Assess time to reorganise his army and had

Assess the view that the ‘Spanish Ulcer’
was the main reason for Napoleon’s downfall.

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The ‘Spanish Ulcer’ is a term used to define a problem that
Napoleon had during his campaign in the Peninsular, known as the ‘Peninsular
War’. It was a problem that he was never able to fully rectify as he was forced
bring more resources to maintain garrisons in Spain. Additionally, Spain’s use
of guerrilla warfare changed warfare dynamics which eroded French Military
prestige. By the end of Napoleon’s rule the war evolved into become a demoralising embarrassing
campaign that gave it
the term ‘Spanish Ulcer’ by Napoleon.


There are four controversial
factors that Historians argue to which led to Napoleon’s downfall. The first
factor is the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ that took place in the Peninsular (Spain and Southern
France), that many Historians adopt is the main cause for his downfall although
they share different viewpoints on the aspects of the Peninsular War. A.
Matthews argued that the Peninsular War was draining France’s resources and his
troops number decreasing. However, their historians such as, D.M.G. Sutherland
argues that Napoleon’ army did not have the time to reorganise his army and had
limited economic means to do so. This links with the next factor on what caused
Napoleon’s downfall as argued by Historians such as Adriana Stiles describing
Napoleon’s misendeavours and his egoism to be the root cause for his downfall
and an “unwillingness to face facts.” Would ultimately lead to his downfall.
D.M.G Sutherland shares the same view that Napoleon’s actions exacerbated the
Peninsular War and would cause his downfall. Furthermore, Charles Esdaille
argues that his refusal to listen to his generalship would lead him to lose the
war in the Peninsular and Russia. On the other hand, there are other factors
that helped cause Napoleon’s downfall although they were not the main reasons
for his downfall. For example, Louis Antoine believed that the continental
system was nothing but fraud and pillage that made more enemies than he already
had. Additionally, the Russia campaign was a significant factor although it helped
cause his downfall. This can be seen because even though losing 500,000 men he
was still able to resurrect his dying army during his 100 days. Historian Jesse
Greenspan argues that it was the beginning of the end for Napoleon, since he
was starting to lose his foothold in Europe.


Napoleon’s downfall was seen as the pinnacle moment in which
an invisible leader was defeated by an inferior coalition that had never have won
against France. At Napoleon’s highest
point of his career he had 680,000 in his army which was when he was invading
Russia. He was able to conquer and maintain his empire in over 3 continents
whilst enforcing his continental system. This large feat of his as you can see,
it was only inevitable for his downfall to occur. His dreams of continuing
France’s dominance over Europe and supplant the British Empire through the use
of the continental system would ultimately come to a bitter end with him being
exiled to Saint Helena for the remainder of his life. Thus, concluding his
downfall. It is difficult to come to a conclusion in when Napoleon’s downfall
occurred. This is because Napoleon had two major defeats that cost him
significant amount of land and soldiers, however he was still the Emperor of
France. This question whether he really did have a downfall during his Russia
campaign for example as he was still fighting the Peninsular War that had not
been concluded yet.


The main reason for Napoleon’s
downfall can be argued to be the ‘Spanish Ulcer’, the actual term was used by
Napoleon himself when discussing the war to his Generals, an interpretation that
he made himself. It can be considered to be the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ because as one
website calls it, ‘Spain was an open wound which crippled the French and that
they were unable to close’1
with resources constantly being spent on the war. It showed that he could not
get rid of it and it kept repeating itself.

This interpretation is reliable in
finding out whether it was the main reason for Napoleon’s downfall because Napoleon
himself called it an ulcer. This account gives us Napoleon’s own view on how
the Peninsular War was going at the time and how he described it. Although it
can be argued that his scope is limited, his opinion could be considered trusted,
he may have gauged his failure through the loss of land or troops which
ultimately is not true. The Peninsular war was only meant to take 2 weeks at
most, instead the wound never closed, he deployed over 200,000 soldiers into
combat. Over 100,000 of them died

When Napoleon was exiled to Saint
Helena he wrote in his memoirs, “That unfortunate war destroyed me; it divided
my forces, multiplied my obligations, undermined my morale. All the
circumstances of my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot.”. This is
conclusive in determining whether or not if the ‘Spanish Ulcer was the main
reason for his downfall because he admits that it was the cause for his defeat.
The source is also reliable as it is written as a memoir, Napoleon is
reminiscing about his past and would have the time to think about what would
ultimately cause his downfall, in this case the “Spanish Ulcer”.


