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Napoleon: A Life
     

Napoleon: A Life

3.4 8
by Andrew Roberts
 

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The definitive biography of the great soldier-statesman by the acclaimed author of The Storm of War—winner of the LA Times Book prize, finalist for the Plutarch prize, winner of the Fondation Napoleon prize and a New York Times bestseller
 
“A thrilling tale of military and political genius… Roberts is an uncommonly

Overview

The definitive biography of the great soldier-statesman by the acclaimed author of The Storm of War—winner of the LA Times Book prize, finalist for the Plutarch prize, winner of the Fondation Napoleon prize and a New York Times bestseller
 
“A thrilling tale of military and political genius… Roberts is an uncommonly gifted writer.”
– The Washington Post

Austerlitz, Borodino, Waterloo: his battles are among the greatest in history, but Napoleon Bonaparte was far more than a military genius and astute leader of men. Like George Washington and his own hero Julius Caesar, he was one of the greatest soldier-statesmen of all times.

Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is the first one-volume biography to take advantage of the recent publication of Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, which radically transform our understanding of his character and motivation. At last we see him as he was: protean multitasker, decisive, surprisingly willing to forgive his enemies and his errant wife Josephine. Like Churchill, he understood the strategic importance of telling his own story, and his memoirs, dictated from exile on St. Helena, became the single bestselling book of the nineteenth century.

An award-winning historian, Roberts traveled to fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battle sites, discovered crucial new documents in archives, and even made the long trip by boat to St. Helena. He is as acute in his understanding of politics as he is of military history. Here at last is a biography worthy of its subject: magisterial, insightful, beautifully written, by one of our foremost historians.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Duncan Kelly
Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy and presence of Napoleon the organizational and military whirlwind…His rapport with soldiers was unparalleled, and his ability to cultivate a stable image of authority while taking advantage of shifting situations made him not only an astonishing soldier but a terrific statesman as well…His dynamism shines in Roberts's set-piece chapters on major battles like Austerlitz, Jena and Marengo, turning visionary military maneuvers into politically potent moments that could bolster the four pillars of his rule at home—low taxes, property rights, centralized authority and national glory.
Publishers Weekly
10/06/2014
Military historian Roberts (The Storm of War) examines Napoleon Bonaparte’s life and times in excruciating detail, leaving out little, if anything, of consequence that happened to the legendary general and ruler of France during his 52 years. Roberts moves from Napoleon’s obscure Corsican origins to his meteoric rise to power, through his fraught personal relationships and his numerous military campaigns, to his sad and ignominious exile on St. Helena, where he died of stomach cancer. Basing his conclusions on a vast trove of Napoleon’s published letters and other contemporary sources, along with personal visits to 53 of 60 battlefields that figured in Napoleon’s career, Roberts argues that Napoleon was not only a brilliant military strategist but also a great statesman and a true intellectual. A micromanager, Napoleon effectively “compartmentaliz his life” to achieve success in both political and military realms—although less so with his wives and mistresses. “Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback,” Roberts writes, describing his coronation as Emperor of France as “a defining moment” of the Enlightenment. He contends that Napoleon’s downfall was due to a combination of unforeseeable circumstances and “a handful of significant miscalculations,” including the invasion of Russia. This is a definitive account that dispels many of the myths that surrounded Napoleon from his lifetime to the present day. Maps. Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land. (Nov.)
The Economist
Is another long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts's impressive book is an emphatic yes. The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon's 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor's many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read.
Sunday Times (London)
Entertaining, even addictive...Roberts writes with great vigor, style, and fluency.
Mail on Sunday
Magnificent...Roberts's fine book encompasses all the evidence to give a brilliant portrait of the man. The book, as it needs to be, is massive, yet the pace is brisk and it's never overwhelmed by the scholarly research, which was plainly immense.
The Observer (London)
Roberts not only brings the Napoleon story up to date but, with new evidence from the archives and an original spin on the present, makes a compelling case for why we should all read anew about the little Corsican in the 21st century.
Standpoint
Magisterial and beautifully written...A richly detailed and sure-footed reappraisal of the man, his achievements—and failures—and the extraordinary times in which he lived.
The Telegraph - Dan Jones
A huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography that is a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man—not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too...To dive into Roberts's new book is to understand—indeed, to feel—why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-09-09
More books have been written with Napoleon (1769-1821) in the title than there have been days since his death, writes prolific historian and Napoleonic Institute fellow Roberts (The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, 2011, etc.) in this 800-page doorstop. Entirely conventional and mostly admiring, it fills no great need, but few readers will complain. After his early years in the backwater of Corsica, Napoleon's influential father sent him to France at the age of 9 to learn French and be educated in an elite military academy. An obscure officer when the revolution broke out in 1789, he left his post to spend most of those years in a complex factional struggle in Corsica, which he ultimately lost. He fled to France in 1793, a penniless but fiercely ambitious artillery captain. Six years later, already a national hero after a brilliant campaign in Italy, he engineered a coup that made him dictator. For the next 15 years, except for a brief armistice, his armies rampaged through Europe, mostly crushing opposing forces until he overreached in Spain and Russia and went down to defeat and humiliating exile. "Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment," writes the author, "over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record." Readers will find this book to be a long but mostly pleasant reading experience, although some will doubt that Napoleon "saved the best aspects of the Revolution, discarded the worst, and ensured that even when the Bourbons were restored they could not return to the Ancient Regime." Other opinionated observers—Paul Johnson, Charles Esdaile, Alan Schom—consider Napoleon a self-absorbed opportunist plagued by his incompetent economics, pugnacious foreign policy, totalitarian government and massive propaganda, but Roberts offers a solid reconsideration.
From the Publisher
Praise for Napoleon

“An epically scaled new biography . . . Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy and presence of Napoleon the organizational and military whirlwind who, through crisp and incessant questioning, sized up people and problems and got things done. . . . His dynamism shines in Roberts’s set-piece chapters on major battles like Austerlitz, Jena, and Marengo, turning visionary military maneuvers into politically potent moments.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Roberts is a masterly storyteller. . . . I would recommend his book to anyone seeking an accessible chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Napoleon’s fantastic story.”
—Max Hastings, The Wall Street Journal
 
“With his customary flair and keen historical eye, Andrew Roberts has delivered the goods again. This is the best one volume biography of Napoleon in English for the last four decades. A tour de force that belongs on every history lover’s bookshelf!”
—Jay Winik, bestselling author of The Great Upheaval and April 1865

“Is another long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts’s impressive book is an emphatic yes. The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor’s many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read.”
—The Economist

“Napoleon remade France and much of Europe in his fifteen years in power and proved himself one of history’s greatest military commanders. Roberts’s access to Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, only recently available, allowed him to create a fully human portrait of this larger-than-life figure.”
—The Wall Street Journal, Holiday Gift Guide

“A huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography that is a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man—not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too. . . . To dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand—indeed, to feel—why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world.”
—Dan Jones, The Telegraph

“Roberts in his Napoleon achieves the near impossible by writing on this extravagantly well-covered subject with a freshness and excitement that makes readers think they have stumbled on something entirely new.”
—Philip Ziegler, The Spectator, Books of the Year

“Truly a Napoleonic triumph of a book, elegantly written, epic in scale, novelistic in detail, irresistibly galloping with the momentum of a cavalry charge, as comfortable on the battlefield as in the bedroom. Here, at last, is the full biography.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard, Books of the Year

“Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is a brilliant example of ‘great man’ history, brimming with personality and the high-octane Bonapartist spirit.”
—John Bew, New Statesman, Books of the Year

“Entertaining, even addictive . . . Roberts writes with great vigor, style, and fluency.”
Sunday Times (London)

“Magnificent . . . Roberts’s fine book encompasses all the evidence to give a brilliant portrait of the man. The book, as it needs to be, is massive, yet the pace is brisk and it’s never overwhelmed by the scholarly research, which was plainly immense.”
Mail on Sunday

“Roberts not only brings the Napoleon story up to date but, with new evidence from the archives and an original spin on the present, makes a compelling case for why we should all read anew about the little Corsican in the 21st century.”
The Observer (London)

“Magisterial and beautifully written . . . A richly detailed and sure-footed reappraisal of the man, his achievements—and failures—and the extraordinary times in which he lived.”
—Standpoint

“A definitive account that dispels many of the myths that surrounded Napoleon from his lifetime to the present day.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A compelling biography of the preeminent French general that stands apart from the rest, owing to the author’s thoroughness, accuracy, and attention to detail. Roberts relies on his military expertise, Napoleon’s surviving correspondence (33,000 items in all), and exhaustive on-site studies of French battlegrounds. . . . This voluminous work is likely to set the standard for subsequent accounts.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

Library Journal
★ 10/15/2014
Military historian Roberts (Lehrman Inst. Distinguished Fellow, New-York Historical Soc.; Napoleon and Wellington) revisits the subject of a former work with a compelling biography of the preeminent French general Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) that stands apart from the rest owing to the author's thoroughness, accuracy, and attention to detail. Roberts relies on his military expertise, Napoleon's surviving correspondence (33,000 items in all), and exhaustive on-site studies of French battlegrounds during the Hundred Days to carefully describe what each battle, including the Waterloo Campaign and the Neapolitan War, must have been like for victors and losers. In the process, he deflates many of the myths that still surround the emperor nearly 200 years after his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The author doesn't apologize for Napoleon's errors but the tone of his study is positive: Napoleon "personified the best parts of the French Revolution" and his example and military reforms impacted not only European life but had lasting consequences on how contemporary wars are fought. VERDICT This voluminous work is likely to set the standard for subsequent accounts of Napoleon's life. It should appeal widely to readers of all types. [See Prepub Alert, 6/2/14.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670025329
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/04/2014
Pages:
976
Sales rank:
165,223
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

List of Illustrations

Illustrations in the Text

1 Jacques-Louis David, sketches of Napoleon, 1797. Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Palais Masséna, Nice. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

2 Baron Dominique Vivant-Denon, title page of ‘The Description of Egypt’, 1809. Photograph: akg-images / Pietro Baguzzi

3 Charles-Joseph Minard, Graph to illustrate the successive losses in men of the French army in the Russian Campaign of 1812–13, pub. 1869. Photograph: © Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

4 Sèvres Manufactory after Antoine Denis Chaudet, Bust of Emperor Napoleon I, 1806. Bibliothèque Marmottan, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

Colour Plates

1 Andrea Appiani the Elder, Napoleon I Bonaparte, 1796. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Photograph: De Agostini Picture Library / © Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana–Milano / Bridgeman Images

2 Léonard-Alexis Daligé de Fontenay, The Casa Bonaparte in Ajaccio, 1849. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Jean Schormans

3 Caricature of Paoli and Bonaparte, from the atlas of a student named Vagoudy, c. 1785. Photograph: Archives Nationales, Paris

4 Louis-François Lejeune, The Battle of Lodi, c. 1804. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet / Gérard Blot

5 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon on the Bridge at Arcole, 1796. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

6 Louis-François Lejeune, The Battle of the Pyramids, 1806. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

7 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon visiting the wounded at Jaffa, 1804 (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Thierry Le Mage

8 I. Helman and J. Duplessi-Bertaux after Charles Monnet, The Coup d’état of 18 Brumaire 1799, published 1800. Photograph © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

9 François-Xavier Fabre, portrait of Lucien Bonaparte. Photograph: The Art Archive / Napoleonic Museum Rome / Gianni Dagli Orti

10 Jean-Baptiste Wicar, portrait of Joseph Bonaparte, 1808. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Gérard Blot

11 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Marie-Laetitia Ramolino (detail), 1803. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans

12 Salomon-Guillaume Counis, portrait of Marie-Anne Elisa Bonaparte, 1813. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Gérard Blot

13 Charles Howard Hodges, portrait of Louis Bonaparte (detail), 1809. Photograph: © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

14 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Hortense de Beauharnais. Private collection. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

15 Robert Lefèvre, portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, 1806. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

16 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Caroline Murat, 1800s. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Palais Fesch, Ajaccio. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot

17 François Kinson, portrait of Jérôme Bonaparte and his wife Catarina of Württemberg. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Franck Raux

18 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, portrait of the Empress Josephine, c. 1809. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet / Gérard Blot

19 Andrea Appiani the Elder, portrait of Eugène de Beauharnais, 1810. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans

20 Nécessaire of the Empress Josephine, made by Félix Remond. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Gérard Blot

21 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon as First Consul. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot

22 French School, Allegory of the Concordat, 1802. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

23 Louis Charon after Poisson, Costume of a Member of the Institut de France, c. 1802–10. Private collection. Photograph: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images

24 Jean-Baptiste Greuze, portrait of Jean-Jacques de Cambacérès. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais / Agence Bulloz

25 Andrea Appiani the Elder, Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix reading the order of General Bonaparte to two Egyptians. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

26 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Jean Lannes. Private collection. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

27 Henri-François Riesener (after), portrait of Jean-Baptiste Bessières, 1805. Photograph © Paris–Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée de l’Armée

28 Anne-Louis Girodet De Roussy-Trioson, portrait of Géraud Christophe Michel Duroc. Musée Bonnat, Bayonne. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais / René-Gabriel Ojéda

29 French School, caricature of William Pitt the Younger and King George III observing the French squadron, 1803. Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

30 Copy by Mudie of a Napoleonic medal celebrating the planned invasion of Britain, 1804. Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

31 Jean-Baptiste Debret, The First Distribution of the Cross of the Légion d’Honneur, 14 July 1804, 1812. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

32 Jacques-Louis David, study of Napoleon crowning himself Emperor, c. 1804–7. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Thierry Le Mage

33 Baron François Gérard, The Battle of Austerlitz, 2 December 1805, 1808. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

34 Pierre-Michel Alix after Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, portrait of Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, 1798. Photograph © Paris–Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

35 Flavie Renault after Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, portrait of Marshal André Masséna, 1834. Photograph: © Paris–Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée de l’Armée

36 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Marshal Michel Ney, c. 1805. Photograph: © Christie’s Images

37 Louis Henri de Rudder, portrait of Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Franck Raux

38 Tito Marzocchi de Belluchi, portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout (detail), 1852. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

39 Raymond-Quinsac Monvoison, portrait of Nicolas-Charles Oudinot as he appeared in 1792. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans

40 Robert Lefèvre, portrait of Marshal Charles-Pierre-François Augereau (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

41 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, portrait of Joachim Murat (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

42 Edme Bovinet after Jacques-François Swebach, The Battle of Jena, 14 October 1806. Photograph: JoJan

43 George Dawe, portrait of Field Marshal Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, c. 1816. The Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

44 W. Herbig, portrait of King Frederick William III of Prussia (detail). The Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

45 Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon I in Imperial Costume, 1805. Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais / Philipp Bernard

46 Jean-Antoine-Siméon Fort, The Battle of Eylau, 8 February 1807. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Droits réservés

47 Thomas Naudet, The Battle of Friedland, 1807, c. 1807–12. Photograph: Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, RI

48 Adolphe Roehn, The Meeting of Napoleon I and Tsar Alexander I at Tilsit, 25 June 1807. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Franck Raux

49 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Tsar Alexander I, c. 1814. Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. Photograph: akg-images / André Held

50 Baron François Gérard, portrait of Désirée Clary. Photograph: Alexis Daflos. The Royal Court, Sweden

51 Jean-Baptiste Isabey, portrait of Pauline Fourès. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Droits réservés

52 Ferdinando Quaglia, portrait of Giuseppina Grassini. Photograph: De Agostini Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images

53 Pierre-Auguste Vafflard, portrait of Marguerite Weimer (Mademoiselle Georges), 1805. Photograph © Collections Comédie-Française / P. Lorette

54 Jean-Baptiste Isabey, portrait of Countess Maria Walewska. Collection of the Patrimoine Comte Colonna-Walewski. Photograph Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Scala, Florence

55 Mayer & Pierson, Photograph of Comte Alexander Colonna-Walewski. Photograph: © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

56 Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (attr.), Portrait of a Lady said to be Éléonore Denuelle de la Plaigne with her son, 1814. Private collection. Photograph © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

57 Jean-Baptiste Isabey, portrait of Anne Hippolyte Boutet Salvetat (Mademoiselle Mars), 1819. Photograph: © By kind permission of the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London.

58 Albine de Montholon. Photograph: Roger-Viollet / Topfoto

59 Sèvres Manufactory, spindle vase owned by Madame Mère, depicting Napoleon crossing the Alps at the Great St Bernard pass, 1811. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Droits réservés

60 François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter, Bernard Poyet and Agustin-François-André Picot, the imperial throne of Napoleon for sittings of the Legislative Body, 1805. Photograph: © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / Jean Tholance. Tous droits réservés

61 Henri Auguste, the Emperor’s Nef, 1804. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski

62 French School, The Construction of the Vendôme Column, c. 1803–10. Musée National du Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

63 Henri Courvoisier-Voisin, The Palais de la Bourse, c. 1826. Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Photograph: Giraudon / Bridgeman Images

64 Claude François de Méneval. Photograph: Mary Evans Picture Library / Epic

65 Lemercier, portrait of Baron Agathon-Jean-François Fain. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Photograph: Roger-Viollet / Topfoto

66 Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, A heroic feat! With dead men!, illustration from The Disasters of War, pub. 1863. Photograph: Index / Bridgeman Images

67 Adolphe Roehn, Bivouac of Napoleon on the battlefield at Wagram during the night of 56 July 1809 (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

68 Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, The Meeting of Napoleon and Francis II after the Battle of Austerlitz, 4 December 1805 (detail). Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet

69 Sir Thomas Lawrence, portrait of Prince Clemens Metternich (detail), 1815. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2014. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

70 Sir Thomas Lawrence, portrait of Carl Philip, Prince Schwarzenberg, 1819. The Royal Collection © 2014 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

71 Baron François Gérard, portrait of the Empress Marie Louise, 1810. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

72 Baron François Gérard, portrait of the King of Rome. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans

73 Josef Lanzedelli the Elder, portrait of Adam Albert von Neipperg (detail), c. 1810. Photograph: © Stadtverwaltung, Schwaigern

74 Antoine Charles Horace Vernet after Étienne-Alexandre Bardin, Uniforms of a line infantryman and second flagbearer, illustration from the Bardin Regulations. Photograph: © Paris–Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

75 Christian Johann Oldendorp, View of the Kremlin during the Burning of Moscow, September 1812. Photograph: De Agostini Picture Library / M. Seemuller / Bridgeman Images

76 Faber du Faur, On the Road, Not Far From Pneva, 8 November 1812, illustration from Blätter aus meinem Portefeuille, im Laufe des Fel, c. 1830s. Photograph: Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, RI

77 V. Adam (after), The Berezina Passage. Brown University Library, Providence, RI. Photograph: Bridgeman Images

78 Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, portrait of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord (detail), 1817. Purchase, Mrs Charles Wrightsman Gift, in memory of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, 1994. Accession Number: 1994.190. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

79 French School, portrait of Joseph Fouché. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

80 Studio of Baron François Gérard, portrait of Charles-Jean Bernadotte, 1811. Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

81 Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin, portrait of Marshal Auguste de Marmont, 1834. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

82 Anon., Napoleon bidding adieux to his army, in the court of the castle of Fontainebleau, 20 April 1814. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Photograph: Roger-Viollet / Topfoto

83 George Cruikshank, The Flight of Bonaparte from the field of Waterloo Accompanied by his Guide, 1816. Private collection. Photograph: The Stapleton Collection / Bridgeman Images

84 Count Louis-Joseph-Narcisse Marchand, View of Longwood (detail), 1820. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau) / Gérard Blot

85 Anon., portrait of Napoleon during his last weeks in St Helena. © Bodleian Library, Oxford (Curzon Atlantic a1 folio 19)

86 Charles Joseph Hullmandel after Captain Frederick Marryat, Napoleon Bonaparte laid out after Death, 1821. Photograph: Wellcome Library, London

List of Maps

1. Napoleonic Paris

2. Revolutionary and Napoleonic France

3. Northern Italy, 1796–97

4. Europe after the Peace of Campo Formio

5. The Egyption and Syrian campaigns, 1798–99

6. Northern Italy, 1796–1800

7. The Battle of Marengo

8. Germany before and after the Treaty of Lunéville

9. Movement of the Grande Armée from the Channel coast to the Rhine

10. From Ulm to Austerlitz

11. The Battle of Austerlitz

12. The Confederation of the Rhine, 1807

13. Prussian and Polish campaigns, 1806–7

14. The Jena campaign and battlefield, 1806

15. The Battle of Eylau

16. The Battle of Friedland

17. Spain and Portugal

18. Landshut campaign, 1809

19. The Battle of Wagram

20. The Empire at its furthest extent, 1812

21. Napoleon’s route to and from Moscow in 1812

22. The Battle of Borodino

23. The 1813 campaign

24. The Battle of Dresden

25. The Battle of Leipzig

26. The 1814 campaign

27. The route Napoléon, 1815

28. The Waterloo campaign

29. The Battle of Waterloo, 18 June

Acknowledgements

Having now spent longer researching and writing this book than Napoleon himself spent on St Helena and Elba put together, I’ve collected a disconcertingly large array of people whom I would like to thank for their unfailing generosity, good nature, time and help. They include President Nicolas Sarkozy for his insights into the state of thinking about Napoleon in France today; David Cameron and Rodney Melville for allowing me to research the Napoleon correspondence at Chequers; Xavier Darcos of the Academie Française and Institut de France for introductions in Paris; Mervyn King for his thoughts on French and British debt-financing of the Napoleonic Wars; Carole Aupoix for showing me a louse such as the ones that spread the typhus that devastated Napoleon’s armies in Russia; the late Archduke Otto von Hapsburg for his views on Marie Louise’s ‘déclassé’ marriage to Napoleon; Lady Mary Berry for showing me the chairs used at the Congress of Vienna; Jayne Wrightsman for showing me her collection of Napoleonic book bindings; Robert Pirie for his encouragement; the late Lady Alexandra Dacre for her memories of the Empress Eugénie; Dušan Frýbort at Austerlitz, for letting me fire his Napoleonic musket; Ms Evan Lattimer for allowing me to see what is purported to be Napoleon’s ‘tendon’; Charles-Henry and Jean-Pascal Tranié; Jerry and Jane Del Missier for their wonderful hospitality on Lake Geneva; Nicholas Steed for his reports on Napoleon in Malta; the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon for showing me Napoleon’s chair from Fontainebleau and desk from the Tuileries; Robin Birley for his great generosity; the Countess of Rosebery for showing me the Emperor’s travelling library; Dr Henry Kissinger for his thoughts on the Congress of Vienna; Prof. Charles Esdaile for inviting me to his excellent Napoleon at the Zenith conference at Liverpool University in 2007; Deborah Edlmann; Rurik Ingram; my cousins Philip and Sandra Engelen for putting me up in Cape Town on my St Helena journey (which took me a fortnight, largely by Royal Mail ship); Zac Gertler for his hospitality and generosity in Tel Aviv; Caroline Dalmeny for lending me a lock of Napoleon’s hair, which has sat on my desk throughout, inspiring me, and Baudouin Prot of BNP Paribas for allowing me to visit the room in which Napoleon and Josephine were married. I would also like to apologize profoundly to Jérôme Tréca and the staff of Fontainebleau Palace for setting off the burglar alarms in Napoleon’s throne room no fewer than three times.

An historian who doesn’t visit battlefields is akin to a detective who doesn’t bother to visit the scene of the crime. In the course of researching this book I have visited fifty-three of Napoleon’s sixty battlefields, most of them in the company of the distinguished military historian John Lee. It has been one of the greatest pleasures of writing this book to have walked with John over the ground of Montenotte, Mondovi, Lodi, Mantua, Arcole, Castiglione, Rivoli, Rovereto, Dego, Marengo, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Abensberg, Landshut, Eggmühl, Ratisbon, Aspern-Essling, Wagram, Maloyaroslavets, Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden, Leipzig, Reichenbach, Brienne, La Rothière, Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, Vauchamps, Montereau, Craonne, Laon, Reims, Arcis-sur-Arbe and St-Dizier. John’s advice and insights in our blizzards of emails have been sans pareil, his battle-notes from Napoleon’s campaigns have proved completely invaluable, and his friendship is a joy. I cannot thank him enough, as well as his wife Celia, who has put up with him coming battlefielding with me so very often.

In the sixty-nine archives, libraries, museums and research institutes that I’ve visited in fifteen countries during the course of my researches, I’ve met with nothing but helpfulness and friendliness, and I would in particular like to thank:

France: Sacha Topalovich and Florence Tarneaud at the Archives Nationales, Paris; Y. Bamratta and Laurence Le Bras at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s Tolbiac and Richelieu sites respectively; Anne Georgeon-Liskenne at the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, La Courneuve; Claude Ponnou and Thisio Bernard at the Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes; Sylvie Biet and Danièle Chartier at the Bibliothèque Thiers; Gérard Leyris at the Musée Carnavalet; the British ambassador to Paris, Sir Peter Westmacott, and his butler, Ben Newick, for showing me around Pauline Borghese’s house in Paris, now the British Embassy; Susanne Wasum-Rainer, the German ambassador to Paris, for showing me around her residence, l’Hôtel de Beauharnais, Josephine’s immaculate present to her son Eugène; Léonore Losserand at St-Joseph-des-Carmes; David Demangeot, curator at the former palace of St-Cloud; Aurore Lacoste de Laval at the École Militaire; Christopher Palmer, First Secretary at the US Embassy in Paris, and Mrs Robin Smith, the Directrice of the Marshall Center at the Hôtel Talleyrand; Angelique Duc at the Musée Napoléon de Brienne-le-Château; Fanny de Jubecourt at Les Invalides and the Musée de l’Armée; Dr Thierry Lentz and Prof. Peter Hicks for being so welcoming at the superb Fondation Napoléon; Alain Pougetoux at the Château de Malmaison; Xavier Cayon at the Conseil d’État in the Palais-Royal (formerly the Tribunate); Mme Marianne Lambert at Marshal Lannes’ Château de Maisons-Laffitte; M and Mme Benoit D’Abonville; Quentin Aymonier at the Fort de Joux in the Jura; my son Henry and daughter Cassia for accompanying me to Corsica; the staffs of the Palais et Musée de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris; the Musée de la Préfecture de Police, Paris; the Maison d’Éducation de la Légion d’Honneur at St-Denis; the Panthéon, and the Musée Fesch and the Musée National de la Maison Bonaparte in Ajaccio, Corsica.

Russia: Alexander Suhanov and Elvira Chulanova of the State Museum of Borodino for showing me around the battlefield of Borodino; Oleg Aleksandrov of Three Whales Tours for taking me to the battlefield of Maloyaroslavets; Maciej Morawski of City Events for taking me to the battlefields of Eylau and Friedland in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad; Konstantin Nazarov at the Maloyaroslavets Military History Museum; Alexandr Panchenko of the Bagrationovsk Historical Museum on the Eylau battlefield; Valery Shabanov and Vladimir Ukievich Katz of the Russian State Military Historical Archive in Moscow, and Marina Zboevskaya of the Borodino Panorama Museum in Moscow.

