«9781846140273_NapoleonTheGreat_TXT_1-269.indd 1 12/09/14 1:40 PM 9781846140273_NapoleonTheGreat_TXT_1-269.indd 2 12/09/14 1:40 PM Corsica ‘The hero ...»
Napoleon excelled at mathematics. ‘To be a good general you must know mathematics,’ he later observed, ‘it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.’34 He was helped by his prodigious memory. ‘A singular thing about me is my memory,’ he once boasted. ‘As a boy I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers.’35 Napoleon was given permission to take maths classes earlier than the prescribed age of twelve, and soon mastered geometry, algebra and trigonometry. His weakest subject was German, which he never mastered; another weak subject, surprisingly for someone who so adored ancient history, was
defeats in the Seven Years War at the battles of Quebec, Plassey, Minden and Quiberon Bay and ‘the prodigious conquests of the English in India’.40 The intention was to create a generation of young officers who believed implicitly in French greatness, but who were also determined to humiliate Britain, which was at war with France in America for most of Napoleon’s time at Brienne. Too often Napoleon’s virulent opposition to the British government has been ascribed to blind hatred, or a Corsican spirit of vendetta; it could more accurately be seen as a perfectly rational response to the fact that in the decade of his birth the Treaty of Paris of 1763 had cut France out of the great continental landmasses (and markets) of India and North America, and by the time he was a teenager Britain was busily colonizing Australia too. At the end of his life Napoleon twice asked to live in Britain, and he expressed admiration for the Duke of Marlborough and Oliver Cromwell, but he was brought up to think of Britain as an implacable enemy. When he was studying at Brienne, his only living hero seems to have been the exiled Paoli. Another dead hero was Charles XII of Sweden, who from 1700 to 1706 had destroyed the armies of four states joined in coalition against him, but then marched deep into Russia, only to be catastrophically defeated and forced into exile.
Napoleon was also deeply fond of literature. (He reminisced in later years about how he was attacked by a Cossack in 1814 during the battle of Brienne very close to the tree under which as a schoolboy he had read Jerusalem Delivered, Tasso’s epic poem about the First Crusade.)41 He idolized Rousseau, who wrote positively about Corsica, writing a paean to On the Social Contract at seventeen and adopting Rousseau’s beliefs that the state should have the power of life and death over its citizens, the right to prohibit frivolous luxuries and the duty to censor the theatre and opera.42 Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, one of the biggest bestsellers of the eighteenth century, which had influenced him so much as a boy, argued that one should follow one’s authentic feelings rather than society’s norms, an attractive notion for any teenager, particularly a dreamer of ferocious ambition. Rousseau’s draft of a liberal constitution for Corsica in 1765 reflected his admiration for Paoli, which was fully reciprocated.
Napoleon read Corneille, Racine and Voltaire with evident pleasure.
His favourite poet was Ossian, whose bardic tales of ancient Gaelic conquest thrilled him with accounts of heroism among misty moors and epic battles on stormy seas. He took the Ossian poem Fingal on his
demeanour somewhat disagreeable.’47 The first book ever written on Napoleon was by Cuming de Craigmillen, a monk who taught at Brienne, writing under the name ‘Mr C. H., one of his schoolfellows’.
Published in 1797 in English, the book presented a reserved and anti-social child who, in the words of one reviewer, was ‘blunt in his manners, bold, enterprising and even ferocious’ – four adjectives that would serve to describe him for the rest of his life.48 Much the most famous anecdote of Napoleon’s schooldays, of a snowball fight involving the whole school, was probably an invention.
In the freezing winter of 1783, Napoleon supposedly organized mass mock-battles around ice-forts that he had designed, in which he commanded the attacking forces on one day and the defending ones the next.49 This hardly fits with the unpopularity he is supposed to have experienced among his fellow pupils, and the anecdote does not appear in the notes Bourrienne gave his memoirs’ ghost-writers and could easily have been a complete invention of theirs. ‘This mimic combat was carried on during a period of fifteen days,’ the memoirs state, ‘and did not cease until, by gravel and small stones having got mixed up with the snow, many of the pupils were rendered hors de combat.’50 Would a school really have let a game that was injuring many of its pupils continue for over two weeks?
