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In the footsteps of Napoleon I…

Discover the key places that marked the life of Napoleon I.  To follow in the steps of the ‘Little Corporal’, let’s start with Ajaccio in Corsica…

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• 1 • Ajaccio (Corsica, France)
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio on 15 August 1769, to an aristocratic family. One year earlier, Corsica had passed from the hands of the Republic of Genoa into the hands of France. As a child, Napoleon was just as happy to play war games with his older brother Joseph and his friends, as to look out to sea and daydream. At the age of 10, Joseph and he left their family in Corsica to enrol at a military academy on the French mainland, near Paris. In Ajaccio, you can visit the house in which Napoleon was born. Every summer, the town organises great festivities to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Corsica’s most famous son!

• 2 • Toulon (France)
In 1793 part of France was at war, and the English were laying siege to the port of Toulon. The young captain Napoleon Bonaparte was put in charge of liberating the port, which he succeeded in doing. As a reward, he was appointed brigadier general on 22 December. He was only 24 years old!

• 3 • Lodi (Italy)
Between 1796 and 1797, General Bonaparte led his First Italian Campaign against the Austrians, who dominated the Italian peninsula. He knew how to encourage his army, ill equipped and exhausted though it was, and won some great victories. On 10 May 1796, Napoleon and his soldiers crossed the narrow bridge at Lodi and repelled the Austrians. After further victorious battles, such as at Arcole (a battle which lasted 3 days: 15, 16 and 17 November 1796) and at Rivoli (14 and 15 January 1797), a peace treaty was signed on 7 October 1797. Napoleon was not content with winning victories; he tried his hand at governing the regions he had conquered.

• 4 • The Pyramids (Egypt)
In 1798, the government of the Directory sent General Bonaparte to Egypt. He took with him more than 200 scholars to find out about Egyptian flora and fauna and the mysteries of the pyramids. In actual fact his campaign was also a military one, with the aim of impeding the influence of the English in this region. On 21 July 1798, Napoleon won a major victory against the Mameluke army. However the difficulties of finding food and manoeuvring in the desert, as well as a plague epidemic, weakened the French army. The Egyptians, assisted by the British, opposed Bonaparte’s government. The general returned to France in 1798 with some of his troops. The rest of the army was to return, defeated, in 1801.

• 5 • Saint-Cloud (France)
In 1799, the government of the Directory was in disarray; there was no more money in the coffers, and the French were discontented. With the aid of his younger brother Lucien and his future brother-in-law Joachim Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte took over power on 9 and 10 November 1799. This “coup d’état de Brumaire” was so-called because in the Republican calendar used at that time, the month of “Brumaire” corresponded roughly to our month of November. Napoleon took up residence at the Château de Saint-Cloud, near Paris, and restructured the organ of power: the Consulate was born. The Château de Saint-Cloud burned down in 1870, but the magnificent park remains. A museum retraces the history of the château.

• 6 • Malmaison (France)
In 1799, Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, bought the Château de Malmaison. This was a fine residence, with a large park, a lake, and a greenhouse with rare flowers. Once he was Premier Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte loved to come to this house for a rest. He also held meetings with his ministers here to work on reforms for France. Malmaison is now a national museum, which houses Napoleon’s very fine library, along with a wealth of furniture, paintings and musical instruments (Josephine played the harp) which belonged to the couple: it’s well worth a visit!

• 7 • Marengo – Alessandria (Italy)
In May 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte embarked his troops upon a Second Italian Campaign, still against the Austrians. While part of the French army attacked Austria via Germany, Napoleon kept a surprise up his sleeve for his enemies: he crossed the Alps with the rest of his army soldiers, cannon, ammunition, horses and provisions! On 14 June, he won a victory at Marengo, by the skin of his teeth, but the Austrians were obliged to surrender. The peace treaty was signed on 9 February 1801.

• 8 • Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (France)
So as to affirm his political power and feel that he was the equal of Europe’s other sovereigns (George III King of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick William III of Prussia, Francis I of Austria, Alexander I of Russia). Napoleon sought to be crowned Emperor of the French. On 2 December 1804, nearly 12,000 were invited to take part in a magnificent ceremony at the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Throughout December, numerous festivities were organised in Paris and all over the French Empire.

• 9 • Milan (Italy)
As early as the First Italian Campaign of 1796, Bonaparte defended the Italian cause against Austrian influence. He organised the Cisalpine Republic in 1797, and the Italian Republic in 1802. In 1805, he instituted the Kingdom of Italy, the first Napoleonic state outside France. Napoleon was crowned King of Italy on 26 May 1805 in Milan, capital of the kingdom.

• 10 • Austerlitz – Brno (today part of the Czech Republic)
One year to the day after his coronation as Emperor, Napoleon and his “Grande Armée” won the battle of Austerlitz against the allied troops of the emperor of Austria, Francis I, and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. After the battle, Napoleon congratulated his soldiers, “Soldiers, I am pleased with you. All you will have to say is, ‘I was at the battle of Austerlitz’, to be greeted with the response, ‘Here is a brave man!’”. The Napoleonic Legend was underway.

• 11 • Jena (Germany)
In July 1806, Napoleon I regrouped small states from the Rhine region in Germany into a Confederation of the Rhine, so as to limit the influence of the Kingdom of Prussia. In August, King Frederick William III declared war. On 14 October 1806, Napoleon and one of his best generals, Davout, crushed the Prussian forces, one at Jena, and the other at Auerstaedt. Napoleon and the Grande Armée made a triumphal entry into Berlin, capital of the Kingdom of Prussia.

