Napoleon’s victory at Arcola. Here Napoleon, flag in hand, yet again led his troops across a bridge in the face of the enemy.
Napoleon and his Passage of the Po and the resultant battle of Lodi, whose bridge was stormed by Napoleon on May 10th 1796 earning him his title ‘the little corporal’. Here we see Napoleon’s use for the first time of his strategy of the ‘manoeuvre sur les derrieres.’
By this time, moreover, Napoleon had become much more than a simple general. Very early on in the campaign, success in battle, the devotion of his troops, and a growing sense of his own power convinced him that he was a man of destiny. After the battle of Lodi – a relatively small action fought on 10 May 1796 in which Napoleon’s forces launched a heroic attack across a narrow bridge defended by large numbers of Austrians – he claimed to have been filled with the sudden realization that ‘I could well become . . . a decisive actor in our political scene’. At the same time, French failures elsewhere – to which his own victories provided a vivid contrast – reinforced his importance to the Directory, and thus his political independence. Stimulated by the need to provide his small army with a secure base for its operations, not to mention a desire to play to the gallery and discredit his more pragmatic superiors, Napoleon therefore deliberately encouraged republican feeling, the result being the formation of, first, the temporary Cispadane and Transpadane Republics in October 1796 (which eight months later were united with still more territory as the Milan-based Cisalpine Republic) and then the Genoa-based Ligurian Republic in June 1797. With the initiative firmly in his hands, Napoleon was also effectively left to offer the Austrians peace terms of his own making, these finally being agreed in the Treaty of Campo Formio of 17 October 1797.
Though badly defeated militarily, Austria did remarkably well out of this settlement, gaining the bishopric of Salzburg and large parts of the old Venetian Republic, which was partitioned between her, the Cisalpine Republic and France (who took the Ionian islands). Indeed, Vienna’s only loss other than Lombardy – the chief basis of the Cisalpine Republic – and such territories as she controlled on the left bank of the Rhine, was the Austrian Netherlands. Furthermore, the pill was sweetened by two important promises. First, Austria was to receive compensation in Germany, and second, Prussia was to be excluded from this settlement (to accommodate this position, Napoleon unilaterally renounced France’s claim to all Prussia’s Rhenish territories). Characteristically, however, Napoleon’s magnanimity was the fruit of calculation: knowing that his rivals Hoche and Moreau were on the brink of a fresh invasion of Germany, the future emperor was desperate to stop the war before they stole some of his glory. As he told the Italian nobleman Miot de Melito in the summer of 1797, ‘If I leave the signing of peace treaties to another man, he would be placed higher in public opinion than I am by my victories.’ Still worse, Campo Formio ran directly counter to the Directory’s policy in Italy, which had been to use any territory gained there only as a bargaining tool that could be exchanged for Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine (the latter of which it failed to secure).
Campo Formio was not the only evidence of Napoleon’s independence. Without telling Paris, for example, he approached the defeated Piedmontese with the offer of a military alliance in an attempt to swell his forces. And, in respect of Rome, whereas the Directory wanted a punitive peace settlement that would have seen the abolition of the Inquisition and the nullification of all the bulls the Church had issued anathematizing the Revolution, Napoleon chose rather to impose a more moderate treaty that cost the papacy much territory and a large indemnity but allowed it to keep most of its ideological pretensions. As for the clergy, while paying lip-service to Paris’s rampant anti-clericalism, Napoleon flattered the local bishops and refrained from persecuting the many French priests who had fled to northern Italy. But in the face of this behaviour those members of the Directory who recognized the danger – and it should be remembered not all of them did so – were helpless. In May 1796, for example, an attempt to divide the Army of Italy into two separate forces was scotched by the threat of resignation, while in November a general dispatched by Carnot to force Napoleon to make an armistice with the Austrians was dealt with by the rather more subtle method of co-opting the officer concerned. Back in France, meanwhile, the Corsican general enjoyed a prominence that was hitherto unprecedented. Writing of his journey to take up his post with the Army of Italy, for example, Lavallette remarked:
I heard the name of Bonaparte everywhere as I went along; each day brought the name of a victory. His letters to the government, his proclamation worded in such lofty style and with such remarkable eloquence, went to everyone’s heads. The whole of France shared the enthusiasm of the army for so much glory . . . The names of Montenotte, of Milesimo, of Lodi, Milan, Castiglione, were repeatedly mentioned with a noble pride, together with those of Jemappes, of Fleurus and of Valmy.
