Why Napoleon Lost the “Napoleonic Wars”

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius and the best general of his time. During the “French Revolutionary Wars” and “Napoleonic Wars” he turned France from a reeling state under siege into an empire which practically dominated Europe. Napoleon fought 60 battles (winning perhaps all but 7), defeated a succession of armies, countries, and coalitions, and rightly belongs among the great military captains of history. However, in the end he lost everything, France was defeated, and he spent the rest of his life bitter and disillusioned in exile. For despite his unequaled military skill, Napoleon made a few fatal strategic mistakes, underestimated his 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” led to his downfall.

Napoleon’s main strength was as a military commander in conventional land warfare. From his two Italian campaigns, to his triumph at Austerlitz and later successes against Prussia, Russia and Austria in Central and Eastern Europe, he excelled at quick wars of movement and decision where he used speed, surprise, and maneuver to overwhelm his enemies. This worked partly due to the generally superior training, motivation, and leadership of the French armies and because his enemies were often cautious, poorly led, or militarily backwards. Either way, Napoleon used his Grand Armee’s superior capabilities to defeat enemies who often outnumbered and outgunned him, much like Hannibal Barca and Erwin Rommel did against similar opponents.

However, there were additional factors at play. To accomplish such feats, Napoleon had to push his army more ruthlessly than his enemies pushed theirs and take considerable risks the latter were often unwilling to do. To accomplish his bold maneuvers, Napoleon had to execute long forced marches if he wanted to surprise his enemies, which sometimes exhausted his troops. Additionally, to accomplish such marches, Napoleon’s forces had to be light and nimble, and thus he took considerable liberties with logistics. Instead of maintaining large baggage trains and reliable lines of communication, he often instructed his forces to live off the land and pillage whatever food or resources they needed. Meanwhile his risky maneuvers such as using the strategy of the central position, massing against the enemy’s lines of communication, or getting in between an enemy army and its capital or allied army, which could have been defeated by competent foes versed in modern warfare, succeeded against older and conservative generals used to an age of warfare that focused on sieges, maneuvering for position, and few pitched battles.

With his superior army, and using these methods and stratagems, Napoleon was able to win decisive battles and defeat nations in Italy and Central Europe. In smaller countries with denser populations and readily available resources in a small area, Napoleon’s forces could win quick battles against armies that were concentrated and could not retreat very far. Unfortunately for him, these favourable conditions did not exist in Spain and Russia, or against Britain which was protected by the Royal Navy and the English Channel.

France’s intervention in Spain was motivated by a desire to occupy Portugal because it defied Napoleon’s embargo against Britain (a similar reason would lead to the invasion of Russia). Moving French troops through Spain also gave Napoleon the opportunity to effect a regime change in Spain as he was unsatisfied, and less than trusting, regarding the conservative monarchy and government there that not only did not reflect the ideals of the “French Revolution” but had been tempted to join the coalition against France in 1806. Thus he replaced it with a government more to his liking with his brother in charge. Used to winning, imposing his will, and dealing with little resistance, Napoleon assumed the Spanish would acquiesce in all of this. Unfortunately, his brother and revolutionary government did not mesh well with the predominantly Catholic and conservative Spanish society, and so rebellion against French rule soon engulfed the country with terrible results. With French defeats such as at Bailen, and Britain deploying forces to the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon was faced with a major crisis.

Napoleon characteristically met the challenge with speed and overwhelming force, and managed to salvage some of his Spanish venture by securing much of Spain and kicking the British army (only temporarily as it turned out) out of Spain, but did not accomplish a decisive coup before having to turn his attention back to Austria which in 1809 challenged France once again. Leaving control of affairs in the hands of local French commanders, he assumed the conflict in Spain would be over soon. This would prove to be exceedingly optimistic.

French efforts in Spain would be frustrated, and the “Peninsular War” as it became known would prove to be one of Napoleon’s gravest mistakes. Unlike Central Europe and Northern Italy, Spain did not enjoy the logistical and topographical advantages which allowed French forces to win easily. The population was less densely populated, communications in Spain were not as advanced, and food stocks and resources were spread out more. Then there was the fact that the Spanish army and rebels, after being defeated in open battle, wisely adopted guerrilla warfare (in fact the term “guerrilla warfare” grew out of the insurrection in Spain). This compounded the weak French position in Spain as the French had to fight an elusive enemy which enjoyed the traditional insurgent advantages of local sympathy, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. To make things worse, the British secured Portugal from French rule, and Wellington and his army would prove to be unbeatable. As such the French faced in Spain perhaps the worst circumstances any counter-insurgents could: A hostile population which rebelled against France and Revolutionary ideals, a battlefield with plenty of terrain which favoured the insurgent and was hard to live on or resupply from the homeland, and the opposition of a strong foreign power which not only supplied and supported the insurgents but 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 massing as many as 300,000 French troops in Spain, the French were neither able to subvert the Spanish rebels or destroy Wellington’s army. These forces could have been better employed elsewhere, such as in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the “German Campaign of 1813” or frankly anywhere rather than for a war that was not necessary. An especially damning statistic is that the French Army suffered more casualties in Spain than in Russia later on.

