It has already been made clear that this work is not a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. For this there are a number of very good reasons. As was hinted at in the preface, the story of the life of this most famous of French rulers has generally not been told in a helpful way. A sense of chronology is established, certainly, but most of the authors are so concerned to rush from one battle or love interest to the next that they leave themselves with little space to place the battle of Austerlitz or Napoleon’s marriage to Marie Louise in their full political and diplomatic context. Still worse, as biography of Napoleon succeeds biography of Napoleon, very few advance understanding or even the historical record. With such works often highly derivative, we are left with the same old story, and what is more, a story in which a single highly coloured figure stands out against a background of murky monochromists. There are, it is true, rival works that take the opposite view and demonize Napoleon, but these too do little to explore the complexities of the situation in which he operated and tend rather to concentrate on the flaws of his character and the iniquities of his behaviour. This is not, however, the way to expound the story of Napoleon. Even if it is the case that the history of Europe between 1803 and 1815 could be reduced to such personal dimensions (which it cannot), the other actors and perspectives in the drama must needs be explored in their own right rather than simply existing as foils for the hero or villain. Biography still has its place, but it is noticeable that those biographies which are most useful as works of history - good examples are those of Lefebvre and Tulard - are the ones which are the thinnest in terms of their treatment of the details of Napoleon’s battles, loves and personal life.
Yet, for all that, we cannot entirely dispense with biographical detail. As is the case with many ‘great men’, the details that we have of Napoleon’s early life are not entirely reliable. Let us start, however, with what we know. Baptized as Napoleone Buonaparte, the future emperor of France was born in the Corsican capital of Ajaccio to a family of the petty nobility on 15 August 1769. Tales of the family’s poverty have probably been exaggerated: the house where Napoleon spent his early years was a substantial one and his mother, Letizia Remolino, brought his father, Carlo, a prominent legal official, a reasonable dowry. Money was not superabundant, but there was property and status: for two centuries the Buonapartes had been substantial members of the local oligarchy and in recent years they had acquired further weight by taking a leading role in the regime of Pasquale Paoli (see below). On St Helena, indeed, Napoleon was quite specific that his was not exactly a rags-to-riches story:
In my family . . . we spent practically nothing on food, except of course such groceries as coffee, sugar and rice, which did not come from Corsica. We grew everything else. The family owned a . . . mill to which all the villagers brought their flour to be milled, and they paid for this with a certain percentage of flour. We also had a communal bakehouse, the use of which was paid in fish . . . There were two olive groves in Ajaccio . . . One belonged to the Bonaparte family and the other to the Jesuits . . . The family also made its own wine.1
Even foreign conquest did not shake this prosperity. Carlo Buonaparte had no difficulty in ingratiating himself with the French when they annexed the island in 1768, not only retaining his various legal offices but also establishing himself as something of an interlocutor between his countrymen and their new masters. Though his children were numerous - Napoleon was the second of eight brothers and sisters, not to mention five more who died as infants or at a very early age - there was therefore no difficulty in procuring an adequate education for at least the five boys and, beyond that, the promise of service with the Bourbon state (indeed, even Elise, the eldest daughter, was found a place at an exclusive college outside Paris).
So much for the bare facts, but what of the young boy himself? Inevitably, no sooner had Napoleon risen to power, than all sorts of stories were going the rounds about his childhood, and from this distance it is quite impossible to separate fact from fiction. But from all the tales of the boy-tyrant who bullied everyone and vandalized every object that came to hand, the boy-general who led his playmates in mock-battle, the boy-womanizer who walked to school hand-in-hand with pretty girls, and the boy-patriot who criticized his father for not having followed Paoli into exile - tales, we are told, at which he ‘used to laugh heartily’2 - various things do stand out. First of all, Napoleon seems to have been starved of love by his parents (though affectionate enough, his father was often absent on official business, while his mother was a singularly austere woman, who treated her children with considerable harshness). Secondly, desperate for the approval and attention for which he had to compete with his numerous siblings, Napoleon expressed his frustration by turning to violence in an attempt to secure first place amongst them, the chief victim of this campaign being his unfortunate elder brother, Joseph. Thirdly, this same desire for recognition led to an ambition and hunger for success that was remarked on by all who met him. Fourthly, frequent beatings reinforced this obsession with power and at the same time encouraged him to become a habitual liar. And lastly, dissatisfaction and insecurity produced a dreamer: from an early age fascinated by history, there seems little doubt that Napoleon was a ‘loner’ who often retired for long periods to his room to indulge his love of reading and at the same time indulge himself with dreams of escape and heroism. To quote Chaptal:
His mother often told me that . . . Napoleon never took part in the games played by other children of his age, and that he on the contrary took pains to avoid them. Given a little room of his own whilst still very young on the third floor of the house, he would often shut himself up on his own. Not even coming down to eat with the family, he would read constantly, and especially works of history.3
Was anything added to this volatile mixture by Napoleon’s Corsican background? According to some accounts the answer is very clearly ‘yes’. Napoleon, we learn, grew up imbued with a deep sense of honour and a prodigious love of display that owed their origins to an obsession with status typical of Corsican society. To this was added a fierce clan loyalty that inspired him constantly to seek the advancement of his family and, in addition, to feel a responsibility for the welfare of each of its individual members, not to mention a deep-seated spirit of adventure that had led many Corsicans to seek their fortunes by turning corsair or soldier of fortune. And finally there were the linked issues of egalitarianism and justice for all: in Corsica, even noble families such as the Buonapartes were not set so very far apart from the mass of the populace, while poor and not so poor alike could justifiably feel deep resentment at the island’s long history of conquest, exploitation and neglect. However, there is little here that fills the observer with much confidence. Much more important is the issue of the Paoli regime of
1755-69 . As a possession of the Republic of Genoa, Corsica had by the early eighteenth century become affected by a variety of grievances, and in 1729 the island rose in revolt. Long years of stalemate followed and by the middle years of the century it appeared that the Corsican cause was spent. Early in 1755, however, Pasquale Paoli, a junior officer in the Neapolitan army who was the younger brother of one of the chief leaders of the insurrection, returned to the island. By all accounts a remarkable figure, Paoli quickly placed himself at the head of the revolt and managed to rekindle his feuding and disunited countrymen’s enthusiasm for the struggle. Military victory was not obtained - the Genoese could never be eradicated from the main coastal fortresses - but Paoli did succeed in creating a functioning state and, what is more, a state that for a short time secured the admiration of many of the leading figures of the age. Inspired by the writings of Montesquieu, the Corsican leader promulgated a written constitution that proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, established a parliament that was in part elected by universal manhood suffrage, in part elected by the clergy, and in part chosen by Paoli himself; and greatly restricted his authority as de facto president. But if he could in this fashion establish Corsica’s political credentials as the home of liberty, and thereby win the admiration of such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Boswell, he could not save Corsica from conquest: in 1768 Genoa ceded control of the island to France, and within a year Bourbon troops had crushed all resistance.
What, if anything, did all this give Napoleon? In terms of youthful inspiration, at least, a great deal. The involvement of his father with Paoli - he had risen to be his secretary and accompanied him in his desperate defence of the island against the French - was a source of pride to the young Corsican, as well as an object lesson in how to make personal capital from an age of political turmoil. At the same time, too, it both sharpened his own dreams of glory and provided him with a focus for his ambition. Yet more important than anything else was the figure of Pasquale Paoli himself, who Napoleon undoubtedly viewed as an important role model: according to Las Cases, the Corsican leader ‘for a long time inspired something of a cult in him’.4 As the future emperor told his schoolfriend, Bourrienne, ‘Paoli was a great man; he loved his country.’5 Many years later, he was to use almost the same words, telling one of his visitors on St Helena that he was ‘a fine character’ who was ‘always for his country’.6 But Paoli was not just a patriot. An intensely charismatic figure, a gallant soldier and a wise legislator, he won the devotion of his followers, the respect of his enemies and the plaudits of the philosophes. At the same time Paoli was the archetypal saviour-figure: the great man who had come from nowhere to save the Corsican rebellion, lead it to glory and finally go down to defeat in the face of overwhelming odds. But, above all, the Corsican leader was also a man who manipulated his status as national hero for his own ends, stealthily increasing his own power while appearing at all times to be operating within the pseudo-democratic traditions of the insurrection which he headed. Even if much of this was not apparent to the young Napoleon until later years, it was, beyond doubt, a heady mix. Asked whether Paoli was a good general by one of his masters, the then schoolboy is supposed to have replied, ‘He is, sir, and I want to grow up like him.’7
Thus far, it has been difficult to write of the French ruler with much certainty. As his secretary later observed, ‘Each of us . . . without ceasing to be honest, can show a different Napoleon.’8 Beyond the early years, however, the story becomes clearer. In December 1778 he left his native island for the first time and sailed to France, where, after four months spent learning French at a clerical school at Autun, he entered the military academy at Brienne. Albeit largely in retrospect, at this point his life begins to be observed in more detail. His first chronicler was his fellow student, Louis de Bourrienne, who was to go on to serve Napoleon as his military secretary between 1798 and 1802. Like many memoirs of the period, Bourrienne’s recollections are notoriously unreliable, being not only ghostwritten but marred by personal enmity (dismissed from his position for embezzlement, Bourrienne developed a deep sense of resentment towards his former master). Published under the Bourbons, the memoirs were also marked by a desire to secure the favour of the Restoration and expunge the stain of service with Napoleon. Yet the picture that Napoleon’s schoolfellow paints of the boy who arrived at Brienne in May 1779 has a certain ring of truth to it, and all the more so as it is in large part confirmed by several less well-known memoirs. Relatively poor - he was only at the academy at all because his father had used his contacts with the occupying authorities to obtain a government bursary - intense, physically unprepossessing, desperately home-sick and barely able to speak French, Napoleone Buonaparte was a classic outsider. Nor did he help his own case, adopting a prickly manner and flying to the defence of the Corsican cause at the slightest provocation. ‘His conversation,’ wrote Bourrienne, ‘almost always bore the appearance of ill humour, and he was certainly not very sociable.’9 Hardly surprisingly, the result was that he was at first the butt of a great deal of insensitivity and bullying. Few of his teachers took much interest in him as a scholar and he was forever being teased. Nor was there any escape: not only were the students all boarders, but the six-year course was devoid of holidays. Whether the young Corsican really led his fellow students in a great snowball fight conducted on the lines of a mock-battle, or took on single-handed a group of older cadets who had trampled a vegetable garden he had cultivated, or threw a violent tantrum rather than submit to a particularly brutal punishment, or was sacked from the command of a company in the college’s cadet corps for his haughty demeanour, is beside the point. All that really matters is that once again we see a Napoleon for whom struggle was a psychological necessity, a Napoleon who was completely cut off from both his family and the outside world, and a Napoleon who sought solace in books which assuaged his bitterness and frustration. To quote Bourrienne again, ‘Bonaparte was not liked by his companions . . . He associated but little with them, and rarely took part in their amusements . . . During play-hours he withdrew to the library, where he read with great eagerness works of history, particularly Polybius and Plutarch.’10
All this made the Brienne years an important period in Napoleon’s early life. Only at mathematics did he really shine as a scholar, but his voracious reading gave him sufficient general knowledge to acquire a certain sense of superiority over his classmates. Added to this, of course, was the fact that he was a Corsican, and therefore in his eyes a cut above the rest of humanity. For this we must thank Rousseau and Boswell, both of whom he devoured enthusiastically, but these were not the only authors who shaped his adolescent thinking. Fascinated by the ancients, he read all the works on Greece and Rome that he could find and, thanks in part to the works of Plutarch, became more and more impressed by the caesars. Dazzled by the concept of absolute power - significantly, he is recorded as having regarded the murderers of Julius Caesar not as heroes but as traitors - he also became obsessed by the concept of patriotism, as expounded by the French dramatist Corneille. It was very much the stuff of dreams, and the result was a youthful messiah complex: in company with Paoli, whom he still idolized, Napoleon would return to Corsica and free it from the hated French. But if he did so, it would not be as a believing Catholic: though taught by priests, the future emperor increasingly came to challenge their doctrines. What sense, for example, could be made of a creed that automatically condemned the great men of Greece and Rome to eternal damnation? Was the result of this loss of faith, as some have argued, a void that Napoleon needed to fill with some other deity? If so, then the fatherland was an obvious candidate, and all the more so given his exposure to Rousseau’s notions of the ‘general will’. But to argue that the young Corsican needed an ideal seems foolhardy: already a confirmed misanthrope by the time that he graduated from Brienne in 1784, he had all the stimulus he needed in his own ambition and sense of self-worth.
Brienne was followed by just under a year at the École Royale Militaire in Paris. This academy was the very pinnacle of ancien régime military education and at the same time an institution which gave very strong preference to the sons of army officers and denied entry to anyone who could not prove that their forebears had been noble for at least four generations. The issue of nobility was not a problem - the Buonapartes had excellent credentials - but that of service in the officer corps was quite another, and as such it seems likely that here at least the legend is true: as Buonaparte senior had never been an officer, his son can be assumed to have obtained his position at the École Militaire by means of his intellectual prowess alone. As with his years at Brienne, Napoleon’s experiences in Paris are shrouded in legend. All that is known for certain is that the young Corsican’s father died of stomach cancer a few months after he was admitted to the École Militaire, and that, with his family now in some financial difficulty, he decided to attempt to cram the normal two full years of study into just one (a fact that may explain why he eventually graduated as the forty-second in his class). But, if many of the anecdotes told about this period are again distinctly dubious, there seems little doubt that the impact of Napoleon’s early years went unredeemed. If his father died, for example, it merely heightened his ambition: distrusting the easy-going Joseph - the ‘gentle Buonaparte’ - he saw the loss as an opportunity to take over the role of head of the household and restore the fortunes of his family. As obsessed with the cause of Corsican independence as ever - apart from anything else, support for his homeland was a useful means of expressing the instinctive desire of any sixteen-year-old to revolt against his father - he also remained the butt of both official disapproval and much coarse humour. Nor did it help that there was little improvement in either his looks or his stature: if the highly unreliable Laure Permon is to be believed, he looked so ridiculous that she nicknamed him ‘Puss-in-Boots’. As for the product of all this, it was a mixture of frustration, arrogance, pride, hauteur and ambition. And there was still the same brooding introversion: a young woman who met him on a felucca sailing between Ajaccio and Toulon in 1788 remembered ‘an ungracious little fellow’ with ‘an unpleasant face’ who had his nose stuck in a book the whole time and was so rude that a fellow passenger remarked that he should be thrown into the sea.11 Also present was a barely suppressed violence: apparently fancying himself as a man of letters, Napoleon wrote a series of stories in which gruesome murders alternated with wholesale bloodbaths. Lust after fame on the battlefield though he might, he was not just, to paraphrase Wilfred Owen, a young man eager for some desperate glory, but also a young man filled with hatred and resentment.
