Why Napoleon Lost the “Napoleonic Wars”

“Virtue is to be admired and praised, even in one’s enemies.” -Niccolò Machiavelli 

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius and the best general of his time. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars he turned France from a declining state into a continental empire that dominated Europe. Napoleon fought 60 battles (winning 53), defeated successive armies, countries, and coalitions, and belongs to the great captains of history. 

But in the end he lost everything, France surrendered, and he died bitter and disillusioned in exile. Napoleon made critical strategic mistakes, underestimated enemies, and became too ambitious. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his invasion of Russia, British naval power and money, and the German Campaign of 1813 show this clearly.

Napoleon excelled as a commander in land warfare. From his Italian campaigns to Austerlitz, and victories against Prussia, Russia and Austria in Central and Eastern Europe, Napoleon won quick wars of movement and decision via speed, surprise, and maneuver. Much of this was due to the superior training, motivation, and leadership of the French armies, and because his enemies were initially cautious, poorly led, and militarily backwards. Either way Napoleon used his army’s superior capabilities to defeat enemies that often significantly outnumbered him (much like Hannibal Barca, Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel).

Napoleon used several means to gain military advantages. 

He pushed his army more ruthlessly than his enemies, and took risks they usually didn’t. To accomplish bold maneuvers Napoleon did forced marches to surprise enemies. For this his forces had to be light and nimble, and he took many liberties with logistics. Instead of having large baggage trains and long lines of communication, Napoleon usually made his forces live off the land and pillage food and resources. His armies also used self-contained corps (essentially a mini-army) far before it enemies. These had enough arms and capabilities to operate independently, could move swiftly, and were used to great effect (such as Marshal Davout’s triumph at Auerstedt in 1806 against the main Prussian Army.

Napoleon used risky maneuvers to defeat conservative generals used to sieges, predictable turning movements to gain small advantages, and fought few major battles. His main maneuvers included gaining a central position between enemy armies to defeat them in detail, and massing against enemy lines of communication, or getting in between an enemy army and its capital.

With his superior army, and such methods and maneuvers, Napoleon won decisive battles and defeated nations in Italy, Western Europe and Central Europe. In smaller countries with denser populations and resources in a small area, Napoleon’s forces won quick battles against concentrated armies that couldn’t retreat far. However, these favourable conditions didn’t exist in Spain and Russia, or against Britain, protected by the Royal Navy and English Channel.

Napoleon’s Quagmire in Spain (1807-1814):

France initially intervened in Spain to occupy Portugal because it defied Napoleon’s embargo against Britain. Moving French troops through Spain also gave Napoleon an opportunity to effect a regime change there. He was unsatisfied, and did not trust, Spain’s conservative monarchy that didn’t reflect the ideals of the French Revolution, and had been tempted to join the coalition against France in 1806. Thus, he replaced it with a friendlier government with his brother in charge.  

Used to winning and imposing his will, Napoleon assumed the Spanish people would accept this. Unfortunately, his brother and revolutionary government didn’t win over Spain’s mostly Catholic and conservative society, and a rebellion against French rule engulfed the country. With France suffering defeats such as at Bailén (1808), and Britain sending troops to support the rebellion, Napoleon was faced with a major crisis.  

Napoleon reacted with speed and overwhelming force, managing to salvage some of the Spanish venture by securing much of Spain and forcing the British army to temporarily withdraw. However, he didn’t completely pacify Spain before having to turn his attention to Austria which challenged France in 1809. Leaving control to local French commanders, Napoleon assumed the Spanish conflict would end soon. This proved to be exceedingly optimistic.

French efforts in Spain would be frustrated, and the Peninsular War as it became known was one of Napoleon’s gravest blunders. Unlike Central Europe and Northern Italy, Spain didn’t have the logistical and topographical advantages which previously let French forces win easily. Population density was lower, communications in Spain weren’t as advanced, and food stocks and resources were more spread out. The Spanish army and rebels, after being defeated in open battle, also adopted guerrilla warfare (the term guerrilla warfare originates from this conflict).

This exploited France’s weak position in Spain as the French fought an elusive enemy that enjoyed the traditional insurgent advantages of local sympathy, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. To make things worse the British returned, secured Portugal from French rule, and Wellington and his army would prove formidable. The French faced in Spain perhaps the worst circumstances any occupier could: A hostile population rebelling against France and Revolutionary ideals, a battlefield with terrain favouring the insurgent, and hard to live on or resupply from France, and opposed by a strong foreign power which supported the insurgents and deployed an army of its own. 

