September 21, 2007 cameron

#28 – The Battle Of Nations

As Napoleon’s ‘friends’ continued to betray him, by late 1813 the total Allied armies east of the Rhine probably exceeded a million men. By contrast Napoleon’s forces had dwindled to just a few hundred thousand. Short on horses, soldiers, food and ammunition, Napoleon soldiered on, fighting off his enemies in battles at Dresden and Leipzig while gradually being forced back to France’s natural borders. The Battle Of Nations, also known as The Battle of Leipzig, is considered the largest battle in Europe before World War I, with over 500,000 troops involved. Britain, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Bavaria and Saxony were now all united against Napoleon’s France.

This show is based on David’s book “Napoleon For Dummies”. Click on the image below to purchase a copy!


David at Leipzig 2007 Giving His Professional Opinion on the Outcome of the Battle

David at Leipzig 2007

Napoleon Cracks His Teeth On The Hard Nut of Leipzig from the collection of J. David Markham

Napoleon bites the nut



Comments (31)

  1. Joshua Parker

    Whoa first to reply. Slow week I guess. Great show as always guys. I’m surprised how you’ve managed to tease 1813 and parts of 1814 across multiple episodes. This is a period I’m not too familiar with myself, I had no idea how much had happened.

    So these Saxons that Napoleon honorably discharged complete with magazines and rations, were they the ones who actually turned and fired on the French?

    By the end of this episode things must have been looking pretty bleak for Napoleon, was there no chance of him striking an armistice before Paris was taken?

    I doubt even amazing victories from Napoleon could have done much to save his empire after the disaster of Russia personally. It just seems the other nations are willing to do everything and anything possible to defeat him, even Napoleon just couldn’t defeat everyone for ever without his whole army and indeed self being worn down.

    Even during the 100 days Napoleon offers very reasonable terms, that he will rule France and never wage war again (or something of the like) but apparently even those terms were unacceptable.

    If only the French had beat the British to Australia 🙂

  2. Adam

    wow. i’ve listened to the whole series so far over the last 12 days. so like 2 episodes and a bit a day. heh.

    it seems to me that honour in what he’s doing was important to Napoleon. Such as leaving the soldiers to march away on their word, with their rations, weapons, etc. and we’ve seen him do this before, back in the earlier campaigns, he let the arab army (can;t remember which one) go on their word, it turned out that they all went up the road and got together to fight him again. he let the austrians go on their word. furthermore, russia broke her peace treaty; austria stabbed Napoleon in the back (alexander quite literally betrayed his daughter and her ’empire’ away. britain broke the peace of Amiens. Particularly in what Cameron and David have talked about in about Napoleon not being the warmonger- he made a treaty with his honour. (yes, honour does have a u.) it might be that i’m just seeing what i want to see, but Napoleon seems to have been a man of honour. perhaps someone out there will be able to shed some light on this

    I recently read General Gourgaud’s diary from St Helena- and for him honour came before everything, and thus his departure from St Helena in 1818. In it, he recalls many conversations with Napoleon about honour, and from the letters and other things i’ve read about Napoleon, his honour seems to be something that he didn’t really abandon.

    I am getting a bit ahead of myself here, but i think that the letting the enemy leave on their word, with their guns and rations, along with his general principle of being a man of honour may have done him a deal of good in terms of his time on St Helena- where this great man, who wanted peace, and kept his honour intact was treated pretty poorly by the British. the manner in which the British treated him could fill episodes, but i think that even from the war of the 6th coalition, Napoleon maintained his integrity and his honour, even when the wheels came off the cart, and that for me, is something pretty special- and shows that Napoleon was a pretty unique guy.

  3. Antonio

    And there goes another great show. – I’m already waiting for the next episode. Nice to hear about the central European political and diplomatic manouvers at the time.

    I was wondering if you’d like to comment on the French economy and the effects of so many defats and casualties on the military and civilian morale. I also imagine some panic caused by the threat of foreign troops invading France.

    Also, how about a few words about the behaviour of Allied armies on French soil? There seems to be very few reports of pillaging, rape and indiscrimante torture and murder of innocent civilians, woman and children on France (pretty much the opposite of the French behaviour on Portugal, Spain and Russia).

    Lisbon, Portugal

  4. Cameron

    Trevor, the music is “le Marsellaise”, the national anthem of France. According to Wikipedia:

    “La Marseillaise” is a song written and composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg on April 25, 1792. Its original name was “Chant de guerre de l’Armée du Rhin” (“Marching Song of the Rhine Army”) and it was dedicated to Marshal Nicolas Luckner, a Bavarian-born French officer from Cham. It became the rallying call of the French Revolution and received its name because it was first sung on the streets by troops (fédérés) from Marseille upon their arrival in Paris.

