Tuesday 22 September 2015

An Hiatus Hexplained...

Canova's classical style bust of Napoleon, at the BM.

This here blogging malarkey is both addictive and demanding. But sometimes life gets in the way!

I thought I'd better just post something - so as to post anything, really! - rather than let the blog languish altogether. So here are a few odds and ends, incidentally giving a partial explanation of why wargame and figure related business is kind of on hold for the mo'.

At present, as well as my music teaching work (it's the busy period of a new term getting underway), I'm doing some fun freelance illustration for a big name client, and I'm painting a harpsichord lid - see pic below - for my uncle, Terence Charlston, a professional classical musician and educator specialising in baroque era music. It's a totally new departure for me, and has proven to be a great experience: fun and educational (and it even brings in a helpful bob or three!).

The harpsichord lid as it is at present... a ways off finished!

I'm also posting a few pics from our visit to the venerable British Museum, where Teresa and I went to see the superb Bonaparte and the British show, on the day before it finally closed. Seeing two Eagles 'in the flesh' was quite special.

Whilst at the BM we also saw an exhibition of incredible stuff belonging to a collection from the Rothchild family. Check out the inlaid work on this ancient gunstock!

And finally... as a wee kiddie I used to make hordes of little Plasticene figures; in my early teens I even sculpted some really rather woeful Milliput ones. Now, all these years later, I intend at some point soon-ish (time and work allowing!) to have a 'proper' go.

I really enjoy Tom's videos. He's working at a larger scale than I intend to. But I learned a lot from him: thanks Tom!

The videos of American fantasy/sci-fi figure sculptor Tom Mason were educational and inspirational (thank'ee, Mr Mason). And after watching a few of his lessons on YouTube I decided to 'tool up'. The pic below shows my current arsenal of gear, ready to go...

Well, back to work!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Book Review: With The Old Breed - Eugene Sledge

'To me the war was insanity.' Eugene Sledge

I wouldnt be at all surprised if many of those who come to read this book these days, like me, got here via HBO's incredibly powerful and very moving Pacific mini-series.

Eugene 'Sledgehammer' Sledge served with K platoon of the 3rd battalion, 5th Regt. in the U.S.M.C*,  or K/3/5 for short. As a pfc (private first class) he was, as he says himself, 'cannon fodder', and as a member of a 60mm mortar team he saw action as rifleman, gunner, stretcher bearer and runner/carrier. Serving in two extremely ferocious and bloody campaigns, the lesser-known Peleliu and the more famous Okinawa, Sledge sees a lot of action on the front line, and relates what he saw and lived through in a humble and matter of fact manner.

Sledge in the Pacific, during WWII.

The Pacific TV series gets over the visceral impact and constant nervous stress incredibly well, something that books about the same kinds of events rarely manage. This does as good a job as any, but still falls short of the shock and adrenaline the TV production frequently arouses. I guess the differences just reflect the different strengths or propensities of these media. Nevertheless, this is still harrowing stuff.

Sledge went on to become a biology professor, cultivating a love of nature that very occasionally makes itself felt in small observations of his environment even amidst the hell of war. And Sledge, to his enormous credit, is unequivocal in his condemnation of the brutality and inhumanity of war, as when he says, on p. 261, that 'to me the war was insanity.' Shortly after this he reflects on the contrast between war and peacetime civilian life poignantly (p. 268): 'We just wished that people back home could understand how lucky they were and stop complaining about trivial inconveniences.' A recurrent theme.

Post-war. Sledge's wife persuaded him to write about his experiences in the Pacific as a form of therapy, for his  'combat fatigue', or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Further reinforcing the anti-war element of his writing are such passages as the following (p. 311), where, having narrated a grim episode concerning the dispatch of two Japanese officers, Sledge says 'Replete with violence, shock, blood, gore, and suffering, this was the type of incident that should be witnessed by anyone who has any delusions about the glory of war. It was as savage and brutal as though the enemy and we were primitive barbarians rather than civilised men.'