To win in Spain, the French had to eliminate Britain from the war, or failing that, kick her out of Portugal (indefinitely) to end her support of the Spanish rebels, or enact an effective counter-insurgency campaign to neutralize the Spanish insurgents. None of this happened, nor was it likely. To beat Britain, Napoleon needed to neutralize the Royal Navy and invade Britain, or starve the island or interdict her trade enough to make her submit -Napoleon, even if he had understood naval warfare, simply did not have the means to do so. Meanwhile French attempts against the British forces in Portugal were doomed, considering the poor land based communications of the Iberian peninsula versus the excellent seaborne communications dominated by the British, as well as the British defensive lines of Torres Vedras which the French could not breach. Finally, the French were too inflexible and aggressive to compromise the ideals of the French Revolution enough to win over adequate popular support in a predominantly Catholic and conservative Spain in order to neutralize the insurgent base there.

The next main factor in Napoleon’s downfall was his invasion of Russia. Frustrated by his lack of success in Spain, still fighting Britain, and wanting to end Russia’s circumvention of France’s continental blockade against England (which Russia was supposed to honour via treaty), Napoleon amassed an unprecedented army of over 600,000 soldiers to coerce Russia into falling back in line. Napoleon’s objective was not to conquer Russia (his resources obviously could not allow that) but to cross the border, meet the Russian army, rout or destroy it, and convince Russia to acquiesce to French policy in Europe. With hindsight it is easy to see how foolish and disastrous this invasion was, but it should be remembered that at the time Napoleon’s army all but dominated Europe, that with the exception of the Egyptian venture he had won all of his previously led campaigns, and that his force, initially at least, dwarfed the Russian army. Perhaps Napoleon was arrogant, underestimated the Russian army, and was complacent regarding logistics and the idea perhaps the Russians would do something else besides stand and fight against poor odds, but after such a winning streak is it a surprise Napoleon acted boldly and gambled again when it had always given him success before?

The subsequent story is well known and easily told. Napoleon’s massive army advanced but slowly eroded itself due to several considerations. Napoleon’s previous policy of sustaining his army by pillaging the countryside failed due to the vast distances, poor infrastructure, scarcity or resources, and the fact the Russians enacted a harsh form of scorched earth to deny any food and resources to the enemy, while his own efforts to keep his army supplied by bringing in its own supplies failed. Meanwhile disease, desertions, and combat further thinned his numbers, while the Russians had the advantage of falling back on their lines of communications and could thus amass more soldiers and material as their enemy weakened.

However, the story is not that simple. The Russians probably did not enact, with what proved to be brilliant in hindsight, the strategy of falling back and letting the French erode themselves, purposely. They usually wanted to stand and fight closer to the French armies near the border than is realized but ended up retreating due to a menagerie of reasons. Certainly the pressures of public opinion, as well as considerable outrage from Russian soldiers and generals, forced the Russian commander Kutuzov to fight the French at Borodino despite the fact they were still no match for French forces. In the event, the French won the battle but it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, not least because Napoleon did not commit his elite Imperial Guard which probably would have routed the Russian army.

Yet realistically what would have been the best case scenario for the French? What if the Russian army had fought the overwhelmingly superior French and allied forces close to the Russian border? Surely a French victory would have occurred, but what if the Russians had decided not to admit defeat, as they did not after Eylau in 1807 or the countless battles against the Germans in both World Wars? Russia would not have been prostate and defeated because her capital would be intact, her population and territory barely scratched, and her capacity to wage war hardly dented. However, according to the rules of Napoleonic warfare, perhaps such a comprehensive battlefield victory would have motived Russia to submit to Napoleon’s limited demand to honour the continental system and rejoin his blockade against Britain. But, this did not happen, and was perhaps unlikely to happen, given Russian capabilities and the fact that perhaps the Russians had more at stake in this war than France’s economic policies against Britain. Perhaps Napoleon was ironically fighting a limited war, despite amassing 600,000 soldiers, whereas the Russians saw it as a struggle to the death.

Either way, the story is again well known and easily told. Napoleon beat, but did not destroy, the Russian army at Borodino, took Moscow and waited for the Tzar and Russian leadership to admit defeat and fall in line with French policy. However, Moscow was burned terribly in a subsequent fire, the Tzar refused to negotiate, and Napoleon’s army had to retreat back to friendly territory during winter. The terrible winter conditions and diseases like typhus reaching epidemic proportions, finalized the destruction of the Grand Armee which miraculously managed to save a sad force of perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers at the end of the campaign. Thus, Napoleon’s usual formula of surprise, maneuver and speed to overwhelm an enemy in a relatively short amount of time to impose a favourable peace had, as in Spain, failed. The French disaster in Russia would influence the “German Campaign of 1813.”

