Napoleon and the crafty prince (Part-1) : The beginning of the end


Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by Jacques-Louis David(1805)

The upheaval in Europe after the French revolution in 1789 has been compared by historians as being something like Maoists seizing power in the US. The revolution set France on the road to becoming Europe’s intellectual and cultural ground-zero as well as being the largest and most powerful nation in Europe. Almost all of Europe’s monarchies tried to form coalitions to stamp out the upstarts as they believed that effective governance sprang only from blood that was blue.

At the very epicenter of the change sweeping through Europe stood one man, born Napoleon di Bonaparte, in the tiny Corsican town of Agaccio. Single-handedly he built a vast army of fighting men completely devoted to him like he was a demi-God. He trained them to live off the land when there were no supplies left. If the bread ran out during a campaign, they dug in the fields for potatoes, root vegetables that had recently been introduced from the Americas. This meant that his armies were never burdened with lumbering supply wagons and could move with lightning speed.

On Napoleon’s watch, France came to dominate Europe completely. During the 10 years that he ruled France, he raised an army of 2.5 million men, fewer than half of whom came home when his empire collapsed in 1815.

Napoleon’s 22 years as a military leader, 10 of which were as Emperor, were marked by the constant need for warfare and conquest. Of those 22 years, he spent 14 fighting. A piece of work, wasn’t he? I am sure most kings and dukes in Europe at the time must have started whispering to each other in exasperation, ‘what’s with this guy?’ and wanting to tell him,’ Go get a life, dude’, if they had the guts to do so. The unrelenting fighting became so expensive at one point, that Britain (by far the richest of the other coalition partners against France) had to introduce the world’s first income tax to pay for the wars that France provoked.

Napoleon had to be stopped at all cost, as otherwise, his brand of republicanism would make aristocracies and by default, absolute monarchies, redundant. After he became emperor however, he himself became an absolute monarch, falling in line with the others and desperately trying to gain acceptance as a legitimate ruler like the rest, somewhat like the pig ‘Napoleon’, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who in the end, revises the last of the ‘seven commandments’ that said ‘All animals are equal’ to ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than the others’.

In 1812, Napoleon began a campaign of conquest – invading Russia – a conflict that came to be known by the Russians as The Great Patriotic War, a term that, a century later, the Soviets borrowed to denote the repulsion of Hitler’s invasion forces in 1941.

The invasion quickly turned into a disaster. Napoleon won all the skirmishes on the way and even occupied Moscow for a very short while. Only, there was nothing in Moscow to occupy. The Russians had burnt their capital city to the ground and moved east. Following them east was pointless with winter approaching, the lands east of Moscow being vast, the prospect of surviving the return to France would be even more perilous the further east they went.

Depleted of horses and supplies, Napoleon eventually had to withdraw, an exercise that proved just as perilous, the Russians having destroyed their own crops and food stockpiles so Napoleon’s men would find nothing to eat on their trek back. Finally, his forces decimated, thousands perishing from the bitter cold, the French forces limped back home.


Retreat from Moscow 1812, a painting by Adolph Northen 

France was now a gigantic T-Rex, down but not out, licking its wounds, teetering toward instability and possible invasion from the very nations it had been treading upon – Britain, Russia and Austria, nations that would want to exploit its present weakness after the Russian disaster.

Quite rightly anticipating an attack, Napoleon began building a ‘Class of 1814’, another large army, one that had to depend upon new and inexperienced recruits in it since most of the battle-hardened vets had perished on their way back from Moscow.

Napoleon and his new army did not make it. The coup de grace was engineered to happen like a slow-burning fuse, by a man whose official title was Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburge zu Beistein – Prince Metternich for short.

Here is the story of how a once invincible conqueror met his match, not on the battlefield but off it, in a suave and crafty prince…….

Prince Metternich was born into the House of Metternichs, an aristocratic German family, in 1773. While he was still in his teens, the advancing French revolutionary armies aiming to annex Germany, forced the Metternichs to flee and settle in Vienna. There his father found service with the Hapsburgs of Austria as a diplomat.

At college, Metternich studied law and philosophy and while still in his teens, his father was busy introducing him into the diplomatic fraternity. Later, as an Austrian envoy, Metternich spent months abroad as ambassador to Saxony, Prussia, Britain and finally, France.

At the French Imperial Court, Prince Metternich’s air of a polished aristocrat and sharp handsome features made him a paragon of breeding and elegance to everyone he came in contact with. It was not long before Metternich’s demeanor caught the eye of Napoleon in a special way.