In his 'End Of The Agony' summation Sledge remarks that 'War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it.' He does go on to say that bravery, loyalty and esprit de corps were also factors, and that until 'countries cease trying to enslave others' war will be necessary. But overall one senses that he hopes for a day when we might stop the senseless brutal waste.

Science and the study of nature also helped Sledge stay sane.

I really enjoyed reading both Leckie's and Sledge's accounts of this mind-numbingly ferocious and wasteful conflict, but the more overtly anti-war note and the quiet dignity of Sledge's account give it the edge for me.

Born in 1923, Sledge died in 2001, aged 77, from stomach cancer. After the war he had come to terms with the trauma of killing and seeing his buddies (and enemies) killed by studying nature, both professionally and as a hobby. Ultimately this lead to his becoming a scientist with a doctorate, whose specialist area was helminthology... the study of parasitic worms! At least his hobby of ornithology wasn't quit as grim!

* United States Marine Corps... but I guess most folks reading this will probably already know this!?


In both this edition of Sledge's story, and the equivalent one by Robert Leckie (Helmet For My Pillow), I find it somewhat odd that swearing is taboo: sh*t becomes 'stuff' ('when the stuff hits the fan'), and SNAFU is rendered as 'situation normal all fouled up'! Considering the horror and squalor so vividly described, this nicety seems a little jarring, even bordering on the hypocritical, perhaps? I suspect this was an editorial decision, and doesn't necessarily represent the author's own decisions.

Book Review: Helmet For My Pillow - Robert Leckie

Part of the source material for the superb Pacific, this also makes a great companion to HBO's landmark series.

If you liked HBO's Pacific mini-series, built for the most part around the memoirs of marine corps privates Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, you'll almost certainly enjoy this book. Sledge's book is almost dry in its clarity, and his language spare. Leckie, a professional writer both before and after his WWII service, is more self-consciously 'literary'. Both are, a slightly strange thing, to my mind, assiduously polite: so much horror and suffering but, please, no cuss-words!

Leckie in wartime.

Despite his training, Leckie is a wilful and even sometimes rebellious character, and where Sledge always uses full rank and proper name, Leckie favours nicknames. Such small differences give the two memoirs very different flavours. There are moments where Leckie's self-consciously prosey style seems overdone - to me, at any rate - but sometimes it really works, as when he evokes the paranoid flesh-crawling fears of sitting in a jungle foxhole in the dark of night, his floridly evocative description contrasting with the bald conclusion: 'I know now why men light fires.'

Where Sledge's detached coolness might be said to foreshadow his later vocation of biology professor, Leckie's wilful nature and flighty language might be also said to have the zest and poetry properly becoming a sports writer turned author. It's certainly interesting to see the differing nature of their responses. In the end these differences make the two books excellent complimentary companions: they cover much the same ground but feel different. Leckie took part in Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester and Pelelieu, whereas Sledge saw action at Pelelieu and Okinawa, so their stories overlap, together building a fuller picture of the Pacific theatre.

On TV in 2001, the year of his death.

Whilst I think it should be noted that the visceral impact of the audio-visual experience is very different from reading about the conflict, nevertheless, as with the HBO series, one marvels at the sheer unrelenting horror of it all. It seems to me good that we have such writings from the 'common soldier'. Both Leckie and Sledge profess horror at the waste of war, and shock at the nature of their Japanese foe. Quarter is never asked for nor given, the Japanese cult of Emperor worship combining with what was, at that time, an insular and deeply ingrained patriotism, along with a cult of 'death before dishonour' that makes Europe's medieval knights look positively lily-livered.

Leckie says some interesting things about irrationality and courage: 'How much less forbidding might have been that avenue of death that I was about to cross had there been some wholly irrational shout - like 'Vive l'Empereur,' or 'The Marine Corps Forever!'' And several times throughout the book he laments a lack of contemporary American songs or music that would generate courage and esprit d' corps, all of which makes for an interesting reflection on the workings of the human mind in extremis.