Belarus: Prof. Igor Groutso for showing me the battlefield of the Berezina river, and Rakhovich Natalya Stepanovna of the Borisov Combined Museum.

Israel: Dr Eado Hecht for showing me the battlefields of Kakun, Jaffa and Mount Thabor, and Dr Alon Keblanoff for showing me the siege sites of Acre; Prof. Azar Gat of Tel Aviv University, and Liat Margolit at the Tel Dor Archaeological Museum.

St Helena: Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the supremely diligent French Honorary Consul and Conservator at Longwood for my hugely enjoyable days there; Aron Legg for showing me Mount Pleasant, Diana’s Peak, Prosperous Bay, The Briars, Sandy Bay and Jamestown, and Andrew Wells, the former Chief Secretary of St Helena.

Belgium: Ian Fletcher and Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, who showed me Waterloo; Benoît Histace, President of the Museum of the Battle of Ligny, who took me around the battlefield of Ligny, and Count François and Countess Susanne Cornet d’Elzius, the owners of La Haie Sainte.

Great Britain: Lucy McCann at the Rhodes House Library, Oxford; Leigh McKiernan at the Special Collections Reading Room of the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Prof. Nick Mayhew of the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Allen Packwood at the Churchill Archives, Cambridge; Josephine Oxley at Apsley House; Paul Roberts at the British Museum; Katy Canales and Pim Dodd at the National Army Museum; Hilary Burton and John Rochester at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Richard Daniels at the London College of Communication; Richard Tennant of the British Commission for Military History, and the staffs of the Royal Navy Museum at Portsmouth, the British Library and the London Library.

Italy: Lario Zerbini at the Rivoli Museum; my daughter Cassia for accompanying me to Elba; Nello Anselmi at the Santuario della Madonna del Monte at Marciana, Elba; Elisabetta Lalatta of the Fondazione Serbelloni at the Palazzo Serbelloni in Milan; Riccardo Bianceli at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, and the staffs of the Museo Napoleonico in Rome, the Marengo Museum at Spinetta Marengo, the Villa Reale at Monza, and the Villa di San Martino, Elba.

The Czech Republic: Simona Lipovska of the Cairn of Peace Memorial Museum and Jana Slukova of Slavkov Castle at Austerlitz.

Austria: Helmut Tiller of the Aspern and Essling Museums; Rupert Derbic of the Wagram Museum, and the staffs at Schönbrunn Palace and the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna.

Portugal: Mark Crathorne and Luiz Saldanha Lopes for showing me around Forts 40, 41, 42, 95 of the Lines of Torres Vedras; and the staff of the Military Museum of Lisbon.

Germany: The staffs of the Bavarian Army Museum at Ingolstadt, the 1806 Museum at JenaCospeda, and the Torhaus Museum in Markkleeberg on the Leipzig battlefield.

The United States: Jay Barksdale of the Allen Room and Elizabeth Denlinger of the Pforzheimer Room at the New York Public Library; Declan Kiely at the Pierpont Morgan Library; Kathryn James at the Beinecke Library and Steve Ross at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale; Elaine Engst and Laurent Ferri at the Carl A. Kroch Library’s Manuscript Collections at Cornell University; the Merrill family, who so generously funded my visiting professorship at Cornell; Prof. Barry and Dr Marcia Strauss at Cornell for their delightful hospitality and my students there who came up with their own reasons for why Napoleon invaded Russia; Prof. Rafe Blaufarb, Director of the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, for making my stay at Florida State University so enjoyable; Eric Robinson of the New-York Historical Society Library; Katie McCormick at the Robert Manning Strozier Library at Florida State University Special Collections; Elisabeth Fairman at the Yale Center for British Art; Dr Robert Pickering, Curator of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dr William J. Lademan, Director of the Wargaming Division at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

Sweden: Aviva Cohen-Silber for showing me the Bernadotte Rooms at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Switzerland: Paola Gianoli Tuena at the Château Le Coppet on Lake Geneva.

Canada: Bruce McNiven for showing me around the Napoleon galleries at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

I would also like to thank Josh Sutton, Charlie Mitchell and Katie Russell for their historical research, as well as Julie di Filippo for German translations, Beata Widulinska for Polish, Timothy Chapman for Spanish, Eado Hecht for Hebrew, Dr Galina Babkova for Russian, and Annaliese Ellidge-Weaver, Helena Fosh, Maxine Harfield-Neyrand, Gilles Vauclair and Carole Aupoix for French. Maxine was particularly encouraging and helpful in negotiating through the sometimes arcane byways of five Parisian research institutions.

This book was written while I was filming a BBC TV documentary series about Napoleon, and I would like to thank David Notman-Watt, Simon Shaps, David Barrie, Anna Dangoor, Patrick Duval and Tony Burke for making the whole process so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Since Napoleon’s death has become – needlessly in my view – so controversial, I took expert medical advice about the Emperor’s death from Dr Tim Barrie, Prof. Ira Jacobsen of Cornell, Dr Albert Knapp, Dr Robert Krasner, Dr Archana Vats, Dr James Le Fanu, Dr Pamela Yablon, Dr Guy O’Keefe and Dr Michael Crumplin, to whom I extend my thanks. I should also like to thank Dr Frank Reznek for his diagnosis on Napoleon’s dental problems on St Helena.

For reading my manuscript and their invaluable suggestions for its improvement, I would like to thank Helena Fosh, Sudhir Hazareesingh, John Lee, Stephen Parker, Jürgen Sacht and Gilles Vauclair.

My agent Georgina Capel of Capel & Land and publishers Stuart Proffitt and Joy de Menil of Penguin have been their usual perfect models of efficiency, professionalism and charm, as were my inspired copy-editors Peter James and Charlotte Ridings. The painstaking work that Stuart and Joy put into this book improved it enormously, and I really cannot thank them enough for it.

My fabulous wife Susan Gilchrist has examined guillotine blades with me, counted the skulls of massacred monks in the crypt of the church where Josephine was imprisoned, driven with me along the Route Napoléon, and went to the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo with me, not just for its inherent architectural and cultural interest, but because it was where the 1798 revolt began and ended. I couldn’t have written this book without her constant love and support; she’s my Josephine, Marie Louise and Marie Walewska all rolled into one.

This book is dedicated to my siblings Ashley Gurdon and Matthew and Eliot Roberts, for putting up with their know-all big brother for so long and so graciously.

Andrew Roberts

2, rue Augereau, Paris

www.andrew-roberts.net

Introduction

Napoleon Bonaparte was the founder of modern France and one of the great conquerors of history. He came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee. As First Consul and later Emperor, he almost won hegemony in Europe, but for a series of coalitions specifically designed to bring him down. Although his conquests ended in defeat and ignominious imprisonment, over the course of his short but eventful life he fought sixty battles and lost only seven. For any general, of any age, this was an extraordinary record. Yet his greatest and most lasting victories were those of his institutions, which put an end to the chaos of the French Revolution and cemented its guiding principle of equality before the law. Today the Napoleonic Code forms the basis of law in Europe and aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries spanning every continent except Antarctica. Napoleon’s bridges, reservoirs, canals and sewers remain in use throughout France. The French foreign ministry sits above the stone quays he built along the Seine, and the Cour des Comptes still checks public spending accounts more than two centuries after he founded it. The Légion d’Honneur, an honor he introduced to take the place of feudal privilege, is highly coveted; France’s top secondary schools, many of them founded by Napoleon, provide excellent education and his Conseil d’État still meets every Wednesday to vet laws. Even if Napoleon hadn’t been one of the great military geniuses of history, he would still be a giant of the modern era.

The leadership skills he employed to inspire his men have been adopted by other leaders over the centuries, yet never equaled except perhaps by his great devotee Winston Churchill. Some of his techniques he learned from the ancients—especially his heroes Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar—and others he conceived himself in response to the circumstances of the day. The fact that his army was willing to follow him even after the retreat from Moscow, the battle of Leipzig and the fall of Paris testifies to his capacity to make ordinary people feel that they were capable of doing extraordinary, history-making deeds. A more unexpected aspect of Napoleon’s personality that also came out strongly over the course of researching this book was his fine sense of humour. All too often historians have taken seriously remarks that were clearly intended as humorous. Napoleon was constantly joking to his family and entourage, even in the most dire situations. Scores of examples pit this book.

Napoleon’s love affair with Josephine has been presented all too often in plays, novels and movies as a Romeo and Juliet story: in fact, it was anything but. He had an overwhelming crush on her, but she didn’t love him, at least in the beginning, and was unfaithful from the very start of their marriage. When he learned of her infidelities two years later while on campaign in the middle of the Egyptian desert, he was devastated. He took a mistress in Cairo in part to protect himself from accusations of cuckoldry, which were far more dangerous for a French general of the era than those of adultery. Yet he forgave Josephine when he returned to France, and they started off on a decade of harmonious marital and sexual contentment, despite his taking a series of mistresses. Josephine remained faithful and even fell in love with him. When he decided to divorce for dynastic and geostrategic reasons, Josephine was desolate but they remained friendly. Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, would also be unfaithful to him, with an Austrian general Napoleon had defeated on the battlefield but clearly couldn’t match in bed.

Napoleon was able to compartmentalize his life to quite a remarkable degree, much more so even than most statesmen and great leaders. He could entirely close off one part of his mind to what was going on in the rest of it; he himself likened it to being able to open and close drawers in a cupboard. On the eve of battle, as aides-de-camp were arriving and departing with orders to his marshals and reports from his generals, he could dictate his thoughts on the establishment of a girls’ school for the orphans of members of the Légion d’Honneur, and shortly after having captured Moscow he set down the regulations governing the Comédie-Française. No detail about his empire was too minute for his restless, questing energy. The prefect of a department would be instructed to stop taking his young mistress to the opera; an obscure country priest would be reprimanded for giving a bad sermon on his birthday; a corporal told he was drinking too much; a demi-brigade that it could stitch the words ‘Les Incomparables’ in gold onto its standard. He was one of the most unrelenting micromanagers in history, but this obsession with details did not prevent him from radically transforming the physical, legal, political and cultural landscape of Europe.

More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821. Admittedly, many have titles like Napoleon’s Haemorrhoids and Napoleon’s Buttons, but there are several thousand comprehensive, cradle-to-grave biographies too. Every one of them published since 1857 relied upon the correspondence that Napoleon III published as a tribute to his uncle. We now know that this was shamefully bowdlerized and distorted for propaganda purposes: letters that Napoleon never wrote were included while embarrassing or compromising ones that he did write were passed over. In all the compendium included only two-thirds of his total output.

In one of the great publishing endeavours of the twenty-first century, the Fondation Napoléon in Paris has since 2004 been publishing every one of the more than 33,000 letters that Napoleon signed. The culmination of this immense project demands nothing less than a complete re-evaluation of this extraordinary man. Napoleon represented the Enlightenment on horseback. His letters show a charm, humour and capacity for candid self-appraisal. He could lose his temper—volcanically so on occasion—but usually with some cause. Above all he was no totalitarian dictator, as many have been eager to suggest: he may have established an unprecedentedly efficient surveillance system, but he had no interest in controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives. Nor did he want the lands he conquered to be ruled directly by Frenchmen. He believed that one can control foreign lands only by winning over the population and sought accordingly to present himself in terms that would make him sympathetic to the locals, feigning sympathy for their religion as a means to an end. (It is notable that his strategies varied considerably in Italy, Egypt and Germany.) In the one instance where this was not the case—Haiti—he later acknowledged that the brutality of his policies had compromised his effectiveness and mused with foresight that one could not keep people subject for long at a great distance. Above all he hoped to modernize Europe.

‘They seek to destroy the Revolution by attacking my person,’ he said after the failure of the royalist assassination plot of 1804. ‘I will defend it, for I am the Revolution.’ His characteristic egotism aside, Napoleon was right. He personified the best parts of the French Revolution, the ones that have survived and infused European life ever since. Although the Terror had finished five years before he grabbed power, the Jacobins were a powerful force who could always return. Similarly, a royalist restoration which would have wiped away the benefits of the Revolution was also possible. Instead, the fifteen-year rule of Napoleon saved the best aspects of the Revolution, discarded the worst and ensured that even when the Bourbons were restored they could not return to the Ancien Régime.

The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire. At the same time he dispensed with the absurd revolutionary calendar of ten-day weeks, the theology of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the corruption and cronyism of the Directory and the hyper-inflation that had characterized the dying days of the Republic. ‘We have done with the romance of the Revolution,’ he told an early meeting of his Conseil d’Etat, ‘we must now commence its history.’

For his reforms to work they needed one commodity that Europe’s monarchs were determined to deny him: time. ‘Chemists have a species of powder out of which they can make marble,’ he said, ‘but it must have time to become solid.’ Because many of the principles of the Revolution threatened the absolute monarchies of Russia (which was to practice serfdom until 1861), Austria and Prussia, and the nascent industrial kingdom of England, they formed seven coalitions over twenty-three years to crush revolutionary France. In the end they succeeded, but, thanks to Napoleon, the Bourbons were too late to destroy the revolutionary principles he had codified into law. Many of those who opposed him were forced to adopt aspects of his reforms in their own countries in order to defeat him.

‘There are two ways of constructing an international order,’ Henry Kissinger wrote in A World Restored, ‘by will or by renunciation; by conquest or by legitimacy.’ Only one of these was open to Napoleon. In Britain, which had already had its revolution 140 years earlier and thus enjoyed many of the legal benefits that the Revolution brought to France, Napoleon faced William Pitt the Younger, who saw in the destruction of French power—be it revolutionary or Napoleonic—an opportunity to translate Britain’s maritime trading success into global great power status. Napoleon’s threat to invade Britain in 1803 ensured that successive British governments would remain determined to overthrow him. Their decrying of French imperialism was pure hypocrisy as Britain was busy building a vast empire at the time. Napoleon boasted that he was ‘of the race that founds empires’—but he had a different kind of empire in mind, more in keeping with those of Caesar, Alexander and Frederick the Great.

Napoleon is often accused of being a quintessential warmonger, yet war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others. France and Britain were at war for nearly half the period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Waterloo, and Napoleon was only a second lieutenant when the Revolutionary Wars broke out. He launched the Peninsular War and the war against Russia in 1812 in the hope of extending the reach of his ‘Continental System,’ a misguided protectionist answer to Britain’s control of the seas, and thereby force Britain to sue for peace. It was thus Colbertian protectionism that brought him down, far more than the bloodlust and egomania of which he is so often accused.

His decision to invade Russia was not in and of itself his worst mistake. The French had defeated the Russians three times since 1799, so it was understandable that he should believe he could do so again. He had fought in blizzards at Eylau and in the Sierra de Guadarrama, and at the end of long lines of communications at Austerlitz and Friedland. It was the very size of his army in 1812 that forced the Russians to adopt their strategy of constant retreat, and their adroitness in avoiding battle until they had lured him to within 75 miles of Moscow accounted for much of their victory. He could not have known how to block the ravages of the typhus epidemic that killed around 100,000 men in his central striking force as its origins and cure would not be discovered for another century. Despite this, had Napoleon chosen either one of two other possible routes back from Malojaroslavetz, he would have saved enough of the Grande Armée to preserve his crown. He thought he could bring the enemy to a decisive battle and pushed his forces too fast and hard in pursuit of that goal. He failed to appreciate that the Russian army had fundamentally changed and that Alexander I would stop at nothing to annihilate him.

Overall, however, Napoleon’s capacity for battlefield decision-making was astounding. Having walked the ground of fifty-three of his sixty battlefields, I was astonished by his genius for topography, his acuity and sense of timing. A general must ultimately be judged by the outcome of the battles, and of Napoleon’s sixty battles and sieges he lost only Acre, Aspern-Essling, Leipzig, La Rothière, Lâon, Arcis and Waterloo. When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: ‘In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.’

He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment and a story whose sheer splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries. He was able to impart to ordinary people the sense that their lives—and, if necessary, their deaths in battle—mattered in the context of great events. They too could make history. It is untrue that he cared nothing for his men and was careless with their lives. He lost a friend in almost every major battle, and his letters to Josephine and Marie Louise make it clear that these deaths, and those of his soldiers, affected him. Yet he could not allow that to deflect him from his main purpose of pursuing victory, and he would not have been able to function as a general if it had, any more than Ulysses Grant or George Patton could have done.

Napoleon certainly never lacked confidence in his own capacity as a military leader. On St Helena, when asked why he had not taken Frederick the Great’s sword when he had visited Sans Souci, he replied, ‘Because I had my own.’

Historians who have tried to explain Napoleon before the publication of the Fondation’s new correspondence have been working with only two-thirds of the puzzle’s pieces. The missing letters unveil the intimate thoughts of a protean multitasker, a profound thinker and talented wordsmith whose intellect impressed Goethe. They reveal the leadership secrets of the most interesting personality to have sat on a European throne since Elizabeth I. Over half concern military matters and lay bare the workings of the mind of a soldier who is rightly considered on a par with his own heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Napoleon faced many of the same problems as other great soldier-statesmen such as George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, and his correspondence shows how, like they, he negotiated the interlocking but often contradictory requirements of the political and the military in periods of acute crisis.

The complete correspondence is also interesting for what is absent. Not one letter to his wife Josephine for nearly two years after he was apprised, while on campaign in Egypt, of her affair with the prancing cavalry captain Hippolyte Charles. Hardly any letters to the mistresses he took in consequence, who instead of billets-doux received significant amounts of cash from the French Treasury, as recently discovered in his secret account book. (Although he admitted in exile to having had ‘six or seven’ mistresses, evidence now points to at least twenty-one.)

A persistent untruthfulness in the telling of his own life has made the task of Napoleon’s biographers challenging. In youth he was a novelist manqué, and all his adolescent writings and essays were deeply autobiographical. So keen was he to burnish his legend and legacy while imprisoned on the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena that he wildly exaggerated his accomplishments and minimized or altogether ignored his errors, failures and occasional brutalities. ‘The historian, like the orator, must persuade,’ Napoleon told his chamberlain General Henri Bertrand. ‘He must convince.’ So in June 1816, while on St Helena, he began dictating to his private secretary Emannuel de Las Cases and others—sometimes for up to twelve hours a day—what was to be published two years after his death in four volumes under the title Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. It was the greatest international bestseller of the nineteenth century, outselling such other classics as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ‘What a novel my life has been!’ he once said while on the island, and his retelling of his life certainly owed as much to fiction as to fact. Although he was often self-deprecating in private and admitted the mistakes that led to his myriad disasters to his friends and secretaries, he chose not to do so in his memoirs. As politicians tend to, he exaggerated his achievements and underplayed defeats. He pretended to a pan-Europeanism that never existed, and Las Cases even inserted a fraudulent document intended to absolve him of culpability for the harsh crushing of the Madrid revolt of May 1808. So Napoleon himself certainly can’t be considered an objective curator of his own legend. This distortion of his image was then reinforced by the embellishing gloss of such pro-Bonapartist writers as Stendhal, Balzac, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a backlash.

All too often historians have taken at face value the biographies written by people around Napoleon, whereas many of them were deeply compromised, to the point of being worthless unless confirmed by a second source. The lure of employment or a pension or merely the right to publish under the Bourbons wrecked objectivity. Claire de Rémusat’s letters to her husband, one of Napoleon’s courtiers, written between 1804 and 1813, were affectionate in their references to Napoleon, but by 1818 her memoirs painted him as a monster ‘incapable of generosity’ with ‘a satanic smile.’ What happened in between was that her husband wanted a job as the prefect of a department from the Bourbons. She’d burnt her contemporaneous notes in 1815 and tried to resuscitate what the writer René Chateaubriand called her ‘memories of memories.’ Napoleon’s valet Louis Constant Wairy didn’t write a word of his own memoirs, but had them ghostwritten by at least five people, including the fantasist Charles-Maxime de Villemarest (also one of the ghostwriters for Napoleon’s secretary Louis de Bourrienne, whose memoirs have been treated by historians as generally objective despite the fact that Napoleon had sacked him twice for embezzlement). The famous snowball battle during Napoleon’s schooldays at Brienne wasn’t even mentioned in the ill and impecunious Bourrienne’s scrappy and incomplete notes to his ghostwriters, and appears to have been taken from a translation of an anonymous English pamphlet. In 1830 a two-volume book totalling eight hundred pages was published by people who knew Napoleon well, including his brothers Joseph and Louis, which forensically demolished scores of Bourrienne’s claims.

The Comte de Montholon, who was with Napoleon on St Helena, wrote his supposed narrative of his time on the island twenty years later without contemporaneous notes. His memoirs were ghosted by the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who also ghosted the reminiscences of Napoleon’s favourite actor Talma. Laure d’Abrantès was banned from Paris by Napoleon, and by the time her memoirs appeared in the 1830s she was an opium addict who nonetheless claimed to remember verbatim long, intimate conversations that had taken place decades before. Several of the eighteen volumes of her memoirs were ghosted by Balzac and written to stave off creditors. Napoleon’s police chief Joseph Fouché’s Memoirs were actually written by the hack writer Alphonse de Beauchamp; the receipts exist to prove as much. Nor did Napoleon’s advisor Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe write so much as a word of his. One of Napoleon’s favourite mistresses, Mademoiselle George, also had her memoirs drawn up by a ghostwriter, but she found them so boring that she sexed them up with stories of Napoleon shoving wads of banknotes down her corset.

In the period before copyright laws, one could publish entirely fictitious memoirs supposedly written by living people such as Joseph Bonaparte, Marshal Marmont and Napoleon’s foreign minister Armand de Caulaincourt, and their ostensible authors would have no legal recourse to block publication. A fraud called Charlotte de Sor published what she claimed were Caulaincourt’s memoirs in 1837, on the basis of having briefly met him in 1826. His real memoirs weren’t published until they were discovered in 1934 and bore no resemblance to her effort. Although the Napoleonic sections of Talleyrand’s memoirs were written by him in the 1820s, they were extensively rewritten in the 1860s by the profoundly anti-Napoleon Adolphe de Bacourt. Prince Metternich’s memoirs were ghosted too, and immensely self-serving, whereas Paul Barras’ are a monument to malice, self-pity and revenge. The man Napoleon overthrew to become head of state in the Brumaire coup, Louis Gohier, promised in the introduction to his memoirs that he was ‘an impartial writer’ who would ‘give full justice to Napoleon,’ before embarking on two volumes of bitter ranting. The minister Lazare Carnot and Marshal Grouchy’s memoirs weren’t written by them either, and were cobbled together from documents they left, some contemporaneous, others not, and Miot de Melito’s so-called memoirs were written by his son-in-law over half a century after the events they describe.

This nonetheless leaves plenty of objective memoirs from people close to Napoleon who did keep contemporaneous notes and didn’t exaggerate their contact with him in order to pay the rent or find jobs under the incoming regime. These are the accounts that I’ve tended to concentrate on. The credibility of Caulaincourt’s actual account of events from 1812 to 1814, and of Henri Bertrand’s diary of his time with Napoleon on St Helena and of Jean Jacques Cambacérès’ memoirs are greatly enhanced by the fact that they emerged only in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, respectively, and were thus untainted by the politics of the Restoration. The memoirs of the little-known Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort, who as prefect of Napoleon’s palace was closer to him than Bourienne, were bravely published during the Bourbon period, and equally positive portraits were drawn by Napoleon’s two private secretaries after Bourrienne, namely Claude-Francois de Méneval and Baron Agathon Fain. Of course they all need to be checked against other sources, and against each other, but they tend to present a more honest portrait than the ‘Black Legend’ painted by his enemies and their ghostwriters soon after his death. The portrait that emerges from these accounts is of a man who bears very little resemblance to the caricature we have come to think of as Napoleon. To understand why this is so, one must revisit more proximate history.

In the early morning of Sunday, June 23, 1940, 119 years after his death, a long shadow fell over the reputation of Napoleon. Having captured Paris the week before, Adolf Hitler visited Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, stayed for an hour and had himself photographed staring down at the Emperor’s pink porphyry sarcophagus. He later had the remains of Napoleon’s son disinterred from Vienna and reburied in Paris. A fatal connection was thus made in the public imagination between the two dictators born outside their countries who sought to dominate Europe, both of whom, after initial military successes, went to their downfalls due to a failed invasion of Russia, their own insatiable hubris and the efforts of a group of tenacious Allies who coalesced against them.

‘I always hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler,’ Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in September 1944, ‘as it seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior to compare him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher.’ And yet Churchill conjured up the spectre of Napoleon’s fleet in his speeches in the summer of 1940 and his invocation that October of a ‘determination to fight on, as Pitt and his successors fought on, till we in our turn achieve our Waterloo’ fixed the correlation in British minds permanently. To demonize the character of an enemy while the war is being fought is perfectly understandable—an opponent’s personality is fair game, after all—but is unnecessary two centuries after his defeat. Elsewhere, Churchill described Napoleon as ‘the greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar,’ a plaudit of which Napoleon would profoundly have approved.

Since the Second World War, two generations of historians have seen Napoleon through the utterly distorting prism of the Führer, portraying him as a kind of proto-Hitler whose secret police, press censorship, aggressive foreign policy and desire for a new European order all presaged the horrors unleashed by the Nazis. British historians whose world view was established during the war have had immense influence on the way Napoleon is viewed today, and French and American historians have all too often followed suit. Claude Ribbe’s book Le Crime de Napoléon portrays him as a genocidal dictator on a par with Hitler, and the American historian Paul Schroeder compares the two men’s quests for power to Napoleon’s detriment: ‘Hitler did it for the sake of an unbelievably horrible ideal; Napoleon for no underlying purpose at all.’

When I was a schoolboy in Britain in the 1970s, I was taught this negative view of Napoleon, but never really believed it. If he was so evil, I wondered, how was it that he had such a great sense of humour? If he was so ruthless in pursuing Corsican-style vendettas, why didn’t he punish the men who kept on betraying him? If he was such an inveterate warmonger, how was it that twice as many wars were declared on him than he had declared on others? If he was really pursuing continental, or even world, domination, why did he split Europe with Tsar Alexander I at the peace of Tilsit? If he was such a beast, why did so many of the people closest to him write admiring memorials even long after he was dead? If he was Hitler-in-the-making, why did so many intelligent and liberal-minded Britons visit him in Paris, on Elba and at St Helena?

Researching for this book, which has taken me longer than Napoleon spent on Elba and St Helena put together, gave me the answers to questions I have been asking myself ever since my parents gave me Correlli Barnett’s biography Bonaparte when I was ten years old. Today that book sits in my study alongside a lock of Napoleon’s hair, a commiseration letter from him to a lady widowed at the battle of the Nile, various medals struck during the Consulate and a piece of the wallpaper from the room in which he died at Longwood House. ‘The apocryphal historians multiply,’ Napoleon wrote in 1807. ‘There is such a vast difference between one book and another on the same subject written in different epochs . . . that he who would seek sound knowledge and is suddenly placed in a vast historical library finds himself thrown into a veritable labyrinth.’ With over fifteen hundred people having recorded their memories of Napoleon in some form or another, that labyrinth is not always easy to navigate. Napoleon has been quoted and misquoted, lionized and pilloried, and his aphorisms plucked at random like passages from Machiavelli’s Prince. His seventy-eight military maxims were not even compiled by him, but rather extracted, entirely out of context, from his correspondence and dictated statements on St Helena.

