In the new movie, Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott; we see Napoleon personally leading his men into battle during the siege of Toulon (as a captain), the battle of Borodino (as the Emperor), the battle of Waterloo (as the Emperor); how historically realistic is it?

I understand as a young, ambitious captain, Napoleon would personally lead his men into battle, but as the Emperor, especially somewhat obese and short, leading his men into battles would pose a major risk to himself and to the French army morale, letting alone he needed to observe from distance in order to get a real-time progress as well as giving tactical and strategical orders.

  • 1
    Made me chortle: screenrant.com/… Nov 24, 2023 at 2:01
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    Napoleon was not short. He was of standard size (for the time period). the legend of his size is a mix of England propaganda, and the fact that his imperial guards were 'giants' with big hats, so he looks short relatively.
    – dna
    Nov 24, 2023 at 11:59
  • @dna - The idea that he wasn't short is modern French propaganda.
    – Valorum
    Nov 24, 2023 at 21:41
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    According to french/british sources (shared with that answer on history.se), Napoleon was of an average height. He was around 1.67m / 1.68m (and not more), and probably slightly above the 1800's man 1.64m average. When he died, the british people in charge of supervising his burial recorded a height of around 1.70 (a measure believed to be made quickly and in order for a coffin to fit the body, so, a little over the real size of the emperor). British propaganda made him look small, mocking him and picturing him like a dwarf, which he wasn't.
    – OldPadawan
    Nov 25, 2023 at 6:25

1 Answer 1


There are many examples of Commanders In Chief leading their men/troups and being wounded/killed. Only in the Napoleonian era, think Murat, Caulaincourt, Lannes, Bessières, Poniatowski, Oudinot... In a least 2 battles (that I remember of) did Napoléon physically lead his troups and fight the ennemy, being wounded: Toulon and Arcole. There are historical evidence of that, be it in french, english or austrian words.

Arcole: "In the meantime, the general in chief, informed of the state of affairs, had already advanced halfway himself: he was informed of the irreparable losses that had just been suffered, the obstinacy of the enemy, the discouragement of our soldiers. The fight had begun, it was necessary to win or perish, and he took a course worthy of his glory. We suddenly see him appear on the dike, surrounded by his staff and followed by his guides, he dismounts, draws his saber, takes a flag and rushes onto the bridge in the middle of a rain of fire . The soldiers see him and none of them imitate him." From: Marcel Reinhard, Avec Bonaparte en Italie, d'après les lettres inédites de son aide de camp Joseph Sulkowski, Hachette, 1946, Paris (chapitre 7, page 178) 1

Toulon: "Dugommier, Lapoype and Bonaparte agreed to launch a general assault on the night of December 16-17. On the 16th, around midnight, the assault was made against Little Gibraltar. The melee lasted all night, Bonaparte was injured by a blow to the thigh from a British sergeant." 2

At that time, many many CIC were wounded/killed, as they were leaders, and they had to show great courage in order to motivate their men. They needed to be at the heart of the battles. For historical information (and some little accuracy/backup), here are numbers regarding deaths of Generals during Napoléon's campaigns. 275 out of 349 deaths were directly attributed to battles. From Les décès des généraux de la Grande Armée imputables à la Campagne de Russie:

"There were 349 deaths of generals between 1800 and 1815, of which 275 were directly attributable to the campaigns, or nearly 80%. The number of generals engaged during this period being 1,545, the death rate is 18%, a value higher than that observed for the Russian campaign: with a little less than 15% of generals deceased, it is therefore not not the deadliest." 3

1. "En attendant, le général en chef, instruit de l'état des affaires, s'était déjà avancé lui-même à moitié chemin : on lui apprend les pertes irréparables qu'on vient de faire, l'obstination de l'ennemi, le découragement de nos soldats. Le combat était engagé, il fallait vaincre ou périr, et il prend un parti digne de sa gloire. Nous le voyons tout à coup paraître sur la digue, entouré de son état-major et suivi de ses guides, il descend de cheval, tire son sabre, prend un drapeau et s'élance sur le pont au milieu d'une pluie de feu. Les soldats le voient et aucun d'eux ne l’imite".

2. "Dugommier, Lapoype et Bonaparte conviennent de lancer un assaut général dans la nuit du 16 au 17 décembre. Le 16, vers minuit, l'assaut est donné contre le Petit Gibraltar. Le corps à corps dure toute la nuit, Bonaparte y est blessé d'un coup d'esponton à la cuisse par un sergent britannique." Siege de Toulon

3. "On compte 349 décès de généraux intervenus de 1800 à 1815, dont 275 sont directement imputables aux campagnes, soit près de 80 %. Le nombre de généraux engagés pendant cette période étant de 1 545, le taux de décès est de 18 %, valeur supérieure à celle constatée pour la campagne de Russie : avec un peu moins de 15 % de généraux décédés celle-ci n’est donc pas la plus meurtrière."

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