- His Family — Napoleon had many high-capacity leaders at his disposal, and yet, he chose low-capacity family members for key positions in his government. This was a mistake that would haunt him.
- His Ambition — Napoleon had boundless ambition. From the earliest age, he was confident that he was to be the greatest man that ever lived. Becoming the ruler of France was the way he could fulfill this grand vision of himself. So he shelved his Corsican patriotism and won the hearts of the French. One by one, he dominated every nation in continental Europe, but one country halted his ambition. He loathed “That nation of shopkeepers” across the English Channel. There could be no peace as long as England could freely assert itself over France. It would have been much better for Napoleon to find a way to become an ally with England, but such an endeavour, messed too much with his sense of destiny to greatness, so the fight had to go on.
- His Continental System — The absolute Naval superiority of the British made a Napoleonic invasion of Britain an impossibility. So the continental system was his plan to strangle Britain. No trade with the Island nation from Portugal to Russia. If he couldn’t destroy them militarily, he would do so economically. In theory, it was a good plan, and if all of Europe had cooperated with him, he would have succeeded in bringing England to its knees. It’s just that Europe was not wholly willing to play along with Napoleon’s rules and try as he might; Napoleon simply couldn’t enforce a European-wide ban on British trade. Black market trade flourished, and England stayed financially solvent enough to fund dissent on the continent regularly.
- His trip to Russia — Sweden had marched deep into Russia in the mid-1700s only to lose their entire army in the frozen wastes of that unforgiving country. A book had been written about the tragedy. Napoleon naturally bought the book and read it, as he considered invading his wayward ally. Napoleon never envisioned a deep attack into Russia, so he thought the warnings didn’t apply. The plan was never to march 700 miles to Moscow. Instead, he wanted a border war where he would hand the Russians a crushing defeat like he had done three times before. The smackdown would only take a couple of months, and then Russia would be back on his side, preventing trade with the English. Napoleon’s 500,000 person army was the largest he had ever assembled, so the Napoleonic speed for which he was famous became impossible. The cumbersome army was so massive that the Russian’s only realistic option was to retreat before it and try to pick away at it with hit and run attacks. The campaign was bogged down immediately with torrential spring rains; Summer brought unbearable heat. The drought-like conditions that resulted and the Russian’s “scorched earth” policy in their retreat made Napoleon’s “live off the land” strategy impossible.
Starvation and dehydration devastated the army. Horses suffered the worst. They died by the thousands, further slowing down the army. Lice were rampant among the French, and a War Plague (Typhus) broke out. Sadly, French medical personnel didn’t understand that the lice caused Typhus. More soldiers died of this plague than were killed in battle. Napoleon’s brother had a chance to get the decisive victory, but he botched it, and the Russians escaped. Napoleon kept advancing, believing that he was only one victory away. Finally, 100 miles from Moscow, the Russians engaged the beleaguered French army. The French still managed to win, but it was not the crushing blow that the French needed. Most of the Russian military was able to escape. Napoleon looked at his options and decided to go for it all. If he captured Moscow, surely the Russians would surrender, and the cursed war would be over.
All his generals had advised against a campaign in Russia to begin with, Now they again spoke against this final push to Moscow. But it was Napoleon’s optimism, audaciousness, and ambition that prevented him from agreeing with his generals. The Russians decided to abandon Moscow instead of fight for it. Just before they fled, they released convicts with the instructions to burn their famed capital to the ground. Napoleon wrote the Tsar from the charred ruins of Moscow, demanding surrender and terms for peace. Alexander never answered Napoleon.
Precious time was lost in the waiting. To stay in Moscow over the winter and then reengage so far behind enemy lines next spring would be certain death for the entire army. The retreat was now the only option. But it was too late. Winter came early, and it was the coldest one in decades. The weather smashed the French army to bits while vicious and revenge-minded Russian mobile units wreaked havoc on disoriented, starving, freezing stragglers.
Napoleon should never have escaped Russia. Three Russian armies and a river trapped him. But clever as a fox, he managed a ruse. It was classic misdirection. He drew Russian attention to a bridge he was pretending to build to the south while secretly building a bridge at breakneck speed farther north. He and a few thousand of his remaining soldiers managed to escape the grasp of the Russians. His army had gone from 500,000 to around 5,000. There would be no recovery from this loss.
- The Spanish Ulcer — Portugal refused to participate in the continental system, so they needed to be crushed. Through diplomatic means and the exploitation of the fragmented Spanish monarchy, Napoleon managed to take over Spain in the process of squashing Portugal. However, Napoleon’s family members’ bungling in Spain created a vicious Spanish backlash against French rule. The whole thing devolved into a decade-long quagmire of guerrilla warfare, which proved to be a devastating drain on French men and resources. Napoleon dug his heels in and tried to hang on to French rule in Spain for far longer than he should have.
- A Failure to Appreciate the Advancements of his Enemies — Napoleon, in part, lost the final 7th war of the Coalition because the other armies had adopted his tactics. Napoleon blundered by failing to see these upgraded armies for the formidable enemies they had become. Had the coalition armies not copied and, in some cases, improved upon Napoleon’s tactics, they could never have beat him. This is another testament to his greatness.