Napoleon’s legacy is one of the most fiercely debated in all of modern historiography and was even before the publication in 1945 of the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s masterwork Napoleon: For and Against. Geyl, who had been incarcerated in Buchenwald concentration camp during the Second World War, gave lectures there which drew comparisons between Napoleon and Adolf Hitler; he noted that ‘the parallel roused the keenest interest and amusement.’ He believed there was ‘an unmistakeable relationship’ between the two dictators. I profoundly disagree.

All too often, biographies of Napoleon adopt the suspiciously easy trope by which his deranged hubris—tied up with what has erroneously become known as ‘the Napoleon Complex’—inevitably led to his well-deserved nemesis. This clichéd paradigm of ancient Greek drama sometimes comes with the comforting suggestion that such is the fate that overtakes all tyrants sooner or later. ‘History is an argument without end,’ Geyl said, believing that every generation has to write its own biography of Napoleon. My own interpretation is very different from other historians’. What brought Napoleon down was not some deep-seated personality disorder but a combination of unforeseeable circumstances coupled with a handful of significant miscalculations: something altogether more believable, human and fascinating.

PART ONE

1

‘The hero of a tragedy, in order to interest us, should be neither wholly guilty nor wholly innocent . . . All weakness and all contradictions are unhappily in the heart of man, and present a colouring eminently tragic.’

Napoleon, on François-Just-Marie Raynouard’s play The Templars

‘The reading of history very soon made me feel that I was capable of achieving as much as the men who are placed in the highest ranks of our annals.’

Napoleon to the Marquis de Caulaincourt

Napoleone di Buonaparte, as he signed himself until manhood, was born in Ajaccio, one of the larger towns on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, just before noon on Tuesday, August 15, 1769. ‘She was on her way home from church when she felt labour pains,’ he would later say of his mother, Letizia, ‘and had only time to get into the house, when I was born, not on a bed, but on a heap of tapestry.’1 The name his parents chose was unusual but not unknown, appearing in Machiavelli’s history of Florence, and, more immediately, being the name of one of his great-uncles.

The Buona Parte family were originally landowners living between Florence and Livorno – a Florentine first took the surname in 1261. While the senior line remained in Italy, Francesco Buonaparte emigrated to Corsica in 1529, where for the next two and a half centuries his descendants generally pursued the gentlemanly callings of the law, academia and the Church.2 By the time of Napoleon’s birth the family occupied that social penumbra encompassing the haute bourgeoisie and the very minor nobility.

After he came to power in France, when people attempted to trace his family’s descent from the thirteenth-century emperors of Trebizond, Napoleon told them that his dynasty in fact dated back only to the time of his military coup d’état. ‘There are genealogists who would date my family from the Flood,’ he told the Austrian diplomat Prince Clemens von Metternich, ‘and there are people who pretend that I am of plebeian birth. The truth lies between these two. The Bonapartes are a good Corsican family, little known for we have hardly ever left the island, but much better than many of the coxcombs who take it upon themselves to vilify us.’3 On the rare occasions when he discussed his Italian ancestry, he would say he was an heir to the Ancient Romans. ‘I am of the race that founds empires,’ he once boasted.4

The family was far from rich, but it owned enough land for Napoleon’s great-uncle Luciano, the archdeacon of Ajaccio, to boast that the Bonapartes never had to buy their wine, bread or olive oil. One can still see the millstone used for grinding flour in the basement of the large, three-storey Casa Bonaparte on the rue Saint-Charles in Ajaccio, where his family had lived since 1682. Napoleon’s parents had another home in the countryside, some property in at least three other towns, a flock of sheep and a vineyard and employed a nanny, maid and cook. ‘There’s no wealth in Corsica,’ Napoleon’s elder brother Joseph wrote years later, ‘and the richer individuals hardly have 20,000 livres of savings; but, because everything is relative, our wealth was one of the most considerable in Ajaccio.’ The young Napoleon agreed, adding that ‘Luxury is an unwholesome thing in Corsica.’5

In 1765, four years before Napoleon’s birth, the Scottish lawyer and man of letters James Boswell visited the island and was enchanted with what he found. ‘Ajaccio is the prettiest town in Corsica,’ he later wrote. ‘It hath many very handsome streets, and beautiful gardens, and a palace for the Genoese governor. The inhabitants of this town are the genteelest people in the island, having had a good deal of intercourse with the French.’ Three years later these people – some 140,000 in total, most of them peasants – were to experience considerably more intercourse with the French, who numbered around 28 million, than most had ever hoped for or wanted.

The Italian city-state of Genoa had nominally ruled Corsica for over two centuries, but rarely tried to extend her control beyond the coastal towns into the mountainous interior, where the Corsicans were fiercely independent. In 1755 Corsica’s charismatic nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, proclaimed an independent republic, a notion that became a reality after he won the battle of Pedicoste in 1763. The man the Corsicans nicknamed Il Babbù (Daddy) quickly set about reforming the island’s financial, legal and educational systems, built roads, started a printing press and brought something approaching harmony between the island’s competing clans of powerful families. The young Napoleon grew up revering Paoli as a lawgiver, reformer and genuinely benevolent dictator.

Genoa had no appetite for the fight that she knew would be required to reassert her authority over Corsica, and reluctantly sold the island to King Louis XV of France for 40 million francs in January 1768. The French foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, appointed the Corsican Matteo Buttafuoco to rule the island. Paoli naturally opposed this, so the French sent a force of 30,000 men under the command of the harsh Comte de Vaux with the task of putting down the rebellion and soon replaced Buttafuoco with a Frenchman, the Comte de Marbeuf.

Carlo Bonaparte, Napoleon’s father, and his pretty young wife Letizia supported Paoli and were campaigning in the mountains when Letizia became pregnant with Napoleon. Carlo acted as Paoli’s private secretary and aide-de-camp, but when Vaux smashed the Corsican forces at the battle of Ponte Nuovo on May 8, 1769, Carlo and the by now heavily pregnant Letizia refused to go into exile with Paoli and 340 other irreconcilables.6 Instead, at a meeting between Marbeuf and the Corsican gentry, Carlo took an oath of loyalty to Louis XV, as a result of which he was able to retain his positions of responsibility on the island: assessor of the Ajaccio court of justice and superintendent of the island’s forestry school. Within two months of Ponte Nuovo, Carlo had dined with the Comte de Vaux, something that was held against him by his former compatriots whose resistance to French rule continued. Hundreds would die over the next two decades in sporadic anti-French guerrilla actions, although major incidents were rare after the mid-1770s.7 ‘He became a good Frenchman,’ Joseph Bonaparte wrote of their father, ‘seeing the huge advantages his country was taking from its union with France.’8 Carlo was appointed to represent the Corsican nobility in Paris in 1777, a position that saw him visit Louis XVI at Versailles twice.

It is often alleged that Napoleon, who proclaimed a fierce Corsican nationalism throughout his adolescence, despised his father for switching his loyalties, but there is no proof of this beyond the bitter outpourings of his classmate and private secretary Louis Antoine de Bourrienne, whom he twice had to dismiss for gross peculation. In 1789 Napoleon did write to Paoli denouncing those Corsicans who had changed sides, but he didn’t refer to his by-then-deceased father. He chose to call his son Charles, which he would hardly have done if he had imagined his father as a quisling. The Bonapartes were a thrusting, striving, close-knit family of what Napoleon later called petits gentilshommes, and understood that no good would have come of being caught on the wrong side of history.

French rule over Corsica turned out to be relatively light-handed. Marbeuf sought to persuade the island’s elite of the benefits of French rule, and Carlo was to be one of the prime beneficiaries. If Paoli was Napoleon’s early role model for statesmanship, Carlo personified precisely the kind of non-Frenchman whose willingness to collaborate with France was later vital to the smooth running of the Napoleonic Empire.

Carlo was tall, handsome, popular and a fine horseman. He spoke French well, was familiar with the Enlightenment thought of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau and Hobbes, and wrote Voltairean essays sceptical of organized religion for private distribution.9 Napoleon later described him as ‘a spendthrift’, and he certainly got through more than the patchy income he earned, building up debts for the family.10 He was a loving father, but weak, often impecunious and somewhat frivolous. Napoleon inherited little from him beyond his debts, his blue-grey eyes, and the disease that would lead them to their early deaths. ‘To my mother’, he would say, ‘I owe my fortune and all I’ve done that’s worthwhile.’11

Maria-Letizia Ramolino, as she had been christened, was an attractive, strong-willed, wholly uneducated woman from a good family – her father was Ajaccio’s governor and subsequently Corsica’s inspector of roads and bridges. Her marriage to Carlo Buonaparte on June 2, 1764, when he was eighteen, was arranged by their parents. (The burning of Ajaccio’s archives during the French Revolution leaves her exact age unclear.) They didn’t marry in the cathedral as Carlo regarded himself as a secularized Enlightenment man, although Archdeacon Luciano later altered the church records to record a nuptial Mass there, an early indication of the Bonapartes’ willingness to doctor official records.12 Letizia’s dowry was valued at an impressive 175,000 francs, which included ‘a kiln and the house adjoining’, an apartment, a vineyard and 8 acres of land. This trumped the love that the raffish Carlo is believed to have felt for another woman at the time of his wedding.13

Letizia had thirteen children between 1765 and 1786, eight of whom survived infancy, a not untypical ratio for the day; they were eventually to number an emperor, three kings, a queen and two sovereign princesses. Although Napoleon didn’t much like it when his mother beat him for being naughty – on one occasion for mimicking his grandmother – corporal punishment was normal practice in those days and he only ever spoke of her with genuine love and admiration. ‘My mother was a superb woman, a woman of ability and courage,’ he told General Gourgaud, near the end of his life. ‘Her tenderness was severe; here was the head of a man on the body of a woman.’ This, from Napoleon, was high praise. ‘She was a matriarch,’ he added. ‘She had plenty of brains!’14 Once he came to power, Napoleon was generous to his mother, buying her the Château de Pont on the Seine and giving her an annual income of 1 million francs, most of which she squirrelled away. When she was teased for her notorious parsimoniousness she replied: ‘Who knows, one day I may have to find bread for all these kings I’ve borne.’15

Two children died in infancy before Napoleon was born, and the girl who came immediately after him, Maria-Anna, lived to only five. His elder brother, Giuseppe (who later Frenchified his name as Joseph), was born in January 1768. After Napoleon came Luciano (Lucien) in March 1775, a sister Maria-Anna (Elisa) in January 1777, Louis – significantly, the name of the kings of France – in September 1778, Maria-Paola (Pauline) in October 1780, Maria-Annunziata (Caroline) in March 1782, and Girolamo (Jérôme) in November 1784. Letizia stopped having children at thirty-three when Carlo died at thirty-eight, but Napoleon speculated that if his father had lived longer she would have had twenty.16

One of the features that emerges strongly from Napoleon’s correspondence is his deep and constant concern for his family. Whether it was his mother’s property on Corsica, the education of his brothers or the marriage prospects of his sisters, he was endlessly seeking to protect and promote the Bonaparte clan. ‘You are the only man on earth for whom I have a true and constant love’, he once wrote to his brother Joseph.17 His persistent tendency to promote his family would later significantly damage his own interests.

Napoleon’s background as a Corsican of Italian extraction later invited endless abuse from detractors. One of his earliest British biographers, William Burdon, said of his Italian ancestry: ‘To this may be attributed the dark ferocity of his character, which partakes more of Italian treachery than of French openness and vivacity.’18 Similarly, in November 1800 the British journalist William Cobbett described Napoleon as ‘a low-bred upstart from the contemptible island of Corsica!’ When the French senate proposed that Napoleon become emperor in 1804, the Comte Jean-Denis Lanjuinais expostulated: ‘What! Will you submit to give your country a master taken from a race of origin so ignominious that the Romans disdained to employ them as slaves?’19 Because he was Corsican it was assumed that Napoleon would pursue vendettas, but there is no record of the Bonapartes doing so, and Napoleon was notably lenient towards several people who betrayed him, such as his foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and police minister Joseph Fouché.

Napoleon suffered from a hacking cough as a child that might have been a mild bout of undiagnosed tuberculosis; in his post-mortem his left lung showed evidence of it, long-healed.20 Yet the popular image of a frail introvert hardly squares with his family nickname of ‘Rabulione’, or troublemaker. Given the paucity of trustworthy sources, much of Napoleon’s early childhood must remain conjectural, but there is little doubt that he was a precocious and prodigious reader, drawn at an early age to history and biography. Letizia told a government minister that her son ‘had never partaken of the amusements of children his own age, that he carefully avoided them, that he found himself a little room on the third floor of the house in which he stayed by himself and didn’t come down very often, even to eat with his family. Up there, he read constantly, especially history books.’21 Napoleon claimed that he first read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, an 800-page novel of love and redemption, at the age of nine, and said ‘It turned my head.’22

‘I do not doubt the very powerful action of his early readings on the inclination and character of his youth,’ his brother Joseph later recalled.23 He described how, at their primary school, when the students were instructed to sit under either the Roman or the Carthaginian flag, Napoleon insisted that they swap places and utterly refused to join the losing Carthaginians.24 (Though he was eighteen months younger than Joseph, Napoleon was always stronger-willed.) Later in life, Napoleon urged his junior officers ‘to read and re-read the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolfus, Prince Eugene and Frederick the Great. This is the only way to become a great captain.’25 Ancient history provided him with an encyclopaedia of military and political tactics and quotations that he would draw on throughout his life. This inspiration was so profound that when posing for paintings he would sometimes put his hand into his waistcoat in imitation of the toga-wearing Romans.

Napoleon’s native language was Corsican, an idiomatic dialect not unlike Genoese. He was taught to read and write in Italian at school and was nearly ten before he learned French, which he always spoke with a heavy Corsican accent, with ‘ou’ for ‘eu’ or ‘u’, inviting all manner of teasing at school and in the army. The architect Pierre Fontaine, who decorated and refurbished many of the Napoleonic palaces, thought it ‘incredible in a man of his position’ that he should speak with such a thick accent.26 Napoleon was not very proficient in French grammar or spelling, though in the era before standardized spelling this mattered little and he never had any difficulty making himself understood. Throughout his life his handwriting, though strong and decisive, was pretty much a scrawl.

Napoleon’s childhood has often been portrayed as a maelstrom of anxieties, but his first nine years in Ajaccio were uncomplicated and happy, surrounded by family, friends and a few domestic servants. In later life he was generous to his illiterate nursemaid, Camilla Illari.27 It was only when he was sent away to France – ‘the continent’ as Corsicans called it – to become a French officer and gentleman that complications arose.

As part of his active policy of Gallicization of the island’s elite, in 1770 Marbeuf issued an edict declaring that all Corsicans who could prove two centuries of nobility would be allowed to enjoy the extensive privileges of the French noblesse. Carlo’s father, Joseph, had been officially recognized as noble by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and subsequently obtained recognition from the archbishop of Pisa as ‘a patrician of Florence’.28 Although titles had little purchase in Corsica, where there was no feudalism, Carlo applied for the right of the Bonapartes to be recognized as one of the island’s seventy-eight noble families, and on September 13, 1771 the Corsican Superior Council, having traced the family back to its Florentine roots, declared its official admission into the noblesse.29

Carlo could now legally sign himself ‘de Buonaparte’ for the first time and sit in the Corsican assembly. He could also apply for royal bursaries for his sons, whom he was hard put to educate on his income. The French state was willing to provide for the education of up to six hundred sons of indigent French aristocrats, requiring each scholar to prove that he was noble, that he couldn’t pay the fees and that he was able to read and write French. The nine-year-old Napoleon already qualified for two of the three stipulations. For the last he was sent to Autun in Burgundy to begin, in January 1779, a rigorous course of French.

The Comte de Marbeuf personally expedited Carlo’s application through the French bureaucracy, a fact that later kindled the rumour that he was Letizia’s lover, and possibly Napoleon’s biological father – a libel sedulously spread by Bourbon and British writers. Just as Napoleon sought to magnify himself throughout his life, so his enemies found ingenious ways to detract from his myth. In 1797, when the first biographies of the twenty-eight-year-old military hero began to appear, a book entitled Quelques notices sur les premières années du Buonaparte was translated from an unknown English author by the Chevalier de Bourgoing. It made the claim that Letizia had ‘caught the attention’ of Marbeuf, and Sir Andrew Douglas, who had been with Napoleon at Autun, but who had not of course known any other members of the Bonaparte family, testified to its accuracy in a brief introduction.30

Napoleon paid little attention to this slur, although he did once point out to the distinguished mathematician and chemist Gaspard Monge that his mother had been in Paoli’s stronghold of Corte fighting Marbeuf’s forces when he was conceived. As emperor, he went out of his way to show generosity towards Marbeuf’s son and when Marbeuf’s daughter, Madame de Brunny, was robbed by a band of soldiers during one of his campaigns, he ‘treated her with the utmost attention, granted her a piquet of chasseurs of his guard, and sent her away happy and contented’ – neither of which he was likely to have done if Mme de Brunny’s father had seduced his mother and cuckolded his father.31 It was also said that Paoli was his biological father, a rumour similarly dismissed.

Napoleon’s education in France made him French. Anything else would have been astonishing given his youth, the length of time he spent there and the cultural superiority the country enjoyed over the rest of Europe at that time. His bursary grant (the equivalent of a curate’s stipend) was dated December 31, 1778, and he started at the ecclesiastical seminary run by the bishop of Autun the next day. He wasn’t to see Corsica again for almost eight years. His name appeared in the school registry as ‘M. Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte’. His headmaster, the Abbé Chardon, recalled him as ‘a thoughtful and gloomy character. He had no playmate and walked about by himself . . . He had ability and learned quickly . . . If I scolded him, he answered in a cold, almost imperious tone: “Sir, I know it.”’32 It took Chardon only three months to teach this intelligent and determined lad, with a will to learn, to speak and read French, and even to write short passages.

Having mastered the requisite French at Autun, in April 1779, four months shy of his tenth birthday, Napoleon was admitted to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château, near Troyes in the Champagne region. His father left the next day, and as there were no school holidays they were not to see each other again for three years. Napoleon was taught by the Minim order of Franciscan monks as one of fifty royal scholars among 110 pupils. Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks, although the martial side of studies were conducted by outside instructors. Conditions were spartan: students had a straw mattress and one blanket each, though they weren’t beaten. When his parents did visit, in June 1782, Letizia expressed concern at how thin he had become.

Although Brienne was not considered one of the most socially desirable of the twelve royal military schools founded by Louis XVI in 1776, it provided Napoleon with a fine education. His eight hours of study a day included mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortifications, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music (the last three an indication that Brienne was also in part a finishing school for the noblesse).33 Physically tough and intellectually demanding, the school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout, Étienne Nansouty, Antoine Phélippeaux and Jean-Joseph d’Hautpoul. Charles Pichegru, the future conqueror of Holland and royalist plotter, was one of the school’s instructors.

Napoleon excelled at mathematics. ‘To be a good general you must know mathematics,’ he later observed, ‘it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.’34 He was helped by his prodigious memory. ‘A singular thing about me is my memory,’ he once boasted. ‘As a boy I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers.’35 Napoleon was given permission to take maths classes earlier than the prescribed age of twelve, and soon mastered geometry, algebra and trigonometry. His weakest subject was German, which he never mastered; another weak subject, surprisingly for someone who so adored ancient history, was Latin. (He was fortunate not to be examined in Latin until after 1780, by which time it was clear that he would be going into the army or navy and not the Church.) Napoleon also excelled at geography. On the very last page of his school exercise book, following a long list of British imperial possessions, he noted: ‘Sainte-Hélène: petite île.’36

‘History could become for a young man the school of morality and virtue,’ read Brienne’s school prospectus. The monks subscribed to the Great Man view of history, presenting the heroes of the ancient and modern worlds for the boys’ emulation.37 Napoleon borrowed many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and republican virtue. He also read Caesar, Cicero, Voltaire, Diderot and the Abbé Raynal, as well as Erasmus, Eutropius, Livy, Phaedrus, Sallust, Virgil and the first century BC Cornelius Nepos’ Lives of the Great Captains, which included chapters on Themistocles, Lysander, Alcibiades and Hannibal. One of his school nicknames – ‘the Spartan’ – might have been accorded him because of his pronounced admiration for that city-state rather than for any asceticism of character. He could recite in French whole passages from Virgil, and in class he naturally took the side of his hero Caesar against Pompey.38 The plays he enjoyed as an adult also tended to focus on the ancient heroes, such as Racine’s Alexandre le Grand, Andromaque, Mithridate and Corneille’s Cinna, Horace and Attila.

A contemporary recalled Napoleon withdrawing to the school library to read Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian (‘with great delight’) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (for which he had ‘little taste’).39 Polybius’ Histories chronicled the rise of the Roman Republic and offered an eyewitness account of the defeat of Hannibal and the sack of Carthage; Plutarch’s Parallel Lives included sketches of Napoleon’s two greatest heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar; Arrian wrote the Anabasis of Alexander, one of the best sources for Alexander’s campaigns; Quintus Curtius Rufus produced only one surviving work, a biography of Alexander. A powerful theme thus emerges from Napoleon’s adolescent reading. While his contemporaries played sports outside, he would read everything he could about the most ambitious leaders of the ancient world. For Napoleon, the desire to emulate Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar was not strange. His schooling opened to him the possibility that he might one day stand alongside the giants of the past.

Napoleon was taught to appreciate France’s greatest moments under Charlemagne and Louis XIV, but he also learned about her recent defeats in the Seven Years War at the battles of Quebec, Plassey, Minden and Quiberon Bay and ‘the prodigious conquests of the English in India’.40 The intention was to create a generation of young officers who believed implicitly in French greatness, but who were also determined to humiliate Britain, which was at war with France in America for most of Napoleon’s time at Brienne. Too often Napoleon’s virulent opposition to the British government has been ascribed to blind hatred, or a Corsican spirit of vendetta; it could more accurately be seen as a perfectly rational response to the fact that in the decade of his birth the Treaty of Paris of 1763 had cut France out of the great continental landmasses (and markets) of India and North America, and by the time he was a teenager Britain was busily colonizing Australia too. At the end of his life Napoleon twice asked to live in Britain, and he expressed admiration for the Duke of Marlborough and Oliver Cromwell, but he was brought up to think of Britain as an implacable enemy. When he was studying at Brienne, his only living hero seems to have been the exiled Paoli. Another dead hero was Charles XII of Sweden, who from 1700 to 1706 had destroyed the armies of four states joined in coalition against him, but then marched deep into Russia, only to be catastrophically defeated and forced into exile.

Napoleon was also deeply fond of literature. (He reminisced in later years about how he was attacked by a Cossack in 1814 during the battle of Brienne very close to the tree under which as a schoolboy he had read Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso’s epic poem about the First Crusade.)41 He idolized Rousseau, who wrote positively about Corsica, writing a paean to On the Social Contract at seventeen and adopting Rousseau’s beliefs that the state should have the power of life and death over its citizens, the right to prohibit frivolous luxuries and the duty to censor the theatre and opera.42 Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, one of the biggest bestsellers of the eighteenth century, which had influenced him so much as a boy, argued that one should follow one’s authentic feelings rather than society’s norms, an attractive notion for any teenager, particularly a dreamer of ferocious ambition. Rousseau’s draft of a liberal constitution for Corsica in 1765 reflected his admiration for Paoli, which was fully reciprocated.

Napoleon read Corneille, Racine and Voltaire with evident pleasure. His favourite poet was Ossian, whose bardic tales of ancient Gaelic conquest thrilled him with accounts of heroism among misty moors and epic battles on stormy seas. He took the Ossian poem Fingal on his campaigns, commissioned several Ossianic paintings, and was so impressed with the opera Ossian by Jean-François Le Sueur, with its twelve orchestral harps, that he made the composer a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur at the premiere in 1804. That same year, assuming as most people then did that the Celts and Ancient Gauls had been closely connected, Napoleon founded the Académie Celtique for the study of Gallic history and archaeology, which in 1813 became the Société des Antiquaires de France and today is based at the Louvre. He appears not to have been particularly disconcerted when it was discovered that the epic poem had in fact been written by its self-styled ‘discoverer’, the literary fraudster James Macpherson.43

In 1781, Napoleon received an outstanding school report from the Chevalier de Kéralio, the under-inspector of military schools who, two years later, recommended him for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris with the words, ‘Excellent health, docile expression, mild, straightforward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics . . . This boy would make an excellent sailor.’44 His clear intellectual superiority is unlikely to have helped his popularity with his classmates, who nicknamed him La Paille-au-Nez (‘straw up the nose’), which rhymed with ‘Napoleone’ in Corsican.45 He was teased for not speaking refined French, for having a father who had had to certify to his nobility, for coming from a conquered nation, for having a relatively large head on a thin frame and for being poorer than most of his school contemporaries. ‘I was the poorest of my classmates,’ he told a courtier in 1811, ‘they had pocket-money, I never had any. I was proud, I was careful not to show it . . . I didn’t know how to smile or play like the others.’46 When he spoke in later life about his schooldays, he remembered individual teachers he had liked, but few fellow pupils.

Schoolchildren are quick to seize upon and mock marginal differences, and they swiftly spotted that Napoleon’s Achilles heel was his inordinate pride in his native land. (The Abbé Chardon also commented on it.) He was an outsider, a foreigner among the scions of a governing class that he believed to be oppressing his countrymen. The teasing had precisely the effect one might expect in a spirited boy, and turned him into a proud Corsican nationalist who never failed to stand up for his motherland. ‘His natural reserve,’ recalled Bourrienne, ‘his disposition to meditate on the subjugation of Corsica, and the impressions which he had received in his youth respecting the misfortunes of his country, and of his family, led him to seek solitude, and rendered his general demeanour somewhat disagreeable.’47 The first book ever written on Napoleon was by Cuming de Craigmillen, a monk who taught at Brienne, writing under the name ‘Mr C. H., one of his schoolfellows’. Published in 1797 in English, the book presented a reserved and anti-social child who, in the words of one reviewer, was ‘blunt in his manners, bold, enterprising and even ferocious’ – four adjectives that would serve to describe him for the rest of his life.48

Much the most famous anecdote of Napoleon’s schooldays, of a snowball fight involving the whole school, was probably an invention. In the freezing winter of 1783, Napoleon supposedly organized mass mock-battles around ice-forts that he had designed, in which he commanded the attacking forces on one day and the defending ones the next.49 This hardly fits with the unpopularity he is supposed to have experienced among his fellow pupils, and the anecdote does not appear in the notes Bourrienne gave his memoirs’ ghost-writers and could easily have been a complete invention of theirs. ‘This mimic combat was carried on during a period of fifteen days,’ the memoirs state, ‘and did not cease until, by gravel and small stones having got mixed up with the snow, many of the pupils were rendered hors de combat.’50 Would a school really have let a game that was injuring many of its pupils continue for over two weeks?