Whatever the impact of his years as a cadet may have been on his psychology, by the time that Napoleon was commissioned in the artillery as a sub-lieutenant in the autumn of 1785, he had fallen under the sway of the vague political radicalism that was beginning to grip much of educated opinion in France. After all, as a junior officer and a scion of the petty nobility, he was a member of not one but two groups that had serious concerns regarding their prospects and status in the France of the ancien régime, while, if only because of the Genevan writer’s eulogization of Paoli’s Corsica, he was also an avid reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Yet, still possessed of the closest ties with his homeland - in the three and a half years that passed before the coming of the Revolution, he had spent almost two on leave with his family - Napoleon remained a Corsican revolutionary rather than a French one, and was inclined to interpret reform in a way that reflected the needs of his homeland. For France, then, he cared not a whit except to the extent that revolution in Paris would spell freedom in Ajaccio. Nor were the so-called principles of 1789 of much concern to him. What mattered was rather the power of the state. In brief, to be free, Corsica would have to be strong, and if she wished to be strong, then she would also have to have a reformed administration in the style of that of Paoli, for only thus could she be guaranteed the men and resources necessary to defend herself. So much for Corsica, but what of Napoleon? In the short term he would fulfil the role of the ageing leader’s right-hand man, but Paoli would not live for ever - he had been born in 1725- and it is not difficult to see the direction in which the young artilleryman’s thoughts were heading. Napoleon would not just restore il babbo - ‘the grandfather’ - as he was called, but supplant him and even become him. In short, what really attracted him to the cause of revolution was the linked figures of the saviour and the enlightened absolutist: as the one, he would return in triumph to Corsica and liberate her from the rule of Paris, and as the other he would preside over a new regime that would put all to rights, in which guise he would rule as a benevolent dictator. Power, of course, was not to be abused - the new messiah would rule in accordance with a constitution and never exercise his might other than in the service of the people as a whole. But these disclaimers do not carry much weight: for all his denunciations of despotism, his heroes - aside from Paoli - remained Frederick the Great of Prussia, Julius Caesar and the Athenian soldier-statesman, Alcibiades. And, if he had indeed read and admired Rousseau, it is worth pointing out that the Genevan writer could be read as an apostle of darker creeds than democracy: implicit in the notion of the general will is a vision of absolute power that could not but appeal to a would-be saviour.
When revolution came in 1789, then, Napoleon saw it primarily as a moment when history might be rolled back and Corsica freed. Obtaining yet another leave of absence from his regiment’s headquarters at Auxonne, where he had been on duty for the last ten months, in September he therefore again set off for Ajaccio. On reaching home, he found the island’s politics in confusion. For some of his compatriots - for the most part men who came from clans that had found themselves excluded from favour in the years of de facto independence - the way forward lay in the extension to Corsica of the same rights obtained by the metropolis in July 1789, and they therefore rallied to the Revolution, being eventually rewarded by a decree that made the island one with the rest of France. But for others, the answer rather lay in the return of the exiled Paoli and, by extension, a fresh revolt. On top of all this, the introduction in Corsica of the same system of local government as that which now made its appearance on the mainland provoked a furious outburst of intrigue and faction fighting. Through all this Napoleon negotiated his way with considerable opportunism, but rather less success. While his aim remained national independence, simply to raise the standard of revolt was unthinkable, and so Napoleon chose a more pragmatic course. Under his leadership the Bonapartes would seize control of the levers of power in Corsica while at the same time playing the part of Paris’s chief agents in Corsica and using this position of trust to petition for the return of Paoli. This last was soon obtained, and on 14 July il babbo landed near Bastia, and was then quickly elected both to the command-in-chief of the Corsican national guard and to the presidency of the council of the department of France which the island now constituted. At this point, however, things went wrong. Already alienated by Napoleon’s commission in the army, the old leader was deeply offended when Napoleon made some trenchant public criticisms of his defence of Corsica against the French in 1769. Far from becoming Paoli’s right-hand man, Napoleon found himself out in the cold, the result being that in February 1791 he had no option but to return to his regiment at Auxonne.
Back in France Napoleon played the part of the tribune of the people, and so exasperated his royalist commanding officer that he had him transferred to another unit at Valence. Here he continued his revolutionary activities, becoming secretary of the local Jacobin club, taking a prominent part in a variety of public ceremonies, and encouraging the purchase of the biens nationaux. But all this was at best a manoeuvre designed to keep his options open: beneath the surface Napoleon had not abandoned his hopes of securing the patronage of Paoli. His erstwhile hero spurned his advances, however, and thus it was that in the autumn of 1791 Napoleon again applied for leave and returned home, where he set about securing a commission in the famous ‘volunteers of
1791’. In April 1792 success was achieved in the shape of a lieutenantcolonelcy in the second battalion raised in Corsica (albeit not without the assistance of a certain degree of bribery and ballot-rigging). Meanwhile, Joseph had become mayor of Ajaccio’s town council. But acceptance by Paoli remained as far off as ever and Napoleon knew that his continued absence in Corsica was jeopardizing his commission in the regular army. When the local Jacobins decided to stage a showdown with their political opponents, he therefore had little option but to lend them the support of his troops. However, the plan failed and, with the radicals forced to back down, Napoleon had to restore his position in the metropolis. As he had now been suspended from the army list, this meant heading for Paris, especially as his political opponents in Corsica were busily engaged in pretending that he was somehow a counter-revolutionary. In the end everything was resolved: pardoned for his actions and reinstated as a regular officer, Napoleon was promoted to captain and given permission to return to Corsica yet again, this time on the pretext that he had to escort his sister Elise back to her homeland after the closure of the ladies’ academy she had been attending in the capital.
Napoleon had clearly played his cards sufficiently well to keep in with Paris. But that did not mean that he was happy. On the contrary, his visit to the capital had coincided with the violent risings of 20 June and
10 August 1792, and these understandably left him not only with a deep fear of popular violence, but also convinced him that the Jacobins were playing with fire. As he wrote to Joseph, ‘The Jacobins are fools who have no common sense.’12 In short, the future ostensibly lay with Corsica, but Napoleon was more out of favour there than ever, for Paoli was increasingly alarmed by the direction events were taking. To advance the interests of his family, his erstwhile admirer therefore had no option but to take the side of the Jacobin party in the island, and all the more so as the Jacobins were now in control in Paris. In doing so, however, he does not appear to have deceived his own family. ‘I have always descried in Napoleon,’ wrote his brother Lucien, ‘an ambition that, whilst not wholly egotistic, surpasses his love of the public good . . . Given a [fresh] revolution, Napoleon would strain every nerve to maintain his position, whilst I even believe him capable of turning his coat if that is what is required to make his fortune.’13 As the future emperor later reminisced, it was ‘a fine time for an enterprising young man’.14
Whatever the truth may have been, from here it was but a short step to a breach with Paoli. According to Napoleon’s own account, the Corsican leader was now scheming with the British to deliver the island into their hands. No such plot was afoot - there seems to have been no contact between Paoli and the British until April 1793 and even then the approach came not from Paoli but the British. As for the idea that Paoli suggested the future emperor should seek a career in the British army, this is pure invention. If relations between the two were very frosty, it was rather because Paoli had increasingly fallen under the influence of traditional rivals of the Bonapartes, of which the most notable was the Pozzo di Borgo clan. Following an unsuccessful expedition against Sardinia, a territory of the hostile state of Piedmont, the resentment on both sides finally exploded. On the one hand, Napoleon hinted that Paoli had deliberately sabotaged the expedition, while on the other Paoli accused the Jacobins of forcing him into ordering a hopeless attack in order to provide a pretext for his arrest and execution. Whatever the reality of the situation, the affair plunged Corsica into open conflict. In this situation the Bonapartes and their allies had no chance. Increasingly the weaker faction in Corsican politics, the Jacobins were routed, leaving Napoleon and his entire family no option but to flee to the French mainland.
The breach with Paoli, and with it the loss of his family estates, ended Napoleon’s Corsican dreams for good. Henceforward he would be French and, for the moment at least, a Jacobin: only weeks after his arrival in France he was penning Le Souper de Beaucaire, an imagined conversation between himself and a number of local civilians in which he expatiated on the evils of the so-called federalist revolt that was then gripping much of France, and defended the actions of the government forces that had just stormed Avignon. As for Corsica and its ruler, all loyalty to them was expunged: Napoleon never returned to his homeland and rarely spoke of it except with disdain, while Le Souper de Beaucaire and a previous pamphlet published virtually simultaneously with his flight into exile heaped scorn upon his sometime idol and accused him of treason, thereby exonerating the Bonaparte clan of the charge of betrayal.
This vehemence, however, is all too transparent. On one level, it was a classic instance of how love can turn overnight to hatred: there is no reason to doubt that Napoleon’s failure in Corsica came as a very severe blow to his ego, while at the same time causing him real sadness. At the same time, if Napoleon was now a Frenchman and a Jacobin, it was simply because he had nowhere else to go, and no other way of advancing his career - a career, incidentally, that seemed likely to be greatly boosted by the large numbers of army officers who had fled France since 1789.
Set against this is the fact that he had been espousing radical political views since his days as an officer cadet. Yet, as we have seen, those closest to him never trusted his sincerity in this respect, whilst to the very end he seems to have believed that he could win over Paoli to his way of thinking. One is left then with a picture of the most cynical calculation: love of Corsica was replaced not by love of France but love of Napoleon. For the moment that meant there must be much play-acting. Like most other works of their sort, the memoirs of Paul de Barras are not wholly to be trusted. Even so the picture that he paints of his first meeting with Napoleon is certainly plausible:
Bonaparte offered me a few copies of a pamphlet recently written by him, which he had had printed at Avignon, at the same time begging my permission to distribute it among the officers and privates of the Republican army. Carrying a huge bundle of them, he remarked while handing them round, ‘This will show you whether or not I am a patriot! Can any man be too much of a revolutionist? Marat and Robespierre are my saints!’15
Whatever the truth of this story, there is no doubt that Napoleon’s tactics worked. Fortunately for him, one of the three représentants en mission whom the Convention had elected to send to the Marseilles area in the summer of 1793 was Antoine-Christophe Saliceti. An old friend of Joseph who had represented Corsica in the National Assembly, he had become the de facto leader of the island’s Jacobins. Operating very much in the spirit of Corsican clan loyalty, he now befriended the Bonapartes. At his urging the Convention voted the family substantial financial compensation, while Joseph was found a post as an assistant commissary on the staff of the army that had been sent to subdue the Midi under General Carteaux. As for Napoleon, his efforts as a propagandist were lauded to the skies in Saliceti’s dispatches to Paris and on 16 September he was given command of the guns supporting the army besieging Toulon. Of the famous episode that followed, it is necessary to say very little in so far as the actual fighting is concerned, though Napoleon undoubtedly not only showed both courage and decision, but also considerably hastened the fall of the city. What does deserve comment is the egocentrism that he displayed in the course of the affair. Napoleon, it seems, knew best, and lost no time in letting his opinions be known. Thanks to his complaints, the first commander of the besieging army, General Carteaux, was replaced and imprisoned, while his successor, General Dugommier, eventually became so irritated by his constant interventions that he had to order him to mind his own business and confine his attention to the artillery. Coupled with all this were clear signs of a desire to play to the gallery. Napoleon appeared amidst his gunners to direct their fire in person, slept on the ground wrapped up in a cloak, made a particularly gallant sergeant an officer on the spot (the man in question was the future General Junot), cultivated the friendship of a small ‘band of brothers’ that included such men as Victor, Marmont and Duroc, and finally proved his physical courage by taking part in the final assault on horseback, when his place as commander of the artillery was rather in the rear. Whether he deserved the renown that he won in the course of the fighting is debatable, but the truth hardly mattered. Hero or not, he had made his name.
It was at Toulon that my reputation began. All the generals, representatives and soldiers who had heard me give my opinions in the different councils three months before the taking of the town, anticipated my future military career . . . In the Army of the Pyrenees, Dugommier was always talking about his commander of artillery at Toulon, and his high opinion was impressed on the minds of all the generals and officers who afterwards went . . . to the Army of Italy.16
Well, perhaps. According to Bourrienne, ‘The news of the taking of Toulon caused a sensation . . . throughout France, the more lively as such success was unexpected and almost unhoped for.’17 But Napoleon’s new comrade-in-arms, Marmont, thought very differently. As he later wrote, ‘[Napoleon] had made his name through his actions, but the latter did not possess sufficient éclat for his reputation to be carried beyond the ranks of the army in which he was serving; if his name was spoken of with esteem and respect, it was unknown in Paris and even Lyon.’18 And the aftermath was not as flattering to Napoleon as he would have liked. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier, but the French propaganda machine heaped praise not upon him but rather on Saliceti, while if Dugommier, Saliceti and Robespierre’s brother Augustin (like Saliceti a représentant en mission in the Midi) all lauded him to the skies in their dispatches, he was not accorded the prominence in operations that he felt he deserved. Nor were his plans for future operations adopted. Though still only formally second-in-command of artillery of the Army of Italy, the new general was eager to obtain a major role in the formation to which he was attached and bombarded Paris with schemes for an offensive against the Piedmontese. At the same time he did everything he could to secure the favour of Augustin Robespierre and his colleague, Ricord. To quote Barras:
From the time Bonaparte joined the first Army of Italy . . . he desired and systematically sought to get to the top of the ladder by all possible means. Fully convinced that women constituted a powerful aid, he assiduously paid court to the wife of Ricord, knowing that she exercised great influence over Robespierre the Younger . . . He pursued Madame Ricord with all kinds of attentions, picking up her gloves, holding her fan, holding with profound respect her bridle and stirrup when she mounted her horse, accompanying her in her walks hat in hand, and seeming to tremble continually lest some accident befall her.19
To return to the military situation, such politicking did Napoleon no good. In the first months of 1794 the most pressing danger was not the Piedmontese, but the large Spanish army that had crossed the eastern Pyrenees and was occupying southern Roussillon. To move against this force, Napoleon claimed, would be a mistake, but his reasons for taking this line - the supposed danger of a national insurrection and the logistical and geographic difficulties posed by operations in Spain - are difficult to accept at face value in view of what was to occur in 1808. To quote Barras again, ‘Bonaparte . . . while engrossed entirely with his own interests, believed he was merely anxious for the public weal.’20 As it became clear that all Napoleon cared about was glory, no account was taken of his arguments; on the contrary, the Army of the eastern Pyrenees was reinforced and ordered to expel the Spaniards from French soil and march on Barcelona. With the aid of plans worked out by Napoleon, some success was achieved on the Italian frontier in a series of minor campaigns that culminated in a victory over the Piedmontese at Dego, but there was neither the will nor the men to sustain the advance, and at the end of September the invaders fell back to their start line.
For Napoleon, then, success at Toulon was followed by frustration. His opportunistic schemes to advance his career had been blocked and, worse, he had fallen from favour in Paris. At the time of the battle of Dego, he had not even been with the French forces. The reason for this transformation in his fortunes was the fall of Robespierre in July 1794.
Thanks to the fact that the repŕesentant en mission attached to the Army of Italy happened to be Augustin Robespierre and, further, that the latter had taken him under his wing as a rising star, Napoleon had become more closely associated with the Terror than was wise. For this he now paid the price. First to move against him was his patron Saliceti, who was attached to the Army of the Alps rather than the Army of Italy and seems to have become eager to cut his protégé down to size. Terrified by the manner in which many southern towns were erupting against anyone linked with the Robespierres - there were massacres in Marseilles, Aix and Nimes - the Corsican seized on the fact that Napoleon had just participated in a secret mission to the neutral Republic of Genoa as an excuse to arrest him, the mere fact that he had crossed the frontier being sufficient to suggest that he must be involved in some foreign plot. That there was no case against Napoleon is beside the point and for a few days he was in deadly danger. In the end Saliceti relented and proclaimed his innocence, apparently on the grounds that having his sometime friend and client executed would not win him any favours with the new government in Paris, but Napoleon was not allowed to rejoin the army. Instead, he was given the thankless and in the end futile task of drawing up plans for an invasion of Corsica. Even in love he was unsuccessful, a bid to make the daughter of a wealthy local nobleman his wife being firmly rejected on the grounds of lack of prospects.
Frustration, then, was heaped on frustration, and all the more so as 1794 had been a year in which France had triumphed on all fronts. Aided by a series of great victories, her armies had cleared the Spaniards from Roussillon, occupied the northern fringes of Catalonia, seized the Rhineland and definitively reconquered Belgium. With some of the forces involved in these campaigns very large indeed, Toulon was beginning to look like very small beer. And, of course, it was yesterday’s news: the heroes of the hour were now not Napoleon, but Pichegru and Jourdan. At the beginning of 1795, then, Napoleon was a bitterly frustrated man.
A second romance - this time with the sister of Joseph Bonaparte’s wife, Julie Clery - was making no better progress than the first one, while the expedition to Corsica was dispersed by a British naval squadron. On top of this there then came a posting to command the artillery of the Army of the West in distant Brittany. For the time being relatively quiet, the west was hardly a welcome billet for a soldier of fortune, and Napoleon therefore immediately set off for Paris to attempt to secure something better. However, the Minister of War was a moderate who had not forgiven Napoleon his association with the Robespierres, and the only response was a switch to an infantry brigade. In response to this demotion, Napoleon claimed that he was ill - on sick leave he would at least be able to remain in Paris and cast around for something better. By all accounts it was a miserable time. The cost of living was very high, and Napoleon was forced to live very frugally in the most miserable of lodgings; indeed, he would not have been able to survive at all had not Joseph, who had retained his post in the commissariat, sent him occasional remittances. Privation and worry, meanwhile, told on his physical appearance. The future General Thiébault, for example, remembered him as ‘a little man . . . looking nothing but a victim [whose] untidy dress, long, lank hair and . . . worn-out dress . . . betrayed his straits’, whilst Laure Junot’s memories were very similar.
At this point in his life Napoleon was ugly . . . His skin was so yellow . . . and he looked after himself so little, that, with his uncombed and badly powdered hair, he had a disagreeable aspect. His small hands . . . were thin . . . and grimy . . . Whenever I compare the picture that I have of Napoleon entering the courtyard of the Hotel de la Tranquillité . . . with an awkward and uncertain step, wearing a cheap round hat rammed down over his eyes, from which two ‘spaniels ears’ of unkempt hair fell over the collar of the same iron-grey overcoat that later became so glorious a banner . . . and boots that were as poorly made as they were cared for, with the one which I saw later on, I can scarcely believe that I am seeing the same man.21
Not for the first time in his career, Napoleon was soon contemplating suicide. Something of his misery comes across in the account of Bourrienne, with whom he now took up once again.
It was with pain that he resolved to wait patiently the removal of the prejudices which men in power had entertained against him, and he hoped that in the perpetual changes that were taking place power would at length pass into the hands of those who would be disposed to consider him with favour . . . He now became thoughtful, frequently melancholy and disturbed, and he . . . envied the good fortune of his brother, Joseph, who had just married Mademoiselle Clery, the daughter of a rich and respectable merchant at Marseilles . . . Meanwhile, time passed away, but nothing was done: his projects were unsuccessful, and his applications unattended to. This injustice embittered his spirit, and he was tormented with the desire to do something. To remain in the crowd was intolerable. He resolved to leave France, and the favourite idea . . . that the east was the most certain path to glory, inspired him with the desire to proceed to Constantinople, and to make a tender of his services to the [sultan].22
All this produced growing levels of resentment. On the one hand Napoleon reminisced fondly about Toulon and talked wildly of his ‘star’, while on the other he broke out in tirades against Saliceti, whom he held to be the cause of all his ills, and muttered about the posturing dandies known as incroyables who filled the streets. To all the other stimuli driving Napoleon forward there was therefore now added the desire for revenge, whether it was on the civilian politicians who had held back his career or on the society that had seemed so fickle in its appreciation of him. The urge was not necessarily personal: Saliceti, for example, was later treated with great generosity by Napoleon, who not only intervened to save him from imprisonment after the coup of 18 Brumaire, but gave him a series of important political and diplomatic appointments in Italy. But of his desire for vindication, there was no doubt: one day, he swore, he would command the streets of Paris, streets that were meanwhile quickly killing off what little was left of his youthful idealism. In the wake of the fall of puritanical Robespierre, monied society had been gripped by a wave of relief that manifested itself in hedonism, ostentation and a visible loosening of sexual mores. Costume became extravagant in the extreme, while men and women alike positively gloried in their promiscuity. ‘At this time,’ wrote a young army officer, ‘the disorganization of society reached its height. Rank had disappeared; wealth had changed hands. As it was still dangerous to boast of one’s birth . . . the new-rich . . . set the fashion, and to all the oddities of a faulty upbringing these people joined the absurdities of a patronage devoid of dignity . . . This taste for the arts . . . had the result of affecting the fashions, and even the habits, of the capital with the most bare-faced licence . . . One would not have believed it, unless one had seen it oneself, but charming women of good education and birth wore flesh-coloured trousers and . . . dresses of transparent muslin with their bosoms bare and their arms naked to the shoulder, and so appeared in public places.’23 Meanwhile, with the defence of property the chief order of the day, its acquisition became a matter that was only slightly less pressing: speculation and corruption knew no bounds. With all this going on against a background of the most utter misery, the effect was to promote the most far-reaching cynicism: liberty, fraternity and equality might still be paid lip service, but it was clear that, at best, they had become mere slogans. Nor was any of this lost on Napoleon. To quote a letter he wrote to Joseph, ‘There is only one thing to do in this world, and that is to keep acquiring money and more money, power and more power. All the rest is meaningless.’24
Be that as it may, it was not long before Napoleon’s faith in his star was rewarded. Exactly what happened is unclear, but, one way or another, in September 1795 Napoleon found himself on the staff of the army’s Bureau Topographique, the embryonic general staff established in 1793 by Lazare Carnot. In this capacity he was immediately put forward as the head of a military mission to Ottoman Turkey, but there was some delay in ratifying the appointment and Napoleon himself was therefore still in Paris when on 3 October the city erupted in revolt against the new executive government, known as the Directory, that had just been installed in the capital by virtue of the freshly promulgated Constitution of 1795. The Vendémiaire rising, as it became known, was a serious military threat, involving thousands of disaffected members of the National Guard. Hastily placed under the command of the leading politician, Paul de Barras, as the Army of the Interior, the defenders were outnumbered and disorganized, and for a moment it seemed that they might be overwhelmed. However, all the men available for action were concentrated around the Tuileries palace, and when the insurgents attacked they were met by the famous ‘whiff of grapeshot’. Among the defenders was Napoleon, who appears to have come forward to offer his services to Barras, and then been given the position of his aide-de-camp or, possibly, second-in-command. As such he displayed much courage and energy. According to Thiébault, ‘From the first his activity was astonishing: he seemed to be everywhere at once . . . He surprised people further by his laconic, clear and prompt orders, imperative to the last degree. Everybody was struck also by the vigour of his arrangements, and passed from admiration to confidence, from confidence to enthusiasm. ’25Yet it is clearly not true that he directed the resistance, or that, in Carlyle’s phrase, he was commandant to Barras’s commandant’s cloak: even by his own account, for example, it was not himself but Barras who took the initiative in ordering up the cannon that dispersed the rebels.
But this is scarcely to the point. Within a very short time, the impression had spread that it was the young Corsican who had saved the Revolution. In this development Barras himself played a considerable role, for it suited him to justify his earlier support for Napoleon. Also helpful was Louis Fréron, a leading Thermidorian who had cooperated with Barras in the pacification of the south in 1793 and was now pursuing the beautiful Pauline Bonaparte. Meanwhile, Napoleon himself played his cards with considerable skill, on the one hand affecting an air of modesty and reluctance when the officers who had defeated the revolt were presented to the Convention, and on the other attaching himself firmly to Barras, through whom he was to secure an entrée to the most fashionable salons of Paris. Nor did he at this point cultivate the air of a conqueror. ‘I can still see his little hat,’ reminisced Thiébault, ‘surmounted by a chance plume badly fastened on, his tricolour sash more than carelessly tied, his coat cut anyhow, and a sword which in truth did not seem the sort of weapon to make his fortune.’26 Vendémiaire became his salvation. With Barras elected to the presidency of the Directory, on 26 October Napoleon was appointed to the command of the Army of the Interior with the rank of major-general. To quote Bourrienne, Vendémiaire ‘brought Bonaparte forward and elevated him above the crowd’.27
At the same time, the ‘whiff of grapeshot’ was formative in another sense. From the very beginning of the Revolution it is clear that Napoleon was contemptuous of the crowd as a political force. In his eyes it was a mere mob, lacking in organization, that could easily be overawed by an opponent possessed of military discipline and firm leadership. Had Louis XVI appeared on horseback to defend the Tuileries in 1792, he told Joseph, the palace would never have fallen. But the principle was political as much as it was military: the mob had to be defeated. Uncivilized and brutal, in Napoleon’s eyes it would inevitably run amok the moment the bounds of order and discipline were relaxed. Indeed, as an eyewitness to the storming of the Tuileries in August 1792 he had seen the ferocity of which it was capable all too clearly - the defenders had in many cases literally been hacked to pieces. Gratuitous defilement and mutilation had been very much the order of the day, and within a few days further horrors had come in the terrible atrocities known as the September massacres. Already the product of a society in which fear of peasant insurrection and banditry was endemic, Napoleon could not but recoil in disgust. All these feelings, needless to say, were confirmed by Vendémiaire. On the one hand, the crowd had been crushed: faced by 25,000 insurgents, 8,000 government troops had broken the uprising in little more than twenty-four hours of serious fighting with the loss of perhaps 100 casualties. And, on the other, most of the insurgents had not taken part in the actual fighting but given themselves over to drunkenness and pillage. If they had been called on to the streets at all, meanwhile, it was the result of a political factionalism born solely of what Napoleon saw as selfish ambition. As he had written to his brother Lucien in 1792, ‘Those at the top are poor creatures . . . Everyone wants to succeed at the price of no matter what horror and calumny; intrigue is as base as ever.’28 What Vendémiaire showed, then, was not just that the rabble could and should be kept in check, but also that the powerful state created by the Revolution that Napoleon so admired was threatened not just in the streets but in the corridors of power - that the new elites, in short, had to be kept under tutelage as well.
