June 18 marks the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great defeat at Waterloo, the battle in today’s Belgium that ended his career. Waterloo has since become a byword for a final crushing defeat. Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars were an important watershed in history and there is renewed interest in this period today.
The world of Napoleon, with its multiple great powers, shifting alliances, realpolitik, and need for battlefield skills more closely resembles the modern world than World War II or the Cold War. Therefore, a study of Napoleon is very relevant for today’s policymakers.
Napoleon was one of history’s greatest tacticians, though his abilities as a grand strategist and statesman were perhaps more limited—or at least subordinate to his ambition, that double-edged sword that both spurs men toward glory but also snatches it away from them. For a few years, from around 1805 to 1812, he was the undisputed master of Europe, yet by 1815, he was exiled to an isolated British island in the South Atlantic, having narrowly escaped being shot by the Prussians.
What happened? How did this genius end up on the path to downfall?
Here are five mistakes that doomed Napoleon.
Napoleon insults Talleyrand
Although Napoleon understood diplomacy and statecraft, he was definitely more adept as a soldier and administrator. Napoleon faired well diplomatically during the early period of his rule, however, this was due mostly to the skills of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.
Talleyrand was considered one of the most adept, skilled diplomats in European history—in 1815, he secured a peace for France that was extremely lenient considering the history of the previous two decades—but was also known for holding a grudge. Under his watch, and Napoleon’s military prowess, France was able to excel geopolitically because Talleyrand managed to prevent all of Europe’s powers from allying against France and got many countries to throw their lot in with Napoleon.
Napoleon, however, began to shut Talleyrand out of power because the latter was corrupt and grew rich through war related speculation (these charges were true). He also began to oppose Napoleon’s adventures in Spain and his harsh treatment of defeated Prussia and began “counseling” the Tsar and other foreign leaders. However, Talleyrand really turned against Napoleon sometime around 1808-1809 when Napoleon, suspecting him of treason, publically berated him, calling him a “shit in a silk stocking,” adding that he could “break him like a glass, but it's not worth the trouble.”
Surprisingly, Napoleon thought this was the end of the matter and continued seeking the services of Talleyrand, even restoring him to full power by 1813. During this time, Talleyrand passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others. Strangely enough, he was never caught and Napoleon seemed unaware of these activities, especially since Talleyrand had a personal reason to see Napoleon gone. Talleyrand continued to serve a number of French regimes and foreign powers for the rest of his life.
Napoleon embarks on the Peninsular War in Spain
Napoleon embarked on the Peninsular War in Spain—a long, unnecessary, guerilla struggle—that wore down his forces from 1808 to 1814. The Peninsular War marked the point where many of his enemies, both internally and externally, began to realize that Napoleon was overstretching and started working to bring him down. The Peninsular War led individuals such as Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Talleyrand, and the British general the Duke of Wellington to all realize that Napoleon did not know when to stop.
By 1807, France was at peace with all her neighbors minus the British, having defeated the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, coming to favorable terms with all of them. Napoleon was the master of Europe but he failed to convert this into a lasting peace.
The Peninsular War began initially because Napoleon wished to invade Portugal to prevent it from trading with Britain. As with the invasion of Russia, this was hardly necessary and cost far more than it was worth. In the process of invading Portugal, Napoleon also became involved in a succession issue between the Spanish king and his son and ended up placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne—an action that completely lacked foresight, failed to take the conditions and wishes of the Spanish into consideration, and smacked of nepotism from a man famed for promoting meritocracy.
Inexplicably, Napoleon would continue to promote and place members of his largely incompetent family on thrones throughout Europe, alienating many countries and bringing him little benefit. In Spain itself, French troops fought brutally against armed bands and civilian populations, leading to its estrangement from the population. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of French troops that could have been used elsewhere were bogged down in guerilla warfare against Spanish insurgents aided by British troops under Wellington for seven years.
Napoleon invades Russia
As is widely known today, invading Russia with a large army from the west is generally not a good idea. This was not as widely known in 1812, however, and having defeated the Russians in numerous pitched battles in Germany, Napoleon was confident of victory in Russia.
Napoleon’s first mistake was invading Russia at all: it was totally unnecessary. One of the primary reasons for the invasion was to enforce the Continental System, a blockade aimed at preventing the British from trading in any ports across the continent. Yet, the invasion of Russia strengthened the British position by providing it with an ally willing to openly trade with it. And the French goals were not nearly important enough to justify the invasion, which was overreach and hubris.
One he commenced his invasion of Russia with the 600,000-men strong Grande Armée, Napoleon failed to achieve the conditions required for a typical Napoleonic victory—utilizing his tactical genius to defeat his enemies in a pitched battle. Russian armies kept on retreating and refused to fight until the Battle of Borodino, near Moscow, which was indecisive.
Afterwards, Napoleon occupied Moscow but failed to take into account that the Russian way of waging war did not conform to his expectations. He thought that occupying Moscow would force the Russians to come to terms; instead the Russians burnt down Moscow. Napoleon simply could not cope with the combination of logistical challenges and issues of scale on a territory geographically and culturally distinct from the conditions he had mastered.
As a result, the normally goal-oriented Napoleon could not achieve his aims and was instead forced to retreat from a ruined Moscow in winter. A combination of weather, disease, desertion, and attacks reduced his army to less than 80,000 troops by the time they left Russia. To summarize the totality of Napoleon’s mistakes during the Russian Campaign: he was unable to adapt his brilliant thinking beyond the localized context of the battlefield.
Napoleon leaves Elba
After his first defeat and abdication in 1814, Napoleon was offered fairly generous terms for one who had earned the enmity of the other great powers of Europe. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, off the coast of Italy, but he was confirmed as the sovereign of that island, and had contact with many of his friends, family, and supporters throughout Europe. This was a much better deal than execution or his eventual fate as a semi-prisoner on St. Helena in 1815.
However, his fate was sealed when he escaped from Elba and returned to France, ensuring that he would not get such a deal again, as other European powers decided that he was too close for comfort and stability.
Napoleon should have never left Elba; the conditions for future victories were minimal, and he knew it. He took a big risk in returning to France, but he succeeded in regaining power there. However, even if he had won at Waterloo, it is doubtful he could have lasted in power for long because all the other powers of Europe were arrayed against him and had sworn to remain at war until his defeat. The armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia were all amassed on France’s borders, boxing Napoleon in. Napoleon’s prior victories were won when he took the initiative, striking away from France and when all his enemies were not coming at him at once.
Additionally, his enemies had adapted their tactics accordingly to defeat Napoleon and his Marshals and knew to go after the French armies without Napoleon at their head.
Napoleon is thought to have made multiple errors during the course of and run-up to Waterloo that sealed his fate. Napoleon left his best general, Louis-Nicolas Davout back in Paris to head the War Department instead of bringing him along to fight. Davout had single-handedly defeated the main Prussian army in 1806 at Auerstedt with only one corps, 28,000 French soldiers against 63,000 Prussian soldiers.
Instead, Napoleon brought with him another general, Michel Ney, who commanded the left wing of the French army at Waterloo. Ney’s cavalry are thought to have erred in charging British soldiers too late, not using infantry or artillery support, and failing to render the British cannons inoperable. It seems odd that Napoleon, being an obsessive micromanager, could overlook this aspect of the battle.