A History of Europe
Chapter 12: A GENERATION OF REVOLUTION, PART II
1772 to 1815
This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:
The First Consul Takes on the Second Coalition
Before the ink was dry on the highly favorable treaty of 1797, the French were on the move again. In February 1798 they occupied the rest of the Papal state and in April Switzerland. Then in May Bonaparte set forth on a romantic campaign to conquer Egypt and India. It was his first adventure outside of continental Europe--and also his last. He was victorious against the Turkish rulers of Egypt on land, but Britain's Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson soon found and destroyed his fleet in the mouth of the Nile (the battle of Aboukir Bay), leaving his army sick with the plague and stranded among the pyramids. Then he heard there was trouble at home and deserted his troops. He slipped past the British ships patrolling the Mediterranean and landed on the Riviera to a conqueror's welcome in October 1799. The Egyptian campaign was the kind of defeat that could ruin any general's career, but paradoxically the British blockade on France kept the bad news away until it no longer mattered.
France did need him. The advances of 1798 had provoked Britain into forming a second all-European coalition which, thanks to a Russian force commanded by General Alexander Suvorov, had more bite than the first. While the Austrians returned to the banks of the Rhine, Suvorov destroyed the Cisalpine Republic and cleared the French out of Italy except for Genoa. A Russian fleet sailed out of the Black Sea and took the Ionian Islands. The Directory had caused unrest at home by nullifying both the 1798 and 1799 elections because they had produced an Assembly too republican for their taste. By the time Bonaparte returned, he found the French government had gone bankrupt--both financially and morally--and had lost its ability to control affairs.
It didn't take Bonaparte long to size up the situation and take command. On Brumaire 18 (November 9, for those of you who insist on using the traditional calendar), he engineered a coup by persuading three of the Directors to support him in whatever he did. The next day those three resigned and the other two were arrested. Then Bonaparte appeared before the Assembly and told them that the Jacobins were planning a revolt, and asked them to give him the powers needed to save the republic, since the Directory no longer existed. Instead the deputies demanded evidence of the Jacobin plot, shouted "Outlaw him" when none was produced, and swarmed toward him with unsheathed daggers and flowing togas. Bonaparte's brother Lucien, who presided over the Assembly, rescued the general, who quickly returned with soldiers to clear the squabbling lawyers from the hall at bayonet point. Now Bonaparte set up a "consulate," led by himself and two of the friendly ex-Directors; nobody had any doubt that the "First Consul" (Bonaparte) called the shots from the start. At the dawn of the nineteenth century he wrote yet another constitution which made everything he did legal and gave himself nearly unlimited power; when he submitted it to the country, the voters overwhelmingly approved it (3,011,007 votes for, 1,562 against). This dictatorship soon proved to be an efficient and welcome alternative to the muddles of recent years. The dedication to military glory that went with the efficiency seemed like a necessary virtue at the time; its limitless extent became apparent only gradually.
Bonaparte found the military situation in 1800 to be better than he might have expected. The Russians were offended when the Austrians did not join them in an attack on Switzerland, and recalled Suvorov's army. That left the Austrians with a weak position in Italy, but they put Genoa under siege anyway. The French Rhine army under Moreau advanced into Germany, and the First Consul called up the reserve troops, led them into Switzerland, then down onto the plain of Lombardy behind the Austrians. It was a fine strategy and a well-executed maneuver, but this time Bonaparte seemed to be his own worst enemy. Fearful lest the Austrians escape, he spread his net too wide; the Austrians concentrated their forces and struck at the French center. Only the fighting quality of the French army and the quick reflexes of its corps commanders prevented a nasty defeat. One day after this battle (at Marengo) the Austrians offered to withdraw from Piedmont and Genoa, keeping just Lombardy and Venetia; Bonaparte, who had originally planned on annihilating them, was happy to let them walk away with their banners and guns. At least he could claim that he had restored the French position in Italy in one dramatic move.
At sea the French were no longer a threat, but the British were, so Russia's Tsar Paul revived the League of Armed Neutrality, the alliance of neutral states during the American Revolution. Besides Russia, the League members were Denmark, Sweden and Prussia. However, at this stage the British felt that anyone who was not against Bonaparte was for him, so they sent the Royal Navy to beat up the Danes. They caught up with the Danish fleet just outside Copenhagen; at the height of the battle, the commanding admiral ordered Vice-admiral Nelson to retreat, but Nelson continued to fight until the fleet was smashed and Copenhagen was captured (later, Nelson claimed he did not see his commander's signal because he was holding the telescope up to his blind eye at the time). Ten days before the battle of Copenhagen, Paul died, and his son Alexander I became the next tsar. One of Alexander's first acts was to withdraw from the League, and without Russia and Denmark, the alliance collapsed. By this time, General Moreau had trapped and destroyed the main Austrian army at Hohenlinden, and advanced to the gates of Vienna, so the Austrian emperor sued for peace, and in 1801 the War of the Second Coalition ended.
The treaty ending the war was signed at the French city of Amiens. Although the belligerent powers came to terms, in practice they treated the treaty as if it was just a cease-fire. Nobody expected peace to last and during the two years after 1801, the French, British, Austrians, etc. prepared for the next war, enlarging and resupplying their armies and navies.