If there was much material to ponder here, there is no evidence that the hero of Vendémiaire was considering a bid for power at this time. All the same, by the end of 1795 we see a Napoleon who had almost overnight become a key player in the politics of revolutionary Paris, a wealthy man with an official residence on the Place Vendôme, and a regular visitor to the most fashionable salons of the capital. In March
1796 there followed his marriage to the thirty-two-year-old Creole widow, Rose de Beauharnais (‘Josephine’ was the name given her by Napoleon, who had the curious habit of rebaptizing all his female conquests). Was this, too, just one more piece of calculation? For many historians this has been an act of faith. As Josephine had until very recently numbered Paul de Barras amongst her many lovers, and was still highly regarded by him, marrying her may have seemed a good way of retaining the ear of one of the most powerful men in France. Equally, Josephine’s first husband having been a nobleman executed in the Terror, the young general may have believed that he was securing the acceptance that had been denied him at Brienne. In the words of his close friend, Marmont, ‘Bonaparte’s amour-propre was flattered. The ideas of the Old Order had always attracted him a great deal, and, although he played the republican, he was still susceptible to . . . all sorts of aristocratic prejudice.’29 And, finally, money may also have played a role, the artful Josephine having given Napoleon the quite erroneous impression that she was extremely rich. Yet other historians have insisted either that he was simply besotted with her, or, alternatively, that it was the hopelessly indebted Josephine herself who took the lead, seducing him into a marriage that was not only highly advantageous to her, but the only way out of a situation in which the looks that were her only asset were already starting to fade. Whatever the reason, by all accounts Josephine was wooed with considerable vigour, as witness Hortense de Beauharnais’s recollection of a dinner chez Barras, which proved to be the first time that she met her future stepfather:
Barras’s guest-list proved to be very numerous: the only people I knew were Tallien and his wife. At table I found myself placed between my mother and a general, who, in order to talk to her, thrust himself across me with such force and persistence that I grew tired of him and pushed my chair back. Despite myself, however, I could not but notice that he had a good figure and an expressive face, albeit one of a remarkable pallor. He talked with great spirit and appeared to be interested in nothing other than my mother. The general turned out to be Bonaparte.30
Was Napoleon acting solely with an eye to his future career? The matter is impossible to fathom, but whatever the reason for the marriage, the young general now possessed a wife of an avaricious bent whom he had, it seems, promised she would be ‘rolling in gold’.31
Napoleon married Josephine on 9 March 1796. Two days later he left Paris for the frontiers of Piedmont, having the previous month been appointed to the command of the Army of Italy. For the overly cynical, this was ‘Barras’s dowry’ - Napoleon’s reward for having relieved the Director of his old mistress. But this is clearly to go too far. The plan of campaign for 1796 for the first time involved an offensive in Italy, and in this theatre of war the Corsican general was the French army’s chief expert: indeed, the few weeks he had spent in the Bureau Topographique had largely been spent in drawing up fresh plans for operations there. Furthermore, although he had gained a substantial victory at Loano on
23-4 November 1795, the current commander of the Army of Italy, General Schérer, was opposed to any further advance. That said, however, Napoleon was eager for a field command. In the first place, as he said himself, ‘A general twenty-five years of age cannot stay for long at the head of an army of the interior.’32 Apart from sheer love of glory, his sudden emergence from obscurity had yet to be matched by the respect of many of his fellow generals, some of whom, at least, were now his declared enemies (one such was the equally young and energetic Lazare Hoche, who had just won great renown by pacifying the Vendée and was also another former lover of Rose de Beauharnais). And, though by no means too proud to reject his patronage, Napoleon clearly disliked Barras. He later remarked, ‘Barras . . . had neither the talent of leadership, nor the habit of work . . . Having left the service as a captain, he had never made war, whilst he possessed nothing in the way of military knowledge. Elevated to the Directory by the events of Thermidor and Vendémiaire, he did not have any of the qualities necessary for such a post.’33 The feeling was mutual - according to the Director, his protégé was an ‘oily-tongued wheedler’34 - but for the time being the alliance persisted and Barras urged his fellow Directors to give Napoleon the Italian command. For a particularly interesting slant on the situation, we may turn to the memoirs of Lavallette, who was soon to become one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp:
The duties of commander-in-chief in Paris conferred great power on General Bonaparte . . . but soon the government felt annoyed and even humiliated by the yoke imposed on them by the young general. As a matter of fact he only acted on his own initiative, concerning himself with everything, making every decision himself, and only acting as he himself thought best. The activity and wide range of his mind, the domineering quality of his character would not lend themselves to obedience on any matter at all. The Directory still wished to handle the Jacobins with tact; the general ordered the hall in which they met to be closed, and the government only heard that this had been done when it was about to debate the question. The residence in Paris of members of the former nobility appeared to be dangerous. The Directory wanted to expel them, but the general protected them. The government had to yield. He issued regulations, recalled certain generals who had been disgraced, dismissed every impulsive suggestion summarily, ruffled the vanity of all, set all hatreds at defiance, and stigmatized as clumsiness the slow and uncertain policy of the government. And when the Directory made up their minds to protest mildly, he . . . explained his ideas and his plans so clearly and easily, and with such eloquence, that there was no answering him, and two hours afterwards everything he had said was carried out. However, if the Directory was tired of him, General Bonaparte was no less tired of life in Paris, which offered no scope for his ambition, no opportunity for glory such as his genius craved. A long time ago he had made plans for the conquest of Italy. A lengthy period of service with the Army of Nice [sic] had given him the time necessary to mature his schemes, to calculate all difficulty and to weigh all hazards; he applied to the government for the command of that army, for money and for troops. He was appointed commander-in-chief and was given the troops, but only the moderate sum of a hundred thousand crowns. It was with such meagre resources that he was to conquer Italy at the head of an army which had not been paid for six months and was without shoes. But Bonaparte knew his own strength, and, embracing a tremendous future with exhilaration, he bade farewell to the Directory, which watched him go with secret pleasure, happy to be rid of a man whose character mastered them, and whose vast schemes were merely, in the eyes of most of its members, the impulse of a young man full of pride and effrontery.35
In March 1796, then, the personal history of Napoleon Bonaparte at last meshed with the march of international relations. Before engaging with the conflict in which he became a combatant, however, it would be advisable to take a step back and survey the picture that has emerged from this discussion of the future emperor’s early years. Let us first be entirely honest. The years from 1769 to 1796 are extremely difficult to chronicle: unpublished primary material is in short supply, while such memoirs that exist, not to mention the recollections of Napoleon himself, are uniformly partisan and in some instances little better than inventions. Nor is this an end to the problem, for much of the material that we have is so ambiguous that it is susceptible to entirely contradictory interpretations. No Napoleon, then, is in the end likely to be anything more than a reflection of the personal inclinations of its creator. Yet it does remain much harder to accept the image of Napoleon the idealist than it does that of Napoleon the opportunist. Whether it was the neglected child born to a mother who had suffered a difficult pregnancy, the scion of a family of inveterate social climbers, the second son engaged in endless rivalry with his elder brother, Joseph, the despised outsider at Brienne, the gawky officer cadet teased by girls as ‘Puss-in-Boots’, the failed Corsican politician, the exiled refugee, the hero of the hour deprived of his rightful glory, the penniless brigadier touting frantically for a post in Paris, the ‘Vendémiaire general’ in debt to the despicable Barras, or the young husband enamoured of a wife who was as ardent as she was grasping - a whole succession of Napoleons conspired to produce a genuinely frightening figure. To use the word ‘megalomaniac’ at this stage would probably be unwise, but all the same what we see is a man filled by loathing of the mob, contemptuous of ideology, obsessed by military glory, convinced that he had a great destiny and determined to rise to the top. Added to this was jealousy of the many generals who had won far more laurels on the battlefield than he had, and, in particular, of General Hoche. ‘It is a fact,’ wrote Barras, ‘that of all the generals Hoche was the one who most absorbed Bonaparte’s thoughts . . . On arriving in Italy he asked all new-comers, “Where is Hoche? What is Hoche doing?”’36 It was a dangerous combination. Marmont recalled his first meeting with Napoleon after Vendémiaire, when the new commander radiated ‘extraordinary aplomb’, while being marked by ‘an air of grandeur that I had not noted before’. As to the question of whether he could be kept under control, this seemed doubtful: ‘This man who knew how to command so well could not possibly be destined by Providence to obey.’37
Such was the young man who in 1796 found himself at the head of the Army of Italy. What, though, of the conflict, or rather series of conflicts, into which he was now plunged? Let us begin by making one thing very clear. The French Revolutionary Wars were not a struggle between liberty on the one hand and tyranny on the other. As we have seen, indeed, they were not wholly about the French Revolution at all. Of course, this does not mean that ideology played no role in the spread of conflict: on various occasions, it intensified tension. But it was not the chief cause of trouble. The diplomatic history of the 1790s (and indeed, the 1800s) suggests that few of the great powers of Europe had any problems with the concept of peace with France, or even an alliance with her. Nor did the 1790s bring any real change in the aims of the great powers, who in each case pursued goals that would have been comprehensible to rulers of fifty or even a hundred years before. This should not be taken to mean that these goals were fixed. Every state at one time or another had choices to make in terms of their priorities and partners, or felt that it had no option but to sacrifice one goal in favour of another. Much the same was true of the structures within which they operated: the dynamic of international relations in Europe altered very considerably over the course of the eighteenth century, and continued to change after 1789. But until the beginning of the nineteenth century, at least, the general range of those choices remained substantially the same, the implication being, of course, that the French Revolution did not suddenly engage the exclusive attention of every ancien-régime chancellory and ministry of war.
One might with some justice go well beyond this. Not until 1814 did the powers finally set aside their differences and concentrate all their forces and energies in a fight to the finish with Napoleon. For the time being, though, our priority must rather be to examine the age of conflict that formed the eighteenth-century context. For over a hundred years before 1789 there had hardly been a year when the whole of Europe had been at peace. Why this was so is again a question that need not detain us here for too long. However, in brief, for all the monarchies of Europe the battlefield was at one and the same time a gauge of their power and a theatre for their glorification and, by extension, an important means of legitimizing their power at home where they were frequently challenged by feudal aristocracies and powerful religious hierarchies. Meanwhile, war bred more war. To some extent the ever greater demands which it imposed - for the eighteenth century was an age when armies and navies grew steadily bigger and more demanding in terms of their equipment - could be financed by internal reform. Hence the ‘enlightened absolutism’ which was so characteristic of the period from 1750 to 1789 and beyond, not to mention the efforts of both Britain and Spain to exploit their American colonies more effectively. But a variety of problems, including not least the resistance of traditional elites - a factor that could in itself generate armed conflict - meant that there were only limited advantages to be derived from such solutions, and thus it was that most rulers looked at one time or another to territorial gains on their frontiers or the acquisition of fresh colonies. This, of course, implied war in Europe (which given its cost in turn implied territorial gain or at the very least financial compensation). No major state would ever have agreed to relinquish even the smallest province voluntarily and, while the weaker ones could sometimes be overawed into doing so, a unilateral gain for one monarch was not acceptable to any of the others: if, say, Sweden took over Norway, Russia would have expected to take over a slice of Poland. Nor was this an end to the problem. To go to war successfully, it was necessary to possess allies, and allies in turn expected to be paid for their services, either in money or in land. As this set off a fresh chain of demands for compensation, many of the conflicts of the eighteenth century turned into truly continental affairs that drew in states from Portugal to Russia and from Sweden to Sicily. Nor, by the same token, could any peace settlement ever be definitive. Thus, no war was ever fought with the aim of obtaining total victory. Aside from the question of cost, no dynastic monarch would ever have sought to beggar another altogether, if only because the ruler concerned might prove a useful ally in the next crisis. Yet this in turn meant that the loser of any conflict was almost always in a position to seek to overturn the result of one war by seeking victory in another, and so a game that was essentially pointless continued to fascinate and mesmerize.
Many factors, then, conspired to make war endemic in eighteenth-century Europe. However, the pressures that led to conflict were increasing, not least through changes in the structure of international relations. Very, very gradually, foreign policy was moving from being an affair of dynasties to being an affair of nations. This development must not be exaggerated: indeed, it affected only a few states and made limited progress even in them. Yet, for all that, it cannot be completely ignored. In a very vague and general sense it was everywhere understood that there ought to be a connection between foreign policy and the well-being of the subject, but in most cases little more than lip service was paid to the idea, while there was no sense that the populace had a right either to be consulted on the issue of war or peace or to expect concrete benefits in the event of victory. The peoples of Europe were in effect mere pawns to be mobilized or called to endure suffering exactly as their rulers thought fit. Starting in England in the seventeenth century, however, a new pattern began to emerge in that we see the first stirrings of public opinion. As early as the 1620s, for example, Charles I caused outrage among many of his subjects by failing to intervene effectively in favour of the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years War. In this instance, the stimulus was religious, but as the establishment of the American colonies, the penetration of India and Africa and the slave trade brought wealth to Britain, so the issue shifted rather to matters of commerce, the state increasingly being expected to use its power to protect the investments of the oligarchy (and beyond them the well-being of a much broader section of society). In practice, of course, the British state did not need much in the way of urging when it came to defending its colonial possessions and increasing their extent, but it would now find it much harder to back away from doing so. Similar pressures, meanwhile, had been generated in the United Provinces, France and, to a lesser extent, Spain, while elsewhere particular groups had emerged that remained too isolated from the rest of society to deserve the label ‘public opinion’ and yet had a considerable stake in foreign policy (a good example is the Russian nobility’s strong interest in the Baltic trade with Britain).
Though by no means unimportant, these issues were outweighed by other more pressing matters. Particularly for the eastern powers, there was the issue of the rising costs of their military establishments. As the eighteenth century advanced, so their armies increased: Russia and Prussia more than doubled the size of their armies between 1700 and
1789, with Austria not far behind. What had mattered in the early part of the century had been dynastic prestige and in particular the question of which reigning families should rule the many states that were bedevilled by succession crises. But beginning with Frederick II of Prussia’s invasion of Silesia in 1740 what mattered now was territory. Conquest was essential, and because this was the case all considerations of legality and morality began to go by the board. But so long as all the major states in Europe were playing the same game, it was held (at least by many of their rulers and statesmen) that universal conquest brought with it universal good. The weaker states of the Continent would suffer, certainly, but as none of the great powers would lose out in relation to one another, the net result would be a balance of power that made for general security. To put it another way, conquest was a moral duty from which all would benefit, and war, by extension, an act of benevolence. Nor did war seem especially threatening. In 1789 the standing armies of Europe may have been much bigger than they had been in 1700, but new crops, better transport, improved bureaucracies, more productive fiscal systems, harsher discipline and tighter procedures in the field all ensured that the horrors of the Thirty Years War, in which masses of unpaid men had simply surged from one side of Germany to the other, living off the country and denying the authority of political masters that had lost all ability to pay and supply them, would not be repeated. At the same time, war was also less costly in another sense. Thanks to developments in the art of generalship, it was assumed that battle would be less frequent. Enemy armies would be manoeuvred out of their positions, and their commanders - products of an age of reason - would tamely accept the logic of their position and march away, leaving their opponents to move in unopposed. If battles could largely be avoided, sieges, too, would become less of an endurance test, for it was widely accepted that once a fortress had had its walls breached, its governor would capitulate without further resistance so as to save the lives of both the townsfolk and his men.
