So, if you want to write an Alternate History in this era, where do you begin? The Napoleonic Wars, by loose definition, lasted from 1799, when Napoleon mounted a coup to become the First Consul of the Republic, until 1815, when he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and sent to St. Helena to live out his days, not to mention that Napoleon served with the revolutionary armies before this point as well. So, we can boil it down to almost 20 years of near constant warfare in Europe, Africa, India and the high seas.
The most important nations in this struggle were the naval and economic power of Great Britain, and the land and populous power of France. All the other nations, including Spain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, the Italian city states and German principalities and the Ottoman Empire were part of shifting alliances with one or the other throughout this period. Only once, in a short period between 1802 and 1804, were France and Britain not directly at war.
So, where to begin…
First, the two sided nature of the conflict in the early years. From the beginning until at least 1808, Napoleon was unstoppable when two armies faced off against each other. Using the reformed military structure of the republic, where the army was organized into self-contained corps and divisions lead by highly capable generals, but all under the strategic and tactical genius of Napoleon and his staff. When facing off against the armies of the other powers that had not changed since Marlborough was fighting in Europe almost 100 years before, as well as using outdated tactics that played right into Napoleon’s hands, meant that wherever Napoleon went, he was victorious.
On the other side, Britain controlled the seas. The Royal Navy was unmatched even before this conflict, with only France as its closest rival. The Revolution, however, decimated the French Navy’s officer corps, as the nobles who were the highest officers in the navy all fled from the terror of the guillotine and Revolutionary justice. Without his most able officers, Napoleon’s navy was confined to port, while the Royal Navy was able to not only protect England (after all, as one admiral told the House of Lords: "I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea") they were able to disrupt French trade with the outside world, as well as interfere in the peripheries of the French Empire at will. The British never had to rely on a large army (after all, British gold paid the other continental powers to fight for them!), but where this small, highly trained force was sent it won, usually because they were facing generals other than Napoleon.
So, as time and time again has proven, such as in the Seven Years War in the 1700s, as well as the World Wars, when a land power, and a naval power fight, the land power usually has the shorter end of the deal, while the naval power, usually the United Kingdom, has the advantage of both time and resources. The land power must either try to take the British on their own watery turf, or starve and force them into submission. Napoleon tried both routes: the first case resulted in the disastrous Battle of Trafalgar (which is the basis for my own Napoleonic Timeline), which prevented the French navy from ever affecting the course of the war, and then the Continental System, where all British trade with Europe would be banned. This was partially successful, but it ended up hurting the French more than the British. After all, as the premier industrial power in the world, British goods were cheaper than anything the French could produce, not to mention that other goods could only be gotten outside of Europe and not reproduced in any other way.
The second, and perhaps more important factor, was the onset of “Victory Disease.” After Austerlitz in December 1805, Napoleon was feeling almost invincible. After all, wherever he went, he won. This lead to his decision to invade Spain in 1808, nominally to get at Portugal for breaking the Continental System, but then to solidify France’s domination over Western Europe. However, this lead to an expensive sideshow, where more and more French troops were sent to Spain, while the hardy peasants, with British guns and money, were able to mount a successful guerrilla war, while Arthur Wellesley, soon to be of Waterloo fame, lead a British army to bolster the Spanish.
However, Spain was nothing compared to what the ill-fated decision to invade Russia meant. Again, the Continental System, and Russia’s continued noncompliance, convinced Napoleon that he must invade the massive nation. What was supposed to be a quick invasion: capture the main towns, destroy the Russian army, and make the Czar see sense, turned into a bloody slog, to end up barely seeing the army they were to defeat, and then arriving in Moscow to find the city in flames. Forced to retreat by the same route they came, which had been stripped of food an resources, Napoleon at last arrived back in Poland, where he started, with less than 100,000 of the massive 600,000 men force he set out with.
So, as usual when making an alternate history, the point of divergence is the first point. So, let’s take a look at a couple of the more well-known ones: Trafalgar and the invasion of Russia.
Trafalgar is a popular POD (and the one I use for French Trafalgar, British Waterloo) because that was the point in which the Royal Navy was truly the ruler of the waves. For over a hundred years after, not one other nation could rival Britain and its navy. With this, they were able to colonize and control a quarter of the world and a quarter of the world’s population. So, what if Trafalgar went another way? And how?
Well, despite what many think, Trafalgar would have meant very little. For one thing, even if the French did defeat the fleet under Horatio Nelson, there were more powerful squadrons in home waters, and that would mean that another fleet, say Admiral Cornwallis blockading the Brest Fleet, would have been able to destroy the French fleet. But, let’s continue on the Alternate History path, and say that Admiral Villeneuve and the French-Spanish combined fleet was able to defeat both Nelson and Cornwallis. Then what? Well, most would say, Napoleon would try to invade England.