After the war Leckie resumed his journalistic career, embarking on these memoirs in 1951. According to his wife Vera he did so in response to seeing the film adaptation of the Broadway musical South Pacific, saying 'I have to tell the story of how it really was. I have to let people know the war wasn't a musical.' [1] Definitely a good companion to the Pacific series, and nothing if not interesting!


WWII Media: HBO Pacific Tin Box

Powerful, compelling, moving. You thought Band of Brothers was good? This is even better.

Having acquired the Band Of Brothers 'tin box' some years ago, I finally got around to getting this. And boy am I glad I did. Band of Brothers is excellent, but this is - in my view - even better. I've now watched both series numerous times, and will doubtless watch them again in the future.

The series follows the 1st Marine Division into battle in several key actions in the Pacific theatre - Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Chiefly, we follow the action via the experiences of Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge (whose memoirs formed the basis of the series, and which I have reviewed here on this blog). There’s also a smaller thread concerning the fate of gunnery sergeant John Basilone, whose actions at Guadalcanal lead to decoration and adulation, as he's cast as an all-American hero, sent home to raise war-bonds back in the U.S, before returning to combat at Iwo Jima. 

Decorated war hero John Basilone, wearing his Medal of Honor. Sent back to the U.S. to raise war bonds, Basilone starts to feel alienated and out of place, and yearns to return to his buddies, and ... combat.

Jon Seda as Basilone, rushing towards his destiny.

Pretty much all aspects of the campaign - leaving home, time en-route, combat, time behind the lines, home leave, injury and recuperation, etc, - are depicted, and the range of settings and scenarios is complemented by an equally diverse range of atmospheres, ranging from tender romance to brutal combat.

As is so well depicted here, the Pacific theatre could clearly be just as terrifying and intense as the European one: whilst Nazi racial policy in Europe was as extreme as such things can be, particularly on the Ostfront, it was being carried out predominantly against civilians, and with particular virulence in the East.

Obviously there was plenty of horrific brutality, even in the Western European combat theatre as well, but there was also a certain degree of fellow-feeling between some of the ordinary soldiery. I'm making these comments in relation to how both sides of this coin are portrayed in Band of Brothers.

Assault on Peleliu beach pinned down.

But, sadly, the Japanese had their own form of racial extremism, which appears to have run right the way through their military culture, such that not only was the 'death before dishonour' idea pursued  with ferovious intensity by all ranks, but also their contempt for both enemy soldiers and civilians was made frequently and appallingly manifest.

The Japanese fought rabidly, and were infamously brutal to their foes, frequently manifesting the same type of ferocious brutality that made the rape of Nanking so infamous. These traits were pretty common, it seems, amongst all levels of their soldiery, all over this theatre of combat.

The acting and direction, the scene-setting and special effects, the script and the overall arc of the narrative, all are superlatively well done. As well as obvious concern for historical accuracy, and, despite the brutality of the war, a clear intent to be even-handed, all make for a very, very good piece of long-form war-time storytelling. I was absolutely captivated, and riveted - albeit occasionally rather jumpily - to my seat. 

Leckie during the war.

Actor James Badge Dale as Leckie, in the series.

Sledge during the war.

Joseph Mazello, as Sledge.

This is compulsive viewing. I liked it so much I even watched some of the extras, which I don't normally bother with. I've also subsequently read a couple of the memoirs that formed the basis of the action: as with Band of Brothers, the series follows the fortunes of several key protagonists, chiefly Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.It's their memoirs I read, and they are well worth reading, but the reading experience doesn't convey the visceral impact that this series achieves so spectacularly well.*

Truly brilliant watching this. I just wish someone would approach the Napoleonic Wars with a similar budget and seriousness of intent! When I bought this, at Amazon UK, it cost just £15. At this point (having just checked back on Amazon at the time of posting this) it's just £15.99... bargain!

* I'll be posting my short reviews of both books here ASAP).

Sunday 6 September 2015

Book Review: Napoleon In Love - R. F. Delderfield

Love and cherries. The romantic legends of Napoleon in love, as told by a romantic novelist.

