The Downfall of Napoleon

Despite Napoleon Bonaparte’s early successes in restoring order to France at the beginning of the 1800s, the ten years after he became Emperor would be mired by failures, eventually leading to his downfall.

One of this first moves in attempting to conquer or gain an advantage over much of Europe came with the Continental System. This decree, enacted by Napoleon, was meant to weaken England. In it, he encouraged any countries who were either neutral (meaning they didn’t take sides) or who were allies with France to stop doing business with England. It was his hope that England would suffer economically. The Continental System, however, failed, due in part to the fact that England had natural resources to sustain itself. The country that was weakened, ironically, was France.

From 1808 to 1814, France was engaged in the Peninsular War against Spain and Portugal, who were aided in the conflict by Great Britain.

Napoleon had set his sights on conquering the Iberian Peninsula and actually succeeded in doing so when he conquered Spain in 1808. He installed his older brother, Joseph as the King of Spain. His short rule lasted from 1808 to 1813.

This upset the Spaniards, who had once been allies with France. The Peninsular War turned out to be quite costly, and although the French won against Spain, this was a turning point in Napoleon’s reign: it was a moment in which his previous allies realized how land-greedy he was becoming.

Meanwhile, in 1812, the French under Napoleon embarked on an invasion of Russia. He had hoped to gain political advantage with both Russia and Poland as a result of this invasion, and to defeat Russian troops. It was, however, a total disaster. Not only was it freezing cold, but the Russians were certainly not open to any engagements with the French. They retreated, but not before enacted a “scorched earth” policy, one in which they burned all of the crops as they moved further away from the French. This left Napoleon’s troops with little to eat. All totalled, the French army would lose hundreds of thousands of men during the six-month invasion.

By June of 1815, Napoleon’s list of enemy countries had grown to include Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia due to his actions. The four countries all braced themselves for what they assumed would be a war with Napoleon’s forces, and when he got wind of this, he thought he might catch them by surprise and try to defeat them. He subsequently invaded Belgium, the spark which ignited the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon and his forces were defeated at this battle, which would mark the final defeat of his reign.