Young Napoleon

There has perhaps not been a modern military commander superior to Napoleon Bonaparte. As a general from 1796 to 1799, First Consul from 1799 to 1804, and Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815, Napoleon defeated nine nations, some more than once, expanding the First French Empire from approx. 670 thousand km² to 2.1 million km² at its height in 1812. Such an awe-inspiring feat was only made possible by Napoleon's superb campaign management, culminating in brilliant victories on the field of battle. These are the top 5 battles that the Little Corporal personally won.


Napoleon at Arcole

5. Battle of Arcole, November 1796, vs Jozsef Alvinczi (Austria)

 The Battle of Arcole in Northern Italy was one of the decisive French victories of the War of the First Coallition and certainly the highlight of a young Napoleon's first command, that of the Army of Italy. His latest attack having recently been checked at the Battle of Caldiero by Alvinczi's forces, Napoleon decided to  attack again a few days later. Alvinczi's army was attempting to relieve the siege of the city of Mantua, where thousands of Austrian soldiers were trapped. If this relief (the third Austrian attempt to do so in the war) were successful, French hopes in Italy were almost certainly doomed. Napoleon's assault was a last-ditch attempt to turn the left flank of the Austrian army by crossing the Adige River and capturing the bridge town of Arcole.  

Map of the Battle of ArcoleCredit:

 At dawn on 15 November the first French soldiers reached the crossing point. A pontoon bridge was quickly constructed and Augereau's division crossed, heading towards Arcole. Massena's division crossed second and turned north to cover Augereau's flank, advancing on Belfiore. While Augereau's men met with heavy resistance at Arcole and the attack stalled completely, Massena's division defeated the Austrians at Bionde and threw them back past Belfiore. Napoleon then ordered men across the Alpone River to attack Arcole from the other bank of the river; by evening they had cleared the town of it's defenders.

However the day was not yet won. Fearing a counter-attack, Napoleon withdrew his men from Arcole and fortified his bridgehead over the Adige. At dawn on 16 November the Austrian attack was repulsed by Massena around Belfiore. Multiple French attempts to recapture Arcole failed and again in the evening Napoleon withdrew his men to his bridgehead. The third day, 17 November, saw a renewed French offense towards Arcole on both banks of the Alpone while Massena again held of the Austrians at Belfiore. After some desperate fighting, the French clawed their way into Arcole by the end of the day, threatening Alvinczi's line of retreat to the east and thereby winning the battle.

Napoleon exhibited immense personal bravery during the fighting, at one point he grabbed a flag some 55 paces from the Arcole bridge and stood in the open, encouraging his troops to attack. The victory he secured at the Battle of Arcole was crucial part of the Austrian defeat in Northern Italy and of the wider French victory in the War of the First Coallition. 


Battle of Jena-Auerstedt

4. Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, October 1806, vs Frederick William III (Prussia)

 The Battles of Jena and Auerstedt, fought west of the Saale River in Germany, were the two engagements that cealed French victory over Prussia during the War of the Fourth Coallition. While Jena-Auerstedt remains an important victory for Napoleon, it is 4th on this list because his victory at Jena is overshadowed by Marshal Davout's far more impressive triumph at Auerstedt, to the north. While 50 thousand soldiers under Napoleon defeated 40 thousand Prussians at Jena, Davout's 27 thousand strong III Corp routed the main Prussian force of 55 thousand men under Frederick William III. Despite being within earshot of the fighting in Auerstedt and within marching distance of Jena, Bernadotte's I Corp did not come to the aid of either Napoleon or Davout, much to the Emperor's fury; the Marshal was almost dismissed on the spot.

Napoleon encountered Prince Hohenlohe's force near Jena at 6 a.m. on the morning of 14 October. Taking the initiative, the Emperor began his attack despite dense fog. An impulsive assault by Marshal Ney almost spelled disaster for the French Army, leaving the center weak as Napoleon ordered Marshal Lannes to rescue the surrounded Ney. However Napoleon demonstrated his superbly flexible generalship, ordering Imperial Guard units held in reserve to fill the gap in the French center. By early afternoon Marshal Lannes had saved the situation and Napoleon ordered an attack all down the line, breaking the Prussian flanks and forcing Hohenlohe to withdraw, winning the battle.

Map of Jena-Auerstedt

Meanwhile to the north of Jena, by 7 a.m. Davout's III Corp had come into contact with the main body of Prussian forces around the town of Auerstedt. By 10 a.m. the major Prussian attack against Davout's positions had failed utterly and had left two vital Prussian commanders badly wounded. The French counter-attack at 11 a.m. broke the force of Frederick William III and forced it to withdraw. Though Napoleon initially did not believe that Davout's single corps had defeated the majority of the Prussian army unassisted (the Emperor even quipped "Tell your marshal he is seeing double", a reference to Davout's poor eyesight), when he realised the truth he did not reserve any praise.  

Murat at Jena

Though Napoleon had been completely unaware of the main action developing at Auerstedt, his deployment of the Imperial Guard at the pivotal moment at Jena makes this one of his greatest victories. It is also a testimony to the brilliance of Napoleon's corps system and the excellent generalship of his marshals that this dual battle was won without the need for many orders from the Emperor himself. The French victory at Jena-Auerstedt (which dealt 30 thousand casualties to the Prussians and half as many to the Grande Armée) and subsequent mop-up victories at the Battles of Halle, Prenzlau, and Lubeck virtually eliminated Prussia's army, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the First French Empire until 1812. Napoleon could now turn his attention toward knocking Russia out of the Fourth Coalition, which he would accomplish at Friedland, the #2 battle on this list.


for part 2, please see


for another Napoleonic feat, please see