• 12 • Eylau – Bragationovsk (Russia)
With Prussia roundly defeated at Jena in 1807, Napoleon found himself face to face with Russia. On 8 February 1807, Napoleon’s troops confronted the army of Tsar Alexander I on the snow-swept plains of Eylau. The Russians beat a retreat, and victory, while inconclusive, is attributed to Napoleon. However the Emperor was shocked by the violence of the fighting and the terrible human losses. Eylau was a bitter victory.

• 13 • Friedland (Russia)
After the bitter fighting at Eylau, the battle of Friedland, on 14 June 1807, was a resounding victory for the French forces. Napoleon managed to use all his tactical genius to defeat the Russians. The Emperor of the French and the Tsar of Russia signed a peace treaty on 7 July, at Tilsit. But the Tsar would not bring himself to accept French domination in Europe…

• 14 • Madrid (Spain)
In April-May 1808, Napoleon lost patience with the dynastic conflicts between the King of Spain Charles IV and his son. He wanted to put his older brother Joseph on the throne of Spain. On 2 May (known as the “Dos de Mayo“ by the Spanish), the population of Madrid rose up against the occupying French troops, provoking a brutal repression the following day. Joseph’s reign began in an atmosphere of entrenched opposition and permanent guerrilla warfare. Napoleon decided to intervene and won Madrid’s surrender on 4 December 1808. But the country, supported by the English, was far from being subjugated. The Peninsula War, which ended in 1813, was a resounding failure for Napoleon.

• 15 • Wagram (Austria)
In April 1809 a new war broke out against Austria. The French victories at Eckmühl (22 April) and at Regensburg (23 April) preceded French defeat at Essling (21-22 May). But on 5 and 6 July 1809, the Austrian army finally admitted defeat at Wagram. This difficult and bloody battle was Napoleon’s last great victory. He seemed to have grown tired of waging war and agreed to negotiate a peace treaty at Vienna, on 14 October 1809.

• 16 • Compiègne (France)
In 1810, Napoleon welcomed his second wife, the archduchess Marie-Louise of Habsburg, daughter of the Emperor of Austria, to the Château de Compiègne. From this marriage, Napoleon was hoping to have a son to assure the future of the Napoleonic dynasty on the French throne. One year later, the imperial couple finally had a son. The Château de Compiègne still houses the imperial apartments of Napoleon I.

• 17 • Moscow (Russia)
Tsar Alexander I refused to join the Continental System against British goods, a blockade which Napoleon had been trying to organise since 1806 to weaken British economic power. Napoleon therefore declared war in 1812. The Emperor emerged victorious from the first great battle at Borodino (7 September) and entered Moscow. However, the Tsar refused to fight any more battles, waiting instead until winter as he knew that Napoleon’s troops would encounter the gravest difficulties in finding food, manoeuvring and fighting in the snow-covered Russian plains. In October, Napoleon ordered his exhausted troops to retreat, in catastrophic weather conditions.

• 18 • Leipzig (Germany)
In 1813, part of the French army was at war in Spain. Napoleon therefore had to confront the reunited troops of the coalition between Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden. The battle of Leipzig (16-19 October) was a serious defeat for Napoleon, with French territory being left at risk of being invaded.

• 19 • Fontainebleau (France)
In 1814, Napoleon confronted his enemies on French soil: this was his Campaign for France. French troops won a few victories, but Paris was invaded on 31 March 1814. In refuge at the Château de Fontainebleau, the Emperor tried to abdicate in favour of his son (who became Napoleon II) but his conquerors refused. He therefore abdicated unconditionally on 6 April. He bade farewell to his loyal followers in the courtyard of the château and headed off into exile. His conquerors had given him sovereignty of the island of Elba. Louis XVIII ascended to the throne of France, ushering in the First Restoration.

• 20 • Golfe-Juan (France)
After nine months’ exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon attempted to seize back power and disembarked once more on French shores on 1 March 1815 at Golfe-Juan. By 20 March, he had reached Paris and took back his place at the Tuileries Palace. The Hundred Days had begun.

• 21 • Waterloo (Belgium)
Napoleon could not avoid a war against a Europe united in opposition to his return. He fought his final battle on 18 June 1815 at Waterloo, in Belgium. The French were crushed by the Anglo-Prussian army. Napoleon abdicated a second time on 22 June 1815 and decided to give himself up to the British. Louis XVIII returned for the second time to the French throne, for the Second Restoration.

• 22 • St Helena (South Atlantic)
Scarred by the Hundred Days episode, the British sent Napoleon into exile on St Helena, a small, far-flung island under British control in the middle of the South Atlantic. Accompanied by a few loyal servants, Napoleon spent five and half years in captivity, made all the more trying by the climate, lack of privacy and especially the humiliating surveillance imposed on him by Hudson Lowe, the governor of the island. Napoleon dictated his memoirs and participated in the “Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène”. He died on 5 May 1821.
1840 saw the return of Napoleon’s mortal remains to France (known as the “Retour des Cendres”), as his body was repatriated to be interred in Les Invalides in Paris.

• 23 • Vienna (Austria)
On 22 July 1832 in Vienna, Napoleon II died of tuberculosis at the age of 21. He died at the palace of Schönbrunn, where he had been sent after the fall of the French Empire to be close to his maternal grandfather, the Emperor of Austria. Kept in this “gilt cage”, he died taking with him the hopes of any restoration of a Napoleonic dynasty.

December 2020

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