Unfortunately, they would be wrong. Just a few days before, Napoleon won one of his greatest battles, at Ulm, which is in Austria, half a continent away. The army that Napoleon had assembled for the invasion of the island was turned East as Austria and Russia were assembling a force to attack, so the greater threat had to be dealt with.
But, again, let’s play the Alternate History Game. The Royal Navy is defeated, and the army is ready to invade Southern England. Chalk up another victory for Napoleon!
And then an even worse defeat than in Russia. I shall explain.
First of all, the fleets under Nelson and Cornwallis are not the only ships England has. They have dozens more of the powerful ships of the line, all they have to do is be gathered together. So, England is invaded, the powerful French army is destroying all in its way, because Napoleon will do that. However, the Royal Navy should be able to regain its strength, and sail down the channel, blowing every French ship they can see out of the water. Napoleon would be trapped in England, and, barring an escape like he pulled off when the Royal Navy blockaded his army in Egypt in 1799, Napoleon and his army will be captured. Napoleon’s Waterloo would occur 10 years earlier, and when he was still at the height of his tactical genius.
Even if Napoleon did escape and make it back to France, Russia and Austria are still assembling an army. With most of his best troops trapped in England, what kind of an army can Napoleon bring together? Well, it will be like the army he assembled in Waterloo: a few veterans that were sent home, and a National Guard (more like a hastily trained reserve than the National Guard of the United States is today). He might be able to get some victories, but not the decisive, crushing victories he’s known for.
The more likely outcome, and the one I went with, is that Britain at last throws in the towel. After all, it’s getting expensive to fight all these battles, and propping up ineffectual allies. And, if Napoleon can challenge the Royal Navy, then what good is there spending money on this? England will agree to peace terms, and then Austria, Prussia and Russia will be alone. However, this will not mean sudden peace. This will just mean that the rest of the 19th Century will be a continuous series of wars like the 18th Century before. However, given time, Napoleon will be able to build a new colonial empire, and industry to rival Britain. In just the few years Napoleon led France, they made an enormous leap forward in industry, and I can foresee this continuing when the attention of the Empire is not on fighting for its life and expansion.
So, with Trafalgar taken care of, the invasion of Russia in 1812 is the next most popular Napoleonic Wars. However, to say that Napoleon decides not to invade Russia will be a stretch. The main reason is Napoleon’s personality. He was a vengeful man, much like Hitler would be 140 years later. The slightest insult to him, and by extension, his empire, will be met with overwhelming force. Haiti, which broke away from France after King Louis XVI lost his head, was invaded in 1803 to disaster, and later Prussia faced this in 1806, Spain and Portugal in 1808, and then Russia in 1812. However, the one thing Napoleon did not take into account during these invasions was that they were unlike Western and Central Europe. There, if you defeat the army and occupy the capital, they will give up, as Prussia and Austria did. In Russia, as well as Spain, the capital wasn't as important, and the army could retreat and not have to face the powerful French army. So, with French forces pushing both to capture the capital and destroy the army, they were not prepared for a longer campaign, the problem that many people who invade Russia face.
So, what can be done? Well, perhaps an adviser suggests that, instead of invasion, maybe Russia be added to the Continental System as well, and have their goods and resources blocked from being sold in Europe. Since Russia is still developing from their feudal society, this will affect them strongly. Without being able to buy the materials from England or France, both because of Napoleon and blockade, I could see the Czar either actively opposing France, being defeated time and time again whenever an army is assembled, or bowing to French pressure. However, the first course seems more plausible, but, eventually, they will have to give up. Britain can try all it wants, but they will be unable to provide much assistance to Russia.
All in all, perhaps the most important thing about Napoleonic era Alternate Histories is how much influence Napoleon himself had. No man in that time was able to excite and terrify the people of Europe any more than he was. A conqueror, a law giver and an idol, Napoleon Bonaparte perhaps goes to show how one man can change the world. His tactics and triumphs continue to be studied as the epitome of maneuver and battle, and the law code he established is the basis for most of modern Europe’s legal system. Having brought France to the point of continental domination, Napoleon is seen as a hero and a villain: the man who brought the golden light of the French Revolution to the subjected people of Europe, and as a tyrant who destroyed liberty. Which is right? I’m not sure. However, there is no denying that, 200 years after his disastrous retreat through Russia, Napoleon still holds a place in the history books that will not be erased anytime soon.
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Tyler Bugg, who goes by “Tbguy1992” on the Internet, is an aspiring writer, a history student, gamer, and Canadian. You try to figure out what he likes best. His first published work, “Enigma to Paradox” will be in the upcoming short story anthology, Substitution Cipher, available December 18.