A quarter millennium of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was born 250 years ago, on August 15th, 1769. Serving as an army artillery officer in 1798 when the French Revolution took place, he rapidly rose through the ranks, becoming a general by age 24, and achieving national recognition when he conquered the Italian peninsula. He became First Consul in a 1799 coup, and Emperor of the French in 1804.

His career thereafter was marked by wars of conquest in Europe and Egypt, most of which he won. Although hailed as one of history’s greatest generals, he was more of a strategic general than a tactical battlefield one. He could take his troops rapidly, fed and supplied, to take enemies by surprise before they had time to form up against him.

Although revered as a hero in France, he made many disastrous mistakes. His appointment of his brother Joseph as King of Spain provoked a guerilla uprising aided by the British, and ended in his defeat in the Peninsular War. Although he inherited a huge conscripted army he turned into the Grande Armée, he led it into a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, and lost most of it.

He was a dictator, and like most dictators, exploited his power for what Corelli Barrett called “his personal megalomania goals.” He is praised for the Code Napoleon, doing what emperors do, codifying the law as Hammurabi and Justinian did, to extend tighter control over their whole territory. His code told people what they were allowed to do, and forbade everything else, unlike English law which tells you what is forbidden.

Like the Nazis who followed, Napoleon plundered conquered territories, filling French galleries and museums with artworks looted from across Europe. Fortunately for history, he came up against Wellington, who never lost a battle, and who finally ended his dictatorship. First at Leipzig in late 1813, then at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally beaten.

France is proud today of his achievements, but as historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, "After all, the military record is unquestioned - 17 years of wars, perhaps six million Europeans dead, France bankrupt, her overseas colonies lost." Yes, quite an achievement. Looking back, 250 years since he was born, we can set the record straight. He was just another military despot bent on power and conquest. He ruined millions of lives, as they all do.