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Welcome to Dan snow's history hit. To listen to all of our episodes ad free, get bonus content and watch hundreds of history documentaries. Download the History hit app or go to subscribe. And if you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad free episodes within the Apple app. 1793 was a big year for France. King Louis XV met his end as the sun dipped below the plaster le revolution on the 21 January. His reign had been marked by financial crises, political turmoil, social unrest, harvest failure caused in part by Icelandic volcanic activity. And he was not the man with the tools to overcome or solve these crises. He lowered his head onto the block after a speech in which he forgave France, and as the guillotine's blade fell with Merciless finality, it severed his neck. It also severed the bond that had tethered France to its monarchy for centuries. King's Beheading in many ways marked the death knell of the Old World. It ushered in a new era where the people expected at least a share in their own government. The people, though, were destined to be disappointed, because out of the chaos that followed, a new leader of France would emerge a king in all but name napoleon Bonaparte.


This is Dan Snow's History Ed, and you're listening to episode two of our series. Napoleon unraveling the life and character of the man who brought Europe to its knees. Today we're delving into who Napoleon was as a military commander. What made him so effective on the battlefield, an almost unparalleled leader of men and conqueror of lands. 90 93 france looked to be in a total state of chaos. Despite the execution of the king. Earlier that year, or perhaps because of the execution of the king, the vital French city of Tulon was in the hands of royalists and of counter revolutionary forces. With a coalition of foreign allies providing support to the rebel cause. The revolutionary government in Paris looked precarious. But chaos and disaster always presents an opportunity for somebody. And in this case, that somebody was the 24 year old artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte. He was thrown into the fray at Tulon. He orchestrated a masterful siege. He directed the artillery, the fire of the cannons himself and clinically reduced the defenses built by the foreign armies who had come to aid the rebels. In a series of clever calculated moves, he seized key high points surrounding the city until the allied rebel possession of it was untenable.


He showed relentless energy and courage. He led from the front. He deployed cannon with an expert eye. He won the admiration of his superiors and the respect of the troops, some of whom would go on to serve with him through years of campaigning to come. The siege of Tulon, with its blood, its sweat, its thunderous cannon AIDS it not only resulted in the recapture of the city by the French revolutionary government, but marked the first time that the world had heard the name Napoleon, it wouldn't be the last. It was here that the young officer established his foundation myth. He distinguished himself as a commander of extraordinary promise, and he set the stage for his meteoric rise to power that would see him become Emperor of France and briefly, ruler of much of continental Europe. In this episode, we're going to talk about some of the battles that he fought along the way. And we're also going to end up with the Battle at Loom's very large Napoleon story, the Battle of Waterloo. Why did it go so terribly wrong? And could things have been different? To find the answers, I'm going to be joined by military historian Dr.


Zach White. Zach, great to have you on the podcast.


Hi, Dan. It's great to be back. It's been, what, three years since we last had a chat?


I know, but, Zach, tell me. I think sometimes everyone goes, well, Napoleon military genius, and we don't stop enough to go, well, was he what do you think was his chief strength?


Oh, how long have we got, mate? Seriously, I do hate the term genius, just generally when it's applied to historical figures, because I think if we use the term genius too much, we kind of strip the humanity out of these people. Because what's so impressive about the story of somebody like Napoleon is that he is just human and yet is able to do some pretty remarkable things. Why is he so good on the battlefield? Because he is good, and I say that as somebody who doesn't like Napoleon. I wouldn't go drinking with the guy, but I do respect his ability as a commander. It comes down to a few things. Partly, it's about his ability to fire people up. The really good commanders in history have an ability to connect with their men and today women who they command on a personal level. And Napoleon had that in spades, the ability to get inside people's heads and get them to do things that they didn't even know they were capable of. And he was great at that interpersonal interaction, so much better than other commanders during this period, because he treated his men like know that famous thing where he'd tug at people's earlobes, that personal connection, remembering people's names even though he hadn't seen them for years.


Being willing to sit around a fire and just chew the fat with his men. That's why his men loved him. Besides the fact that obviously he brought them success.