But in reality Europe was no more getting safer than she was becoming more civilized. Given that every possible territorial solution that could be worked out for the Continent of Europe was bound to upset one or other of the great powers, continual conquest led not to perpetual peace but rather perpetual war, and therefore produced not security, but insecurity. As the Seven Years War had shown, as the stakes grew ever higher, so rulers with their backs against the wall would habitually resort to battle rather than simply accepting the logic of superior numbers or generalship, just as they would be inclined to put fortress governors under great pressure to resist the enemy to the utmost: this was the conflict that gave rise to the phrase ‘pour encourager les autres’. As the War of the Bavarian Succession had shown, late eighteenth-century regular armies were much less likely than those, say, of the War of the Spanish Succession to be able to pull off the sort of feats of manoeuvre that would have been required to decide the issue of wars without a battle: Marlborough’s march to the Danube in 1704 could never have been replicated seventy years later. And there was certainly no diminution in the sufferings of the civilian population, nor in the damage which an army’s passage could inflict on a district. On the wilder fringes of warfare - the Balkans, the frontiers of the American colonies - torture and massacre were very much the order of the day while large parts of Germany had been devastated by the Seven Years War. The overall picture is a grim one: war may not have been the monster of the seventeenth century, but it was still a savage beast. Many rulers and statesmen were well aware of this reality, and a few even tried to back away from the traditional power game. But in the end they were helpless, for the only weapon they could fall back upon was the same mixture of alliance and armed force that had caused the problem in the first place.
Indeed, the situation was even worse than this suggested. By the mid-s a major conflagration was in the making. Let us begin by considering France. Once mighty, since 1763 she had suffered a series of major catastrophes and humiliations. In the East the first partition of Poland of 1772 gravely weakened her chief allies in Eastern Europe. Stripped of her enormous American territories in the Seven Years War, she had gained a certain degree of revenge by assisting the nascent United States of America in the American War of Independence, only to find that this action had shattered her financial position beyond repair. And finally, without money, Louis XVI was repeatedly humbled, being forced both to accept a profoundly unfavourable commercial treaty by the British and to stand by helplessly while Prussian forces crushed the pro-French regime established by the Dutch revolution of 1785-7 . To say that on the eve of the Revolution France was bent on a war that could reverse these disasters would be a wild over-statement - her statesmen were actually pursuing a variety of courses, some of them quite contradictory - but nevertheless this was certainly an option that was being kept open and prepared for. While a massive programme of military reform transformed the army and prepared it for offensive operations, French diplomats sought to bolster the position of Austria - France’s chief ally - by seeking an alliance with Persia that might make Russia think twice about going on the offensive in the West. At the same time, efforts were made to dissuade Vienna from embarking on military adventures in the Balkans and also to build up the Turks against Russia. As for Britain, she too was threatened by French alliances with the rulers of Egypt (in theory, a province of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice a quasi-independent dominion), Oman and Hyderabad.
It was not just France that was threatening to overthrow the status quo, however. Among the eastern powers, too, there were worrying stirrings. In Austria, Joseph II had been engaged in an aggressive attempt to build a powerful, centralized state, but he had run into increasing opposition and was inclined to seek redress not only in plans that would have involved taking over Bavaria in exchange for giving her rulers the Austrian Netherlands (i.e. the western half of present-day Belgium), but in launching an attack on the Ottoman Empire alongside Russia. Also contemplated was a renewed war with Prussia, which had been asking for trouble in recent years by frustrating a series of Austrian attempts to reinforce her position in the Holy Roman Empire, and was also no longer ruled by the mighty Frederick the Great, who had died in 1786. Yet, now under Frederick William II, the Prussians were also on the move. Their gains in the first partition of Poland had been much smaller than those obtained by either Russia or Austria and failed to include a number of key objectives. Still worse, while Russia had gone on to make further gains in the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 , the War of the Bavarian Succession of 1778 had brought Prussia precisely nothing. In the first place, the means used were to be peaceful ones - like Vienna, Potsdam was quite capable of working out fanciful plans for territorial exchanges and Frederick William II himself was no warlord - but it is clear that there was to be no drawing back. In Sweden there was a situation parallel to that of Austria in that a reformist monarch - in this case Gustav III - had run into serious opposition at home, and wished to reinforce the power of the throne by a flight to the front vis-à-vis Russia. And last but not least there was the Russia of Catherine the Great, which was proving so aggressive in its interpretation of the treaty that had ended the previous war with Turkey that Constantinople was being pushed ever closer towards a counter-stroke.
This is not the place to retell the long and complicated story of the events that followed. In brief the inevitable crisis exploded in August
1787 when Turkey attacked Russia. This in turn provoked a general war in Eastern Europe with Austria and Russia pitched against Turkey, Sweden pitched against Russia, and Denmark pitched against Sweden. By 1790 most of the fighting had died down, but in the midst of the general confusion revolution had broken out in Poland where a reformist faction was anxious to restore her fortunes and build a modern state. Until now, events in France had for the most part been ignored, but in the course of 1791 she too was dragged into the crisis on account of Leopold II of Austria’s desperate attempts to stave off a further round of hostilities and, in particular, a further partition of Poland. There was no desire for war with the French Revolution per se - indeed, in Leopold’s case there was no desire for war at all - but in April 1792 clumsy Austrian tactics combined with political manoeuvrings in France herself initiated the French Revolutionary Wars. Initially, the belligerents were limited to France on the one hand and Austria and Prussia on the other, but within a year events had drawn most of the states of Europe into a great coalition against France. But this was no counter-revolutionary crusade: none of the powers that fought France had any desire to restore the ancien régime as it had existed in 1789, and many either limited their commitment to the struggle or dropped out of it altogether; within a short time of Napoleon taking over the Army of Italy, indeed, Spain was actually fighting on France’s side. For most powers, in fact, the war against the Revolution was either subordinated to long-standing foreign policy aims or waged in accordance with those aims. Thus Russia and Prussia always put the acquisition of territory in Poland (which was completely wiped off the map by two further partitions in 1792 and
1795) before the struggle against France, while in Prussia’s case she only entered the conflict at all because she thought that it would bring her territorial gains in Germany. Austria was still thinking in terms of the ‘Bavarian exchange’. And as for Britain, she went to war to prevent France from taking over the Low Countries, did so all the more willingly because war with Paris offered her a way out of the diplomatic isolation that had made her so vulnerable in the American War of Independence, and for much of the time prosecuted the struggle by means of tactics that gave a further boost to her colonial and maritime superiority. This was not to say that ideology was lacking. No ruler wanted revolution at home - there was, indeed, genuine horror at the events of 1792-4 - and many governments clamped down hard on freedom of debate. At the same time, the defence of the ancien régime or the international order was made use of as a handy means of legitimizing the war effort, just as counter-revolution was employed - most notably, by the British - as a means of stirring up revolt inside France. But engaging in a total war to restore Louis XVIII (Louis XVI’s successor) was quite another matter. A Bourbon on the throne of France might be a good thing in many respects, but in the end it was something that could be sacrificed to expediency, especially as the belligerents were divided as to what ‘restoration’ should actually mean, with the British, at least, advocating some sort of constitutional settlement and others looking to a reconstituted absolutism.
In France the concept of an ideological war was certainly much stronger than elsewhere. In 1791-2 there had been real fears of a counter-revolutionary crusade, while the Brissotins - the radical faction that had championed the cause of war - had accompanied their demands with much talk of sweeping the tyrants from their thrones. But appearances are deceptive. In large part the fears of foreign intervention were a deliberate creation of the Brissotins, for whom war was primarily a political tool designed to consolidate the Revolution and further their personal ambition. And, despite their rhetoric, when France went to war in April 1792, she did so only against Austria. Every effort was made to avoid conflict with Prussia, and get the Prussians to turn on their old enemies. The war the Brissotins got, then, was not at all the one they really wanted. With France hopelessly unprepared for such a struggle - her army was in disarray and the famous Volunteers of 1791 and 1792 a distinctly unreliable weapon - revolutionizing the Continent now gained real importance. But it was not just this: to some extent Brissot and his own followers simply became carried away with their own speech-making and drunk with vainglory; hence the glorious abandon with which they declared war on country after country in early 1793. Yet in the end their crusade amounted to very little. Late 1792 saw France offer to give help to any people who wished to recover their liberty, denounce the principles that lay behind such acts as the partition of Poland, and set up a variety of foreign legions whose task it was to raise the peoples of their home countries in revolt. But there were plenty of clear-sighted realists in Paris who realized that this was hopelessly impractical and unlikely to achieve anything in the way of results. Amongst them was Robespierre, and so practically the first act of the Committee of Public Safety was to make it quite clear that its watchword was France and France alone: amongst those who died under the guillotine in the summer of 1793 were a number of over-enthusiastic foreign revolutionaries. Under the Thermidorian regime and the Directory the pendulum swung back in the direction of aggression, but liberation was now but a word, albeit a useful one that allowed France’s rulers to prove their revolutionary credentials. In Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine, it was code for annexation, and in Holland, where the first of a series of satellite republics were established, a euphemism for political, military and economic exploitation. And if revolution was supported elsewhere, most notably in Ireland, it was clearly little more than a device to weaken and disrupt the enemy. As for the specific goals of French policy, it was clear that many of them fitted in very closely with goals that had been enunciated at one time or another under the ancien régime. Also visible was an intellectual structure that had nothing revolutionary about it at all. At least one member of the Directory - Reubell - saw Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine simply as France’s compensation for the gains made by the eastern powers in Poland. Ideological commitment to expansion was not completely dead: inside the Directory Reubell was challenged by the fiery Larevellière-Lépeaux, who was not only an erstwhile Brissotin, but the deputy who on 19 November 1972 had introduced the decree promising assistance to any people that wished to recover its liberty. But in general the watchword was calculation. Indeed, it is Schroeder’s contention that, under the influence of the prime realist Carnot, the Directory wanted not a continuation of the war, but rather a general peace settlement: so anxious was the ‘architect of victory’ for this outcome, that he was even ready to forsake the Rhine frontier.
If peace was to be obtained, however, at the beginning of 1796 it appeared that it was going to have to be by force of arms, for Austria and Britain - the twin linchpins of opposition to the Republic - were by no means ready to make peace. Although under serious financial pressure, Austria was not yet desperate enough to consider a separate peace. In many ways this made sense: aside from the need to escape impending bankruptcy, by 1796 Austria’s chief war aim was the acquisition of Bavaria in exchange for her territories in the Low Countries, and this, as Schroeder has shown, was more likely to be achieved through a deal with France than by any other means. But in reality, dropping out of the war was impossible. Should peace talks with France fail and Britain find out about Austria’s double-dealing, Vienna could probably bid farewell to both British support for the so-called Bavarian exchange and, more importantly, a large loan she was currently trying to negotiate with London. Nor would a successful deal with France be much help: Austria might rationalize her frontiers in the west, but in doing so she would almost certainly risk war with Prussia and Russia, who were both likely to press for territorial compensation. In the circumstances then, fighting on, which in any case meshed with the personal fear and antipathy felt by the Austrian chancellor, Thugut, for the Revolution, seemed by far the safest option, for it at least locked in the Russians - also theoretically at war with France - into their alliance with Vienna, and thereby protected the gains Austria had made from the recent partitions of Poland and helped dissuade the Prussians from joining France (a real possibility that was certainly pursued by French diplomacy in the wake of Prussia’s signature of a peace treaty with France in 1795). As for Britain, despite growing domestic unrest and the personal desire for peace of the prime minister, William Pitt, she too had no option but to fight on: secret contacts held with France in 1795 having suggested that, Carnot notwithstanding, the Directory would never abandon the Low Countries unless absolutely forced to do so, anything but victory would signal complete humiliation.
So, with neither Britain nor Austria capable of taking the offensive at this point, the initiative lay with France, who could in any case afford to attack given the withdrawal of Prussia and Spain from the First Coalition in 1795. Napoleon naturally wanted to win the war on the Italian front - Barras claims that he bombarded ‘the Directorate and Ministers with demands for men, money and clothing’.38 This help was not forthcoming, for the Directory intended its main blows against the enemy to be rather a major invasion of Ireland and an offensive in southern Germany. Yet Napoleon still came to the fore. The expedition to Ireland was turned back by a ‘Protestant wind’, and the invasion of Germany defeated by the Austrians. In Italy, however, matters were very different: striking across the frontier from its base at Nice in April
1796, within a few short months Napoleon’s ragged little army - at the beginning of the campaign he had only some 40,000 men, who Marmont describes as ‘dying of hunger and almost without shoes’39 - had forced Piedmont, Tuscany, Modena and the Papal States to make peace, overrun northern Italy, and beaten a succession of Austrian armies. With Vienna itself threatened with occupation, the badly shaken Austrians asked for an armistice, and an initial peace settlement was duly signed at Leoben on 18 April 1797.
