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After the French Revolution of 1789, a young artillery commander would decisively act to seize power over France as a new emperor; this man was Napoleon Bonaparte. During this time as the leader of the new French Empire Napoleon would see tremendous success. However, from 1800-1814 Napoleon would make 3 fatal mistakes that would ultimately crush the French Empire.
Napoleon Bonaparte would become Emperor of France in 1804 and over the next 11 years make 3 major mistakes that would crush the French Empire. First, Napoleon decided to create the continental system which put the French Empire on a crash course with Russia. Second, Napoleon invaded Russia instead of fighting a defensive war in Poland. Third, Napoleon did not accept the Frankfurt proposals for peace in 1813 which would have established peace and prosperity for the French Empire.
These three mistakes were fatal to not only Napoleon but to also the French Empire as a whole. At its peak, the French Empire extended from Spain to Eastern Germany. Here at The History Ace, I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If in the end, you found this article helpful then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing it around the internet.
Without further ado here is the Fall of Napoleon: His 3 Big Mistakes That Crushed France.
Napoleon Decided to Create the Continential System Which Put Him on a Crash Course With Russia
The first major mistake that Napoleon made was to pass the Berlin Decree on the 21st of November, 1806. Today historians call this the Continental System.
In May of 1803, the Kingdom of Great Britain declared war on the French Empire and Napoleon. For several months both Britain and France had been building up large fleets of ships and several large armies. This war is called today the War of the Third Coalition and its cause was to attempt to reign in Napoleon’s ambitions and the territorial expansion of the French Empire.
Eventually, the French would win this war in 1806 and cement their newly acquired territory. However, Napoleon’s ambitions would not stop here and in late 1806 Napoleon would pass the Berlin Decree in response to British blockades of French ports. This decree made it so that all British trade in the north Atlantic and Baltic seas would be seized. The reason that Napoleon established this embargo of British goods to mainland Europe was to prevent uprisings from being funded against his rule.
However, this created a huge problem for European countries which relied upon British goods for survival. The largest of these was Russia which was under the rule of Tsar Alexander I and a large group of nobles at this time. Russia was experiencing its industrial revolution and many of the nobles of Russia stood to become extremely wealthy, however now there was a problem. Russia had become dependent on shipping routes to deliver the resources needed for the Russian Revolution; these shipping lanes went right through the Baltic sea which now all trade was being seized.
Napoleon and the French were attempting to slowly win a battle of attrition with the last remaining governments in Europe by controlling all trade. The idea was to seize all non-French shipments going in and out of Europe and force Russia and Spain to rely upon French goods instead of British.
Because of the French Continental System both France and Russia were on a crash course with each other. Russia would have to declare war against France to retake natural resources needed for their industrial machine while France would have to fight Russia to achieve total domination over Europe.
Everybody knows about how Napoleon’s invincible army was destroyed by the Russian winter in 1812 but what they don’t know is that this entire event could have been avoided had Napoleon not made the mistake of enacting the continental system in 1806.
Napoleon Invaded Russia Instead of Fighting a Defensive War in Poland
The second major mistake that Napoleon made that crushed the French Empire was the choice to invade Russia in 1812 instead of fighting a defensive war in Poland.
From 1799 up until 1810 Napoleon was considered one of the world’s most brilliant generals. He never lost a major battle and used fast-moving infantry and cavalry tactics to overwhelm his opponents in the field. As a result of these numerous successful wars, France developed the reputation of having an invincible fast-moving army.
In 1806 Napoleon forced all of Europe to agree to a blockade of British goods. This was in an attempt to force Europe to rely upon French trade while also preventing the British from getting more powerful. Britain remained in a state of constant warfare against France and had been building up its naval fleet for several years.
Because of this naval superiority, Napoleon had no opportunity to move his army across the British channel. Instead with the Conteintial System, Napoleon would slowly win the battle of attrition. When Russian decided to break free and engage in trade with the British Napoleon had to act.
Tsar Alexander I wanted to recapture lost territory in Poland and Napoleon wanted to force the Russians to go back to the embargo on British goods. Napoleon here was given two decisions on how to fight a war with Russia.
First, Napoleon could have fought a defensive war in his territory in Poland. There were several stockpiles of food, ammunition, and weaponry held by France and Napoleon would be well stocked for a prolonged war. This however would prevent Russia from agreeing to go back to the continental system.
Second, Napoleon could go on an aggressive campaign and push all the way to Moscow. Here he could force Tsar Alexander I to abdicate or agree to his terms. Since the French army was known for its lightning speed Napoleon believed his army could march to Moscow in only a couple of months. This was the choice that Napoleon made.
Had Napoleon fought a defensive war in Poland he would have eventually won. It was possible to easily resupply a large defensive army and Russia would have to engage in an overextension of their supply lines just to stand a chance. However, if Napoleon did this then he would have to forestall his ambitions of dominating Europe. It would have taken another 10-20 years to force Britain and Russia to fall to French rule.
However, if Napoleon did this then he and his family would have remained in power in France. The Empire of France was becoming extremely wealthy at this point in time and could have easily surpassed the British within a couple of decades if Napoleon played his cards right.
If Napoleon fought a defensive war in Poland then chances much of Europe would still be under French control. As such the second fatal mistake that Napoleon made that crushed the French Empire was to invade Russia instead of fighting a defensive war in Poland.
Napoleon Did Not Accept the Terms of the Frankfurt Proposals Which Would Have Kept Him in Power
The third major mistake of Napoleon that crushed the French Empire was not accepting the Frankfurt Proposals in 1813. After Napoleon stalled too long on accepting this peace offering France’s fate was cemented.
After the loss of the war to Russia Napoleon’s army was fought back across the Rhine river. At this point, it was clear to everyone except Napoleon that the French Empire would fall unless peace was offered by the coalition armies.
In November 1813, peace was offered to Napoleon. This peace was called the Frankfurt Proposal and it would result in the Empire of France going back to its “natural borders” while also allowing Napoleon to continue to rule it as Emperor.
This was a very good peace offering by the coalition armies and was actually a mistake in communication on the part of the British. After the battle of Leipzig Britain decided that it would only offer peace if Napoleon was removed from power and imprisoned. However, this letter was misinterpreted to allow Napoleon to continue to rule.
Napoleon would not respond to this peace offering and instead, attempt to stall to give his army enough time to mobilize. Napoleon believed that he could win one decisive battle and regain his lost territory. However, the chances of this happening were slim. At this point, the French military was routed and did not have the supply lines to adequately support a strong enough counter-offensive.
By the time Napoleon realized this the Frankfurt proposals were thrown out. Napoleon had missed his chance to stop the war but keep the French Empire intact. Less than a year later Napoleon would be forced to abdicate from his throne and the French Empire would fall under the rule of the old monarchy.
There you have it; the 3 major mistakes that Napoleon made that ended up crushing the French Empire of the early 19th century.
Had Napoleon played his cards right then chances are he could have ended up ruling the entirety of Europe. Russia was years away from fielding an army well equipped enough to capture Poland and Britain would not attempt to land an army without a foothold. During this time the French Empire had begun to create the infrastructure necessary to easily move and defend Europe. Any potential graduate students of history will find substantial amounts of research opportunities when studying the history of Napoleon and the French Empire.
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