Spain became the bloody ulcer of Napoleon’s empire, the equivalent of South Africa for Britain, Vietnam for America, and Afghanistan for Russia. Despite deploying 300,000 French troops in Spain they weren’t able to subvert the Spanish rebels or destroy Wellington’s army. These forces could’ve been better employed elsewhere, like against Austria in 1809, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, or the German Campaign of 1813. One damning fact is more French troops were lost in Spain than during the invasion of Russia (where at-least half of the invading army was not French)!

To win in Spain the French had to kick Britain off the Iberian Peninsula, end its support of the Spanish rebels, and mount an effective counter-insurgency campaign to defeat Spanish resistance. None of this happened, nor was it likely. To beat Britain the French had to neutralize the Royal Navy and invade Britain, or starve the island, and France simply didn’t have the naval means and enough allies to do so.  

French attempts to crush British forces in Portugal were doomed given the poor land based communications of the Iberian peninsula versus the excellent seaborne communications dominated by the British. The British defensive lines of Torres Vedras, which the French could not breach, also saved them in 1810-1811. Finally, the French were too inflexible and aggressive to compromise the ideals of the French Revolution enough to win over enough popular support in a predominantly Catholic and conservative Spain, in order to neutralize the insurgents.  

Napoleon’s Debacle in Russia (1812):

The next main factor in Napoleon’s downfall was his invasion of Russia. Frustrated by the ongoing war in Spain, Britain’s continued resistance, and hoping to end Russia’s circumvention of France’s continental blockade against Britain, Napoleon mobilized over 600,000 soldiers to coerce Russia into falling in line. Napoleon’s objective wasn’t to conquer Russia (his resources precluded that) but to cross the border, rout the Russian army, and convince Russia to acquiesce to French policy in Europe.  

With hindsight the invasion appears foolish and disastrous, but it at the time Napoleon’s army dominated Europe, he had won all his previous campaigns (except in Egypt), and at first his forces dwarfed the Russian army. Perhaps Napoleon was arrogant, underestimated the Russians, and was complacent regarding logistics. The idea the Russians wouldn’t do anything else besides stand and fight against poor odds seems puzzling, but after such a winning streak is it surprising Napoleon acted boldly, and gambled again when it had always given him success before?

The invasion is well known and easily told. Napoleon’s massive army advanced but slowly eroded itself through desertions, weather, disease and combat losses. Napoleon’s old policy of living off the land failed due to Russia’s vast size, poor infrastructure, and the Russians using scorched earth methods to deny food and resources to the enemy. Napoleon did make considerable efforts to bring along supplies but they weren’t enough. Meanwhile, the Russians fell back on their lines of communications and amassed more soldiers and supplies as Napoleon’s army weakened over time.

Yet things were not that simple. The Russians generally didn’t enact this successful strategy on purpose. They usually wanted to stand and fight closer to the border but ended up retreating due to several reasons. The pressures of public opinion, and outrage from Russian officers, eventually forced the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, to fight Napoleon at Borodino, despite the Russian army being unable to match French forces. While the French won the battle it was a Pyrrhic victory, not least because Napoleon didn’t commit his Imperial Guard which could have routed the Russian army.

What would’ve been the best case scenario for the French? What if Russia’s army had fought the far superior French and allied forces close to the border? A French victory would’ve been inevitable, but the Russians could’ve refused to admit defeat, as they did after Eylau (1807), and after countless battles against Germany in both World Wars? Russia wouldn’t have been defenceless as its capital would be unoccupied, its population and territory barely affected, and would simply have raised more and more armies.

However, according to the usual conventions of Napoleonic warfare, maybe a crushing victory early on could’ve motived Russia to submit to Napoleon’s limited demand to rejoin his blockade against Britain. While it would’ve decreased Russian trade it wouldn’t have weakened Russia decisively, or risk Napoleon overrunning the Russian heartland. But this didn’t happen as Russia’s leadership thought there was more at stake than Napoleon’s continental system. Ironically, Napoleon was fighting a limited war, despite amassing 600,000 soldiers, whereas the Russians saw it as a struggle to the death.  

So once again the rest is well known and easily told. Napoleon beat, but didn’t destroy, the Russian army at Borodino, took Moscow, and waited for Russia’s leadership to admit defeat. However, Moscow soon burned terribly in a fire, the Tzar didn’t negotiate, and Napoleon’s army retreated back to friendly territory during winter.  

