Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Napoleon is one of the most fascinating characters of all time, not only because of his tremendous military achievements but because of his many strategic insights into human nature, government, and geopolitics. He rocked all of Europe not only with his armies but with his visions of a secular and "enlightened" government. This story of his life recounts his military achievements in detail and gives some insight into his motivations and character.

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There is no more marvellous story in human history than that of Napoleon I., Emperor of the French. His career is one long demonstration of the reality of the proverb, "Truth is stranger than fiction." So fascinating are the details of a life in which so much was attempted and accomplished that many thousands of volumes have been published dealing with its various phases. The demand is by no means exhausted, the supply continuous, as witness the present work. Busy pens are still employed in reviewing the almost superhuman activities of the once obscure Corsican, whose genius for war and conquest upset many a throne, secured for him the Overlordship of Europe, and eventually consigned him to an island prison. Indeed, there seems little likelihood of a lull in interest while the chief source of instruction and amusement of human nature is humanity—in other words itself. Most of us are content to be pupils in the school of experience, willing to sit at the feet of such a master as Napoleon, and learn the lessons he has to teach. The result cannot be other than profitable.

Napoleon has now been dead for a century, but the dazzling brilliancy of his exploits has left a rich afterglow which enables us to get a much less distorted view of him than did our forefathers who were his contemporaries. A subdued light is more useful than one so strong that it almost blinds. With the former we can see details more distinctly, note faults and flaws if there be any, get a clearer idea of an object in every way. Within living memory the name of Napoleon, particularly in Great Britain, was associated with everything that was base and vile, now we know that he was neither the Borgia of his enemies nor the Arch-Patriot of his friends. Nevertheless it is easier for a sightless person to thread a needle than for the most conscientious historian to arrive at an absolutely just summing-up of the case. The "Memoirs" of those with whom the Emperor was intimately acquainted are seldom impartial; the majority of the writers are either definitely for or against him. Take those of Baron Meneval as a typical example. The author was one of Napoleon's secretaries, and every page of his work is a defence of his master. In the matter of the execution of the Duc d'Enghien, for instance, he takes up the cudgels on behalf of the man who was responsible for the tragedy at Vincennes, boldly stating that "One is forced to admit that Napoleon fulfilled a painful duty, as Head of the Government, and that instead of charging him with a crime, one should rather pity him for having been placed in the necessity of accepting all the odium of an act, the deplorable consequences of which, in the future, his foresight only too clearly pointed out to him."

Far from Napoleon being concerned as to probable political consequences, he asserted it would teach the Bourbons a lesson. On the other hand, the "Memoirs" of Barras, a prominent figure in the French Revolution, might have been of considerable service to us in gathering information as to Bonaparte's early career, had it not been proved beyond question that much he tells us is sheer barefaced untruth, and he everywhere seeks to belittle the accomplishments of the young soldier.

"Bonaparte, on the 13th of Vendemiaire," he says, "performed no functions but those of an aide-de-camp of mine. I was on horseback, he was on foot; he could not follow my movements. The only order he received from me was to go to the Pont Royal, and to report to me what was taking place. He did not give, and had not to give, a single order, and was seen at only one point of the attack, at the Carrousel. He did not stir from thence; Brune was in command." The statements of Thiebault, Marmont, and many others prove beyond question that Napoleon, and he alone, saved the day.

Books which unduly eulogise or condemn should be read therefore with a certain amount of reserve. Of partisans such as Jung there are many, and they doubtless fulfil a useful purpose provided always that a representative of the other side is given a similar hearing. Lanfrey, whose vitriolic volumes may be perused in English, represents a school of thought which has no place in an age which refuses to listen or to read only of the evil in a man.

Special attention has been paid in the present work to the genesis of Napoleon's career, because it is in what is known as the formative period that we plant the seeds of future success. To-day and to-morrow are inextricably interblended, although we so often fail to appreciate what is assuredly one of the most vital facts of life. Periods of time are no more real boundaries than periods of history, which are merely make-believe divisions for purposes of clearness and reference. Of course, one reign may be more enlightened than another, one Statesman may confer more benefits on his country than his predecessor, but there is always a previous foundation on which to build. Napoleon did not create his vast Empire from nothing. A mosaic-worker who is given a pile of vari-coloured marble chips with which to glorify a cathedral pavement does not disdain the fragments because they are in confusion and appear of little worth. With infinite patience and skill he sorts them into their various grades, then combines them again, but giving each its proper order in the scheme. Presently from apparent chaos he produces a work of beauty.