Before that, we should consider Britain’s influence in these conflicts. Even though it was the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies that brought down the Grande Armee (Waterloo’s influence being historically overrated), Britain arguably played the main role in defeating Napoleon. Britain was the only country Napoleon never defeated or brought to terms, financed most of the coalitions’ war efforts, and blockaded France and her allies to such a detrimental effect that it convinced Napoleon to intervene in Spain and Russia which eventually doomed the French war effort. Without Britain it is hard to see how Napoleon would not have dominated the continent in the long run.

Napoleon’s victories against enemy coalitions may have gained his empire territory and influence, and sometimes made Prussia, Austria, and Russia reluctant allies of France, but as long as England maintained her economic and industrial advantage, and opposed French power in Europe, she could influence the contest. Given that there were 7 successive coalitions raised, mostly with British financing, to fight France, there is little doubt that Britain was the most dangerous and dedicated enemy of Napoleon.

While France won victory after victory on the continent, Britain often found ways to limit or reverse such successes via several means. These included Britain’s exercise of naval power, her economic and industrial superiority via France, and British military interventions in Europe.

Of course, British naval superiority was the lynchpin which guaranteed all of this. Without superior naval power, Britain could not have secured her economic and industrial advantages which she accrued via controlling maritime trade and controlling far flung colonies, let alone launch naval efforts against France and her allies, or intervene on the continent. Britain maintained her naval superiority via significant investments in resources and training for the Royal Navy, fighting and beating French and allied fleets, and even ruthless actions against neutrals. Actions such as the “Battle of the Nile” and “Trafalgar” wore down the French navy, but Britain was also audacious enough to attack the Danish twice (including bombarding Copenhagen) and threaten Lisbon to make sure the Danish and Portuguese fleets did not join Napoleon. A similar instance happened in 1940 when the British attacked the French (who had been their recent ally) at Mers-el-Kebir because Churchill feared the Germans wanted to control the French navy.

However, these were simply means to effect the ends for British naval power. British naval dominance allowed her to supply and finance her allies’ war efforts against Napoleon. While one could point out that Napoleon defeated most of his enemies’ coalitions, the fact remains that unless Britain was forced to make peace she could keep financing Napoleon’s enemies at will. Therefore the “Napoleonic Wars” became a game of “whack a mole” where Napoleon would defeat one enemy or alliance only to see another rise up (supported by England) afterwards. Thus Napoleon’s victory against Austria at Marengo effectively beat the “Second Coalition,” but British support raised the “Third Coalition” which Napoleon quashed at Austerlitz. Thereupon another British supported coalition ended with Russia’s defeat in 1807, but was followed by British intervention in Spain from 1808-14 and her support of Austria in 1809. The Spanish venture obviously continued, but Austria lost in 1809. In the end, the last British-supported coalitions in 1813-14 and 1815 finally beat Napoleon.

British naval power also eroded France’s economy, as well as the economies of countries like Russia and Portugal, due to the British blockade, and this led indirectly to the “Peninsular War” in Spain and Portugal and the invasion of Russia in 1812. In the former, British support of Spanish irregulars slowly bled the French Empire for years, while the latter effectively devastated the Grande Armee and was arguably the Stalingrad for Napoleon.

Meanwhile, British interventions on the continent were not without effect. While it could be argued that the British campaign in Holland in 1799, her intervention in Southern Italy in 1806, and the “Walcheren Campaign” of 1809 ended in failure, British intervention against French forces in Egypt and Spain were decisive. In the former it doomed the admittedly foolhardy French campaign in Egypt, and in the latter it prevented the French from crushing the Spanish rebels and tied down significant French troops that could have been decisive elsewhere. Eventually Wellington’s army, initially based in Portugal, helped liberated Spain and even invaded Southern France.

