His French spelling was shaky indeed
and his strong Corsican accent marked him as provincial.
Because he pronounced his first name "Napolion", his classmates at school
dubbed him "la-paille-au-nez", "straw nose". He was an average student;
his German teacher even regarded him as stupid. Yet he was a voracious
reader, and the books he devoured did not make easy reading: Corneille,
Montaigne, Montesquieu, Plutarch and Tacitus. Moreover, he had an
astonishing memory and never forgot anything. A single teacher, who must
have been more percipient than the rest, saw in him "granite which a
volcano is heating up". Things were still simmering on the back burner
then. Born on 15 August 1769 in Ajaccio on Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte was
regarded as a taciturn, gloomy and sensitive boy. Accepted as a cadet at
the Paris military academy in 1784, he was commissioned lieutenant only a
year and a half later. Transferred to an artillery regiment, he flirted
with the idea of revolution.
At first a fervent Corsican nationalist, he took part in
a revolt against the French authorities. However in 1793, he broke with
the Corsican nationalist faction and was forced to flee with his family to
the French mainland. Rejoining the army, he sided with Robespierre,
becoming commander of an artillery battalion. Now that his career was well
launched, a short sojourn in prison after Robespierre's fall did nothing
to hinder it. At the age of twenty-six Bonaparte was appointed General of
the Republican Armies in Italy, and was widely admired for his brilliant
tactical skills, his schooled intellect and the leadership qualities he
consistently displayed. Veteran field commanders were furious. A greenhorn
had been promoted over their heads, a young man of small stature with long
unkempt hair. Bonaparte, however, knew where he was heading. In the
campaign against Austria, he won victory after victory in northern Italy.
He grew famous as a "second Alexander" who "strode like a demigod from
battle to battle and victory to victory".
The painter Antoine-Jean Gros captured a scene from that
period: the Battle of Arcola,
a village twenty-four kilometres south-east of Verona. Between 15 and 17
November 1796, Bonaparte defeated reinforcements dispatched to the aid of
the Austrian troops encircled at Mantua. France celebrated him as
"Fortune's favourite in battle". The poet Friedrich Holderlin was
jubilant: "Holy vessels are poets in whom the wine of life, the spirit of
heroes is held. But the spirit of that youth, that quick spirit, must it
not burst the vessel that was to contain it?"
Napoleon kept cool, calm and collected. When an envoy
sent by the Directoire, which was then the French government, sought him
out after the victory at Arcole, he pronounced prophetically: "What 1 have
accomplished here is a mere trifle. I am only at the beginning of my
career. Do you think that I am winning laurels for my lance in Italy
simply for the aggrandisement of the Directoire?" In his own words, he
felt "as if he had been carried off by the winds".