Sunday 6 September 2015

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!


  1. I was thinking for a moment there that Esdaile had finally contributed a tome worth reading, one which highlighted how Napoleon was out-manoeuvred diplomatically again and again. Instead it seems that he continues to churn out his biased 'histories' and, as you point out, character assassinations. He makes Correlli Barnett seem like a veritable cheer-leader.
    As you note, the revolution firstly and then N's existence challenged the status quo of the divine right and the 'club' teamed together to put a stop to that.
    I don't think that you ae suggesting that Esdaile lowers himself to the Napoleon and Hitler analogies are you? Any attempt to find similarities between Hitler and Napoleon demonstrate a person's lack of understanding of the character, achievements and cultural and religious sensitivities of the latter.
    The English propaganda of the day continues amongst 21st C writers, ho hum...

  2. Thanks for the feedback James. Funnily enough I recently acquired Corelli Barnett's Bonaparte at a used book store.

    I can't recall now if Esdaile actually mentions Hitler and Napoleon in the same breath*. I think he may do, which is why I mention it. I think he says something like what I say, about the two sharing the trait of being 'disturbers of the European peace', rather than saying that they were otherwise alike.

    But yes, it's oddly dispiriting how long prejudices can simply sit, apparently unexamined. I was shocked and saddened by the misrepresentation of Siborne at the NAM. I think some wargamers - including me of course, I would want both the fun, the work, and the 'glory' - ought to get together and re-do the 'large model', as originally envisioned by Siborne. The quality of the figures at the approximate scale he used (6mm-ish? ... altho' his were closer to 5mm, I think?) is so much better now, and we could have all those Prussians back on the 'table' where they should indeed have been!

    * This is one of those books I read some years ago now!