To quote Madame de Staël, ‘In Paris General Bonaparte was being spoken of a great deal: the superiority of his spirit . . . and his talents as a commander had given his name an importance superior to that acquired by any other individual since the start of the Revolution.’ And last but not least, the tutor of Napoleon’s new step-daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, was positively gushing: ‘Did you know that your mother was going to unite her fortune with that of so extraordinary a man? What talents! What valour! Every instant a fresh conquest.’
All this admiration was in large part a creation of Napoleon himself. Whether he really did suddenly have a vision of himself as ruler of France after the battle of Lodi will never be known, but what is clear is that from very early on in the campaign he threw himself into the task of winning the favour of public opinion. One plank in this policy was to appear a model of civic virtue. ‘Bonaparte, who still wears the woollen epaulettes of his first years of military life, preserves up to this time the outward garb of modesty both in his utterances and his habiliments; ’tis in the name of liberty he issues his proclamations.’ Another was to placate the Directory with loot. This ploy operated at two levels. In the first place, Paris’s increasingly desperate need for money was assuaged by the imposition of a variety of fines and levies that had by the end of
1796 alone netted well over 45 million francs in cash and another 12 million in terms of plate and jewels. And, in the second, the Revolution’s cultural pretensions were flattered by the dispatch of large numbers of pictures, statues and other artistic treasures. Finally, there was also the issue of propaganda. For the first time the young general found himself in a position in which he could manipulate his public image: hence the famous painting he commissioned in the wake of the battle of Arcola with its suggestion of both conquering hero and man of the future, and hence, too, his establishing of no fewer than three newspapers whose sole task it was to sing his praises.
If propaganda was important, so also was man-management. No sooner had he been appointed to the Italian command, than Napoleon surrounded himself with a band of officers who could be relied upon as talented and trusted henchmen. Among these men were Jean Andoche Junot and Auguste Marmont, who had both met Napoleon at Toulon and later shared the lean months of 1795 with him; another Toulon veteran named Charles Leclerc, who was in June 1797 picked out as a suitable husband for Napoleon’s sister, Pauline; Guillaume Brune, a brigade commander who had distinguished himself in the Vendémiaire affair; Jean-Baptiste Bessières, a Gascon cavalryman recommended to him by Joachim Murat; and lastly Murat himself, the officer responsible for bringing up the guns that had actually fired the ‘whiff of grapeshot’. To this group were added many of the existing commanders of the Army of Italy – Berthier, Augereau, Masséna, Lannes, Sérurier – whose initial resentment and suspicion of the ‘political’ general sent to lead them was overcome by a mixture of cajolery, bribery and sheer force of character. Following the example of Napoleon himself, who beyond doubt became a rich man as a result of his victories, the generals were also permitted to feather their own nests: both Masséna and Augereau developed a particular reputation for rapaciousness, while Marmont was seemingly reproved for not having taken full advantage of the opportunities open to him.
But building up the Army of Italy as a powerbase was not just a question of packing it with his friends or winning the loyalty of a few leading officers. As comes over from the memoirs of General Thiébault, the net was cast much wider.
Bonaparte . . . did his utmost to appeal in every possible way to the imagination of his soldiers. His phrases, no less fortunate, than full of meaning, were repeated with enthusiasm; his familiarities gave rise to many anecdotes . . . Promotions were showered upon the army, plenty prevailed in it, and he took infinite pains to be every man’s pride and hope. But all this seemed insufficient for him, and he employed ridicule to amuse his soldiers, while making them despise their enemy. Thus . . . the barracks and cantonments were flooded with a squib, comically imagined and wittily composed. The soldiers read it and repeated it with shouts of laughter. It contained the humble remonstrance of the grenadiers of the Army of Italy to the high, mighty and invincible Emperor of Austria, who was designated by any number of absurd titles and epithets. It began by thanking him for the young volunteers whom he had been so kind as to send from Vienna, and by asking him for more, while complaining that the pantaloons he gave his soldiers were too scanty and the cloaks too short . . . that the soldiers never had any money in their pockets, and that none of them had a watch . . . It was only mess-room chaff, but the soldiers found it excellent, and that was what was wanted.