Delderfield was primarily a novelist, famed for popular novels such as A Horseman Riding By (actually a trilogy) and God Is An Englishman, some of which were adapted for TV. I first encountered him via a school teacher friend of my father, who, knowing of my interest in things Napoleoninc, lent me his copy of Delderfield's Seven Men of Gascony, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As the latter novels title and subject hints at, Delderfield was also interested in history, and Napoleonic history in particular. In fact obsessed would perhaps be closer to the mark. 

If one compares Delderfield's approach to that of most contemporary authors in this field, his background in poplar fiction marks him out as an 'amateur', amongst a predominantly professional field of academics and military types. Before I read this I'd recently read his The March of the Twenty-six, about Napoleon's Marshals: compare this with, for example, the David Chandler edited Greenhill book, Napoleon's Marshals, and they come across, in some respects, quite differently.

Caroline Colombier, as a sweet young flower.

Napoleon found some cherries, with Caroline Colombier. A mythical imagining of the young Napoleon picking cherries with Caroline Colombier. His get up is perhaps rather an imaginary anachronism, as here he sport his 'emperor at war' outfit.

As an author of fiction Delderfield has a gift for words that makes him eminently readable, but one also wonders if he's not also perhaps somewhat susceptible to the love of colourful anecdote, whereas drybones academic and professional historians might sometimes read more stodgily, but be (one hopes) more concerned with fact than fiction.

This is of course to some degree true, but Delderfield shows himself aware of these issues in numerous places in all his books, as, for example here, when he says, regarding the memoirs of Napoleon's valet Constant that 'one cannot help feeling that he has no scruples about sacrificing the truth for sensational reading.'

Napoleon lost his 'cherry' with a Parisian streetwalker, according to his own accounts of his youth. That's what this pic purports to portray.

Another very interesting point is made in the bibliographical notes, where he quotes another Napoleonic historian, expressing their mistrust of the typical scholarly bibliography. I have to say this rings true for me: if you look at some bibliographies (many, perhaps the majority nowadays) the authors appear to have spent every single waking minute since birth speed-reading the literature on their subject. 

Can they possibly have read so many of the works cited in any other manner other than very cursorily? Or do they have a team of researchers? The latter is true for a lot of the big name authors, especially the TV celebrity types. And the truth is that, for all the armour and titles - which all sounds really rather feudal - of the professionals and scholars, often enough one finds they are as susceptible to myth and propaganda as most others. Comparing The March Of The Twenty-Six with Napoleon's Marshals, despite their differences, shows this to be true.

Desirée Clary, the young woman he was engaged to before marrying Josephine, and upon whom Napoleon based his lover/wife in his unfinished 'novel' Clisson & Eugénie.

Anyway, having addressed issues of pro. vs. amateur, and authority and reliability, etc., what of this book itself?

Well, it's certainly both fun and informative, ranging from Caroline Colombier, Napoleon's first love, via streetwalkers, mistresses and wives, to his final female companions on the lonely isle of St. Helena. And what an amazing life Bonaparte lived, filled with epoch making war, statesmanship and, as here, love and sex. Also, where the vast majority of British writing is blatantly anti-Napoleonic, Delderfield is clearly a Boney-phile. For those who don't know much about this aspect of Bonaparte's incredible life, I won't spoil things by going into any detail, and for those who do know... well, you already know! I will just note that the catchphrase 'Not tonight, Josephine' makes no appearance, despite the author covering the whole subject fairly thoroughly.

Delderfield: a man, if not actually in love with Napoleon, then certainly in love with Napoleonic history!

From a practical perspective the book is well structured, being chronological, and divided in to many short easily digested chapters. As a read it whizzes by, thanks to it being relatively short, those nice brief but plentiful chapters, and the authors enjoyably straightforward yet evocative prose style. As reliable history, despite his own professed awareness of the issues of reliability, Delderfield is both rather partisan and clearly fond of colourful anecdote, although he will often qualify where he thinks stories may be unreliable.

