As an aspiring author I try to write as often as possible but always remember to have a book on the bedside table. I read for many reasons, mostly the sheer joy of the pastime, but I am constantly trying to improve myself as a writer, finding worthwhile lessons in my successful peers, whether they’re currently enjoying life in the bestsellers list or they have long since written their final words. As I continue my own writing journey (hopefully towards publication!) I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all my latest reads and maybe reveal who I find the most inspiring along the way.
Frank McLynn – Napoleon (1997)
History was always my favourite subject at school and my passion for events from the past remains undiminished. When it comes to Napoleon Bonaparte I am ashamed to say my knowledge of him was minimal prior to picking up Frank McLynn’s biography which, at 600+ pages, promised to offer great enlightenment. Of Napoleon I knew he was the Emperor of France around the time of Horatio Nelson and that he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and spent the rest of his life exiled on an island. By the end of McLynn’s book I had completed a remarkable journey.
This biography covers all of Napoleon’s life beginning with his origins in Corsica where he was born in 1769 and, thanks to the driving influence of his mother Leitizia, Napoleon enjoyed a thorough education leading to admission to a military school in France where he was shaped into a soldier. An avid reader, Napoleon was fond of great conquerors from history particularly Hannibal, Caesar and, arguably his personal favourite, Alexander the Great. As a young man Revolutionary France was the perfect foil for Napoleon to test his mettle and his friendship with the Robespierre brothers saw him elevated to the position of General while he was still in his mid-twenties. While the early parts of the biography can be ponderous in places, the moment Napoleon begins fighting the pace in the book is electrifying as we witness his campaign in Italy (1796-7) where French forces defeated the Austrians and a subsequent campaign in Egypt (1798-9), though not as successful, did little to tarnish the growing wave of support for Napoleon back in France. On his return Napoleon became one of three consuls overseeing the country but soon manoeuvred his way to becoming First Consul and the most powerful man in France. By the time Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804 the Napoleonic Wars had already begun which would see France fight wars against Britain, Prussia, Russia, Austria and Spain for more than a decade.
McLynn’s accounts of Napoleon’s many battles are always gripping reading but what comes across as fascinating is that this isn’t a biased account of the French Emperor where all his movements are hailed as the work of a military genius. Instead McLynn argues that Napoleon was a brilliant soldier but compared to the likes of Hannibal and Alexander the Great he didn’t come anywhere close. As early as the Italian Campaign (1796-7) Napoleon enjoyed some degree of luck in a war that could easily have led to his annihilation. Napoleon’s greatest ever victory came at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) where the French destroyed an Austro-Russian army in a display of exemplary timing and tactics from the French Emperor in manoeuvring the many divisions of his army at the appropriate times to maximise devastation to the enemy. With Napoleon’s Grand Armee being on such a massive scale it was inevitable he would need to rely on others to lead sections of the army for him – step forward the marshals, a conflicting group of loyal, brilliant, conniving and cowardly soldiers.
The best example of the hard work Napoleon faced with his marshals came at the Battle of Jena (1806) where Napoleon’s forces faced a Prussian army. In the build up to the battle Napoleon sent two of his marshals – Davout and Bernadotte – north about ten miles away to face a smaller Prussian force while Napoleon kept the remainder of the army in the south to take on the superior Prussian army. Napoleon’s calculations failed him here as he ended up facing the tiny Prussian army while Davout was left alone to take on the main Prussian army! Bernadotte, with a persistent disregard for Napoleon’s orders, simply waited between the two French armies until the battle was over. His relationship with Napoleon was a difficult one for the French Emperor to give him anything more than a swift reprimand for his actions. Bernadotte’s wife, Desiree, was once engaged to Napoleon until he spurned her to marry his first wife, Josephine. Due to these actions Napoleon felt an obligation to Desiree to continually let Bernadotte off the hook and it would cost him dearly. Lucky for Napoleon and Bernadotte, the Battle of Jena was still won by the French for the impressive Davout (who in my opinion seemed the best of Napoleon’s marshals) held his nerve and defeated the Prussian army despite being massively outnumbered. Napoleon was always happy to be associated with victory and sadly with the Battle of Jena he took all the plaudits, only acknowledging Davout in private as the real hero. The Battle of Jena is one of many examples how Napoleon’s successes and failures were as much the work of his marshals as they were his tactics.