Clever though his use of humour was, the real key to Napoleon’s success was logistics. Sadly, the famous proclamation that he issued to the Army of Italy when he took command on the eve of the campaign is now generally recognized to be a later fabrication. At the same time outright marauding was forbidden, albeit more because it was a threat to military efficiency and discipline than because it was reprehensible in itself (not that this did much to reduce the problem). Yet it is clear that the promises supposedly made by Napoleon to his men were honoured: the soldiers were quite literally fed, clothed and, most importantly, paid from their conquests. Directly or indirectly, the loyalty of the soldiers was won through an appeal to their self-interest whereas hitherto the language used in proclamations and battlefield harangues had been very much that of patriotism and civic virtue. On top of all this, they were constantly flattered as men who had over and over again triumphed against all odds, not to mention men whom their general was counting on in person. Given that Napoleon also took care to appear to share their dangers, whether it was by aiming a battery of cannon under enemy fire at Lodi or taking part in an assault on a crucial bridge at Arcola, there emerged the makings of the strong bond between Napoleon and his soldiers that was to sustain the French army right through to 1815. By the middle of 1797, in fact, the Army of Italy no longer served France but Napoleon, who in consequence felt safe to employ the most ambiguous bombast: ‘Mountains separate us from France, but were it necessary to uphold the constitution, to defend liberty, to protect the government and the Republicans, then you would cross them with the speed of an eagle.’
Through a combination of brilliant generalship and his skill as a leader of men, Napoleon had acquired a position of extraordinary power in the French body politic. As hostilities with Austria drew to a close this was confirmed in dramatic fashion. In the spring of 1797 the government suffered a severe defeat in partial general elections. What all this meant in political terms is very complicated, but it certainly did not portend, as many lives of Napoleon have claimed, a major threat to the Republic. Assisted by British patronage, a number of committed royalists were active in France and their propaganda activities may well have done something to increase the scale of the government’s defeat. But, the activities of a minority of extremists notwithstanding, royalism as such was not a problem. Very few royalists were outright absolutists, and the election result was above all the reflection of a growing desire for peace, political reconciliation and social stability. What threatened the Revolution was therefore not restoration but compromise, but for all those who calculated that their best interests lay in a continuation of the war this was quite bad enough. Very soon, then, a coup was being contemplated by the three members of the Directory committed to a continuation of the war, and in this they immediately received the support of both Napoleon and Hoche. One might, indeed, go further here. The radical faction in the Directory were active participants in the drama, certainly, but they were also in no doubt whatsoever as to the line that Napoleon expected them to take. On 14 July he issued a proclamation to his troops, calling on them to make ready to defend the Republic against its internal enemies, while the next day he sent a letter to the Directory threatening to resign unless it took immediate action against the royalists. With their position buttressed by the fortuitous arrival outside the capital of 10,000 men from Hoche’s army who were being transferred to the Channel coast, the radicals needed no further urging. Napoleon’s subordinate, Augereau, was appointed to take command of the garrison of the capital, and on 4 September (18 Fructidor) the axe finally fell. The moderates in the Directory – Carnot and a new appointment named Barthélemy – were arrested and the Assembly purged. Though Napoleon had not acted alone, the message was clear enough: France was ruled by the bayonet. Nor was this an end to it: Hoche had for some time been a sick man, and on 19 September he died at Wetzlar. If the bayonet ruled France it was Napoleon who ruled the bayonet.
If the victor of Lodi, Arcola and Rivoli was starting to develop concrete ambitions on the political front, it was hardly surprising. If the opportunity was there, so too was the experience. As soon as active campaigning ended, Napoleon had installed himself in the sumptuous Mombello palace outside Milan, and here he established what can only be described as a private court. Old friends such as Bourrienne, who had been favoured with appointment as his secretary, found themselves reduced to the role of minions: ‘Here ceased my intercourse with him as equal to equal, companion with companion, and those relations commenced in which I saw him great, powerful and surrounded with homage and glory. I no longer addressed him as formerly; I was too well aware of his personal importance.’ De facto ruler of the Cisalpine Republic, he gave himself the airs of a hereditary prince, such an impression being strengthened by the appearance at his headquarters of not just Josephine, but her children, Eugène and Hortense, his mother and several of his sisters. For a taste of the atmosphere that prevailed, let us turn to Miot de Melito:
I was received by Bonaparte . . . in the midst of a brilliant court rather than the usual army headquarters I had expected. Strict etiquette already reigned around him. Even his aides-de-camp and his officers were no longer received at his table, for he had become fastidious in the choice of guest whom he admitted to it. An invitation was an honour eagerly sought, and obtained only with great difficulty . . . He was in no wise embarrassed . . . by these excessive honours, but received them as though he had been accustomed to them all his life. His reception . . . rooms were constantly filled with a crowd of generals, administrators and the most distinguished gentlemen of Italy, who came to solicit the favour of a momentary glance or the briefest interview. In a word, all bowed before the glory of his victories and the haughtiness of his demeanour. He was no longer the general of a triumphant republic, but a conqueror on his own account.
