Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Napoleonic Hat Trick: Three Basic Readings on the Life and Career of Napoleon Bonaparte, Europe’s Greatest Soldier

Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography by Vincent Cronin

The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier by David G. Chandler

A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars prepared by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito and Colonel John Robert Elting

I recently finished reading Vincent Cronin’s Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography and realized that having done so, I now had the answer to a common question of what should you read if you don’t know anything about Napoleon. This biography in combination with the two other works listed above would provide the reader with a basic knowledge of who Napoleon was, what he tried to accomplish in his political and military careers (and personal life), and why in the end he failed.

Published in the early 1970s, I long resisted reading Vincent Cronin's biography because of the work's reputation as too sympathetic to the subject. However, as part of an ongoing reading program on military history I finally picked up Cronin's volume as the first of a series of biographies of Napoleon that I will be reading. Having completed it, I really wonder now how well the others will match up against this book. Cronin is sympathetic to his subject but he does not hide this from the reader and only in the later chapters did I find myself in disagreement or at least questioning his account of Napoleon's intentions, thoughts, and/or feelings.

The author subtitled this "An Intimate Biography" and in a general way he meant it. The work is not limited to or even focused solely upon Napoleon's military career nor to his entanglements with women, but touches upon all aspects of the life of a man who in his 52 years was a soldier, general, head of state, statesman, lawmaker, lover, pater familias to an extended family, and a father several times over. No one aspect of Napoleon's life dominates the narrative but instead each in turn is made the central focus of the story as that part of his life comes to the fore. This is an especially appealing element of Cronin's book given these many varied roles filled by Napoleon.

And yet the word "intimate" does not offer either empty titillation nor guarantee that we are really and completely inside this man's head at any moment. I believe that this reflects the above-mentioned flaw of being too sympathetic to Napoleon Bonaparte. The author often steps forward to declare what Napoleon thought or felt at a particular moment or about a specific subject, issue, or event and yet I found myself resisting these claims. Vincent Cronin provides neither footnotes nor endnotes, though he does offer a section on Sources and Notes that goes chapter by chapter to identify and explain the basis for his statements and conclusions in the text. There is also an interesting and not un-useful essay "Memoir-Writers and Napoleon" that reviews the background and history of the most important and/or frequently used first-person memoirs from Napoleon Bonaparte's contemporaries.

If you are not a military historian and really only wish to read one book about Napoleon Bonaparte, this biography would be an excellent choice - with the understanding up front that you will find herein a favorable and even sympathetic image of a man who during his life inspired bitter and prolonged opposition and even hatred among Frenchmen as well as others in Europe and the world.

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David Chandler’s book is the best single volume English-language military history focused upon Napoleon’s military career. He begins with an introductory essay “Napoleon – The Man and the General: Qualities and Defects” in which the author presents a summary view of Napoleon and sets the stage for the complete work. The rest of the book is a generally chronological account and review of Napoleon’s military career. Chandler starts with Napoleon Bonaparte’s education and early military career, capped by his service in Italy. The chronological narrative is then interrupted by a section presenting Napoleon’s “philosophy of war” and his methods of making war at both the tactical and strategic level including a discussion of the sources and inspirations for these. The author then proceeds to present Napoleon’s entire military career, devoting a section to each conflict or major campaign – always focused upon those theatres in which Napoleon was personally active. (Therefore, theatres such as the Peninsula receive significant attention only for the period in which Napoleon was present.)

The narrative of Napoleon’s military career is rounded out via 10 appendices addressing the orders of battle for the Army of Italy and the Grande Armée of successive campaigns among others, as well as notes on various battles and on the Empire’s aristocrats and a Glossary of Military terms. There are also over 15 pages of end notes and a five page bibliography.

In his treatment of Napoleon Bonaparte, Chandler is not unsympathetic to his subject but is not as uncritical perhaps as Cronin is in his biography. Perhaps this is because a discussion of Napoleon’s military activities is always founded as much on what he actually did and what happened as it is on Napoleon’s explanations of his intentions. This allows both the author and the reader to more readily draw conclusions from the facts rather than from the he-said and then he-said of after the fact memoirs
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The final contribution to this triad is A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars which presents both a military history and some 169 maps of the campaigns and battles that occurred between France and the other nations of Europe during this period – 1796-1815. This work is focused upon the strategic and what today we call the operational levels of war and therefore its maps only present the engaged armies down to the Corps, division, and occasionally brigade level. However, its comprehensive treatment of Napoleon’s campaigns and battles makes this a unique work in English.

This atlas has appeared in a modified form in more recent years whereas my copy is one the original 1965 edition (Second Printing) examples. However, both versions are in a 13 inches by 10 inches landscape format which gave the editors a good canvas upon which the sketch out the movements of the armies across Europe’s battlefields. The atlas includes a set of biographical sketches of the major military and political figures of the Napoleonic era. There is also a 10 page list of recommended readings in various languages, each accompanied by a one sentence description of that work’s contents and thrust. Although a bit dated today having been compiled in 1965, this list is a useful resource for any scholar, student, or even casual reader who wants to know more about a particular individual, battle, or campaign.