Then there is the “German Campaign of 1813” which was arguably the decisive campaign of the “Napoleonic Wars.” The “Peninsular War” in Spain may have severely eroded the French army, and the invasion of Russia gutted the Grande Armee, but remarkably enough Napoleon managed to recruit and amass a major force of soldiers from his empire and allies which still had more population and resources than Prussia and Russia, who were arguably just as weakened at this point as the French and their allies. It is likely that without the intervention of Austria, as well as later defection among France’s German allies, that Napoleon could easily have stalemated the Prussians and Russians or conceivably even won the campaign. Certainly Napoleon had no real chance of winning in 1814 when he was vastly outnumbered and fighting on French soil against several armies in the north while Wellington’s army advanced into Southern France. It is even more absurd that the “Waterloo Campaign” was the decisive campaign as the odds were even worse than in 1814, and had he managed to beat the British and Prussia armies (both close to the size of his army) he would have had to defeat even 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 soon after, Prussia declared war on France and allied with Russia. However, the French began to recover, as Napoleon raised 200,000 soldiers which gave him a decent superiority of numbers over the Prussian and Russian forces. On one hand, Napoleon may have had an advantage here, as even if his soldiers were not of the same quality as previous ones they still had his superior leadership as well as the doctrine, tactics, and mid-level leadership which allowed them to beat allied armies that were deficient in many of these respects. On the other, the Prussians and Russians had learned a lot and would not be pushovers as before. Perhaps worse for Napoleon was that Austria was tempted to enter the war and her entry could decisively tilt the numerical balance against him. Thus Napoleon had to either reoccupy Prussia and beat the Russians back, or hurt them enough to gain a satisfactory peace, but certainly he had to prevent Austria from joining the coalition.

Napoleon did well at first, beating outnumbered Prussian and Russian forces at Lutzen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21), yet unfortunately could not 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 temporary truce of six weeks between both sides, as Napoleon was worried about his lengthening lines of communications, and the Austrians, and wanted to rebuild his forces (especially calvary). The Prussians and Russians gladly accepted, assuming time was on their side to bring allies into the war and build up their own forces. It is generally accepted that the truce favoured the latter, especially given the final results of the campaign.

Perhaps the campaign turned against Napoleon in August when Austria declared war against him and joined the coalition, adding a substantial amount of force of approximately 300,000 (by far the largest contingent for the coalition) which shifted the numerical and strategic balance in favour of the coalition. However, even after this, Napoleon still managed to gain another tactical victory at Dresden (August 27), despite being nearly outnumbered 2-1. However, this would be his last victory of the campaign, as the coalition’s newfound numerical superiority, and improved strategy, would win it. Their strategy essentially involved the coalition armies avoiding Napoleon’s own army (at least in a piecemeal fashion which would have led to their being defeated in detail) while focusing on other French and allied armies that were not as well led. The idea was to wear down French and allied forces overall until the coalition was confident and capable of massing its overwhelming forces against Napoleon’s own force. The British used the same strategy in Egypt during the summer in 1942 as their commander, Auchinleck, concentrated on attacking Rommel’s weaker Italian allies so that the German forces would be forced to come to their comrades’ aid instead of being able to concentrate on attacking the British. Montgomery would benefit from Auchinleck’s success as the former’s delaying battles allowed the British to build up enough superiority in manpower and material to decisively beat Rommel later in the autumn.

Thus, Napoleon’s victory at Dresden was balanced by the defeat of French forces under other Generals at Grossbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26) Kulm (August 29), and Dennewitz (September 6). More than a month of maneuver followed and finally the coalition brought to bear its significant superiority at Leipzig (16-19 October). This would be the biggest battle of the “Napoleonic Wars” and arguably the defeat which sealed Napoleon’s fate. Napoleon had no real chance of winning, let alone effecting a stalemate after Leipzig. Here the coalition outnumbered him nearly 2-1 and after a few days inflicted a decisive defeat on the Emperor despite suffering more casualties. Thereupon Napoleon was forced to retreat, his German allies abandoned him, he had to retire to France, and a vengeful Europe pursued him there. While Napoleon inflicted a remarkable series of limited reverses on the coalition in France in 1814, the latter’s numbers told, and once Paris was taken Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile at Elba island and while he did briefly return to France in 1815 to lead the “Waterloo Campaign”, he was leading a lost cause.

Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his disastrous invasion of Russia, British naval power and financing, and the result of the “German Campaign of 1813”, were the key factors which led to the defeat of Napoleon. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain was his first major mistake, and led to a conflict between the French army versus Spanish irregulars and Wellington’s army, that proved impossible to defeat and slowly wore down French manpower. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia resulted in the destruction of the majority of the Grande Armee and weakened the French empire enough for countries like Russia, Prussia, Austria and even Sweden to finally combine to confront it. British sea power safeguarded England’s survival and supported British operations in Spain and elsewhere, while British money and industry financed most of the coalitions that fought against Napoleon. The “German Campaign of 1813” turned against Napoleon when Austria entered the war, and the significant numerical advantage of coalition forces, and their correct strategy, led to Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Leipzig which effectively decided the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon may have 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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Gates, David. The Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815. London: Pimlico, 2003.
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Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. Napoleon Bonaparte. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.

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Wikipedia article on the “German Campaign of 1813”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Campaign_of_1813#/search [April, 2017]

Wikipedia article on the “Napoleonic Wars”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_Wars [April, 2017]

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