Several territorial adjustments were made on the Continent in 1801-03; most of them were in France's favor, of course. The German states who lost territory to France on the Rhine's west bank were compensated with gains on the east bank; at the same time the French began to simplify the German jigsaw puzzle. In line with the secular trend of the day many of the changes were made at the expense of Germany's ecclesiastical leaders; for example, the Bishopric of Salzburg became just another duchy.
Napoleon's Coronation. The pope is reduced to being a spectator while the new emperor puts a crown on Josephine.
Confident in their command of the sea, the British had the least to fear from Napoleon, and when he broke his promise to withdraw from Holland they declared war (1803). Next they imposed another naval blockade on all French ports on the Continent, and used diplomacy and subsidies to make Napoleon's continental enemies challenge him on land. Napoleon reacted vigorously, assembling his Grande Armeé for an invasion of England. A few rehearsals showed that he couldn't just slip across the Channel; an invasion required control of the sea between France and the British Isles for at least two weeks. By persuading Spain to join him, the emperor obtained a fleet that was, on paper, as big as Britain's.
The trick was to get the French and Spanish warships out of half a dozen Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, where they were blockaded, and concentrate them in a force big enough to defeat the British fleet. Napoleon's plan called for the squadrons to sneak away when the British weren't looking, meet in the West Indies and then double back across the Atlantic to the Channel. Perhaps the British Channel fleet would pursue the French and Spanish to the West Indies, in which case the game was won; any battle fought here would be on equal terms. Even if the British won in the Caribbean, the French would have time to ferry their army across the Channel in small boats and capture London before the Royal Navy returned. In early 1805 the emperor gave the order. Two French squadrons and a Spanish one (from Toulon, Rochefort, and Cadiz) managed to break out and reach the Caribbean, but the Rochefort squadron returned home without ever finding the others; then the Toulon and Cadiz squadrons sailed for Spain instead of the Channel. Admiral Nelson headed for the West Indies with the British Mediterranean fleet, which made Napoleon's plan look better than it was, but the critical point was that the Channel fleet never budged. On the way back the Franco-Spanish fleet of twenty ships was intercepted by fifteen British ships. Admiral Calder, the British commander, lacked Nelson's touch but still managed to take two of the Spaniards.
Napoleon realized that attempting to win control of the Channel was hopeless and decided to try for control of the Mediterranean instead. He gave the order for a new series of escape-and-concentrate maneuvers. This time they were successful; by August he had thirty-three French and Spanish battleships in Cadiz. In October Nelson caught them off Cape Trafalgar, just before they could enter the Mediterranean, and his twenty-seven ships took twenty of the enemy, without losing any of their own. Nelson was shot by a sniper, and died three hours later, but the battle was won and his work was done. For the rest of the war--and until World War I--no one in Europe challenged British sea power again.(9)
The battle of Trafalgar.
Two months before Trafalgar Napoleon gave up his plans for the navy and began to march the Grande Armeé east across France. The Austrians, promised support by Russia, decided to try their luck by invading Bavaria, one of Napoleon's German allies. They concentrated at Ulm on the Upper Danube, expecting the French to cross the nearest part of the upper Rhine. Instead, Napoleon crossed the Rhine several miles to the north, bypassed the Austrians and turned south to reach the Danube in their rear. This maneuver worked perfectly, because it also cut off the Austrians from their communications. Three days later, 30,000 panicked Austrians surrendered at Ulm (October 19, 1805), without the need for the French to fire many shots. The part of the Austrian army that escaped the trap disintegrated in the pursuit afterwards.
The Russians did not participate in the battle of Ulm because they always had a long way to go, and unlike the French, could not move their armies fast. At the end of the battle, the nearest Russian corps was still 100 miles to the east. Since they were too weak to stop the Grande Armeé, the allies abandoned Vienna to Napoleon and concentrated their forces to the north. Napoleon's force was still faster, and it caught up with the allies in November, near the village of Austerlitz. Because Austria's Francis I and Russia's Tsar Alexander I were also there to lead their armies, you can call Austerlitz the "battle of the three emperors" if you wish.
The French took up a defensive position at first. The Austrians and Russians noted that the French right flank was lightly guarded, so they made plans to create a diversionary attack on the French left, and then hit the French with their main force on the right, which would cut off Napoleon from Vienna. This was so obvious that Napoleon remarked the enemy was acting as if it was taking orders from him; then he told his troops what to expect, and what he was going to do in return. He deliberately weakened his right flank some more, so that the allies would not change their plan, let the allies get fully committed to the attack, and watched the line get stretched thin between the forces making the attack and those assigned to hold the French center. Then he struck hard for the high ground between these two parts of the Austro-Russian army. Sure enough, the allied army was split in two and the rest of the day was spent pounding the southern half of it to bits. Because winter was starting, the Austrians tried to retreat across a frozen lake, and Napoleon killed thousands of them by ordering a cannon bombardment of the ice. Two days after this, Napoleon's most brilliant victory, the Austrians sued for peace. The Russians sullenly withdrew what was left of their expeditionary force. They wouldn't return soon, because the Turks declared war on Russia (the Russo-Turkish War, 1806-12), adding a second front the Russians had to fight on.
