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Napoleon Bonaparte: A Great Leader
“If the leader is filled with high ambition and if he pursues his aims with audacity and strength of will, he will reach them in spite of all obstacles.”
- Carl von Clausewitz
As a military theorist, Clausewitz adequately envelops the deeds and values of Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was and remains to be one of the greatest leaders that Europe has ever had. Having come from a poor Corsican family, the leader continued his ambition to rule over the vast majority of Europe, doing so for more than fifteen years. The emperor ruled from Spain and most of Italy to Norway and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw , using sheer talent in all areas. Napoleon had the remarkable ability to use propaganda, apply brutal force when needed, and make skilful decisions in times of trouble.
The Public Controller
Controlling the public is needed in order to rule a vast piece of land and to allow for ease of situation. For the grande armée (Grand Army), constant support was needed to continue to fight for wars and tension that collectively lasted for more than a decade.
To be sure, “much of the success of Napoleonic campaigning was founded on logistics”. The Frenchmen fighting for Napoleon were miraculously not starved to death, although it was harder for the horses to do so as they ate ten times more . The only fault that Napoleon had was his negligence of the brutally cold weather and the lack of well-paved roads during his 1812 Russian campaign. Other than that, France’s army was well provided for and even developed a relationship with Napoleon as shown by the nickname of le petit corporal. The emperor regularly supported his troops with inspiring words such as: “soldiers consider that from the summit of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you,” as spoken before the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids. Captivating speeches as such and the promise of bountiful awards motivated the French army to help Napoleon in his desire to control Europe. However, simple speeches to the soldiers of France were not enough.
The citizens had to be reassured as well and this led to propaganda and thorough censorship. “Propaganda functions best and is most necessary in times of emotional tension,” and Napoleon’s era was a time to comfort and console the people. He left no room for uncertainty when it came to doubting the power and great leadership of the emperor. When battles were lost, such as that of Trafalgar, it was not spoken of, or the loss of the war was less dramatized. Private news companies were bought by the government and controlled by officers, such as that of the Moniteur (Monitor). For this, the people of France loved him and thought him to be a great hero in the midst of destruction left by the Reign of Terror. It showed Napoleon’s ability in pleasing the citizens and therefore made him a grand leader. “Napoleon could demand feats of endurance, sacrifice and complexity beyond those of his opponents,” and when he came back for his legendary One Hundred Days, his men rose in solidarity to support him once again. Napoleon could appease the soldiers in the face of a battle, and soothe the French during their times of trouble, giving the image of a leader who was intelligent and who also cared for the peoples’ woes.
The Use of Force
It is essential for every leader to know when to use force, especially in the situations that Napoleon dealt with. The emperor’s brutality was crucial in order for Europe to know who their leader was. Napoleon knew what he wanted, and he was willing to do all it took to not only accomplish victory, but to keep victory. When conquering new land, he made sure “through summary executions, villages burned, opponents imprisoned,” that it remained France’s territory by the use of violence. When waging war with other nations, he fought relentlessly by pushing his enemies and his own troops to the limit having, “commanded thirty-four battles between 1792 and 1815, of which he lost only six”. This shows remarkable strength and power on the battlefield, and violence plays a vital role in these victories. In fact, Napoleon himself said, “the art of war is simple, everything is a matter of execution…there are not precise or definite rules”. This allowed for little loss and a greater success as a thorough leader.
Napoleon employed the use of rapid movement in order to crush opposing armies. This was observed in the 1805 campaign against the Austrians, where the grande armée moved from France to Southern Germany in a mere seven weeks. Having won there, they marched five hundred miles to the east in little more than a month to defeat the Austro-Russians at Austerlitz. This gave the French power over central Europe, expanding Napoleon’s territory and increasing his accomplishments. The Emperor’s harshness and relentless violence aided him in gaining control over most of Europe, proving his worth as a leader.
An earlier example of hurried plans and violence is seen in the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids which was essentially a race to gain control over Egypt. In fact, “speed was Bonaparte’s primary concern,”
A position of high power demands aptitude in rapid decision-making in reaction to any kind of situation, and Napoleon did that extremely well. He was, “successful on many battlefields; and he may have been a master of campaigning”. As Napoleon’s power rose and his intriguing style of battling became known, opposing countries sought to outdo him and ultimately, France.
His various strategies were used in many situations such as the manoeuvre sur les derrierès or manoeuvre de derrière (move onto the rear) in the 1805 battle of Ulm. The first French corps would pin the Austrians and a second force would attack from behind, forcing them to surrender. This tactic was used in reaction to the revelation of Austria’s whereabouts. Instead of Napoleon’s being on the north bank of the river Danube, they were plotting to attack from behind the grande armée on the south bank. Napoleon recognized that he had to be wary and know everything before time in order to be a great leader. For this reason, he had intelligence gathering systems that gave information on the enemy’s whereabouts through use of detailed maps and plans of attack. However, improvisation was and remains to be a crucial component in the face of battle, as seen in that of Auerstädt in 1806. The emperor had believed that there was only a small Prussian army defending the capital city of Berlin. He quickly grasped that there was a larger troop on its way and hurried to demolish them, forcing the smaller Prussian army into submission. This shows clarity and logical thinking in the face of surprise attacks and unknown plans of the enemy.
Politically, Napoleon made promising decisions such as the 1802 Treaty of Amiens with Britain. Britain was, “the only major power to see the threat of France as unquestionably her first priority,” and the French leader had to make sure that the opposing country was out of the way. The attempt of peace worked for a year, until Britain broke the peace in order to try and destroy Napoleon. However, the decision of Napoleon to create a treaty with the rivalling country was crucial in ridding a huge obstruction, even if it was for a short period of time. The choices that Napoleon made were brilliant and his quick uptake on jolting plans from the foes is to be admired. Many leaders of the present world admire the way in which Napoleon rapidly and skilfully reacted, such as General Douglas MacArthur who “prided himself on taking the North Koreans in the rear in the classical Napoleonic pattern”. This, ultimately, was one of the qualities that made him a true and great leader.
Napoleon fits the Clausewitz description of a leader: pursuing all goals with ‘audacity and strength of will’. Napoleon Bonaparte is the epitome of a proper leader as he successfully controlled the public by developing a relation with his soldiers and reassuring the citizens. He was also violent when in battle, ruthlessly making sure to wipe out all enemies and gain as much territory to increase his power. Last, the Emperor made swift decisions in reaction to all obstacles and came through successfully. In conclusion, Napoleon Bonaparte was and continues to a great leader.
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Dellinger, John. “Napoleonic Wars: Battle of the Pyramids,” Military History, (1998).
Dufrasse, Roger. Napoleon. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1992.
Goodlad, Graham. “Napoleon at War: Secrets of Success, Seeds of Failure?” History Review 65, (2009).
Holtman, Robert. The Napoleonic Revolution. United States of America: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1967.
Joffrin, Laurent. “A Classic Dictator?: Napoleon.” History Today 55, (2005).
QOTD. Carl von Clausewitz Quotes. http://www.qotd.org/search/search.html?aid=959&page=2
Riley, Jonathan. “How Good was Napoleon? History Today 57, no. 7 (2007).
Slideshare. Napoleon Chart Maps. http://www.slideshare.net/matt/napoleon-chart-maps-113839