Yes, Zach, that's such a great point. And just to clarify, you really are talking interpersonal, aren't you? Talking? Him walking through crowds of soldiers just after a battle, giving out rewards to people he'd seen, performing acts of heroism around the campfire, what, the night before oustolips and stuff. He's not just issuing kind of rousing proclamations, he's pressing flesh. Is he?


He absolutely know the ability to go and physically touch the guy in a non creepy way, we should emphasize to our listeners. So in the film, for example, you're going to see scenes where Napoleon's kind of galloping past his trips and they're all going, yeah, vivron PRA. And sure, he did that. But as you just said there, he's willing to sit round the campfire with these people and engage with them, talk to them as humans, discuss their lives and their hopes and their aspirations and their dreams. And that willingness to connect with them, to just spend time with them, to acknowledge their presence and be normal with them, was a huge kind of empowerment to these guys who, let's be honest, they've grown up in rural France or whatever it might be, they're not expecting to rub shoulders with the emperor.


Let's look at things where he's an innovator. He is actually coming up with new stuff. He's taking sort of Frederick the Great's ideas about how to fight back in the 18th century and moving them on. What would you identify in this category?


See, the big beef I always have is when people go, oh, Napoleon invented the core system, and it just makes me go, no, that's not right, because you can Google it and Google it wrong. Google lies to you. Because the core system has been around for a little while.


Let's just remind everyone what the core system is. It's the idea of breaking an army up into semi autonomous units with their own cavalry, their own artillery, their own supply, so subordinate commanders can act with under their own authority, if you like, in harmony with the strategic wishes set out by Napoleon at the start of the campaign. But they've got a level of autonomy. They can move independently, they can support each other, and they are well, they're like little armies moving around.


Exactly. Once you stop and think about the implications of that, it completely changes how you can approach fighting a campaign. And what it means is that you can send these forces through a series of different roads rather than having to have all of your armies converge on a single point, or your entire force has to use one single road to get in and get out. Because the idea behind this is that if these forces make contact with the enemy, then they can act like the strands on a spider's web. So I often say that Napoleon fights like a spider because he's able to send these corps out along different routes and make contact with the enemy. Now, why does that matter? Because the second they make contact, they can suddenly send those runners to the other core and go, help, I found the enemy. I'm going to hold them for as long as I can. And what it means is that Napoleon fights these really kind of seat of the pants style battles. That's part of the reason why everybody loves to read about Napoleon's battles. Because there are these moments where you're going, he can't win this, he's done, he's broken, he's completely overwhelmed.


Take Friedland as a classic example of this.


Friedland or Moringo. Yeah, definitely.


And because of that, you look at this and you go, by 04:00 in the afternoon, he's lost the battle. And then suddenly the cavalry literally comes over the hill, the reinforcements sweep it and it turns everything around and it's a very different way of fighting. It means that Napoleon is so much more fluid, so much faster. He has that ability, that capacity to strike pivot and envelop people. And it means he's gambling far more, because if he can't get the reinforcements in time, that core gets crushed and a huge chunk of his army gets wiped off the battle map. But by being willing to risk more, it therefore means that when he is successful, he's able to achieve far more and achieve these kind of all or nothing styles of battles that then enable him to achieve so much more when it comes to success.


Yeah, like yena auestat or whatever. When these corps are fighting the Prussians, other corps race to their rescue absolutely ragged. Long, long marches. And the Prussians find suddenly they've got people emerging from their flanks and their rear and all sorts of places we don't want people emerging from.


He dominates the war on the continent for almost a decade until the penny finally drops that if you're going to beat Napoleon, there are two things you need to do. One is don't actually fight him. So the Allied strategy, particularly in 1813 and 1814, is that if Napoleon is present, you retreat. The idea being that if you can't let Napoleon bring his ability to bear on a battlefield, that's therefore going to increase your chances. Because they know that Napoleon is head and shoulders above almost every other commander of his day.