On June 15, 1784, Napoleon wrote the first of over 33,000 surviving letters, to his step-uncle Joseph Fesch, Letizia’s mother’s second husband’s son. In it, he argued that his brother Joseph should not become a soldier as ‘the great Mover of all human destiny has [not] given him, as to me, a distinct love for the military profession’, adding ‘He has not the courage to face the perils of action; his health is feeble . . . and my brother looks on the military profession from only a garrison point of view.’51 If Joseph chose to go into the Church, he opined, Marbeuf’s kinsman, the bishop of Autun, ‘would have given him a fat living and he would have been sure to become a bishop. What an advantage for the family!’ As for Joseph joining the infantry, Napoleon asked: ‘What is a wretched officer of the infantry? Three-quarters of his time he is a good-for-nothing.’ The three-page letter, now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, has a spelling mistake in almost every line – ‘Saint Cire’ for ‘Saint-Cyr’, ‘arivé’ for ‘arrivé’, ‘écrie’ for ‘écrit’, and so on – and is packed with grammatical errors. But his handwriting is clear and legible and he signed the letter ‘your humble and obedient servant Napolione di Buonaparte’. In a postscript he wrote ‘Destroy this letter,’ an early indication of his own concern for careful editing of the historical record.

Napoleon took his final exams at Brienne on September 15, 1784. He passed easily, and late the following month he entered the École Royale Militaire in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. This was a far more socially elevated institution than Brienne. There were three changes of linen a week, good meals and more than twice as many servants, teachers and staff – including wigmakers – as students. There were also three chapel services a day, starting with 6 a.m. Mass. Although strangely the history of warfare and strategy weren’t taught, the syllabus covered much the same subjects as at Brienne, as well as musketry, military drills and horsemanship. It was in fact one of the best riding schools in Europe. (Many of the same buildings survive today, grouped around seventeen courtyards over 29 acres at the opposite end of the Champ de Mars from the Eiffel Tower.) Apart from the Champ de Mars and the École itself, Napoleon saw little of Paris in the twelve months he spent there, although of course he knew a good deal about the city and its monuments, defences, resources and architectural splendours from his reading and his fellow officers.52

Napoleon continued to excel intellectually. At Brienne he had decided not to enter the navy, partly because his mother feared he would drown or be burned to death and she didn’t like the idea of his sleeping in hammocks, but mainly because his aptitude for mathematics opened the prospect of a career in the far more prestigious artillery. Of the 202 candidates from all of France’s military schools in 1784, a total of 136 passed their final exams and only 14 of these were invited to enter the artillery, so Napoleon had been selected for an elite group.53 He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire, where a fellow cadet drew an affectionate caricature of the young hero standing resolutely in defence of Paoli, while an elderly teacher tries to hold him back by pulling on the back of his wig.54

Napoleon took classes from the distinguished trio of Louis Monge (brother of the mathematician-chemist Gaspard), the Marquis de Laplace, who later became Napoleon’s interior minister, and Louis Domairon, who taught him the value of ‘haranguing’ troops before battles. (Shorn of its English meaning, which implies a prolonged rant, a French harangue could mean an inspiring speech, such as Shakespeare puts in Henry V’s mouth or Thucydides in the mouth of Pericles, a skill at which Napoleon was to excel on the battlefield, but not always in public assemblies.) At the École, Napoleon encountered the new thinking in French artillery practice introduced by Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval after the Seven Years War. (Defeat had been, as it is so often in history, the mother of reform.) He also studied General Comte Jacques de Guibert’s revolutionary Essai général de tactique (1770): ‘The standing armies, a burden on the people, are inadequate for the achievement of great and decisive results in war, and meanwhile the mass of the people, untrained in arms, degenerates . . . The hegemony over Europe will fall to that nation which becomes possessed of manly virtues and creates a national army.’55 Guibert preached the importance of speed, surprise and mobility in warfare, and of abandoning large supply depots in walled cities in favour of living off the land. Another of Guibert’s principles was that high morale – esprit de corps – could overcome most problems.

By the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos, which was to stay with him for the rest of his life and was to colour his beliefs and outlook deeply. His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’.56 These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale. Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.

On February 24, 1785, Carlo Bonaparte died, probably of stomach cancer but possibly of a perforated ulcer, at Montpellier in southern France, where he had gone to try to improve his health. He was thirty-eight. Napoleon, who was then only fifteen, had seen him twice in the previous six years, and then only briefly. ‘The long and cruel death of my father had remarkably weakened his organs and faculties,’ recalled Joseph, ‘to the point that a few days before his death [he was] in a total delirium.’57 Napoleon’s lifelong distrust of doctors might well have stemmed from this time, as his father’s doctor’s advice had been to eat pears. His father’s early death may also in part explain Napoleon’s own drive and boundless energy; he suspected, correctly, that his own lifespan would be short. A month later, Napoleon described his father in a letter to his great-uncle Luciano as ‘an enlightened, zealous and disinterested citizen. And yet Heaven let him die; and in what a place? A hundred leagues from his native land – in a foreign country, indifferent to his existence, far from all he held precious.’58 This letter is interesting not just for its laudable filial feeling, but for the fact that Napoleon still considered France ‘a foreign country’. After expressing his heartfelt commiserations, he sent his love to his godmother, cousin and even the family’s maid Minana Saveria, before adding a postscript: ‘The French Queen has given birth to a prince named the Duke of Normandy, on March 27th, at 7pm.’59 People then tended not to waste writing paper, which was expensive, but tacking on such a random message to so important a letter was bizarre.

Although Joseph was Carlo’s eldest son, Napoleon quickly established himself as the new head of the family. ‘In his family he began to exercise the greatest superiority,’ recalled Louis, ‘not when power and glory had elevated him, but even from his youth.’60 He took his final examinations early, coming forty-second out of fifty-eight candidates – not so poor a result as it may seem given that he sat the exams after only one year rather than the normal two or three. He could now dedicate himself to his military career, and to the serious financial problems Carlo had left. Napoleon later admitted that these ‘influenced my state of mind and made me grave before my time’.61

Carlo had earned 22,500 francs per annum as Ajaccio’s assessor. He had topped up his income by suing his neighbours over property (including at one point his wife’s grandfather) while holding down various minor posts in the local administration. His great scheme for making his fortune, however, was a nursery of mulberry trees (a pépinière), a project that was to give his second son much anxiety. ‘The mulberry grows well here,’ wrote Boswell in his Account of Corsica, ‘and is not so much in danger from blights and thunderstorms as in Italy or the south of France, so that whenever Corsica enjoys tranquillity it may have an abundance of silk.’62 In 1782, Carlo Bonaparte obtained the concession for a mulberry pépinière on land previously given to his ancestor Gieronimo Bonaparte. Thanks to a royal grant of 137,500 francs, repayable without interest over ten years, and to considerable investment of his own money, Carlo was able to plant a large orchard of mulberries. Three years later, the Corsican parliament revoked his contract on the grounds that he had not fulfilled his obligations regarding maintenance, which he strenuously denied. The contract was formally severed on May 7, 1786, fifteen months after Carlo’s death, leaving the Bonapartes heavily encumbered by the need to repay the grant, as well as by the regular management of the orchard, for which they continued to be responsible.

Napoleon took an extended leave from the regiment that he was about to join in order to resolve the pépinière affair, which threatened to bankrupt his mother. The bureaucratic miasma persisted for several years, and was so consuming that the initial rumblings of the French Revolution were regarded by the family through the prism of whether the political changes in Paris were more or less likely to relieve the Bonapartes of their debts, and whether they might perhaps be granted a further agricultural subsidy by the state to help make the pépinière a going concern.63 Napoleon never seems more provincial than during ‘l’affaire de la pépinière’, as it was known; it threatened his family with bankruptcy and he pursued the case vigorously. He lobbied everyone he could in Corsica and Paris, sending many letters in his mother’s name as he tried to find a way out of the problem. Dutifully, he also sent home as much as possible of the 1,100 francs per annum that he earned as a second-lieutenant. Letizia, ‘Widow of Buonaparte’ as Napoleon described her in their many letters to France’s comptroller-general, came close to having to sell family silver after borrowing 600 francs from a French officer whom she needed to reimburse.64 Archdeacon Luciano saved the Bonapartes from the bailiffs on that occasion, but the family were chronically short of money until the archdeacon’s death in 1791, when they inherited his estate.

On the first day of September 1785, Napoleon was commissioned into the Compagnie d’Autume of bombardiers of the 5th Brigade of the 1st Battalion of the Régiment de la Fère, stationed at Valence, on the left bank of the Rhône. It was one of the five oldest artillery regiments, and highly prestigious.65 At sixteen he was one of the youngest officers, and the only Corsican to hold an artillery commission in the French army. Napoleon always recalled his years at Valence as impecunious – his room had only a bed, table and armchair – and sometimes he had to skip meals in order to afford books, which he continued to read with the same voracious appetite as before. He existed partly on charity; as First Consul he asked one of his interior ministers for news of a café owner who had often treated him to coffee at Valence, and upon hearing that she was still alive said, ‘I fear that I did not pay for all the cups of coffee that she served me; here are 50 louis [1,000 francs] that you will give to her on my behalf.’66 He was also slow in picking up restaurant bills. A contemporary recalled: ‘Persons who had dined with him at taverns and coffee-houses when it was convenient to him not to pay his reckoning, have assured me that though the youngest and poorest, he always obtained without exacting it a sort of deference or even submission from the rest of the company. Though never parsimonious, he was at that period of his life extremely attentive to the details of expense.’67 He could not afford to forget the nightmare of the pépinière.

The list of books from which Napoleon made detailed notes from 1786 to 1791 is long, and includes histories of the Arabs, Venice, the Indies, England, Turkey, Switzerland and the Sorbonne. He annotated Voltaire’s Essais sur les moeurs, Machiavelli’s History of Florence, Mirabeau’s Des lettres de cachet and Charles Rollin’s Ancient History; there were books on modern geography, political works such as Jacques Dulaure’s anti-aristocracy Critical History of the Nobility, and Charles Duclos’ gossipy Secret Memoirs of the Reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV.68 At the same time, he learned verses of Corneille, Racine and Voltaire by heart, perhaps to charm a pretty girl called Caroline de Colombier. ‘It will seem very difficult to believe,’ he later recalled of the innocence of their relationship as they walked through meadows at dawn, ‘but we spent the entire time eating cherries!’69 Napoleon continued with dancing lessons at Valence, possibly recognizing how important it was for an officer to be socially presentable.* When, in December 1808, his by-then-destitute former dancing master, Dautel, wrote to him to say ‘Sire, the one who gave you the first steps in polite society is calling upon your generosity’, Napoleon found him a job.70

It was at Valence on April 26, 1786 that Napoleon wrote his first surviving essay, about the right of Corsicans to resist the French. He had finished his schooling, so it was written for himself rather than for publication – an unusual pastime for French army officers of the day. Celebrating Paoli’s sixty-first birthday, it argued that laws derived either from the people or from the prince and for the sovereignty of the former, concluding: ‘The Corsicans, following all the laws of justice, have been able to shake off the yoke of the Genoese, and may do the same with that of the French. Amen.’71 It was a curious, indeed treasonous, document for an officer in the French army to write, but Napoleon had idolized Paoli since his schooldays, and from the ages of nine to seventeen he had been largely alone in France, recalling an idealized Corsica.

Napoleon was a writer manqué, penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six.72 Taken together they display his intellectual and political development, tracing the way he moved from a committed Corsican nationalist in the 1780s to an avowed anti-Paolist French officer who by 1793 wanted the Corsican revolt to be crushed by Jacobin France. Late in life, Napoleon called Paoli ‘a fine character who neither betrayed England nor France but was always for Corsica’, and a ‘great friend of the family’ who had ‘urged me to enter into the English service, he then had the power of procuring me a commission . . . but I preferred the French because I spoke the language, was of their religion, understood and liked their manners, and I thought the start of the Revolution as a fine time for an enterprising young man’.73 He also claimed, with perhaps less truth, that Paoli had paid him the ‘great compliment’ of saying: ‘That young man will be one of Plutarch’s ancients.’74

In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote. ‘In which direction are my thoughts turned today? Toward death.’75 He was then prompted to consider: ‘Since I must die, should I not just kill myself?’ ‘How far from Nature men have strayed!’ he exclaimed, echoing a classic Romantic trope. Exhibiting a Hamlet-like combination of arrogance and self-pity, he then mixed in some self-indulgent philosophizing with Rousseauian Corsican nationalism: ‘My fellow-countrymen are weighed down with chains, while they kiss with fear the hand that oppresses them! They are no longer those brave Corsicans who a hero animated with his virtues; enemies of tyrants, of luxury, and vile courtesans. You Frenchmen,’ he continued, ‘not content with having robbed us of everything we held dear, have also corrupted our character. A good patriot ought to die when his fatherland has ceased to exist . . . Life is a burden to me, because I enjoy no pleasure and because everything is painful to me.’76 Like most tortured young teenagers attracted by romantic hyperbole Napoleon decided not to kill himself, but the essays give us a glimpse into his evolving sense of self. His essays tended to be written within the classical conventions of the day, filled with exaggerated bombast and rhetorical questions, and in them he began to hone the literary style that was later to characterize his proclamations and speeches.

At the age of seventeen, Napoleon’s religious views started to coalesce, and they did not change much thereafter. Despite being taught by monks, he was never a true Christian, being unconvinced by the divinity of Jesus. He did believe in some kind of divine power, albeit one that seems to have had very limited interaction with the world beyond its original creation. Later he was sometimes seen to cross himself before battle,77 and, as we shall see, he certainly also knew the social utility of religion. But in his personal beliefs he was essentially an Enlightenment sceptic. In September 1780, aged eleven, he had been given a public oral examination, during which he was asked to expound upon Christ’s four major miracles and was questioned on the New Testament. He later recalled of that test: ‘I was scandalised to hear that the most virtuous men of Antiquity would be burned in perpetuity because they did not follow a religion of which they had never heard.’78 When a priest had offered his services to help him through his father’s death, the fifteen-year-old Napoleon had refused. Now, in another unpublished paper, he attacked a Protestant minister from Geneva who had criticized Rousseau, and accused Christianity of permitting tyranny because its promises of an afterlife detracted from Man’s desire to perfect this life by insisting on a government designed ‘to lend assistance to the feeble against the strong, and by this means to allow everyone to enjoy a sweet tranquillity, the road to happiness’.79 Only the Social Contract – that is, agreement between the people and state authority – could secure happiness. Alongside that 15,000-word treatise, Napoleon wrote The Hare, the Hound and the Huntsman, a short comic fable in verse form echoing La Fontaine and featuring a pointer called Caesar who is shot by a huntsman just before he is about to kill a hare. The last couplet goes:

God helps those who help himself,

I approve of that idea myself.80

Napoleon’s next surviving piece of prose is only one page long. Dated Thursday, November 22, 1787 and written from the Hôtel de Cherbourg, on what is today the rue Vauvilliers off the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris, which he was visiting to pursue the pépinière affair, it was entitled ‘A Meeting at the Palais-Royal’. The private note, written for himself, chronicles his encounter with a prostitute he picked up in that notoriously louche area of central Paris, a neighbourhood of gambling houses, restaurants and bijouterie shops:

I had just come out of the Italian Opera, and was walking at a good pace along the alleys of the Palais-Royal. My spirit, stirred by the feelings of vigour which are natural to it, was indifferent to the cold, but when once my mind became chilled I felt the severity of the weather, and took refuge in the galleries. I was just entering the iron gates when my eyes became fixed on a person of the other sex. The time of night, her figure, and her youth, left me in no doubt what her occupation was. I looked at her; she stopped, not with the impudent air common to her class, but with a manner that was quite in harmony with the charm of her appearance. This struck me. Her timidity encouraged me, and I spoke to her. I spoke to her; I, who, more sensible than any to the horror of her condition, have always felt stained by even a look from such a person. But her pallor, her frail form, her soft voice, left me not a moment in suspense.81

He walked with her into the gardens of the Palais-Royal and asked her if there wasn’t ‘an occupation more suited to your health’, to which she replied, ‘No, sir; one must live.’ ‘I was charmed; I saw that she at least gave me an answer, a success which I had never met with before.’ He asked her where she was from (Nantes), how she lost her virginity (‘An officer ruined me’), whether she was sorry for it (‘Yes, very’), how she’d got to Paris, and finally, after a further barrage of questions, whether she would go back with him to her rooms, so that ‘we will warm ourselves, and you can satisfy your desire’.82 He ends by writing: ‘I had no intention of becoming over-scrupulous at this stage. I had already tempted her, so that she would not consider running away when pressed by the argument I had prepared for her, and I did not want her to start feigning an honesty that I wished to prove she did not possess.’83 He was not originally looking for such an encounter, but the fact that he thought it worthy of chronicling suggests that this was probably the occasion on which he lost his virginity. The conversational method of quick-fire questions was pure Napoleon.

A few days later, still in Paris, he began to write a history of Corsica, which he abandoned after only a few lines. Instead he took up writing a rhetorical, declamatory essay entitled ‘A Parallel between Love of Glory and Love of Country’, which took the form of a letter to an unnamed young lady in which he came down strongly in favour of the former. Love of glory finds its examples in French military history – he mentions Marshals Condé and Turenne – but there is also a great deal about Sparta, Philip of Macedon, Alexander, Charlemagne, Leonidas and ‘the first magistrate, the great Paoli’.84

In September 1786, after an absence of nearly eight years, Napoleon returned to Corsica and met his three youngest siblings for the first time. It was the first of five trips home between 1786 and 1793, some lasting many months, largely in order to deal with the various problems left by his father’s estate. On April 21, 1787 he wrote to the war minister asking for five and a half months’ paid leave ‘for the recovery of his health’.85 He was either a good actor or had a pliant doctor, because although he wasn’t genuinely ill he enclosed the necessary medical certificates. He would not return for almost a whole year. This long absence from his regiment should be seen in the context of a peacetime army in which two-thirds of infantry officers and three-quarters of cavalry officers left their regiments in winter.86 Joseph had by then been forced to give up any hopes of going into either the army or the Church in order to help his mother look after the family, but he did take a law degree at the University of Pisa in 1788. All the younger siblings were still at school, with Lucien showings signs of intelligence and ambition.

By late May 1788 Napoleon was stationed at the School of Artillery at Auxonne in eastern France, not far from Dijon. Here, as when he was stationed with his regiment at Valence, he ate only once a day, at 3 p.m., thereby saving enough money from his officer’s salary to send some home to his mother; the rest he spent on books. He changed his clothes once every eight days. He was determined to continue his exhaustive autodidactic reading programme and his voluminous notebooks from Auxonne are full of the history, geography, religion and customs of all the most prominent peoples of the ancient world, including the Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians. They cover modern artillery improvements and regimental discipline, but also mention Plato’s Republic, Achilles and (inevitably) Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

The School of Artillery was commanded by General Baron Jean-Pierre du Teil, a pioneer in the latest artillery techniques. Napoleon had classes in military theory for up to nine hours a week, as well as advanced mathematics every Tuesday. Artillery was recognized as increasingly important now that advances in metallurgy meant that cannon could be just as effective at half the weight as previously; once big guns became mobile on a battlefield without losing firepower or accuracy, they could be battle-winners. Napoleon’s favourites – his ‘pretty girls’ as he later called them – were the relatively mobile 12-pounders.87 ‘I believe every officer ought to serve in the artillery,’ he was to say, ‘which is the arm that can produce most of the good generals.’88 This was not merely self-serving: French artillery commanders of his day were to include the fine generals Jean-Baptiste Éblé, Alexandre-Antoine Sénarmont, Antoine Drouot, Jean de Lariboisière, Auguste de Marmont and Charles-Étienne Ruty.

‘There is nothing in the military profession I cannot do for myself,’ Napoleon was to boast. ‘If there is no-one to make gunpowder, I know how to make it; gun carriages, I know how to construct them; if it is founding a cannon, I know that; or if the details of tactics must be taught, I can teach them.’89 For all this, he had the Auxonne school to thank. That August saw him in charge of two hundred men testing the feasibility of firing explosive shells from heavy cannon instead of just from mortars. His report was praised for its clarity of expression. His military memoranda from those days were terse and informative, and emphasized the importance of taking the offensive.

A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’90 His views were authoritarian but also subversive, and would have got their author into trouble if published under his name, even in the increasingly chaotic political situation in which France found herself in the months preceding the fall of the Bastille. Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.

His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his officers’ mess, which he somehow turned into a 4,500-word document full of literary orotundities such as: ‘Night can hold no gloom for he who overlooks nothing that might in any way compromise his rank or his uniform. The penetrating eyes of the eagle and the hundred heads of Argus would barely suffice to fulfil the obligations and duties of his mandate.’91 In January 1789 he wrote a Romantic melodrama, ‘The Earl of Essex: An English Story’, not his finest literary endeavour. ‘The fingers of the Countess sank into gaping wounds,’ begins one paragraph. ‘Her fingers dripped with blood. She cried out, hid her face, but looking up again could see nothing. Terrified, trembling, aghast, cut to the very quick by these terrible forebodings, the Countess got into a carriage and arrived at the Tower.’92 The story includes assassination plots, love, murder, premonitions, and the overthrow of King James II. Continuing in this melodramatic style, in March 1789 Napoleon wrote a two-page short story called ‘The Mask of the Prophet’, about a handsome and charismatic Arab soldier-prophet, Hakem, who has to wear a silver mask because he has been disfigured by illness. Having fallen out with the local prince, Mahadi, Hakem has his disciples dig lime-filled pits, supposedly for their enemies, but he poisons his own followers, throws their bodies into the pits and finally immolates himself.93 It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst.

The next month Napoleon was sent 20 miles down the Saône river to Seurre as second-in-command of an operation to put down a riot in which a crowd had killed two grain merchants. ‘Let honest men go to their homes,’ the nineteen-year-old is reported to have shouted to the crowd, ‘I only fire upon the mob.’ Although he did his duty efficiently and impressed General du Teil, the political situation was such that before long rioters were attacking public buildings and burning down tax offices in Auxonne itself. It was from this provincial vantage point that Napoleon saw the first harbinger of the great political event that was to transform the history of France and of Europe, and his own life.

The French Revolution, which broke out on July 14, 1789 when a Parisian mob stormed the state prison, the Bastille, was preceded by years of financial crises and turmoil such as the minor uprising Napoleon had been sent to put down. The first stirrings of instability can be dated back to 1783, the last year of the American War of Independence in which France had supported the rebellious colonists against Britain. Other protests over low wages and food shortages besides those in Seurre were put down violently in April 1789, with twenty-five deaths. ‘Napoleon often said that nations had their illnesses just as individuals did, and that their history would be no less interesting to describe than the maladies of the human body,’ recorded one of his ministers in later years. ‘The French people were wounded in their dearest interests. The nobility and the clergy humiliated them with their pride and privileges. The people suffered under this weight for a long time, but finally wanted to shake off the yoke, and the Revolution began.’94

By the time the Estates-General of France was called on May 5, for the first time since 1614, it seemed that the king might be forced to share at least some of his power with the representatives of the Third Estate. But thereafter events moved swiftly and unpredictably. On June 20 the deputies of the Third Estate, who were by then calling themselves the National Assembly, took an oath not to dissolve itself until a new constitution was established. Three days later two companies of royal guards mutinied sooner than put down public unrest. The news that Louis XVI was recruiting foreign mercenaries to suppress what had by then become an insurrection led the radical journalist Camille Desmoulins to call for the storming of the Bastille, which resulted in the deaths of the governor of Paris, its mayor and the secretary of state. On August 26 the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and on October 6 the Palace of Versailles was stormed by the mob.

For a man who was to exhibit such acute political sharpness later in his career, Napoleon completely misread the Revolution’s opening stages. ‘I repeat what I have said to you,’ he wrote to Joseph on July 22, a week after the fall of the Bastille, ‘calm will return. In a month, there will no longer be a question of anything. So, if you send me 300 livres [7,500 francs] I will go to Paris to terminate our business.’95 At the time, Napoleon was more concerned with the pépinière saga than with the greatest political eruption in Europe since the Reformation. He returned to writing his history of Corsica, and summoned up the courage to write to his hero Paoli, who was still in exile in London. ‘I was born when the country was perishing,’ he declared with a flourish. ‘Thirty thousand Frenchmen vomited onto our coasts, drowning the thrones of liberty in seas of blood, such was the odious spectacle which first met my eye. The cries of the dying, the groans of the oppressed, the tears of despair surrounded my cradle from my birth.’96 These were extraordinary sentiments from someone who had taken an oath to serve the King of France when he was commissioned as an officer. With the advent of the Revolution, and the return of Paoli to Corsica in July 1790, Napoleon’s divided loyalties could not endure much longer. He was going to have to choose.

2

‘In whatever time he had appeared he would have played a prominent part, but the epoch when he first entered on his career was particularly fitted to facilitate his elevation.’

Metternich on Napoleon

‘At twenty-two many things are allowed which are no longer permitted past thirty.’

Napoleon to Elector Frederick of Württemberg

‘Amid the noise of drums, arms, blood, I write you this letter,’ Napoleon told Joseph from Auxonne, where rioting had broken out again eight days after the fall of the Bastille.1 He proudly reported to his brother that General du Teil had asked his advice on the situation. Napoleon arrested thirty-three people and spent the better part of an hour exhorting the rioters to stop.

Despite hating mobs and technically being a nobleman, Napoleon welcomed the Revolution. At least in its early stages it accorded well with the Enlightenment ideals he had ingested from his reading of Rousseau and Voltaire. He embraced its anti-clericalism and did not mind the weakening of a monarchy for which he had no particular respect. Beyond that, it seemed to offer Corsica prospects of greater independence, and far better career opportunities for an ambitious young outsider without money or connections. Napoleon believed that the new social order it promised to usher in would destroy both of these disadvantages and would be built on logic and reason, which the Enlightenment philosophes saw as the only true foundations for authority.

The Bonapartes were in the minority among Corsica’s gentry in supporting the Revolution, although not quite ‘the only persons’ on the island to do so, as Napoleon later claimed.2 What does appear to be true is that he was the only artillery graduate of his year from the École Militaire to support the overthrow of Louis XVI, and one of only a handful of officers from his corps, many of whom fled France in 1789. Although Napoleon faithfully carried out his military duties, putting down food riots in Valence and Auxonne – where some men from his own regiment mutinied and joined the rioters – he was an early adherent of the local branch of the revolutionary Society of the Friends of the Constitution. Back in Ajaccio his fourteen-year-old brother Lucien, whose commitment to radical politics was much more profound and enduring, joined the extremist Jacobin Club.3*

On August 8, 1789, when Paris was in uproar and a large part of the French officer corps in disarray, Napoleon was once again granted sick leave to return to Corsica, where he stayed for the next eighteen months, throwing himself energetically into the island’s politics. Again, there is no indication that he was genuinely ill. In his Account of Corsica, Boswell described how the island was politically split between its cities, its nine provinces and its many ecclesiastical pieves (groups of parishes which were ‘as much used for civil affairs as for those of the church’). The power of the governor, based in the capital, Corte, was limited. There were traditional rivalries between towns, villages and clans, and strong attachments to the Catholic Church and to the exiled Paoli. Napoleon stepped into this maelstrom with gusto, and over the next four years would be far more concerned with Corsican politics than his career as a French officer.

