Friday 4 August 2017


My books about James Burke are largely set in the Napoleonic Wars - the only wars I can think of named after a person. Despite Napoleon's obvious importance, even more than 200 years after the end of his rule, there seem to be gaps in the "things that everybody knows" about him. Many people know that Napoleon wrote the palindrome 'Able was I ere I saw Elba' (actually, he didn't). But what was Napoleon doing on Elba in the first place? Who exactly was he and why did he become so important?

I'm nervous of adding to all the blogs about Napoleon, but I've finally decided to give it a go. This could grow into something bigger, so I'd be interested to know what you think. I know that the odd Napoleon buff reads this, so I'd like to hear what I've got wrong too. Email me at

A (very) short introduction to Napoleon

Anyone visiting the site of the Battle of Waterloo might be forgiven for thinking that Napoleon won it. Waterloo is famous as the battle that finally defeated the French emperor. Napoleon may well have been the loser, but it's fair to say that, even now, he occupies a far more splendid place in history than the Duke of Wellington, who commanded the forces that beat him. But who was Napoleon and why does he matter?

The popular image of Napoleon as the little corporal from Corsica who went on to conquer Europe is, at best, misleading. It underestimates his height, ridicules his rank and, by concentrating on his military achievements dismisses far more significant aspects of his impact on European history.

It is said that for every day since the Battle of Waterloo there has been one book published with "Napoleon" in the title. There's no need to add another to the list, but to understand Waterloo and its importance, it helps to have some notion of who Napoleon was.

Napoleon's achievements are systematically underrated in Britain for a very good reason: British wartime propaganda during the years of our conflict with France was remarkably effective and, after his defeat, there were few in Britain who wanted to speak up on his behalf. Over 200 years later, though, it's perhaps worth getting some of the details right.

The Corsican Corporal

Napoleon was, indeed, from Corsica. Corsica had been part of the Republic of Genoa until 1768 and at the time of Napoleon's birth, in 1769, people from mainland France looked down on Corsicans as not really French. This was particularly true for poor young Napoleon, who spoke French very badly and with a strong Corsican accent.

Napoleon's family were a minor branch of Italian nobility and, as his father (a prominent lawyer) supported the new French government of Corsica. This encouraged the French to recognise the Bonapartes (Buonapartes, as they then spelled their name) as aristocrats, despite their misfortune in being born Corsican.

When Napoleon was a young man there was a move by the government to encourage young men from the minor nobility to join the army. Ironically (by today’s standards) this was seen as an attempt to professionalise the army, which had become dominated by rich people often, in the view of the aristocracy, from unsuitable backgrounds. Whatever the merits of the idea (and the results suggested that it wasn’t entirely stupid), Bonaparte, as the son of a minor noble family in Corsica, qualified for a place at the prestigious École Militaire in Paris, which he joined in 1784. Although he is supposed to have been nicknamed ‘The Corsican Corporal’ by other officer-cadets at the school, he was never actually an NCO. Indeed, he graduated as an officer in one year instead of two, as the death of his father while he was in Paris left him running out of money. He was the first Corsican to graduate from the school.

It’s worth mentioning that Napoleon was of average height for the time. Cartoons published in Britain typically showed him as short and running to fat as part of a propaganda effort to (literally) belittle him. It was so successful that the image has stuck for two centuries. In fact, early portraits of Napoleon show a handsome young man.

Napoleon by Andrea Appiani c1801

A professional soldier

The idea of the École Militaire was to produce professional soldiers and Bonaparte was soon making his reputation in the army. He had a natural aptitude for mathematics and joined the artillery, where his skill rapidly brought into the notice of senior officers. Throughout his life, Napoleon was to be notable for his effective use of artillery.

Napoleon’s early military career featured Corsica quite heavily. As a Corsican he was posted there at a time when the locals were threatening to revolt against French rule. Napoleon’s sympathies were torn – he had strong personal ties with one of the rebel leaders – but eventually he committed himself to Paris. When the inevitable revolt finally broke out, the man who was to become one of history’s greatest generals had to retreat to France, driven out by a few rebels.