Napoleon the man, and the Napoleonic world, remain endlessly fascinating, as witness the still fecund publishing industry that erupts like a continual Vesuvius of words and opinions, and I can't really pretend to anything approaching professional knowledge on the subject.

Yet my own fairly obsessive interest in this area leads me to think that there has been a sea change in the way it's written about: most modern books tend to focus on more narrow aspects: a particular campaign, or a particular aspect of the era or the man (or other figures, like Wellington, Nelson, The Czar, etc.), whereas in years past treatments were often more holistic, e.g. Sir Walter Scott's many volume epic, recently published in a single abridged volume (The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte).

Scott's work, now available as an abridged single-volume edition.

If I'm not mistaken, very often those older books would include a fair amount of coverage of this aspect of Napoleon's life, whilst most modern books more or less ignore it. Given what one (Adam or Marx even?) might call this 'advanced capitalist' style of specialisation, Delderfield's book is a welcome addition to any Napoleonic library, filling in a once much read and popular area now often left blank in the vast contemporary Napoleonic literature.

Anyway, in the end I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed this, and give it five stars for the pure pleasure of reading it. If I was being fussily academic, I might give it only three or four... but I'm not, so it gets the full five for fun. And besides, even taking into consideration his amateur status as a historian, and his pedigree as a writer of fiction, this remains a good solid informative read, even if clearly written by a fan of Bonaparte with a penchant for colourful anecdote. Whichever way you slice it, I'd heartily recommend this.

Oh, and let's not forget - as French husbands (if national stereotypes have any truth in them) are wont to do - the wives:

Josephine in her coronation garb (Gérard).

Marie-Louise, looking regal and foxy (painted by Borghesi).

Book Review: Napoleons Wars - Esdaile

If warmongering was Napoleon's chief strength, it was also his downfall. If thoroughness is Esdaile's... Well, read on - and read the book of course - and make your own mind up!

I have to confess to finding this book somewhat disappointing. First of all, it doesn't live up to the hype on the cover. Admittedly the reviewers in question - Andrew Roberts and Dominic Sandbrook -  are professional authors/academics. Perhaps that's why they ostensibly find this book more useful and rewarding than many an amateur reader might?

As another reviewer of this book (Mr Hanna, over on the Amazon UK webiste) observes 'International relations, rather than military developments, are the focus of the work'. I suspect this will therefore be more popular with historians than wargamers or military 'buffs'? There were definitely stretches when I read with avid interest, but there were also times when I found myself slogging doggedly on, in an 1812 frame of mind (1812 Russia, that is, not 1812 U.S.), so to speak.

The 1812 slog... Tough going? Cruikshank's terrific Boney Hatching a New Bulletin.

In many respects this is undoubtedly a very good book, Esdaile compiling and synthesizing huge amounts of Napoleonic scholarship and, if we take him at his own word, resolutely following his own line (particularly in asking whether Napoleon's character was a primary cause and motivating force in relation to this age of conflict), nevertheless at times it's the very all-embracing thoroughness of the book that's the problem; casting his net as wide as possible, Esdaile's scale and scope are huge and wide.

Given the emphasis here on diplomacy rather than campaigning this approach renders his account, relative to many others I've read, fragmented and rather dry. However, Esdaile certainly succeeds in compressing a lot of information on numerous more obscure theatres (e.g. the Balkans, the Near East and Ottoman Empire, and the Americas, including the oft-overlooked Caribbean and South America), as well as the more commonly covered Euro-centric stuff, into a single volume.

At times, busy discussing one thing, Esdaile darts off to cover something else, happening around the same time but in another theatre. Sometimes, but not always, the two are clearly related, with developments in one theatre affecting possibilities in another, and the way this bigger picture emerges is amongst the books definite strengths, but this jumping around does also disrupt narrative flow.

Problems of perspective? Gillray's Brobdingnag-ian George contemplates 'Little Boney'. 
For the military buff type reader, there may be issue of perspective in this account.