So he's got an extraordinary ability to connect with his men. They want to fight for him. He's sometimes a bit dismissive about that. He once said, It's amazing what a man will do for a piece of ribbon. Oh, yes, because he's famously with the lie. Jean donna. He'll pin it to people's chests and they'll swell with pride and charge suicidally into the guns next time around. What about cannon? He's an artilleryman. I think it's a quote. It's with the guns that one makes war. And that's actually a very modern attitude. We see that the First World War, the artillery take ground, the infantry just then move in and hold it. Is that something Napoleonic? I mean, he begins as an artilleryman. Does that mark his approach to know.


There'S a lot of debate about quite how much Napoleon is bringing in something new with his use of artillery, because we always talk about the Grand Battery. Right. Napoleon mashes together his guns in a Grand Battery and let's fly and uses that to well, first, having identified a weak spot in the enemy defenses, then uses that to sort of hammer those troops, break their morale inflict heavy losses, and then send in the infantry to mop up what's left and achieve that ultimate breakthrough. The trouble is, nobody really knows what makes up a ground battery. So we talk about a grand battery. I know we shouldn't talk about Waterloo, but Waterloo is a classic example of this debate. So everybody talks about, oh, there was a Grand Battery at Waterloo, and yet if you talk to the historians who really kind of dig into this, they kind of go, was there a ground battery? Because we don't know quite what constitutes it. But he does have this thing of concentrating firepower that's not entirely new. It's a tactic that's been around for a while. It's a very logical tactic, but because of his history as an artillery officer, he knows how to use artillery to maximum effect.


Think about his rise. It's that ability to organize artillery and direct them effectively. That is part of why he makes his name for himself at Tulon. And off the back of that then, he's able to start that progression. Napoleon certainly loves his guns. The French have an advantage, certainly over the British when it comes to the type of cannons that they're using. So the Brits only use a nine pounder. The French have a twelve pounder. Much heavier piece of equipment, capable of inflicting more damage, but they're also quite a mobile piece of kit. So in terms of whether or not he's really innovating, I think he's very good at the application. But there is just that slight danger of slightly overplaying how much he's relying on artillery.


He definitely relies on very, very talented subordinates and all the other great commanders, alexander the Great, I think certainly Nelson, to an extent. His marshals are an extraordinary bunch, aren't they? Davu, who's one of the leading proponents of marching to the sound of the guns. He's often arriving with the soles falling off his feet and his men just at the right time. You've got Beltier, who accidentally throws himself out of a window just for the Battle of Waterloo, rather mysteriously, and you've got these extraordinary subordinates. How important are they? How important is Napoleon's role in picking them, promoting them? The old myth about the French after the Revolution, that now every soldier, every common soldier, marched with a field marshal's baton in his backpack, that each one of them could one day become a marshal. Is that true?


To an extent. So I'm going to be very sort of historical and sit on the fence on this one. They are hugely talented people. That's why they get where they get. There are certain individuals who are ranked more highly than others. You mentioned Bertier. Without Bertier, Napoleon isn't Napoleon. Quite simply, without Bertier being able to interpret Napoleon's vision and turn these ideas that Napoleon can see when he looks at a map into the practicalities of, okay, there's a supply depot here that's going to be key in terms of moving X Corps to this location, and so on and so forth. Without Bertier, Napoleon is nothing. Perhaps slight exaggeration, but it's Bertier that enables Napoleon.


Well, Napoleon said if Bertier had been at Waterloo, he wouldn't have lost.


Indeed. And that's actually borne out in reality by what you see in terms of what happens during the Waterloo campaign, still just isn't up to the task. You've got some incredibly flamboyant characters in there. Mura, for example. Marshall Murad, the cavalry man, the first horseman of empire. Indeed, a very good friend of mine described Marshall Mura as being all balls and no brains, which I think is a very accurate way of describing him. You've got Marshal Nay, of course, bravest of the brave, the fiery Frenchman. But within all of this, there's a double edged sword to this. Partly these guys get promoted because Napoleon knows that he can trust them. Partly, they get promoted because of their sheer competence. But there is also a degree of cronyism that goes along with this. For example, Mura, who ends up marrying into his family, Bernadot ends up being married to Napoleon's first girlfriend. There's a lot of kind of slightly icky intermingling of the families that goes with this. So they are promoted based on talent. Sometimes they're promoted based on friendship. Marshall Marmot, for example, is one of the marshals who's promoted in 1809, and he's sometimes described as friendship's choice because he'd been very loyal up until that point.