Terrible winter conditions and diseases like typhus finalized the destruction of Napoleon’s army, which crossed the Berezina River with a sad force of perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers at the end of the campaign. Napoleon’s usual formula of surprise, maneuver and speed to overwhelm the enemy to impose a favourable peace had failed spectacularly. The French disaster in Russia would influence the German Campaign of 1813.

Britain’s Role in Napoleon’s Downfall:

Before that we should consider British influence in these conflicts. While it was Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies that brought down the French army (Waterloo’s impact is very overrated), Britain played a main role in defeating Napoleon. Britain was the only nation Napoleon never defeated or brought to terms in his many wars. It financed most of the coalitions’ war efforts, and its naval blockade of France pushed Napoleon to invade Spain and Russia, which ultimately sealed his fate. Without Britain it’s likely Napoleon would have dominated Europe, as France and its allies had far more population and military power than his continental enemies (even Russia).

Napoleon’s victories against enemy coalitions gained him territory and influence, and at times made Prussia, Austria, and Russia reluctant allies of France. Yet as long as England kept its economic and naval advantages, and opposed France, it denied Napoleon ultimate victory. Given 7 coalitions were raised, mostly with British money, to fight France there’s little doubt Britain was the most constant and dedicated enemy of Napoleon.

While France won victory after victory on the continent, Britain found ways to limit or reverse many of them. This included Britain’s use of naval power, its economic and industrial superiority over France, and British campaigns in Europe.  

British naval superiority was necessary to guarantee this. Without it Britain couldn’t have secured its economic and industrial advantages by controlling maritime trade and colonies, launch naval efforts against Napoleon, or intervene on the continent. Britain kept its naval dominance by major investments in resources and training for the Royal Navy, decisive defeats against France and its allies’s fleets, and even ruthless actions against neutral powers.  

Naval engagements like the Battle of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805) wore down the French navy. British actions against neutral powers, like attacking the Danish navy in 1801, bombarding Copenhagen, and threatening to sink the Portuguese navy in 1807 to prevent Denmark and Portugal’s fleets joining Napoleon, showed Britain’s determination to keep the naval edge. A similar thing happened in 1940 when British attacked the French navy at Mers El Kébir as Churchill feared Germany wanted to control it.

These efforts were needed to allow Britain to exploit its naval power. It let it supply and finance its allies’ war efforts against Napoleon. While Napoleon defeated most coalitions sent against him, Britain simply bankrolled them until he was overwhelmed. The Napoleonic Wars became a game of Whac-A-Mole where Napoleon defeated one enemy or alliance at a time, only to see others rise up at inconvenient times. 

Thus, Napoleon’s victory at Marengo beat the Second Coalition, but British support raised the Third Coalition that Napoleon crushed at Austerlitz. Then the Fourth Coalition ended with Russia’s defeat in 1807, but was followed by British intervention in Spain, and its support of Austria in 1809. Finally, the last British-supported coalitions in 1813-14 and 1815 finished Napoleon.

British naval blockades also eroded France’s economy, and those of nations like Russia and Portugal, which helped provoke Napoleon’s wars in Spain and Russia. As noted before, British support of Spain’s rebellion wore down French military power over many years, while Napoleon’s invasion of Russia crushed the lion’s share of his army in a single campaign.

Britain’s campaigns against France were also not without effect. On one hand it could be argued the British campaign in Holland in 1799, its intervention in Southern Italy in 1806, and the Walcheren Campaign of 1809, ended in failure. However, British efforts against French forces in Egypt and Spain were decisive. In the former it doomed Napoleon’s foolhardy campaign in Egypt, and in the latter it prevented France from crushing the Spanish rebels, and tied down countless French troops that could’ve been decisive elsewhere. Eventually Wellington’s army, initially based in Portugal, helped liberated Spain and then invaded Southern France.

The German Campaign of 1813: 

The German Campaign of 1813 was arguably the decisive campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. The Peninsular War in Spain severely eroded the French army, and the invasion of Russia temporarily destroyed it, but Napoleon managed to rebuild a decent force afterwards. He recruited plenty of soldiers from his empire and allies, that still had more population than Prussia and Russia, who were just as weak at this point as Napoleon. It’s likely without the intervention of Austria, and later defection among France’s German allies, that Napoleon could’ve stalemated the Prussians and Russians, or conceivably won the campaign.  