For all of 1805 the Prussians wondered which side in the conflict they should take. At first Napoleon bought their support by occupying Hanover and giving it to them, but later they were frightened off by the news of Ulm and Austerlitz. Then in 1806 Francis I dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, to keep Napoleon from getting the imperial crown. In the Empire's place Napoleon set up a "Confederation of the Rhine," made up of German states (excluding Prussia and Austria) that were larger, fewer, and under French protection. The Prussians decided they had to draw the line somewhere; to keep Saxony out of Napoleon's hands they occupied it. Napoleon responded by declaring war (September 1806). The Grande Armeé had been camping in Bavaria since it pulled out of Austria; now it made a beeline directly to Berlin. The speed of Napoleon's advance was too much for the Prussian generals' nerves; when they heard he was coming they started a phased withdrawal from their prepared position at Jena, in southwestern Saxony. Napoleon arrived while nearly half of the Prussians were still there, and overwhelmed them on the spot. He sent another corps under Marshal Louis Davout to catch the rest of the Prussians at Auerstadt, fifteen miles away. The Grande Armeé was superior to its opponents even when Napoleon wasn't with it; Davout's 26,000 men had attacked, enveloped and destroyed a force of 63,000 Prussians.
The pursuit after Jena and Auerstadt was ruthless. Davout was at the gates of Berlin only ten days after his battle and the remnant of the Prussian army was expertly shepherded west (to keep it away from the Russians) and forced to surrender. The last Prussian formation, that of Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, fought all the way to Lübeck before surrendering in early November.
The king of Prussia was now without an army, but another Russian one was on the way. It got as far as Warsaw before Napoleon threw it back. Then the Grande Armeé crossed the Vistula and went into winter quarters. In January 1807 the Russians launched a surprise offensive; the French repulsed it and pursued the Russians north into East Prussia. The battle of Eylau was fought in a snowstorm; a combination of dogged courage and tactical luck on the part of the Russians made it a draw and gave the Grande Armeé its first really heavy casualty list. It made Napoleon more careful--and the Russians overconfident. When fighting started again in the spring, the Russians took a chance by attacking what appeared to be an isolated French corps at Friedland. To do this they had to fight with their backs to a river, meaning that if Napoleon could get his main force there in time, the Russians would be surrounded and massacred. He did, and they were.
The Grande Armeé's sweep through Europe eliminated every opponent of Napoleon except Britain and Russia, and after Friedland the Tsar was too discouraged to fight anymore. What's more, Napoleon now offered him what looked like a partnership; he gave Alexander a slice of Prussian-held Poland and took nothing in return except the Ionian Isles (Treaty of Tilsit, 1807).
On the conquered Austrians and Prussians Napoleon imposed pitiless terms. Austria was forced to cede the whole Tyrol to Bavaria, Venetia to the Kingdom of Italy, and Dalmatia (soon to be called by its classical name of Illyria) to the French Empire. Prussia lost everything west of the Elbe, the land it took from Poland in the 1793 and 1795 partitions, and Danzig. Danzig was declared a free city; the Polish lands were reassembled into a "Duchy of Warsaw" which was ruled by another French puppet, the elector of Saxony.
Behind Napoleon's armies marched Napoleon's family. This was nepotism on a scale rarely seen before or since; it was also the thing one might expect the head of a Corsican clan to do, because these were very ordinary men and women. In 1806 the king of Naples was chased off the Italian mainland and Napoleon's brother, Joseph Bonaparte, took his throne. The Batavian Republic was turned into a Dutch kingdom for brother Louis in the same year. Brother Jerome got Westphalia, a new kingdom formed in western Germany by adding a few German states to occupied Hanover. Sisters Eliza and Pauline got ministates in Italy; Eliza enlarged hers by marrying the ruler of Etruria. Another sister, Caroline, married Marshal Joachim Murat, who in 1808 succeeded Joseph as king of Naples. Stepson Eugene de Beauharnais (a son from Empress Josephine's first marriage) became the viceroy of the Kingdom of Italy. All of the relatives changed their last name from Bonaparte to Napoleon so that nobody would forget whose family they were in.
Another one of Napoleon's generals, Marshal Jean Bernadotte, got the crown of Sweden, but this time Napoleon had nothing to do with it. Bernadotte was commander of the French army in northern Germany from 1805 to 1809, and during the 1806 campaign he captured some Swedish soldiers. However, France and Sweden were not at war with each other, so he treated them very well. Nothing might have come of that, but in 1809 Sweden got an unsuitable king, Charles XIII; he was sixty-one years old, in poor health, and both of his children had died in infancy. Since the ruling dynasty was going to die with this king, the Swedes scrambled to find an heir to the throne, and because of Bernadotte's act of kindness, a baron named Karl Otto Mörner proposed that Bernadotte be appointed. Much of the army agreed with him, liking the idea that a military man could be their next king; by 1810 the rest of the Swedish government came around accepting this choice, too. Napoleon thought it was a joke, and did not support this elevation of Bernadotte, but he did not oppose it either. Bernadotte resigned his commission so he could become the heir, and converted to Lutheranism (we saw in Chapter 11 that a Swedish monarch cannot be Catholic); he even supported Sweden when it joined Napoleon's enemies in 1813. Later Sweden acquired Norway from Denmark, as we shall see below, so when Charles XIII died in 1818, Bernadotte actually inherited two crowns; he changed his name to Charles XIV John of Sweden, and Charles III John of Norway. He ruled both countries until his death in 1844, and though he never learned Swedish or Norwegian, he wasn't hindered much because French was the language of diplomacy at the time, meaning it was widely used at the king's court. All the kings of Sweden since 1844 have been Bernadotte's descendants.
