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Top 5 Military Losses of Napoleon

“Grouchy had lost himself; Ney appeared bewildered…D’Erlon was useless; in short, the generals were no longer themselves.” – Napoleon Bonaparte after his defeat at Waterloo

Those generals had been to hell and back with Napoleon. At Waterloo, General Ney’s cavalry overran the enemy cannons and charged the British cavalry-proof square formations again and again. During the battle, he had five horses killed from underneath him. At the end of the day, Ney led one of the last infantry charges, shouting to his men: “Come and see how a marshal of France meets his death!”. It was as though he was seeking death and it’s a miracle he survived it, only to be executed later by the government for his devotion to Bonaparte. 

Yes, Napoleon’s generals were erratic and not themselves at Waterloo. But neither was he. Grouchy sat out the entire battle with 33,000 troops. He had obeyed his orders from his Emperor to track the Prussians.Yet Napoleon did not send a messenger to tell him to join the battle. Ney was instructed to do more than he was ever capable of. Napoleon was severely ill with what was most likely the start of the cancer that would eventually kill him. He appeared to be in a fog, unable to control and master the minute details of a complicated battlefield that his genius mind had always conquered. As a result, he was not intensely focused on a battle that would determine the fate of not only himself but the entire nation of France. His generals tried to fill in the gaps, but in the end they could not duplicate his military genius. Whatever the case, the mistakes at Waterloo most likely would not have happened to a younger, healthier and more confident Napoleon. The ultimate blame must lie with him.

Napoleon Bonaparte is widely regarded as a military genius and one of the finest commanders in world history. He fought 60 battles, losing only seven, mostly at the end of his reign. The great French empire he forged collapsed rapidly after the disastrous invasion of Russia. Napoleon was ultimately defeated in 1814; he returned and was finally defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. He spent his remaining days in exile on the remote island of St. Helena.

5. Battle of Salamanca (1812)


The Salamanca campaign of 1812 signaled a change in the Spanish Peninsular War (1807-1814). Since the start of the war in 1807, the allied forces of Britain, Spain and Portugal had mostly relied on a defensive strategy. But in 1812, with larger and better equipped armies and better coordination and cooperation, the allies hoped to try and take the war to the French.

The Allies knew that Napoleon was withdrawing his best troops from Spain for his impending invasion of Russia. Wellington decided to target French Marshal Marmont’s Army of Portugal and began a further advance into Spain in the spring. As French reinforcements arrived and threatened allied supply lines from Portugal, Wellington had to begin retreating back towards the frontier fortifications at Ciudad Rodrigo. Halting his forces at Salamanca, Wellington observed that the pursuing French forces under Marmont had over-extended the left wing of his army and had become separated from the main body. Seeing that an opportunity had presented itself, Wellington ordered the concentration of the allied army to attack.

Both armies at Salamanca were mostly even, with the French army having 50,000 men and 78 artillery pieces versus Wellington’s 49,000 men and 54 cannon. Moving towards the southeast of Salamanca, the French Marshal could see dust to the west, which he assumed was the allied army retreating. Marmount’s plan was to outflank Wellington’s army which he now thought was only a reargaurd. As he moved westward, his left flank became overextended while, unknown by the French, Wellington gathered a strong force hidden behind a series of ridges (he would hide his troops again at Waterloo) called the Arapiles and planned an attack.

The French deployed in dense columns but were routed by superior British musket fire followed by bayonet charges.. The French then formed their troops in defensive squares upon seeing the British cavalry supporting the allied attack.. This allowed the British to concentrate their musket fire on the French. The French troops attempted to retreat and were attacked by the British cavalry, who proceeded to cut them to pieces. During the battle, French Marshal Marmont was hit by the British artillery and wounded severely. His second in command was also wounded which rendered the French army leaderless at a critical time.

The Battle of Salamanca  was a humiliating loss for the French, with over 13,000 men killed, wounded or captured versus 5,000 dead or wounded for the allies. It allowed the allies to briefly occupy the Spanish capital city of Madrid.The Allied victory helped to establish Wellington’s reputation as a capable offensive general and set the foundation for the victorious allied offensive of 1813. 

4. Battle of Leipzig (1813)


This crucial three day battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. It was also one of Napoleon’s worst defeats. At the height of the battle Napoleon fielded more than 200,000 men against an Allied force – which included contingents from Russia, Austria, Prussia and Sweden – of some 360,000 soldiers.

