The glory years
ALAN FORREST admires an account of five actionpacked years that defined Napoleon’s life and leadership
Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age: 1805–1810 by Michael Broers Faber & Faber, 560 pages, £30
Covering the years from 1805 to 1810, the second volume of Michael Broers’ biography of Napoleon picks up where the first, Soldier of Destiny, left off. The division off theh lleader’sd’ lifelf into logical chunks presented the author with a real challenge, and his choice of this short period for an entire volume is both sensitive and pragmatic: sensitive in that it reflects a discernible period in Napoleon’s personal life, his marriages and his relationships with his brothers; pragmatic because these were the years that witnessed his greatest victories, when he was at the height of his imperial power. The year 1810 would herald dramatic changes in his personal life: his first signs of illness; his divorce from Josephine and his marriage to Marie-Louise; his increasing alienation from other members of the Bonaparte family. Warning clouds were massing on the horizon.
Yet this biography does far more than trace the story of Napoleon’s life. It shows a deep understanding of his ambition, of his incisive decision-making and capacity to recognise the abilities and failings of others, and of the mental agility that characterised his military leadership. It shows a firm grasp too of European diplomacy and international politics, and of power struggles within the empire. But what also comes through strongly in this volume is Broers’ gift for analysing military campaigns in a lively prose style that will attract the general reader as much as the military specialist. He guides us with skill through Napoleon’s great victories at Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt, and the diplomatic triumphs that followed.
The later years of the decade proved more difficult as Russia, Austria and Prussia sought revenge, and after 1808 the era of easy victories was over. Battles were more murderous and in the Peninsula his armies faced popular insurgency as well as military force.
Napoleon had his blind spots, too, never really understanding naval warfare, seemingly uninterested in the acquisition of colonies, and dismissive of the threat posed by guerrilla fighters. He had also to take account of the mounting costs of war – in human lives, in money, and in public sympathy. The costs of war drained the empire’s coffers, for – despite imposing savage taxes and reparations on the lands he conquered – Napoleon never succeeded in making war pay.
In his discussion of military tactics, Broers naturally draws on the work of military specialists from Jacques Garnier to Dominic Lieven, David Chandler to Charles Esdaile. But he acknowledges one debt above all others, noting that the book could not have been written without the publication
These were the years that witnessed Napoleon’s greatest victories, at the height of his imperial power
of the new edition of Napoleon’s correspondence, which allows him to examine Napoleon’s personal involvement in policymaking and assess his emotional response to war in detail that was previously inconceivable.
Napoleon appears as humane at times, ruthless at others, saddened by the deaths of comrades-in-arms, angered by the limitations of his brothers. His letters, many written from camps across Europe, allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the emperor’s own thinking and of the degree to which he, rather than his marshals or ministers, took the decisions that mattered. They show his diplomatic concerns too: his tortured relations with the tsar; his
In his correspondence, Napoleon appears as humane at times, ruthless at others
obsession with ‘perfidious Albion’; his deeply secular approach to the Catholic church, culminating in the arrest and humiliation of the pope in 1809. Passages on religion and the papacy are, indeed, among the most original and most telling in the entire volume. Napoleon had not entirely abandoned his revolutionary youth.
The years from 1805 to 1810 form a coherent period of Napoleon’s life. His principal concerns were with the army and the management of his empire abroad; with diplomatic manoeuvres elsewhere in Europe; and, increasingly obsessively, with his Continental System, the blockade designed to destroy Britain. Domestic matters he was prepared to assign to others, especially to Cambacérès, who acted as regent during his lengthy absences from Paris, and who was left free to introduce legal reforms at home, secure in the knowledge that he enjoyed Napoleon’s trust while he concentrated his energies elsewhere. Alan Forrest is emeritus professor of history at the University of York and has published widely on Napoleonic history
Napoleon giving orders at Austerlitz in 1805, a time when he was at the pinnacle of his military leadership