Also available, but not assigned to anybody, was the crown of Portugal. The Portuguese showed so little enthusiasm for the Napoleonic system that the emperor marched through Spain and occupied their country in 1807. British sea power preserved Sicily for the ex-king of Naples, and Sardinia for the ex-king of Savoy, but the Portuguese royal family had nothing left in Europe, so they took refuge in Brazil.
Troubles on the other end of Europe forced Napoleon to save his eastern plans for later. Spain's King Charles IV was an irritating ally; from every point of view Joseph Napoleon, the king of Naples, would be a better ruler. In March 1808 some units left the army of occupation in Portugal, joined a couple of corps sent to Spain disguised as reinforcements, and carried out a bloodless coup. Charles tried to prevent violence by abdicating in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII, because Ferdinand was on Napoleon's side. Instead, Napoleon surprised everyone by having both Charles and Ferdinand hauled off to a prison in France. Then in May Marshal Murat helped the Spanish Parliament discover a yearning for Joseph which it did not know it had. The whole operation was fast and smooth--and blown to pieces by a national uprising at the end of the month. Joseph arrived to find that his new kingdom consisted of little more than Madrid. Joseph might have been able to get the upper hand against the rebels had they fought alone, but in July they were joined by a British expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley (soon to be known as the Duke of Wellington), who had just liberated Portugal. Furious, Napoleon rushed into Spain with 300,000 men. He crushed the Spaniards, annexed Catalonia as payment for his troubles, and chased the British out of Spain (though not out of Portugal). Then he left; two months was all he could spare for Joseph's problems, for the Austrians were making another attempt to break the French grip on Europe.(10)
The Austrian declaration of war in 1809 was caused by a wave of anti-French feeling similar to the Spanish fury Joseph was experiencing in Spain. On a cool analysis no one could expect the reformed, enlarged Austrian army to defeat the larger, perennially victorious forces of the French Empire. Nevertheless, Napoleon reacted with overconfidence. When he attempted to direct the war from Paris he failed to get Davout's corps concentrated in Bavaria and nearly lost it as a result. He arrived on the battlefield of Ratisbon in time to save the day, but it was not one of his best victories. The Austrians, bruised but intact, retreated north of the Danube; the French moved along the south bank and occupied Vienna. Five miles to the east, at Aspern, Napoleon decided to cross to the north bank. What he did not know was that the Austrians were already there. The first two French corps across found themselves under attack by the whole Austrian army. They barely held out, allowing Napoleon to come across with his personal guards and another corps that night. Davout was to follow the next day. But now came real trouble. The Austrians launched barges down the river to break the pontoon bridge erected by the French. Early on the morning of the second day a big barge hit the bridge and smashed it completely. The French on the far bank were too weak to prevail against the Austrians and began taking heavy losses. Napoleon had to concede his first defeat since Egypt and evacuate the bridgehead by boat under cover of darkness.
If he had still been just a general, Napoleon might have tried a new plan; as emperor he had to prove he was unstoppable. Orders went out for every man and gun the empire could spare and six weeks after the battle of Aspern the French army crossed the Danube again--at the same place but with twice the strength. The Austrians were holding a position a few miles back, at Wagram. Both sides ran into each other head-on; when it looked like a stalemate Napoleon committed his 10,000-man reserve force in the form of a huge square and aimed it right at the Austrian center. It didn't break through but it did break the Austrian commander's nerve. He ordered a retreat and advised the government to sue for peace.
Two paintings of the battle of Wagram.
The price of peace with Napoleon was, as usual, high. Austria had to cede most of Galicia to the Duchy of Warsaw, except for the city of Tarnopol, which was given to the Russians as a reward for staying out of the conflict. Most of Croatia was also taken away and added to the French Empire's Illyrian province.
Though Wagram was Napoleon's least elegant victory to date, it impressed Europe more than any other. Where previously there had been the hope that Napoleon could be beaten by good generalship and a bit of luck, now it seemed that his energy, ruthlessness and big battalions could carry him over any obstacle. The image of the great square marching forward at Wagram created a new image of Napoleon, not one of genius but of sheer power; the trail of blood it left behind also started to turn the French against their emperor.
After 1809 Napoleon seemed to become an example of the Peter Principle, the modern maxim that says society is imperfect because everyone rises to his level of incompetence. He overburdened himself by personally managing more details of his growing empire every year; now the decisions he made turned out to be wrong more often than right. All Europe got tired of him; in the campaigns that followed Napoleon found himself fighting not just the kings of Europe, but whole peoples. Kings, clergymen and radicals were all in agreement that he must go.
In Spain the Grande Armeé did not know what to do; it had beaten every conventional army it had encountered, but nothing in the military books, or in their experience, told them how to defeat an enemy who didn't play by the rules. Thus, the war in Spain turned into a no-win situation, very much like Vietnam would be for France and the United States in the twentieth century; it blazed with a spirit that a Corsican should have understood.(11) In southern Italy, several secret societies called the Carbonari began another revolt, against both the French and Marshal/King Murat. Meanwhile, the Prussians worked with remarkable unity of purpose to put their house in order. In the four years after Jena they had abolished both privilege and serfdom, while organizing popular education and popular patriotism; in a nutshell it was a nonviolent revolution. By 1810 a new Prussia existed, the nucleus for a new Germany. Napoleon had limited the Prussian army to 42,000 men, but they bent this rule by putting their soldiers in reserve and conscripting new ones as soon as training was finished, giving them a potential force of 270,000. And now the mystical Tsar Alexander I was portraying himself as the friend of liberty, since at this point free men were more inclined to support him than the French emperor.
