Wednesday 19 December 2018

Book Review: The Iron Marshal, Gallagher

Having just finished this excellent account of the life of Louis Davout, I feel I have to remark on how surprisingly good so much Napoleonic history is. I'm constantly reading in this vast subject, and frequently encountering an author who's new to me. And, by and large, most of what I read is very good.

John G. Gallagher is such an author, i.e. new to me, and his biography of Louis-Nicolas Davout, The Iron Marshal, is better than merely very good, it is superb. We get the whole story, from his birth into a thoroughly military family of the lesser nobility, through the upheavals of the Revolution, and on into the glory years of the Napoleonic era, finally passing to the restoration of the Bourbons and, not long after that, Davout's decline and death.

Louis-Nicolas Davout, Prince Eckmuhl, Duc d'Auerstedt.

Gallagher perfectly balances all the elements, writing in an easy going yet authoratative manner, with a turn of pace brisk enough to keep the read exciting, and thorough enough to keep it fascinating. Of course the major interest for readers like myself are Davout's great successes, chief of which is Auerstedt. But all his campaigns and battles are adroitly covered. 

After the Russian debacle Napoleon perhaps fails to employ Davout, arguably his most capable lieutenant, to best advantage. Firstly leaving him stranded in Hamburg as the Allies sweep westward, prior to his first abdication. And then choosing to employ him in Paris as Minister of War, during the 100 Days Campaign, when he might've been better employed in the field, and thus perhaps hastening his second and final abdication?.

Vanquished Prussians retreat after Jena-Auerstedt (R. Knotel).

If not universally loved, then certainly greatly and widely respected, Davout emerges as a capable and judicious leader. Not as colourful or ambitious as your Murats or Bernadottes, perhaps, but instead a more devoted and more principled man, less self-interested and more duty-bound, whose belief in discipline and organisation meant troops under his care were second only to the Guard. 

Gallagher's book has proven to be the perfect way for me to learn more about one of Napoleon's most capable commanders. Highly recommended.

Davout in the Kremlin, Moscow, 1812 (V. Vereshchagin).


  1. I didnt realise that they had re issued this book. I always wanted to own a copy as Davout was my favourite of the Marshalite. Looks like I know what I want for a New Years present.Thanks for the review.

    1. Hi Robbie. Great! Glad you enjoyed the review. And yes, definitely a book to own/read. Cheers, Seb