Napoleon had lost 450,000 French troops in the disastrous Russian campaign the previous year and needed to put together a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops. By the time of the battle of Leipzig, a majority of his troops were raw recruits. The seasoned veterans which had been the glue holding the whole French army together for over a decade were dead in Russia. It was the same story for the French cavalry. The French simply did not have the horses.

In the meantime, the three main armies of the Allied forces–the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians–had all incorporated sweeping reforms to their military structures so that the combined armies of the Allies were not the same badly led badly trained troops that Napoleon had faced and beaten previously. Moreover all of the Allied forces were now driven by a patriotic fever to liberate Europe from the empirical French.

On the third day of the battle, all of Napoleon’s mistakes began to catch up with him. The weather was appalling and mired his troops in mud as they attempted to maneuver  into place.  Due to his lack of cavalry and subsequently reconaissance, he didn’t have accurate reports on the Allied dispositions or troop numbers. Overnight, large reinforcements had arrived in the Allied camp, so that he and his 160,000 troops now faced an Allied army of 300,000 troops.  He was also running low on supplies and ammunition. By the end of the day, it was apparent the Allies had won the day.  The Allies had over 60,000 casualties and the French losses were in the area of 40,000. Napoleon gave the order to retreat.

At 2 am on October 19, Napoleon started the retreat westward over the single bridge across the Elster River. All went according to plan until a frightened corporal blew up the bridge at 1 pm, while it was still crowded with retreating French troops and in no danger of allied attack. The demolition left 30,000 rear guard and injured French troops trapped in Leipzig, to be taken prisoner the next day.

Over 600,000 men had taken part in the battle.  But of all the losses, Napoleon’s were the worst, for he could not replace them–he’d already exhausted France of her young men for this New Grande Armee and there simply were no new recruits to be had. And finally, the Battle of Leipzig taught the Allied leaders a valuable lesson:  they could win; they could defeat the military genius of Napoleon.

3. Battle of Trafalgar (1805)


The Battle of Trafalgar is considered to be the greatest sea battles that consisted of sailing ships. It was also the last. It took place just off the coast of Cape Trafalgar on the southwest coast of Spain. At the time, Napoleon was allied with Spain and reigned supreme in Europe. He was planning an invasion of Britain, but in order do this, he needed to be sure of French supremacy on the seas.

The British fleet was commanded by Admiral Horacio Nelson and the  Franco/Spanish fleet by General Villeneuve. The two fleets chased each other around the Atlantic for two years before finally coming to battle at Trafalgar. On the August 14th, Villeneuve departed northern Spain for Brest but later changed course southwards. On August 20th, he led thirty-nine Franco/Spanish Man o’ War ships past four British ships and into the Bay of  Cadiz. Napoleon instructed Villeneuve to leave Cadiz for Toulon at the best opportunity. While Villeneuve was waiting, Nelson arrived on board his ship the Victory with his fleet.

Villeneuve lined his 33 ships into a battle line three miles long. Nelson hoisted a flag signal “England expects every man to do his duty” to his fleet and formed his 27 ships into two columns instead of the customary parallel battle line. Nelson’s plan was to get in range with the French fleet before they could escape and force the French into a series of individual ship-to-ship actions. This strategy, which was very unusual for the time, confused the French and resulted in a series of smaller, single combats of bloody ferocity. To decrease the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail, yet another departure from the norm.

At the end of the battle only 11 French ships out of 33 would make it out. Nelson was shot in the left shoulder by a French marine. The bullet, which would prove fatal, pierced his lung and lodged against his spine. Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of brandy for the trip home to a hero’s funeral.  French Admiral Villeneuve was taken prisoner aboard his own flagship and taken back to Britain as a prisoner of war. After his release in 1806 he returned to France, where he was found dead in his inn room during a stop on the way to Paris, with six stab wounds to the chest from a knife. It was officially recorded as a suicide.

2. Russian Campaign (1812)


In 1811, Tsar Alexander refused to be part of the continental blockade of British goods any longer. Napoleon’s edict banning trade with Great Britain was destroying the Russian economy. Tensions quickly escalated; every attempt at negotiation failed. In June of 1812, ignoring the advice of his advisers, Napoleon invaded Russia. Never had such a large army been assembled — Italians, Poles, German, French — more than 600,000 men from every corner of his empire. Napoleon over enthusiastically predicted the war would be over in twenty days.

Napoleon’s army moved slowly across Russia’s vast, open spaces. His hope was to annihilate his enemy quickly, but the Russians refused to engage. The Tsar’s armies retreated and burned the countryside behind them (scorched earth warfare) and left the Cossacks to hack at Napoleon’s rear and flanks.

