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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole

Reproduction of a painting entitled Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole, with Napoleon pictured in military dressBonaparte at ArcoleThe image shown here is a reproduction of a famous painting entitled Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole by Antoine-Jean Gros. It depicts a dashing young general leading the Army of Italy to victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Arcole (1796).

Within three years of this battle, aged just 30, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) would become first consul of France. As this suggests, his rise to power was rapid, his progress propelled by three revolutionary events.In May 1769 the French defeated the Corsicans at the Battle of Ponte Novu, paving the way for the annexation of Corsica.

For the Bonapartes, annexation brought opportunity, with Napoleon’s father going on to serve as Corsican representative at the court of Louis XVI. His new connections – and a claim to minor noble ancestry – gave his sons access to educational opportunities that far exceeded those available to the average Corsican. Thus, Napoleon left the island of his birth for school in France aged just nine.

Though sullen and socially isolated, he proved a diligent and engaged young scholar, gaining entry to the prestigious École Militaire, where he excelled still further. Still, in the highly stratified society of the ancien régime, there were strict limitations on the rank that a man of Napoleon’s background might ever expect to attain.

The French Revolution, then, can be seen as a second crucial event in the rise of Napoleon. With most of the French officer corps forced into exile, new prospects opened up for those who remained. Napoleon capitalised accordingly, taking charge of the artillery of the Army of Italy aged just 24. His rapid and decisive conquest of northern Italy, coupled with further military success in Egypt and a significant role in the bloody defence of the National Convention against a royalist uprising brought Napoleon to public attention, and he returned from Egypt to a hero’s welcome.

With French armies suffering defeat throughout much of Europe and the Directory politically ineffective and rife with corruption, the scene was set for the final key revolutionary moment in Napoleon’s rise to power. On 9 November 1799, with the support of a number of close allies, Napoleon overthrew the ruling Directory and claimed power over France.

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