Slightly ironic in terms of what happened in 1814, but we won't go there. And so there is this sense that Napoleon does promote people because they're good. There are plenty who don't get promoted, who were worthy, but they are absolutely integral to success, especially when you talk about Davu, who I think it is uncontroversial to say is the most highly regarded of all the Marshals. The polls come out periodically in terms of who's the greatest, and it always tends to be Davout who comes out on top. These guys are the backbone of the army. Sure, the men are absolutely integral, but without his marshals, without their ability to implement the orders that he gives them, napoleon is ultimately commanding a rebel.


So we've got a clever use of the core system, whether or not he introduced it or not. But he cleverly adapts that and uses it, uses artillery. Very good, Marshals. What are the other secrets of his success?


An ability to read a map sickeningly. Well, that and his skill as a propagandist. But we'll get back to propaganda in a minute. Napoleon is able to take that course, system, look at a map and decide that actually you can move far faster, you can strike, pivot, strike again. We were talking about the Italian campaign earlier. He gets this nickname, the Italian Whirlwind, right? Because of this ability to just hit the enemy where they're not expecting it. He is incredibly skilled at identifying weak points in enemies lines and exploiting them to the full. In the early stages, he's described as being a fan of the movement of sonaderier, which, as I'm sure you can imagine, generates quite a few sarky comments. But he is also a hugely capable propagandist. And this matters on two levels because the thing you have to remember about Napoleon, particularly post 18, well, post 1799 really, is that he is not only Commander in Chief of these armies, he is also the guy in charge of France. And this creates an entirely different outlook in terms of how he needs to command, but also what his vision is when he's on the battlefield or planning a campaign.


And propaganda ends up being key to this on two levels. Firstly, so that he can control the information that's going back home to Paris. And in terms of controlling that information, we don't just mean those bulletins that go back saying, yeah, we won a crushing victory and it was all wonderful. There is really interesting evidence that's recently been uncovered suggesting that the French are monitoring the correspondence of their men, of the soldiers as they're writing back home. So in terms of that control of information, that's absolutely crucial when things are both going well and going badly, to make sure that the right messages get filtered back to the population. Because if the population stop supporting the war, then he's got a massive problem. And this is a headache for Wellington, for example, throughout the Peninsula War where he's hugely concerned about some of his officers writing these gripy, snipey little letters back home and then they get printed in the papers and then that undermines popular support for the war. So you've got that level of propaganda, that kind of top end level. But Napoleon, as we talked about earlier, has this ability to get inside people's heads with these declarations.


His way with words is insane at just being able to really get people in the mood for a fight. And when you add to that that inclination to allow these men rewards, particularly through plunder, it creates a situation where he is hitting a lot of the key motivating points that we now are aware of in the modern kind of models of what motivates soldiers in conflict zones. And Napoleon has that awareness that means that he can maximize what he's getting out of his men.


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What about this is a difficult one. He's he's good at creating decisive battles. He's good at finding the main force that focus of his enemy's strength and destroying it. He wins these really crushing victories, doesn't he? Is that partly his enemies kind of marching into traps? Or is that something to do with the speed of his maneuver, his desire to outflank the nature of his victories as quite all encompassing when they do occur?


It's partly that outlook that I was talking about just now, that sense that because he is in charge of France, not just in charge of the army, he has that ability to know what it is that he actually wants out of a battle. And that's really important in terms of change of mindset, because Napoleon is somebody who I often describe as being exceptional on the battlefield and being catastrophic when it came to the negotiating table. He is a hugely skilled commander, but a really poor diplomat because he applies a kind of military mindset to negotiations and loves to kind of dictate from a position of dominance. Now, when it comes to how he plans these campaigns, that's key, because what it means is that he's thinking about the long term goal. He's not just thinking about the battle in terms of immediate strategy, he's thinking about how that battle will be able to then empower him, to turn around to the Austrians, all the Russians, all the Prussians or whoever it might be, and say, these are my demands. I've crushed every single one of your armies. You are going to say yes to them.


