Napoleon’s biggest battles

Historian Andrew Roberts marks 200 years since Napoleon’s Waterloo with a whistle-stop battlefield tour 

His first battle – Toulon (1793)

Walking on the hillside above the inner and outer harbours at the naval port of Toulon on the Mediterranean coast of France, it becomes obvious that once Napoleon captured the strategically vital fort of l’Eguillette on the promontory there, he could force the Royal Navy – which was occupying the city – to evacuate both harbours by firing specially heated cannonballs onto their wooden ships moored below. So he concentrated his attack on the fort, which helped win the campaign.


His first victory – Montenotte (1796)

Realising that his Austrian enemy’s line was overextended in the Ligurian hills in Piedmont in northern Italy, Napoleon fixed the enemy in place with an attack at Montenotte, a mountain village 12 miles north-west of Savona in the valley of the River Erro, and then sent one of his commanders around their right flank in the pouring rain at 1am to envelop them.

Andrew Roberts

It was a tough environment in which to fight: a ridge runs down from Montenotte Superiore to a series of peaks between 2,000 and 3,000 feet high and there was (and still is) thick vegetation all around, making climbing up the slopes exhausting. Though a modest engagement, Montenotte was Napoleon’s first victory in the field as commander-in-chief. It was as good for his morale as for that of his troops. 

His first defeat – Acre (1799)

At Acre (modern day Akka, in Israel), the 12ft-thick stone and brick walls built by the Crusader king Baldwin I were clearly impregnable to anything other than escalating ladders, especially once the Royal Navy had captured Napoleon’s siege train.

His greatest triumph – Austerlitz (1805)

Artist François Pascal Simon Gérard’s depiction of Bonaparte’s victorious Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 

Napoleon’s most decisive victory, at Austerlitz in what is today the Czech Republic, was won by his hiding an entire corps under Marshal Nicolas Soult down in the mist of the valley floor below the Pratzen Heights and then, as the sun burnt it off, unleashing them at the correct psychological moment to smash through the Austro-Russian centre. Thereafter “the sun of Austerlitz” occupied a central position in the Napoleonic myth.

When I visited the battlefield at 4.30am, the same time that Napoleon reconnoitred his positions prior to the battle, the dawn revealed mist in exactly the same place it had been on 2 December 1805, which also burnt off between 9.30am and 10am, the time of Soult’s attack.

His bloodiest battle – Borodino (1812)

The losses on both sides at Borodino, 70 miles from Moscow, are the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing into an area of six square miles every five minutes for the whole ten hours of the battle, killing or wounding everyone on board. Napoleon won the battle and captured Moscow, but the casualties weakened him, hundreds of miles inside Russia.

His closest shave – Berezina (1812)

Almost trapped by three Russian armies converging on him simultaneously from different directions, Napoleon desperately needed to cross the Berezina River in present- day Belarus. But the only bridge had been burnt by the Russians, so how could he do it? His engineers needed long, hard, seasoned pieces of timber to make trestles to drive down into the riverbed to build a makeshift bridge over which the army could cross.

There is no forest nearby, and the army had long since ditched its pontoon bridges in the retreat, which had already witnessed scenes of cannibalism, mass suicide and frostbite that had frozen off soldiers’ fingers, toes, ears, noses, sexual organs and even in some cases their eyelids. So when they reached the village of Studienka, which is even today almost entirely made of wood, Napoleon’s engineers dismantled nearby houses in order to build the bridge that took the army to safety.

His final defeat – Waterloo (1815)

The battlefield of Waterloo is dominated by a 140ft-high Lion Mound, which, once you climb it, makes all the events of that extraordinary day entirely intelligible. It overlooks the key farmhouses of Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte that lay in front of Napoleon’s lines, and one can also see the woods to the east from which the Prussians emerged to seal his defeat. The Duke of Wellington wasn’t impressed with the Lion Mound, however, which was built directly over his position on the slopes of Mont-Saint- Jean. “They have ruined my battlefield,” he said when he saw it eight years later.

Napoleon: the Man and the Myths is on Radio 4 this week at 1.45pm


Andrew Roberts’ TV documentary Napoleon concludes on BBC2 tonight (Wednesday 17th June) at 9.00pm