Of course the biography isn’t all about war. It gets to the heart of who Napoleon was and the character is a complex individual. A workaholic, managing with a few hours sleep each night, Napoleon also had a bittersweet relationship with women, his first wife Josephine lamenting his haste in the act of sex and leading her to pursue affairs, most notably a long-term relationship with Hippolyte Charles. Psychoanalysis has been applied to Napoleon in the past and explored his strange relationship with his wife where he tolerated her affairs so long as they didn’t become public knowledge and humiliate him. This arguably stems back to Napoleon’s childhood where his mother was frequently unfaithful to her husband and those early associations would shape Napoleon in maturity. Prior to becoming Emperor of France Napoleon seems to struggle somewhat with women but once in power he has the opportunity to indulge in many affairs, much to the dismay of Josephine who was happy to do it herself but is very annoyed when her husband does it. Though regarded as a despot by some critics Napoleon showed an intriguing loyalty to friends and family, the latter in particular. On becoming Emperor Napoleon had no sons or heirs so designated his brothers to succeed him which made them princes. This was too much for Napoleon’s sisters to take who immediately demanded they should be made princesses. Napoleon’s mother also wanted a title as well, it wasn’t enough that her son was one of the most powerful and feared men in Europe. Napoleon’s nepotism can be deemed as heart-warming and loyal but in terms of his political and military strategies they were terrible errors. Had Napoleon chosen his best marshals to rule – Davout and Murat for instance – the lands he conquered then the face of history could have been very different.
A combination of luck and ingenuity on the battlefield saw Napoleon imperious until he invaded Russia in 1812. I had often thought of this campaign as a disaster of epic proportions for the French where Napoleon was easily defeated. Truth be told the French did well in Russia but their ruler’s lack of insight of the geography and indeed the onset of fierce winter dealt a hammer blow to the campaign. Just as the Second World War had turned on the Germans’ failure to claim Russia so too did Napoleon’s reign in Europe. After the Russian Campaign Napoleon was never the same man again. On borrowed time, Napoleon faced defeat in 1814 and was forced to abdicate where he was exiled to the island of Elba. The following year he was back and predicted he would enter France and regain his throne without spilling a drop of blood. He was not wrong. I had previously assumed the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was a straightforward victory for the Allies over the French but the reality is very different. As the war in Europe drew to a close Napoleon took on Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia at the same time. Those odds would suggest the French cause was a hopeless one but amazingly Napoleon nearly won! At Waterloo the French Emperor was ill and this is argued by critics as one of the reasons Napoleon didn’t win. He made many correct decisions but often too late, blowing an opportunity to destroy Wellington and turn the tide of battle towards the French. A combination of poor decisions and the ineptitude of some of the marshals, Ney in particular, saw Napoleon defeated for the last time. McLynn argues Waterloo was less about the Allies winning than the French throwing victory away. Wellington has been immortalised as the hero of Waterloo but it was the arrival of a Prussian army that Napoleon’s marshals had failed to block that led to the victory. Napoleon, vastly outnumbered, still almost won at Waterloo but the margins between victory and defeat are very small as the French Emperor discovered that day. Though he escaped the battle Napoleon later handed himself over to the British and was exiled to the island of St Helena. Napoleon died in 1821 from what was supposedly stomach cancer but speculation is rife that the fallen Emperor was the victim of arsenic poisoning! By the time you reach the end of the book it has been an exhausting journey but a remarkable one all the same. I knew next to nothing about Napoleon before but thanks to McLynn I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two now.
McLynn’s Napoleon is an epic read which gets to the very heart of Napoleon, his battles, his family, the women in his life, his marshals, the army and his enemies (both within France and throughout the rest of Europe). The beauty of McLynn’s book is that it doesn’t shy away from Napoleon’s faults, dismissing any claims that he was a great conqueror but not denying he was a fine soldier. Ironically McLynn argues Napoleon was at his best when leading smaller forces, ones he had personal control over, rather than the reliance on marshals with the larger armies in the pandemonium of battle. Napoleon, the man, will always divide critics but his place in history is assured. A little ponderous perhaps in the opening sections, McLynn’s book is still a superb read from start to finish and for anyone wanting to know more about the French Emperor then you need look no further than this book.
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