And this is in part what leads to his downfall, because that in turn, breeds resentment. But there is also something that you touched on there, which is hoodwinking his enemies, kind of sucking them into traps, and Austilitz is the classic example of that. Austalitz is disgustingly impressive in the grand scheme of battles. It's probably the most impressive battle in history. I mean, people will come back to me and say, oh, I disagree. And there's always that debate. But I think Halvesplitz is certainly the most impressive battle that Napoleonic was possibly the most impressive battle in history. And for folks who aren't familiar, the really simplified version is Napoleon throws a dummy. He literally hoodwinks his opponents into attacking him. So he steps back from withdraws from the dominant position of the Pratsen Heights, deliberately weakens his right flank, and basically suckers the Austrians and the Russians into attacking him by deliberately kind of doing this show of I'm weak, I'm vulnerable. He even eggs this on even further by sending in an envoy to discuss negotiations the night before, giving this impression he's not confident, he's running scared. Now is the moment to strike and crush him.


And it works like a charm. It's helped in part by the mist and all the other things, but the Russians and the Austrians think, great, here's an opportunity to crush this guy, to give him a proper lesson. And so they do exactly what he expects them to do. They weaken their center, they send troops off to strike. Napoleon's weakened right flank in sweeps Davout with Third Corps just in the nick of time, props up the French right flank. And then Napoleon sweeps in through the center with Saul's Fourth Corps and takes the Pratzen Heights, shatters the Austrian and Russian center and then turns around and encircles the troops who've been attacking his right flight. It's so impressive in terms of that awareness of the psychology of your enemy. You've got to know who you're fighting and you've got to know what they can be teased into doing, in addition to having an absolute cast iron belief that his men will do precisely what is expected of him. And that's, I think, the other part of why Alstolitz is so impressive, because that army is probably the best army he ever had.


That's a very interesting point, Zach. They are a hugely effective army. They do what he asks. And he asked them to do pretty dangerous things. I mean, is he profligate with his men and Australia, but at Bordino later, some of the real bloodbaths later in his career is part of his success a little bit, perhaps less easy to celebrate, which is he will occasionally just send men forward in vast numbers, like a battering ram.


Well, this is the thing that I really struggle with about Napoleon, is that he's willing to gamble with his men's lives in a very literal sense. After one of the battles, he looks out on the field of dead and says, and I quote here, one night in Paris will replace them all. And this is the really weird dichotomy between napoleon the guy who can engage with his men, sit around a fire with them, make them think that he really cares about them, and yet, when he's not in that situation comes out with some of the coldest, uncaring elements and comments that you will ever hear from a military commander. On another occasion, he said that he thought nothing of losses if they achieved his ultimate ends. He's the ultimate machiavellian. And so when you come to try to assess Napoleon, you've got to ask yourself, does he really care about his men? Other commanders during this period do. Wellington very famously weeps at the sight of the dead after the siege of Barahoff. On another occasion, Wellington turns around and says, well, I could take on that French chummy, but it'll cost me 10,000 men.


And he regards that as too big a loss and too big a risk. So what we see, particularly in the later part of Napoleon's career, is an increasing commitment to the slugging matches, the bloodbath style battles. Borodino is a classic example of that, where effectively, he's trying to wear the enemy down through sheer attrition to then break through. This also ends up being a key strategy that he uses in 1813 and 1814, to the point where, in the end, ultimately, he's reliant on his Imperial Guard for those breakthrough moments. And that's a change in doctrine, because the Imperial Guard were only ever meant to be used as the ultimate reserve to effectively mop up the field when everything was more or less over. And instead the Imperial Guard end up transitioning into this sort of shock troop that basically comes in when the other units have worn the enemy down. So does he care about his men? Does he use them as a tool? Yes, he absolutely does use them as a tool. You could debate whether or not he actually cares about them on a personal level until the end of time. Personally, I don't think he does.


I think he sees them as a means to an end. That's part of the challenge of looking at Napoleon and deciding where you stand on him. And this is why putting him on this pedestal and screaming vivlon praer and calling him a genius kind of doesn't sit well with me, because I think with all our figures in history, we've got to look at the bad alongside the good. And when it comes to Napoleon, there's plenty of both.