An important point is hit on here. Like many of his classical heroes, Napoleon found himself, as Miot de Melito remarks, in the role not just of general but of law-maker, for the Cisalpine Republic had to be provided with a constitution and a code of law. To advise him, there came flocking all the leading literati of Lombardy, while like any enlightened absolutist of the century that was about to close, Napoleon patronized the arts and interested himself in agriculture, education and public works. To naked ambition, then, there was added self-delusion: almost overnight, the Corsican adventurer had become in his own eyes the benefactor of humanity.
All this, it is safe to say, turned Napoleon’s head completely. As he remarked, ‘I have tasted supremacy and I can no longer renounce it.’ Meanwhile, his flights of fancy became ever more extreme: ‘What I have done so far is nothing. I am only at the beginning of the course that I must run. Do you think that I am triumphing in Italy merely to . . . found a republic?’ By the middle of 1797, in fact, Napoleon was thinking of seizing control of the French government: he openly spoke of not wanting to leave Italy unless it was to play ‘a role in France resembling the one I have here’, and further remarked, ‘The Parisian lawyers who have been put in charge of the Directory understand nothing of government. They are mean-minded men . . . I very much doubt that we can remain in agreement much longer.’ If the Directors were ‘mean-minded’ they were also utterly corrupt, as, in fact, was much of the civilian administration. A certain caution is needed here: after 18 Brumaire Napoleon had every reason to exaggerate the crimes of his predecessors and his lead has naturally been followed by all those who have sought to propagate his legend, but in the end the Directory will only bear a certain degree of refurbishment: such figures as Barras and Talleyrand really were deeply venal. And this, of course, could only encourage Napoleon. In Bourrienne’s words, ‘He despised the Directory, which he accused of weakness, indecision, extravagance, and a perseverance in a system degrading to the national glory.’
Napoleon would not just rule France, then, but also save her, this dream being strengthened still further by the situation that he found when he finally returned to France early in December 1797 after inaugurating the Congress of Rastatt. The paper money which had been keeping France going since the Revolution had become so worthless that it had had to be suppressed, hard currency was in short supply, and the urban poor were being ravaged by bread prices that were almost as high as those which had brought the crowd on to the streets in 1789. On top of this, while the Directory could hardly avoid giving Napoleon a hero’s welcome, it was clear that beyond its ranks the general enjoyed immense popularity. According to Laure Permon:
However great the vanity of Bonaparte, it cannot but have been satisfied by the manner in which people of every class gathered . . . to greet his return to the fatherland. The populace cried, ‘Long live Bonaparte! Long live the victor of Italy! Long live the peace-maker of Campo Formio!’ The bourgeoisie exclaimed, ‘God keep him! May he save us from the maximum and the directors!’ And the upper classes . . . flocked with enthusiasm to the young man who in one year had gone from the battle of Montenotte to the treaty of Leoben. Faults . . . he may well have committed, but at that moment he was a colossus of glory as great as it was pure !
Also interesting here is Germaine de Staël, who was a witness to the great reception which the Directory arranged for Napoleon in the Luxembourg Palace.
No room would have been big enough to accommodate the crowds that turned up: there were spectators at every window and on every roof. Dressed in Roman costume, the five Directors were placed on a dais at one end of the courtyard, and nearby the members of the two councils, the high courts and the institute. If this spectacle had taken place before the National Assembly had bowed the knee to military despotism on 18 Fructidor, it might have been thought very grand: a fine band was playing patriotic airs, and flags recalling our great victories draped the dais of the Directory. Bonaparte arrived dressed very simply and followed by his aides-de-camp: all of them were taller than the general, but such was the humility of their demeanour that they seemed to be dwarfed by him. As for the elite of France there present, they deluged him with applause: republicans, royalists and everyone alike saw their present and future in terms of the support of his powerful hand.
Predictably enough, all this did little to assuage Napoleon’s contempt for civilian politicians and personal ambition. On the contrary, as Gohier noted:
Far from being satisfied with the solemn reception which he was accorded on his return from Italy . . . Bonaparte saw in the pomp in which it was couched nothing more than the desire of the Directory to parade itself in all its glory . . . To satisfy his vanity, it would have been necessary to allow him to present himself to the people all by himself in a triumphal chariot.
