After his defeat in Russia (1812), Napoleon Bonaparte lost for a final time at the Battle of Waterloo (1815)

Some time ago, I was pleased to learn that Grade 12 students in Ontario were learning about Voltaire’s Candide and Moliere’s Tartuffe.

I began, as a next step after reading a bit about Voltaire and Moliere on my own, to read about the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I had a sense of what the Revolution and Napoleon were about, but the details were unknown to me.

This post will focus on some of the things I have learned, in the course of my recent reading about the history of the era.

Napoleon began his military and political career as a young artillery officer in Corsica during the Revolution. He was adept at mathematics and had an excellent memory for facts and figures.

With the passage of time, he crowned himself the Emperor of the French and set up a royal dynasty extending across much of Europe. Not everybody was pleased with his efforts, however, as he caused disturbances to the balance of power in continental Europe, and in time leaders and armies of the other nation-states of Europe got together and deposed him. He was deposed a couple of times, the second time for good.

The French Revolution led to a concentration of military and political power

My sense is that the French Revolution can be described as having a language of its own – and a capacity to develop its own narrative, in order to explain what it was about, and what its next steps would be.

In a sense, the Revolution occurred as a unique form of what some people like to call community self-organizing, in particular at the level of the nation-state.

This is not a concept that I’ve encountered in my reading about the Napoleonic wars; instead it’s just a thought that has occurred to me, as I’ve been going about my reading, and my note-taking.

In my reading I have learned, in Napoleon: A Concise History (2015) (see below), that the Revolution gave rise to an unprecedented concentration of political and military power within France, with consequences that were to play out in the Napoleonic wars.

Napoleon was drawn a great distance into Russia; the result was the French army’s near-total disintegration

I’ve been reading several books about Napoleon’s march on Moscow in 1812. As we know, the march did not go as Napoleon, who favoured big battles and quick victories, expected.

According to Napoleon: A Concise Biography (2015), some 655,000 soldiers, including 450,000 in the main army group, were assembled for the invasion of Moscow; some fifty thousand civilians, including many women, also accompanied them (p. 85).

Napoleon: A Concise Biography (2015) also notes (p. 88) that “of the original 655,000-strong force, scarcely 85,000 men made it back out of Russia. Some 370,000 had died; 200,000 more were prisoners or missing.”

After further battles in Europe in 1813-1814, Napoleon was subsequently deposed and in April 1814, in accordance with the Treaty of Fontainebleau, was granted sovereignty over the Mediterranean island of Elba near the coast of Italy, where he stayed for a while in a state of exile.

In the next year, however, Napoleon regained power, and was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, after which he was again deposed, and exiled for life at St Helena in the mid-Atlantic.

Books about the rise and fall of Napoleon

Like many people, I knew the broad outlines of Napoleon’s story before I began to read about the details.

The fact that my own distant family history is intertwined with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 has motivated me to learn many details about the Napoleonic wars, that I otherwise might not have gotten around to learning.

Without such a personal connection, I might not have been motivated to embark upon such a reading project.

I am pleased to have the opportunity, at this post, to highlight some books that I have found of value.

The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2002)

The above-titled book served as my introduction to how the French Revolution came about. It was among the first books I read. It was here that I learned how Napoleon started his political and military career.

An excerpt from a blurb about the book reads:

Opening with the accession of Louis XVI in 1774, the book traces the history of France through revolution, terror, and counter-revolution, to the triumph of Napoleon in 1802, and analyses the impact of events both in France itself and the rest of Europe. William Doyle shows how a movement which began with optimism and general enthusiasm soon became a tragedy, not only for the ruling orders, but for the millions of ordinary people all over Europe whose lives were disrupted by religious upheaval, and civil and international war. It was they who paid the price for the destruction of the old political order and the struggle to establish a new one, based on the ideals of liberty and revolution, in the face of widespread indifference and hostility.

[End]

The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2002)

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier (1997)

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier (1997) offers a rare account of war in Russia in 1812 from the perspective of a foot soldier in Napoleon’s army. The book presents a compelling narrative of deadly events and circumstances.