Meanwhile Napoleon spent much personal energy trying to make the Bonaparte dynasty as legitimate as the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns. In 1810 he divorced his old helper Josephine, on charges of infidelity and failure to produce an heir. Mind you, they didn't separate on bad terms; he left her with a palace and a pension of 3 million francs a year. To take her place, Napoleon wanted to marry a Russian princess, a real princess, but Alexander snubbed him, so he negotiated with the Austrians, his enemy from the year before. Somehow he persuaded the Hapsburgs to allow a marriage between him and a nineteen-year-old Austrian archduchess, Marie Louise. One year later he got the son he wanted (named Napoleon II, of course); he immediately took Rome from the pope and held it in reserve as a kingdom for the infant prince. The Austrians read him right. He might have been the creator of a new world, but he couldn't pass up an opportunity to become the son-in-law of the old.
The Continental System caused Napoleon to coerce everyone on his side mercilessly. To enforce the embargoes, he kicked Louis off the throne of Holland in 1810, and added Holland to the French Empire. Next, he annexed all of northwest Germany up to the root of Denmark, to seal off the North Sea coast. Then in 1811, the Tsar decided to resume trade with Britain, and Napoleon took it as a personal insult. No one could remain independent of the Napoleonic system, and though his work in Spain was unfinished, he prepared for the campaign that would mark the turning point of his career. In June 1812 he assembled an army of 610,000 men (a quarter of a million French, the rest drawn from allies and vassal states). The Tsar could muster only one third as many men, so Napoleon predicted that this would be another of his lightning campaigns; in five or six weeks it would all be over and he would impose a humiliating peace.(12)
For reasons unclear to the author, Napoleon chose to strike at the heart of Russia (Moscow), rather than the head (St. Petersburg). This time his forces couldn't live off the land--Russian scorched-earth tactics made sure of that--so for the first time a carefully organized supply train fed the French. But this meant that the Grande Armeé could no longer use its greatest asset--speed. The Russians simply retreated into near-limitless space. By mid-August the French were stretched out along a front line nearly 700 miles long, with the main spearhead reduced to 155,000 men. Not until now did the Russians offer battle (at Smolensk), which the French won easily. The Tsar then entrusted the defense of Moscow to the uncouth but clever Mikhail Kutusov. He prepared a defensive position at Borodino, seventy miles west of Moscow, but Napoleon knocked him out with a Wagram-style battle in early September. Kutusov withdrew, still with an organized army of 90,000 men, while Napoleon occupied Moscow with a barely larger force of 95,000.
The French got small pleasure from their prize. Alexander ignored the news of French victories and simply refused to talk to Napoleon, all the while gathering reinforcements for Kutusov from the far reaches of the Russian empire. Then some Russian diehards flushed Napoleon out of the Kremlin by setting Moscow on fire. The French put out the blaze before it destroyed the whole city, but this was too much even for Napoleon. On October 18--33 days after he arrived--he gave the order to retreat. This time Kutusov avoided battle, but he forced the French to retreat along the ravaged route of their summer advance, ensuring that they would feel the pangs of hunger. Then the notorious Russian winter set in. Discipline broke down, and by the time they reached Smolensk both men and horses were starving, their effective strength down to 50,000, with Russian forces twice as large on their flanks. Both sides raced for the Berezina River, the last physical barrier on the way to Poland and safety; the Russians got there first and destroyed the bridges across it, but a brilliant rearguard action led by Napoleon himself held off the Russians long enough to build a pontoon bridge and get what was left of the Grande Armeé across it. In December the French arrived in Poland; less than 30,000 of the original army remained as it straggled across the frontier in small groups. Ominously, not all of the casualties were dead or captured; the 20,000-strong Prussian corps had switched sides when it got the chance. Handing over command to Murat, Napoleon abandoned the army and raced for Paris, where rumors of his death were already circulating. The shattered regiments he left behind couldn't prevent the Russians from liberating Prussia (March 1813).
Astonishingly, Napoleon recruited a barely trained force of half a million men to serve in his army for 1813. Horses were a bigger problem--they couldn't be replaced without crippling the agriculture of half a continent--so the result was a clumsy, slower army than the ones Napoleon had led before. Once again, other nations began assembling their forces to stop the French. This time we call them the Sixth Coalition; they started out with Britain, Portugal and Spain in the west, and Russia and Prussia in the east.
With the odds stacking up against him, Napoleon had to beat his enemies separately, before their armies could get together. With that in mind, he charged into Saxony, and for a moment seemed to have recovered his old skill; he inflicted defeats on the Russians at Lützen and on the Prussians at Bautzen. This put him in a position of strength, and when he called for a cease-fire, his opponents agreed. He used the time gained to gather more men on his side, but so did the coalition, which was now joined by Austria and Sweden. When hostilities resumed, Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Dresden in August, but his raw recruits couldn't stand the pace, and his marshals were old and unimaginative, so the other four battles at this point were all coalition victories. The allies had figured out that that their chances of winning were best when they attacked the French units led by Napoleon's marshals, rather than those led by Napoleon himself. By mid-October the allies had 370,000 troops and 1,384 cannon, compared with 198,000 troops and 717 cannon for the French. To keep the allies from cutting his communication lines, Napoleon concentrated his army in Leipzig, and the allies closed in on that city. "The Battle of the Nations," the name we give to the battle for Leipzig, is not remembered for any impressive show of tactics, but because it was the biggest battle fought in European history before World War I; in two days the armies suffered a combined total of 166,000 casualties. It was also a serious defeat for Napoleon, meaning he would have to get out of the city. The evacuation of Leipzig became a disaster when the only bridge was blown up prematurely, leaving a quarter of the French army behind to be captured.