At all events, having returned to Paris, Napoleon lost no time in sounding out a variety of contacts with regard to realizing his ambitions (a process he had in fact embarked upon before he had even left Italy). His initial plan was to get himself elected to the Directory and then seize power in conjunction with one or more of its members prior to rewriting the constitution so as to give much greater weight to the executive power (and with it, needless to say, himself). But in this he was unsuccessful. No one who mattered was willing to throw themselves on his mercy at this point and some of those to whom he turned as old allies, such as Barras, were now increasingly fearful of him. For the time being, then, there was nothing to do but embark on a search for still more glory. Action, in fact, was essential, for, as he remarked, ‘In Paris nothing is remembered for long. If I remain doing nothing . . . I am lost.’ To suggest that this restless energy and ambition now became the only factor in the determination of French policy would be incorrect, but the fact was that Napoleon had already had a massive impact on France’s relations with the rest of Europe and imparted a direction to the international history of the Continent that would otherwise have been lacking. At the beginning of 1796 the Directory had been set on a course that saw it bent on the military defeat of Britain and Austria and their remaining allies, most of which were to be found amongst the minor states of Italy. With Prussia out of the war, Russia little interested in the affairs of Western Europe and Spain on the brink of becoming a French ally, there was every reason to expect that France’s goal – the formal abandonment of the Bourbons and the confirmation of her acquisition of the Rhineland and the left bank of the Rhine – would be achieved through the exhaustion of her enemies alone. Austria was almost bankrupt, and even Britain was finding the demands of the war difficult to bear. Individual members of the Directory may have taken a different line, but no general plan of conquest – or, if it is preferred, liberation – was under consideration. And, when conquests were suddenly showered on Paris (from a totally unexpected direction), the plan was still to use them as bargaining counters that could be exchanged for France’s real aims. What changed all this was Napoleon. By embarking on a course of republicanization in Italy, while at the same time cynically partitioning the neutral Republic of Venice with Austria, he set off a chain reaction. As Vienna could not now be bought off by the return of Lombardy, she would instead have to be offered territory in Germany. But, given the Austrian insistence – acceded to by Napoleon – that Prussia should have no part in these proceedings, France was now risking war with Potsdam. In the event this danger was avoided, for at Rastatt the French delegation demanded the whole of the left bank of the Rhine, which in turn implied giving Prussia her place at the German trough. Yet all this meant was the probability of fresh trouble in Italy, where the Habsburgs resented the loss of Mantua, and were likely to respond to Prussian expansion in Germany with demands for the relevant strip of Lombardy.
For reasons that were not solely the fault of Napoleon, France was now also committed to further expansion. As the Cisalpine Republic now had to be protected, the occupation of Switzerland, or to put it another way, the direct route between Paris and Milan, had become an immediate necessity. All over Italy patriots were in a state of ferment. And in Paris the men associated with the coup of 18 Fructidor were in the first place terrified by the spectre of military intervention, in the second greedy for more gold, and in the third committed to a Jacobinism for whose social aspects they had no enthusiasm whatsoever. Whether it was to satisfy the generals, line their own pockets and those of the bankrupt French treasury, or live up to the radical image conjured up in the defeat of Carnot and the ‘royalists’, there was only one way forward. Within a few months, a new republic had been established in Rome, but all this did was to make some Austrian counterstroke more likely, and all the more so as Vienna’s agreement to territorial change in Germany was certain to strip it of most of its main supporters in the Holy Roman Empire and, by extension, likely to lead it to seek compensation in greater control in Italy. Also gone was the possibility of a compromise settlement with Britain: early in 1797 the British had opened peace negotiations with the Directory, but they had collapsed in the wake of Fructidor, while the radicalism of the next few months persuaded Pitt and his ministers that France was once again in the grip of a criminal regime that was quite beyond the pale. There was now, as the British politician William Windham noted, no probability of ‘any good settlement with France, except by means of civil war aided by war from without’.
