldiers and sailors died. Regarding proportion of men at arms, this was a higher rate than WWI and WWII! The invasion of Russia was, of course, a costly mistake; Napoleon admitted as much later in his life. The campaign failed for a number of reasons; disease, the awful weather, faulty logistics, and ill-discipline.
The aforementioned ‘living off the land’ tactic failed Napoleon in Russia. He wanted his army to march up to 20 miles a day; his supply trains would go no faster than 12 miles. Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men, 50,000 horses and wagons with enough supplies to last 30 days. He foolishly believed he could win the war within 20 days by forcing the Russians to fight a major battle. As the French marched further into Russia, the lack of available supplies to live off became evident. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, and it took three months to reach Moscow. Within five months, only 100,000 tired and hungry men remained; defeat was inevitable.
Napoleon’s career had a profound impact on world history. He dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, reduced the number of German states to 50 from 300 and sold the territory of Louisiana to America. He enjoyed great victories but also suffered disastrous defeats. As a result, notions that he is an all-time great military commander are probably wide of the mark.