An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: Napoleon

As an aid to students, teachers and parents, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. We’ve shared bite size introductions to historical figures, events and periods – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. N is for Napoleon.



E. H. GombrichNear Italy there is an island, mountainous, sunny and poor, called Corsica. On that island there lived a lawyer, together with his wife and their eight children. His name was Buonaparte. At the time when his second son, Napoleon, was born, in 1769, the island had just been sold to France by the Genoese. This did not go down well with the Corsicans and there were many battles with the French governors.

‘I already knew instinctively that my will could triumph over the will of others, and that anything I wanted could be mine.’

The young Napoleon was to become an officer, so his father sent him, at the age of ten, to a military school in France. He was poor – his father could barely support him, and this made him withdrawn and unhappy and he didn’t play with his fellow students. ‘I sought out a corner of the school,’ he was to say later, ‘where I could sit and dream to my heart’s content. When my companions tried to take over my corner, I defended it with all my might. I already knew instinctively that my will could triumph over the will of others, and that anything I wanted could be mine.’

He learnt a lot and had a wonderful memory. At seventeen he became a second lieutenant in the French army, and it was there that he was given the nickname ‘the little corporal’, because he was so short. He almost starved. He read widely and missed nothing. When the Revolution broke out three years later in 1789, Corsica wanted to free itself from French rule. Napoleon returned home to fight the French. But he was soon back in Paris, for, as he wrote in a letter at the time, ‘only in Paris can one do anything.’ He was right. In Paris he did succeed in doing something. It so happened that one of Napoleon’s fellow countrymen was serving as a senior officer in an army sent by the revolutionaries to crush resistance in the provincial town of Toulon. He took the twenty-five-year-old lieutenant with him, and didn’t regret it. Napoleon gave such sound advice, on where to place the cannons and where to aim them, that the city was quickly taken. For this he was made a general.

In 1796 Napoleon was given command of a small army sent to Italy to spread the ideas of the French Revolution. Within a few weeks of the start of the campaign he was able to write in a letter of command to his troops: ‘Soldiers! In fourteen days you have won six victories, captured twenty-one banners and fifty-five pieces of cannon. You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, marched great distances without boots, slept in the open without brandy and often without bread. I rejoice that each of you, upon returning home, will be able to say with pride: I too was of that army that conquered Italy!’ And, true to his words, it wasn’t long before his army had conquered the whole of northern Italy and made it a republic along the lines of France or Belgium.

Then he turned north towards Austria, because the emperor had attacked him in Italy. He demanded that the emperor cede to France all the parts of Germany that lay to the west of the Rhine. After that he returned to Paris. But in Paris there was nothing for him to do. So Napoleon took an army to Egypt. Like Alexander the Great, he wanted to conquer the whole of the Orient. He defeated the Egyptian armies in a great battle beside the pyramids in 1798, and on other occasions too, for no one was better than he at fighting battles on dry land.

When plague broke out among his troops and news came that the government in Paris was in disarray, Napoleon abandoned his soldiers and secretly took ship for France. There he received a hero’s welcome. Everyone hoped that the famous general would prove as capable at home as he had been in hostile lands. Encouraged by their support, in 1799 he boldly turned his guns on the seat of government in Paris. His grenadiers threw the elected representatives of the people out of the council chambers, and he assumed supreme command. Following the example of ancient Rome, he proclaimed himself consul.

He was idolized by his soldiers and all of France worshipped him because he had brought the country glory and conquests. They made him consul for life. But this still did not satisfy Napoleon. In 1804 he proclaimed himself emperor. Emperor of the French!

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Free Resources to Learn More about Napoleon

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use:

BBC History
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

BBC Napoleon: The Man and the Myths
5 episodes – Andrew Roberts

BBC In Our Time
Napoleon and Wellington
Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
A Napoleon Bonaparte biography, with interesting facts and a quiz, for younger students

Khan Academy
Napoleon and the War of the Fourth Coalition (video)

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.

A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

Following in the footsteps of E. H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller A Little History of the World, the books in our Little Histories series explore the history of the world’s most remarkable people, events and ideas. With engaging personal insights, our authors will take you on a whistle-stop journey from ancient times to the present – exploring all of life’s big subjects from archaeology to science. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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