Additionally, Historian A. Matthews
argues that the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was unexpected in terms of the tactics deployed
by both belligerent and aggressor and how Napoleon dealt with the situation. A.
disputes that the ‘constant guerrilla attacks and a lack of decisive victory
sapped French morale, required the maintenance of a force of over 200,000 men
the peninsula which strained French resources and increased the levels of
conscription and taxation at home.’. It is indeed true that Napoleon had
deployed over 200,000 for the campaign, he also intended for the Spanish
campaign to be completed in a matter of weeks although it took over 2 years
with him losing it, this would also be seen in the Russian campaign by staying
during winter.

The interpretation is accurate in
finding a non-biased cause for Napoleon’s downfall as the audience is targeted
for Historians learning about Napoleon and not to form an opinion. However, the
source is considered modern and not contemporary to the time-era therefore
judgements that are made are from secondary sources and not from the men and
woman who had an opinion on the cause for Napoleon’s downfall.


Source: Table

Own Knowledge:


Troops in the campaign

Deaths (Prisoners/Disappeared)























Therefore the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ can be
seen as the main reason for Napoleon’s downfall because


Although there
is another line of argument in what led to Napoleon’s downfall, this being the
actions that he did himself in contributing to his own downfall. This is argued
by D.M.G. Sutherland3
who disputes that Napoleon was ill prepared to start another war by stating
‘France was not in the disputes financially and militarily to start a war in
the Peninsular’. This interpretation can be considered factually correct
because at the time Napoleon was making decision he was unable to fulfil at the
time. For example, he was trying to enforce the continental system and
continuing his campaign in the Peninsular War. The continental system required
a huge number of troops to be stationed at ports and across the border to make
sure that British goods were not imported into the French empire and vice
versa. Furthermore, Napoleon did not have the means financially to carry out
his foreign policies.

Although the
interpretation does not directly blame Napoleon for the actions of his
downfall, it clearly states that France was not economically and militarily for
the actions that Napoleon was so keen in fulfilling. Furthermore, Sutherland’s
area of expertise is on France and the revolution meaning he is able to use
hindsight in determining whether actions taken place by Napoleon were for the
good of France. On top of that, it is an argument that has not been set before
by other Historians meaning it is open to.

interpretation can be shown with the actions that Napoleon took economically,
one of them being the


interpretation could also be reinforced by the repercussions that occurred from
the Peninsular war, being the formation of a brand-new coalition. Previous
coalitions like the fifth-coalition were defeated, or disbanded due to
different political views. Since Napoleon lost the Peninsular war, France was
now open to vulnerability allowing the formation of the ‘Sixth Coalition’ and
‘Seventh Coalition’ with the seven countries being; Great Britain, Russia,
Prussia, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and German states. This is
important in Napoleon’s downfall, because by not being militarily ready it
would lead him to lose the final battle of his career, The Battle for Waterloo.
This can be seen as one of the reasons for his downfall because it would be in
this battle that he would surrender and give all his power back to the
‘Republic of France’ when being exiled. If his actions had been of those that
his ministers had suggested, it could be argued that the Peninsular war could
have ended up in favour of Napoleon and not against him.


Napoleon also
had characteristics that helped lead to his failure, he failed to listen to his
peers, lacked judgement in his later years of rules and was spontaneous like
staying in Russia for too long. Historian Paul W. Schroeder4
agrees that his “incessant obsession with war and the acquisition of land
through conquest” was the reason for his fall. For example, there were no solid
justifications for his actions, other than plunder and pillaging the land in
order to finance France’s weakening economy. This interpretation must be
treated with caution because there are various instances when Napoleon’s
actions have been successful for both himself and France, like the Italian
campaign that gained him a foothold in Europe and financially secured France
for 1-3 years.

interpretation is supported by Arthur Wellsey, Duke of Wellington5
who fought against Napoleon at the Battle for Waterloo. He said that (of
Napoleon) ‘I use to say of him that his presence on the field made the
difference of forty thousand men.’ This could show his behaviour, by thinking
he is worth 40,000 men, he may “appear” invincible but in reality, he was not.
This strength could show the various patterns of behaviour he showed.