As soon as he arrived in Ajaccio, Napoleon, supported by Joseph and Lucien, urged Corsicans to adhere to the revolutionary cause, fly the new tricolour flag and wear it as a cockade in their hats, form a revolutionary ‘Patriots’ club, and organize a regiment of Corsican Volunteers, a National Guard militia that it was hoped would one day match the governor’s force. When the governor closed the club and banned the Volunteers, Napoleon’s name topped the petition sent in protest to the National Assembly in Paris.4 In October, he wrote a pamphlet denouncing the French commander in Corsica and criticizing the island’s government as insufficiently revolutionary.5 While Napoleon led the revolutionary party in Ajaccio, Antoine-Christophe Saliceti, a Corsican deputy to the National Assembly, radicalized the larger town of Bastia.

When in January 1790 the National Assembly passed a decree at Saliceti’s urging making Corsica a department of France, Napoleon supported the move. Paoli denounced it from London as a measure designed to impose the will of Paris. As Saliceti and Napoleon now saw Paris as an ally in the task of revolutionizing Corsica, a major split was likely if Paoli were to return to the island. In the midst of all the politicking – Joseph was elected Ajaccio’s mayor in March – Napoleon spent his nights writing his history of Corsica and re-reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars, committing whole pages of it to memory. As his sick leave came to an end he asked for an extension. With so few officers left in the regiment, his commanding officer couldn’t afford to refuse him.

Napoleon spent fifteen months reworking his Corsican history, but he was unable to find a publisher. The parts of it which survive argue that Corsicans personify all the Ancient Roman virtues but are prey to ‘an inexplicable fate’ that has kept them subjugated. Around this time Napoleon also wrote an exceptionally violent and vindictive short story entitled ‘New Corsica’, which began as a tale of adventure but then turned into a political rant and ended as a bloodbath. In it, an Englishman meets an old man who relates the atrocities that took place in Corsica after the French invasion of 1768. ‘I left my men to fly to the help of my unfortunate father whom I found drowning in his own blood,’ he says. ‘He had only the strength to tell me: “My son, avenge me. It is the first law of nature. Die like me if you have to, but never recognize the French as your masters.”’ The old man relates how he found the naked corpse of his raped mother, ‘covered in wounds and in the most obscene posture’, and reports: ‘My wife and three of my brothers had been hung in the same place. Seven of my sons, of whom three were under the age of five, had met the same fate. Our cabin had been burnt; the blood of our goats was mixed with that of my family,’ and so on.6 ‘Since that time,’ the old man says, ‘I have sworn anew on my altar, never to spare another Frenchman.’7 This disturbing tale, written when Napoleon was twenty years old and a serving army officer, is a Francophobic revenge fantasy. The retribution the old man wreaks is cataclysmic; he kills everyone on board a French ship, up to and including the cabin boy, and then: ‘We dragged their bodies to our altar, and there burned them all. This new incense seemed to please the Deity.’8 When the Revolution began, Napoleon clearly was not immune to the lure of violence.

On June 24, 1790 Napoleon sent his history of Corsica to the Abbé Raynal, an influential Enlightenment thinker whose Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, first published anonymously in 1770 and subsequently banned in France, had been a popular success and, despite its length, an influential polemic. The abbé had been forced into exile for several years but he was invited to return in 1787. In his covering letter – dated ‘Year 1 of Liberty’ – Napoleon wrote: ‘Nations slaughter each other for family quarrels, cutting each other’s throats in the name of the Ruler of the Universe, knavish and greedy priests working on their imagination by means of their love of the marvellous and their fears.’9 Equally melodramatically, he told Raynal: ‘I eagerly accepted a labour which flattered my love for my country, then abased, unhappy, enslaved.’ He added, mimicking Boswell’s and Rousseau’s hagiography of Corsica’s glories: ‘I see with pleasure my country, to the shame of the Universe, serve as an asylum for the last remains of Roman liberty, and the heirs of Cato.’10 The idea that the squabbling Corsicans were the true heirs of Marcus Porcius Cato, paladin of Roman liberty, was more an indication of Napoleon’s romantic obsession with the classical world than a useful historical insight. He also sent his manuscript to his old Brienne tutor, Père Dupuy, who suggested a complete rewriting – advice to which few authors take kindly.

On July 12, 1790, the National Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, providing for government control over the Church and abolishing the monastic orders. The demand for priests to take the Constitutional Oath of loyalty to the state split the First Estate between juring (that is, oath-taking) and non-juring priests, and was denounced by Pope Pius VI the following March. Hostility to Christianity in general, and to the Roman Catholic Church in particular, animated many of the revolutionaries. By November 1793, Notre-Dame Cathedral had been re-dedicated to the Cult of Reason, and six months later the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre passed a decree establishing the pantheist Cult of the Supreme Being. As well as tens of thousands of aristocrats being stripped of their possessions and forced into exile to become émigrés abroad, several thousand priests left the country too.

Napoleon supported the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in a pamphlet that was sufficiently inflammatory for him and Joseph only narrowly to avoid a lynching when they happened to walk near a religious procession in Ajaccio soon after its publication. (They were saved by a bandit named Trenta Coste, who was duly rewarded when Napoleon became First Consul.)11 July 1790 saw the sixty-five-year-old Paoli’s return to Corsica after twenty-two years in exile. Napoleon and Joseph were on Ajaccio’s reception committee to welcome him. He was immediately and unanimously appointed Lieutenant of Corsica and elected to the presidencies of Corsica’s assembly and its recently constituted National Guard.

Paoli saw the Bonaparte boys as the children of a collaborator, and made minimal effort to retain their loyalty, despite Napoleon’s patent eagerness for his approbation. One of his first acts was to move the capital from Corte to Bastia, to the irritation of Ajaccio’s inhabitants, such as the Bonapartes. According to local legend, Paoli was infuriated by Napoleon’s criticism of his troop dispositions when they toured the battlefield of Ponte Nuovo together (though Joseph’s memoirs suggest that Napoleon confined his critical remarks to his brother alone).12 Paoli had been a revered figure in progressive circles in Europe in the later decades of the Enlightenment; the Bonapartes would go to great lengths to accommodate him.

Joseph was elected as one of Ajaccio’s deputies to the Corsican assembly on September 15, and later became president of the city’s executive government, known as the Directory, but Napoleon failed to be elected either as a deputy or to a senior position in the National Guard. ‘This city is full of bad citizens,’ he wrote to Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo, a member of the island’s government. ‘You’ve no idea of their craziness and meanness.’ He proposed that three members of the town council be removed from office. ‘This measure is violent, possibly illegal, but essential,’ he wrote, ending with a quotation from Montesquieu: ‘Laws are like the statues of certain divinities which on some occasions must be veiled.’13 In this instance, he didn’t get his way.

The following month the National Assembly, now effectively the sovereign parliament of France, passed a motion proposed by the Comte de Mirabeau that although Corsica was now a part of France and would be subject to its laws, she would henceforth be governed solely by Corsicans. Huge celebrations greeted the news across the island, Te Deums were sung in every church and Napoleon hung a huge banner from the Casa Bonaparte which read: ‘Vive la Nation, Vive Paoli, Vive Mirabeau’.14 To Raynal he trumpeted, with characteristic (if on this occasion pardonable) hyperbole, ‘The sea no longer separates us.’15 Yet Paoli had no place for Napoleon in his new political order. As the Paolists started to fall out with the Paris government, the Bonapartes stayed loyal to the National Assembly – and after September 1792 its successor, the Convention. Their split from the Paolists was gradual, and involved both accelerations and reverses, but by spring 1793 it was complete.

On January 6, 1791 Napoleon was present at the inauguration of the Globo Patriottico, a revolutionary club in Ajaccio that aped the political clubs that the Jacobins and the more moderate Girondins were establishing in Paris. Later that month he published a political pamphlet, ‘Letter to M. Buttafuoco’, which accused the man who had been appointed to rule the island twenty-three years earlier of being a traitor and supporter of ‘the absurd feudal regime’; it accused Paoli of being tricked by Buttafuoco and of being ‘surrounded by enthusiasts’, a reference to the returned exiles who tended to want a British-style constitution for Corsica, while Napoleon favoured the French revolutionary one. Paoli, who was working well with Buttafuoco at the time, responded aggressively to Napoleon’s pamphlet, refusing his offer of the dedication of his history of Corsica. ‘History should not be written in youth,’ he said, it requires ‘maturity and balance’.16 He added that he couldn’t return the manuscript, because he had no time to look for it, and turned down Napoleon’s request for documents. Any hopes Napoleon might have had of becoming a successful author were once again stymied, this time by the man he had spent his youth idolizing. When, later on, there were rumours – probably politically inspired, but quite possibly true – that Joseph had pilfered Ajaccio’s coffers, Paoli offered no support.17

Although his leave had officially ended on October 15, 1790, Napoleon left Corsica for his regiment only on February 1 the following year, taking with him his twelve-year-old brother Louis, whose schooling at Auxonne he was going to pay for. He produced certificates for ill-health and even for the bad weather to his ever-patient commanding officer, who obligingly gave him three months’ back-pay. Louis nonetheless had to sleep on the floor in a closet next to Napoleon’s bed, with a single table and two chairs as their only furniture. ‘Do you know how I managed?’ Napoleon later recalled of this period of his life. ‘By never entering a café or going into society; by eating dry bread, and brushing my own clothes so that they might last the longer. I lived like a bear, in a little room, with books for my only friends . . . These were the joys and debaucheries of my youth.’18 He might have been exaggerating slightly, but not much. There was nothing he valued so much as books and a good education.

Between February and August 1791 Napoleon worked on a discourse for the Lyons Academy’s essay prize, on the subject: ‘What are the Most Important Truths and Feelings for Men to Learn to be Happy?’ The Academy and Abbé Raynal offered 1,200 francs – more than Napoleon’s annual salary – for the best submission. Napoleon took six months to write his essay. In it he denounced the vanity of ambition, even criticizing Alexander the Great for hubris: ‘What is Alexander doing when he rushes from Thebes into Persia and thence into India? He is ever restless, he loses his wits, he believes himself God. What is the end of Cromwell? He governs England. But is he not tormented by all the daggers of the Furies?’19 He also wrote, surely autobiographically: ‘You return to your homeland after an absence of four years: you wander round the sites, the places where you played in those first tender years . . . You feel all the fire of love for the homeland.’20

Napoleon would later claim that he had withdrawn the essay before it was judged, but that is not in fact true. The Academy’s examiners gave it low marks for its excessively inflated style. One judge described it as ‘of too little interest, too ill-ordered, too disparate, too rambling, and too badly written to hold the reader’s attention’.21 Years later, Talleyrand obtained the original from the Academy’s archives and presented it to Napoleon, who when he had re-read it said: ‘I found its author deserved to be whipped. What ridiculous things I said, and how annoyed I would be if they were preserved!’22 Instead he ‘flung it into the fire, and pushed it down with the tongs’, fearing that ‘It might have exposed me to ridicule.’23 Although he had comprehensively failed to win the prize, that he even entered a French language essay competition showed considerable confidence.

This formal production was only part of this twenty-two-year-old’s literary fecundity. He wrote a ‘Dialogue sur l’Amour’, in which the figure representing himself is called ‘B’ and a real-life friend and comrade from the garrison, Alexandre de Mazis, appears under his own name. How close a friend Mazis was might be questioned, since he’s depicted as boastful and impatient, compared to the serene, masterful ‘B’. The ‘Dialogue’ argues that love is an incubus both to society and to individual happiness, and that Providence should abolish it in order to make everyone happier. Another composition, ‘Reflections on the State of Nature’, argued that mankind had lived better before society existed, a concept lifted wholesale from Rousseau.

In June 1791 Napoleon was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to the 4th Regiment of Artillery back at Valence. In the sixty-nine months he’d been with La Fère Regiment, he had spent no fewer than thirty-five on leave, and he had no intention of changing this pattern now. ‘Send me three hundred francs,’ he wrote to his uncle Joseph Fesch on arriving; ‘that sum will enable me to go to Paris. There, at least, one can cut a figure and surmount obstacles. Everything tells me I shall succeed. Will you prevent me from doing so for the want of 100 crowns?’24 The urgency and ambition are unmistakable, but either Fesch demurred or Napoleon in the meantime learned that four battalions of National Guards were going to be raised on Corsica, because he then asked for leave to go there instead. His new commanding officer, Colonel Compagnon, understandably refused permission on the grounds that he had been with the regiment for only two months.

In the closing days of June 1791, the royal family attempted to escape from France and were captured in their carriage at Varennes. They were forced to return to near-imprisonment at the Tuileries Palace. On July 10, Emperor Leopold II of Austria issued a request to all the other royal houses of Europe to come to the aid of his brother-in-law Louis XVI. By then Napoleon had become secretary of the Valence branch of the Society of Friends of the Constitution, and at a celebratory banquet on the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille he proposed a toast ‘To the patriots of Auxonne’, who were petitioning for the King to be put on trial. ‘This country is full of zeal and fire,’ he wrote to a friend, adding that although the Revolution could count on only half his regiment’s officers, all the lower ranks supported it.25 ‘The southern blood runs through my veins with the rapidity of the Rhône,’ he added in a postscript; ‘you must therefore pardon me if you experience some difficulty in reading my scrawl.’

Refusing to take his commanding officer’s no for an answer, on August 30 Napoleon appealed to General du Teil, who afterwards told his daughter: ‘That is a man of great ability; his name will be heard of.’26 He was given four months’ leave to go to Corsica with the understanding that if he were not back with the colours by the time of the regimental parade on January 10, 1792 he would be considered a deserter.

Napoleon found Corsica in turmoil. There had been 130 murders since the Revolution began and no taxes had been collected. His family’s money worries, which had taken up so much of his time and effort since his father’s death six years earlier, abated somewhat on October 15, 1791 with the death of his great-uncle, Archdeacon Luciano Bonaparte, who left the Bonaparte family his fortune. This money certainly came in useful when, on February 22, 1792, Napoleon stood for election as adjutant, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, in the 2nd Battalion of the Corsican National Guard. There was a good deal of bribery involved, and one of the three election observers was even kidnapped on the day of the polls and detained in the Casa Bonaparte until the election was safely won. Napoleon’s chief opponent, the influential Corsican politician Charles-André Pozzo di Borgo’s brother Matteo, was shouted down from the hustings outside the church of San Francesco by Napoleon’s armed supporters. Corsican politics was always tough, but these tactics were a serious infringement of accepted practices and Paoli, who supported Matteo Pozzo di Borgo, demanded an official inquiry into what he called ‘corruption and intrigue’. He was blocked by Saliceti, who represented the Paris Convention on the island, so the result stood. The January deadline for Napoleon’s return to his regiment had meanwhile come and gone. A note in his war ministry file stated simply: ‘Has given up his profession and has been replaced on February 6 1792.’27

Severe food riots in Paris between January and March 1792 sharpened the political crisis. Then in early February an alliance was announced between Austria and Prussia whose unavowed but hardly secret intention was to topple the revolutionary government in France and restore the monarchy. Although Britain was not part of this first coalition, her hostility to the Revolution was also clear. With war in the air, the revolution in Corsica took a radical turn. On February 28 Saliceti ordered the suppression of the ancient convents and monasteries of Ajaccio, Bastia, Bonifacio and Corte, with the proceeds going into the central government’s coffers. Paoli and the vast majority of Corsicans opposed this, and on Easter Sunday fighting broke out in Ajaccio between Napoleon’s National Guardsmen and local Catholic citizens who wanted to protect the monastery: one of Napoleon’s lieutenants was shot dead at his side. At one point in the four days and nights of confused urban brawling and ill-tempered standoffs between the townspeople and the National Guard, Napoleon tried, unsuccessfully, to capture the town’s well-fortified citadel from the French regular troops under the command of Colonel Maillard, who wrote a damning report to the war ministry effectively accusing him of treason. The roads to Ajaccio were filled with peasants carrying empty sacks, eagerly anticipating the pillaging of the town.

Paoli took Maillard’s side, ordering Napoleon to leave Ajaccio and report to him at Corte, which he did. Fortunately for Napoleon, Maillard’s report of the messy affair was buried under a mountain of far more pressing war ministry paperwork. France had pre-emptively declared war on Austria and Prussia on April 20 and invaded the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium) eight days later to forestall an expected invasion of France from the north-west, the Austrian and Prussian armies being headquartered in Coblenz. After the Ajaccio imbroglio Napoleon couldn’t stay in Corsica, but neither could he return to Valence, where he was officially a deserter. So he left for Paris.

When Napoleon reached the war ministry in the Place Vendôme in Paris he found it in turmoil: the new revolutionary government would go through six war ministers between May and October 1792. It was clear that no-one had had a chance to read Maillard’s report, or much cared about what had happened in a provincial backwater like Ajaccio, and no-one seemed to mind that Napoleon’s leave had officially expired in January, before his election to the Corsican National Guard. In July 1792 Napoleon was promoted to captain, ante-dated by a year with full pay, but without being assigned a new post. His cheeky demand that he be promoted to lieutenant-colonel in the regular army, on the ground that he was one in the Guard, was marked ‘SR’ (sans réponse) by the ministry.28

Napoleon was unimpressed by what he found in Paris. ‘The men at the head of the Revolution are a poor lot,’ he wrote to Joseph. ‘Everyone pursues his own interest, and searches to gain his own ends by dint of all sorts of crimes; people intrigue as basely as ever. All this destroys ambition. One pities those who have the misfortune to play a part in public affairs.’29 If the part of the honest soldier, detached from the muddy business of politics, sat poorly with the reality of the revolutionary intriguer of Ajaccio, it was nonetheless one that he played well, and strategically. By this time he was a fully-fledged revolutionary, as his support for the overthrow of the monarchy and the nationalization of Corsica’s monasteries attested. Politically he veered towards the Jacobin extremists, who moreover seemed to be on the winning side. Although he wasn’t personally involved in any of the acts of repression already taking place in Paris as the Revolution moved towards its climax, there is no evidence that he disapproved of them.

Napoleon was in Paris on June 20, 1792 when the mob invaded the Tuileries, captured Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and forced the king to wear a red cap of liberty on the palace balcony. Bourrienne had met him at a restaurant on the rue Saint-Honoré, and when they saw a heavily armed crowd marching towards the palace, he claims that Napoleon said, ‘Let’s follow the rabble.’ Taking their place on the riverside terrace, they then watched with (presumably well-disguised) ‘surprise and indignation’ the historic scenes that followed.30 Two days later Napoleon described them to Joseph:

Between seven and eight thousand men armed with pikes, axes, swords, guns, spits, sharpened sticks . . . went to the king. The Tuileries gardens were closed and 15,000 National Guards were on guard there. They broke down the gates, entered the palace, pointed the cannon at the king’s apartment, threw four doors to the ground, and presented the king with two cockades, one white [the Bourbon colour] and the other tricolour. They made him choose. Choose, they said, whether you reign here or in Coblenz. The king presented himself. He put on a red bonnet. So did the queen and the royal prince. They gave the king a drink. They stayed in the palace for four hours . . . All this is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent. It is hard to predict what will happen to the empire in such stormy circumstances.31

Bourrienne later reported that Napoleon remarked: ‘What madness! How could they allow that rabble to enter? Why do they not sweep away four or five hundred of them with cannon? Then the rest would take themselves off very quickly.’ The humiliation of the royal family on that occasion further lowered the monarchy in Napoleon’s estimation. He supported the toppling of the king but could not understand why Louis XVI had meekly allowed himself to be humiliated. As it was, the royal couple had less than two months of this hazardous liberty left to them.

Austria and Prussia invaded France ten days later, inviting the well-justified supposition that Louis XVI and his Austrian wife sympathized with the invasion, and were collaborating with France’s enemies who now publicly stated their wish to restore them to full authority. Napoleon’s contempt for the pusillanimity of the Bourbons was again made clear on August 10, when the mob returned to arrest the king and queen and massacred their Swiss Guards. He had left his hotel in the rue de Mail and gone to watch events from a friend’s house on the Place du Carrousel. Seeing the well-dressed young officer on his way there, members of the crowd ordered Napoleon to shout ‘Vive la Nation!’, which, as he reminisced decades later, ‘as you can imagine, I hastened to do!’32 His friend’s house was stuffed with the property of aristocrats who had been forced to sell their belongings at a heavy discount before fleeing France. ‘Che coglione!’ (‘What asses!’) he exclaimed in Italian when, from an upstairs window, he saw the Swiss Guards refrain from firing on the mob, at what turned out to be the cost of their lives.33 When he himself moved into the Tuileries seven years later he had the bullet holes from that day effaced from the building.

Napoleon was still in Paris in early September when more than 1,200 people, including 115 priests, were murdered by the mob in the city’s prisons in cold blood. Verdun had fallen to the Duke of Brunswick’s invading Prussian army on September 3, after which four days of wanton killing of suspected collaborators began. Napoleon later attempted to defend what had happened, saying: ‘I think the massacres of September may have produced a powerful effect on the men of the invading army. In one moment they saw a whole population rising up against them.’34 He claimed that those who had carried them out ‘were almost all soldiers, who . . . were resolved to leave no enemies behind them’. Of the senior Jacobin revolutionaries he said: ‘Whatever people say of them they are not despicable characters. Few men have made their mark on the world as they have done.’35 Napoleon didn’t deny his own Jacobin past when he ruled France, saying, ‘At one time every man of spirit was bound to be one’, and he gave Robespierre’s widow and daughter annual pensions of 7,200 francs and 1,800 francs respectively.36 He had assessed the situation at first hand and, like his father, aligned himself with what looked like the winning side.

On September 21, 1792 France formally declared itself a Republic and the Assembly announced that Louis XVI would be tried for collaboration with the enemy and crimes against the French people. The day before, the Revolution was saved when Generals François Kellermann and Charles Dumouriez defeated Brunswick’s Prussian army at the battle of Valmy in the Champagne-Ardenne region, proving that the citizen army of France could defeat the regular armies of the counter-revolutionary Powers.

By mid-October Napoleon was back in Ajaccio promoting the Jacobin cause, returning to his lieutenant-colonelcy of the Corsican National Guard rather than taking up the captaincy of the 4th Regiment of Artillery in France’s regular army. He found the island far more anti-French than it had been when he left, especially after the September Massacres and the declaration of the Republic. Yet he remained, as he put it, ‘persuaded that the best thing Corsica could do was to become a province of France’.37 He moved from being a Corsican nationalist to a French revolutionary not because he finally got over being bullied at school, or because of anything to do with his father, let alone for any of the weird psycho-sexual reasons that have been advanced by historians and biographers in recent years, but simply because the politics of France and of Corsica had profoundly changed and so too had his place within them. Paoli, who preferred alliances with the grander and more politically influential Buttafuoco and Pozzo di Borgo clans than with the Bonapartes, opposed the Republic, the suppression of the monasteries and much of the rest of the revolutionary agenda that the Bonapartes supported. Paoli refused to take Lucien on to his staff, and even tried to prevent Napoleon from returning to his post in the National Guard. It was impossible for Napoleon to remain a Corsican patriot when the man who personified Corsican nationalism rejected him and his family so comprehensively.

In the intricate, intensely personal and fast-moving clan politics of Corsica, the Bonapartes were losing out to the Paolists. Through his reading, education, time in Paris and immersion in French culture, Napoleon had been imbued with French ideas even while he was still a zealous Corsican nationalist. He could see how provincial Corsica’s concerns were compared to the universal ideals thrown up by the Revolution, which was threatened by a full-scale invasion from Austria and Prussia. Over the coming months, Napoleon began to think of himself more and more as French, and less and less as Corsican. When, years later, a mayor attempted to compliment him by saying, ‘It is surprising, Sire, that though you are not a Frenchman, you love France so well, and have done so much for her,’ Napoleon said, ‘I felt as if he had struck me a blow! I turned my back on him.’38

The alienation between the Bonapartes and the Paolists was accelerated by the decapitation of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793 and the creation of the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. A witness who was present when Napoleon heard the news of Louis’ death recalled his privately saying, ‘Oh! The wretches! The poor wretches! They will go through anarchy.’39 Napoleon thought of the king’s execution – followed in October by that of Marie Antoinette – as a tactical error. ‘Had the French been more moderate and not put Louis to death,’ he later opined, ‘all Europe would have been revolutionized: the war saved England.’40 Yet at the time he publicly supported what had been done, and started his letters with the republican address ‘Citizen’.41 On February 1 France declared war on Britain and Holland, shortly after Spain, Portugal and the Kingdom of Piedmont in Italy had declared war on France. Ignoring the verdict of Valmy, the European monarchies were coming together to punish the regicide Republic. In March 1793 the Convention set up the Committee of Public Safety, which by July had become the de facto executive government of France. Prominent among its members were the leading Jacobins Robespierre and Louis Saint-Just. On August 23 the French Republic declared a levée en masse (mass conscription) in which all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were called up to defend the Revolution and la patrie, more than doubling the size of the French army from 645,000 to 1.5 million, and uniting the whole nation behind its fortunes.

Although it is likely that war would have broken out eventually anyway, the declaration of war against Britain by the revolutionary regime was a profound mistake; the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger (who had come to power in 1783 at the astonishingly young age of twenty-four) was by then viscerally opposed to regicidal France.* Taking advantage of its insular geography, Britain was to become by far the most consistent of all the opponents of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with which it was henceforth at peace for only fourteen months of the next twenty-three years. ‘Depend upon it,’ Pitt was to tell the political philosopher Edmund Burke, whose book Reflections on the Revolution in France had as early as 1790 predicted the Reign of Terror and the rise of a dictator, ‘we shall go on as we are till the Day of Judgement.’42 Britain saw an opportunity to use her maritime power to sweep French trade from the world’s oceans, neutralize or capture French colonies and cement her position as the world’s greatest commercial power after her humiliation in America only a decade earlier. For Pitt and his followers, unyielding opposition to the French Revolution, and later to Napoleonic France, was not only a moral and ideological imperative, it also made perfect geo-political sense in affording Britain the opportunity to replace France as the world’s hegemon. To that end, the Pittites in London funded a series of military coalitions against France – numbering no fewer than seven in all – through massive direct government-to-government cash subsidies, what Napoleon would call ‘Pitt’s gold’.43

The month after Louis XVI’s execution, Napoleon obtained his first significant command. He was put in charge of the artillery section of an expedition to ‘liberate’ three small Sardinian islands from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia under Paoli’s nephew, Pier di Cesari Rocca, whom he privately derided as a ‘clothes-horse’.44 On February 18 he embarked with his Corsican National Guardsmen on the twenty-two-gun corvette La Fauvette, part of a small fleet commanded by Admiral Laurent de Truguet, which sailed from Bonifacio. By nightfall on the 23rd, the island of San Stefano had been occupied. It was separated from the other two islands, La Maddelana and Caprera, by only 800 yards. Napoleon placed his cannon so they could fire upon the other islands, and they did so the next day. On board the Fauvette, however, the Provençal peasant conscripts who made up the largest part of Rocca’s force had noticed that the well-armed and warlike Sardinians thronging the shores showed little sign of wanting to be liberated. They mutinied, and so the entire expedition was aborted by Rocca. A furious Napoleon was forced to spike his own cannon and throw his mortars into the sea.

