On this day 229 years ago one of the biggest love stories began its course. But dig deeper and you wonder if it was all that loving after all?

The love affair of Napoleon and Josephine was so explosive their passionate letters have been immortalised in countless books and films — there are said to be more books about Napoleon than any man in history.

But beyond the stories about the French statesman and military leader, his crushing defeat in the battle of Waterloo and his exile to the island of St Helena, it's the legacy of his relationship with his first wife that lingers to this day.

Here's just a tiny sample of the love he lavished on Josephine, taken from his incredibly intense letters to her.

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Josephine, French empress and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Photo / Getty Images
Josephine, French empress and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Photo / Getty Images

"I hope before long to crush you in my arms."

"I shall be alone and far, far away. But you are coming, aren't you? You are going to be here beside me, in my arms, on my breast, on my mouth? Take wing and come, come."

"A kiss on your heart … and one much lower down. Much lower!"

Napoleon and Josephine married 223 years ago on March 9, 1796 and, even though the union didn't last long, his first wife was said to be the only woman he ever truly loved.

A popular myth is that Napoleon's very last word, as he took his final breath on earth, was "Josephine!"

But if their love affair was so great, then why did he so callously dump her just five years after marrying her?

The early flush of love

Josephine was the name Napoleon used to call his first wife, who was born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, the daughter of a minor aristocrat and chronic gambler.

Her family called her Marie, or Rose, but Napoleon wasn't fond of either name, so he renamed her Josephine, which she kept for the rest of her life.

There's a story that, as a young girl growing up in Martinique, France, a fortune teller told her she'd one day be "Queen of France …. more than a Queen." Whether that's true or not, (Josephine was said to be a great story teller) it's impossible to tell. But, for all intents and purposes, the prediction came true.

Josephine was a 32-year-old mother of two when she met 26-year-old Napoleon in 1795 at a society ball hosted by Paul Barras, Napoleon's mentor and the "de facto" Governor of France. Josephine was Paul Barras' mistress at that time.

Josephine had been married at the age of 16 to aristocrat Alexandre de Beauharnais and had a son, Eugene, and a daughter, Hortense.

Josephine Bonaparte was said to be Napoleon's great love, but was she? Photo / Getty Images
Josephine Bonaparte was said to be Napoleon's great love, but was she? Photo / Getty Images

The marriage didn't last and in 1794, when Alexandre was arrested for treason, Josephine was also thrown into prison.

While Alexandre was executed, Josephine managed to escape with her life and became the lover of Paul Barras. But by the time Napoleon and Josephine first locked eyes, Barras had tired of his mistress and was eager to get rid of her. He was keen to find a new lover to take her place, so he encouraged Napoleon to romance Josephine. Not that it took much encouragement, of course. This was the love affair of the century.

Josephine was aware she was on the verge of being replaced, so she was looking for a way to survive French society. Napoleon was little more than an unemployed Corsican officer (just four years later he was ruling France).

He was looking for an older woman because he believed he'd be more accepted in society with a sophisticated lady on his arm. The couple set about seducing each other, completely unaware that they were beginning a love affair set to be one of the most memorable in history.

Marital bliss

Napoleon proposed to Josephine in January 1796, inundating her with intensely romantic love letters from various military posts around the world with the French army.

In his letters, there was plenty of "dirty talk" but Napoleon spent a lot of time chastising his lover for not writing back as often as he'd like.

"How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole."

"Without his Josephine, without the assurance of her love, what is left him upon earth? What can he do?"

By this stage Napoleon was the Emperor of much of Europe. A few days after he married Josephine in a civil wedding service, Napoleon was forced to leave his new bride in Paris while he led a battle against Italians and Austrians.

While their letters are clear evidence that the couple truly loved each other, Josephine was struck with a case of "wandering eye", falling into the arms of other men who took their chance on Josephine while her husband was away fighting battles and conquering foreign lands.

Napoleon Bonaparte in France. Photo / Getty Images
Napoleon Bonaparte in France. Photo / Getty Images

Apparently, Napoleon's staff were well aware of the dalliances Josephine enjoyed with other men and Napoleon also had multiple affairs during their marriage.

One affair was with the wife of a fellow officer when he was in Egypt. The woman, named Pauline, became known as Napoleon's "Cleopatra". Subsequent affairs apparently resulted in at least two illegitimate children.

But Napoleon never doubted his and Josephine's great love for each other, even as he constantly teased her about being slack when it came to replying to his letters.

"I write you, me beloved one, very often, and you write very little. You are wicked and naughty, very naughty, as much as you are fickle. It is unfaithful so to deceive a poor husband, a tender lover!"

"Adieu, adorable Josephine; one of these nights your door will open with a great noise; as a jealous person, and you will find me on your arms."

What was so great about Josephine?

Sandra Gulland is the author of The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. Gulland spent a decade researching her books and believes the history of the Napoleonic era is rife with myth. Yet, there must have been something quite extraordinary about Josephine.

Gulland writes: "Why Josephine? She was a fairly simple woman of great heart. Although intelligent (quite), she was not a great intellect. Her virtues were simple ones: she was an exceptional mother, a good friend, a caring employer, a loving wife. She knew how to be a good hostess.

"But somehow, too, she knew how to be an empress. How does one go about such a thing? There are no "how to" books on the subject, not many classes one can take. Yet she stepped into the role easily and with tremendous grace and humanity."

No doubt there was something incredibly special about her. Why else would Napoleon write letters as though he were a lovesick teen?

"Josephine! Josephine! Remember what I have sometimes said to you: Nature has endowed me with a virile and decisive character. It has built yours out of lace and gossamer. Have you ceased to love me …?"

Meanwhile, it was business as usual for Napoleon.

In 1798 he led an army of 35,000 to conquer Egypt and, in October 1799, he was given the task of heading the government with unlimited powers.

During this time, Napoleon managed to regain French control of Italy after defeating the Austrians, he created the Bank of France, reformed the education system and also reformed the French legal system, establishing new laws known as the Code of Napoleon.

No more babies for Josephine

But what Napoleon desired more than anything was an heir and Josephine failed to provide him either a son or daughter. She'd had at least one miscarriage, but it was soon clear to everyone that she wasn't able to have another child.

Just five years after tying the knot and after penning hundreds of passionate letters to the woman who was supposedly the love of his life, Napoleon broke up with his Josephine. They were said to still love each other but the need for an heir outweighed everything else.

Interesting note: Josephine's daughter from her first marriage, Hortense, later married Napoleon's brother, making her both his stepdaughter and sister-in-law.

In January, 1810, Napoleon arranged for the nullification of his marriage on the grounds that a parish priest hadn't presided over the ceremony. This allowed him to easily get rid of his wife without displeasing the church with an actual divorce.

The two were said to remain on good terms and Napoleon allowed Josephine to hold onto the title of Empress. She moved into a private residence at Malmaison, near Paris, where she was able to keep up her lavish lifestyle, entertaining high society folk who knew she was still connected with her former husband, who continued to pay her bills (Josephine was regularly in debt). But Josephine's life was cut short at the age of 51, when she died of pneumonia, on 29 May 1814.

Napoleon died seven years later as a British prisoner on the island of Saint Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Whether or not his final words or thoughts were about his first true love, we'll never know. Yes, their love was said to be great, but "how great" is debatable when he was willing to give her up after just five years. And yet, after reading one of his letters to Josephine in full, which you can read here, it's difficult to imagine him loving any other person quite as intensely.