Jack of All Trades -- providing amusingly incorrect history since the year 2000
Let’s face it; everyone knows that Napoleon wasn’t exactly at towering example of height. One might even say he had a Napoleon complex because of his short stature.
I mean, just look at this contemporary 1850 image of him:
James Gillray: The Plumb-Pudding in Danger;–or–State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper, 1805
Metropolitan Museum of Art
It’s not like the British, his mortal enemy, would make stuff up about him, right?
Part of the issue of Napoleon’s height is plain and simple misunderstanding. At his death, Napoleon was measured to be 5 feet 2 inches tall. But this was 5’ 2” in the French feet and inches of the day – the pied-du-roi foot and the pouce inch, which was not the same as the contemporary British Imperial (and current American) foot and inch.
It’s hard to explain two things with the same name, but the problem becomes easier when you think of it in centimeters. The inches that Napoleon was measured in were 2.7 centimeters per inch. The inches that the British of the time and that are used now in the US are 2.54 centimeters per inch. (There is a fantastic website on French measurements HERE if you’re curious).
The end effect is that the 5’ 2” Napoleon stood in French measurements would be somewhere between 5’ 6” and 5’ 7” in modern American feet and inches. (For you metric folk, he was about 1.67 meters tall). Which means his height was about the same, if not a smidge taller, than average height for a man living in France when he was alive.
That explains why when one looks at French paintings of Napoleon, instead of British caricatures, he’s the same height as everyone else.
Antoine-Jean Gros: Napoleon at the Jaffa Plague House, 1804
“But!” You may protest, “One of his nicknames was Le Petit Caporal! Petit means little, so he had to be short!”
Languages don’t often translate with a 1:1 ratio for word meanings. Petit can be translated to mean “little,” but it’s also used as a term of endearment. Much like how petit ami means “boyfriend” instead of “male friend who is little,” Le Petit Caporal didn’t mean “The Short Corporal” – it means something closer to “The Dear Corporal.” Napoleon was hugely popular with his troops, many of his military technological advancements greatly improved troop living conditions -- he standardized cannonball sizes, ensured pay and retirement packages for soldiers, among other things that made military life more bearable.
While today he’s remembered for his loss at Waterloo and that little issue with trying to wage war on Russia during winter (never a good idea. Ever.), it’s important to remember that the reasons those losses are so remembered is because for the most part he was one of the most successful generals in history. His soldiers practically worshiped him – he was their “Dear Corporal” who -- unlike other contemporary generals -- ate the same rations they did and who mucked though the same mud with them.