On June 15, 1784, Napoleon wrote the first of over 33,000 surviving letters, to his step-uncle Joseph Fesch, Letizia’s mother’s second husband’s son. In it, he argued that his brother Joseph should not become a soldier as ‘the great Mover of all human destiny has [not] given him, as to me, a distinct love for the military profession’, adding ‘He has not the courage to face the perils of action; his health is feeble ... and my brother looks on the military profession from only a garrison point of view.’51 If Joseph chose to go into the Church, he opined, Marbeuf’s kinsman, the bishop of Autun, ‘would have given him a fat living and he would have been sure to become a bishop. What an advantage for the family!’ As for Joseph joining the infantry, Napoleon asked: ‘What is a wretched officer of the infantry? Three-quarters of his time he is a good-for-nothing.’ The three-page letter, now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, has a spelling mistake in almost every line – ‘Saint Cire’ for ‘Saint-Cyr’, ‘arivé’ for ‘arrivé’, ‘écrie’ for ‘écrit’, and so on – and is packed with grammatical errors. But his handwriting is clear and legible and he signed the letter ‘your humble and obedient servant Napolione di Buonaparte’. In a postscript he wrote ‘Destroy this letter,’
French artillery practice introduced by Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval after the Seven Years War. (Defeat had been, as it is so often in history, the mother of reform.) He also studied General Comte Jacques de Guibert’s revolutionary Essai général de tactique (1770): ‘The standing armies, a burden on the people, are inadequate for the achievement of great and decisive results in war, and meanwhile the mass of the people, untrained in arms, degenerates ... The hegemony over Europe will fall to that nation which becomes possessed of manly virtues and creates a national army.’55 Guibert preached the importance of speed, surprise and mobility in warfare, and of abandoning large supply depots in walled cities in favour of living off the land. Another of Guibert’s principles was that high morale – esprit de corps – could overcome most problems.
By the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos, which was to stay with him for the rest of his life and was to colour his beliefs and outlook deeply. His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.
As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’.56 These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale.
Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.
On February 24, 1785, Carlo Bonaparte died, probably of stomach cancer but possibly of a perforated ulcer, at Montpellier in southern France, where he had gone to try to improve his health. He was thirty-eight.
Napoleon, who was then only fifteen, had seen him twice in the previous six years, and then only briefly. ‘The long and cruel death of my
for a mulberry pépinière on land previously given to his ancestor Gieronimo Bonaparte. Thanks to a royal grant of 137,500 francs, repayable without interest over ten years, and to considerable investment of his own money, Carlo was able to plant a large orchard of mulberries.
Three years later, the Corsican parliament revoked his contract on the grounds that he had not fulfilled his obligations regarding maintenance, which he strenuously denied. The contract was formally severed on May 7, 1786, fifteen months after Carlo’s death, leaving the Bonapartes heavily encumbered by the need to repay the grant, as well as by the regular management of the orchard, for which they continued to be responsible.
Napoleon took an extended leave from the regiment that he was about to join in order to resolve the pépinière affair, which threatened to bankrupt his mother. The bureaucratic miasma persisted for several years, and was so consuming that the initial rumblings of the French Revolution were regarded by the family through the prism of whether the political changes in Paris were more or less likely to relieve the Bonapartes of their debts, and whether they might perhaps be granted a further agricultural subsidy by the state to help make the pépinière a going concern.63 Napoleon never seems more provincial than during ‘l’affaire de la pépinière’, as it was known; it threatened his family with bankruptcy and he pursued the case vigorously. He lobbied everyone he could in Corsica and Paris, sending many letters in his mother’s name as he tried to find a way out of the problem. Dutifully, he also sent home as much as possible of the 1,100 francs per annum that he earned as a second-lieutenant. Letizia, ‘Widow of Buonaparte’ as Napoleon described her in their many letters to France’s comptroller-general, came close to having to sell family silver after borrowing 600 francs from a French officer whom she needed to reimburse.64 Archdeacon Luciano saved the Bonapartes from the bailiffs on that occasion, but the family were chronically short of money until the archdeacon’s death in 1791, when they inherited his estate.
On the first day of September 1785, Napoleon was commissioned into the Compagnie d’Autume of bombardiers of the 5th Brigade of the 1st Battalion of the Régiment de la Fère, stationed at Valence, on the left bank of the Rhône. It was one of the five oldest artillery regiments, and highly prestigious.65 At sixteen he was one of the youngest officers, and the only Corsican to hold an artillery commission in the French army.
Napoleon always recalled his years at Valence as impecunious – his
publication – an unusual pastime for French army officers of the day.
Celebrating Paoli’s sixty-first birthday, it argued that laws derived either from the people or from the prince and for the sovereignty of the former, concluding: ‘The Corsicans, following all the laws of justice, have been able to shake off the yoke of the Genoese, and may do the same with that of the French. Amen.’71 It was a curious, indeed treasonous, document for an officer in the French army to write, but Napoleon had idolized Paoli since his schooldays, and from the ages of nine to seventeen he had been largely alone in France, recalling an idealized Corsica.