An excerpt from a blurb for the book reads:

This diary was left to an American university by the descendants of Jakob Walter who had emigrated there. When 18-year-old Jakob Walter was conscripted into Napoleon’s army, he had no idea of the trials that lay ahead. The long gruelling marches on Prussia and Poland sacrificed countless men to the Emperor’s plans. But it was the disastrous advance on Russia which tested human endurance on an epic scale.

[End]

The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier (1997)

Napoleon: A Concise History (2015)

This book, which I have referred to in a previous paragraph, provides an informative overview of Napoleon’s life, and highlights the many ways in which he can be characterized. Each person will have her or his own view about what adjectives best sum up what Napoleon was about.

Two books about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia are mentioned under Further Reading in Napoleon: A Concise History (2015).

The first book, Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March (2004), is described as providing a vivid overview of the Russian campaign. The second book, Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (2009), is described as a useful complement to the latter book. I found these characterizations, of the two books in question, apt and accurate.

An excerpt from a blurb about Napoleon: A Concise History (2015) reads:

Bell emphasizes the importance of the French Revolution in understanding Napoleon’s career. The revolution made possible the unprecedented concentration of political authority that Napoleon accrued, and his success in mobilizing human and material resources. Without the political changes brought about by the revolution, Napoleon could not have fought his wars. Without the wars, he could not have seized and held onto power. Though his virtual dictatorship betrayed the ideals of liberty and equality, his life and career were revolutionary.

[End]

Napoleon: A Concise History (2015)

Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March (2004)

The above-titled book features a judicious, well-organized array of anecdotes and descriptions, related to the struggle for survival (which many men, women, and children lost) during Napoleon’s invasion of  Russia. With regard to the tactics, strategies, and logistics related to the war, however, the more definitive account, at least from my own perspective as a reader, is provided by Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (2009) (see below).

An excerpt from Moscow 1812 (2004) reads:

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his ensuing terrible retreat from Moscow played out as military epic and human tragedy on a colossal scale – history’s first example of total war. The story begins in 1811, when Napoleon dominated nearly all of Europe, succeeding in his aim to reign over the civilized world like a modern-day Charlemagne. Part of his bid for supremacy involved destroying Britain through a continental blockade, but the plan was stymied when Russia’s Tsar Alexander refused to comply. So he set out to teach the Tsar a lesson by intimidation and force. What followed was a deadly battle that would change the fate of modern Europe.

[End]

Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March (2004)

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (2009)

An excerpt from a blurb for the above-titled book reads:

Much more than just battlefield history, Russia Against Napoleon is also the story of how Russia’s home front was mobilised against Napoleon and how much the Russian people suffered in pursuit of victory. It is too the story of one of the most successful espionage operations in history. Ultimately this book shows, memorably and brilliantly, Russia embarking on its strange, central role in Europe’s existence, as both threat and protector – a role that continues, in all its complexity, into our own lifetimes.

[End]

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (2009)

The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (2004)

I found this book of interest because it helps me better understand the balance of power in continental Europe during the Napoleonic wars. The book includes a valuable, clear overview of the War of 1812, going on at the same time as Napoleon was invading Russia. Different people have different views, as can be expected, regarding the outcome of the War of 1812. My own reflections are summed up in a series of previous posts including one entitled:

John Boyd committed his infantry before his artillery could properly support them: Battle of Crysler’s Farm, Nov. 11, 1813

An excerpt from a blurb for the The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (2004) reads:

The Command of the Ocean describes with unprecedented authority and scholarship the rise of Britain to naval greatness, and the central place of the Navy and naval activity in the life of the nation and government. Based on the author’s own research in a dozen languages over more than a decade, it describes not just battles, voyages, and cruises but also how the Navy was manned, supplied, fed, and, above all, how it was financed and directed.

[End]

The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

My own connection with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

In one way or another, each of us has been affected by the currents of history.

In my case, a family connection creates a level of interest, about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, that I might not otherwise have.

The story is that two Polish deserters, from the march on Moscow, ended up visiting a village in Estonia which at that time was a province of the Russian empire. One of the two Polish soldiers, who chose to settle down at this Estonian village, is among my ancestors from that era, on my father’s side.