Charles Esdaille also mentioned
that ‘his refusal to accept that there were limits to the capacities of his
administration, his army, his subordinates and his own generalship. More simply
still, victory in Spain and Portugal implied a restraint in the rest of Europe
that Napoleon was incapable of delivering.’6
This can be shown with the various appointments and committees that were
created to play an “important role” in debate, “but played no role in actual
decision making. Once he had finished conferring with them, Napoleon governed
alone. His ministers were simply there to oversee the execution of his


In addition,
Napoleon’s actions also resulted in him losing most of the French empire as
shown in the source below. At 1812 Napoleon nearly controlled most of the
European continent except for Great Britain, Austrian Empire and Russia but
after the signing of ‘Congress of Vienna’ that was a treaty in which European
states mutually would stop empires like France taking a stronghold ever again
by forming an alliance.




It can also be viewed that Napoleon
caused his own downfall because he was the sole person responsible for his downfall.
As shown in the primary source below8
by Napoleon, he announced that he would sacrifice his downfall for the enemies
of France and instead give it to his Son Napoleon II.


FRENCHMEN!—In commencing war for maintaining the national

independence, I relied on the union of all efforts, of all wills,

and the concurrence of all the national authorities. I had reason

to hope for success, and I braved all the declarations of the powers

against me. Circumstances appear to me changed. I offer myself a

sacrifice to the hatred of the enemies of France. May they prove

sincere in their declarations, and really have directed them only

against my power. My political life is terminated, and I proclaim

my son under the title of:



This shows that he was unable to convince the authorities
and the union in justifying his actions, therefore it can be deduced that
Napoleon did not have the support of his generals or ministers in the actions
he took part in.


Napoleon’s actions was a significant reason for his
downfall, his egoism and actions were a direct reason for his foothold to
loosen in Europe as shown with the images above. If he had taken the advice of
his generals and ministers like X then his downfall could have either occurred
later or not at all. Also, Napoleon was never in a position to set out his
Empire goals of expansion, his army was ill-equipped with significant number of
casualties. He was also financially unable to finance his army and policies
which showed his weakness and allowed countries time to form a coalition. On
top of this, Napoleon gave up his position as king, there was no revolution and
the battle did not result in him to lose his title as Emperor of France.
Instead he handed down his power to his son, Napoleon II.


The continental
system also helped in Napoleon’s downfall although it played a limited role and
would only result in countries abhorring the French empire more than they
already did. It was a naval blockade that commenced in November 21, 1806 and
wanted to paralyse Great Britain through the destruction of its commerce. It
was used as a tool to intimidate countries and weaken opponents that they felt
threatened from, this being Great Britain. It shows that the continental system
was necessary for success because it would have resorted in Napoleon defeating
Great Britain who were a formidable opponent at the time.


Historian Louis Antoine believed that the continental system did have an impact
on Napoleon’s downfall but not to a great extent. He described it as “was
nothing but a system of fraud and pillage”9.
This is correct, as Napoleon made many enemies through this foreign policy, not
only was he making enemies abroad with Great Britain but the French empire as
well. At the time, France was still recovering from food shortages and coastal
towns such as X
vanished due to not being able to trade with Great Britain. This can be shown
through two decrees that Napoleon introduced to the French empire. The Berlin
Decree stated that the British Isles was in a state of blockade by land and sea
and forbade any communication with them by France on any of its satellites.
Napoleon then introduced a new policy called the Milan Decree that extended the
embargo on British goods on all neutral ships that complied with the new
British demands. The Emperor himself disagrees with the interpretation saying; ‘that
he believed the system would have reduced England if it had lasted another
If this is true Napoleon’s main opponent, Great Britain would have been
defeated meaning that his fall would never have occurred. Although this source
must be taken at face value, Napoleon was an ambitious man who thought very
highly of himself, therefore his conclusion on what could have occurred may
have been different in the enemy’s eyes. Although it must be argued that it was
fraud and pillage as Napoleon never fulfilled his goal of starving Great
Britain therefore it can be seen as fraud and pillage.


Although it must be argued that the
continental system helped occur his downfall, Cornwell stated ‘By March 1807 he
had to authorize special industrial loans from the reserve funds to offset the
crisis that were resulting11.
This can be seen from the loss of profits from overseas trade resulted in less
capital for investment. Some investors moved their money out of trading into
other countries. The lack of business confidence led to the collapse of a
number of banks. This collapse in the financial services would help with
Napoleon’s downfall, money was a motivating “cause”.