Certainly, Napoleon had little chance of winning in 1814 when he was vastly outnumbered and fighting on French soil against several armies. It’s even more absurd to suggest the Waterloo Campaign was the decisive campaign as the odds were even worse than in 1814. Even had Napoleon managed to beat the British and Prussian armies he would then have to defeat the bigger Russian and Austrian armies that were advancing against him.

In March 1813 the French abandoned Berlin, and with the arrival of the Russian army, Prussia declared war on France. However, the French recovered as Napoleon raised 200,000 soldiers which gave him a decent superiority of numbers over Prussian and Russian forces. Napoleon had other advantages. While his soldiers weren’t the same quality as previous ones, they benefited from his leadership and French doctrine, tactics, and mid-level leaders, which allowed them to beat allied armies that weren’t as skilled in many of these respects.  

However, Prussia and Russia had learned much over the years and wouldn’t be pushovers this time. Perhaps worse for Napoleon, Austria was tempted to enter the war, and this would tilt the numerical balance against him. Thus, Napoleon had to reoccupy Prussia and beat the Russians back, or hurt both enough to gain a satisfactory peace, before Austria joined the coalition.  

Napoleon did well at first, beating outnumbered Prussian and Russian forces at Lützen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21), yet he couldn’t exploit these victories due to lack of cavalry and mistakes by his Marshals. Instead, the allies retreated intact and largely in order. This led to a six week truce between both sides, as Napoleon worried about his long lines of communications, and  Austria, and wanted to rebuild his forces (especially cavalry). The Prussians and Russians accepted, assuming time was on their side to gain allies and increase their forces. It’s generally believed the truce favoured the latter, especially given the end results.  

Perhaps the campaign turned against Napoleon in August 1813 when Austria declared war against him and joined the coalition. This gave it 300,000 more troops (by far the largest contingent) and shifted the numerical and strategic balance against France. Napoleon still gained another victory at Dresden (August 26-27), despite being nearly outnumbered 2-1. But this would be his last victory of the campaign, as the coalition’s manpower, and new strategy, would win it. Their strategy had coalition armies avoiding Napoleon’s main force (when possible) and focus on defeating other French and allied armies that weren’t as effective. The idea was to wear down French and allied forces sufficiently until the coalition was capable of massing its overwhelming forces against Napoleon himself.  

Britain used the same method in Egypt during the summer of 1942 during the First Battle of Alamein. The British commander, General Claude Auchinleck, attacked Rommel’s weaker Italian allies so the German forces were forced to come to their defence, instead of being able to attack the British. General Montgomery benefitted from Auchinleck’s success, as the former’s delaying tactics allowed Britain to build up enough manpower and material in Egypt to beat Rommel in the autumn.

As such, Napoleon’s victory at Dresden was overshadowed by defeats (of other French generals)  at Großbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26), Kulm (August 29-30), and Dennewitz (September 6).  

More than a month of maneuver followed until the coalition brought its massive manpower to bear at Leipzig (16-19 October). This was the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the defeat which sealed Napoleon’s fate. He had little chance of winning, let alone forcing a stalemate afterwards. At Leipzig the coalition outnumbered him nearly 2-1 (360,000-190,000) and in a few days inflicted a decisive defeat on the French.  

Napoleon was forced to retreat to France, his remaining German allies abandoned him, and the coalition pursued him. Initially, Napoleon scored an impressive series of limited victories against the coalition in France during early 1814. But the latter’s numbers told, and when Paris fell Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile on Elba Island. While he briefly returned to France in 1815 to lead the Waterloo Campaign, he was quickly beaten by General Wellington and Marshal Blücher.


Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his disastrous invasion of Russia, British naval power and finance, and the German Campaign of 1813 were the key factors that led to his downfall. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain began a conflict between the French army and Spanish rebels (and Wellington’s army), that proved impossible to defeat and wore down French manpower.  Napoleon’s invasion of Russia destroyed most of his army, and weakened France enough for Russia, Prussia, and Austria to ally together to confront it. British sea power safeguarded England and supported British operations in Spain and elsewhere, while British money financed most of the coalitions against Napoleon. The German Campaign of 1813 turned against Napoleon when Austria entered the war, and the coalition’s manpower, and correct strategy, led to Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Leipzig which decided the Napoleonic Wars.  

Napoleon won all but a few of his 60 battles, but it only took a few strategic mistakes, poor assumptions, and British resilience to guarantee his ultimate defeat.


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Wikipedia article on the “German Campaign of 1813”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Campaign_of_1813#/search [December, 2023]

Wikipedia article on the “Napoleonic Wars”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_Wars [December, 2023]

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