How England and ego sank le petit caporal

Napoleon's Wars
November 9, 2007

Charles Esdaile's The Peninsular War (2002) comprehensively revised our understanding of a Napoleonic campaign. His new book lifts the focus to the conflict that would define total war for a century. He places Napoleon at the centre of the state system, the key figure in a vast, Shakespearian tragedy of ambition, glory, hubris and fall. Napoleon made things happen, and these were "his" wars. Even today Napoleon divides opinion - for some the titanic figure who inspired Beethoven, for others the monster whose judicial murder of the Duc d'Enghien caused the dedication of the Third Symphony to be struck out.

Napoleon's contradictions dominate every page, his character and policies are skilfully analysed, and the judgments always remain comfortably on the fluid side of certainty. The complex, multifaceted and contradictory Napoleon and his place in history will be debated for as long as history is read - at once the greatest general of the French Revolution and the man who overthrew the Republican cause: a patriot whose ambitions left France bled white, bankrupt and humiliated. For Esdaile, Napoleon was a driven man: he dreamt of conquering the world, of emulating Alexander.

For all his military gifts and administrative power, Napoleon lacked the balance, moderation and basic humanity to be a great ruler. Obsessed with his own destiny and the political need for military glory, he simply refused to compromise and saw no reason to accept the rules of the system. Treaties were violated with contempt. The sensitivities of great powers and their rulers were trampled in the dust with a frequency that spoke of deliberation. Hubris finally caught up with Napoleon in Russia, but it was not the winter that defeated him, just blind ambition and a refusal to compromise. Even in 1813 he had the chance to save his empire, but he gambled it all on another battle, and another, until his marshals abandoned him.

If nature, nurture, experience and a voracious reading habit helped to make the man, his slight, spare physique should not be overlooked. Le petit caporal stood a mere 5ft 2in, tiny even by the standards of the day.

For all the drama and the heroics this is a study of war as a political instrument, rather than how battles were fought. The fighting at Trafalgar, Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig and Waterloo is succinctly assessed and skilfully placed in context, not subjected to a grand narrative. The focus is on Napoleon the emperor, not Napoleon the general.

Esdaile's perceptive treatment of the men and nations at the heart of the story and his sympathetic handling of Britain's off-and-on allies - Russia, Austria and Prussia, Spain and Portugal, Ottoman Turkey and Sweden - is an important corrective to much Anglophone scholarship. He reflects the Central European focus of Paul Schroeder's magnificent The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 , which is extensively cited.

While the limits of British military power are laid bare, this Viennese perspective undervalues the strategic and economic impact of naval power. If Britain could not defeat the Napoleonic Empire single-handed, its support proved critical when the tide turned. Spain, Portugal, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden all looked to Britain for cash and weapons.

When Napoleon finally departed the stage, by now a stout and sickly shadow of his former self, we are told that he surrendered to the British at Rochfort. In fact he surrendered on board HMS Bellerophon , a battleship that fought at the Nile and Trafalgar. "If it had not been for you English," he confessed to Captain Maitland, "I should have been Emperor of the East. But wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way."

Ultimately Napoleon failed to emulate Alexander, and the world was a better place for that.

Esdaile assesses the latest scholarship with expertise and insight while keeping his scholarly apparatus to a commendable 50 pages. The book is written in a lucid and engaging style that keeps the pages turning. Napoleon's Wars will be a standard text for students and general readers for years to come.

Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history, King's College, London. He is working on a study of British strategy between Waterloo and the First World War.

Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815

Author - Charles Esdaile
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 656
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 9780713997156

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