What about leading from the front you mentioned at Borodino, for example, he's happy to sit back and watch tens of thousands of his men march their deaths at the siege of Too Long. It rife at the beginning of the 1790s, his first steps onto history stage, he's stabbed in the Thyathicket with a bayonet thrust by a British sergeant. I think at Moringo, he also is on the front line. But how typically would you find him? I mean, does he lead cavalry charges or does he march forward in the infantry?


Napoleon, as far as I can recall, never actually led a cavalry charge. There's no reason for him to, quite frankly. He's an infantry officer. Does that mean that he doesn't put himself in positions of danger? Absolutely not. So there's a distinction during this period that even the troops themselves refer to between the come on commanders versus the goon commanders. And what that is basically referring to is the goons are the people who sort of stand back and go, I say, chaps, would you mind awfully taking that whilst I sit here and have a nice sherry? They're jolly good. You go and take that position and risk your lives terribly. Well done, versus the come on commanders who will stand in front of the unit and go, right, lads, we're taking that red out. Who's with me? And inevitably, it's the come on commanders who generate the greatest respect amongst the men. Wellington's an example of that. BLUC is an example of that. And Napoleon, on occasion, can be an example of that. Think about the Italian campaigns, the famous painting of him at the Bridge of Arclay, which is mainly propaganda and nonsense, but nonetheless, he does grab that flag, he does charge forward before being tackled into the mud by one of his aides because he's about to get his head taken off by artillery fire.


So he does have that in him. He does expose himself to danger. There's a point during the 1814 campaign where a shell lands near the troops and it's about to go off and Napoleon physically moves his horse over the top of that shell so that it explodes underneath the horse, kills the horse. Inevitably, Napoleon's unscathed and there's a lot of debate about is he actually attempting to commit suicide there? Is he just being incredibly brave?




What's going on with his mental state in 1814? That's a whole other podcast. He does, however, also sit back sometimes. He has to think about the scale of the armies in those later campaigns. Half a million men, if not more, going into Russia in 1812. You can't be in the front line when you're commanding battles involving hundreds of thousands of men, because you can't see everything that's going on. It's a bit like how there's no point in Hague being in the front line in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme because he wouldn't be able to get all of the information that he needs in order to be able to command. That same principle is at play. He does lead men forward. He does it at Waterloo, in fact. Again, people question, was his plan to march all the way up to the Anglo Dutch Ridge with his Imperial Guard and potentially die in the fighting? He ends up being persuaded not to go all the way. And in fact, the closest that Wellington and Napoleon get isn't the meeting that we're seeing from the stills of Napoleon and Wellington on HMS Balerafon. It's actually about half a kilometer where Napoleon is halfway across the Valley of Waterloo and then pulls up and Wellington will have been on the Allied ridge.


So Napoleon does put himself in positions of danger, but he also makes sure that he has positioned himself in places where he can do his job fundamentally, which is gather all of this information together in order to be able to make the important decisions.


Does he change? I mean, are we right to talk about a Napoleon as he gets older? Does his health deteriorate? Do you detect is he the same man he was on the eve of Austeritz, everywhere, scouting himself talking to the men, not sleeping. Is he that same man in 18 1318, 1415?


This is one of the big debates and you touch on a really important point. So Claire Civeter made the point to me a while back that for every two years in Napoleon's life, there is a detectable change in his psyche and in his personality almost. He is not constant by any stretch of the imagination. Now, in terms of his skill, does that mean that his skills change? Well, no, because in 1814 he shows a lot of the skill and the style of command that he shows during the Italian campaigns right at the start of his career, where he is active and he's riding everywhere and he's using his army to strike and pivot and really wreak havoc amongst the Allies. But part of that is the size of the army that he's got under his command. So I don't think the skills evade him. The one caveat I would say to that is the Waterloo campaign. By the Waterloo campaign, I think Napoleon is well past his best. There's no doubt in my mind that 18 five is his best day. Invited commas at the office. 1815 is a long, long shout from that. And so when people try and rate Napoleon versus Wellington, which is the unending debate, as you can imagine, I often say that you can't use Waterloo as an effective yardstick because it's not either of their best days for Wellington or for Napoleon.