In the aftermath of Leipzig, two smaller German states, Bavaria and Saxony, switched sides; while withdrawing to the Rhine, the French had to knock the Bavarians out of the way (the battle of Hanau). All of Germany was now free; the Confederation of the Rhine was dissolved, and both sides prepared for an invasion of France in 1814. Prussia, Russia, Austria and Sweden assembled for a joint attack across the Rhine, while Wellington's victorious Peninsular Army moved out of Spain, captured a mountain pass in the Pyrenees, and took the nearest town in southwestern France, Toulouse.
Once more Napoleon created a fresh army from almost nothing. He displayed the energy and skill of a demon, but there were too many invaders. Eventually they simply marched past him and occupied Paris. Napoleon, at nearby Fontainebleau, did not admit defeat until his own marshals refused to follow him anymore. He abdicated from the throne of France, but was told he could be emperor over the tiny island of Elba, 86 square miles of scrub-covered mountains between Corsica and the Italian mainland. With the island came a population of 13,000, a small army of 700 men and a pension of two million francs per year. Not much had happened there since the first millennium B.C., when the Etruscans mined iron ore on the island. The moderate, Mediterranean climate made Elba a nice place to retire, but it offered nothing to a person with ambition. The Hapsburgs took Napoleon's Austrian empress and son to Vienna; he never saw them again.(13)
A statue of Napoleon at Chemin des Dames, where his recruits won a battle in March 1814. A century later, in World War I, the three battles of the Aisne River were also fought here.
Eleven months after he went to Elba, Napoleon judged that France was sick and tired of the Bourbons. On February 26, 1815, he escaped with 600 loyal men at his side. They landed at Cannes on the Riviera (March 1), and marched on Paris. The critical moment came at Grenoble (see footnote #1), when they met 8,000 soldiers, sent by the king to arrest Napoleon. Either Napoleon realized that the veterans of the Grande Armeé were not yet ready to abandon the dream of a French empire, or he believed that his time was up and it would be best to go out quickly, because he confronted them with incredible courage; he walked out in front of the king's men, ripped open his shirt, and dared them to shoot: "If there is one among you who wishes to kill his emperor, here I am." The French have always had a thing for bare breasts, so when the soldiers saw them on Napoleon, they began cheering and swarmed around him to show they were now on his side. After that, because Napoleon was so much more charismatic than King Louis, the army following him grew like the proverbial snowball. When Napoleon reached Paris, the king fled and the emperor was restored. Napoleon promised that he would be a constitutional monarch, not a dictator; he also promised peace. But this time, as Victor Hugo put it, "God was bored by him." The allies would not hear of any alternatives to Bourbon rule in France and immediately declared war.
Sixty days after he had landed in the south, forty days after he had entered Paris, the emperor was on the Belgian frontier with 150,000 men. Because the Russians and Austrians were too far away to help, the British and Prussian commanders, Wellington and Blücher, would have to stop Napoleon by themselves. Their armies, ten miles apart, had no idea that Napoleon was near, giving him the advantage of surprise. While the French left wing held off the British at Quatre Bras, the emperor trounced the Prussians at Ligny. Wellington and Blücher were forced to retreat by parallel roads to Brussels. Napoleon now shifted his main force to the British front, but because of Blücher's assurance that he could get to him if he was attacked, Wellington decided to stand at Waterloo.
Because Napoleon had beaten Wellington in 1808, he was overconfident now. Before the battle of Waterloo he said, "I tell you, Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle the matter by lunch time." Instead, the French frontal assault was a bloody failure. When Blücher arrived (very late), the French began a retreat which quickly turned into a rout. Napoleon's final gamble, the Hundred Days, was over.(14)
His army destroyed, Napoleon returned to Paris and abdicated again. Everyone who had joined him in the previous weeks now wanted to get rid of him, as if to atone for their mistake. A provisional government in Paris told him to leave the country; he fled to Rochefort with an uncomfortably royalist France in hot pursuit. He boarded a British frigate in the harbor, the Bellerophon, and asked to be taken to America as a refugee, but they treated him as a prisoner instead. This time the allies would not let him pretend to be an emperor; they sent him to St. Helena, the most remote island in the south Atlantic. Then they returned to their deliberations at Vienna, the results of which will begin the next chapter.
Napoleon on the Bellerophon, going into exile.
Napoleon spent his time in exile writing memoirs, until his death in 1821 (officially by throat cancer, but a rumor of poisoning persists to this day). Those memoirs, and the nature of European society in the reactionary years following Waterloo, generated a considerable amount of sentiment for the age when Napoleon ruled. As a result, the French government had to wait until 1840 before it was safe to bring Napoleon's body back to Paris for a proper burial. But the French emperor's enemies found his legacy too useful to do away with entirely. His Civil Code and his centralized, efficient administration, in both France and conquered countries, was retained and even imitated where it did not yet exist. And the tactic of stirring up civilian populations against their ruler gave the ordinary man a lesson he would not soon forget; to defeat Napoleon, the monarchs unwittingly planted the seeds of modern nationalism.
