Napoleon Bonaparte: A career of triumph and disaster


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Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was born into the French gentry on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica, France.

One of the most well known leaders in the history of the West, Napoleon began his education at the military college of Brienne, before moving on to the military academy in Paris. Graduating early, Napoleon, who was already at the rank of second lieutenant to the artillery, returned to Corsica in 1786 after the death of his father.

Before his death, Napoleon’s father had been a staunch member of the Corsican resistance to the French occupation. Napoleon joined forces with his father’s former ally, Pasquale Paoli, but the men fell-out, and when a civil war in Corsica began in April 1793, Napoleon and his family relocated to France.

Napoleon rejoined his old regiment at Nice in June 1793, and was rapidly promoted until, in 1796, he was appointed commander of the French army in Italy. His forces consisted of just 30,000 disgruntled, underfed, and rebellious men; a force which he rebuilt and went on to lead to numerous crucial victories against the Austrians, and in so doing expand the French Empire.

After squashing an internal threat by the royalists, who wished to return France to a monarchy after it had only just begun to recover from the terror of the French Revolution, Napoleon travelled to the Middle East. There, in 1798 he led a campaign to undermine the British Empire by occupying Egypt and disrupting English trade routes to India.

This campaign, however, in stark contrast to his earlier successes, proved disastrous. On August 1, 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet decimated his forces in the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon’s image was badly damaged, particularly when Britain, Austria, Russia and Turkey formed a new coalition against France. This united force defeated the French Army in Italy in 1799, forcing France to give up much of the peninsula.

In October 1799 Napoleon returned to France where, working with Emmanuel Sieyes, he hatched plans for a coup that would place Emmanuel, himself, and their colleague, Pierre-Roger Ducos, at the head of a new government, called the Consulate.
As the First Consul, Bonaparte reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and instituted the Napoleonic Code, which forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion and stated that government jobs must be given to the most qualified, and he negotiated peace across Europe. These reforms led to Napoleon being elected consul for life in 1802, and two years later he was proclaimed Emperor of France.