Another problem arising from Esdaile's lofty overview (Speaking of which, he quotes Napoleon: 'I strike from too great a height.' Fuel for the comedic view of Napoleon's wars as the working out of a height-related inferiority complex?) is the loss of engaging ground level detail, battles for example, frequently becoming no more than names. This book, at least in the edition I have, also differs from many on the Napoleonic era in eschewing maps of battles altogether.

I imagine many readers of Napoleonic history, whether scholarly or just generally interested, relish the details of the often epic campaigns and battles. As Esdaile points out, there's plenty of that kind of material out there already. In preferring to trace the broader arcs of grand politics, he sacrifices this Holy Cow, and I have to say that for this reader the book's the poorer for it.

Gillray's Consular Triumverate. In this book, and despite the title, we're given diplomacy and statecraft rather than battles and campaigns.

It's now standard practice for books such as this to draw heavily on primary sources, and Esdaile is no slouch in this respect. But his protagonists are almost exclusively bigwigs from the upper echelons, with their eyes on posterity. Very little detail comes from the groundlings, or has the simple candour such accounts often have. This is in keeping with his grand overview approach, but it does make for a drier - and sometimes more pompous (Esdaile's sources, that is, not the author) - reading experience.

Personally speaking, I think books like this benefit from broader social representation. A good example of a book that not only manages this, but adds the oft-overlooked voice of womankind is Amanda Foreman's excellent A World on Fire (on the ACW). Okay, that's about a different era/conflict, etc. But nevertheless, it shows how vivid such history can be.

To convey what I'm trying to get at, I hope an artistic analogy won't be deemed too fanciful? Esdaile's book is, perhaps, a little like a Vermeer painting that's missing its central character. The contextual information, the rugs, maps, walls, furniture, etc, is immaculately (if coolly) recorded, but some of the personal detail and human interest, literally and metaphorically (e.g. this can be considered to include details of individual battles as well as details of individual characters) is missing.

Napoleon put in his 'proper' place, and not happy about it!

Possibly admirable (depending on your view of the subject) for putting Napoleon back in his 'proper' contextual place in history, Esdaile is perhaps slightly too bent on debunking the mythic/heroic Napoleon he characterises as the 'bogeyman' of modern Europe. In this he seems to belong to the school of historians, mostly in the Anglo-American tradition, who feel that Napoleon is overly revered.

Rowlandson's take on a German caricature of Napoleon as the Devil's Darling.

Certainly amongst most people I know (including French folk) Napoleon's still seen primarily as a warmongering imperialist despot, and therefore not altogether to be admired! But equally, one has to concede that advancement via merit through the ranks of Napoleon's army, and in the secular French society of his time, was a more common thing than it was in the ranks of Ancien Regime powers, such as England or Austria (read Jack Gill's excellent three volume Thunder On The Danube series to learn how hamstrung Austria was in the 1809 campaign, on account of the dynastic and gentrified modus operandi that hamstrung the command level), and clearly - to my mind at least [1] Napoleon's character cannot be simply written out as an interchangeable cog in the machine of the history of the world at this particular time.

What the 'legitimate' powers of Europe really feared: the 'radical reformer'! As depicted by Cruikshank

The French introduced the levée en masse, to defend the revolution, and Napoleon introduced annual conscription, which ultimately become know as the blood tax. This area of evolving warfare is not simple: the term blood tax tell us how unpopular conscription would become, but one can argue that from the levée en masse onwards, in the parlance of modern Europe, French troops were 'stakeholders', in a potentially more liberal state.

In England we avoided overt conscription, but not from magnanimity, but rather because introducing it might perhaps have fomented the kind of rebellion and change in the social order that the nobs here dreaded, especially having seen what'd happened in France. Against all this Esdaile quite rightly points out that, ultimately, 'Boney was a warrior' (as the old song had it), and only by acting collectively did Europe eventually defeat him and end the bloodshed. From this viewpoint Napoleon ends up in the odious company of Hitler, as destroyer of the peace.

This book isn't the fist instance of Hitler and Boney being lumped together. 

Top, Russian WWII propaganda; bottom a British cartoon by Illingworth.

