Napoleon: the downfall
[The above picture is Goya's, The Second of May, 1808: The Charge of the Mamelukes, depicting the brutal suppression of the Spanish revolt.]
The first major test of Napoleon’s rule was the Spanish crisis of 1808. The military presence of the French in Madrid led to a popular revolt against French occupation on 2 May. Napoleon forced the abdication of Charles IV and his son Ferdinand and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. This triggered off the Spanish War of Independence, known in British history as the Peninsular War, a popular counter-revolution which was exploited by the British. In August British troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal, and the ensuing war forced Napoleon to commit 300,000 troops to the country to fight the British and Portuguese armies and the Spanish insurgents.
Napoleon’s troubles in Spain inspired an Austrian invasion on French positions in Bavaria, the Tyrol, Venetia and the Adriatic in April 1809. But the French struck back, taking Pius VII prisoner and reaching Vienna in May 1809. After their defeat at Wagram on July, the Austrians signed the Treaty of Schönbrunn in October, and their new leader Metternich pursued a policy of co-operation with France. The policy of conciliation was seen most starkly in the marriage of the Emperor's daughter, Marie-Louise, to Napoleon in March 1810.
Prussia pursued a different policy. Inspired by the reformers Karl von Stein and Carl August von Hardenberg, the country reorganized itself militarily and politically. In an edict of 1808 Stein abolished serfdom in Prussia. His successor Hardenberg reformed secondary and university education and gave full civil rights to the Jews. Recognizing the force of nationalism in inspiring the French armies, writers and intellectuals espoused German nationalism. (You will revisit these themes in Block 6.)
Napoleon’s biggest mistake was his invasion of Russia in 1812, the result of Russia’s failure to enforce the Continental System against Britain. In the summer of 1812 the (by now multinational) Grande Armée of 650,000 men (an unprecedented size) marched into Russia. In September they occupied the evacuated and burned city of Moscow and in October Napoleon gave the order to retreat. By the time it reached the Prussian border, fewer than 100,000 soldiers were left. Napoleon abandoned his army and returned to France in December. At the end of the year the Russians advanced west and captured Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
On 2 February 1813 Johann Gottlieb Fichte ended his lecture at the University of Berlin with the words
‘This course will be suspended until the close of the campaign, when we will resume it in a free fatherland or reconquer our liberty by death’.Young men from all over Germany flocked to join a Freikorps (a volunteer army) of at least 100,000, dedicated to the liberation of Germany. The weapons of the French Revolution were now turned against France in what the Prussians called the ‘War of Liberation’. At the ‘Battle of the Nations’ fought at Leipzig in October 1813 over half a million soldiers and 2,000 pieces of artillery were in action, the largest military engagement fought until the First World War. On the left is the memorial to the battle.
On the evening of 18 October the French retreated to the Rhine. Of the more than 300,000 men under Napoleon’s command three months earlier, only 40-50,000 remained. The allied victory was decisive. Metternich wrote to his wife:
‘I have just returned from the battlefield on which the cause of the world has been won (Quoted Adam Zamoyski, Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, Harper, 2007, p. 115.)But the cost of victory was horrific. The British ambassador-extraordinary, Lord Aberdeen, wrote to his sister-in-law:
‘For three or four miles the ground is covered with the bodies of men and horses, many not dead. Wretches wounded unable to crawl, crying for water amidst heaps of putrefying bodies. Their screams are heard at an immense distance, and still ring in my ears. The living as well as the dead are stripped by the barbarous peasantry, who have not sufficient charity to put the miserable wretches out of their pain. Our victory is most complete. It must be a owned that victory is a fine thing, but one should be at a distance.’ (Quoted Zamoyski, p. 115.At the end of 1813 the Allies reached Frankfurt, completed the liberation of Germany and the Prussian army under Blücher marched into France. In 1814 the French were driven out of Spain. In March Russian, Prussian, and Austrian soldiers entered Paris, and Napoleon was forced by his generals to abdicate. The count of Provence became king of France as Louis XVIII, and Napoleon was sent to rule the island of Elba.
In March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France for his ‘Hundred Days’. After his final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 he was exiled to St Helena where he died in 1821. The Napoleonic Wars were brought to a final end by the Second Treaty of Paris of 20 November 1815.