Frank McLynn has produced a string of acclaimed biographies and his latest, on Napoleon, has appeared at the same moment as an even bigger book on Bonaparte by Alan Schom. Publishers presumably think there is an eager grand public out there, but academic historians will be less impressed and students may find the volume heavy going.
McLynn aims to provide a "synthesis of existing knowledge". He carefully weighs the conflicting evidence, but advances few new theories of his own. While much space is inevitably devoted to the battlefield, Napoleon's stormy relationships with Josephine and the rest of his family also figure largely. McLynn has some good points to make, exposing the deep flaws, as well as the positive aspects of this great, bad man. Psychological insights are quite properly brought to bear on Napoleon's personality, though the invocation of various "complexes" is sometimes debatable. Sibling rivalry and Napoleon's Corsican origins undoubtedly marked him for life, but to speculate that he was a repressed homosexual because of his liking for female buttocks is rather less helpful.
The political and social history of the period occupies relatively few pages and is seldom treated in more than a perfunctory manner. Having stated that "The famous 'Thermidorean Reaction' (of 1794)... was the end of the French Revolution in all but name", McLynn proceeds to dismiss the Directory, the regime that Napoleon overthrew when he came to power in the celebrated coup d'etat of Brumaire in 1799. Conversely, McLynn underplays some of Bonaparte's great domestic achievements under the Consulate, most notably his settlement of the revolutionary impasse between state and church. And the French people and the French provinces are barely mentioned.
The biographical approach can illuminate an era by exploring the interaction between an outstanding individual and the wider context. McLynn actually quotes Napoleon's remark that "I was never in truth my own master; I was always governed by circumstances". Yet there is little concern for the imperatives of revolutionary war that drove France inexorably towards military dictatorship and ultimate defeat. Indeed, McLynn inverts the relationship, laying the blame for the perpetual warfare at Napoleon's door, at least in Europe where "he himself created the circumstances".
In The Napoleonic Wars, by contrast, David Gates emphasises the impersonal forces which underpinned the international conflict. He begins when Bonaparte was about to become Emperor Napoleon, before tracing the military glories and disasters of the decade that followed. Size clearly does not matter. This book is less than half the length of McLynn's blockbuster, yet it packs a harder punch and captures the excitement of the great Napoleonic adventure with some carefully selected case-studies.
The struggle from 1803-15 was once known as the Great War. It claimed the lives of five million combatants, proportionately as many as those killed between 1914 and 1918. Yet this account is no fife and drum affair; it aims to set "the principal military operations (from Austerlitz to Leipzig) ... in their political, social, economic and cultural framework". It fruitfully examines how society coped with the challenge of total war at the beginning of the 19th century. Gates adopts a primarily chronological approach, but he intercuts his analysis of major campaigns with some thematic chapters, like his brief but stimulating treatment of the naval campaigns, a crucial if frequently neglected aspect of the conflict; Napoleon was unable to "conquer the sea by the power of the land".
The sheer scale and scope of Napoleonic warfare is graphically conveyed. Some 600,000 troops marched to Russia in the Grande Armee of 1812 and almost as many men fought at Leipzig a year later in the largest battle Europe had ever seen. Gates rejects the role of chance in determining the outcome and instead emphasises the importance of resource constraints. Napoleon eventually ran out of manpower and material, not to mention horses. Financial pressures were equally vital, for this was quite literally one of the most taxing wars in history, imposing massive fiscal as well as military burdens. Napoleon's enemies finally matched his achievements in the administrative sphere and it was a revivified old regime rather than newly awakened nationalism which brought him down. Waterloo was an epilogue as much as an epitaph. According to Gates this "close-run thing" was largely irrelevant since the French had no hope of long-term victory.
In 1815 France was significantly reduced in size from the republic Napoleon had inherited at the end of the 18th century. Of course, his remarkable adventure left an enduring imprint not just on the military level, for there were many lasting repercussions in the political realm too. The Napoleonic myth will surely fascinate future generations as much as our own. Indeed, the continuation of the bicentenary down to 2015 threatens to increase the flow of print.
Malcolm Crook is reader in history, Keele University.
The Napoleonic Wars 1803-15
Author - David Gates
ISBN - 0 340 69184 0 and 61447 1
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £ 45.00 and £ 16.99
Pages - 304