The theme of Napoleonic character analysis, which by the end of the book feels more like character assasination, in seeking to answer a fundamental question at the core of the book - 'Was Napoleonic Europe...proof of the 'great-man' theory of history?' - finds Esdaile in difficult territory. Seemingly irritated by traditions of pro-Napoleonic history and biography, his recurring criticisms of Napoleon eventually sound almost personal!

Rather like Napoleon himself, whose contradictions - 'I have always commanded' and 'I have never really been my own master; I have always been governed by circumstances' - and whose alleged 'ruinous quest for glory' dominate this book, Esdaile tries to have it both ways: Yes Napoleon was a singular man, whose almost primeval force of character shaped events: 'it was the emperor's determination to eschew compromise... that made them [the Napoleonic wars] what they were'. But no, 'the history of Naploeon did not constitute the history of the world, or indeed, even Europe'! Hmm?

Esdaile in action: looks like he's not just a stuffy academic after all, but an active re-enactor as well? Cool! Looking a t bit ECW here, with the sword and whiskers.

Esdaile himself says 'academic historians rarely attract the audience they deserve', and, whilst he succeeds in conveying what he terms the 'pan-European dimension' of these wars, with a locus more centred around Poland and the crumbling Ottoman empire than is normal in Napoleonic histories (indeed, at one point Esdaile states that Russo-Persian altercations, at the time a considered a 'sideshow', may retrospectively be deemed to have 'had greater long-term geopolitical effect than anything that happened in Western Europe'), his book, alas, probably won't change that state of affairs.

The Congress of Vienna, as seen in  French caricature; this book is more about the dances of diplomacy than the battles.

Nothing if not polemic and thought provoking, this is a very informative, well researched, and detailed book, and one can see it potentially occupying a well-earned place in current Napoleonic scholarship. But for the generally intrigued non-specialist reader, Esdaile's very thoroughness and concern with the broader historical picture might make this a bit on the drily academic side.

I read military history (well, history generally, and Napoleonic history in particular) like some people read novels, and my favourites are the books most like a novel in their characterisations and 'plot' momentum, etc. Ideally, one hopes, a history book can have this level vivacity without sacrificing objectivity. Some good examples include Barbero's The Battle and Zamoyski's 1812, but these are admittedly focussed on particular campaigns and battles, whereas Esdaile seeks to tell us about the whole period.

This amazing Gillray cartoon captures well how things eventually turned out: Napoleon, declared 'outside the pale', was hunted down by the crowned monarchs of Europe...

Last of all, there is even something in that most fundamental of things about this book, that I'm beginning to question, the title and the assumptions it suggests. As Andrew Roberts is keen to frequently point out, only the Russian and Spanish campaigns were instigated by Napoleon (and how ironic, given that those were to be the two to hasten his ultimate downfall!). Almost all the others, including the Italian campaigns that raised him to power, were started by the 'legitimate' or Ancien Regime powers, who feared the spreading of Enlightenment values would undermine their rule (as it indeed it would, and has done), usually with England acting as banker. It's real a case of the winner writing history, and using their dominance for propaganda purposes, to say that these were  simply Napoleon's Wars.

... And this, amongst other reasons, is why England constantly bankrolled the coalitions, to conserve the Royal Oak.

My head might give this a four or possibly even a five bicorne review, but my heart would only make it three. Indeed, I'd struggle to go with four, meaning 'I like it': it was too much like hard work. So I'll settle for three and a half bicornes!


[1] I originally read and reviewed this book some years ago. Since then Andrew Roberts' book Napoleon The Great has appeared. He shares my position in respect of this particular aspect of the argument: Napoleon was a great man!

Book Review: March of the Twenty Six - R. F. Delderfield

Informative and fun, if somewhat simple and broad-brushed.

It's not uncommon for reviewers to note that Delderfield is not what most people would call a scholarly author, in the contemporary sense. Personally I don't find that this detracts from the main merits of this short and highly enjoyable book, the chief of which is that it's a rip-snortingly good read. Compared with, for example, the dry as dust Napoleon's Wars this is a book ten-thousand times more likely to promote further interest and reading in Napoleonic history, even if Esdaile's book is more scrupulously comprehensive and scholarly.

