Skip to main content
Painting of Napoleon on a white horse

The Little Corporal: The dramatic rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Image: Napoleon at he Battle of Wagram | Public Domain

Affectionately known by his soldiers as the Le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal), Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest military leaders who shaped early 19th century Europe through the Napoleonic Wars.

From Corsican outsider to Emperor of France, the ultimate self-made man rose to the very top of French politics before spending his final years in shameful exile. Discover the rise and fall of a military genius turned dictator who continues to divide opinions even to this day.


Born in 1769 in the port city of Ajaccio in Corsica, Napoleon’s family was of Italian origin heralding from minor Italian nobility. Although Corsica was a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, the year before Napoleon’s birth it was under the control of the Italian city-state of Genoa.

In his youth, Napoleone Buonaparte (he later changed his name to the more French Napoleon Bonaparte) was sent to mainland France to be educated. It wasn't until he was 10 years old that he learned to speak French. His accent often meant he was considered an outsider by many of his peers.

In 1785, he graduated from the prestigious École Militaire in Paris.

Military life beckons

Receiving his first commission as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment of the French army, Napoleon soon found himself back in Corsica again after the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. A great supporter of Corsican independence, Napoleon’s family was forced to flee his homeland in 1793 after relations in Corsica broke down.

Back in France, the Revolution had overthrown the monarchy with the country now a newly formed republic under the control of a constituent assembly known as the National Convention.

Back in France, Napoleon was appointed an artillery commander in the republican forces and his successful capturing of the city of Toulon from royalists enhanced his reputation. At 24 years old he was promoted to brigadier general and suppressed a revolt against the National Convention in Paris in 1795. For his efforts, he was promoted to Commander of the Interior and given control of the French Army in Italy. His stock was on the rise as the new government came to rely on him more and more.

Italy, Egypt and Syria

Before leaving for Italy, in March 1796 Napoleon married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widower six years his senior. The couple had a passionate and tumultuous relationship that ultimately remained childless.

After a series of successful battles against the Austrians in Italy, the Treaty of Campo Formio was signed in 1797 by France and Austria, with the former walking away with significant territorial gains. The world was getting its first glimpse of the military ingenuity of The Little Corporal. Napoleon’s creativity on the field of battle, his strong rapport with his soldiers and his exceptional organisational skills often gave him an edge over his opponents.

Wishing to strike whilst their iron was hot, the French Directory (the successor to the National Convention) now wished Napoleon to turn his attention to the British. Unwilling to launch an assault on the superior British Navy, Napoleon instead turned to Egypt, where he hoped to hurt British trade routes to India.

Although he enjoyed early success over Egyptian forces at the Battle of the Pyramids in mid-1798, British forces defeated Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile shortly after. Now stranded on land, Napoleon marched into Syria (then part of the Ottoman Empire) with little further success.

Road to Emperor

With the government back in France in crisis, Napoleon decided to seize the opportunity and hurried back to Paris where he engineered a coup d'état in November 1799. Overthrowing the Directory, Napoleon was declared First Consul, becoming the nation’s most powerful man.

Needing to bring stability back to the country, he first drove the Austrians out of Italy via another successful military campaign before securing peace with the British. The uneasy Treaty of Amiens in 1802 only lasted a year, but it gave Napoleon enough time to start reorganising his new Grande Armée whilst implementing a series of societal changes at home.

His wide-ranging reforms impacted areas from banking to education and police to religion. His Napoleonic Code streamlined the French legal system by rewriting civil law; Napoleon later declared the Code his greatest legacy.

In 1802, Napoleon became ‘First Consul for Life’ and two years later crowned himself Emperor of the French in an exceedingly lavish coronation ceremony at Notre Dame cathedral.

Within 15 years, France had swung from being a monarchy into a republic before finally evolving into a form of dictatorship under Napoleon. Handing out titles of nobility to family and friends, the new emperor sought to create an imperial dynasty, even marrying the daughter of the Austrian emperor in the hope of siring an heir. In 1811, Napoleon II was born and immediately declared the King of Rome.

Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon found himself fighting an ever-changing variety of European coalitions as the continent descended into what became known as the Napoleonic Wars.

To fund his military ambitions, Napoleon completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The deal saw America double in size as they acquired the French-held territory of Louisiana. In return, Napoleon’s treasury swelled by $15 million.

The emperor’s plans to invade Britain were quickly put to rest, however, after his defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Whilst his fleet was gaining no new ground, the Grande Armée was looking indestructible as it secured victories against the Russians and Austrians, with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 witnessing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Over the next few years, Napoleon waged wars on the Iberian Peninsula, Central Europe and eventually in Russia in 1812. In what became known as one of the greatest military blunders in history, Napoleon marched 600,000 troops into Russia. After failing to secure a victory, high-tailed back to France with just 100,000 men remaining.


His catastrophic defeat in Russia led to a renewed push by the coalition forces. This eventually led to the fall of Paris in 1814, which forced Napoleon to abdicate. France became a monarchy once more with the Bourbon Restoration and Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Less than a year later, Napoleon escaped his confines and mustered a small force to once again claim power in Paris. The new French king fled, clearing the way for Napoleon who then embarked on his Hundred Days campaign.

As Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia began to prepare for war once more, Napoleon hoped to pre-emptively strike the coalition to gain the upper hand. After invading Belgium, his forces gained an early victory, but all was lost when Napoleon was defeated by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon was exiled again but this time to the British-controlled South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. He died there in 1821 at the age of 51 from stomach cancer.