Napoleon came on the scene when the giant upheaval known as the French Revolution had thrown the whole nation out of gear. He brought the scattered masses together, recreated Government and the army, made laws, re-established religion—in a word, led the people back from anarchy and savagery to civilisation and order. Napoleon's true place in history is as an organiser. Conqueror he undoubtedly was, and his overgrown ambition in this direction was the cause of his downfall. Had he chosen to rule France solely all would have been well; neighbouring nations could not have raised legitimate objections. As it was they owe a debt of gratitude to him. Although no part of his scheme to awaken dormant ideals of nationality and of liberty, he unwittingly did so in the archaic Holy Roman Empire, Italy, Spain, and Tyrol, to mention the more important. A century ago, Europe hated the Man of Destiny, and not without cause; to-day, she has every reason, if not to revere his memory, to be thankful for having felt the iron grip of Napoleon. Surgical operations are extremely painful whether individual or national.

Napoleon cannot be called a "good" man in the usually accepted sense of so latitudinarian a word. He was the instigator of more than one political crime, yet he had a heart that could beat for the afflicted; he would say the most unkind and cruel things of Sir Hudson Lowe, to whose care he was committed at St Helena, and play at bears with little Betsy Balcombe during her stay in the same island. So complex a personality must necessarily defy to a great extent the set-square and compasses both of panegyrist and detractor. Guided by no standard code of morality, he created his own, that of expediency. "No name," says Lord Rosebery, "represents so completely and conspicuously dominion, splendour and catastrophe. He raised himself by the use, and ruined himself by the abuse, of superhuman faculties. He was wrecked by the extravagance of his own genius. No less powers than those which had effected his rise could have achieved his fall."

In a book limited to a certain number of pages many phases of a crowded life such as Napoleon's must necessarily receive somewhat scant treatment It has been found impossible to treat military events in full, but the general outlines of the various campaigns have been given, and the narratives of first-hand authorities quoted whenever practicable. For general reading a description of a battle by a man who was present is always to be preferred to the minute details of the most painstaking student.

As regards authorities, special reference must be made to Volume IX. of the monumental Cambridge Modern History, Dr J. Holland Rose's just and impartial Life of Napoleon I., Sir John Seeley's somewhat disparaging Short History of Napoleon the First, Mr F. Loraine Petre's masterly studies of the Polish, Prussian, and Austrian campaigns, Sir Archibald Alison's History of Europe, which has by no means lost its usefulness since more modern research has added to our knowledge of the epoch, Mr Oscar Browning's interesting Boyhood and Youth of Napoleon, 1769-1793, and Mr Hereford B. George's Napoleon's Invasion of Russia.

A host of other volumes dealing with the same inexhaustible subject which line the shelves of my crowded library have also been utilised, I trust, to good purpose.

It may not be considered inappropriate that a new edition of this book should be called for in the year of the centenary of the death of the great soldier and statesman. Since the work was first published in 1910 as a monograph for the general reader, it has been reprinted many times, which is additional testimony to the continued interest in Napoleon, whose name is perhaps venerated most of all by Marshal Foch, the outstanding military genius of the World War. I have taken the opportunity to include a new chapter.

When the late Admiral Eden was a senior midshipman he was told by his Admiral that he was to accompany him on a visit to the fallen Emperor at St Helena. "We waited for Napoleon in an outer room," he afterwards told a friend, "and you must imagine how eagerly I expected his entrance. The door was thrown open at last, and in he came. He was short and fat, and nothing very attractive but for his eye! My word, sir, I had never seen anything like it.

"After speaking to the Admiral he turned to me, and then I understood for the first time in my life what was the meaning of the phrase 'A born ruler of men.' I had been taught to hate the French as I hated the devil; but when Napoleon looked at me there was such power and majesty in his look that if he had bade me lie down that he might walk over me, I would have done it at once, Englishman although I was. The look on Napoleon's face was the revelation of the man and the explanation of his power. He was born to command."

And there you have part of the secret of Napoleon's career.


[Contents, Page 1 of 2] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler
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