Although historians commonly sing Napoleon’s praises, as a contrarian I will adopt a different view, the one that portrays him accurately as a selfish screw-up. Napoleon’s screw-ups were not continuous and were cleverly concealed during his lifetime and into the modern era. His significant accomplishments overshadow his mistakes. Napoleon, when teased by his young classmates, vowed to make the nation of France pay. In many ways, France paid dearly.
Many of Napoleon’s screw-ups came nearer the end of his European career, but young Napoleon made a few.
The first big disaster orchestrated by Napoleon was his invasion of Egypt. This adventure was aimed at British trade, but in no way did it keep British ships from sailing to India around the Cape of Good Hope. Napoleon’s fleet was completely destroyed by Admiral Horatio Nelson, leaving his entire army stranded in Egypt. Ultimately, nothing came of this Egyptian adventure except a boost to Egyptology. Napoleon suppressed news of the disaster. At this early stage, we already see his blindness to grand strategic thinking, the power of naval forces, true democracy and the commercial power of Great Britain.
Napoleon’s coup d’etat began awkwardly, but gradually resulted in his supreme power over France and later Continental Europe. His Continental System sought to crush Britain economically without interrupting British trade lanes or naval dominance. This embargo over British trade caused economic disruption in Britain as well as the other European powers. It made Britain’s overseas empire more prominent.
Napoleon was a control freak, and one of the things he liked to control was the truth. This was another mistake, because like international trade, the truth has a way of coming out. Napoleon ordered his officers that a German publisher critical of his regime should be tried and then shot. This was judicial murder. Napoleon also murdered the truth about some of his battles. He did not want everyone to know how truly destructive of human life they were. Napoleon used unscrupulous tactics to get what he wanted – and always justified it to himself and others.
Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Spain was never satisfactorily completed. The anti-religious French Revolutionary forces could hardly win over the sympathies of Catholic Spain. Mountainous Spanish terrain caused innumerable problems for French armies. And while his soldiers regularly bled in Spain, Napoleon decided to wage war on two fronts when he invaded Russia in 1812.
Invading Russia was Napoleon’s greatest screw-up. He didn’t have to do it. Russia was no threat to his Empire, except that to revive its own economy Russia started trading with the British again. Rather than accept the inevitability of international trade, Napoleon set out to teach the Tsar a lesson. As result, the vast majority of his soldiers were killed, frozen or starved to death. What concerned him the most? That someone would try to usurp his throne – so he hurriedly left his starving and defeated troops for Paris.
Napoleon put his relatives on thrones all over Europe. How many nations want a foreign king thrust on them from another country?
Napoleon established conscription to constantly augment his armies with fresh troops, to replace those who died. After a while, the population gets tired of producing cannon fodder, especially dominated nations that were not even French.
After getting his tail thoroughly whipped in Russia, Napoleon began to talk of declaring peace. He should have thought of this earlier. The Allies against Napoleon sensed his defeat after the loss of his largest army in Russia and closed in, forcing him to abdicate. Napoleon tried to commit suicide by drinking poison, but it did not work. He could not even kill himself. Another screw-up.
Of course, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba, re-entered France, gathered a large army, and anticipated the inevitable attacks by Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia. At the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon told another one of his expensive lies: He told his loyal Imperial Guard, elite soldiers known for their bravery, that reinforcements were on the way and that they could carry the day by marching directly uphill against the British Army. Napoleon was making it all up. The Imperial Guard did not make it to the top of the hill, retreated, and the Battle of Waterloo was lost. At the end of his military career, Napoleon told his most trusted soldiers a lie. This was typical of Napoleon’s screw-ups. Millions died for and because of Napoleon, but Napoleon never let those deaths deter him from shedding even more blood.
So, he gave up the warm and pleasant island of Elba, where he ruled, and then wound up as a British prisoner on tiny St. Helena, a cold and isolated island. His escape from Elba was, in the end, a most amazing screw-up.