Napoleon was unlike the young Prince in almost every way possible. Born to minor nobility in a hick town called Agaccio in Corsica, Napoleon was a crude Corsican street fighter at heart. He spoke French with a heavy Corsican accent that the French aristocracy and literati of 18th century Europe derided as unrefined.

Napoleon’s background was to him a millstone that made him insecure and drove him to crave legitimacy in the eyes of the aristocracy of the time. Short in stature, whenever he was in the physical proximity of others, especially foreign envoys and leaders, he insisted on standing and talking while the others sat. He sometimes even stood on his toes behind his desk so he would seem taller.

All in all, Napoleon appears to me to have been very much like King Louis of the apes in Jungle Book (remember his ‘I wanna be like you’ number?). This however does not take away the fact that Napoleon was a brilliant military commander whose men hero-worshipped him.

It is the aftermath of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz that this piece is about so I guess I’ll just get on with it, before you start throwing pots and pans at me.

Alarmed at Napoleon’s growing power, by 1805 Britain convinced the other two dominant European powers, Austria and Russia, to join an alliance that history books now refer to as the Third Coalition, against France. One of the campaigns in the War of the Third Coalition was the battle against the Austrians at Austerlitz.

By a stroke of military genius, Napoleon encircled the Austrian army and annihilated it. In the subsequent treaty, he carved up the vanquished Austrian empire, taking over its lands in Italy and Germany.

But instead of annexing Austria completely, Napoleon let it remain and function as an independent state with its own government, his reasons being somewhat similar to the US’s strategic interests in North America today…….


The US has over the years, painstakingly cultivated militarily weak neighbors. Fortunately for it, the US has had only two sides to worry about – the north and the south, vast oceans forming the other two sides.

After the Second World War, Canada began developing an advanced fighter jet, the CF-Arrow, a delta-winged interceptor, designed and built by Avro Canada. The Arrow was far ahead of its time, it’s CF-105 able to perform flawlessly at Mach 2-plus speeds at altitudes of 50,000 feet. It was intended to not only serve the RCAF and make Canada a militarily independent nation able to defend itself on its own, but also to establish Canada in the 1960s as an exporter of sophisticated arms, directly in competition with US defense industrial giants.

Canada being a far more ‘liberal and left-of-center’ nation than the US and therefore more susceptible to the formation of a government that did not see eye to eye with the US in matters of foreign policy, any kind of Canadian military independence was seen as a threat by the US. The Americans wanted to see Canada as a meek and impotent buffer state.

What followed then was that, quite inexplicably all of a sudden, not long after flight testing began in 1958, the development of the Arrow came to a screeching halt. Planes that were ready to fly were destroyed. Pressured by the US President, Eisenhower, the Canadian PM, John Diefenbaker, let himself be sweet-talked into abandoning the whole thing. Eisenhower told him ‘Hey, you’re wasting your time. You have us, we are your brothers, we can give you all the jet fighters you need. Let us form a military alliance just for you instead, which will guarantee your security in the face of any commie threat.’

NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), an alliance between Canada and the US,  was born that same year.


The CF-Arrow. Every plane built, every piece of hardware, engines, armaments, every trace of its existence was intentionally destroyed in 1958 on the insistence of the US (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Canada is not an Israel. It caved in. If it hadn’t, Canada would be a military industrial behemoth today. What happened instead was that Avro-Canada ceased to exist, 50000 employees lost their jobs and countless highly experienced designers and aerospace engineers moved south of the border to join the Lockheeds and the Boeings, in the largest brain-drain ever (perhaps second only to Operation Paperclip).

As for its neighbor to the south, the Americans never saw the Mexicans as any kind of threat, even during the 50s and 60s when the Embassy of the USSR in Mexico City had 200 attachés who were upto no good, so completely does Mexico depend upon the US for its economic welfare as a nation.


Just as America sees its neighbors as strategically positioned docile buffers, so did Napoleon. His ultimate goal was to make Austria a weak and subordinate ally, one that would lend him weight in the courts of Europe, since Austria had been a central force in European politics.

After the Austerlitz wipe-out, on Napoleon’s insistence, a new Austrian ambassador to France was appointed, one whom he had seen hanging around his court and at ceremonious occasions, a man who had struck him as at once, intelligent and gracious, always making the appropriate comments, always ready with praise – Prince Metternich, who was at the time the Austrian ambassador to the Prussian court in Berlin.

(to be continued….)


1 thought on “Napoleon and the crafty prince (Part-1) : The beginning of the end”

  1. Gary Robinson said:

    I had heard of the CF-Arrow and that it had been cancelled but never bothered finding out why. I realize how lazy I am compared to you, Achyut. You are a fountain of knowledge. 🙂


Don't go away, say something......

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s