    The Convention accepted it as the French national anthem in a decree passed on Bastille Day, 1795, but it was then banned successively by Napoleon I, Louis XVIII, and Napoleon III, only being reinstated briefly after the July Revolution of 1830 and then permanently in 1879.[1] During Napeleon III’s reign Partant pour la Syrie was the unofficial anthem of the regime.

  5. Nicholas Stark

    I look forward to listening to this podcast soon. However, I do have a question. Does anyone know where I could find an audio clip of Veillons Au Salute De L’Empire?

  6. Jason van Teylingen

    I just wanna say this whole podcast has been great. I just found this a couple of weeks ago and have been instantly addicted. Hope you two collaborate on another podcast after this one concludes. Great job guys for the hard work put into these episodes.

  7. Steven White

    I have had the pleasure of listening and like many of your listeners I find the style relaxed, informative and very enjoyable.

    I am trying to understand why that the UK would fund or participated in many campaigns against Napoleon to the extent it did. To do this out of some sort of vengeance or vendetta seems unrealistic and shallow, is it possible that there was a wider global context or explanation. i.e. keeping France (occupied in Europe distracted her ability to challenge or build colonies around the world?

    Southampton, United Kingdom

  8. Jason van Teylingen

    Am I the only one or has anyone else had trouble with downloading this episode. I only have 22 minutes for this episode and than it abruptly stops. Cameron, can you look into this, I really don’t want to miss the second half of this episode.

  9. Austin

    Hi everbody. This has nothing to do with lepzig , but i was on Wikipedia, looking up Napoleons descendants and found one found quite interesting. His name, Charles Joseph Bonaparte. He was the son of Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte, whose father was Jérôme Bonaparte, Youngest brother to the great emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. This isn’t what i found interesting. It was that this man was the 37th United States Secratary of the Navy and the 47th United States Attorney General. But thats not all, he also established the Federal Bureau of Investigation, yep, the F.B.I. I just found it funny that the grand nephew of Napoleon established one of the U.S.A’s top federal agencies. Some of you guys might know that already but i didn’t and i found that quite interesting.

    vive l’emperor

  10. Cameron

    Jason (and everyone) – we’ve been having serious problems with our servers over the last week or so, which will explain any problems in downloading. We’ve been working around the clock to fix them and aren’t quite there yet unfortunately. So please hang in there with us, we’ll stabilize soon!

  11. Cameron

    Steven – Britain’s rationale for continually interfering in France’s destiny is a great topic of discussion. I can see a couple of reasons:

    1. Politics. A successful revolution in France must have been pretty scary to all nobility, even the British monarch who was slightly more enlightened that his European counterparts by this stage. Ensuring that the French revolution was a failure and returning France to an ancient regime must have seemed like a good idea to stop the peasants of other countries getting any funny ideas about liberty.

    2. Economics. I think in Napoleon they saw a threat of a unified European union which could have become a major economic power in the region. Pax Brittanica relied upon having no strong nation states, let alone a unified Europe, that could challenge their naval supremacy (especially after Trafalgar in 1805).

    I’d be interested to know what others think as well!

  12. I think the logic of the British oppostion to Napoleon was very simple.

    If you cross the Channel to France from England it is very obvious that France has abundant resources of wood and ample deep rivers. There is every chance for France to build up a large and powerful fleet. Also, France had in the 19th Century a very large and homogenous popluation enabling it to field a large army.

    Compare it to Britain where prior to the potato famine, a third of the population lived in Ireland and were catholic with scant affection for the British governement. Britain’s position not only as a world power, but as an independent country relied entirely on keeping the edge in sea power over France. A strong French government that had the peace to build up its fleet was the number one problem for Britain.

    Even prior to Napoleon the British were always enthusiastic participants in any league against France. Ask Louis XIV.

    Interestingly, the British navy was probably at its lowest ebb durig the reign of Charles II – a king who relied on subsidies of money from France. These two facts are probably related, but I am not sure which was cause and which was effect.

  13. Wes

    Thanks for another great episode. I cant wait for the new series to start so that we have two podcasts from you guys to listen to. I hope its sooner rather then later.