In fairness, Napoleon had been in an impossible situation, without the force he would have needed to suppress a population who had risen en masse against French occupation. Back in his adopted country, he returned to the artillery corps, rising through the ranks as he acquired seniority. By 1793 he was a captain. His general used to refer to him as “Captain Cannon”.

Napoleon first distinguished himself when the British, taking advantage of the unrest in France that followed the execution of Louis XVI, seized Toulon. In the fighting to recapture the town, Napoleon took the place of an artilleryman who had been killed at his post and burned himself handling a ramrod when it was too hot to be used safely. Foolish as this may have been, his action was seen as that of a brave front-line soldier as well as the excellent artillery tactician that he had already shown himself to be. His reward was to be promoted to general of brigade.

He came to national attention when, in 1796, he was given command of the Army of Italy. France had declared war on Austria and the French government’s plan was for Napoleon to invade northern Italy in what was designed as a diversionary attack to draw Austrian troops away from the Rhine front where the main French offensive was to take place. Instead, though, while the offensive on the Rhine failed, Napoleon led an outnumbered French force to a series of victories that ended with him entering Milan in triumph after only two months.

By 1797 Napoleon was carrying the fight to the enemy, with French troops moving into Austria. By April, he was threatening Vienna and the Austrians began negotiating for peace. 

Napoleon returned to Paris a hero. The republican government (called the Directory) was concerned that he might build on his popularity to become a political actor in France. In order to prevent this, he was sent to lead an invasion of Egypt. The invasion was one of Bonaparte’s few outright military failures. He eventually abandoned his force in Egypt and returned to France. (The French general he left in charge was unimpressed, telling his fellow officers: "That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit."  The French eventually surrendered to the British two years later.)

Despite the failure of the Egyptian campaign, Napoleon had had some success in battles against Turkey and, on his return home he was greeted as a conquering hero. France was in chaos and Napoleon saw the chance to move from a military to a straightforwardly political role. As he said, "I will arrive in Paris. I will chase out that bunch of lawyers who are making a mockery of us and who are incapable of governing the Republic. I will install myself at the head of the government and I will rally all parties in my support.” As was often the case with Napoleon, what sounded like simply a grandiose boast was a straightforward summary of the action he intended to take. 

In October 1799, Napoleon arrived in Paris. The Directory, which had been the ruling junta since 1795, was by then seen as corrupt and incapable. It was brought down in a coup early in November. Government by the committee of the Directory was replaced by government by three consuls. Napoleon, widely seen as both popular and strong, became First Consul.

More than just a soldier

For the British, even today, it is quite natural that we should see Napoleon mainly in terms of his military skill. British contact with Napoleon was mainly limited to contact on the battlefield. Elsewhere in Europe, Napoleon's genius as a ruler and administrator is more properly appreciated.

Napoleon saw himself as an embodiment of the Age of Reason. When he was eventually crowned emperor, in December 1804, he placed the crown on his own head. His position as emperor came about not because of a Divine Right, but by his own efforts.

He wanted to see Europe unified under French rule with a rational system of law. He introduced the Code Napoleon which is, even today, the basis of Western European legal systems. One of the difficulties that Britain has faced in harmonising with the other countries of the European Union has been that, because Britain was never part of the Napoleonic Empire, we have retained an older and completely separate legal system.

Napoleon replaced traditional systems of weights and measures throughout continental Europe. He introduced the metric system, which was based on careful Rationalist principles in which weights and measures were derived from precisely determined scientific principles. (If it turned out later that the distance between the North Pole and the Equator is not, in fact, exactly 10 million metres, this is a detail that we have found it easy to overlook.)

Napoleon was not simply a "big picture" manager. He had an almost obsessive interest in details. From ordering the cleaning up of rubbish in city streets to arranging for junior officers to marry their sweethearts, he was involved at every level of running his Empire.

What did Napoleon think was his greatest achievement? The 30 km of vaulted sewer that started the Paris sewer network that is still there today.

