Friday 9 November 2018

Book Review: Napoleon Victorious, Peter Tsouras

I'm so completely consumed by my new blog, and DIY and home improvement projects, that I'm not getting the time to post here at present, never mind to make models or paint figures. Also, having ground to a halt in volume two of Rory Muir's huge Wellington biog, I feel a little burnt out on my military history reading.

So I've set aside numerous other books I'm part way through reading, from the Wellington volume to such slim paperbacks as Nigel Cawthorne's Turning The Tide (about, as the subtitle says, decisive battles of WWII). The only exception to this is Napoleon Victorious, by Peter Tsouras. It's just so compelling!

Coutelle aloft in L'Entrepenant, during the battle of Fleurus. [1]

This alternative history retells the Campaign of Waterloo with great verve, staying close to many of the real events in many respects, and tweaking things in a (mostly) very believable manner, working its way - I'm about a third through at the time of starting this post - towards the conclusion signalled by the title.

Thus far the major divergences from history as it happened are as follows: Bourmont and his pro-Bourbon subordinates are nabbed before defecting, Berthier doesn't fall out of a Swiss window, but instead resumes his old role, and several key commands are given to different men: Davout will fight, instead of doing admin' in Paris, and Ney is left out in the cold, for example.

A segment of the famous Ferraris map. [2]

This is certainly a fun read. Presented in small dated reports, e.g. '13th June - South of Charleroi', it has a feel that is half history book, half novel. The latter element comes out most in the dramatised tableaux, where we feel more strongly that this is an imagined tale, as opposed to documentary fact. But it's done extremely well, the author clearly knowing his subject intimately.

It's funny, 'cause reading Muir's Wellington books, one is struck by a very traditional English view of events, in which Britain casts herself as the well-judged arbiter of European affairs, helping maintain a 'balance of power', etc, etc. The left/liberal view that Waterloo was an event to be mourned, and that the triumph of the ancien regime factions, backed by Britain as banker more than military power, was a bad/retrograde thing, is openly mocked.

Tsouras. [3]

I've yet to see how the battle itself - referred to here, since the victors get to write the 'official history', not as a Waterloo, but as Mont St Jean - plays out, and what consequences follow. But I have to confess to thoroughly enjoying seeing Napoleon in the ascendant, and some of us, myself included, might feel more than a little frisson of excitement as 'the Enlightenment on horseback' [4] gallops to victory.

So, although I'm a considerable way off finishing this, I would unhesitatingly recommend it.


[1] Coutelle's Corps d'Aerostatiers were deployed at Fleurus and the siege of Mainz, after which the unit fell into neglect, and was later disbanded. Tsouras resurrects them, allowing Napoleon to see 'the other side of the hill', undermining Wellington's formerly effective secretive and protective method of defensive battle.

[2] There are maps, gathered at the front of the book. But they're modern computer-drawn ones, lacking the charm, beauty and evocativeness of the older contemporaneous maps.

[3] It's interesting that it should be an American who should write this story. Many Brits affect a puzzled air over why so many Americans have supported the IRA in the past. But of course many Americans will feel sympathy for those seeking to throw off the yoke of British colonial rule. It's what made America the country, indeed, world super-power, it has become. This was explored in, of all places, Columbo (I recently bought the complete Columbo on DVD!), in an episode stalled The Conspirators.

And that's not to say that simply because Tsouras writes of Napoleon Victorious he himself wanted this as the real historical outcome. He's also written books in which the confederacy wins the ACW, and Germany wins WWII. He may wish these things to have happened, and then again, he may not. It's like Tom Waits has often said, you don't have to be a murderer to enjoy telling murder stories.

[4] I think I first came across this term in Andrew Roberts' Napoleon The Great. Can anyone tell me who originated the expression: was it Roberts? Or was he quoting someone else?

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