The period of upheaval that started with the French Revolution and ended at Waterloo cries out to be treated as a single phenomenon. From the moment of the storming of the Bastille to the final breaking of the French lines at Waterloo the continent of Europe and to some extent the rest of the World, was in perpetual conflict for 26 years. When the fighting was over the course of history had changed forever.
Strangely there are few overviews of the whole set of wars that make up the history of this period, and War of Wars by Robert Harvey fills this gap. It is easy to look back on this period with rose tinted spectacles. Two hundred years later the uniforms seem quaint. The technology of warfare has advanced so much that the most powerful weapons available to Napoleon and Nelson seem puny. The political issues are no longer divisive. Any head of state declaring himself an emperor would be derided rather than feared. The radical aims of the Parisian Jacobins are now commonplace. But that is not how it seemed at the time, far from it. To contemporaries it was a bitter and bloody conflict where technology was used to destroy human lives, and the issues at stake were regarded as crucially important. Copenhagen was bombarded with such ferocity that the city still bears the scars today. Shrapnel was invented. Battles were fought involving hundreds of thousands of combatants, with huge casualty figures.
There was no precedent for the scale of the disruption to Europe and to a lesser extent, to the rest of the world.
Europe was rocked by the fall of the Bourbons in France. But the shock was not at first evenly distributed. The despotic monarchies of Prussia and Austria were naturally sympathetic to a fellow king, especially when he got beheaded. That wasn’t really a precedent that any crowned head wanted to be set. Trading nations like Holland and England were initially more pragmatic. It is quite a surprise to see just how long it took for Britain to actually enter the war against France, especially when you remember just how determined it became once it had joined.
But once Britain did start taking the war against France seriously, the war took on an epic scale. France had huge reserves of men and material and an advantageous strategic position. Britain’s trade and well developed financial system, not to mention the convenient removal of its major rival, Holland, gave it the edge in sea power and spending.
The figure that dominates this period, of course, is Napoleon. He has been a controversial figure since his own time, but is usually credited with being a military genius whatever other shortcomings he might have. Interestingly, taking the view of the whole conflict his prowess as a general isn’t as apparent as might be expected. His early triumphs in Italy are impressive, but were overturned surprisingly quickly. The campaign in Egypt has never been considered his finest hour, but it is remarkable just how precarious the position of the French became under Napoleon’s command. It is also sobering to consider just how mad the aims of the campaign were. Napoleon was supposed to march across the Middle East and Iran to join up with anti-British forces in India. His later invasion of Russia seems like a sober down to Earth project in comparison. The details are always interesting. At one point Napoleon claimed to be a Moslem to curry favour with the local population. I wonder how many people bought that one?
Napoleon’s career, whatever you think of him, was certainly a remarkable one. His seizure of power in a military coup shows him at his most opportunistic and least likeable. The government he overthrew had, as governments tend to, much to be guilty about and in particular hadn’t done a great job of managing the economy. It was nonetheless a stable institution that could have developed progressively and would have made peace much sooner than happened under Napoleon.
Having taken control he was only able to maintain his power by continual military successes, and for a long time these were forthcoming. His crowning triumph was Austerlitz, which was won with a combination of manouvering and psychological warfare that has rarely been equalled.
But this was the high water mark militarily. Although always a good general and often able to pull something out of the hat in a tight spot, he was not able to work miracles. His overconfidence after Austerlitz led him to invade Spain and then Russia. The retreat from Moscow in 1812 is one of the great images that everyone has from that era. It is fascinating to consider how nearly it never happened. Early in the autumn of that fateful year the Grande Armee very nearly halted in safe quarters in Lithuania. As “What Ifs” go, this is a big one. With the largest army that the world had yet seen under his command, who is to say that led with more caution that it wouldn’t have forced Russia into a humiliating surrender.
Once Napoleon had escaped from Russia, his defence of his now crumbling empire was impressive. He continued fighting all the way. There were some huge battles in which his old elan sometimes resurfaced. But his resources were continually draining away as his casualties mounted and his allies slipped away. At the battle of Leipzig the Saxon troops even switched sides during the battle itself. The struggle continued as the Russians, Prussians and Austrians entered France from the East while Wellington advanced over the Pyrenees in the South. Even the imperial family let down their leader in the end with Joseph handing over Paris to the allies without a fight while Napoleon was still in the field trying to find some solution to the now hopeless situation.
He was now obliged to abdicate as Emperor of France, and was given the tiny island of Elbe as a sort of consolation prize. By this time Napoleon had already had the most remarkable career of any man in history, but the next move was an all time jaw dropper. He returned to France with a tiny guard and proceeded to resume his regime based on nothing more than personal charisma. Carefully avoiding the (rather large) parts of France where he was not popular he advanced on Paris on foot gathering men to his banner as he went. But reality could not be ignored for ever. There had never been the slightest chance of his coup being accepted and it was only a matter of time before their armies returned to restore the status quo.
With a characteristic boldness Napoleon tried to seize the initiative and score a big victory in the hope of cowing his enemies. The battle of Waterloo must have had the most dramatic build up of any battle in history, with the great Bonaparte meeting Wellington for the first time. Both men were the same age and both had spent their whole adult lives actively as major players in this titanic conflict. They commanded similar sized armies and it became a duel between the two giants. Napoleon had the better score card and had also wrong footed Wellington in the manoeuvres before the battle. But Wellington had an impressive track record as well, and was probably the most successful general that Napoleon had ever come up against.
The stakes were higher for the Emperor. He needed not just a victory, but a spectacular victory both to cement his position at home and to force his enemies to negotiate. But in spite of this he seems to have been well below par and made misjudgement after misjudgement. It was as Wellington famously said, a close run thing but in the end the British pushed forward and the French were routed.
Wellington moved to Paris and for a while was the effective ruler of France. Napoleon lived out the rest of his life a prisoner on windswept St Helena.
This book tells the story well – it introduces the main characters and recounts the details of the campaigns. It doesn’t analyse the war in any depth or draw any conclusions about how the world was changed by the conflict. It is a bit less impressed by Napoleon than you might expect for a book covering what is often known as the Napoleonic era. But if you just want to read a good account of what actually happened you won’t do much better.