One thing Napoleon wasn't responsible for is the poplar trees planted along French roads. Although they are often said to have been ordered by him so as to shade his troops, they are clearly shown on the initial plans for the roads which date from the time of the monarchy.

Not tonight Josephine

Even the briefest of accounts of Napoleon's life would be incomplete without some mention of his wife, the Empress Josephine.

Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was born in the West Indies in 1763. She married a French general, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her husband was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. When Napoleon was in Paris after his successes in Italy, Josephine’s son, Eugene, approached Napoleon’s staff to ask if his father’s sword, confiscated at the time of his execution, could be returned to the family. Napoleon arranged for this and is supposed to have been present when the young man, seeing his father's sword again, burst into tears. Napoleon was touched by his sensibility and was so kind toward him that Josephine waited on him the next day to thank him for his attention.

Josephine had been working her way through a string of lovers and had soon added Napoleon to the list. They married in March 1796.

Josephine and Napoleon had a tempestuous relationship. Both had other lovers, but they do seem to have kept strong feelings for each other – why else would their quarrels have been so violent? 

However, like so many rulers, Napoleon was desperate for an heir to carry on his dynasty and he and Josephine had no children. In the end he had to divorce her, which he did early in 1810, leaving Napoleon free to marry Marie-Louise of Austria.

Further reading

For a discussion of the origins of the palindrome 'Able was I ere I saw Elba', have a look at Quote Investigator's excellent blog post at

For a discussion of admission criteria for the École militaire, see Harold Guizar 'Entering the École militaire: Proofs of nobility and the example of the girls’ school at Saint-Cyr' Historia 7:37-60 June 2015

An excellent account of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (which I drew on for Burke and the Bedouin) is Paul Strathern's Napoleon in Egypt (Vintage Books, 2008)

Buying my books

Apart from a passing reference to Burke and the Bedouin, there are no book plugs in this post. This reflects the fact that my books are no longer available from Accent Press in the UK. They will soon be available from Endeavour Press. (Feel free to write and tell them how much you are looking forward to that.) However, I do know that many of my readers are in the USA and you lucky people can still buy all my books through Simon & Schuster. You can even gift e-books through them, as one kind person has explained, having done just that.

Last month my blog had twice as many US readers as readers in the UK, yet my books hardly sell in America. If you enjoy reading the blog, it would be much appreciated if you would buy some of the books.


  1. Interesting, Tom - I´m just about to publish the first part of a book about Napoleon´s exile on St Helena - a day by day account of what happened based on all the extant diaries and letters. It´s called The Napoleon Diaries: Imperial Exile and will be released on August 15th - Napoleon´s birthday. Anyone interested in the period or the man would like it, I think - another attempt to "get closer" and find out who he really was. Will check out your books! Thanks, James (I´m Sid Madrid on Google). My real name is James Hartley - book published under that name.

    1. Napoleon was a fascinating man and a good subject to write about. As it happens, I began writing about his first year on St Helena, in a historical novel form, but it has not got very far and most is on notes and in my head! It is based around Napoleon and one of the lesser know couples on St Helena Island, Mrs & Mrs Skelton, who originally resided at Longwood during the summer months. In fact, I had the memories of Mrs Mary Skelton herself, from I believe a Past-Life. Interested to read your notes from the diaries which I have been gathering copies of myself whenever I see any, or photocopying from libraries. We should compare notes perhaps!

  2. A great blog Tom, thanks for sharing. Between you and Shannon Selin you have Napoleon well covered!
    I RTd on Twitter James Hartley's Q and A on his new book The Napoleon Diaries, thought his new book sounds fascinating and like his answers to the questions he was asked (and his first chapter, good old Albine Montholon!) An exciting addition to the historical novels about Napoleon and one I will be reading!
    My own book The Countess, Napoleon and St Helena is a nonfiction account of those years of exile and death, researched from unpublished original primary source documents written at the time, a 'diary' written by the other Countess, Fanny Bertrand!
    Looking forward to Endeavour Press publishing your Burke books �� ... soon I hope!
    Regards @LallyABrown