An Extraordinary Man in a Hurry
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, Corsica on August 15, 1769. He went to a military school and military academy in France. He was just 20 when the French Revolution started. At 24, he was made a brigadier general by the revolutionaries after his success in the conquest of Toulon1. In 1795, another success in suppressing a royalist riot against the Assembly in Paris gave him the post of Commander of the Interior. At 27, he was given the command of an army to invade northern Italy. His campaign of 1796-97 was a huge success and he came back to Paris as a hero.
He then conceived of an expedition to Egypt, as both a military campaign and a scientific endeavour. He left on May 19, 1798. The Egyptian campaign, despite its mixed results, was an early demonstration of the scope and vision of Bonaparte who already dreamed of large conquests - up to India - which could not materialize at the time due to severe material limitations.
Secretly, in August 1799, he sailed back to France after hearing disquieting news of the political situation back home. He took part in a conspiracy leading to a Coup on November 9 in which military force was used to establish a new regime called the Consulate. Bonaparte outmanoeuvred his co-conspirators and established himself as the sole real power with the title of First Consul. He was just 30!
1. Where a royalist revolt was supported by the British.
Bonaparte plunged into the work of administering France with extraordinary energy. One major work he accomplished with the help of a few legal luminaries was to recast the entire body of laws into what would be known for ever as the Napoleon Code, still the basis of modern France legal system as well as those of many countries. A plebiscite made him First Consul for life in 1802, and in 1804 at the age of 35 he crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Apart from administering France and the Empire, he had to lead several successful military campaigns against various coalitions of European powers2. First as General, then First Consul, then Emperor, he defeated five coalitions from 1796 to 1809. Early 1812, the French Empire was larger than ever and, besides, Napoleon was controlling vast expanses of Europe as their "Protector".
In June 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. He reached Moscow in September, but after one month he had to order retreat. It resulted in the loss of a large part of his "Great Army", harassed by Cossacks and decimated by a particularly severe winter. In 1813 and 1814, despite prodigies of energy and display of military genius, particularly in the celebrated Campaign of France, Napoleon, largely outnumbered by the allies of the Sixth Coalition, was compelled to abdicate in April 1814. He was then exiled as the ruler of Elba, a very small island below Italy.
Hardly a year later, amazingly, he managed to come back and re-establish himself as Emperor. But the Allies rejected his peace offers and launched the Seventh coalition against him. Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. He was then exiled to St Helena, a rocky inhospitable island far in the South Atlantic where he died in May 1821. He was not yet 52!
2. They comprised mostly England, Austria, Prussia, Russia. These powers had fought against the French Republic and could not accept Napoleon whom they saw as an usurper. They were also afraid of the spread of revolutionary ideas.