By this time, moreover, Napoleon had become much more than a simple general. Very early on in the campaign, success in battle, the devotion of his troops, and a growing sense of his own power convinced him that he was a man of destiny. After the battle of Lodi - a relatively small action fought on 10 May 1796 in which Napoleon’s forces launched a heroic attack across a narrow bridge defended by large numbers of Austrians - he claimed to have been filled with the sudden realization that ‘I could well become . . . a decisive actor in our political scene’.40 At the same time, French failures elsewhere - to which his own victories provided a vivid contrast - reinforced his importance to the Directory, and thus his political independence. Stimulated by the need to provide his small army with a secure base for its operations, not to mention a desire to play to the gallery and discredit his more pragmatic superiors, Napoleon therefore deliberately encouraged republican feeling, the result being the formation of, first, the temporary Cispadane and Transpadane Republics in October 1796 (which eight months later were united with still more territory as the Milan-based Cisalpine Republic) and then the Genoa-based Ligurian Republic in June 1797. With the initiative firmly in his hands, Napoleon was also effectively left to offer the Austrians peace terms of his own making, these finally being agreed in the Treaty of Campo Formio of 17 October 1797.
Though badly defeated militarily, Austria did remarkably well out of this settlement, gaining the bishopric of Salzburg and large parts of the old Venetian Republic, which was partitioned between her, the Cisalpine Republic and France (who took the Ionian islands). Indeed, Vienna’s only loss other than Lombardy - the chief basis of the Cisalpine Republic - and such territories as she controlled on the left bank of the Rhine, was the Austrian Netherlands. Furthermore, the pill was sweetened by two important promises. First, Austria was to receive compensation in Germany, and second, Prussia was to be excluded from this settlement (to accommodate this position, Napoleon unilaterally renounced France’s claim to all Prussia’s Rhenish territories). Characteristically, however, Napoleon’s magnanimity was the fruit of calculation: knowing that his rivals Hoche and Moreau were on the brink of a fresh invasion of Germany, the future emperor was desperate to stop the war before they stole some of his glory. As he told the Italian nobleman Miot de Melito in the summer of 1797, ‘If I leave the signing of peace treaties to another man, he would be placed higher in public opinion than I am by my victories.’41 Still worse, Campo Formio ran directly counter to the Directory’s policy in Italy, which had been to use any territory gained there only as a bargaining tool that could be exchanged for Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine (the latter of which it failed to secure).
Campo Formio was not the only evidence of Napoleon’s independence. Without telling Paris, for example, he approached the defeated Piedmontese with the offer of a military alliance in an attempt to swell his forces. And, in respect of Rome, whereas the Directory wanted a punitive peace settlement that would have seen the abolition of the Inquisition and the nullification of all the bulls the Church had issued anathematizing the Revolution, Napoleon chose rather to impose a more moderate treaty that cost the papacy much territory and a large indemnity but allowed it to keep most of its ideological pretensions. As for the clergy, while paying lip-service to Paris’s rampant anti-clericalism, Napoleon flattered the local bishops and refrained from persecuting the many French priests who had fled to northern Italy. But in the face of this behaviour those members of the Directory who recognized the danger - and it should be remembered not all of them did so - were helpless. In May 1796, for example, an attempt to divide the Army of Italy into two separate forces was scotched by the threat of resignation, while in November a general dispatched by Carnot to force Napoleon to make an armistice with the Austrians was dealt with by the rather more subtle method of co-opting the officer concerned. Back in France, meanwhile, the Corsican general enjoyed a prominence that was hitherto unprecedented. Writing of his journey to take up his post with the Army of Italy, for example, Lavallette remarked:
I heard the name of Bonaparte everywhere as I went along; each day brought the name of a victory. His letters to the government, his proclamation worded in such lofty style and with such remarkable eloquence, went to everyone’s heads. The whole of France shared the enthusiasm of the army for so much glory . . . The names of Montenotte, of Milesimo, of Lodi, Milan, Castiglione, were repeatedly mentioned with a noble pride, together with those of Jemappes, of Fleurus and of Valmy.42
To quote Madame de Staël, ‘In Paris General Bonaparte was being spoken of a great deal: the superiority of his spirit . . . and his talents as a commander had given his name an importance superior to that acquired by any other individual since the start of the Revolution.’43 And last but not least, the tutor of Napoleon’s new step-daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, was positively gushing: ‘Did you know that your mother was going to unite her fortune with that of so extraordinary a man? What talents! What valour! Every instant a fresh conquest.’44
All this admiration was in large part a creation of Napoleon himself. Whether he really did suddenly have a vision of himself as ruler of France after the battle of Lodi will never be known, but what is clear is that from very early on in the campaign he threw himself into the task of winning the favour of public opinion. One plank in this policy was to appear a model of civic virtue. ‘Bonaparte, who still wears the woollen epaulettes of his first years of military life, preserves up to this time the outward garb of modesty both in his utterances and his habiliments; ’tis in the name of liberty he issues his proclamations.’45 Another was to placate the Directory with loot. This ploy operated at two levels. In the first place, Paris’s increasingly desperate need for money was assuaged by the imposition of a variety of fines and levies that had by the end of
1796 alone netted well over 45 million francs in cash and another 12 million in terms of plate and jewels. And, in the second, the Revolution’s cultural pretensions were flattered by the dispatch of large numbers of pictures, statues and other artistic treasures. Finally, there was also the issue of propaganda. For the first time the young general found himself in a position in which he could manipulate his public image: hence the famous painting he commissioned in the wake of the battle of Arcola with its suggestion of both conquering hero and man of the future, and hence, too, his establishing of no fewer than three newspapers whose sole task it was to sing his praises.
If propaganda was important, so also was man-management. No sooner had he been appointed to the Italian command, than Napoleon surrounded himself with a band of officers who could be relied upon as talented and trusted henchmen. Among these men were Jean Andoche Junot and Auguste Marmont, who had both met Napoleon at Toulon and later shared the lean months of 1795 with him; another Toulon veteran named Charles Leclerc, who was in June 1797 picked out as a suitable husband for Napoleon’s sister, Pauline; Guillaume Brune, a brigade commander who had distinguished himself in the Vendémiaire affair; Jean-Baptiste Bessières, a Gascon cavalryman recommended to him by Joachim Murat; and lastly Murat himself, the officer responsible for bringing up the guns that had actually fired the ‘whiff of grapeshot’. To this group were added many of the existing commanders of the Army of Italy - Berthier, Augereau, Masséna, Lannes, Sérurier - whose initial resentment and suspicion of the ‘political’ general sent to lead them was overcome by a mixture of cajolery, bribery and sheer force of character. Following the example of Napoleon himself, who beyond doubt became a rich man as a result of his victories, the generals were also permitted to feather their own nests: both Masséna and Augereau developed a particular reputation for rapaciousness, while Marmont was seemingly reproved for not having taken full advantage of the opportunities open to him.
But building up the Army of Italy as a powerbase was not just a question of packing it with his friends or winning the loyalty of a few leading officers. As comes over from the memoirs of General Thiébault, the net was cast much wider.
Bonaparte . . . did his utmost to appeal in every possible way to the imagination of his soldiers. His phrases, no less fortunate, than full of meaning, were repeated with enthusiasm; his familiarities gave rise to many anecdotes . . . Promotions were showered upon the army, plenty prevailed in it, and he took infinite pains to be every man’s pride and hope. But all this seemed insufficient for him, and he employed ridicule to amuse his soldiers, while making them despise their enemy. Thus . . . the barracks and cantonments were flooded with a squib, comically imagined and wittily composed. The soldiers read it and repeated it with shouts of laughter. It contained the humble remonstrance of the grenadiers of the Army of Italy to the high, mighty and invincible Emperor of Austria, who was designated by any number of absurd titles and epithets. It began by thanking him for the young volunteers whom he had been so kind as to send from Vienna, and by asking him for more, while complaining that the pantaloons he gave his soldiers were too scanty and the cloaks too short . . . that the soldiers never had any money in their pockets, and that none of them had a watch . . . It was only mess-room chaff, but the soldiers found it excellent, and that was what was wanted.46
Clever though his use of humour was, the real key to Napoleon’s success was logistics. Sadly, the famous proclamation that he issued to the Army of Italy when he took command on the eve of the campaign is now generally recognized to be a later fabrication. At the same time outright marauding was forbidden, albeit more because it was a threat to military efficiency and discipline than because it was reprehensible in itself (not that this did much to reduce the problem). Yet it is clear that the promises supposedly made by Napoleon to his men were honoured: the soldiers were quite literally fed, clothed and, most importantly, paid from their conquests. Directly or indirectly, the loyalty of the soldiers was won through an appeal to their self-interest whereas hitherto the language used in proclamations and battlefield harangues had been very much that of patriotism and civic virtue. On top of all this, they were constantly flattered as men who had over and over again triumphed against all odds, not to mention men whom their general was counting on in person. Given that Napoleon also took care to appear to share their dangers, whether it was by aiming a battery of cannon under enemy fire at Lodi or taking part in an assault on a crucial bridge at Arcola, there emerged the makings of the strong bond between Napoleon and his soldiers that was to sustain the French army right through to 1815. By the middle of 1797, in fact, the Army of Italy no longer served France but Napoleon, who in consequence felt safe to employ the most ambiguous bombast: ‘Mountains separate us from France, but were it necessary to uphold the constitution, to defend liberty, to protect the government and the Republicans, then you would cross them with the speed of an eagle.’47
Through a combination of brilliant generalship and his skill as a leader of men, Napoleon had acquired a position of extraordinary power in the French body politic. As hostilities with Austria drew to a close this was confirmed in dramatic fashion. In the spring of 1797 the government suffered a severe defeat in partial general elections. What all this meant in political terms is very complicated, but it certainly did not portend, as many lives of Napoleon have claimed, a major threat to the Republic. Assisted by British patronage, a number of committed royalists were active in France and their propaganda activities may well have done something to increase the scale of the government’s defeat. But, the activities of a minority of extremists notwithstanding, royalism as such was not a problem. Very few royalists were outright absolutists, and the election result was above all the reflection of a growing desire for peace, political reconciliation and social stability. What threatened the Revolution was therefore not restoration but compromise, but for all those who calculated that their best interests lay in a continuation of the war this was quite bad enough. Very soon, then, a coup was being contemplated by the three members of the Directory committed to a continuation of the war, and in this they immediately received the support of both Napoleon and Hoche. One might, indeed, go further here. The radical faction in the Directory were active participants in the drama, certainly, but they were also in no doubt whatsoever as to the line that Napoleon expected them to take. On 14 July he issued a proclamation to his troops, calling on them to make ready to defend the Republic against its internal enemies, while the next day he sent a letter to the Directory threatening to resign unless it took immediate action against the royalists. With their position buttressed by the fortuitous arrival outside the capital of 10,000 men from Hoche’s army who were being transferred to the Channel coast, the radicals needed no further urging. Napoleon’s subordinate, Augereau, was appointed to take command of the garrison of the capital, and on 4 September (18 Fructidor) the axe finally fell. The moderates in the Directory - Carnot and a new appointment named Barthélemy - were arrested and the Assembly purged. Though Napoleon had not acted alone, the message was clear enough: France was ruled by the bayonet. Nor was this an end to it: Hoche had for some time been a sick man, and on 19 September he died at Wetzlar. If the bayonet ruled France it was Napoleon who ruled the bayonet.
If the victor of Lodi, Arcola and Rivoli was starting to develop concrete ambitions on the political front, it was hardly surprising. If the opportunity was there, so too was the experience. As soon as active campaigning ended, Napoleon had installed himself in the sumptuous Mombello palace outside Milan, and here he established what can only be described as a private court. Old friends such as Bourrienne, who had been favoured with appointment as his secretary, found themselves reduced to the role of minions: ‘Here ceased my intercourse with him as equal to equal, companion with companion, and those relations commenced in which I saw him great, powerful and surrounded with homage and glory. I no longer addressed him as formerly; I was too well aware of his personal importance.’48 De facto ruler of the Cisalpine Republic, he gave himself the airs of a hereditary prince, such an impression being strengthened by the appearance at his headquarters of not just Josephine, but her children, Eugène and Hortense, his mother and several of his sisters. For a taste of the atmosphere that prevailed, let us turn to Miot de Melito:
I was received by Bonaparte . . . in the midst of a brilliant court rather than the usual army headquarters I had expected. Strict etiquette already reigned around him. Even his aides-de-camp and his officers were no longer received at his table, for he had become fastidious in the choice of guest whom he admitted to it. An invitation was an honour eagerly sought, and obtained only with great difficulty . . . He was in no wise embarrassed . . . by these excessive honours, but received them as though he had been accustomed to them all his life. His reception . . . rooms were constantly filled with a crowd of generals, administrators and the most distinguished gentlemen of Italy, who came to solicit the favour of a momentary glance or the briefest interview. In a word, all bowed before the glory of his victories and the haughtiness of his demeanour. He was no longer the general of a triumphant republic, but a conqueror on his own account.49
An important point is hit on here. Like many of his classical heroes, Napoleon found himself, as Miot de Melito remarks, in the role not just of general but of law-maker, for the Cisalpine Republic had to be provided with a constitution and a code of law. To advise him, there came flocking all the leading literati of Lombardy, while like any enlightened absolutist of the century that was about to close, Napoleon patronized the arts and interested himself in agriculture, education and public works. To naked ambition, then, there was added self-delusion: almost overnight, the Corsican adventurer had become in his own eyes the benefactor of humanity.