  14. Mike Grillo

    I could be wrong here, but I believe Napoleon felt the song was too revolutionary in character…it was associated with the Jacobins and the early stages of the French Revolution, which was very different in character from both Consular and Imperial France.
    He was trying to bring together all segments of society – Royalists and Republicans, Left and Right, Radicals and Reactionaries – and from what I’ve read in the past, Napoleon felt using La Marseillaise would only serve to help keep society divided and prevent the gains of the revolution from being consolidated. It was also banned under Napoleon III. Ironic, since Louis Napoleon was a revolutionary as a young man, but governed as a conservative.

  15. Aaron

    Cameron and David,

    I just discovered your podcast on Monday and am loving it. Both the content and style of delivery are both very enjoyable and just the thing to make my work day seem all too short. Please keep up the good work. I look forward to hearing the rest of the series and anything else you may collaborate on in the future.

  16. Scott Richerson

    Hi guys
    I love your show. I’m new to the subject, and I’m definitely hooked. Ironically, listening to your podcast led me to pick up the (virulently anti-“Boney”) Hornblower series for the first time since I was a kid. It strikes me now that Forster went out of his way to make Hornblower the ultimate anti-Napoleon. Two of Hornblower’s most salient qualities, both unusual in a martial hero, are his bad luck and his lack of self-confidence- the inverse of Napoleon’s (most?) famous qualities. Do you know if Forster intended to make Hornblower so specifically a foil for Napoleon?
    I’m also fascinated by the much more complex question of exactly how much we can look at Napoleon as a “good guy,” from the modern perspective. You guys have gone a long ways to convince me that he can be, at least relative to his time. But, in the interest of not overstating the case (an understandable tendency given that conventional wisdom has such a negative view of him), would you not grant that if Napoleon had forgone the idea of France as an empire, he could perhaps have hunkered down behind France’s pre-revolutionary borders, used his military skills as necessary to defend his borders, and perhaps to an extent his economic interests, and concentrated on enacting his reforms and consolidating the legitimacy of the revolution, perhaps his legacy would have been even more positive? Do you think there’s a chance that if he had relinquished the idea of empire he could have not only spared the lives of many lost in the wars and that the republic could have endured? Can we not say that hubris got the better of him in thinking he could modernize all of Europe by force? Can we not wish that he had learned from the example of Marcus Aurelius the danger of putting the legacy of a successfully reformed system in the hands of a palace-raised heir? I realize that any of this would have required him to be even more ahead of his time than he was, but I guess what I’m wondering is, aren’t there still quite significant criticisms that we can make of Napoleon from a modern perspective?

  17. Cameron

    Scott, glad you’re enjoying the show!
    You make some great points. Let’s remember though that at the time Napoleon came to power, he inherited these battles. He didn’t start them. France was already at war with Europe while he was a mere gunner. As we always say, you can’t blame Napoleon for the wars (at least prior to 1799). Post 1799, perhaps he could have tried your strategy, but every military leaders knows that the best form of defense is attack. Especially when you are as skilled a general as Napoleon was. The fastest path to victory must have seemed to sweep in, defeat his enemies, and force a treaty. And a fast war is a good war – both in terms of the number of men lost as well as the financial burden on a country (I bet many Americans now wish that Iraq, if it had to happen, could have been over in a month). Finally, imagine the situation had Napoleon sat at home and been forced to fight various simultaneous fronts on France’s border against the combined monarch’s of Europe and the UK? Not to mention that he would have probably lost all credibility at home and been thrown out on his ear. He understood his popularity at home depended on his glory. Sitting at home and letting the battle come to France’s borders would have been political suicide.

  18. Austin

    Hey guys,

    I’ve been checking my iTunes podcast library for the past week and hoping to see a new Napoleon podcast. Please, when do you think you and David will be able to do another one? I cant wait! I’m dying to listen to the next podcast. I can’t wait to see what happens to Napoleon next. We all know he gets exiled, but none of the the books can compare to the podcast you and David do. Please give me an estimate to when you will be doing the next one. I don’t meen to be demanding, but i just cant wait.

  19. I am sure Cameron is right that military glory strengthened Napoleon’s political position in France. The trouble was that even Napoleon couldn’t win every time every place, so he should have taken the risk of military defeat into his calculations.

    I think the interesting thing is that at least one of his enemies, i.e. Great Britain, was much happier having Napoleon at war than at peace. If Napoleon had followed a defensive strategy based on the Pyrenees, Alps and Rhine as natural borders coupled with building up a big fleet I think he would have been undefeatable from the outside. If he had followed this strategy for a few years he could have started building up the French Empire outside of Europe, possibly regaining Canada and Egypt. His dynasty could in a few decades have re-established France as the major world power.

