Greenhill Books: Napoleonic Library



The Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire: How the Emperor Self-Destructed

By Digby Smith

Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire Cover

Digby Smith's latest work is not just a military analysis of the fall of Napoleon. Its aim is to show that it was more than just bayonets that played a big part in his failing. The following are some extracts from the book.

Pages 67 - 68

Napoleon’s Continental System, the response to Britain’s Orders in Council, began – as mentioned above – with the promulgation of the Berlin Decree of 21 November 1806 and the first Milan Decree of 23 November 1807. Napoleon had declared une croisade contre le sucre et le café, contre les percales et les mousselines (a crusade against sugar and coffee, against percales – calico – and muslin). Interestingly enough, this was to give a great spur to the development of the European sugar beet industry.

To his brother Louis, King of Holland, Napoleon wrote that his aim was to conquérir la mer par la puissance de la terre (conquer the sea with land power). Britain was placed under blockade; all trade with Britain was to cease, British goods on the continent were subject to seizure and no ship – of any nation – could enter any French or allied port if it had previously visited a British port. The effects of this trade war on Holland were disastrous: 1,349 merchantmen entered Amsterdam in 1806; this dropped to 310 in 1809.

Pages 71 - 73

In July 1810 Napoleon annexed the Kingdom of Holland, exasperated by Louis’s abject failure – or stubborn refusal – to reduce the flood of British contraband into mainland Europe. In December of that year he declared the annexation of the German North Sea coast from what had once been the Kingdom of Holland, across the base of the Danish peninsula and including the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg and the Hanseatic port-cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. The motivation for this unilateral step was – again – his frantic need to try to stop the continued influx of British goods.

This process culminated in Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, caused once more by the obsessive need to force the Tsar to reapply the boycott of the importation of British contraband. This Alexander was unwilling to do, as adherence to the Continental System had brought the economy of Russia to the brink of collapse and he feared that if he allowed the internal situation to deteriorate any further, he might face another palace coup, such as that in which his father, Tsar Paul I, had died in March 1801.

Thus, Britain’s economic warfare gradually forced Napoleon either to capitulate or to overextend himself again and again, finally with catastrophic consequences for the Emperor. In short, the trade war with Britain was one which was outside Napoleon’s control and one which he was doomed to lose.

Napoleon’s financial treatment of the Kingdom of Westphalia was blatant robbery. He burdened the artificial state with debts of thirty-four million francs, drew seven million francs p.a. from it for his own purse and confiscated estates worth a further five million francs p.a. from it to be distributed as awards to faithful members of his government and army. He also stationed 12,500 French troops in the kingdom, whose upkeep amounted to a further ten million francs p.a. On 14 January 1810 the Emperor gave the old Electorate of Hanover to Jerome. Among the attached strings were that a further six thousand cavalry would now be paid for by his pliant brother; this raised the cost of supporting the French military forces in the kingdom to twenty million francs p.a. He burdened Hanover with debts of 180 million francs. In addition to this, Marshal Davout, commanding a corps in Westphalia, ignored King Jerome utterly and requisitioned all that he wanted without reference to him.

On 13 December 1810, the northern part of Westphalia was annexed by Napoleon in another futile attempt to combat the smuggling of British goods. To survive, the unfortunate King Jerome (known to his subjects as the ‘merry monarch’) had to sell off most of the Crown estates. There was no public interest in investment in the kingdom at all and the burden of taxation on the inhabitants grew continuously. The ex-Prussian provinces of the kingdom were subject to extra heavy tax levies. Property owners enjoyed the special attention of Jerome’s tax collectors, so much so that in 1810 there were over three hundred houses standing empty in Magdeburg; the owners had emigrated to avoid paying punitive taxation.

Pages 146 - 147

So he lingered in Moscow, which was soon to be largely reduced to ashes.

Yet again a letter, a fragile olive branch, was sent by Napoleon to the Tsar; yet again it was delivered, and yet again it received no answer. The Emperor had misjudged Alexander’s character, never suspecting that the man whom he had dismissed as being putty in his fingers had the resolve to challenge him. For five weeks Napoleon waited in Moscow, as the season drew towards winter; still there was no answer.

What was left of the Grande Armée, by now only one-third of the march-in strength, idled its way around what was left of Moscow, looting, drinking, surviving. No coherent contingency plans for the future were decided, nothing done to prepare for an advance, a withdrawal or a stay through the winter in the ruined city. It was as if Napoleon has reached his final goal and did not know where next to go, what next to do. Then, on 18 October the Russians attacked Murat at Winkowo (Tarutino), sixty-seven kilometres south-west of Moscow, inflicting a sharp defeat on him.

At last the Emperor snapped awake. On 19 October he ordered his few remaining troops to evacuate Moscow. But even now, his sense of reality seemed to be impaired; he ordered the great golden cross on the Church of St John, inside the Kremlin, to be taken down and hauled back to Paris as a trophy. The remnants of the Grande Armée trudged out of the ruined city, laden with loot of all descriptions and accompanied by a great throng of refugee French expatriates who had been living in Moscow and now feared the vengeance of their hosts.

Page 160

This was clearly no longer the Emperor of Austerlitz and Jena. Then, he would have been up with his outposts, fighting for the vital intelligence, divining enemy intentions and weaknesses, striking like a thunderbolt. Now, he lounges in his suite, doodling, idle, not knowing what to do. His minions have nothing to do either; truly a contrast between day and night.

By this time, the allied ring was drawing closer around its prey, whose possible options were reducing day by day. But still Napoleon was mired in the confidence of the Glory Years: ‘They will never dare to attack me.’

For inexplicable reasons he then adopted a battle position to the east of Leipzig, with an almost impenetrable obstacle – the Elster-Pleisse swamp complex – directly to his rear and across his line of communication back to his base at Erfurt. He then ordered all the bridges over this barrier, except one, to be broken. This extraordinary plan might have been hatched by a geriatric Spanish general early in the peninsular struggle, but that Napoleon should have thought of it – and that his obsequious staff did not protest against such madness – is stunning.

Page 182

It was rapidly becoming a case of the Emperor being the only one in tune.

On 25 March Marshals Marmont and Mortier clashed with the corps of the Crown Prince of Württemberg at Fère-Champenoise, 112 kilometres east of Paris, and were defeated.

Incredibly, Napoleon pushed on to the east. This indicates again that the Emperor had lost his grip on reality. But his relative inaction over the next few days is equally hard to understand. For four whole days Napoleon moved around St Dizier on the upper Marne, some 205 kilometres east of Paris, waiting for something to turn up. Where was his cavalry? Where was the vital information about his enemies? Why the uncharacteristic inactivity? He had knowingly removed himself from the decisive centre of the campaign and thus fatally weakened the defence of his capital, the current abode of his wife and the irreplaceable heir to his dynasty. Napoleon had lost the plot, or the allies had stolen it from him; either way, the outcome was the same.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005

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