This is my review of Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts.
I embarked on this great slab of a historical biography – 820 pages excluding sources and notes – in an attempt to understand to what extent Napoleon was truly "great", particularly after reading a popular biography of Josephine which seemed to sell him short.
In the course of wading through the mud and slaughter of his interminable military campaigns, I concluded that he was a remarkable man whose greatness stemmed from enormous energy and vision, insatiable curiosity, the capacity to absorb a huge volume of facts, the confidence to take risks in putting ideas into practice, great tactical skill, flexibility and speed in conducting campaigns – when he had a single enemy to contend with and a small enough army to control personally – undeniable courage, a keen sense of self-publicity and understanding of how to motivate men at all levels – this sometimes deserted him – through a mixture of praise, rewards and decisive orders when needed. He was also capable of moments of refreshing candour and regret as to his shortcomings, and possessed a sense of humour and charm which captivated even some of his enemies.
On the downside, his desire to emulate Caesar and Alexander the Great may have led to megalomania, his attention to detail made him a control freak, as Emperor he made himself an unbridled political dictator, although he listened to the opinions of others and adopted a more democratic approach towards the end when he was fatally weakened. His continual exaggeration of enemy losses and playing down of his own may have been judicious PR, but suggests a failure to face up to his frequent squandering of the lives of the men he had inspired to follow him. He was a male chauvinist – although perhaps most men were at the time – and he made some major errors.
The most costly of these was the attempt to fight on two fronts simultaneously – Russia and Spain, and to allow himself to be lured as far as Moscow, over-extending his supply lines and then underestimating the time needed to limp back to France before the onset of winter. The shocking death toll of more than half a million soldiers, and the destruction of his horses made it hard to put up an effective defence with fast-moving cavalry when the extent of his conquests set most of the rest of Europe against him. He picked the wrong issues for stubborn obsessions, such as an unworkable scheme to block trade with Britain with which he annoyed the Tsar by trying to impose it on Russia, or the rejection of fairly reasonable peace terms when his luck had run out.
In an academic yet mainly very readable text, the author fired me with some of his own enthusiasm for Napoleon. I found myself rooting for him and wishing he had desisted from some campaigns to build his reputation as a social reformer – even as a prisoner on Elba, he arranged the provision of fresh water, improvement of roads, irrigation schemes, etcetera. He may of course have been in a cleft stick, in that he had to wage war to avoid being overrun by belligerent neighbours outraged by his assumption of a crown.
I realise that many chapters on military campaigns are unavoidable, and was impressed to learn that the author had clearly tramped many of the sixty main battle sites in person, but I found the information perhaps inevitably too condensed with indigestible lists of names of commanders, companies, details of troop movements, villages and rivers. It is frustrating that maps are not always supplied, and when included, often omit place names mentioned in the text, an indication of location, topography and scale to help one understand the course of events. I did not want to interrupt my reading to go and search for these details elsewhere. It would have been helpful to include more of the factual information in clear tables, charts and timelines – together with better maps- for easier reference.
Overall, this is an impressive work which has increased my understanding and appreciation of a fascinating historical figure.