    Cameron himself might be doing podcasts in French.

    Luckily Napoleon did not pursue this course. My opinion is that he was as attached to the glory of war as anyone and only saw the world in terms of battles and armies. He was obviously full of talent that could have been used differently and could have made him a great European leader – he chose not to. That was a tragedy for France and for himself. And there has never been a man in history who has made their own destiny more fully than Napoleon.

  20. I stumbled onto the podcast around the treaty of Tilsit, and have now gone back and eagerly devoured the entire series, sometimes even relistening to an episode to pick up on items I had missed.

    The podcast proved an invaluable companion on a recent long car ride to visit my parents, nearly causing me to miss an exit due to my absorbtion in the fascinating talk. I also found an additional use for the podcast. I was helping my parents look after my five year old niece. One evening, when she proved particularly intractable, I simply hooked my IPod to some speakers in her darkened bedroom and started playing the podcast episode I was currently listening to. She was asleep in minutes!

    I am an inveterate reader, and a recent rush of listening to archived episodes inspired me to pick up a few more books about l’empereur to add to my already groaning bookshelves. I had only read Alan Schom’s one volume biography and a Barnes and Noble special “Napoleon as Military Commander” volume, so I bought a series of works. The one I am reading now is an older one, “Imperial Sunset” by RF Delderfield. It is quite good, making continuing links between Napoleon and the present day that Cameron especially may enjoy.

    Anyhow, there was a particularly piquant phrase from the Delderfield book that I think you might like. It is as neat a one sentence summary as I have ever read of what the world lost when Napoleon passed away.

    “The ultimate victory of the Czar and his Allies prevented the domination of Europe by a single man of genius but it was followed by piecemeal domination by the dull, the vicious, and the incompetent.” (p.195)

    Vive l’empereur!

  21. The ultimate victory of the Czar and his Allies prevented the domination of Europe by a single man of genius but it was followed by piecemeal domination by the dull, the vicious, and the incompetent.” (p.195)

    A little unfair on at the very least the government of the UK in the nineteenth century. Napoleon was a very able man but even by the standards of his time he was hardly a liberal. And if the reign of Napoleon III is anything to go by his descendants were not likely to match the original’s talents.

    The near century of peace in Europe from the end of Napoleon’s campaigns is certainly a lot duller than Napoleon’s era but it would probably have been a lot better time to live through.

    (I know there were wars about the unification of Germany and Italy and some other conflicts – but they weren’t the all encompasing wars that Napoleon specialised in.)

  22. I have to respectfully disagree, Colin. Napoleon was hardly a liberal by our standards, but was he truly less progressive than his foes? I’m not sure I can say that.

    You’re certainly right about Napoleon III, of course.

    But I guess the comparison I would prefer is not 1800-1815 vs. 1815-1900, but instead a comparison of 1815-1900 with a post-Waterloo world where the peoples of Poland and Germany and Austria are able to opt out of their hereditary systems in favor of self determination. Are they better off being dominated by dukes and emperors who enrich themselves or being ruled by people, for good or ill, that they support?

  23. Eric


    I continue to enjoy the series (I was one of the original few hundred that have been listening since the beginning).

    I do want to take exception with your interpretation of Napoleon’s motives, along with those of the European nations’, presented throughout the series. Colin, you and David repeatedly assert that Napoleon had very little choice in continuing to take the war to the enemy. It was England, Russia, and the others that prompted the wars. While it is true that these adversaries gave Napoleon plenty of cause to take the offensive, it was well within Napoleon’s prerogative to seek diplomatic solutions. But he did try diplomacy, you would argue. Sure, just as George W Bush tried diplomacy with Hussein before 2002.

    Napoleon was a man who was most comfortable on the battlefield. It’s no surprise, then, that he sought his solutions on the battlefield. But in repeatedly seeking military solutions, he stretched himself thin. While trying to hold down the insurgency in the peninsula, he committed to a reckless campaign in Russia (Hitler would repeat the same mistake over a century later). Yes, Napoleon won most of the battles in the Russian campaign, but the enemy baited him ever deeper into their land to pull him further from his base (did they learn this strategy from George Washington who rarely won a battle against the British, but did eventually tire them out?). Surely, he must have known that he could not survive deep in Russian soil without supplies and certainly without horses. And to risk taking on the Russian winter. How foolish!

