The glory years

ALAN FOR­REST ad­mires an ac­count of five ac­tion­packed years that de­fined Napoleon’s life and lead­er­ship

BBC History Magazine - - Reviews -

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

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