An Imperial Fall: The Defeat of Napoleon

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In 1814, Napoleon was shipped off to the island of Elba, after a decade of imperial splendour. The glory days of Austerlitz and Marengo had long since passed, overshadowed by the ignominy of a humiliating and disastrous retreat from Moscow. Forced to abdicate, he was unable to preserve the France that he had wished to protect through conquest. Although he would return for the Hundred Days, his first abdication was a signal for his effective end. Ultimately, the Emperor was hauled from the position as master of Europe to that of an exile. The defeat of Napoleon was brought about by three distinct threads, which combined to weave his doom. The first was Great Britain’s resolve in opposing Napoleon, the second was the Russian campaign of 1812 and the third was the short term ramifications of the Campagins of 1813-1814.

The British resolve against Napoleon and the French Empire was a key reason for the defeat of Napoleon and his abdication. No state was as consistently and vehemently opposed to the Emperor as the despised “nation of shopkeepers.” Although there was a temporary truce signed in the form of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, Franco-British relations were tense for most of the 1792-1815 period. This was only exacerbated due to the stand-off that the two nations found themselves in – that of a lion quarrelling with a whale. Britain did not have an impressive standing army, and therefore posed no direct threat of invasion to France. France could not strike at Britain either, since the island nation dominated the seas, especially after Admiral Nelson wrecked the badly disciplined French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. The two sides therefore had to find ways of injuring one another indirectly. The British proved highly effective at this, and were a constant thorn in France’s side. The early stages of the Industrial Revolution had made Britain the wealthiest nation in Europe, and Britain used this to fund coalitions and resistance movements wherever and whenever they appeared. Britain would ship 112,000 muskets to Iberia, bankroll Austria levying 50,000 infantry in 1813 and spend £65 million over the course of the Napoleonic Wars in funding enemies of France. The struggle against the British also led to economic warfare, damaging French trade interests, as their overseas territories and colonies were especially vulnerable to British naval raids. 

The struggle with Britain caused France to introduce the Continental System, a network of tariffs and restrictions on British goods. This would prove a massive error, which dramatically weakened Napoleon’s grip on Europe. The loss of trade resulted in lower income and living standards for workers in the territories, reducing faith in Napoleon’s ability to fulfil his promises. One of the outcomes was a schism between Napoleon and his brother Louis, King of Holland. Moreover, Napoleon was forced to expand his Empire to ensure the efficacy of the Continental System, as for the tariff to work, all of Europe had to comply with it. But the tariff damaged European economies as well as the British, meaning the states of the Continent needed to be threatened with military might to join the System. Napoleon therefore was compelled to invade Portugal (which continued trade with Britain), and this in turn triggered the disastrous Iberian War. The disastrous Russia campaign was also partly the result of the System, as disagreements over trade sparked off the conflict. In trying to break British power, Napoleon had forced himself into a situation where he had to  enter endlessly costly campaigns. 

The British involvement in the Peninsular War was crucial in draining the Empire’s resources and undermining Napoleon’s aura of invincibility. The British deployment of troops to Spain was an example of the effectiveness of anti-Napoleonic persistence. This was on two fronts. First, the guerrilla forces used by Duke Wellington showed how Napoleon seemed to have lost his grip. The military defeats and loss of territory in Spain led to the demoralisation of troops and a worse reputation. Napoleon’s generals used brutality, committed atrocities, and cracked down on resistance, such as during the 2 May 1808 Madrid uprising. Second, Wellington was able to wage a defensive war of attrition that wasted France’s resources and kept Napoleon occupied. Between 1809-1810, 180,000 casualties resulted from conflict with the resistance, and over the course of the Campaign, France was forced to commit a total of 600,00 men to the war. Although this was not a lethal blow to Napoleon, the Spanish Ulcer was a significant factor in his fall, since it displayed that the Emperor was weak against guerrilla tactics and was starting to lose his touch as a general.