It is possible to go too far here. Peace might well have been obtained with Britain in 1797, but it can be argued that, so long as there was no willingness to set aside centuries of Anglo-French rivalry, it would have been inherently unstable. By the same token, meanwhile, limiting France’s ambitions to the Rhine frontier would not necessarily have bought peace in Germany. But that is by-the-by, the fact being that Fructidor and Campo Formio perpetuated the war with Britain, and made a resumption of conflict with Austria much more likely. Thanks in large part to Napoleon, the threat of active opposition also now began to emerge from still another direction. Hitherto Russia had in effect stayed out of the war with France. Though ruled by a monarch who was ferocious in her denunciation of the Revolution and theoretically a member of the First Coalition, she had done nothing: rather than fighting France, what mattered had been consolidating Moscow’s gains in Poland. In 1796, the bellicose and ruthlessly expansionist Catherine II died and was replaced by her son, Paul I, whose reputation as a military martinet cloaked a strong desire for a pacific foreign policy that would allow him to concentrate on domestic reform. In a variety of ways, however, Napoleon’s actions had seriously jeopardized this de facto neutrality. Simply by conquering northern Italy, he had greatly alarmed Catherine, who by had Poland completely under control, and it is highly probable that, had she lived, Russian troops would have been dispatched to the Alps or the Adriatic. From this problem Napoleon was saved by the demise of Catherine, but he continued to dice with the danger, not the least of the risks that he took here being to feign the role of a patron of Polish independence. Although the Directory had for obvious reasons set its face against such a scheme (the formation of some sort of army in exile had, in fact, been advocated on several occasions by Polish refugees who had reached Paris), in 1797 Napoleon recruited a large number of Polish prisoners of war into a special force which was put at the disposal of the Cisalpine Republic. Known as the Polish Auxiliary Legion, this soon became the size of a small division – at its greatest size it might have consisted of some 6,000 men – while, to add insult to injury, it was placed under the command of a hero of the revolt of named Dabrowski. Needless to say, Napoleon was utterly uninterested in liberating Poland – aside from gaining a few more men, his chief interest seems rather to have lain in providing the Cisalpine Republic with a disciplined force of veteran soldiers who could be relied upon to uphold the regime – but that did not stop him from allowing Dabrowski to issue a revolutionary manifesto calling all his fellow countrymen to arms. Moreover, the Legion adopted uniforms of a traditional Polish cut and were guaranteed the right to return to Poland in the event that their countrymen had need of them.
Having upset Russia in one direction, Napoleon now proceeded to do so in another. For a variety of reasons, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean had long been an area of Russian interest. Under the influence of Prince Grigori Potemkin, Catherine II had seriously considered establishing a satellite state in Greece on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. In the end this scheme had not been implemented, but it had not been fully set aside either: for the time being Greece might remain Turkish, but no one was in any doubt that, when the time came to expel the Turks from Europe, it would be Russia that had first claim on the Hellenic world. Napoleon, however, had other ideas. For reasons that are not quite clear, at some point during the Italian campaign the French commander’s eyes turned east. Egypt certainly crossed his mind as his next objective – he raised the idea several times in letters to the Directory – and it was undoubtedly to this end that he suddenly proposed that France should seize Malta. Why, though, should he have decided to take the Ionian islands – the most notable are Corfu, Zante and Cephalonia – as France’s share in the rape of Venice? Like Malta, they were useful naval bases, but, unlike Malta they were also birds in the hand – an important consideration given the need to find an immediate home for the Venetian navy (which Napoleon had been careful to secure for France). At the same time they were useful territories that might be ceded to Constantinople in return for the surrender of Egypt, or, alternatively, employed as a focus for Greek nationalism that might put pressure on the Turks. Then again, their acquisition allowed Napoleon once more to play the liberator, while ensuring that Austria was denied unrestricted access to the Adriatic and guaranteeing France a share in the Ottoman Empire should it be partitioned. Yet another argument, and one advanced by Napoleon himself, was that they were important to France’s trade as stepping stones for the importation of Egyptian cotton. And, finally, they were simply there: presented with the opportunity to bait the Russian bear, the French commander could not resist the opportunity to do so.
Whatever the reason for Napoleon’s actions with regard to the Ionian islands, there is no doubt that they deeply upset Russia. In themselves, however, they were not sufficient to persuade Paul I to go to war. What counted here was the Egyptian campaign of 1798. In some accounts this too has been laid at the door of Napoleon, but in fact this is unfair: the future emperor was not the scheme’s only backer, and in some ways not even its most important one. Nevertheless, the usual pride and ambition played a part. Ordered to take command of preparations for the invasion of Britain favoured by the Directory as its next move in the conflict, early in 1798 Napoleon took one look at the scheme’s prospects and refused point-blank to have anything to do with it, there being no way that he was prepared to risk seeing his reputation lost with all hands in some watery grave in the English Channel; or, for that matter, cool his heels in Calais or Boulogne for the long months that would pass before an invasion could even be attempted. Eager for some sphere of action, at this point he promptly revived the scheme for the invasion of Egypt which he had mentioned the previous summer: ‘An expedition could be made into the Levant which would threaten the commerce of India.’