So he does change. His psychology is fascinating suggestions of narcissistic personality disorder. That's research done by Ed Koss with a team of army psychologists over in the US. There are also indicators that on the flip side, he may have cared. So there's a lot to unpick there. He isn't constant. He does seem to deteriorate over the course of the first abdication, but his raw skill remains. He has those moments of brilliance, but the energy that he has to put in, I think, takes its toll. And for me, I think there comes a point where actually Napoleon breaks himself because he works so hard. That ability to dash off letters to one department in one moment and then flick and turn to another secretary and dictate a memorandum on a change in the law and then also dictate a letter to Bertier in the next moment about they're going to strike at Berlin next, or whatever it might be. That takes its toll. That work ethic takes its toll, as it would on any human being. And it's hard to say if he reaches a burnout, because that's a modern concept, but there's a definite sense that later in life he's not the man that he once was.


Tell us why he eventually lost at Waterloo. He lost some very significant it was set in the 1812 campaign in Russia. Who lost the Battle of Leipzig? Let's get everyone annoyed. Let's say that's the most important battle of napoleon. It was. He finally defeated in June 1815 at Waterloo. We touched a little bit. He's not the man he was. He's declining a bit. Why does he lose that battle?


Yeah, you've made all of your British listeners very angry by saying that Leipzig is the most important battle, very angry on it wars. But you know what? You're right, because the Peninsula War is a sideshow, and I say that as a historian of the Peninsula War. Why does Waterloo end up going the way it does? We touched on it earlier. He doesn't have Bertier. That's a big problem for him. He has to leave DUV back in Paris to maintain control. That also hurts him. So he fights the Waterloo campaign with what is fundamentally his B team. I think we're sometimes in danger of missing the fact that his plan very nearly works and we talk a lot about the failings, but it's not actually Waterloo itself where he loses the campaign. The argument that I always make is that Napoleon loses this campaign 48 hours before Waterloo, when he breaks the Prussian army at Lenie, but then isn't able to capitalize on it. And then the following morning is very slow off the mark, doesn't pounce on Wellington's Anglo Dutch army, which is just sitting exposed at Catrebra, still trying to work out what the hell has happened to the Prussians.


And it's that moment where the lack of energy, the different Napoleon that we see ultimately loses in the campaign. By the time he gets to Waterloo, Wellington and Bluke are already having those conversations about how they are going to fight combined. They've been having those conversations, actually, ever since they started planning for this campaign. So there's also a weight of numbers thing at play there. He knew that. That's why he opts for the strategy that he does at Waterlea. But we have to remember, it damn nearly worked. He came within an hour, maybe, of overwhelming victory in that campaign. And it's a melting pot of reasons why Waterloo doesn't go his way.


Right. Well, thank you, Zach. We're at the end now, but let's just leave everyone, in your opinion, give everyone the five traits that have made Napoleon one of the most effective battlefield generals in history.


For a start, we have to talk about his marshals. Not necessarily the single most important, but definitely up there. That ability to pick an incredibly effective team to work around him, who understood him, was really significant. We've talked about his ability to use the core system in a way that hasn't been seen in terms of its implementation in history up until that point. You've also got the fact that there is a lack of awareness amongst his opponents of what the heck they are dealing with here. It takes them a long time to work out how you deal with a problem like Napoleon, and that's really key because he's able to exploit that. He is a hugely machiavellian individual, which means he brings a very different mindset to conflict during this period, in an age where lots of people are sort of trying to focus much more on maneuver and trying to win conflicts without huge set piece battles and Napoleon rips up the rulebook. And that is absolutely fundamental. But I think the most important thing has to be his ability to inspire his men, that ability to rile up his troops, to get inside their minds, to interact with them fundamentally, to manipulate them in order to be willing and able to do incredible things.


In many cases, unspeakable things, but also achieve remarkable success on the battlefield.


