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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Napoleon's Wars - Charles Esdaile

Just a few words about a book which I have recently finished reading...



Many books about the Napoleonic Wars cover the familiar ground, with an often narrow, stereotyped view of the geopolitical and ideological aspects, and endless recounting of the famous battles.  Napoleon's Wars is slightly different, in that it devotes substantial attention and space to less obvious episodes and sub-plots.

The author dispels myths and challenges well-worn assumptions about some of the events of that epoch, particularly relating to supposed "popular uprisings" and the issue of Britain's financial assistance to some of the other combatant nations.

Also, this book focuses on less publicized areas of conflict in the Napoleonic era, such as parts of the Mediterranean and The Balkans.  Not only does this add extra interest and variety, but these episodes were in many ways microcosms of the dynamics and trends which were characteristic of the struggle as a whole.

It is also heartening to note that this book is largely devoid of much of the mythologizing about Napoleon which is all too evident in many histories and biographies.  Whilst recognizing Bonaparte's qualities as a military commander, and his charisma and appeal to the French people, it also takes him to task for his intransigence and delusions at various junctures.  Repeatedly, we see highlighted opportunities for Napoleon to have consolidated gains, and secured strategic advantage, which were then ignored or squandered due to the emperor's excessive ambition.

Some of the rhetoric and idealism emanating from Napoleon, often harking back to the French Revolution, sounds more and more hollow and fanciful as the story progresses. Whilst he did indeed espouse and uphold some genuinely noble principles, the overall conclusion which I harboured at the end of the book was decidedly ambiguous.

Not that other rulers and statesmen emerge from the tale with much credit.  The British establishment of the early 19th century comes across as very reactionary, even allowing for its disquiet about the French military threat. The helplessness and impotence of Austria and Prussia for much of the time is also palpable. Much of the narrative concerns itself with the scheming and agonizing of Tsar Alexander I, a fascinating and complex figure.

This book may not be a conventionally comprehensive and "definitive" chronicle of the Napoleonic Wars, but it is both challenging and evocative.  Well worth a read.

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