Because the European community was larger, it needed more food. There were four ways to increase the food supply: import food from overseas, bring more land under cultivation, put more workers on the land, or improve agricultural technology. We can label these solutions "commercial," "extensive," "intensive," and "technical." The Romans had imported grain from Africa, but in modern times the commercial solution did not become feasible until after 1850, with the invention of steamships and refrigerators, so we won't discuss it here.
A perfect example of the extensive solution is the movement of peasants onto the Russian steppe, after the Mongols vacated it. The growth of the Ukraine in the eighteenth century was from 5 to 20 million, or 300%; Russia as a whole grew 100%, and also added people from conquered areas like Poland. The Austrians duplicated this when they evicted the Turks and moved into Hungary; there the growth rate was also 300%. These figures are impressive, but while extensive growth increased revenue for the state, it did little to help the income of the typical farmer.
Ireland is the textbook example of the intensive solution. Subdivision of existing farms until they were the size of garden plots, with yields as big as ever thanks to the potato, allowed a population increase of 150%. Here too, per capita income remained constant, or in some cases even declined.
For the technical solution England is the prototype. Instead of working the land the same way their ancestors had, English farmers tried a series of innovations that steadily increased yields on the same amount of land. At first they had a sizeable surplus to export; later a rise in total population absorbed the extra. What made this solution the best was that an increase in labor productivity had greatly increased the wealth of the farmer, unlike what had happened in Russia and Ireland. This was the achievement of a society that consciously chose to upgrade seed, livestock, machinery and land, and was prepared to invest the money required to do so. Eventually the farms became so efficient that they did not need most of the farm hands born there; those surplus workers would move to the cities and become the labor force of the industrial revolution.
More efficient finances, agriculture and industry (see below) made the British government filthy rich. In 1815 British tax collectors brought in £70 million. A pound back then was worth about $400 in 2012 US dollars, so that works out to $28 billion. Divide that among a population of 19 million for the British Isles, and you get a little more than three and two-thirds of a pound, or $1,473.42 from each man, woman and child--not too shabby! France had more people (30 million), but collected less than a third as much per citizen, for a total of £32 million. Far behind were Russia and Austria (£10 million each), Prussia (£7 million), the Netherlands (£6 million), and Spain and Naples (£3.5 million each). Bavaria, Denmark, the Papal State, Portugal, Savoy, Saxony, Sweden, the Ottoman Empire and Baden-Wurttemberg each raised between £1 million and £2 million.(15)
History books call the eighteenth century the "Enlightenment" and the "Age of Reason," because philosophers in those days thought that humanism had triumphed over superstition. However, the area "enlightened" was restricted to France and the Protestant countries. There was a widening split between this area and the rest of Europe, and in the latter, the Enlightenment got almost no attention. The Catholic church lost little of its authority, and its overall decline in strength was due largely to slower population growth in the Catholic countries (50%, compared to 75% among the Protestants). In the east, the Orthodox were either suppressed under Turkish rule, or in the case of Russia, barely out of the Middle Ages. Even in the north, which was increasingly aware that humans should be encouraged to think for themselves, it was a matter of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel rather than bursting out into daylight. The only nation that made a complete break with the past in this sense was the United States. There the ideas of philosophers like John Locke were put down in writing, in the US Constitution of 1787. The concepts of political responsibility on the part of its citizens, separation of church and state, and liberty protected by law became the foundations of the new republic, and the birthright of all its citizens.
Old Europe had the more difficult task of changing an already existing society. The French Revolution was strong on making a secular, classless society, but weak on democracy and limited government; its evolution into a military dictatorship, and the final overthrow of this, led people to think that all of their political gains had been lost. But ideas are like baby chickens--they are hard to put back in the egg once they've hatched--and the propaganda of the Revolution proved to be stronger than the Revolution itself. Slogans like "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" stayed in men's minds and the examples of England and America showed that democracy did not have to slide into anarchy or tyranny.(16)
The rapid urbanization of England and Scotland is a direct consequence of the industrial revolution, which began here in the 1760s. Previously, the British economy depended mainly on agriculture and trade, though the output from the mines steadily increased; between 1715 and 1760 annual iron consumption (mostly for agricultural use) rose from 30,000 tons to 60,000, while annual coal production (mostly for home fireplaces) went from 3 million to 6 million tons. Imports (of Swedish and Russian iron and of the Baltic timber needed for shipbuilding) were paid for by selling English wool and grain, and by re-exporting Asian and American goods (cotton from India, tea from China, sugar from the Caribbean and tobacco from North America).
The first modern book on economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was published by a Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith, in 1776. Smith believed that laissez-faire capitalism was the best economic system; if the government left businesses and merchants alone, an "invisible hand" would correct inequalities in the marketplace, and most people would be better off in the end. In this confident, expanding society, a lot of men agreed with him. One such entrepreneur spent a quarter of a million pounds to dig a canal from his coal mines to the growing towns of Manchester and Liverpool; the savings in transport allowed him to sell his coal for half the price of the competition, vastly increasing sales. A wave of canal building followed. Probably half of the 1,000 miles of canals built in the second half of the eighteenth century never really repaid their cost. What the canal mania showed was that investors had plenty of money, and were willing to spend it.
