Napoleon’s date of birth, in Corsica in 1769, makes him by just fifteen months a native French citizen. Most of Corsica’s traditional links are with Italy, from which Napoleon’s family, the Buonaparte, have arrived during the 16th century.
The Corsicans have been fighting for much of the 18th century to liberate their island from the rule of Genoa. In 1768 the Genoese, unable to control this troublesome island, sell it to France. The French invade, overwhelm the Corsicans and from 1769 administer the region as a French province.
Napoleon’s father, a member of the Corsican nobility, accepts a position in the French administration. He is therefore able to arrange education in France for his two eldest sons. Napoleon is the second son in a large family. Eight Bonaparte children survive infancy.
The young Corsican (who changes the spelling of his name to the more French-seeming Bonaparte in 1796) is educated in a military academy at Brienne. At the age of sixteen, in 1785, he becomes a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment. In the early years of the French Revolution he shows an interest in radical politics. Stationed in Valence in 1791, he becomes president of the local Jacobin club – and duly fulminates against aristocrats and bishops.
His first significant military engagement is at Toulon in 1793. In July this Mediterranean port and arsenal is seized by royalist counter-revolutionaries who deliver it into the hands of an Anglo-Spanish fleet. In the ensuing siege by French republican forces the commander of the artillery is wounded. Napoleon is promoted to the post. When the city is taken, in December, Napoleon’s artillery tactics and his leadership during the final assault are recognized as having played a crucial role.
Augustin Robespierre writes to his brother Maximilien in Paris, praising the brilliant young officer. In February 1794 Napoleon, aged twenty-five, is appointed commander of artillery in the army of Italy. His career seems assured.
But nothing is assured at this time, the peak of the Terror. That summer the Robespierre brothers go together to the guillotine. In the mood of reprisal after the events of Thermidor, the Robespierre endorsement of Napoleon brings suspicion upon him. He is arrested and seems in danger of his life, but is released after a month in prison.
This setback is followed by a period of inactivity in Paris on half pay. But his reputation from Toulon remains vivid in military circles. When the republican Convention is threatened by a royalist uprising in 1795, Napoleon’s help is enlisted. He is later presented as having, almost single-handed, saved the legitimate government.
The guns of Vendémiare: 5 October 1795
Napoleon’s part in the saving of the Convention, and of its plans for the new regime of five directors, is a simple one. On being appointed one of the commanders to defend the seat of government in the Tuileries (with a force which looks like being outnumbered six to one by the rebels), he asks one simple question: ‘Where is the artillery?’ He has appreciated that in the straight streets around the Tuileries the issue may be decided by a few cannon rather than thousands of muskets.
Forty guns are known to be in a camp six miles away. Joachim Murat (a brilliant cavalry officer, and later Napoleon’s brother-in-law) is despatched to fetch them.
A rebel force is already on its way to seize these valuable weapons but Murat, galloping at the head of a squadron of 200 troopers, reaches the camp first. His men drag the cannon to Paris.
Fortunately for the members of the Convention, waiting nervously in the Tuileries, the rebels decide on a direct frontal attack rather than anything more subtle. During the afternoon of 13 Vendémiaire (October 5) columns of armed men, marching to drums, arrive in the Rue St Honoré and turn into the streets leading to the Tuileries. They are exchanging musket fire with the Convention’s troops when the first volleys of grapeshot from Napoleon’s cannon tear into their ranks.
The encounter is repeated two or three times during the afternoon, but eventually the rebels scatter. The day belongs unequivocally to the Convention, enabling plans for the new Directory to continue on schedule.
Much credit, very possibly exaggerated, is given to the 26-year-old Napoleon for this narrow escape from disaster. In the early months of the Directory he is rapidly promoted until, in March 1796, he becomes commander-in-chief of the French army in Italy. His success in this role brings him such a reputation in France that by 1799 he is himself in a position to replace the Directory.
The Italian campaign: AD 1796-1797
When Napoleon joins his army in March 1796, he finds himself in command of 37,000 men who are demoralized, badly fed and unpaid. During April he leads them in a series of rapid victories which vastly raise the soldiers’ spirits and hold out the promise of rich loot under this energetic young commander.
The allies facing Napoleon are the Austrians, committed to defending their extensive territory around Milan – and the Sardinians whose realm extends from Savoy and Nice west of the Alps to Piedmont, with its capital at Turin, on the Italian side. (They are called Sardinians because the duke of Savoy is also the king of Sardinia, a senior title.)
