The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts by Jem Duducu
With the Battle of Waterloo being in the news at the moment, there is renewed interest by the media in these wars that lasted about a quarter of a century. Media coverage of on the likes of Napoleon and the battles is remarkably apt because during the actual era the media giants of the time (the newspapers) were waging their own propaganda war. The Napoleonic Wars however were not the first to use the medium of print for propaganda purposes – The Times, for example, started in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, was not above bias. But this particular era of conflict excelled at printing scurrilous opinions and defamatory cartoons. The leaders of the age knew the power of the press. As Napoleon once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
However, it wasn’t just opinion pieces that influenced; imagery was often more powerful and lingered longer. Napoleon understood this, and became known for self-aggrandisement. The famous painting of him crossing the Alps (painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805), for example, shows a strongly idealised view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps.
Napoleon also made sure his coronation as emperor was immortalised in oil paintings, and both he and his wife, Josephine, commissioned regal portraits of themselves in their splendid imperial robes. While Napoleon didn’t plan his own tomb, it continued the themes of power and supremacy – this time with Napoleon as an Adonis; a god among men. Brilliant general he assuredly was, but physically Napoleon was a little on the pudgy side, and had a crooked nose.
Napoleon had the twin advantages of being both a general and an absolute ruler; he was able to dictate and control the French press. Britain did not provide its monarchs and leaders with the same benefits; it had a freer press, and parliamentary democracy meant magazines could draw witheringly satirical cartoons of friend and foe alike.
For example, Napoleon’s nickname, ‘Boney’, was a British invention designed to conjure antipathy. At the time, it was thought that having some meat on your bones was a good thing; therefore, horrible old ‘Boney’ was a wraith to be feared or mocked. ‘Boney’ stood in stark contrast to the famous John Bull cartoon popularised first by British print makers. Bull was the national personification of England; a plump, down-to-earth patriot and beer lover.
Napoleon is often portrayed as compensating for his lack of stature with comically large hats and boots. But to set the record straight, Napoleon wasn’t short. This misunderstanding arose because French measurements were different to British ones, and we now know that Napoleon was a little taller than the average man of his time (although he would probably have looked diminutive standing next to someone like the Duke of Wellington).
The idea that Napoleon was short still exists to this day, all thanks to British propaganda from 200 years ago.