Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most successful generals of the French revolutionary armies. He was emperor of France from 1804-14, and in 1815.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1768-1821) is regarded as one of history’s greatest military leaders. Born on 15 August 1769, Napoleon was educated at military school in France. He then joined the army where, following the outbreak of the French Revolution, he rapidly rose through the ranks.

Taking power

By 1796 he was commander of the French army and, in an attempt to disrupt British trade routes with India, he conquered Ottoman-ruled Egypt in 1798, despite the fact the British destroyed the fleet from which he had just landed his forces, in the action called the Battle of the Nile. 

Returning to France a heroic leader in 1799, Napoleon became the country’s ‘first consul’, going on to become Emperor in 1804.

In 1800, at the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon defeated the Austrians, thus establishing France’s power over continental Europe. His sole opponent was Britain.

Peace of Amiens

The Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802, marking the end of the French Revolutionary War. Britain, isolated from her allies, agreed to return territorial conquests to France, Spain and Holland. But by May 1803 the treaty had collapsed because Britain refused to evacuate Malta and Napoleon failed to guarantee Dutch independence. Britain again declared war on France, later followed by Austria and Russia.

British invasion

Napoleon planned an ambitious scheme to invade England in 1804. He stationed 150,000 men and 2000 vessels at Boulogne with the intention of crossing the English Channel. Part of the plan involved distracting the British Navy by encouraging them to chase the French fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, from Toulon to the West Indies, then back to France, thus clearing the Channel for invasion.

The British got wind of the plan and attacked the returning Villeneuve off Cape Finisterre. Although not a decisive victory, the British forced the Franco-Spanish fleet to retreat away from the Channel and Napoleon abandoned his invasion plans.

The British went on to successfully attack the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. By then, however, Napoleon was re-focusing his efforts on attacking Austro-Russian forces, successfully beating them later that year in Austerlitz. He went on to defeat the Prussians at Jena and Aurstadt in 1806 and the Russians at Eylau and Friedland in 1807. This earned him greatly expanded territories and a stranglehold over most of Europe.

Napoleon defeated

Determined to destroy Britain, he imposed the ‘Continental Blockade’ in order to stop British European trade. Britain retaliated by preventing any trade entering Europe by sea.

After 1808, there was popular resistance to the French occupation of Portugal and Spain. British forces under the Duke of Wellington began to make headway on the Iberian peninsula. Napoleon overstretched his Empire with the 1812 Russian campaign, losing over 500,000 men. Defeated at Leipzig in 1813, he abdicated in 1814 and was exiled to Elba.

In February 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba for a final 'Hundred Days' of power. He took over the government in Paris on 20 March and prepared for war once more. His renewed attempt to dominate Europe failed, however, and he finally surrendered to the British after the French defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

This time he was exiled 5000 miles from Europe, on the island of St Helena, where he lived until his death on 5 May 1821.

Find out more about the French Revolution