The first time Napoleon saw military action was therefore an humiliation, but had Paoli furnished the 10,000 men that the Paris Convention had requested for the expedition, rather than only 1,800, it might have succeeded. Napoleon complained to Paoli that his troops had been ‘absolutely denuded of all which was necessary for a campaign; they marched without tents, without uniforms, without cloaks and with no artillery train.’ He added that it was only ‘the hope of success’ that had sustained them.45 It was an inauspicious start for the career of the new Caesar, but it taught him the importance of morale, logistics and leadership more powerfully than any number of academic lectures.

Over the next four months, as Paoli’s government grew closer to the British – who were to occupy Corsica with his blessing on July 23, 1794 – and further from the French, Napoleon tried to straddle his two loyalties as long as he could, even when, after one spat, Paoli called Lucien a ‘serpent’. With rebels in the deeply Catholic Vendée region of western France – known as Chouans – rising up in support for the Bourbons against the atheist Revolution after the king’s execution, government commissioners crisscrossing France to ensure ideological purity – reportedly bringing a portable guillotine with them* – and Paoli fortifying the Ajaccio citadel, Napoleon’s options were narrowing. As late as April 18 he wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Address to the Convention’ that defended Paoli, but that same month he also composed a ‘Petition to the Municipality of Ajaccio’ urging the town to take an oath of allegiance to the Republic. When Saliceti had ordered Paoli’s arrest for treason an urgent decision was needed. The island rose in revolt for their ‘Babbù’, Paoli, and burnt Saliceti in effigy, hacking down ‘trees of liberty’ that had been planted by the republicans. Only Bastia, San Fiorenzi and Calvi, with their French military garrisons, held out for the Republic.

In April 1793, once it became clear that Robespierre’s Jacobins had triumphed politically in the Convention, General Dumouriez, the co-victor of Valmy and a Girondin, defected to the Austro-Prussian Coalition. Dumouriez’s treachery and other crises led Robespierre to order the wholesale arrest of Girondins, twenty-two of whose heads were cut off in the space of thirty-six minutes on October 31. The Reign of Terror had begun.

Napoleon tried to join Joseph at Bastia on May 3 but was detained by Paolist montagnards (mountain men). He was freed soon afterwards by villagers from Bocognano, where the family had had an estate, and allowed to continue on his way. On May 23 the Casa Bonaparte in Ajaccio was ransacked by a Paolist mob, though not burned down as some accounts have suggested (and probably not too badly treated, as the labourers’ bill for refurbishing it four years later came to only 131 francs).46 Corsica’s Paoli-dominated parliament now formally outlawed the Bonapartes, though not their thirty cousins on the island. It couldn’t resist resurrecting the slur against Letizia, saying the family had been ‘born in the mud of despotism, nourished and raised under the eyes and at the expense of a lascivious pasha, the late Marbeuf, of perpetual infamy’.47

On May 31 Napoleon and Saliceti, who as commissioner for Corsica represented the Jacobin government in Paris, took part in a failed attempt to recapture Ajaccio. The next day Napoleon wrote a paper, ‘Memoir on the Political and Military Position of the Department of Corsica’, in which he finally denounced Paoli for having ‘hatred and vengeance in his heart’.48 It was his farewell note to his homeland. On June 11, 1793 the Bonapartes left Calvi on board the Prosélyte, landing at Toulon two days later and bringing to an end nearly two and three-quarter centuries of residency on the island.49 With the collapse of Jacobin power on Corsica, Saliceti was forced to flee to Provence too, and by the end of the month Paoli had recognized Britain’s King George III as king of Corsica.*

Napoleon never entirely severed relations with the land of his birth, although he would set foot there only once again, for a few days on his way back from Egypt in 1799. When he ordered the recapture of the island in October 1796, he granted a general amnesty from which he excluded only the most senior Paolists, who had anyhow all gone into exile.50 In later life he spoke ‘with the greatest respect of Paoli’, who died in exile in London in 1807, but as he stepped ashore in Provence on June 13, 1793 he knew it was in France that he would have to build his future.51

The Bonapartes arrived in Toulon as political refugees with little more than Letizia’s life-savings and Napoleon’s modest salary as a captain in the 1st Regiment of Artillery to pay for the fatherless family of nine. Otherwise, Napoleon had nothing except his education and his ambition to sustain them. He installed his family at La Valette, a village outside Toulon, and joined his regiment at Nice, armed with yet another certificate explaining his absence, this one signed by Saliceti. Fortunately Colonel Compagnon needed every officer he could get after the king’s execution and the mass exodus of aristocrats; only fourteen officers out of eighty in his unit were still serving the Republic.

Napoleon received a commission from General Jean du Teil, the younger brother of his Auxonne commandant, to organize gunpowder convoys to one of France’s revolutionary armies, the Army of Italy. In mid-July he was transferred to the Army of the South under General Jean-François Carteaux, a former professional painter who was about to besiege the fédérés (anti-Jacobin rebels) in Avignon, which contained an important ammunition depot. Although Napoleon wasn’t present at Avignon’s capture on July 25, the success there formed the backdrop for what was easily his most important piece of writing to date, the political pamphlet Le Souper de Beaucaire. Since January 1792 all his writing had a military or political bent. His purple-prosed rhetoric, which once sounded so false in the context of his own adolescent fantasies, took on a more genuine grandeur when applied to the great events of which he was about to become a prime actor. He stopped taking notes on literary works after 1792, and instead wrote a description of the Easter Sunday incident in Ajaccio, a defence of his actions in the Sardinian expedition and a project for capturing Corsica from the British.

Le Souper de Beaucaire was a fictional account of a supper at an inn at Beaucaire, a village between Avignon and Arles, which Napoleon wrote at the end of July 1793. It took the form of a discussion between an officer in Carteaux’s army, two Marseillais merchants and two citizens of Montpellier and of nearby Nîmes. It argued that France was in grave danger, so the Jacobin government in Paris must be supported because the alternative was the victory of European despots and a vengeful French aristocracy. The Napoleon character made some highly optimistic claims for his commander – ‘Today there are six thousand men, and before four days are out there will be ten thousand’ – claiming that in all the fighting Carteaux has only lost five men killed, and four wounded. Equally, he made dire predictions for the opposing fédérés based in Marseilles. Napoleon couldn’t resist a self-referential attack on Paoli, saying: ‘He plundered and confiscated the belongings of the most well-to-do families because they supported the unity of the Republic, and he declared enemies of the fatherland all those who stayed in our armies.’52

The pamphlet showed Napoleon to be a true Jacobin, sarcastically saying of the fédérés: ‘Every well-known aristocrat is anxious for your success.’ The other diners speak only six times, mainly to introduce the soldier’s Jacobin rejoinders. Eventually everyone is convinced by the soldier’s eloquence and much champagne is drunk until 2 a.m., which ‘dissipated all worries and cares’. When Napoleon showed the manuscript to Saliceti, who was now a government commissioner in Provence, and Robespierre’s younger brother Augustin, they arranged for it to be published at public expense. It established him as a politically trustworthy soldier in the eyes of the Jacobins.

On August 24 Carteaux retook Marseilles amid mass executions. Four days later Admiral Alexander Hood with 15,000 British, Spanish and Neapolitan troops entered the port of Toulon, France’s major naval base on the Mediterranean, at the invitation of the fédérés who had risen up there the previous month. With Lyons rising for the royalists too, the Vendée in uproar and Spanish and Piedmontese armies operating inside southern France, while Prussian and Austrian armies were on her eastern borders, recapturing Toulon was of crucial strategic importance. Napoleon was appointed chef de bataillon (major) in the 2nd Regiment of Artillery on September 7, and the following week, perhaps at the behest of the Corsican-born Colonel Jean-Baptiste Cervoni, he presented himself at Carteaux’s headquarters at Ollioules, just north-west of Toulon.53

It so happened that one of Carteaux’s représentants-en-mission (political commissioners) was none other than Saliceti. Carteaux knew little about artillery and was looking for someone to take over the artillery on the army’s right flank after the wounding of its commander, Colonel Dommartin, and in the absence of Dommartin’s second-in-command, Major Perrier. Saliceti and his colleague Thomas de Gasparin persuaded Carteaux to appoint Napoleon to the post, despite his only being twenty-four years old. Napoleon suspected that his education at the École Militaire had been a deciding factor in getting him this first major break. He would later say that the artillery was short of ‘scientific men, that department was entirely directed by sergeants and corporals. I understood the service.’54 His youth was overlooked in an army so depleted by mass emigration and the guillotining of the aristocracy, which had previously provided the overwhelming majority of its officers. It also helped, of course, that Carteaux’s appointments were overseen by his ally Saliceti.

Carteaux – who Saliceti and Gasparin were privately reporting back to Paris was ‘incapable’ – had 8,000 men on the hills between Toulon and Ollioules, and another 3,000 under General Jean Lapoype on the La Valette side of the city. Yet he had no plan of attack. By October 9 Saliceti and Gasparin had obtained for Napoleon command of all of the artillery outside Toulon. Since this was clearly going to be an artillery-led operation, the post gave him a central role.* Saliceti and Gasparin were soon reporting to Paris that ‘Bonna Parte’ was ‘the only officer of artillery who knows anything of his duty, and he has too much work’.55 They were wrong about the second part: for Napoleon there was no such thing as too much work. Later in the three-month siege he was helped by two aides-de-camp, Auguste de Marmont and Andoche Junot. Marmont came from a good family and Napoleon liked him very much, but he loved Junot, a former battalion quartermaster on the Côte d’Or, from the moment that a cannonball landed near them while he was dictating a letter, spraying dust and gravel over them both, and Junot coolly remarked that now he wouldn’t need any sand to blot it.56

Visiting the site of Napoleon’s batteries above Toulon today, it is immediately obvious what he had to do. There is an outer harbour and an inner harbour, and a high promontory to the west called L’Eguillette that dominates both. ‘To become master of the harbour,’ Napoleon reported to the war minister, Jean-Baptiste Bouchotte, ‘one must become master of the Eguillette.’57 In order to pour heated cannonballs onto the Royal Navy vessels in the inner harbour, it was therefore necessary to capture Fort Mulgrave – built by its commander the 1st Earl of Mulgrave and nicknamed ‘Little Gibraltar’ because it was so heavily fortified – which dominated the promontory.* Although the fort’s importance was obvious to all, it was Napoleon who put in place the plan to capture it. Success would almost instantly unlock the strategic situation, for once the Royal Navy was ejected from the harbour, the city of 28,000 people couldn’t be defended by the fédérés alone.

Napoleon threw himself into the project of capturing Fort Mulgrave. By cajoling nearby towns he got together fourteen cannon and four mortars as well as stores, tools and ammunition. He sent officers further afield, to Lyons, Briançon and Grenoble, and requested that the Army of Italy furnish him with the cannon not then being used to defend Antibes and Monaco. He established an eighty-man arsenal at Ollioules to make cannon and cannonballs, requisitioned horses from Nice, Valence and Montpellier, and injected a sense of unceasing activity into his men. Constantly imploring, complaining and raging – there wasn’t enough gunpowder, the cartridges were the wrong size, trained artillery horses were being requisitioned for other uses, and so on – he sent scores of letters with demands to Bouchotte and even on occasion to the Committee of Public Safety itself, going over the heads of Carteaux and his immediate superiors.

Bemoaning the ‘confusion and waste’ and the ‘evident absurdity’ of the current arrangements to his friend Chauvet, the chief ordonnateur (quartermaster), Napoleon despaired that ‘the provisioning of armies is no more than luck’.58 In a typical letter to Saliceti and Gasparin he wrote: ‘One can remain for twenty-four or if necessary thirty-six hours without eating, but one cannot remain three minutes without gunpowder.’59 Along with his energy and activity, his letters convey a meticulous attention to detail in everything from the price of rations to the proper building of palisades. Overall, however, his message was constant; they only had 600 milliers (just over half a ton) of gunpowder, and if they couldn’t procure more it would be impossible to start serious operations. On October 22 he wrote to the Committee of Public Safety of the ‘extreme pain he felt at the little attention paid to his branch of the service,’ adding: ‘I have had to struggle against ignorance and the base passions which it engenders.’60

The result of all his hectoring, bluster, requisitioning and political string-pulling was that Napoleon put together a strong artillery train in very short order. He commandeered a foundry where shot and mortars were manufactured, and a workshop where muskets were repaired. He got the authorities in Marseilles to supply thousands of sandbags. This took significant powers of leadership – and also the kind of implicit threat that could be made by a Jacobin army officer during Robespierre’s Terror. By the end of the siege Napoleon commanded eleven batteries totalling nearly one hundred cannon and mortars.

Napoleon received little support in all this from Carteaux, whom he came to despise, and who Saliceti and Gasparin conspired to have replaced with General François Doppet by November 11. Doppet was impressed with his artillery commander, reporting to Paris: ‘I always found him at his post; when he needed rest he lay on the ground wrapped in his cloak: he never left the batteries.’61 The admiration was not mutual, however, and after an attack on Fort Mulgrave on November 15, during which Doppet sounded the retreat too early, Napoleon returned to the redoubt and swore: ‘Our blow at Toulon has missed, because a [expletive deleted in the nineteenth century] has beaten the retreat!’62

Napoleon showed considerable personal bravery in the batteries and redoubts of Toulon, at one point picking up a blood-soaked ramrod from an artilleryman who had been killed near him and helping to load and fire the cannon himself. He believed it was this action that gave him scabies. ‘I found myself in a very few days suffering under an inveterate itch,’ he later said of this ‘terrible malady’.63 The cutaneous irritation stayed with him through the Italian and Egyptian campaigns and was only cured in 1802 when his doctor, Jean-Nicolas Corvisart, applied sulphur baths and by ‘putting three blisters on my chest . . . brought on a salutary crisis. Before that I had always been thin and sallow; since then I have always had good health.’64 Some historians have argued that limited contact with the blood-stained ramrod was unlikely to have been the real cause, but Napoleon would probably have also donned the dead man’s gloves, which would have made dermatitis infection far more likely.65*

During one assault on an outlying fort protecting Mulgrave, Napoleon was wounded by an English gunner, who ‘ran a pike into’ his left thigh. He was trying to enter the battery by its embrasure, but fortunately reinforcements came around by the rear, entering at the same moment. Many years later Napoleon showed off to a doctor ‘a very deep cicatrix [scar] above the left knee’, recalling that ‘the surgeons were in doubt whether it might not be ultimately necessary to amputate’.66 In a book he wrote in exile on St Helena on Julius Caesar’s wars, Napoleon contrasted the commanders of the ancient world, who were well protected during battles, with those of the modern, concluding: ‘Today the commander-in-chief is forced every day to face the guns, often within range of grapeshot, and all battles within cannon-shot, in order to assess, see and give orders, as the view is not wide enough for generals to be able to keep out of the way of bullets.’67 One of the accusations made by his detractors was that Napoleon wasn’t personally brave. ‘Cowardice had of late years been habitual to Bonaparte,’ wrote the English writer Helen Williams in 1815, for example.68 This is absurd; not only do cowards not fight sixty battles, but Napoleon came near death several times between battles too, while reconnoitring close to the enemy. The number of people killed near him and the bullet that hit him at the battle of Ratisbon are further testaments to his great physical bravery. Napoleon’s troops appreciated his courage and his ability to magnify their own. When all the gunners trying to establish a battery of cannon within a pistol shot of Fort Mulgrave were killed or wounded, Napoleon christened it ‘Hommes Sans Peur’ (Men Without Fear) and thereby continued to receive volunteers to man it. Nobody better understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier.

On November 17 the highly competent General Jacques Dugommier took over from Doppet, soon followed by reinforcements that brought the numbers of besiegers up to 37,000. Napoleon got on well with Dugommier. By mid-November he had surrounded Fort Mulgrave with batteries, and on the 23rd he captured its British commander, General Charles O’Hara, who had tried to counter-attack from it in a sortie and spike the French guns of one of them. ‘General Dugommier fought with true republican courage,’ Napoleon reported of that action. ‘We recaptured the battery . . . The guns of the Convention were un-spiked in sufficient time to increase the confusion of their retreat.’69 It was very rare to be able to repair guns that had had metal spikes hammered into their firing mechanisms, let alone quickly, and it was a sign of the professional pitch to which Napoleon had trained his men.

At one o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, December 17, 1793, Dugommier put Napoleon’s plan of attack on Toulon into action. A column under Claude Victor-Perrin (later Marshal Victor) got beyond the first line of defences at Fort Mulgrave, but faltered at the second. At about 3 a.m. Dugommier sent in the next assault of 2,000 men in the teeth of driving rain, high winds and lightning strikes. Led by Napoleon, whose horse was shot from under him, and Captain Jean-Baptiste Muiron, this assault finally took the fort after heavy hand-to-hand fighting. Napoleon then proceeded to pour heated cannonballs onto the Royal Navy vessels across the harbour below. The memory of the explosion of two Spanish gunpowder-ships stayed with him for the rest of his life. Decades later he recalled how ‘The whirlwind of flames and smoke from the arsenal resembled the eruption of a volcano, and the thirteen vessels blazing in the roads were like so many displays of fireworks: the masts and forms of the vessels were distinctly traced out by the flames, which lasted many hours and formed an unparalleled spectacle.’ He was exaggerating – only two ships caught fire rather than the whole fleet – but the effect was nonetheless dramatic. Dugommier gave a glowing report of Napoleon, whom he called ‘this rare officer’.70

The Allies evacuated Toulon the next morning, creating pandemonium, especially once General Lapoype took the Faron heights and started bombarding the city from the eastern side too. Soon afterwards Saliceti and Gasparin ordered the execution of some four hundred suspected fédéres, though Napoleon took no part in that.71 Great and deserved benefits flowed to Napoleon from the victory at Toulon. On December 22 he was appointed brigadier-general and inspector of coastal defences from the Rhône to the Var. Saliceti brought him to the attention of the senior politicians Paul Barras and Louis-Stanislas Fréron, but best of all, as he later put it, Toulon ‘gave him confidence in himself’.72 He had shown that he could be trusted with command.

Rarely in military history has there been so high a turnover of generals as in France in the 1790s. It meant that capable young men could advance through the ranks at unprecedented speed. The Terror, emigration, war, political purges, disgrace after defeat, political suspicion and scapegoating, on top of all the normal cases of resignation and retirement, meant that men like Lazare Hoche, who was a corporal in 1789, could be a general by 1793, or Michel Ney, a lieutenant in 1792, could become one by 1796. Napoleon’s rise through the ranks was therefore by no means unique given the political and military circumstances of the day.73 Still, his progress was impressive: he had spent five and a half years as a second-lieutenant, a year as a lieutenant, sixteen months as a captain, only three months as a major and no time at all as a colonel. On December 22, 1793, having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service – with and without permission – and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.

3

‘When the mob gains the day, it ceases to be any longer the mob. It is then called the nation. If it does not, why, then some are executed, and they are called the canaille, rebels, thieves and so forth.’

Napoleon to Dr Barry O’Meara on St Helena

‘I win nothing but battles, and Josephine, by her goodness, wins all hearts.’

Napoleon to his chamberlain, Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort

On February 7, 1794, Napoleon was appointed artillery commander of the Army of Italy. He played a creditable but unremarkable part in General Pierre Dumberion’s five-week campaign against Austria’s ally, the independent kingdom of Piedmont in north-west Italy (which also ruled Sardinia), in which three small victories were won and he acquainted himself with the topography of the beautiful but potentially treacherous mountains and passes of the Ligurian Alps. He fought alongside the fiery and brilliant General André Masséna, whose campaign that May to drive the Piedmontese from Ventimiglia and outflank the Austrians and Piedmontese at the Col di Tenda won him the soubriquet ‘the darling child of victory’.

The campaign was over quickly, and by early summer Napoleon was back in Nice and Antibes, where he began to court Eugénie Désirée Clary, the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter of a dead royalist textile and soap millionaire. Désirée’s elder sister Julie married Napoleon’s brother Joseph on August 1, 1794, bringing with her a substantial dowry of 400,000 francs, which finally ended the Bonaparte family’s money worries. Napoleon and Désirée’s relationship was conducted almost entirely by correspondence and they were engaged the following April. A year earlier the nineteen-year-old Lucien Bonaparte had married Christine Boyer, a charming but illiterate twenty-two-year-old daughter of an innkeeper. He had put his adopted revolutionary name – Brutus – on the wedding certificate, the only one of the Bonapartes to change his name in such a way.

In April 1794 Napoleon submitted a plan to the Committee of Public Safety for the invasion of Italy via Piedmont. It was taken to Paris by Augustin Robespierre, who was attached to the Army of Italy. Fortunately written in Junot’s legible handwriting rather than Napoleon’s increasingly illegible scrawl, it contained such strategic statements as: ‘Attacks must not be disseminated, but concentrated’, ‘It is [Austria] that must be annihilated; that accomplished, Spain and Italy will fall of themselves’ and ‘No dispassionate person could think of taking Madrid. The defensive system should be adopted on the Spanish, and the offensive on the Piedmontese frontier.’ And eager even then to centralize authority, Napoleon wrote: ‘The armies of the Alps and of Italy should be united to obey the same mind.’1

Napoleon’s hapless chef de bataillon, Major Berlier, bore the brunt of his restless impatience, focus on detail and need for everything to be done faster and more efficiently. ‘I’m extremely unhappy at the manner in which the loading of the sixteen pieces [of cannon] has been performed,’ read one letter. ‘You will certainly wish to respond to the following questions . . . for which I give you twenty-four hours.’ Another: ‘I’m surprised that you are so tardy in the execution of orders, it’s always necessary to tell you the same thing three times.’ No aspect of his command was too small to escape notice. ‘Imprison Corporal Carli, the commander of the battery,’ he ordered Berlier, ‘who absented himself to search for wine in Antibes.’2

During the Piedmontese campaign Napoleon received official confirmation of his promotion to brigadier-general, which required him to answer the question ‘Noble or not noble?’ Very sensibly, given that the Terror was still raging, he answered, technically untruthfully, in the negative.3 The guillotining of the extremist Hébertist faction on March 5 and of Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins on April 5, both ordered by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, showed the Revolution remorselessly devour its own children. A contemporary noted ‘thousands of women and children sitting on the stones in front of bakers shops’, and ‘more than half of Paris living upon potatoes. Paper money was without value.’4 The city was ripe for a reaction against the Jacobins, who had so clearly failed to deliver either food or peace. With the Allies in retreat in 1794 in Spain and Belgium and along the Rhine, a group of Girondin conspirators felt confident enough to overthrow the Jacobins and finally end the Reign of Terror.

For six days in mid-July Napoleon took part in a secret mission to Genoa on Augustin Robespierre’s behalf to report on its fortifications, conduct a five-hour meeting with the French chargé d’affaires, Jean Tilly, and persuade the doge of the need for better Franco-Genoese relations. It drew him closer into the Robespierres’ political circle at precisely the worst time, for the ‘Thermidorian reaction’, led by Barras and Fréron, overthrew Maximilien Robespierre on July 27 (9 Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar). Both brothers and sixty other ‘Terrorists’ were guillotined the next day. Had Napoleon been in Paris at the time he might well have been scooped up and sent to the guillotine along with them. He had just returned from his brother Joseph’s wedding and was at the army camp at Sieg near Nice on August 5 when he heard of the Robespierres’ fate. ‘I’ve been somewhat moved by the fate of the younger Robespierre,’ he wrote to Tilly, ‘whom I liked and believed honest, but had he been my own brother, if he had aspired to tyranny I‘d have stabbed him myself.’5

Augustin Robespierre’s patronage naturally put Napoleon under suspicion. On August 9 he was arrested by an officer and ten men at his lodgings in Nice and taken to the fortress in Nice for a day, before being imprisoned at the Fort-Carré in Antibes, where he was to spend the next ten days. (Both were places he had inspected officially earlier in his career.) Saliceti, from a wholly justifiable sense of self-preservation, did nothing to protect him and indeed ransacked Napoleon’s papers looking for evidence of treachery.6 ‘He barely deigned to look at me from the lofty heights of his greatness,’ was Napoleon’s resentful comment on his fellow Corsican and political comrade of five years.7

In 1794, innocence was no defence against the guillotine, and nor was proven heroism fighting on behalf of the Republic, so Napoleon was in genuine danger. The official reason for his arrest was that certain Marseillais believed his positioning of a battery on the landward side of their city had been intended for use against them rather than an invader. Back in January he’d written to Bouchotte, the war minister: ‘The batteries which defend Marseilles harbour are in a ridiculous condition. Total ignorance presided over their layout.’8 The real reason was, of course, political; he had benefited from Augustin Robespierre’s patronage and had written a Jacobin tract, Le Souper de Beaucaire, which Robespierre had helped him publish. ‘Men can be unjust towards me, my dear Junot,’ he wrote to his faithful aide-de-camp, ‘but it suffices to be innocent; my conscience is the tribunal before which I call my conduct.’9 (The loyal but impulsive Junot had come up with a Scarlet Pimpernel scheme to spring Napoleon from jail, which the prisoner sensibly and firmly scotched: ‘Do nothing. You would only compromise me.’10)

Napoleon was fortunate that the Thermidoreans didn’t pursue their enemies as ruthlessly as the Jacobins had theirs, or indulge in extrajudicial prison murders like the September Massacres. He was released for lack of evidence on August 20. His incarceration had not been physically onerous and he made his prison guard a palace adjutant when he came to power. Once he was freed he returned to planning an expedition against Corsica and harassing poor Major Berlier. He also had time to renew his suit with Désirée Clary – whom he called Eugénie – telling her on September 10, ‘the charms of your person and character have won over the heart of your lover’.11 To increase the charms of her intellect he sent her a list of books he wanted her to read, and promised to follow them with his thoughts on music. He also urged her to improve her memory and ‘form her reason’.