    And meanwhile, the nations of Europe wanted everything as it was before the Revolution. It was so much more stable then, and they could trust France then. Not a very forward thinking people, but a reasonable motive. While America had the luxury of growing their fledgling democracy across the ocean and on their own, the nations of Europe did not. The borders and alliances would not allow the room for any governmental experimentation.

    Colin, I know you’re not a fan of George W (I as well don’t respect those who can’t learn from history). Militarily, he is making the same mistake as Napoleon. He is over-extending himself (first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and now trying to drum up support in Iran). He can’t pull it off because he hasn’t the resources (money or soldiers). Worse, he has tired the Americans of war, and they will certainly exact their revenge on his party in the next major election. I am sure the French were just as tired of war (most certainly, more so), and were ready to rid themselves of their ever-absent leader. Maybe this was behind some of Talleyrand’s machinations. By the way, I am not ready to brand him a traitor–he was a rather brilliant statesman who studied the American system with Hamilton. You’ll be interested in knowing that a new book has been released on him:

    Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand (by David Lawday)

    Maybe you can buy it for David for Christmas!

    All kidding aside, I think the motives of these men and nations are much more complex than you let on, and should not be presented in so simplistic terms. Think of it this way. Would you, as a French citizen in 1812, be willing to go into battle for Napoleon? Or, would you be tired of war, and look to your leaders to depose of this general? From your comments about W and his misguided war, I think I know the answer.

    Keep up the good work. I love the podcast.

  24. Cameron Reilly

    Eric! Gah! You say you’ve been a listener from the beginning but then call me “Colin”? Obviously I need to do more brand building during the show! 🙂

    On to your points.

    Could Napoleon have tried more diplomacy? Perhaps. As Clausewitz stated though, “War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” Let’s remember a few things.

    First, this was 1796, not 2007. There was no United Nations to resolve international conflict.

    Second, as D & I have continually pointed out, these conflicts were going on while Napoleon was a mere artilleryman. He didn’t start them. As a General, he defeated France’s enemies. Peace treaties were signed. Those wars were OVER. Once he had legitimately beaten those nation’s armies and they had agreed to peace treaties defining the new borders (which had been in a continual state of flux since time began), why on earth should he be held responsible for their continued aggression?

    Third, he *did* continually try to use diplomacy. I have books full of letters from Napoleon to his subordinates and other monarchs, trying to keep the peace. Was he heavy handed at time? Absolutely. A little like the modern US or 19th century England. Countries who have military superiority are often heavy handed with their diplomacy. It doesn’t make it right, but it hardly makes Napoleon unique or evil.

    Fourth – you suggest that Europe was more stable before the French Revolution. Let’s take a look at some of the wars on the 18th century prior to the Revolution:

    # 1700-21: the Great Northern War.
    # 1701-1714: the War of the Spanish Succession involved most of Europe.
    # 1722-23: Russo-Persian War
    # 1733-38: War of the Polish Succession
    # 1735-39: Russo-Turkish War
    # 1740-48: War of the Austrian Succession
    # 1756-63: Seven Years’ War fought among European powers in various theaters around the world.
    # 1766-99: Anglo-Mysore Wars
    # 1768-74: Russo-Turkish War
    # 1775-1782: First Anglo-Maratha War
    # 1787-1792: Russo-Turkish War
    # 1789-99: The French Revolution

    Not to mention the various other battles the British were fighting in the Unites States and Africa! Does this sound “more stable” to you?

    Was Napoleon comfortable on the battlefield? Yes. I think I recently quoted Caulaincourt saying as much in a recent show. Was the Russian campaign, in hindsight, a mistake? Yes. How wonderful is hindsight! Did Napoleon have excellent reasons for thinking it would all be over in a month? Yes. Boy, was he wrong!

    I agree with you that the motives of all parties were much more complex than we have an opportunity to discuss in this podcast. There’s a reason we called this “Napoleon 101”! There have been hundreds of thousands of books written about Napoleon in the last 200 years (and David’s only responsible for half!). As much as I’d love to spend the rest of my life discussing the motivations of the various parties, David’s twice my age and I’m sensitive to that. 🙂

  25. Steve Garvin

    I have immensly enjoyed your podcast on Napoleon. I will be sad when its over but look foward to your next podcast biography. Im sure that will be just as superb. Furthermore, after listening to your podcast from 1 to now. I am not only a supporter of Napoleon but also a follower. A true visionary of how a society should be run. It is to bad that Napoleon is not from our time period to change the course of events. Im from the States but currently live in Hong Kong. If you gentlemen are my area please email of your arrival so we can meet and have a drink of Bushmills and discuss our friend Napoleon.

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