What do you call a chap who explains his actions by saying: “A man like me cares little about the lives of a million men”? (Napoleon to Metternich, 1813)
I call him a monster, to be cursed in eternity and mentioned side by side with other ‘men like him’, such as Lenin, Hitler and Stalin.
The French (with some exceptions, to be fair) call him a hero and venerate the memorials to his grisly deeds.
Well, that hero was taken down a peg 200 years ago, and, unlike Napoleon’s own victories, this anniversary is worth cheering.
The anniversaries widely celebrated in France have been coming thick and fast over the past 10 years: Marengo, Austerlitz, Friedland, Wagram.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between their anniversaries and ours. Theirs celebrate a march of despotism; ours commemorates stopping despotism in its tracks.
Yet Napoleon is still given the benefit of doubt, nay adoration, by assorted groupies, not all of them French. We’ve had our share of those too, from the pop poet Byron to the pop historian Andrew Roberts.
But the French won’t be outdone. Thus Dominique de Villepin, former prime minister: “This defeat shines with the aura of victory”. Moral victory, that is, which is the traditional fall-back position for sore losers.
Much as I admire the French, the ability to lose graciously isn’t their most salient trait. Nous sommes trahis (we was robbed, in colloquial English) is the blanket explanation of all French defeats.
They never lose battles to superior, better-led armies. They only ever lose them to treason – by the enemy, their own generals or, as is claimed specifically in relation to Waterloo, God.
The amazing thing about Nappy’s groupies is that they don’t even realise how ridiculous they sound. This is, for example, how the most febrile of those groupies, Victor Hugo, contrasted Wellington’s soulless performance to Nappy’s inspired leadership.
Wellington’s: “precision, planning, geometry, prudence, a safe line of retreat, well-managed reserves, stubborn calm… nothing left to chance…”
Nappy’s: “intuition, feeling… superhuman instinct, flamboyant vision… prodigious and scornful impetuosity, all the mysteriousness of a profound soul.”
I know which army I’d choose to fight in, even though Hugo’s description of Nappy’s forces sounds as if they were made up of 50,000 St Pauls led by Christ himself.
This last phrase is merely a reiteration of a French blasphemy. Nappy was – in some quarters still is – well-nigh deified. That elevation to divinity became especially pronounced after his defeat at Waterloo.
Doing the rounds in France at the time was a disgusting mockery of the Lord’s prayer: “Our Emperor who art in St Helena// Respected be thy name// Thy will be done// Against the extremists who take away our pensions// Rid us of the accursed Bourbons// Amen.”
In the pagan groupies’ eyes Nappy’s free hand with pensions outweighed the 2,000,000 dead Frenchmen. Methinks their moral scales are badly in need of readjustment.
Nappy’s self-confidence indeed matched Christ’s, but with considerably less justification. If Jesus sacrificed himself for others, Nappy did exactly the opposite throughout his career.
Whenever he felt that military defeat threatened his power, he never hesitated to abandon his bleeding army and rush back to Paris to make sure his own position was secure. Nappy did that in Egypt and in Russia, and by any traditional military codes he ought to have faced tribunal with the firing squad at the other end.
Add to this Nappy’s summary executions of POWs (for example, between 2,000 and 4,000 of them after the siege of Jaffa), another offence worthy of tribunal, and one may wonder how he still enjoys a posthumous reputation as a great man, rather than as a great criminal.
Nor was his purely military judgement always as impeccable as is universally claimed. Attacking Russia knowing that his unprotected supply lines would have to stretch to 1,000 miles was sheer madness, as was Nappy’s failure to provide his soldiers with winter gear.
Another great failure of Nappy’s martial nous was his gross underestimation of opposing leaders, specifically Wellington. Speaking on the eve of Waterloo to his generals, with many of whom Wellington had wiped the Iberian peninsula, Nappy told them there was nothing to fear.
Wellington, he said, was a bad general. The beaten veterans of the Peninsular War must have exchanged glances, thinking “What does it make us?”
In fact, for a bad general, Wellington boasted a remarkable record of never losing a battle in his life. He also knew how to protect his soldiers’ lives by training them to rely more on accurate musketry than frontal bayonet charges so beloved of Nappy.
Wellington trained his infantrymen to deliver three shots a minute, as opposed to an average of two in the French army. That, plus the organisational brilliance and attention to detail so derided by Hugo, gave Wellington an in-built advantage. For example, rather than flying by the seat of his breeches, Wellington had personally reconnoitred the Waterloo battlefield a year before the battle.
Deploying his infantry beyond the crest of a ridge, out of enemy artillery’s reach, as he did at Waterloo, was another tactic pioneered by Wellington. To him, unlike to Nappy, the lives of men did matter.
Napoleon is also venerated as a great statesman, one who gave France her civil code and departmental structure. Both, however, were direct offshoots of the Enlightenment, whose storm trooper Nappy was.
Even if the Napoleonic code were indeed as great an achievement as some claim, mentioning it next to the millions perished in Napoleonic wars brings to mind the naughty American joke: “Yes, but apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
It’s those moral scales again. But even considered on its own terms, the Napoleonic Code is less than admirable. What it adumbrated wasn’t so much the rule of law as the rule of lawyers, along with legal and economic dirigisme – something from which France is still suffering.
The French feel nostalgic about their country’s greatness, which they mistakenly equate with martial glory. Yet only just wars contribute to a country’s greatness. Those waged by Napoleon are largely responsible for France’s present misfortunes, something the French fail to understand, which is why they ignore today’s anniversary.
For us, however, there is much to celebrate. But for the victory won by the Wellington-led coalition, despotism would have arrived in Europe a century earlier than it actually did. And – perish the thought! – Trafalgar Square would be called Place de l’Empereur, while Waterloo Station would probably be known as Gare du Sud.