Very Short Napoleon

July 16, 2020

A Very Short Introduction
David A. Bell
(Oxford, 2015)
160 p.

The Napoleonic Wars
A Very Short Introduction
Mike Rapport
(Oxford, 2013)
144 p.

I’ve been aware for some time that my knowledge of European history, which is fair to middling through the medieval and early modern periods, and passable to half-decent in the past two centuries, scrapes to a low ebb in the eighteenth century. What better way to set about plugging this gap than by learning about the man who bestrode the age like a short colossus? So, at least, was my reasoning, and so I’d been on the hunt, in a general way, for a good biography of Napoleon.

The trouble is that though biographies of Napoleon are plentiful, they are also bountiful: readers can choose from volumes of 600 pages, 800 pages, 1000 pages, and 2000 pages. I needed something briefer. Then, gently and sweetly, these two books came into view, and I seized on them.


David A. Bell gives a very nice potted history of Napoleon’s life and legacy. Beginning from his childhood in Corsica, he relates his startling rise to prominence in the years immediately following the French Revolution.

Napoleon’s early genius was in military affairs: he had apparently boundless energy, fierce determination to win, and a rare talent for crafting and executing complex and effective military tactics. At age twenty-six this ability had already made him a French general; by age twenty-nine he was one of the most powerful men in Europe. “That little bugger scares me,” was the assessment of one of his commanders. He fought in Austria, Italy, and then, casting about, in Egypt, which he intended to turn into a French colony.

Things became more complicated as his star rose. He was an adept at cultivating a public image, and the people of France fell in love with him, but the presiding powers, both in France and in neighbouring nations, were harder to convince. And Napoleon himself began to change as his power waxed: “I am the French Revolution” was his claim on the way up, but, as is well known, in time he came to embrace the trappings of power, assumed at least some of the signs and privileges of the aristocracy, and declared himself Emperor. Many have seen this as a betrayal of the principles he originally espoused, understandably, though Bell cautions that at least some of the showmanship may have been a calculated effort to cultivate better relationships with the monarchs who surrounded France.

So long as Napoleon kept moving, expanding, and fighting, he seemed unstoppable, but it was less clear what he could or would do if peace should come. He made plans to invade England, but a few tussles and it was clear that he could not compete with the British navy. (Hurrah for Jack Aubrey!) Eventually, and famously, he amassed an army of 650000 men and plunged eastward toward Moscow in the summer of 1812. But it was a long march, and time passed, and winter came early, and his army was destroyed as they tried to get home; I was shocked to learn that only 85000 men returned from this campaign.

His downfall, which came in the years shortly after this disaster, would have been nearly as swift as his rise but for a surprising coda. On April 20, 1814 he bid farewell to his remaining army and was taken to the isle of Elba. It is unclear to me if he was a prisoner at this point, or merely in exile. In any case, a year later he did the unexpected: left Elba and landed unannounced in France. The people rallied to him, the army rallied to him, and he entered Paris in triumph once again. It didn’t last long — just one hundred days — but it showed the tenacious hold he still had on the hearts of his countrymen. Imprisoned on St Helena, he lived the last years of his life quietly and died in 1821, aged 51.


His was obviously an exceptionally interesting, and even dazzling, life. He marked French politics and culture in ways that endure. A couple of specific points stood out to me.

Bell stresses that Napoleon pushed European warfare toward a model of “total war”; no longer would armies fight it out neatly on a battlefield, but whole nations mobilized to fight one another. In this way he was able to amass huge armies, the likes of which had never been seen before. The size of his army helped him to win battles, but also affected his tactics in a regrettable way, for in later years he was willing to sacrifice many lives in mass charges at the enemy, an approach to warfare that would return, on a massive scale, in the First World War.

Second, I was forcefully struck by the authoritarian streak in his consolidation of political power. He folded up almost all of the free press in France, replacing them with papers dedicated to praising him. He commissioned artists to create works praising him. He created a sophisticated network of domestic surveillance, and established an agency that read people’s mail. He knocked foreign dignitaries off their chairs and put his family members in their places. All in all, he cut an unbecoming figure of boastful self-aggrandizement and obvious nepotism. The contemporary politician whom I was most reminded of was Trump, and that was something I did not expect. In fact, in these respects Trump is not nearly so bad.

While acknowledging his authoritarian tendencies, it would be unjust to the man to equate him with the murderous dictators of the twentieth century. He built no gulags and had no systematic policies to execute his opponents. Yet it is certainly true that a great many people — a great many — died as a result of his ambitions. These military affairs are well covered by Mike Rapport in his little volume on the Napoleonic Wars. Rapport sets the stage for these conflicts, describing the powder-keg that existed in the international tensions between France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia (principally) before Napoleon came to power, and relating how he ignited it. He doesn’t go into much detail about the tactical course of individual conflicts, but he does do a very nice job of describing what it was like to be a soldier or sailor or civilian impacted by these wars, how nations recruited soldiers (and the lengths to which people would go to avoid conscription), and, finally, how the Napoleonic wars changed European, and world, politics. I found the book a helpful adjunct to the potted biography.

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