The Russian invasion in 1812 could be said to have caused the defeat of Napoleon. Scorched earth tactics, bloody battles and a neutral reatrear meant the Emperor’s invasion collapsed, and of the 250,000 men who crossed the Niemen on 22 June 1812, only 25,000 would return. The defeat triggered a ripple effect of Continental resistance to Napoleon. Sweden declared war on France in January 1813, and Austria broke away from France, shifting instead to a more neutral state. By February, Prussia had upgraded its military and joined hands with Britain and Russia, neither of whom were willing to forgive Napoleon. The crushing defeat of Napoleon in Russia did much to undermine the Emperor’s mythology, as he did not only lose the campaign, but he also made the majority of avoidable mistakes. The men took no winter clothes, had only three weeks of supplies and lingered in Moscow. This great blunder seemed to indicate that the leader was no longer capable of repeating the victories of Austerlitz and Jena. The costs of the Russian campaign were also great, and Napoleon would have been less vulnerable if he had kept those resources for defence. Napoleon had kept the Continent under his thumb through a combination of material supremacy and psychological terror. Now, the European states were emboldened, and Napoleon lacked the power to squash them.

However, the importance of the Russian Campaign should not be over estimated in the defeat of Napoleon. In the immediate aftermath, Napoleon returned to France and was able to conscript 250,000 new troops. Moreover, while some of the countries in Napoleon’s empire did rise up, many did not and Russia itself had been severely weakened by Napoleon, and was not strong enough to defeat France alone. Finally, Napoleon still had access to peace treaties that were offered to him by the armies he was fighting. Austria tried to negotiate with him at Prague in July 1813, and the peace conference at Châtillon offered him France at its pre-revolution borders. Therefore, while the Russian campaign led to a weakening of Napoleon’s position, it cannot be said to have been the main reason for his fall, since even after Moscow he had ways to save himself.

Finally, the most short-term cause of the abdication was the final campaigns of 1813-1814. Napoleon was at a great strategical disadvantage. The strongest nations in Europe – Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria – were all simultaneously at war with France, meaning Napoleon was hopelessly outnumbered . At the famed ‘Battle of Nations’ at Leipzig from 16-19 October 1813, Napoleon faced an allied army more than one hundred thousand men stronger than his along a 500 mile front. Defeat here set back Napoleon significantly and rolled back his territorial gains within mainland Europe. As the allies entered France, Napoleon had a force of 60,000 against a force of 200,000. After decades of conflict, the French people had war fatigue and did not feel that they were economically or politically able to handle the brunt of another full-scale defensive war after the significant damage of 1792. Resistance to the Coalition was accordingly weak – France would not become Iberia. Under the auspices of Talleyrand, the Senate voted to depose Napoleon.

Although the final campaigns seem to be the most direct reason for the abdication, it is important to note that Napoleon had been offered multiple separate peace treaties by the allied forces. Naturally, if he had accepted one of these, he would have retained the greater part of his power. This failure to do so can be explained two-fold. First, there is the matter of Napoleon’s overconfidence. The 1814 Campaign was remarkable, and it saw Napoleon show again the brilliance of Austerlitz and Marengo. Yet Edith every successful engagement, Napoleon grew more convinced he could gain ultimate victory. Such notions were, however, hubris. Secondly, Napoleon was convinced that as he was an upstart usurper, the French people would not allow him to continue to reign unless he justified his position with military successes. To maintain his power, Napoleon was convinced he could never make anything but the most victorious of settlements. Instead, he hoped the coalition would fragment, as so many had done before, and he could use this to salvage a victory. But in the 1814 Treaty of Chaumont, a group of separate but identical agreements between the allied forces, Britain, through the use of a generous subsidy, persuaded the Allies to commit to not making a separate peace deals, and the Coalition remained strong. 

The most important reason for Napoleon’s abdication was the British opposition to the French Empire. This is because it is responsible for both long-term and short-term blows to the Emperor’s rule. The constant drain on resources posed by the arms race generated by Britain’s military superiority combined with frequent attacks on convoys and colonies took a toll on the French economy. Napoleon’s Continental System was sparked by a desire to limit Britain’s power, but it only decreased Napoleon’s popularity and support. Moreover, the need to control European trade in order to fully enforce the Continental System led to a disastrous series of conflicts. Although this can be mitigated, British involvement in these issues still led to the draining of resources caused by the Spanish Ulcer. Moreover, the damage done to Napoleon’s reputation and the cost in lives from the French retreat from Russia can be partially attributed to British intervention. However, the most immediate reason for the abdication of Napoleon is the Allied forces’ determination to remain unified against Napoleon instead of seeking separate peace agreements. The British are mostly responsible for this because of the Treaty of Chaumont. Ultimately, the main reason for the abdication was the French Empire’s conflict with Britain.

Rees, D., and Townsend, D., 2001. France in Revolution: 1774-1815. Hodder Education

Wells, M., 2018. The French Revolution and the Rule of Napoleon: 1774-1816. Hodder Education