Triumph: the Italian campaign, 1796-97

In a lightning-quick campaign, Napoleon swept aside an alliance that had stood against the French since 1792. Despite finding his soldiers poorly equipped and outnumbered when he arrived in Italy in March 1796, he went on the attack, splitting the Austrian and Sardinian armies in his first battle and knocking out the forces of Piedmont by the end of April. Napoleon maintained the offensive with an unbroken string of victories, including the decisive Battle of Rivoli in January 1797 (pictured above), where the Austrians lost 14,000 men to France’s 5,000.


The Austrians gave up as Napoleon marched on Vienna, with the resulting Treaty of Campo Formio securing significant territorial gains in northern Italy. Napoleon returned to Paris both an undisputed national hero and an unmatched military tactician.

Disaster: the Russian campaign, 1812

Napoleon and a colossal army crossed the Neman River on 24 June 1812 to intimidate Russia, but it turned out to be the undoing of his empire. The Russians, under Mikhail Kutuzov, systematically retreated and scorched the earth, which dragged the French deep into their territory. Then, when the sides did do battle – a pyrrhic victory at Borodino on 7 September – it was the bloodiest day of Napoleon’s career.

The French entered Moscow a week later, only to find it evacuated (Russians also set parts of the city on fire to deprive the invaders of shelter and supplies). The retreat ended up being even more costly. Soldiers had insufficient clothing for the freezing temperatures of an early winter, disease devastated the ranks, and Russian forces pursued them all the way. A little over a sixth of the 600,000 men who marched into Russia crossed the river again.

Triumph: Asterlitz, 1805

On 2 December 1805, Napoleon masterminded his greatest victory. He deliberately abandoned a strategic position near the town of Austerlitz in the Austrian Empire so that his army, which numbered around 68,000, would appear vulnerable.

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He then weakened his right flank so as to lure the 90,000-strong might of Russian Tsar Alexander I and the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I of Austria, into a trap. They left their centre open to counterattack and Napoleon cut their line in two, with Marshal Soult viciously taking advantage.

On top of 26,000 enemy dead, wounded or captured, the Battle of the Three Emperors led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. His plans for an invasion of Britain may have been scuppered at Trafalgar earlier that year, but Napoleon proved he ruled on
the continent.

Disaster: Waterloo, 1815

Very soon after Napoleon had pulled off a return to power in 1815, his empire came crashing down a second time. He hoped to quash yet another coalition formed against him – Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia – by striking before their armies could unite. So, on 18 June, at Waterloo in present-day Belgium, 72,000 French soldiers faced a 68,000-strong allied force under the Duke of Wellington.

While the fighting seemed even (Wellington called the battle “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”), Napoleon made tactical errors, including launching his Imperial Guard too late. Perhaps more significantly, he had waited until midday before ordering his initial attack in order to let the muddy ground dry, giving Gebhard Lebrecht von Blucher’s Prussians time to enter the fray later on. They smashed against his right flank and the battle was lost. Four days later, Napoleon abdicated again – for the last time.


This content first appeared in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed