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

Napoleon's abdication note

Napoleon excelled in battle. Able to remain sharply perceptive and decisive in the heat of the fight, Napoleon displayed remarkable tirelessness, courage and confidence. These traits – coupled with a talent for rousing patriotic speeches – help to explain how he was able to lead his troops to repeated military victories. They also explain why Napoleon did not let peace treaties dampen his expansionist aims for long.

Napoleon’s preferred military tactics relied upon a combination of speed, mobility and brute force. A concentrated attack on a key point in the enemy’s line was designed to take opponents by surprise, overwhelming them early on. When this initial strike did not result in immediate collapse, Napoleon relied upon superior numbers, maintained through a comprehensive programme of conscription, to win the battle of attrition that followed.

For a time these traits and tactics helped the French Army to a number of impressive victories. In 1805 they encircled and defeated Austrian forces at Ulm, enabling the subsequent capture of Vienna. Later that year they achieved victory against a much larger army of Russian and Austrian troops at Austerlitz. Similarly, in Spain Napoleon achieved victories over Spanish and British forces, and at Jena and Auerstedt (1806) he convincingly beat the Prussians.

Facsimile of Napoleon’s 1814 abdication noteFacsimile of Napoleon’s 1814 abdication noteAfter 1810 Napoleon’s luck began to change, however. Most catastrophic of all was his decision to invade Russia in 1812. Though the French were victorious in battle, extreme weather conditions and the use of scorched earth tactics by the retreating Russians wreaked utter devastation on the French Army. His enemies seized their opportunity, inflicting further defeats on Napoleon’s weakened army, most notably at the Battle of Leipzig (1813). Political pressure at home was mounting, and in 1814 insurrection both in the Senate and amongst his senior officers forced Napoleon into exile on Elba. 

The image shown here is a facsimile of his abdication note.

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