An obvious place to invest in research was the iron industry. With home production crippled by the shortage of charcoal, Britain had to import much of the iron she consumed. Abraham Darby had shown that coke-smelting of iron ore was possible, but a series of complementary innovations were needed to make a coal-based industry practical; the end product had to be as good as Swedish iron and as cheap as Russian iron. The final links in the chain were completed in the 1780s. The result was a production rise to 125,000 tons by 1800; consequently iron imports fell to zero. But even more startling gains were made in the opening years of the nineteenth century. By 1815 Britain was forging a million tons per year--more than the rest of Europe put together. At the same time coal production rose to 15 million tons per year--more than five times that of the rest of Europe.
Britain's oldest manufacturing industry, the textile trade, grew alongside iron and coal production. Before this time, textiles had been produced in homes rather than in factories. But the typical family could not do all the carding, spinning, weaving and dying required; too many workers were needed for that. So quite a few merchants were kept busy just transporting the unfinished material from one house to another.
Britain had long produced all the wool the market could handle; if there were profits to be made in textiles, they would come from cotton. However, the entrepreneur first had to clear a number of hurdles. Cotton could not be grown in Britain's cold climate, and it took hours of work just to pick out the seeds from cotton bolls before it was spun and woven, so it was rare and expensive stuff--a pound of raw, cleaned cotton cost eleven shillings, more than a farm worker's weekly wage. The first step to reduce the amount of labor required was the invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay in 1738; with this only one person was needed at the loom, instead of two. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a wooden frame with eight wheels that produced eight times as much thread and yarn as traditional spinning wheels did. However, work came to a halt whenever a thread broke in one of those machines; that problem was solved in 1768 with the invention of the water frame, a water-powered version of the spinning jenny that produced stronger thread. By 1790 water-driven eighty-spindle machines were in use.
Using water wheels to power spinning devices and looms sounds like a good idea; water wheels are a more reliable source of energy than wheels turned with a hand crank. But they come with a geographical liability--water wheels can only be built in places with running water. For the first and only time in history, the mountains of Scotland and the northern Midlands were the best places in Britain for factories, because they had streams with a strong current. Fortunately a solution soon became available; if factories could run on steam power instead of water power, they could be built anywhere. James Watt began improving the old Newcomen steam engine, long used for pumping water out of mines, in 1769; by 1785 he had invented one that delivered rotary power. In this form he sold it to the largest and most enterprising textile mills.
All that was left was to find a less labor-intensive way to separate cotton from cotton seeds. This was achieved with an American invention, the cotton gin (1793). In 1775 cotton represented 5% of the British textile business and almost none of it was exported. By 1800, however, exports of cotton goods were worth as much as exports of woolens. By 1815 they were worth three times as much, and the quality of machine-spun yarn was an order of magnitude better than its home-spun equivalent. Most important, in the span of fifty years the cost of raw cotton fell to one shilling a pound, so both rich and poor people could afford to wear cotton clothing.
An unfortunate consequence of the new machines was that by using them, each factory could do the same amount of work with fewer people. The labor movement of the modern era, in fact, got started by laid-off workers who refused to get out of the way quietly. On March 11, 1811, some unemployed knitters broke into a factory in Arnold, a small town near Nottingham, and smashed the wooden frames of the machinery, rendering it useless. The leader of this group was a man named Ned Lud, and since then people who have opposed progress have earned for themselves the epithet Luddites.
More efficient factories required more efficient transportation, to bring raw materials in and take finished goods out. For that reason, the machines described above were quickly followed by the invention of the railroad. Around 1600, Germans laid the first railroad tracks, and put horsedrawn carts on them, for the bulk movement of ore out of their mines. For a while tracks were made of wooden rails, but obviously those wore out quickly, so they were replaced with iron rails later. English mine owners did likewise, so by 1815 there were 150 miles of tracks in England. The job of getting a rotary steam engine to work on railroad tracks was done by Richard Trevithick, who built a steam-driven carriage in 1801, and had another one running successfully on the tracks by 1804. Ten years later George Stephenson designed a practical locomotive, and put it to work hauling coal. To the ordinary person the age of the railroad--and with it the whole machine age--began with the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line, the first passenger railway, in 1825.(17)
We have talked about the industrial revolution here because it had a more dramatic effect on the ordinary person's life than political revolutions did. Historians concentrate their attention on kings, generals, and others at the pinnacle of society, so don't forget that for most of history, most people were farmers. You may humor yourself by thinking you were a king or queen in a previous life, but if you had lived back in the day, chances are you would have been a peasant, not a prince. The English, American and French Revolutions changed the government, but that was only a distant authority to the ordinary person; the industrial revolution, on the other hand, replaced a lifestyle that was rural and natural with a lifestyle that was urban and artificial. Even so, it is an easy mistake to overemphasize the amount of industrialization that existed in Britain in 1815. Britain did have more factory workers and traders than any other nation, but 40% of the population still worked the land. Though this was less than the 80% that was still the norm on the Continent, it was still too big a segment of society to ignore. Think of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, which was set in England at this time. In 1815 England still had more green fields than satanic mills; the Royal Navy ruled the waves with ships not much different from those of a century earlier, and only the most farsighted could see that coal, iron and steam were changing the world.
This is the End of Chapter 12.
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