Beautiful. Zach, thank you very much indeed. That, folks, was why Napoleon is regarded as one of the great commanders. Zach, that was a fantastic summary. Thank you so much for coming on. How could people follow your work?


I'm on Twitter at z white history. You can also find out a little bit more about the Napoleonican Revolutionary Wargraves Charity, an organization that I was very proud to found in 2021 that looks at remembering and honoring the experience and actions of these veterans by restoring their graves, telling their stories, and facilitating their burials when they're discovered. Just go to for more.


Dr. Zach White, thank you very much for coming on the podcast.


Absolute pleasure.


I have been visiting Napoleon's battlefields since I was a child. It's a stranger fiction from Tulong, where he made his name and was almost stopped for good by British baronet to Italy to Egypt, to Israel in Acre. There's an extraordinary city in northern Israel now where I stood on the ramparts and imagined the frustration Napoleon felt as the Turks, the Turkish garrison and the Royal Navy blocked his advance north into the Middle East. His dreams of becoming a modern Alexander shattered in that one disease ridden siege. He later said to the British commander Sidney Smith, who fought him there, that man made me miss my destiny. Napoleon wasn't at Trafalgar, he was at Austeritz, obviously, and I visited there a couple of years ago on the anniversary of the battle. I visited the frozen lakes, which turned out to be more like sort of mini ponds. The steaming hot beef stew I had in a local hostelry after a day on that battlefield was the greatest meal I have ever I followed a close second in terms of extraordinary, much needed hot meals when I followed Napoleon's route through the St. Bernard Pass, the Grand St.


Bernard Pass between what is now Switzerland and Italy. And there's a monastery right on the pass. It's the route that he took and totally surprised, wrong footed his Austrian enemies in northern Italy. And there's a monastery on the pass now, and we were freezing when we arrived. There snowshoeing up, and they gave us a delicious meal with some lovely red wine there. Remember that as well. I visited Borodino in the summer so it was boiling hot just outside Moscow, and it was hard to visualize there what it must have been like on that terrible day in 1812, when those fields witnessed what was one of the bloodiest battles in history to that point. I'd never been to Leipzig, to my great shame, but I've been to Waterloo many, many times, and the last time, actually, was to look at some remarkable archeology. Human remains are unearthed by the remarkable team at Waterloo, uncovered a piece of shattered bone with a bullet still lodged in it that make those past battles feel somehow very recent. Because of those battles, those military campaigns, napoleon changed the world order, his victories well, and even his defeats reshaped Europe.


His victory at Austerlitz led to the dissolution of the thousand year old Holy Roman Empire. A hugely important move, which I think doesn't get the attention it deserves, was when he sold French owned territory in North America to the newly established United States for $15 million. This gigantic Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the US, taking US territory way across the Mississippi into the west, and particularly in the Pacific Northwest. It was a huge milestone on the USA's road towards global superpower. He radically changed France. Some of his reforms endure to this day. His impact can be felt everywhere, from Portugal to Poland. For a very brief time, it seemed like Napoleon was indeed the most powerful man on Earth. And apart from the absolute failure of his maritime policies, he had one other terrible weakness josephine, the love of his life. A love that emboldened him, I think helped him reach the pinnacle of political power, but also tormented him. In the next episode, Dr Kate Lister and I pour over the passionate letters Napoleon wrote to his beloved Josephine, how their relationship consumed him and tore him apart for the rest of his days.


April 1796. There are many days when you don't write. No, my darling, I am not jealous, but sometimes worried. Come soon. I warn you, if you delay, you'll find me ill. Fatigue in your absence are too much. Your letters are the joy of my days, and my days of happiness are not many. Don't forget to like and subscribe to the podcast to get the next part of our series tomorrow. Thank you for listening to this episode of Dan Snow's history hit. Please follow this show wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps us. You'd be doing us a big favor. You can listen to all our episodes ad free and watch hundreds of history documentaries. When you subscribe, download the app on app stores and smart TV or go to subscribe as a special gift for listening this far proper tenacity that if you use the code Dan Snow at Checkout, you get 50% off your first three months. And if you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad free podcast episodes within the Apple app.