Napoleon’s strategy is to divide and to surprise his enemies. Instead of taking the obvious route along the coast, he leads his army through Alpine passes to catch the Austrians unaware at Montenotte on April 12. It is the first of a rush of victories against Austrians and Sardinians separately. The allies are successfully prevented from joining forces against their fast-moving opponent.
At the end of the month Napoleon issues a proclamation to his men, using a certain degree of hyperbole to trumpet their achievements: ‘Soldiers! In fifteen days you have gained six victories, taken twenty-one colours and fifty-five pieces of artillery, seized several fortresses and conquered the richest parts of Piedmont.’
By April 28, in the armistice of Cherasco, the king of Sardinia is ready to make peace with France and to cede his territories of Savoy and Nice – both in practice already occupied, since 1792, by French republican forces.
Napoleon’s conquest of Piedmont is repeated, in similar piecemeal fashion, in other regions of Italy. He defeats the Austrians at Lodi on April 10 and enters Milan five days later. Subsequent campaigns lead rapidly to armistices with the dukes of Parma (May 9) and Modena (May 17) and with the pope, Pius VI, on June 23. Ancient and enfeebled Venice is unable to offer any opposition to the conqueror. In May 1797 Napoleon deposes the last of the doges and sets up a provisional democracy.
In all these subdued territories Napoleon has been energetically imposing the new French ways, often with the enthusiastic support of locals as impatient as the French with the remnants of feudalism. Northern and central Italy is reorganized as the Cisalpine Republic, while the territory of Genoa becomes the Ligurian Republic.
During the winter of 1796-7 there are prolonged and complicated engagements between French and Austrian forces round Mantua, but by April Napoleon is secure enough to move northwards against Vienna itself. He is just two days march away from the city, at Leoben, when the Austrian emperor agrees an armistice.
By the terms of the peace, signed at Campo Formio in October, Austria cedes to France the Austrian Netherlands and all her territory in northern Italy. In return, as a sop, Napoleon gives the emperor Venice.
All this is negotiated by the young general on his own initiative. The Directory, busy with the coup d’état of Fructidor, is in no position to control him in his triumph. Moreover, like Napoleon’s troops, the government can hardly be indifferent to the material result of his success. A steady stream of booty, both of money and art, makes its way back to France (including, looted once again, the famous bronze horses from St Mark’s in Venice). Exported French republicanism may be a blessing, but it does not come cheap.
Plans to invade England: AD 1797-1798
The terms agreed by Napoleon at Campo Formio are displeasing to the Directory in one important respect – they fail to secure conclusive French possession of the German areas west of the Rhine. This is accepted by the Austrians in principle (and for part of the region only), but it is to be discussed further at a congress of German princes at Rastatt. However Campio Formio has one widely popular result. It restores peace to contintental Europe for the first time in five years.
Now the only nation still at war with France is her traditional enemy, Britain. Napoleon is appointed commander of an army to be assembled for an invasion across the Channel. In Paris in December he settles down to detail.
Sixty specially designed gunboats and 250 fishing vessels are to convey an army of about 25,000 men from a dozen different embarkation points. Wolfe Tone, eager to arrange another French invasion of Ireland, is involved in the discussions. In February 1798 Napoleon sets off for a tour of the coast, from Normandy to Belgium, to inspect the preparations. What he sees, in the motley flotilla being assembled, convinces him that this is a most risky undertaking – both in itself and for his own reputation as a commander, invariably associated until now with success.
He tells the Directory that it is unwise to launch an attack on Britain until such time as France has command of the seas.
Napoleon finds it difficult to get out of this dangerous command without tendering a resignation which would in itself be damaging. The situation is only resolved when he proposes a much more exotic course of action. He argues that Britain is best attacked in the region of her underlying strength, that of the overseas empire. He suggests that a French seizure of Egypt would harm British communications with India and would add a rich and strategically placed colony to France’s own empire.
In March 1798 the Directors, perhaps welcoming the chance to send this popular and ambitious general far from the centre of power, approve his plan – as yet to be kept a closely guarded secret.
During the next two months, while troops continue to assemble on the Channel coast to conceal the change of plan, Napoleon puts together an invasion force against Egypt which is intended to have a glamorous profile. In addition to the regiments of troops he will be accompanied by distinguished scientists, academics and artists to study and report on this ancient oriental civilization. They cannot as yet be allowed to know where they are going. Even so, 150 of France’s most distinguished men of science accept Napoleon’s invitation.
Surprisingly soon, everything is ready. On May 19 some 400 vessels sail from Toulon and four other ports on their dangerous journey east.