All this, it is safe to say, turned Napoleon’s head completely. As he remarked, ‘I have tasted supremacy and I can no longer renounce it.’50 Meanwhile, his flights of fancy became ever more extreme: ‘What I have done so far is nothing. I am only at the beginning of the course that I must run. Do you think that I am triumphing in Italy merely to . . . found a republic?’51 By the middle of 1797, in fact, Napoleon was thinking of seizing control of the French government: he openly spoke of not wanting to leave Italy unless it was to play ‘a role in France resembling the one I have here’, and further remarked, ‘The Parisian lawyers who have been put in charge of the Directory understand nothing of government. They are mean-minded men . . . I very much doubt that we can remain in agreement much longer.’52 If the Directors were ‘mean-minded’ they were also utterly corrupt, as, in fact, was much of the civilian administration. A certain caution is needed here: after 18 Brumaire Napoleon had every reason to exaggerate the crimes of his predecessors and his lead has naturally been followed by all those who have sought to propagate his legend, but in the end the Directory will only bear a certain degree of refurbishment: such figures as Barras and Talleyrand really were deeply venal. And this, of course, could only encourage Napoleon. In Bourrienne’s words, ‘He despised the Directory, which he accused of weakness, indecision, extravagance, and a perseverance in a system degrading to the national glory.’53
Napoleon would not just rule France, then, but also save her, this dream being strengthened still further by the situation that he found when he finally returned to France early in December 1797 after inaugurating the Congress of Rastatt. The paper money which had been keeping France going since the Revolution had become so worthless that it had had to be suppressed, hard currency was in short supply, and the urban poor were being ravaged by bread prices that were almost as high as those which had brought the crowd on to the streets in 1789. On top of this, while the Directory could hardly avoid giving Napoleon a hero’s welcome, it was clear that beyond its ranks the general enjoyed immense popularity. According to Laure Permon:
However great the vanity of Bonaparte, it cannot but have been satisfied by the manner in which people of every class gathered . . . to greet his return to the fatherland. The populace cried, ‘Long live Bonaparte! Long live the victor of Italy! Long live the peace-maker of Campo Formio!’ The bourgeoisie exclaimed, ‘God keep him! May he save us from the maximum and the directors!’ And the upper classes . . . flocked with enthusiasm to the young man who in one year had gone from the battle of Montenotte to the treaty of Leoben. Faults . . . he may well have committed, but at that moment he was a colossus of glory as great as it was pure !54
Also interesting here is Germaine de Staël, who was a witness to the great reception which the Directory arranged for Napoleon in the Luxembourg Palace.
No room would have been big enough to accommodate the crowds that turned up: there were spectators at every window and on every roof. Dressed in Roman costume, the five Directors were placed on a dais at one end of the courtyard, and nearby the members of the two councils, the high courts and the institute. If this spectacle had taken place before the National Assembly had bowed the knee to military despotism on 18 Fructidor, it might have been thought very grand: a fine band was playing patriotic airs, and flags recalling our great victories draped the dais of the Directory. Bonaparte arrived dressed very simply and followed by his aides-de-camp: all of them were taller than the general, but such was the humility of their demeanour that they seemed to be dwarfed by him. As for the elite of France there present, they deluged him with applause: republicans, royalists and everyone alike saw their present and future in terms of the support of his powerful hand. 55
Predictably enough, all this did little to assuage Napoleon’s contempt for civilian politicians and personal ambition. On the contrary, as Gohier noted:
Far from being satisfied with the solemn reception which he was accorded on his return from Italy . . . Bonaparte saw in the pomp in which it was couched nothing more than the desire of the Directory to parade itself in all its glory . . . To satisfy his vanity, it would have been necessary to allow him to present himself to the people all by himself in a triumphal chariot.56
At all events, having returned to Paris, Napoleon lost no time in sounding out a variety of contacts with regard to realizing his ambitions (a process he had in fact embarked upon before he had even left Italy). His initial plan was to get himself elected to the Directory and then seize power in conjunction with one or more of its members prior to rewriting the constitution so as to give much greater weight to the executive power (and with it, needless to say, himself). But in this he was unsuccessful. No one who mattered was willing to throw themselves on his mercy at this point and some of those to whom he turned as old allies, such as Barras, were now increasingly fearful of him. For the time being, then, there was nothing to do but embark on a search for still more glory. Action, in fact, was essential, for, as he remarked, ‘In Paris nothing is remembered for long. If I remain doing nothing . . . I am lost.’57 To suggest that this restless energy and ambition now became the only factor in the determination of French policy would be incorrect, but the fact was that Napoleon had already had a massive impact on France’s relations with the rest of Europe and imparted a direction to the international history of the Continent that would otherwise have been lacking. At the beginning of 1796 the Directory had been set on a course that saw it bent on the military defeat of Britain and Austria and their remaining allies, most of which were to be found amongst the minor states of Italy. With Prussia out of the war, Russia little interested in the affairs of Western Europe and Spain on the brink of becoming a French ally, there was every reason to expect that France’s goal - the formal abandonment of the Bourbons and the confirmation of her acquisition of the Rhineland and the left bank of the Rhine - would be achieved through the exhaustion of her enemies alone. Austria was almost bankrupt, and even Britain was finding the demands of the war difficult to bear. Individual members of the Directory may have taken a different line, but no general plan of conquest - or, if it is preferred, liberation - was under consideration. And, when conquests were suddenly showered on Paris (from a totally unexpected direction), the plan was still to use them as bargaining counters that could be exchanged for France’s real aims. What changed all this was Napoleon. By embarking on a course of republicanization in Italy, while at the same time cynically partitioning the neutral Republic of Venice with Austria, he set off a chain reaction. As Vienna could not now be bought off by the return of Lombardy, she would instead have to be offered territory in Germany. But, given the Austrian insistence - acceded to by Napoleon - that Prussia should have no part in these proceedings, France was now risking war with Potsdam. In the event this danger was avoided, for at Rastatt the French delegation demanded the whole of the left bank of the Rhine, which in turn implied giving Prussia her place at the German trough. Yet all this meant was the probability of fresh trouble in Italy, where the Habsburgs resented the loss of Mantua, and were likely to respond to Prussian expansion in Germany with demands for the relevant strip of Lombardy.
For reasons that were not solely the fault of Napoleon, France was now also committed to further expansion. As the Cisalpine Republic now had to be protected, the occupation of Switzerland, or to put it another way, the direct route between Paris and Milan, had become an immediate necessity. All over Italy patriots were in a state of ferment. And in Paris the men associated with the coup of 18 Fructidor were in the first place terrified by the spectre of military intervention, in the second greedy for more gold, and in the third committed to a Jacobinism for whose social aspects they had no enthusiasm whatsoever. Whether it was to satisfy the generals, line their own pockets and those of the bankrupt French treasury, or live up to the radical image conjured up in the defeat of Carnot and the ‘royalists’, there was only one way forward. Within a few months, a new republic had been established in Rome, but all this did was to make some Austrian counterstroke more likely, and all the more so as Vienna’s agreement to territorial change in Germany was certain to strip it of most of its main supporters in the Holy Roman Empire and, by extension, likely to lead it to seek compensation in greater control in Italy. Also gone was the possibility of a compromise settlement with Britain: early in 1797 the British had opened peace negotiations with the Directory, but they had collapsed in the wake of Fructidor, while the radicalism of the next few months persuaded Pitt and his ministers that France was once again in the grip of a criminal regime that was quite beyond the pale. There was now, as the British politician William Windham noted, no probability of ‘any good settlement with France, except by means of civil war aided by war from without’.58
It is possible to go too far here. Peace might well have been obtained with Britain in 1797, but it can be argued that, so long as there was no willingness to set aside centuries of Anglo-French rivalry, it would have been inherently unstable. By the same token, meanwhile, limiting France’s ambitions to the Rhine frontier would not necessarily have bought peace in Germany. But that is by-the-by, the fact being that Fructidor and Campo Formio perpetuated the war with Britain, and made a resumption of conflict with Austria much more likely. Thanks in large part to Napoleon, the threat of active opposition also now began to emerge from still another direction. Hitherto Russia had in effect stayed out of the war with France. Though ruled by a monarch who was ferocious in her denunciation of the Revolution and theoretically a member of the First Coalition, she had done nothing: rather than fighting France, what mattered had been consolidating Moscow’s gains in Poland. In 1796, the bellicose and ruthlessly expansionist Catherine II died and was replaced by her son, Paul I, whose reputation as a military martinet cloaked a strong desire for a pacific foreign policy that would allow him to concentrate on domestic reform. In a variety of ways, however, Napoleon’s actions had seriously jeopardized this de facto neutrality. Simply by conquering northern Italy, he had greatly alarmed Catherine, who by had Poland completely under control, and it is highly probable that, had she lived, Russian troops would have been dispatched to the Alps or the Adriatic. From this problem Napoleon was saved by the demise of Catherine, but he continued to dice with the danger, not the least of the risks that he took here being to feign the role of a patron of Polish independence. Although the Directory had for obvious reasons set its face against such a scheme (the formation of some sort of army in exile had, in fact, been advocated on several occasions by Polish refugees who had reached Paris), in 1797 Napoleon recruited a large number of Polish prisoners of war into a special force which was put at the disposal of the Cisalpine Republic. Known as the Polish Auxiliary Legion, this soon became the size of a small division - at its greatest size it might have consisted of some 6,000 men - while, to add insult to injury, it was placed under the command of a hero of the revolt of named Dabrowski. Needless to say, Napoleon was utterly uninterested in liberating Poland - aside from gaining a few more men, his chief interest seems rather to have lain in providing the Cisalpine Republic with a disciplined force of veteran soldiers who could be relied upon to uphold the regime - but that did not stop him from allowing Dabrowski to issue a revolutionary manifesto calling all his fellow countrymen to arms. Moreover, the Legion adopted uniforms of a traditional Polish cut and were guaranteed the right to return to Poland in the event that their countrymen had need of them.
Having upset Russia in one direction, Napoleon now proceeded to do so in another. For a variety of reasons, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean had long been an area of Russian interest. Under the influence of Prince Grigori Potemkin, Catherine II had seriously considered establishing a satellite state in Greece on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. In the end this scheme had not been implemented, but it had not been fully set aside either: for the time being Greece might remain Turkish, but no one was in any doubt that, when the time came to expel the Turks from Europe, it would be Russia that had first claim on the Hellenic world. Napoleon, however, had other ideas. For reasons that are not quite clear, at some point during the Italian campaign the French commander’s eyes turned east. Egypt certainly crossed his mind as his next objective - he raised the idea several times in letters to the Directory - and it was undoubtedly to this end that he suddenly proposed that France should seize Malta. Why, though, should he have decided to take the Ionian islands - the most notable are Corfu, Zante and Cephalonia - as France’s share in the rape of Venice? Like Malta, they were useful naval bases, but, unlike Malta they were also birds in the hand - an important consideration given the need to find an immediate home for the Venetian navy (which Napoleon had been careful to secure for France). At the same time they were useful territories that might be ceded to Constantinople in return for the surrender of Egypt, or, alternatively, employed as a focus for Greek nationalism that might put pressure on the Turks. Then again, their acquisition allowed Napoleon once more to play the liberator, while ensuring that Austria was denied unrestricted access to the Adriatic and guaranteeing France a share in the Ottoman Empire should it be partitioned. Yet another argument, and one advanced by Napoleon himself, was that they were important to France’s trade as stepping stones for the importation of Egyptian cotton. And, finally, they were simply there: presented with the opportunity to bait the Russian bear, the French commander could not resist the opportunity to do so.
Whatever the reason for Napoleon’s actions with regard to the Ionian islands, there is no doubt that they deeply upset Russia. In themselves, however, they were not sufficient to persuade Paul I to go to war. What counted here was the Egyptian campaign of 1798. In some accounts this too has been laid at the door of Napoleon, but in fact this is unfair: the future emperor was not the scheme’s only backer, and in some ways not even its most important one. Nevertheless, the usual pride and ambition played a part. Ordered to take command of preparations for the invasion of Britain favoured by the Directory as its next move in the conflict, early in 1798 Napoleon took one look at the scheme’s prospects and refused point-blank to have anything to do with it, there being no way that he was prepared to risk seeing his reputation lost with all hands in some watery grave in the English Channel; or, for that matter, cool his heels in Calais or Boulogne for the long months that would pass before an invasion could even be attempted. Eager for some sphere of action, at this point he promptly revived the scheme for the invasion of Egypt which he had mentioned the previous summer: ‘An expedition could be made into the Levant which would threaten the commerce of India.’59
In acting in this fashion, Napoleon was in part responding to some romantic lure of the East. To quote Bourrienne, ‘The east presented a field of conquest and glory on which his imagination delighted to brood. “Europe”, said he, “is but a molehill - all the great reputations have come from Asia.” ’60 Yet Napoleon’s own words suggest something rather different:
The seductions of an oriental conquest turned me aside from thoughts of Europe more than I would have believed . . . In Egypt I found myself freed from the obstacles of an irksome civilization. I was full of dreams . . . I saw myself founding a religion, marching into Asia, riding an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand the new Koran that I would have composed to suit my needs. In my undertakings I would have combined the experiences of the two worlds, exploiting for my own profit the theatre of all history . . . The time I spent in Egypt was the most beautiful of my life.61
In short, the dreams of becoming a new Alexander the Great came only after Napoleon had arrived in Egypt and not before. What mattered in the first weeks of 1798 were rather more mundane considerations, as chronicled by Germaine de Staël:
Bonaparte was always looking for means of engaging men’s imagination, and so far as this was concerned he knew exactly how they may be governed when one is not born to a throne. An invasion of Africa, a war waged in a country that was almost fabulous, as was the case with Egypt, could not but work on every spirit. Meanwhile, it would be easy to persuade the French that they would derive great benefit from a Mediterranean colony, and that one day it would offer them some means of attacking the establishments of the English in India. As for the project, it was laden with glory, and would add further lustre to the name of Bonaparte. If he had stayed in France, by contrast, the Directory would have hurled . . . calumnies without number at him and tarnished his reputation . . . Bonaparte would have been broken to smithereens before the thunderbolt had even struck him. In consequence, he had good reason to want to make himself the stuff of poetry rather than leave himself exposed to Jacobin tittle-tattle.62
On top of all this, Napoleon was desperate for action for its own sake. ‘This city of Paris,’ he complained, ‘weighs down on me as if I was covered by a lead blanket.’63 As he later told Claire de Rémusat, ‘I do not know what would have become of me had I not had the happy idea of going to Egypt.’64
But was going to Egypt really a ‘happy idea’? If the country could have been run by France for her own benefit as some sort of dependency, then the gains would doubtless have been enormous. Equally, choosing Egypt as his goal was a clever stroke on Napoleon’s part, as it allowed him to pose as a patron of the arts: with interest growing in Egypt’s ancient past, this fresh adventure from the start had a veneer of cultural respectability that the Corsican general was careful to strengthen by drafting the services of a select band of intellectuals. From a tactical point of view, however, getting a large army from one end of the Mediterranean to the other would be some task: the British might not have had any ships in the Mediterranean at the beginning of 1798 (they had withdrawn their squadron from the theatre in 1796), but they were present in strength at Gibraltar and could get a powerful fleet to the area around Malta and Sicily within a few days. But supposing the French reached Egypt, what then? Should the British choose to do so, they could easily cut the invaders off from France: the French record at sea was less than spectacular, and there was no reason to suppose that the Toulon fleet’s thirteen ships of the line would be able to fight off a substantial British attack (several of the ships were in poor condition and there was a serious shortage of trained crewmen). And if this was so, how could Egypt be exploited as a source of cotton and other colonial produce? In any event, the country would first have to be conquered and this would not be easy. The troops would be operating in a climate to which they were utterly unaccustomed and would be exposed to the ravages of disease of every sort. In addition, Egypt was an enormous country composed in large part of barren deserts and mountains, while its defenders, however pitifully armed and organized by European standards, heavily outnumbered Napoleon’s forces. Alexandria and Cairo could be taken easily enough, but what about Upper Egypt or the Red Sea coast? At risk was a long and costly campaign in which the French could expect little in the way of reinforcements.
