Son of Revolution: Napoleon and His Italian Expedition

The reign of terror ended after the guillotine of Jacobin leader Robespierre. After his guillotine, France again became a victim of the internal crisis.

A French poet, Barbier has compared France to a wild animal, a proud and free mare, with head high and shining skin; a beautiful vagabond, fiercely intolerant of saddle and harness and rein, stamping on the ground and frightening the world with the noise of her neighing.

In 1794 France was once again in internal crisis. People of all classes had grown weary of the reign of terror. They were also tired of the skyrocketing prices of bread, salt, and other necessities of life after the terror.

In such circumstance in 1795 moderate leaders (Girondins), drafted a new plan of government. The new constitution gave power in the hands of the upper middle class and called for a two-house legislature and an executive body of five men, known as the Directory same as the constitution of 1792.

The five directors were moderates. Some of them freely enriched themselves at the public’s expense. Despite their corruption, however, they gave their troubled country a period of the order. This entire relentless order in France gave the birth to the leader Napoleon Bonaparte. In a real sense, he was the son of revolution.

Journey of Napoleon Bonaparte

Journey of Napoleon: Corsica to Military General
Journey of Napoleon: Corsica to Military General

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, which was under France. He had mixed French- Corsican and Italian blood. He was just nine years old when his parents sent him to a military school in northern France. In 1785, at the tender age of 16, he completed his schooling and became a lieutenant in the artillery. When the Revolution broke out, Napoleon joined the army of the new government.

In 1793 he won his first victory at Toulon, commercial port of France. The rich people of this place were afraid of losing their property during the revolutionary period. They invited the English and handed over the remains of the French navy to them.

Napoleon crushed the rebels and defeated the English force at Toulon. This was a charismatic victory for him and his star began to shine brightly after this victory as he became the general at the tender age of twenty-four.

Characteristics of Napoleon

All of the humans are curious mixtures of the good and the bad, the great and the little. Napoleon was a short man (five feet three inches tall) who was an important character of the history of modern times. He would come to be recognised as one of the world’s greatest military geniuses, along with Alexander the Great of Macedonia, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome. Napoleon Bonaparte had a magnetism that attracted the admiration of his men. He inspired his troops through his speeches. In one speech, he told soldiers,

If the victory is for a moment uncertain, you shall see your Emperor place himself on the front line.

Bonaparte was generous in his rewards to the troops. Many of his soldiers received the Legion of Honor—a medal for bravery. Sometimes Napoleon would take the medal from his own chest to present it to a soldier. A cavalry commander, Auguste de Colbert, wrote,

He awakened in my soul the desire for glory.

But he was selfish, self-centred and the dominating impulse of his life was not the pursuit of an ideal, but the quest for personal power. He once said,

Power is my mistress! The conquest of that mistress has cost me so much that I will allow no one to rob me of her, or to share her with me!

Child of the revolution he was and yet he dreamt of a vast empire and the conquests of Alexander filled his mind.

Heroic Attempt as Young Officer

In October 1795, fate handed the young officer a chance for glory. When royalist rebels marched on the National Convention, a government official asked Napoleon to defend the delegates. Napoleon and his gunners greeted the thousands of royalists with a bombardment. Within minutes, the attackers fled in panic and confusion.

Napoleon Bonaparte became the hero of the hour and hailed throughout Paris as the saviour of the French republic. Here his meeting and marriage with Josephine elevated his status. He became commander of the French army and got an assignment of Italian Expedition.

Napoleon: France versus Austria
Napoleon: France versus Austria

Italian Expedition

German and Italy states were the bone of contention between Austria and France. Austria taking the advantage of internal crisis in France dominated both the areas. This was an attack on French interest in these regions.

In 1796, the Directory appointed Napoleon to lead a French army against the forces of Austria and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The French army had still something of the fire of revolution. But they were in rags. They had neither proper clothes nor shoes nor food nor money.

Napoleon: Italian Expedition
Napoleon: Italian Expedition

Napoleon Bonaparte led this time-worn and footsore band across the Alps, promising army food and all good things when they reached the rich Italian plain. To the people of Italy, he promised freedom that he was coming to liberate them from the oppressors. He played wisely with the feelings of both Italians and his soldiers. Napoleon converted his promises into truth. He defeated Austria and compelled it for the treaty of Campoformio. The important provisions of this treaty were:

  • Rhine land (reservoir of coal and iron) valley was given to the France and became the natural frontier of France.
  • Italian states accepted Napoleon as their Guardian.
  • Netherlands and Lombardy also came under the control of France.
  • Venice was given to Austria to satisfy the sentiments of Austria.

After the Treaty of Campoformio

By this treaty, he gifted the area of resources to French people that too free of cost. For the first time in the history of France, war burden was not imposed on the people of France. The defeated forces bore the burden of war.

To his soldiers, he was like a father– a very young father- known affectionately as the “Petit Caporal”. These achievements by the treaty of Campoformio turned him the Hero of France.

Next, in an attempt to protect French trade interests and to disrupt British trade with India, Napoleon led an expedition to Egypt. We will learn about this Egyptian Expedition in our next coming post.

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