Not Just Waterloo – Six More of Napoleon’s Greatest Defeats


Everyone has heard about Waterloo, Napoleon’s final defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington. However, Waterloo was not Napoleon’s only defeat.

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most successful military leaders in modern history. He managed to lead a chaotic, dysfunctional, and virtually destitute country like France against a coalition of several nations. Against all odds, he defeated them, forcing them to unite against him seven times.

His use of modern weaponry and tactics, as well as the stratagems he employed, are still studied today by military historians and schools around the world. At the height of his power, he ruled over most of Europe, something not seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

But he was not infallible. This is evidenced by the Battle of Waterloo which finally put an end to his French Empire and to his role as its Emperor. That was not his only defeat, however. Here we look at six more of his greatest defeats.

1) The 1796 Battle of Caldiero

This took place on November 12, and is not to be confused with the one that took place in 1805. To deal with the threat of the new First French Republic, several nations joined forces to create the First Coalition.

Weeks before, Napoleon had laid siege to the city of Mantua in Lombardy, Italy. The Austrian forces had sent two relief efforts, but were repelled by the French.  On November 2, the Austrians sent a third relief effort with more men, but instead of confronting Napoleon on one side, they advanced to the north and west of the city.

With the Mantuans still resisting him and two more armies on the way, Napoleon sent out two forces to attack the Austrians before they could meet up. On November 6 two French divisions attacked the Austrian forces under Jozsef Alvinczi at the Second Battle of Bassano, but lost because they were greatly outnumbered. The next day, the French lost again at the Battle of Calliano.

His army decimated, Napoleon was forced to retreat to Verona where he held his reserve forces. It was his first defeat, but he managed to turn the tide at the Battle of Arcole from November 15 to 17. By the 23rd, the Austrian forces retreated from the region.

2) Siege of Acre: March 1799

This was part of the Egyptian Campaign. Having subdued Egypt, he decided to make his way to Jerusalem, but en route, lay siege to the city of Jaffa. Infuriated by their resistance, he allowed his army to slaughter its inhabitants and rape their women, after which he made his way to Acre.

Having heard of the atrocities, the city’s residents put up stiff resistance. Although French artillery managed to breach part of the wall, the defenders were able to put up a second defensive wall inside. This bought the Ottomans time to mount a relief effort. The British also got involved by supplying those at Acre with supplies and weapons.

With the Ottomans cutting off their supply lines, Napoleon’s army was decimated with disease and hunger. He was forced to retreat back to Egypt, leaving many of his sick and wounded behind. By the time he got there, the French were so badly weakened that Napoleon had to return to France.

3) Battle of Aspern-Essling: May 1809

Upon his return to Europe, Napoleon enjoyed over a decade of military successes. This ended when he tried to cross the Danube near Vienna to strike at the Austrians. He spent three months on Lobau Island reinforcing the crossing, but was repelled by Archduke Charles. He did defeat them several days later, however, at the Battle of Wagram.

4) French Invasion of Russia 1812

When Russia refused to participate in an embargo on England, Napoleon was forced to attack, even though France and Russia were officially allies. En route to Moscow, his men were unable to live off the land because of the slash and burn tactics used by the Russians, even though it also hurt their own people.

When Napoleon reached Moscow, however, the czar had fled, the residents had been evacuated, and the mayor ordered the city burned. Though technically a victory, he achieved nothing and was forced to retreat. The harsh winter, lack of food, and further harassment from the Russians decimated his men.

By the time he returned to France, his popularity had waned. The French were furious that so many of their men had been lost in such a disastrous campaign. The other nations, realizing his army had been decimated, set up a Sixth Coalition.

5) Battle of Leipzig (also the Battle of Nations): October 16 – 19, 1813

The armies of both sides numbered over 600,000 soldiers, making it the largest European conflict prior to World War I. With the French military decimated from the Russian Invasion, France was in retreat throughout the continent. Spain ousted the French at the Battle of Vitoria, various Italian and German provinces also expelled their French garrisons, and Britain had finally joined the Sixth Coalition.

Napoleon recaptured some German territories in May, ousting the Russian and Prussian forces defending them, but they were temporary victories. The Sixth Coalition chased him back to France.

6) Battle of La Rothiere: 1 February 1814

The Sixth Coalition was finally on French soil. Rather than wait for them at Paris, Napoleon decided to attack, defeating the Prussian forces under Gebhard von Blucher at the Battle of Brienne. Blucher retreated, so Napoleon followed. French intelligence was hampered by the heavy snow, but they believed the rest of the Sixth Coalition would meet up with Blucher at Troyes, so Napoleon made his way there.

The reports were wrong. The Coalition attacked him at La Rothier, instead.  Though he held his ground, he was forced to retreat at night, making his way back to the capital. The Coalition followed, forced him to abdicate, dismantled the French Empire, and sent him to exile on Elba.

Napoleon would make one final come back, but the Seventh Coalition finally put an end to him.

1 comment

  1. Bluenosejohn says:

    Napoleon ‘It was the Spanish Ulcer that ruined me.’ You could add an entire list of his armies time in Spain and Portugal that undermined him.

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