Let us say, however, that conquest was achieved. What then? As Egypt was of no importance to Britain in commercial terms the mere fact of seizing her was not much of a blow to her trade. What mattered was India, but this simply raised fresh problems. A march on India in the style of Alexander the Great’s advance to the Indus was hopelessly impractical, but other schemes made little sense either. A maritime invasion, for example, would have required the construction of a fleet of warships and transports on the other side of Egypt on a coast that lacked adequate port facilities and in a sea whose only exit could easily be blockaded by the Royal Navy (it is pointless here to talk of the Suez Canal avant la lettre that was spoken of by Napoleon’s instructions: even if the country was pacified overnight, such a project would have required years to complete). Then there was the possibility of commerce raiding. However, in this respect, too, the prospects were hardly glowing. A few privateers might somehow have been fitted out from local shipping, and Suez or Qusseir established as a new base for the French raiders already operating in the Indian Ocean, but the Red Sea was an inconvenient spot from which to operate, and it is hard to see how the cost of invading Egypt would have justified the marginal gains in operating capacity that would have been added to the possibilities already offered by the French island of Mauritius. And, finally, if the gains were likely to be marginal, there was also the issue of international relations. The Turks, it was supposed, would not fight - though nominally subject to Turkish suzerainty, Egypt was in practice self-governing and brought in very little profit to Constantinople - and, even if they did so, they were not much of a threat. But it was not just a question of the Turks: invading the eastern Mediterranean would almost certainly bring in Russia - Paul I had just given notice of his intention to take a stand by declaring himself to be the protector of Malta or, more precisely, its rulers, the Knights of St John - and this in turn might easily persuade Austria to push for more territory in Italy.
Invading Egypt, then, was rank madness, for success was dependent on the near impossibility of Britain declining to take substantial action in response to the French move. Indeed, only one strategy would have made it worthwhile: were the Royal Navy to be seriously distracted by the stab at Egypt - in other words, if the Cabinet panicked in the face of the lobbying that could be expected from the East India Company - it is just possible that an invasion army might have been rushed across the Channel. Yet no steps were taken to organize such an expedition. To look upon the expedition in conventional terms therefore seems unwise, and it is in fact perfectly possible to find other explanations. Beginning with Napoleon, the plan seems to have been that he would get his army to Egypt, send the French fleet back to safety in Corfu, secure some immediate victories and then slip back to France in a fast frigate so as to exploit the fruits of his apparent triumph. In short, to quote Marmont, ‘Finding opportunities to keep his name in the spotlight . . . was the limit of his thought.’65 But what of the scheme’s other main sponsor, the French Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand? He, one suspects, was playing an even subtler game. Desperate to secure international acceptance of the new France, it seems probable that his aim was to divert the Republic’s aggression and in particular the lust for glory of its most famous commander, into areas that would not cause the powers simply to throw up their hands in horror. What he aimed at, in short, was to initiate the partition of the Ottoman Empire and thereby draw Austria and Russia into a de facto coalition with France. Britain, meanwhile, would be isolated and wild talk of revolutionizing Europe would fade from the scene. As for the problem of Napoleon, Talleyrand’s thinking is clear enough. He had originally seen him as a potential ally in his campaign to restore order and international respectability to France but this belief had been badly shaken by the conquest of Italy. Despite attempts to argue otherwise, the inference seems to be that he was betting that the general would not be able to get back to France in the short term. And, of course, he might go down to ruinous defeat, in which case Talleyrand would still come out on top, for a defeated Napoleon would be a useful scapegoat for the foreign minister himself and a ‘busted flush’ who would have lost all credibility in Paris with a Directory that had never been entirely happy with the expedition.
Whatever the thinking behind it, on 19 May 1798 the great expedition sailed for Egypt. In naval and military terms, there is little need to go into what happened next. Having quickly captured Malta, Napoleon dodged Nelson’s fleet and reached Egypt safely, whereupon the French forces occupied Cairo to the accompaniment of the dazzling victory of the Pyramids. But at this point things went wrong. The French fleet was destroyed at the battle of Aboukir; Turkey, Naples, Austria and Russia all went to war; the French were driven from most of Italy; short-lived success in Naples, which had been transformed into the so-called Parthenopaean Republic in January 1799, was cancelled out in a welter of blood-letting and peasant revolt; and Napoleon himself was for some time precluded from returning to France by the need to rescue his reputation from the loss of his ships. In their different ways, then, both Napoleon and Talleyrand were foiled. Yet the former, at least, remained undaunted. Although an invasion of Palestine failed before the walls of Acre, Napoleon clinched the glory that he needed by literally wiping out a Turkish army of 9,000 men in the second battle of Aboukir (25 July
1799), at which point he fortuitously obtained a packet of European newspapers. Suggesting as these did that France was on the brink of complete defeat, this was all Napoleon needed, and less than a month later he secretly took ship for France, accompanied only by a small group of trusted cronies. With Egypt seemingly securely in the hands of the French and a string of fresh victories under his belt, there were just enough grounds for him to be able to affect the role of conquering hero once again. Bolstered by the arrival just prior to his surprise reappearance of a series of official dispatches that glossed over the failure in the Holy Land, painted the French position in the most roseate of hues and exaggerated the scale of his battlefield triumphs, Napoleon was greeted with great excitement. Hence the scenes witnessed when Napoleon made landfall at Fréjus on 9 October:
An officer rowed to the beach in a boat. We could see him quite clearly. Some men came to meet him, but scarcely had a few seconds passed than we perceived a great commotion: people were running towards the town, and soon the beach was covered by a huge crowd. Boats were loaded with passengers, and . . . a horde of people quickly climbed through the portholes into the ship . . . Soon there was no possibility of the general being mistaken as to the feelings of the entire population. ‘You only can save France,’ they cried to him on all sides. ‘Without you she perishes. You are sent by Heaven: take up the reins of government!’66
Nor did things change thereafter. ‘Our journey from Fréjus to Paris’, wrote Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, ‘was a triumphal progress. One single sentiment animated the entire French people and indicated to Napoleon what he should do. At Lyons, especially, the joy of the inhabitants reached the pitch of delirium.’67 As for the capital, here too spirits were high. To quote one of the future emperor’s most enthusiastic collaborators:
On his arrival Bonaparte took up his residence at the little house that he had bought in the Rue Chantereine . . . This was soon thronged with all the leading personalities of the government, the legislature, the army and the Institute, together with all those who exercised some degree of personal influence . . . Every heart was so overflowing with joy, admiration and love at the return of the hero that, whilst nobody actually acknowledged the fact that he possessed supreme power, everybody recognized this to be the case.68
The reasons for this excitement are understandable. For men of property the domestic situation had become increasingly intolerable. The economy was in ruins; law and order had in many rural areas almost completely broken down due to the immense numbers of men who had been forced into brigandage by poverty and conscription; there had been a resumption of revolt in the Vendée and further trouble in Belgium; and the great military crisis of 1799 was only resolved by once more resorting to measures that recalled the Terror of 1793. To deal with these problems, it was felt that France needed a greatly reinforced executive power, the Directory having proved not just corrupt but incapable of imposing the required degree of authority. Meanwhile, for a much wider spectrum of society, what mattered was peace and with it cheap bread and an end to forced military service. And for rich and poor alike there was the further need for victory, and with it the consolidation of the gains they had made since 1789. The result was inevitable. As Napoleon’s future Minister of the Interior, Jean Antoine Chaptal wrote:
In this state of affairs, it was announced that General Bonaparte had disembarked at Fréjus. The news spread with the speed of light. Hope was reborn in every heart. All the parties rallied to him. The remembrance of his brilliant campaign in Italy, the memorable achievements of his armies in Egypt, did not permit any other choice. He was carried in triumph from Fréjus to Paris, and some days later proclaimed First Consul.69
This, of course, is much too simplistic. Modern scholars recognize that France’s condition was by no means as dark as it was painted by Napoleon’s later apologists and collaborators. In reality, the Directory had introduced a variety of salutary reforms that in principle gave the Republic a much stronger army and a more effective fiscal system. Meanwhile, a series of good harvests had reduced food prices very considerably, while the twin menace of rebellion and military defeat had been overcome. At the same time, one should neither be too deterministic about the consulate nor forget that the plot that brought Napoleon to power was the work, not of l’italique, but of a group of civilian politicians who were not even thinking of Napoleon as the ‘sword’ that could execute their will - had he not fallen at the battle of Novi, the general in command would probably have been Joubert, whilst Sieyès was supposedly actually engaged in the task of persuading Moreau to accept the role when he received the news that the conqueror of Egypt had landed. The arrival of a Napoleon bent on establishing himself in power completely changed the situation however. It was a decisive moment, and one that finally brought Napoleon to the top. As Germaine de Staël recalled, ‘It was the first time since the Revolution that one heard one name in every mouth. Until then it had always been “the Constituent Assembly, the people, the Convention”. Now, however, nobody spoke of anyone except the man who was going to take the place of everyone else and render the human race anonymous.’70
In a sense, then, we are back where we started. Although we have yet to examine the process by which this occurred, France was in the hands of a single towering personality. Given what we have seen of the evolution of Napoleon’s character, there can be no doubt what this portended. For all the claims of his apologists, a critical review of the new French ruler’s early years produces a picture of a man who was very far from being the hero and liberator of legend. So far as Napoleon was concerned, by 1799 ideology was something that he had jettisoned long ago. Moreover, even when it had been a genuine part of his life, it seems clear that it was never there for its own sake. Let us take, for example, Napoleon’s Corsican nationalism. Fierce though this was, in the end it was at heart an affectation. In his schoolboy years a means of asserting his personality, it very quickly became merely a vehicle for his family interests and vaunting personal ambition, and was jettisoned as soon as it became clear that the Bonaparte clan had lost the battle to secure control of its native island. Much the same applies, meanwhile, to Napoleon’s Jacobinism. Privately disgusted by the excesses of the Revolution, he very quickly became convinced that the radical politicians who egged on such scenes were no more than self-seeking demagogues. Yet recognizing the power of their ideas and, above all, their importance in the army, which remained the element in French society most devoted to the radicalism of 1792-3, he made use of them to establish an unassailable powerbase in its ranks. But throughout, ideology was a matter of secondary importance to him. In northern Italy he defied government policy to set up the Ligurian and Cisalpine Republics, but this overtly liberationist behaviour was countered by his refusal to impose a peace on the Papal States that would have shattered the temporal power of the papacy, and his cession of much of Venice to the Habsburgs. In Egypt, too, the same cavalier attitude was apparent. Napoleon was - personally speaking - deeply irreligious, and yet in Cairo he flirted with Islam and proclaimed his intention of governing in accordance with the Koran in the vain hope that this would win the cooperation of the local elite and stave off the threat of Turkish intervention. In the same way, in Italy he had flattered the local bishops and pretended that he was a friend of the Catholic Church. As he famously remarked in August 1800, ‘It was by declaring myself to be Catholic that I finished the war in the Vendée, by declaring myself to be Muslim that I established myself in Egypt, in declaring myself to be ultramontane that I won over the hearts of the Italians. If I governed a nation of Jews, I would re-establish the Temple of Solomon.’71
According to Napoleon’s apologists, this cynicism was only apparent: all he wanted was to govern all men as they wished to be governed and to treat all religions with equal respect. Such arguments, however, are at best disingenuous. For Napoleon all that really mattered was the pursuit of power and his own glorification. He sought to bind these in with ideas of the national interest and the defence of the Revolution, but in the end they were simply to be enjoyed for their own sake. In the words of one embittered politician, ‘Bonaparte has never known anything but absolute power . . . It is so gratifying to find oneself surrounded, solicited, flattered; to be able to distribute benefits amongst one’s family and friends; to conquer ever more opulence and grandeur.’72 What did this mean for international relations? In later years Napoleon always attempted to minimize the impact of his activities from 1796 to
1799. The Directory, he argued, needed war and, in consequence, he had simply been its instrument. However, whilst war brought much plunder to France, it also caused such difficulties on the home front that peace became a prerequisite of political and social stability. But for Napoleon it seems quite clear that such a peace might have been obtained in 1797, for Austria was defeated militarily and Britain willing to come to terms. Equally, although he was not the only actor in the drama, without Napoleon there would have been no breach with Russia in
1798, still less any resumption of hostilities with Austria and Naples. Interwoven in this was what seemed at the time to be a revolution in international politics: having single-handedly committed France to a major change of policy in Italy, Napoleon embarked on a unilateral partition of the Ottoman Empire, which had the extraordinary result of uniting St Petersburg and Constantinople. This is not to say that traditional foreign policy interests did not survive, nor that they had been overturned by the Revolution: if Russia fought alongside the Ottoman Empire in 1798, for example, it was in part to keep it safe for partition on her own terms at a later date. None the less a disturbing new element - a personal ambition so great that it could not be constrained within the boundaries of the European states system - had entered international relations.