I don’t have any biographical details, about this ancestor. Particularly for that reason, I’m keen to know at least a few details about the times in which he lived. The events of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 provide for me a context, that enables me to picture something about the life of a Polish soldier during those years.

When Britain burned the White House

A previous post, related to the War of 1812, is entitled:

When Britain burned the White House

Use of the word “childish” to describe adult behaviour

I find it of interest that Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (2009) and Napoleon: A Concise History (2015) both include passages in which in one case, men at war are described as “childish” in a particular circumstance (in the first-noted book) and, in another case, an aspect of Napoleon’s behaviour (in the second-noted book) is described as “childish.”

I take strong exception to the denigration of children by the use of the term “childish” to describe immature behaviour in adults. I would argue that it would be much more apt to describe the adult behaviour as immature, or to use some other suitable adjective, instead of using a term that incessantly reinforces mindless, unthinking, and inaccurate stereotypes about children.

At a previous post, I’ve elaborated on this point:

Photo by Bettina von Zwehl: Very young children demonstrate a characteristic – and impressive – sense of dignity, and powers of observation

Update – Napoleon: A Life (2018)

A blurb for Napoleon: A Life (2018) reads:

“What a novel my life has been!” Napoleon once said of himself. Born into a poor family, the callow young man was, by twenty-six, an army general. Seduced by an older woman, his marriage transformed him into a galvanizing military commander. The Pope crowned him as Emperor of the French when he was only thirty-five. Within a few years, he became the effective master of Europe, his power unparalleled in modern history. His downfall was no less dramatic.

The story of Napoleon has been written many times. In some versions, he is a military genius, in others a war-obsessed tyrant. Here, historian Adam Zamoyski cuts through the mythology and explains Napoleon against the background of the European Enlightenment, and what he was himself seeking to achieve. This most famous of men is also the most hidden of men, and Zamoyski dives deeper than any previous biographer to find him. Beautifully written, Napoleon brilliantly sets the man in his European context.

 

2 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A broader issue, with regard to the concentration of power within nation-states which, as I understand from my recent reading, began during the course of events and conflicts arising as a consequence of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, concerns the distinction between hard and soft power.

    The distinction is addressed in a March 15, 2018 Nieman Lab article, entitled: “Soft power — not government censorship — is the key to fighting disinformation and ‘fake news’: ‘For a soft power approach to disinformation to work, it is critical that all stakeholders do in fact work together…If it fails, cruder responses may be the only ones left. But let’s hope not.'”

    An excerpt from the article reads:

    “Hard power forces actors to do (or not do) specific things. Soft power rewards them for constructive collaboration. As Nye has pointed out, in an ever more complex world characterized by greater and greater interdependence, soft power is increasingly central to how we approach the most important problems of our time: climate change, migration, nuclear proliferation.”

    Reply
  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    In my continued reading about the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, I have come across many books – and ways of writing about history – of interest.

    I can think of three ways, at least, to approach the above-noted historical topics, which concern military, economic, social and political matters, as well as concepts related to the history of the nation-state:

    1) The narrative that focuses primarily on character and setting (a standard form of storytelling, in some movie scriptwriting, and in some newspaper writing), attending to context and more abstract forces in brief asides or blurbs.

    2) The narrative that focuses on the larger context, either with a calmness of voice, or with sense of vehemence.

    3) The rare narrative (rare because it calls upon a particular, and unusual, state of mind, formative experiences, and perspective) that manages to address character and setting, while interweaving the larger context, all in a spirit of level-headedness.

    Among the books that have especially caught my eye, along with many others, is Forging Napoleon’s Grande Armée: Motivation, Military Culture, and Masculinity in the French army, 1800-1808 (2012).

    An excerpt from a blurb, at the Toronto Public Library website, for the book reads:

    “Underscoring this new, hybrid military culture were five sources of motivation: honor, patriotism, a martial and virile masculinity, devotion to Napoleon, and coercion. Forging Napoleon’s Grande Armée vividly illustrates how this many-pronged culture gave Napoleon’s soldiers reasons to fight.”

    I have not yet read the above-noted book. For that reason, I have no idea which of the three, above-noted forms of narrative predominates, in this particular case.

    Reply

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