The stifling heat of the Russian summer began to take its toll on the French soldiers. They began dying from exhaustion and sickness — more than five thousand a day. After two months, before Napoleon had fought a single battle, 150,000 of his soldiers were out of action. With summer ending, the Russians turned and faced their enemy at the crossroads village of Borodino. Moscow, the prized city of Russia, was at stake. The battle began at early in the morning and the Russians fought the French to a standstill. The next day they withdrew, leaving Napoleon proclaiming victory. Feeling confident, Napoleon continued marching to Moscow. When he finally made it there, he found most of the city on fire and completely empty of food and other supplies. Napoleon then decided to abandon Moscow and begin the march home, having achieved none of his objectives.

The French army–probably now some 95,000 men, or less–left Moscow for the long march back to Paris. Joining them were some 40,000-50,000 civilians–and as the French troops had ransacked Moscow for treasure which they intended to bring home and sell in order to make their fortunes–some 15,000 to 40,000 carts, carriages, and wagons piled high with food and luggage and booty. As the winter temperature plunged, Napoleon made his way back to Paris with all haste. No more than 50,000 French soldiers came out of this nightmare. Within three days, Napoleon was calling for a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops…it was the beginning of the end.

1. Waterloo (1815)


Napoleon escaped from Elba on February 26, 1815, returned to France and reclaimed his empire in Paris on March 20. Napoleon’s return prompted Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Portugal to form the Seventh Coalition. The total number of French troops was 250,000 while Coalition forces would number 850,000. Two days before the battle, Napoleon’s army had won a tactical victory by defeating – but not destroying — Blücher’s Prussian army at Ligny, 25 kilometers southeast of Waterloo. Napoleon dispatched Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy with 33,000 troops to follow the retreating Prussians while shifting the French army’s axis of advance northwest to attack and defeat Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army at Quatre Bras. Wellington, however,  had already withdrawn his army 15 kilometers north and arrayed it in a defensive position in the vicinity of Waterloo.

Napoleon wanted to start the battle as soon as possible to defeat Wellington’s army before Blücher’s Prussians could arrive. He was forced to delay the start of his army’s main attack due to heavy rain and muddy ground. After a French artillery bombardment of Wellington’s center by a Grand Battery of 80 guns, Napoleon sent an infantry corps to attack the center and left of the Anglo-Allied line. Although the infantry formations gave French attackers the advantage of mass, the formation also allowed little room for maneuver and made the French infantrymen vulnerable to Anglo-Allied musket fire.

French Marshall Ney, thinking Wellington’s forces were retreating, led a massed French cavalry charge at the Anglo-Allied center at about 4:00 p.m. However, it was unsupported by French infantry and artillery and cavalry alone could not break the formidable British infantry squares. Ney finally called off the futile cavalry attack and then managed to bring forward French artillery protected by infantry that poured a punishing fire on the Anglo-Allied infantry squares. The French were  on the verge of breaking Wellington’s center, but on the right rear of their eastern flank the first Prussian unit (Friedrich Bülow’s IV Corps) entered the battle and began drawing off French forces, relieving the pressure on Wellington’s center.

Napoleon still hoped to break Wellington’s center and win the battle before the Prussian army could arrive on the battlefield. At about 7:00 p.m. he threw in his last reserve, the Imperial Guard, led by Ney at Wellington’s center. The Imperial Guard attack advanced into Wellington’s right center and had succeeded in breaking his line; but several well-timed Anglo-Allied counterattacks, coinciding with the arrival on the eastern flank of the battlefield of Blücher’s Prussian army, repelled the Imperial Guard attack and forced the French into a retreat. It was all over for the French and Napoleon.

Ney’s foolish unsupported cavalry charge against Wellington’s infantry squares robbed Napoleon of the critical combat power he needed later to seal a victory before the Prussians arrived.  Marshal Grouchy, sent with 33,000 French troops to pursue the beaten Prussians after Ligny, could have ensured Napoleon’s Waterloo victory had he accomplished one of two tasks: prevent Blücher linking up with Wellington or “move to the sound of the guns” and join Napoleon at Waterloo. He did neither. When large numbers of troops began approaching Waterloo from the east late in the evening, Napoleon was horrified – and Wellington greatly relieved – to discover they were Blücher’s Prussians, not Grouchy’s French. The Prussians saved Wellington, snatching allied victory from the jaws of defeat.






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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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