Berthier, Napoleon's right hand man.

Delderfield's book is more like the many memoirs of the era itself - colourful, exciting, engaging, full of anecdote (a good one new on me was learning that at one battle, amongst a Cossack force of 20,000 cavalry that attacked Marshal MacDonald, there was a contingent of Bashkirs armed with bows and arrows!), and unabashedly partisan, consequently requiring that it be taken with a generous pinch o' salt/snuff - and in my view is none the worse for it.

Indeed, he reflects on these issues briefly in his postscript 'The Sources Of This Book': 'Some of these memoirs are absorbing, some accurate but dull, some lively but unreliable.' Having just read a fairly large tranche of serious, scholarly Napoleonic material Delderfield's relaxed enthusiasm comes as a welcome dose of flavoursome humanity. Reading this book is like being regaled by a knowledgeable, witty, and avuncular 'buff'; if you're interested in the subject, great fun.

Delderfield is clearly attracted, as are most with an interest in this period, to the colour, excitement, romance, grandeur (and alongside these things, fascinated also by the squalor, terror, and horror, naturally) of monumental struggles on epic scales. Such people and events lend themselves readily to the almost surrealistic exaggerations one sees in the works of contemporary cartoonists like Cruikshank and Gillray.

Murat according to British caricaturist Cruikshank!

Murat, renowned cavalry leader, and 'dandy king', as he himself might've preferred to be viewed!?

Whilst Delderfield doesn't take his portrayals quite that far - he doesn't caricature them quite so brazenly, tho' he gets close - one does sense a simplification and stylisation, which renders the characters of the marshals in broad brush strokes, perhaps like colourful 'commedia dell'arte' type figures, in the stagey drama of Napoleonic Europe. Broers struggles manfully with this in his depiction of bandits-cum-rebels in his book Napoleon's Other War, which only goes to show that not to see these figures in such lights is perhaps to miss some of these reasons we find them interesting in the first place.

Bernadotte: from private soldier to King of Sweden... impressive! Delderfield doesn't like him tho'!

I have deliberately refrained from detailing the lives of the subjects, I'd recommend reading this and the David Chandler helmed Napoleon's Marshals for more info (after which books on the individuals might be the next port of call). But I will say - as Andrew Roberts also effusively noets in his recent TV series on Napoleon - that the energetic release of talent in the Napoleonic meritocracy was an amazing moment: that the second son of a barrel-cooper could rise so high and so fast (Ney), or that another young man could go from private soldier to the founder of a hereditary monarchy still sitting on the Swedish throne (Bernadotte) is surely remarkable, and not unworthy of our interest?

So, yes, do by all means read such more in-depth scholarly works on the marshals as are out there. But read this as well. It's well-written, comprehensive - it's an enjoyable overview of Napoleon's life and campaigns as much as the story of the marshals - and most of all, it's fun.

Marshal Ney, Prince of Moscow, Bravest of the Brave, etc.


Astute observers might note that three marshals I've chosen to illustrate here with portraits - i.e. all burn Bernadotte - came to rather sad ends: Berthier in what might've been suicide (or was he pushed out for that window?), and Murat and Ney in front of firing squads.

Murat, according to the memoirs of his wife - and Napoleon's sister - Caroline, saying 'Soldats! Faites votre devoir! Droit au cœur mais épargnez le visage. Feu!' or 'Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!'

Ney was executed in, and indeed was the 'star' victim of, what is known as the 'White Terror', or the meting out of Royalist revenge on regaining power. He to was allowed to give hisn own executioners the order to fire (famously refusing a blindfold). After all the fuss Royalists made about the murder of the Duc d'Enghien - a central plank in the 'black legend' that they used to defame Napoleon - this is surely an example of nakedly crass hypocrisy!?

A very poignant painting, Gérôme's 1868 work La Mort du Maréchal Ney.