Overall the Continental System did help
for Napoleon’s downfall in a limited form, it weakened Napoleon’s foothold
along his entire empire. It allowed several enemies, like Great Britain, a
reason to form coalition which later resulted in the Battle for Waterloo in
which Napoleon lost. It was intended to protect French home industries from
British competition and to provide them with new European markets in the
satellite and annexed states. Instead it forced Napoleon to enforce the
blockade throughout Europe and pushed France into disastrous new conflicts with
Spain and Russia.

The Continental
System was a bold and an unrealistic dream that Napoleon hoped would strengthen
his foothold in Europe. Although it had quite the opposite effect, instead it
helped participate in Napoleon’s downfall to a limited extent and reducing the
foothold he held in Europe. It allowed several former belligerants of France to
form a coalition, one of them being the “Seventh Coalition” which would
ultimately efeat Napoleon in the Battle for Waterloo. The continental system
was intended to protect French home industries from British competition and to
provide them with new European markets in the satellite and annexed states


Finally, the last factor that has
been argued that helped cause Napoleon’s downfall was the Russia. This view is
not adopted by many Historians and therefore is not a main cause for his
downfall. However, Historian Jesse Greenspan said it was the beginning of the
end with the defeat in Russia. Consequently, Jesse is correcting in that it
would lead to Napoleon’s end as his power slipped away. This is because in the
Russian campaign Napoleon lost over 500,000 men. There are many factors for
this, the most important one being the actions Napoleon took when making
military decisions. For example, Napoleon decided to continue the campaign
although winter was coming, going further into Russia with no reinforcements in
hoping to take the capital, Moscow. This backfired with the use of ‘scorched
earth tactics were incredibly important in denying the French army sustenance’12
that David A. Bell described as. Additionally, the desertion was a huge factor
for not winning the war with Palmer, Alexander I saying, ‘down to a complain a
few days later that twenty-nine out of one hundred conscripts on a march to
Rome had deserted at Breglio (now Breil-sur-Roya, on the French side of the
This can help show Napoleon’s downfall because throughout his military
campaigns desertion was very minimal due to their loyalty to Napoleon. The
Russia campaign showed how views had changed about Napoleon and they did not
have faith with him as a leader in winning a battle. However, this can be
argued to be incorrect and that other factors caused the men to desert. with
the source:  Temperatures could be argued
for the desertion therefore Napoleon’s loyalty could still have been intact,
although it must be argued that if they were loyal they would stay to fight. As
shown in the source below temperatures reached to lows of -30 and being
ill-equipped (non-winter clothing) it was not suitable fighting conditions.

Therefore, the Russian campaign was not the main cause for
Napoleon’s downfall although it helped signify Napoleon’s downfall starting to
occur, after this battle Napoleon would soon many battles to come in the
Peninsular that would lead to his downfall. It was the first-time empires had
learnt of Napoleon’s strength weakening.


Historian Alexander thinks that Napoleon did not have enough
men to conduct a major campaign in Russia.

However, Alexander’s interpretation that Napoleon did not
have enough men for the campaign can be seen as incorrect. An interpretation
that could suggest this is. This can be supported by the number of troops that
Napoleon sent in, into Russia


In conclusion, the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ was interconnected
with Napoleon’s own actions that resulted in his downfall. Without Napoleon
deciding to inforce the continental system in Spain he would not have to deal
with the start of his downfall and other factors contributing to it. By
deciding to go into Spain, the domino effect would occur and his power in Europe
would start to slip with him becoming more vulnerable than he had every been at
the start of his reign. Although the other factors must not be neglected for
instance the continental system contributed significantly to his downfall, it
was designed to help protect France but instead did the opposite and made
coalitions be formed that would ultimately lead to his fall in the Peninsula,
The Battle For Waterloo. Additionally the fact that Napoleon went into Russia did
not help with his downfall as he lost over 500,000 men, men that could have
been used to stop his downfall from occurring in the ‘Spanish Ulcer’.

Although Napoleon’s actions was the
root cause for his downfall it only “instigated”


2 Revolution
and Reactions 1789-1849, published 2001





Second to last paragraph,

Lous Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte


Savary, tome v. p. 110

Nap Bio Pg 428

David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare
as We Know It.

‘Palmer, Alexander I p. 202’ – NAP BIO Page 563


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