Although Napoleon generally saw women as lesser beings, he had clear ideas of how they should be educated in order to make proper companions for men. He asked Désirée about the effect of her reading ‘on her soul’ and tried to make her think about music intellectually, since it had ‘the happiest effects on life’. (Hector Berlioz would later say that Napoleon was a discerning connoisseur of the music of Giovanni Paisiello, whom the Bonapartes had employed in Paris and Rome, composing works almost continuously between 1797 and 1814.) Napoleon’s letters to Désirée were not particularly flowery or even romantic, but his interest in her was palpable, and to be the object of his concentrated attention was pleasing to her, even if, despite the new republican informality, he insisted on addressing her as ‘vous’.12

He seems to have enjoyed her playful chastisement. ‘If you could witness, mademoiselle,’ he wrote in February 1795, ‘the sentiments with which your letter inspired me, you would be convinced of the injustice of your reproaches . . . There is no pleasure in which I do not desire to include you, no dream of which you do not furnish half. Be certain then that “the most sensible of women loves the coldest of men” is an iniquitous and ill-judged, unjust phrase which you did not believe in the writing. Your heart disavowed it even as your hand wrote it.’13 Writing to her, he added, was both his greatest pleasure and ‘the most imperative need’ of his soul. He subscribed to a clavichord journal on her behalf so that she would receive the latest music from Paris, and was concerned that her teacher was paying insufficient attention to her solfège lessons. He added a long paragraph on singing technique which suggests that he was knowledgeable about (or at least had opinions on) vocal music. By April 11, 1795 he was finally using the familiar ‘tu’ form, and writing that he was ‘yours for life’.14 Napoleon was in love.

On March 3, 1795 Napoleon set sail from Marseilles with 15 ships, 1,174 guns and 16,900 men to recapture Corsica from Paoli and the British. His expedition was soon scattered by a British squadron of fifteen ships with fewer guns and half the number of men. Two French ships were captured. Napoleon wasn’t held responsible for the reverse, but neither did this quintessential landlubber learn the lessons of attempting to put to sea against a similarly sized but far more skilfully deployed force of the Royal Navy. Between 1793 and 1797, the French would lose 125 warships to Britain’s 38, including 35 capital vessels (ships-of-the-line) to Britain’s 11, most of the latter the result of fire, accidents and storms rather than French attack.15 The maritime aspect of grand strategy was always one of Napoleon’s weaknesses: in all his long list of victories, none was at sea.

Once the expedition was abandoned, Napoleon was technically unemployed and only 139th on the list of generals in terms of seniority. The new commander of the Army of Italy, General Barthélemy Schérer, didn’t want to take him because, although an acknowledged expert in artillery, he was thought to be ‘too much given to intrigue for promotion’.16 This was certainly true: Napoleon saw no separation between the military and political spheres any more than his heroes Caesar or Alexander had done. But only eight days after disembarking from the Corsican expedition, he was ordered to take command of the artillery of General Hoche’s Army of the West, stationed at Brest, which was then suppressing the royalist uprising in the Vendée.

The government, which was now largely made up of Girondins who had survived the Terror, was conducting a vicious dirty war in western France, where more Frenchmen were killed than in the whole of the Paris Terror. Napoleon knew there was little glory to be had there, even if he were to succeed. Hoche was only a year older than him, so Napoleon’s chances of advancement were slim. Having fought against the British and Piedmontese, he didn’t relish the prospect of fighting other Frenchmen, and on May 8 he left for Paris to try to get a better posting, taking his sixteen-year-old brother Louis, for whom he hoped to find a place at the artillery school at Châlons-sur-Marne, and two of his aides-de-camp, Marmont and Junot, with him (Muiron was now his third).17

Once installed at the Hôtel de la Liberté in Paris on May 25, Napoleon called on the acting war minister, Captain Aubry, who actually degraded the offer to command of the infantry in the Vendée. ‘This appeared to Napoleon as an insult,’ recorded his brother Louis, ‘he refused, and lived in Paris without employment, enjoying his pay as an unemployed general.’18 He claimed illness again, and eked out a living on half-pay, nonetheless sending Louis to Châlons. He proceeded to ignore the war ministry’s demands that he go to the Vendée, or furnish proof of illness, or retire altogether. These were uncomfortable months for him, but he was philosophical about his lot, telling Joseph in August: ‘Me, I’m very little attached to life . . . finding myself constantly in the situation in which one finds oneself on the eve of battle, convinced only by the sentiment that when death, which terminates everything, is found amid it, anxiety is folly.’ He then made a self-mocking joke which has been drained of all comic charm by being taken seriously by historians: ‘Always trusting myself very much to Fate and destiny, if this continues, my friend, I’ll end up by not getting out of the way when a carriage approaches.’19

Napoleon was in fact determined to enjoy the charms of Paris. ‘The memory of the Terror is no more than a nightmare here,’ he reported to Joseph. ‘Everyone appears determined to make up for what they have suffered; determined, too, because of the uncertain future, not to miss a single pleasure of the present.’20 He steeled himself to embark on a social life for the first time, although he wasn’t comfortable in the company of women. This might in part have been because of his looks; a woman who met him several times that spring called him ‘the thinnest and queerest being I ever met . . . so thin that he inspired pity’.21 Another nicknamed him ‘Puss-in-Boots’.22 The socialite Laure d’Abrantès, who knew Napoleon at this time, though probably not as well as she later claimed in her bitchy memoirs, remembered him ‘with a shabby round hat drawn over his forehead, and his ill-powdered hair hanging over the collar of his grey greatcoat, without gloves because he used to say they were a useless luxury, with boots ill-made and ill-blackened, with his thinness and his sallow complexion’.23 Small wonder that Napoleon wasn’t comfortable in the fashionable Parisian salons and rather despised those who were: he denounced dandies to Junot (whom Laure d’Abrantès later married) for their modes of dress and adopted lisps, and as Emperor he was convinced that the hostesses of the fashionable faubourg salons encouraged opposition to him. His favourite entertainments were intellectual rather than social; he went to public lectures and visited the observatory, the theatre and the opera. ‘Tragedy excites the soul,’ he later told one of his secretaries, ‘lifts the heart, can and ought to create heroes.’24

On his way to Paris in May 1795, Napoleon had written to Désirée that he was ‘much afflicted at the thought of having to be so far away from you for so long’.25 He had enough money saved from his salary at this point to consider buying a small chateau at Ragny in Burgundy, listing the potential revenues he could make from various cereal crops there, estimating that the dining room was four times the size of the Casa Bonaparte’s, and making the sound republican remark that ‘In pulling down three or four towers which give it an aristocratic air, the chateau would be no more than an attractive very large family home.’26 He told Joseph of his wish to start a family.

‘I saw many pretty women of agreeable disposition at Marmont’s house in Châtillon,’ Napoleon wrote to Désirée in a rather transparent attempt to excite her jealousy on June 2, ‘but I never felt even for an instant that any of them could measure up to my dear, good Eugénie.’ Two days later he wrote again: ‘Adored friend, I have received no more letters from you. How could you go eleven days without writing to me?’27 Perhaps realizing that Madame Clary had discouraged her daughter from further involvement, thinking that one Bonaparte in the family was quite enough. A week later Napoleon was merely calling her ‘Mademoiselle’. By June 14 he acknowledged the situation: ‘I know that you will always retain an affection for your friend, but it will be no more than affectionate esteem.’28 His letters to Joseph make it clear that he still loved Désirée, but in August, calling her ‘vous’ once more, he wrote: ‘Follow your instincts, allow yourself to love what’s near to you . . . You know that my destiny lies in the hazard of combat, in glory or in death.’29 For all their cloying melodrama, his words had the advantage of being true.

Was it self-pity over Désirée as much as fraternal love that compelled Napoleon to dissolve into tears while writing to Joseph on June 24, a letter ostensibly about something as prosaic as his brother’s plans to enter the Genoese olive-oil trade? ‘Life is like an empty dream which vanishes,’ he wrote to Joseph, asking for his portrait. ‘We have lived so many years together, so closely united, that our hearts are mingled, and you know better than anyone how entirely mine belongs to you.’30 By July 12 he was trying to persuade himself that he was over Désirée, railing to Joseph against the effeminacy of men who were interested in women, who ‘are mad about them, think only of them, live only by and for them. A woman requires to be but six months in Paris to know what is due to her and the extent of her empire.’31

Désirée’s rejection of Napoleon contributed to his deep cynicism about women and even about love itself. On St Helena he defined love as ‘the occupation of the idle man, the distraction of the warrior, the stumbling block of the sovereign’, and told one of his entourage: ‘Love does not really exist. It’s an artificial sentiment born of society.’32 Less than three months after the end of his courting of Désirée he was ready to fall in love again, although he seems to have retained a place in his heart for her, even after she had married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and wound up as queen of Sweden.

‘We are so sure of the superiority of our infantry that we laugh at the threats of the English,’ Napoleon wrote to Joseph after the British landed a force in Quiberon Bay, near Saint-Nazaire, in late June 1795 to assist the revolt in the Vendée.33 It was an early example of his overconfidence regarding the British following Toulon (though admittedly justified in this instance, as by October the expedition had comprehensively failed). Besides Toulon, he was to fight the British only twice more, at Acre and in the Waterloo campaign.

By early August he was still lobbying for a post back with the artillery of the Army of Italy, but he also seriously considered taking up an offer to go to Turkey to modernize the Sultan’s artillery. According to Lucien’s memoirs, during this period of complete flux in his career Napoleon even contemplated joining the East India Company’s army, albeit more for its financial than military advantages, saying ‘I will return in a few years a rich nabob, bringing some handsome dowries for my three sisters.’34 Madame Mère, as his mother came to be called, took the suggestion seriously enough to rebuke him for even considering the notion, which she thought him quite capable of taking up ‘in a moment of vexation against the Government’. There is also an indication that the Russians were wooing him to help them fight the Turks.

In mid-August 1795 matters came to a head when the war ministry demanded that Napoleon present himself to its medical board to ascertain whether he was in fact sick. He appealed to Barras, Fréron and his other political contacts, one of whom landed him an attachment to the Historical and Topographical Bureau of the war ministry. Despite its title, this was actually the planning staff that co-ordinated French military strategy. So whereas on August 17 Napoleon was writing to Simon Sucy de Clisson, the ordonnateur of the Army of Italy at Nice, ‘I’ve been appointed to a generalship in the Army of the Vendée: I won’t accept’, three days later he was crowing to Joseph: ‘I am at this moment attached to the Topographical Department of the Committee of Public Safety for the direction of armies.’35 The Bureau was under the command of General Henri Clarke, a protégé of the great military administrator Lazare Carnot, known as ‘The Organizer of Victory’.

The Topographical Bureau was a small, highly efficient organization within the war ministry that has been described as ‘the most sophisticated planning organisation of its day’.36 Set up by Carnot and reporting directly to the Committee, it took information from the commanders-in-chief, plotted troop movements, prepared detailed operational directives and co-ordinated logistics. Under Clarke, the senior staff included Generals Jean-Girard Lacuée, César-Gabriel Berthier and Pierre-Victor Houdon, all talented and dedicated strategists. Napoleon could hardly have been better placed to learn all the necessary strands of supply, support and logistics that make up strategy (although the word entered the military lexicon only in the early nineteenth century and was not one Napoleon ever used).37 This period between mid-August and early October 1795 – short, but intellectually intense – was when Napoleon learned the practicalities of strategic warfare, as distinct from the tactical battle-fighting at which he had excelled at Toulon. Napoleon’s military success was ultimately down to his own genius and capacity for gruellingly hard work, but France had some exceptionally talented military thinkers and bureaucrats at this time, able to teach him and ultimately to do the detailed work necessary to put his ideas into practice. The Topographical Bureau was also the best place to make his own estimations of which generals were worthwhile and which expendable.

The Bureau didn’t decide overall grand strategy; that was done by the politicians on the Committee of Public Safety, which was highly vulnerable to factional struggles. The debate over whether, where and when to cross the Rhine to attack Austria in 1795, for example, had to be fought out there, with the Bureau merely giving advice on each option. In August any plans to fight for – or indeed against – Turkey were quashed by the Committee, which also ordained that Napoleon couldn’t leave the country until the end of the war. He still had problems from different bureaucracies within the ministry over whether he was active or retired, and on September 15 he was even struck off the list of serving generals. ‘I have fought like a lion for the Republic,’ he wrote to his friend the actor François-Joseph Talma, ‘and in recompense she leaves me dying of hunger.’38 (He was soon reinstated.)

The Topographical Bureau’s curious office hours – from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. – allowed Napoleon plenty of time to write a romantic novella entitled Clisson et Eugénie, a swansong for his unrequited love affair with Désirée. Employing the short, terse sentences of the heroic tradition, it was either consciously or unconsciously influenced by Goethe’s celebrated novel of 1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Napoleon read no fewer than six times during the Egyptian campaign, and probably first when he was eighteen. The most important European Sturm-und-Drang novel and the great bestseller of its age, Werther deeply affected the Romantic literary movement and Napoleon’s own writing. Although the name ‘Clisson’ was borrowed from one of Napoleon’s friends of the time, Sucy de Clisson, the character is pure Napoleon, right down to their identical ages of twenty-six. ‘From birth Clisson was strongly attracted to war,’ the story opens. ‘While others of his age were still listening avidly to fireside tales, he was ardently dreaming of battle.’ Clisson joined the revolutionary National Guard and ‘Soon he had exceeded the high expectations people had of him: victory was his constant companion.’39

Clisson was superior to the frivolous pastimes of his contemporaries such as flirtation, gambling and conversational repartee: ‘A man of his fervent imagination, with his blazing heart, his uncompromising intellect and his cool head, was bound to be irritated by the affected conversation of coquettes, the games of seduction, the logic of the tables and the hurling of witty insults.’40 Such a paragon was only at ease communing Rousseau-like with nature in the forests, where ‘he felt at peace with himself, scorning human wickedness and despising folly and cruelty’. When Clisson met the sixteen-year-old Eugénie at a spa, ‘she revealed beautifully-arranged pearly white teeth’. After that,

Their eyes met. Their hearts fused, and not many days were to pass before they realised that their hearts were made to love each other. His love was the most passionate and chaste that had ever moved a man’s heart . . . They felt as if their souls were one. They overcame all obstacles and were joined forever. All that is the most honourable in love, the tenderest feelings, the most exquisite voluptuousness flooded the hearts of the two enraptured lovers.41

Clisson and Eugénie marry, have children and live happily together, much admired by the poor for their generous philanthropy. But this idyllic fairy-tale is too good to last. One day a message arrives instructing Clisson that he must leave for Paris within twenty-four hours. ‘There he was to be given an important mission, which called for a man of his talents.’ Appointed to command an army, Clisson ‘was a success at everything; he exceeded the hopes of the people and the army; indeed, he alone was the reason for the army’s success.’ Seriously wounded in a skirmish, however, Clisson despatches one of his officers, Berville, to inform Eugénie, ‘and to keep her company until he had made a full recovery’. For no good reason discernible to the reader, Eugénie promptly sleeps with Berville, which the recuperating Clisson finds out about and understandably wants to avenge. ‘But how could he leave the army and his duty? The fatherland needed him here!’ The solution was a glorious death in battle, so when ‘Beating drums announced the charge on the flanks, and death stalked amongst the ranks,’ Clisson writes a suitably emotional letter to Eugénie which he hands to an aide-de-camp, ‘and, dutifully placing himself at the head of the fray – at the pointwhere the victory would be decided – and expired, pierced by a thousand blows.’42 Finis.

We should try to view Clisson et Eugénie through an eighteenth-century literary prism, rather than as a cheap romance of today. The seventeen-page short story has been described as ‘the last manifestation of an incipient Romanticism in a man who would go on to dazzle with his brilliant pragmatism’, and Napoleon clearly used the story to fantasize, in this case by making Eugénie despicably adulterous while he remained heroic, faithful and even forgiving of her infidelity at the end.43 Yet Napoleon can’t be excused the melodrama, sentimentality and cliché because his story was tossed off in a furious moment of immature resentment: Clisson et Eugénie underwent endless drafting and re-drafting.

In the second half of 1795 France’s Girondin leaders recognized that she would need a new constitution if she were to put the days of the Jacobin Terror behind her. ‘The royalists are stirring,’ Napoleon wrote to Joseph on September 1, ‘we shall see how this will end.’44 Alexis de Tocqueville would write that states are never more vulnerable than when they attempt to reform themselves, and that was certainly true of France in the autumn of 1795.

On August 23 the third constitution since the fall of the Bastille, known as the Constitution of the Year III, establishing a bicameral legislature and a five-man executive government called the Directory, was approved by the Convention. It would come into effect at the end of October. A National Assembly consisting of a Council of Five Hundred and Council of the Elders would replace the Convention, and the Directory would replace the Committee of Public Safety, which had grown to be synonymous with the Terror. This moment of reform provided an opportunity for opponents both of the Revolution and the Republic to strike. As Austria returned to the Rhine in a major counter-attack on September 20, with the French economy still very weak and corruption widespread, the enemies of the Republic coalesced to overthrow the new government in the first week of October, smuggling large quantities of arms and ammunition into Paris.

Although the Terror was over and the Committee of Public Safety would be abolished when the new Directory came into being, the bitterness they had inspired was now directed against their successors. It was in the ‘Sections’, forty-eight districts of Paris established in 1790 which controlled local assemblies and the local National Guard units, that the insurrection was focused. Although only seven Sections actually rose in revolt, National Guardsmen from others joined in.

The men of the Sections were not all – or even mainly – royalists. The veteran soldier General Mathieu Dumas wrote in his memoirs, ‘The most general desire of the population of Paris was to return to the constitution of 1791’, and there was little appetite for the civil war that a Bourbon restoration would have entailed.45 The Sections included middle-class National Guardsmen, royalists, some moderates and liberals, and ordinary Parisians who opposed the government for its corruption and domestic and international failures. The very disparate nature of the rebellion’s political make-up made any central co-ordination impossible beyond establishing a date for action, which couldn’t be kept secret from the government.

The man whom the Convention had originally relied upon to put down the coming insurrection, General Jacques-François Menou, commander of the Army of the Interior, had attempted to negotiate with the Sections to avoid bloodshed. The leaders of the Convention mistook this for incipient treachery and had him arrested. (He was later acquitted.) With time running out before the anticipated attack, the Girondins appointed one of their leaders, the president of the National Assembly, Paul Barras, to command the Army of the Interior, despite his having no military experience since 1783. His instructions were to save the Revolution.

On the evening of Sunday, October 4, Napoleon was at the Feydeau Theatre watching Saurin’s play Beverley when he heard that the Sections intended to rise the following day.46 Very early the next morning – 13 Vendémiaire by the revolutionary calendar – Barras appointed him second-in-command of the Army of the Interior, and ordered him to use all means necessary to crush the revolt. Napoleon had impressed the most important decision-makers in his life – among them Kéralio, the du Teil brothers, Saliceti, Doppet, Dugommier, Augustin Robespierre and now Barras, who had heard of him from Saliceti after the victory at Toulon. Having served in the Topographical Bureau, he was known to leading government figures such as Carnot and Jean-Lambert Tallien.47 (He later recalled with amusement that the politician who had had least qualms about the spilling of blood at Vendémiaire had been the priest and political theorist Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès.) It is astonishing that there were so few other senior officers in Paris to take the job, or at least ones who were willing to fire on civilians in the streets. From Napoleon’s reactions to the two Tuileries attacks he had witnessed in 1792, there was no doubt what he would do.

This was Napoleon’s first introduction to frontline, high-level national politics, and he found it intoxicating. He ordered Captain Joachim Murat of the 21st Chasseurs à Cheval to gallop to the Sablons military camp two miles away with one hundred cavalrymen, secure the cannon there and bring them into central Paris, and to sabre anyone who tried to prevent him. The Sections had missed a great opportunity as the Sablons cannon were at that point guarded by only fifty men.

Between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., having assured himself of the loyalty of his officers and men, Napoleon placed two cannon at the entrance of the rue Saint-Nicaise, another facing the church of Saint-Roch at the bottom of the rue Dauphine, two more in the rue Saint-Honoré near the Place Vendôme, and two facing the Pont Royal on the Quai Voltaire. He formed up his infantry behind the cannon, and sent his reserves to the Place du Carrousel to defend the Tuileries where the Convention sat and the government was headquartered. His cavalry was posted in the Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde).48 He then spent three hours visiting each of his guns in turn. ‘Good and upstanding people must be persuaded by gentle means,’ Napoleon would later write. ‘The rabble must be moved by terror.’49

Napoleon prepared to use grapeshot, the colloquial term for canister or case shot, which consists of hundreds of musket balls packed into a metal case that rips open as soon as it leaves the cannon’s muzzle, sending the lead balls flying in a relatively wide arc at an even greater velocity than the 1,760 feet per second of a musket shot. Its maximum range was roughly 600 yards, optimum 250. The use of grapeshot on civilians was hitherto unknown in Paris, and was testament to Napoleon’s ruthlessness that he was willing to contemplate it. He was not about to be a coglione. ‘If you treat the mob with kindness,’ he told Joseph later, ‘these creatures fancy themselves invulnerable; if you hang a few, they get tired of the game, and become as submissive and humble as they ought to be.’50

Napoleon’s force consisted of 4,500 troops and about 1,500 ‘patriots’, gendarmes and veterans from Les Invalides. Opposing them was a disparate force of up to 30,000 men from the Sections, nominally under the control of General Dancian, who wasted much of the day trying to conduct negotiations. Only at 4 p.m. did the rebel columns start issuing from side streets to the north of the Tuileries. Napoleon did not open fire immediately, but as soon as the first musket shots were heard from the Sections sometime between 4.15 p.m. and 4.45 p.m. he unleashed a devastating artillery response. He also fired grapeshot at the men of the Sections attempting to cross the bridges over the Seine, who took heavy casualties and quickly fled. In most parts of Paris the attack was all over by 6 p.m., but at the church of Saint-Roch in the rue Saint-Honoré, which became the de facto headquarters of the insurrection and where the wounded were brought, snipers carried on firing from rooftops and from behind barricades. The fighting continued for many hours, until Napoleon brought his cannon to within 60 yards of the church and surrender was the only option.51 Around three hundred insurrectionists were killed that day, against only half a dozen of Napoleon’s men. Magnanimously by the standards of the day, the Convention executed only two Section leaders afterwards.* ‘The whiff of grapeshot’ – as it became known – meant that the Paris mob played no further part in French politics for the next three decades.

In 1811 General Jean Sarrazin published a book in London entitled Confession of General Buonaparté to the Abbé Maury. As Napoleon had by then had Sarrazin sentenced to death in absentia for treachery, it didn’t cost him much to claim that on 13 Vendémiaire, ‘Far from putting a stop to the blind fury of his soldiers, Buonaparté set them the example of inhumanity. He cut down with his sabre wretched beings, who in their fright had thrown down their arms and implored his mercy.’52 Sarrazin further claimed that Napoleon’s lieutenant, Monvoisin, reproached Napoleon for his cruelty that day and resigned. None of this was true, but it was all part of the ‘Black Legend’ that came to surround Napoleon from Vendémiaire onwards.

Heavy rainfall on the night of 13 Vendémiaire quickly washed the blood from the streets, but its memory lingered. Even the violently anti-Jacobin Annual Register, founded by Edmund Burke, pointed out that ‘It was in this conflict that Buonaparte appeared first on the theatre of war, and by his courage and conduct laid the foundation of that confidence in his powers which conducted him so soon thereafter to preferment and to glory.’53 The urgent political exigencies meant that there was to be no more nonsense from the war ministry about seniority lists, medical boards, desertion and so on. Before the end of Vendémiaire, Napoleon had been promoted to général de division by Barras and soon afterwards to commander of the Army of the Interior in recognition of his service in saving the Republic and possibly preventing civil war. It was ironic that he had refused the Vendée post partly because he hadn’t wanted to kill Frenchmen, and then gained his most vertiginous promotion by doing just that. But to his mind there was a difference between a legitimate fighting force and a rabble. For a while afterwards Napoleon was sometimes called ‘General Vendémiaire’, though not to his face. Far from being uneasy about his involvement in the deaths of so many of his compatriots, he ordered the anniversary to be celebrated once he became First Consul, and when a lady asked him how he could have fired so mercilessly on the mob he replied: ‘A soldier is only a machine to obey orders.’54 He did not point out that it was he who had given the orders.

The ‘whiff of grapeshot’ advanced the Bonaparte family hugely, and overnight. Napoleon would now be paid 48,000 francs per annum, Joseph was given a job in the diplomatic service, Louis advanced through the Châlons artillery school and later became one of Napoleon’s burgeoning team of aides-de-camp, while the youngest of the Bonaparte boys, the eleven-year-old Jérôme, was sent to a better school. ‘The family will want for nothing,’ Napoleon told Joseph, and that was to be true for the next twenty years. Laure d’Abrantès claimed that she noticed a change after Vendémiaire:

Muddy boots were out of the question. Bonaparte never went out but in a fine carriage, and he lived in a very respectable house in the rue des Capucines . . . His emaciated thinness was converted into a fullness of face, and his complexion, which had been yellow and apparently unhealthy, became clear and comparatively fresh; his features, which were angular and sharp, became round and filled out. As to his smile, it was always agreeable.55

No-one would call him ‘Puss-in-Boots’ anymore.

In the immediate aftermath of Vendémiaire, Napoleon supervised the closing of the opposition Panthéon Club and the expulsion of crypto-royalists from the war ministry, as well as the policing of theatrical productions. In this last role he wrote almost daily to the government about the behaviour of the audiences at four Parisian theatres: the Opéra, Opéra Comique, Feydeau and La République. A typical report reads, ‘While patriotic airs were well received in two [of the theatres], and a third was tranquil, the police had to arrest a man (thought to be a Vendéen) who whistled during the penultimate verse of the “Marseillaise” at the Feydeau’.56* Another task was to oversee the confiscation of all civilian weaponry, which according to family lore led to his meeting a woman of whom he had possibly heard on the social grapevine but hadn’t hitherto met: Vicomtesse Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the widow de Beauharnais, whom Napoleon was to dub ‘Josephine’.

Josephine’s grandfather, a noble called Gaspard Tascher, had left France for Martinique in 1726, hoping to make his fortune with a sugar-cane plantation, although hurricanes, bad luck and his own indolence had prevented him; La Pagerie was the name of an estate the family owned on Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti). Josephine’s father, Joseph, had served as a page at the court of Louis XVI but returned to his father’s estates. Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763, although in later life she claimed that it was 1767.57 She arrived in Paris in 1780 aged seventeen, so poorly educated that her first husband – a cousin to whom she had been engaged at fifteen, the General Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais – couldn’t hide his contempt for her lack of education. Josephine had blackened stubs for teeth, thought to be the result of chewing Martiniquais cane sugar as a child, but she learned to smile without showing them.58 ‘Had she only possessed teeth,’ wrote Laure d’Abrantès, who was to become Madame Mère’s lady-in-waiting, ‘she would certainly have outvied nearly all the ladies of the Consular Court.’59

Although Beauharnais had been an abusive husband – once kidnapping their three-year-old son Eugène from the convent in which Josephine had taken refuge from his beatings – she nonetheless courageously tried to save him from the guillotine after his arrest in 1794. From April 22, 1794 until shortly after her husband’s execution on July 22 that year, Josephine was herself imprisoned as a suspected royalist in the crypt underneath the church of Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes in the rue de Vaugirard.* One of her cellmates, an Englishwoman named Grace Elliott, recalled how ‘the walls and even the wooden chairs were still stained with the blood and the brains of the priests’.60 Josephine had to endure truly inhumane conditions: air came only from three deep holes to the underground cells and there were no lavatories; she and her cellmates lived in daily fear of the guillotine; they had one bottle of water a day each, for all uses; and since pregnant women weren’t guillotined until after giving birth, the sound of sexual couplings with the warders could be heard in the hallways at night.61 It is cold down in the Saint-Joseph crypt even in midsummer, and inmates’ health broke down fast, indeed it is possible that Josephine survived only because she was too ill to be guillotined. Her husband was executed just four days before Robespierre’s fall, and had Robespierre survived any longer Josephine would probably have followed him. There was a paradoxical symmetry in the way that the Thermidor coup released Josephine from one prison and simultaneously put Napoleon into another.

The stench, darkness, cold, degradation and daily fear of violent death for weeks on end makes the Terror well named, and it is likely that for months, possibly even years, afterwards Josephine suffered from a form of what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. If she was later sexually self-indulgent, became involved in sleazy business deals and loved luxury – her dress bills became higher than Marie Antoinette’s – and married for stability and financial security rather than for love, it is hard to hold this against her after what she had been through.62 Josephine has often been seen as a seductive, shallow, extravagant hussy, but she certainly wasn’t shallow culturally, having good taste in music and the decorative arts. She was also generous – albeit usually with public money – and one of the most accomplished diplomats of the age, Clemens von Metternich, referred to her ‘unique social tact’.63 She was a skilled harpist – although some said she always played the same tune – and she did something in bed known as ‘zigzags’.64 She couldn’t draw, did a bit of tapestry, and played backgammon occasionally, but she received callers all day and enjoyed gossipy lunches with her many girlfriends.

By late 1795 this undeniably sexy femme fatale in her mid-thirties (with an inimitable closed-mouth smile) needed a protector and provider. On leaving prison she had an affair with General Lazare Hoche, who refused to leave his wife for her but whom she would have liked to marry, even up to the day she reluctantly married Napoleon.65 Another lover was Paul Barras, but that didn’t last much longer than the summer of 1795. ‘I was long since tired of and bored with her,’ recalled Barras in his memoirs, in which he ungallantly described her as a ‘cajoling courtesan’.66 It is a well-known historical phenomenon for a sexually permissive period to follow one of prolonged bloodletting: the ‘Roaring Twenties’ after the Great War and the licentiousness of Ancient Roman society after the Civil Wars are but two examples. Josephine’s decision to take powerful lovers after the Terror was, like so much else in her life, à la mode (though she wasn’t as promiscuous as her friend Thérésa Tallien, who was nicknamed ‘Government Property’ because so many ministers had slept with her). Whatever ‘zigzags’ were, Josephine had performed them for others besides her first husband, Hoche and Barras; her éducation amoureuse was far more advanced than her near-virginal second husband’s.

Josephine took the opportunity of the post-Vendémiaire arms confiscations to send her fourteen-year-old son Eugène de Beauharnais to Napoleon’s headquarters to ask whether his father’s sword could be retained by the family for sentimental reasons. Napoleon took this for the social opening that it plainly was, and within weeks he had fallen genuinely and deeply in love with her; his infatuation only grew until their marriage five months later. As fellow outsiders, immigrants, islanders and ex-political prisoners, they had a certain amount in common. At first she wasn’t attracted to his slightly yellow complexion, lank hair and unkempt look, nor presumably to his scabies, and she certainly wasn’t in love with him, but then she herself was beginning to get wrinkles, her looks were fading and she was in debt. (She sensibly didn’t admit the extent of her debts until she had Napoleon’s ring on her finger.)

Josephine always took a great deal of trouble over her make-up and clothing. She had mirrors placed in the bedrooms of her houses and palaces, was charming and affable – though not intelligent enough to be witty – and knew perfectly what kind of attentions successful men liked. Asked whether Josephine had intelligence, Talleyrand is said to have replied: ‘No one ever managed so brilliantly without it.’ For his part, Napoleon valued her political connections, her social status as a vicomtesse who was also acceptable to revolutionaries, and the way she compensated for his lack of savoir-faire and social graces. He wasn’t good at drawing-room repartee. ‘Out of his mouth there never came one well-turned speech to a woman,’ recalled the accomplished smooth-talker Metternich, ‘although the effort to make one was often expressed on his face and in the sound of his voice.’67 He spoke to ladies about their dresses or the number of children they had, and whether they nursed them themselves, ‘a question which he commonly made in terms seldom used in good society’. While he was gauche around women, she was extremely well-connected in Paris society, with entrées into the influential political salons run by Madames Tallien, Récamier, de Staël and others.

The Revolution had removed responsibility for registering births, deaths and marriages from the clergy, so Napoleon and Josephine married in a civil ceremony at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9, 1796, before a sleepy mayor in the 2nd arrondissement on the rue d’Antin. The bride wore a republican tricolour sash over her white muslin wedding dress,68 and the groom arrived two hours late. The witnesses included Barras, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Jean Lemarois (who was technically a minor), the Talliens, Josephine’s son Eugène and his eleven-year-old sister Hortense. In order to minimize the six-year disparity of their ages, Napoleon claimed in the marriage register to have been born in 1768 and she simultaneously shed her customary four years, so they could both be twenty-eight.69 (Later the Almanach Impérial recorded Josephine as having been born on June 24, 1768.70 Napoleon was always amused by his wife’s insistence on lying about her age, joking: ‘According to her calculations, Eugène must have been born aged twelve!’71) As a wedding gift, Napoleon gave her a gold enamelled medallion engraved with the words ‘To Destiny’.72

The reason Napoleon had been so late for his own wedding, and why his honeymoon then lasted less than forty-eight hours, was that on March 2 Barras and the other four members of France’s new executive government, the Directory, had given him the best wedding present he could ever have hoped for: command of the Army of Italy. Barras later wrote that to persuade his colleagues – the ex-Jacobins Jean-François Reubell and Louis de La Révellière-Lépeaux, and the moderates Lazare Carnot and Étienne-François Le Tourneur – to choose Napoleon for the coming campaign in the Ligurian Alps he told them that, as ‘a highlander’ Corsican, he was ‘accustomed since birth to scale mountains’.73 It was hardly a scientific argument – Ajaccio is at sea level – but he also said that Napoleon would lift the Army of Italy out of its lethargy. That was a good deal nearer the mark.

In the nine days between receiving the appointment and leaving for his headquarters in Nice on March 11, Napoleon asked for every book, map and atlas on Italy that the war ministry could provide. He read biographies of commanders who had fought there and had the courage to admit his ignorance when he didn’t know something. ‘I happened to be at the office of the General Staff in the Rue Neuve des Capucines when General Bonaparte came in,’ recalled a fellow officer years later:

I can still see the little hat, surmounted by a pickup plume, his coat cut anyhow, and a sword which, in truth, did not seem the sort of weapon to make anyone’s fortune. Flinging his hat on a large table in the middle of the room, he went up to an old general named Krieg, a man with a wonderful knowledge of detail and the author of a very good soldiers’ manual. He made him take a seat beside him at the table, and began questioning him, pen in hand, about a host of facts connected with the service and discipline. Some of his questions showed such a complete ignorance of the most ordinary things that several of my comrades smiled. I was myself struck by the number of his questions, their order and their rapidity, no less than the way by which the answers were caught up, and often found to resolve into other questions which he deduced in consequence from them. But what struck me still more was the sight of a commander-in-chief perfectly indifferent about showing his subordinates how completely ignorant he was of various points of a business which the youngest of them was supposed to know perfectly, and this raised him a thousand cubits in my opinion.74

Napoleon left Paris in a post-chaise on March 11, 1796, along with Junot and his friend Chauvet, the new chief ordonnateur of the Army of Italy. In a letter to Josephine of March 14, written from Chanceaux on his journey south, Napoleon dropped the ‘u’ in his surname. The first time his name had appeared in the state newspaper, the Moniteur Universel, had been in 1794 when it was hyphenated as ‘Buono-Parte’.* Now he Gallicized it in a conscious move towards emphasizing his French over his Italian and Corsican identities.75 Another bond with the past had been broken.

He reached Nice in fifteen days. When someone made the rather otiose point that he was very young, at twenty-six, to command an army, Napoleon replied: ‘I shall be old when I return.’76

4

‘On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of a youthful army which had just crossed the bridge at Lodi and let the world know that after all these centuries, Caesar and Alexander had a successor.’

Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma

‘A general’s most important talent is to know the mind of the soldier and gain his confidence, and in both respects the French soldier is more difficult to lead than another. He is not a machine that must be made to move, he is a reasonable being who needs leadership.’

Napoleon to Chaptal

Some would later claim that Napoleon was an unknown quantity when he arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Italy in Nice on March 26, 1796, and that his divisional commanders all despised him when they met him for the first time because, as a sneering contemporary put it, he had ‘won his reputation in a street riot and his command in a marriage bed’.1 He had in fact served as head of artillery of the same force only two years before, was known to many from his success at Toulon, and had written no fewer than three detailed reports for the Topographical Bureau on how to win the coming campaign. It was only natural that there should be some initial resentment at his having been appointed over the heads of more experienced generals but Napoleon’s officers knew perfectly well who he was.

He was in charge of five divisional commanders. The eldest, Jean Sérurier, had thirty-four years’ service in the French army. He had served in the Seven Years War and was considering retiring from soldiering when the Revolution broke out, but had fought well in the years afterwards and had been made a divisional general in December 1794. Pierre Augereau was a tall, swaggering, somewhat coarse thirty-eight-year-old former mercenary, clock-seller and dancing-master whose nicknames were ‘child of the people’ and ‘proud brigand’. He had killed two men in duels and a cavalry officer in a fight and only escaped torture by the Lisbon Inquisition through the good offices of his spirited Greek wife. André Masséna, also thirty-eight, had gone to sea as a cabin boy at thirteen but switched to the army in 1775 and became a sergeant-major before being discharged just before the Revolution. He became a smuggler and fruit trader in Antibes before joining the National Guard in 1791 and rapidly rising up the ranks. His services in the siege of Toulon won him promotion to divisional general in the Army of Italy, where he served with distinction in 1795. Amédée Laharpe was a thirty-two-year-old heavily moustachioed Swiss. Jean-Baptiste Meynier had fought in the Army of Germany, but in mid-April Napoleon reported to the Directory that he was ‘incapable, not fit to command a battalion in a war as active as this one’.2 All five men were experienced veterans, whereas Napoleon hadn’t commanded so much as an infantry battalion in his life. They would be a tough group to impress, let alone inspire. As Masséna later reminisced:

At first they did not think much of him. His small size and puny face did not put him in their favour. The portrait of his wife that he held in his hand and showed to everyone, his extreme youth, made them think that this posting was the work of another intrigue, but a moment after, he donned his general’s cap and seemed to grow by two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, their equipment, the spirit and active number of each corps, gave us the direction that we had to follow, announced that, the next day, he would inspect all the corps and that the day after that they would march on the enemy to give battle.3

Masséna misremembered the last part – they didn’t give battle for a month – but he captured the spirit of activity that Napoleon radiated, his confidence, his obsessive demand for information, which was to be a feature throughout his life, and his love of his wife.

In that initial meeting, Napoleon showed his commanders how the Savona–Carcare road led to three valleys, any one of which could ultimately lead them into the rich plains of Lombardy. Piedmont had opposed the French Revolution and had been at war with France since 1793. Napoleon believed that if his army could push the Austrians to the east and take the fortress stronghold at Ceva, it could knock the Piedmontese out of the war by threatening their capital, Turin. This would mean pitting 40,000 French troops against 60,000 Austrians and Piedmontese, but Napoleon told his commanders he would use speed and deception to retain the initiative. His plan was based both on Pierre de Bourcet’s Principes de la guerre des montagnes (1775), and on an earlier strategy intended for use in a campaign against Piedmont of 1745 which had been aborted by Louis XV but which had also concentrated on capturing Ceva. Bourcet wrote of the importance of clear planning, concentration of effort, and keeping the enemy off balance. Napoleon’s campaign in Italy was to be a textbook operation in both senses of the term.

For the Directory, Italy was something of a sideshow. They had concentrated their resources in western and southern Germany where the two principal forces of the Republic, the Army of the Rhine and Moselle under General Jean Moreau, and the Army of the Sambre and Meuse under General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, launched an offensive in June that had seen some initial success. The formidable Archduke Charles von Habsburg, younger brother of the Emperor Francis of Austria, fighting at his very best, defeated Jourdan at Amberg in August 1796 and at Würzburg in September. He then turned on Moreau and beat him at Emmendingen in October, before driving both French armies back across the Rhine. As a result of the sidelining of military efforts in Italy, Napoleon was given only 40,000 francs – less than his own annual salary – to pay for the entire campaign.4 According to one possibly apocryphal story, in order to help transport himself and his aides-de-camp from Paris to Nice, he sold his silver-hilted sword and had Junot stake the proceeds at the gambling tables.5

When Napoleon arrived in Nice, therefore, he found his army in no state to move anywhere. It was freezing and the men had no overcoats. No meat had been issued for three months and bread arrived only irregularly. Mules pulled the artillery, since all the draft-horses had died of malnutrition, and entire battalions were shoeless or in clogs, wearing makeshift uniforms often taken off the dead. Some of the men were only identifiable as soldiers because they carried army-issue cartridge pouches, and many of their muskets lacked bayonets. They hadn’t been paid for months, prompting mutterings of mutiny.6 Fever was rampant, killing no fewer than six hundred men of the 21st Demi-Brigade in twenty days.* Mariana Starke, an English writer in Florence, accurately described the ‘wretched state’ of the French army before Napoleon’s arrival: ‘a total want of necessities, and a pestilential fever, the natural consequence of famine . . . dejected and enfeebled by sickness, and destitute of horses, cannon, and almost every other sinew of war’.7

Napoleon’s response to the ‘wretched state’ of his army was to demote Meynier and give his quartermaster Chauvet a brief to reorganize the commissariat completely, including, as he told the Directory on March 28, to ‘threaten the contractors, who have robbed much and who enjoy credit’.8 He also ordered Citizen Faipoult, France’s minister in Genoa, to solicit ‘without noise’ 3 million francs in loans from the Jewish financiers there and he recalled the cavalry from its winter pastures in the Rhône valley. Within two days of arriving in Nice, Napoleon had disbanded the 3rd Battalion of the 209th Demi-Brigade for mutiny, dismissed its officers and NCOs from the army and distributed the other ranks in groups of five to other battalions. He believed it was essential for everyone to be treated according to the same rules, appreciating, as he put it, that ‘If there were a single privilege granted to anyone, no matter whom, not one man would obey the order to march.’9 On April 8 he reported to the Directory that he had been forced to punish his men for singing anti-revolutionary songs, and he had court-martialled two officers for crying ‘Vive le roi!’10

Napoleon’s divisional commanders were immediately impressed by his capacity for hard work. Subordinates could never say they would attend to something and then let it slide, and the staff who had been stationary in Nice for four years suddenly felt the pulsating effect of Napoleon’s energy. In the nine months between his arrival in Nice and the end of 1796 he sent more than eight hundred letters and despatches, covering everything from where drummer-boys should stand in parades to the conditions under which the ‘Marseillaise’ should be played. Augereau was the first of his generals to be won over, followed by Masséna. ‘That little bastard of a general actually frightened me!’ Augereau would later tell Masséna.11

Napoleon decided to make the best of his reputation as a ‘political’ soldier. In his Order of the Day of March 29, he told his troops that they would ‘find in him a comrade, strong in the confidence of the Government, proud of the esteem of patriots, and determined to acquire for the Army of Italy a destiny worthy of it.’12* After all, a general with the ear of the Directory might get his troops fed. Napoleon feared the indiscipline that arose when armed men face near-starvation. ‘Without bread the soldier tends to an excess of violence’, he wrote, ‘that makes one blush for being a man.’13* Certainly his demands on Paris were constant, and on April 1 he managed to get 5,000 pairs of shoes delivered. An astonishing number of his letters throughout his career refer to providing footwear for his troops. Although he probably never said ‘An army marches on its stomach’, as legend has it, he was always deeply conscious that it indubitably marched on its feet.14

That same Order of the Day of March 29 announced that the forty-three-year-old Alexandre Berthier, a former engineer who had fought in the American War of Independence, was now Napoleon’s chief-of-staff, a position he was to retain until 1814. Berthier had fought well in the Argonne campaign in 1792 and in the Vendée over the next three years, and his brother had been in the Topographical Bureau with Napoleon.

Napoleon was the first commander to employ a chief-of-staff in its modern sense, and he couldn’t have chosen a more efficient one. With a memory second only to his own, Berthier could keep his head clear after twelve hours of taking dictation; on one occasion in 1809 he was summoned no fewer than seventeen times in a single night.15 The Archives Nationales, Bibliothèque Nationale and the Archives of the Grande Armée at Vincennes teem with orders in the neat secretarial script and short concise sentences that Berthier used to communicate with his colleagues, conveying Napoleon’s wishes in polite but firm terms, invariably starting ‘The Emperor requests, general, that on receipt of this order you will . . .’16 Among Berthier’s many qualities was a diplomatic nature so finely attuned that he somehow managed to persuade his wife, the Duchess Maria of Bavaria, to share a chateau with his mistress Madame Visconti (and vice versa). He rarely opposed Napoleon’s ideas directly except on strict logistical grounds, and built up a team that ensured the commander-in-chief’s wishes were quickly put into action. His special ability, amounting to something approaching genius, was to translate the sketchiest of general commands into precise written orders for every demi-brigade. Staff-work was rarely less than superbly efficient. To process Napoleon’s rapid-fire orders required a skilled team of clerks, orderlies, adjutants and aides-de-camp, and a very advanced filing system, and he often worked through the night. On one of the few occasions when Napoleon spotted an error in the troop numbers for a demi-brigade, he wrote to correct Berthier, adding: ‘I read these position statements with as much relish as a novel.’17

On April 2, 1796, Napoleon moved the army’s headquarters forward to Albenga on the Gulf of Genoa. On that same day Chauvet died of fever in Genoa. This was ‘a real loss to the army’, Napoleon reported; ‘he was active, enterprising. The army sheds a tear for his memory.’18 Chauvet was the first of a large number of his friends and lieutenants who were to die on campaign with him, and for whom he felt genuine grief.

The Austrians – who had dominated northern Italy since 1714 – were sending a large army westwards to Piedmont to engage the French, and the Piedmontese were being supplied by the Royal Navy from Corsica. This forced Napoleon to haul everything he needed over the high mountain passes of Liguria. When he reached Albenga on April 5 he told Masséna and Laharpe his plan to cut the enemy off between Carcare, Altare and Montenotte. The Austrian commander, Johann Beaulieu, had much experience and some talent, but he was seventy-one and had been beaten by French armies before. A keen student of past campaigns, Napoleon knew that Beaulieu was cautious, a flaw he planned to exploit. The Austrian alliance with the Piedmontese was weak, and Beaulieu had been warned not to trust too much to it. (‘Now that I know about coalitions,’ Marshal Foch was to joke during the First World War, ‘I respect Napoleon rather less!’) Even within the Austrian army, the heterogeneous nature of the sprawling Habsburg Empire meant that its units often didn’t speak the same language; the common tongue employed by its officer corps was French. To add to Beaulieu’s problems, he had to answer to the unwieldy and bureaucratic Aulic Council in Vienna, which tended to give orders so late that by the time they arrived they had been overtaken by events. By contrast, Napoleon planned to adopt a daring manoeuvre now known in military academies as ‘the strategy of the central position’: he would remain between the two forces opposing him and would strike first at one and then at the other before they could coalesce. It was a strategy to which he would adhere throughout his career. ‘It is contrary to all principle to make corps which have no communication act separately against a central force whose communications are open’, was one of his maxims of war.19

‘I am very busy here,’ he wrote to Josephine from Albenga. ‘Beaulieu is moving his army. We are face-to-face. I’m a little tired. I’m every day on horseback.’20* His daily letters to Josephine continued throughout the campaign, covering hundreds of pages of passionate scrawl. Some were written on the same day as major battles. He would constantly switch from romantic protestations (‘I’ve not passed a day without loving you’) to more self-centred considerations (‘I’ve not taken a cup of tea without cursing that glory and that ambition which keep me separated from the soul of my life’), to maudlin reflections on why she hardly ever wrote back. When she did, she called him ‘vous’, which greatly irritated him. Napoleon’s letters were full of coy erotic allusions to his desire to ravish her as soon as she would come out to join him in Italy. ‘A kiss on your breast, and then a little lower, then much much lower,’ he wrote in one.21 There is some debate as to whether ‘la petite baronne de Kepen’ (occasionally ‘Keppen’) in his letters was a Napoleonic soubriquet for Josephine’s sexual parts. Sadly, the etymology of the ‘Baronne de Kepen’ is lost to history, although it may simply have been the name of one of Josephine’s many lap-dogs, so that ‘Respectful compliments to the little baroness de Kepen’ might have had no sexual overtones.22 There is not much doubt about the less imaginative ‘little black forest’, as in: ‘I give it a thousand kisses and wait with impatience the moment of being there.’23 Somewhat unromantically these letters were often signed ‘Bonaparte’ or ‘BP’, just like his orders.24 ‘Adieu, woman, torment, joy, hope and soul of my life, whom I love, whom I fear, who inspires in me tender feelings which summon up Nature and emotions as impetuous and volcanic as thunder’, is an entirely representative sentence from one of them.

What People are Saying About This

Jay Winik
With his customary flair and keen historical eye, Andrew Roberts has delivered the goods again. This is the best single one-volume biography of Napoleon in English for the last four decades. A tour de force that belongs on every history lovers bookshelf! --Jay Winik, bestselling author of The Great Upheaval and April 1865
Bret Stephens
Andrew Roberts's superb biography of Napoleon is a page-turner that happens also to be a work of original scholarship; a work of broad historical sweep that is also an intimate portrait of a misunderstood, extraordinary man; a gripping story of adventure that has important things to say about generalship, politics, manners, culture, and statesmanship. I picked it up and simply couldn't put it down. Even after 800 pages, I was sorry for it to end. --Bret Stephens, 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary
From the Publisher
Praise for Napoleon

“An epically scaled new biography . . . Roberts brilliantly conveys the sheer energy and presence of Napoleon the organizational and military whirlwind who, through crisp and incessant questioning, sized up people and problems and got things done. . . . His dynamism shines in Roberts’s set-piece chapters on major battles like Austerlitz, Jena, and Marengo, turning visionary military maneuvers into politically potent moments.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Roberts is a masterly storyteller. . . . I would recommend his book to anyone seeking an accessible chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Napoleon’s fantastic story.”
—Max Hastings, The Wall Street Journal

“With his customary flair and keen historical eye, Andrew Roberts has delivered the goods again. This is the best single one-volume biography of Napoleon in English for the last four decades. A tour de force that belongs on every history lovers bookshelf!”
—Jay Winik, bestselling author of The Great Upheaval and April 1865

“Is another long life of Napoleon really necessary? On three counts, the answer given by Andrew Roberts’s impressive book is an emphatic yes. The most important is that this is the first single-volume general biography to make full use of the treasure trove of Napoleon’s 33,000-odd letters, which began being published in Paris only in 2004. Second, Roberts, who has previously written on Napoleon and Wellington, is a masterly analyst of the French emperor’s many battles. Third, his book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read.”
—The Economist

“Napoleon remade France and much of Europe in his fifteen years in power and proved himself one of history’s greatest military commanders. Roberts’s access to Napoleon’s thirty-three thousand letters, only recently available, allowed him to create a fully human portrait of this larger-than-life figure.”
—The Wall Street Journal,Holiday Gift Guide

“A huge, rich, deep, witty, humane and unapologetically admiring biography that is a pleasure to read. The Napoleon painted here is a whirlwind of a man—not only a vigorous and supremely confident commander, but an astonishingly busy governor, correspondent and lover, too. . . . To dive into Roberts’s new book is to understand—indeed, to feel—why this peculiarly brilliant Corsican managed for so long to dazzle the world.”
—Dan Jones, The Telegraph

“Roberts in his Napoleon achieves the near impossible by writing on this extravagantly well-covered subject with a freshness and excitement that makes readers think they have stumbled on something entirely new.”
—Philip Ziegler, The Spectator, Books of the Year

“Truly a Napoleonic triumph of a book, elegantly written, epic in scale, novelistic in detail, irresistibly galloping with the momentum of a cavalry charge, as comfortable on the battlefield as in the bedroom. Here, at last, is the full biography.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Evening Standard, Books of the Year

“Andrew Roberts’s Napoleon is a brilliant example of ‘great man’ history, brimming with personality and the high-octane Bonapartist spirit.”
—John Bew, New Statesman, Books of the Year

“Entertaining, even addictive . . . Roberts writes with great vigor, style, and fluency.”
Sunday Times (London)

“Magnificent . . . Roberts’s fine book encompasses all the evidence to give a brilliant portrait of the man. The book, as it needs to be, is massive, yet the pace is brisk and it’s never overwhelmed by the scholarly research, which was plainly immense.”
Mail on Sunday

“Roberts not only brings the Napoleon story up to date but, with new evidence from the archives and an original spin on the present, makes a compelling case for why we should all read anew about the little Corsican in the 21st century.”
The Observer (London)

“Magisterial and beautifully written . . . A richly detailed and sure-footed reappraisal of the man, his achievements—and failures—and the extraordinary times in which he lived.”
—Standpoint

“A definitive account that dispels many of the myths that surrounded Napoleon from his lifetime to the present day.”
—Publishers Weekly

“A compelling biography of the preeminent French general that stands apart from the rest, owing to the author’s thoroughness, accuracy, and attention to detail. Roberts relies on his military expertise, Napoleon’s surviving correspondence (33,000 items in all), and exhaustive on-site studies of French battlegrounds. . . . This voluminous work is likely to set the standard for subsequent accounts.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

Meet the Author

Andrew Roberts is the bestselling author of The Storm of War, Masters and Commanders, Napoleon and Wellington, and Waterloo. A Fellow of the Napoleonic
Institute, he has won many prizes, including the Wolfson History Prize and the British Army Military Book Award, writes frequently for The Wall Street Journal,
and has written and presented a number of popular documentaries. He lives in New York City.

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Napoleon: A Life 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As someone who has never read a Napoleon biography before, I have found the book to be highly informative of the man and his character. Growing up in UK, I was always taught that Napoleon was a "bad man" and while this book clearly illustrates his ego and warmongering tendencies, it also reveals a leader who brought lasting changes to France and beyond. I am only halway through the book, but had to write a review to balance the very negative comments of the other reviewers. I honestly cannot say if it is the best Napoleon book ever - but as an introduction to the man and the depth of character, I am very impressed
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an absolutely insightful biography of one of history's greatest figures.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gave this book to my husband for Christmas because he is eager to read anything about Napoleon. The book seems to be useful in terms of material and those newly discovered letters will probably add to what is known or at least surmised. Unfortunately, the number of infelicities and downright errors of writing style make it a trial to read. Is there no editing of books anymore? These old English teachers are sad.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed.  I did not get a big picture of the Napoleon story. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And family by now why one more what i remember reading was his old mother who survived him saying all along " it wont last." though he made his sister and brothers royals