It is shortly to be the bi-centenary of the battle of Waterloo in 1815 so it is timely to consider the life of the man who, although he was defeated, has come to dominate the history books of the period. Indeed, the expression “to meet one’s Waterloo” means to come up against a decisive battle you can’t win, such were the lasting reverberations of that memorable clash. To attempt to write a life of Napoleon, with all its complexity and political and military undertakings, is a highly ambitious undertaking; that the English historian Andrew Roberts has succeeded in 800 pages in making his narrative highly readable as well as comprehensive is a fine achievement.
Before I read it I had come to some lazy conclusions about Napoleon, largely based on ignorance: that his doomed Russian campaign, as well as his incurable militarism, made him similar to Hitler. In his introduction Roberts agrees that his reputation in the UK has suffered by such a comparison. Indeed, in challenging it he quotes Churchill (another man who believed in his own destiny): “I hate to compare Napoleon with Hitler.”
Roberts has spent nine years researching and writing this Life; he has also visited 53 of Napoleon’s 60 battle fields, reminding us that this military genius only lost seven battles. He relates that he has been interested in the subject of his biography since he was a boy and collects memorabilia of his hero. This gives his book a personal warmth and sympathy that stops its being overwhelmed by a constant roll-call of significant events. That Napoleon is a heroic figure and a great statesman as well as military commander he is in no doubt, though he can also be critical of his weaknesses and misjudgements.
Roberts’ theme throughout his book is that Napoleon deserves to be remembered by history more for his civic achievements rather than for his brilliant military successes. This of course raises him well above the disgraced leader of the Third Reich – and also above Churchill, who is seen as a great wartime leader rather than a great prime minister. As Roberts points out, the Napoleonic Code still forms the basis of law in Europe and the French educational system, including the top lycees, still bear his stamp. The Legion d’Honneur, a masterstroke of Napoleon’s instinctive sense of the importance of “esprit de corps”, is still a highly prized award. Alongside this there are the bridges, reservoirs, canals and civic institutions still in use.
The author regards Napoleon (who always described himself in this way) as the real heir to the French Revolution, with his firm belief in equality before the law, rights to property, religious toleration, sound finances and secular education. Nor was he always the aggressor in war; Russia, Austria and Prussia – all absolute monarchies – feared and hated the Enlightenment principles that guided Napoleon’s political sensibilities (he could not be described as a “religious” man) and it was they who formed seven coalitions over 23 years in order to crush revolutionary France. Much of Napoleon’s fighting should be seen as defensive rather than aggressive: “War was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others.”
Another aspect of Napoleon’s character that I had not known was his care for his soldiers. I knew that the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo, was deeply affected by the loss of his men in battle but had mistakenly assumed Napoleon was callous and indifferent to the fate of the millions he commanded. Roberts makes it clear this was not true. “No-one better understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier” he writes; there was no aspect of the soldiers’ lives that didn’t concern him; for instance, he worried constantly about their footwear. He was not remote from his soldiers but accessible to them; as in Kipling’s poem “If”, he had the common touch.
Despite being highly intellectual, superbly educated, steeped in classical literature and able to converse with Goethe on equal terms, Napoleon understood his soldiers and they loved him for it – at least until 1812 and the appalling conditions they endured during the retreat from Moscow. In one post-battle bulletin he wrote, “I was tranquil; the brave 32nd Demi-Brigade was there.” The Brigade immediately had these words embroidered on their colours. Napoleon, never doubting his right to rule France, gave his army a sense that they were making history.
Roberts singles out several aspects of Napoleon’s character that helped to make him so dominating and successful: he had immense energy – “For Napoleon there was no such thing as too much work”; he also had a prodigious memory as well as mathematical gifts, enabling him to organise the complex logistics of his campaigns; he was a born leader, able to energise those under him to do their best; he was a dedicated multi-tasker, as we would describe it today, “able to compartmentalise his life to a remarkable degree” and to carry on several different activities simultaneously.
Napoleon was also a relentless micro-manager, interested – and keen to interfere – in every aspect of the lives of those around him. This was not always a good thing. Roberts is critical of his weakness in meddling in the romantic lives of his family, as well as his partiality for putting his incompetent brothers on the thrones of Europe instead of efficient administrators. Yet his furious industry and desire for efficiency also had its benign side – as long as one accepted that he was in charge. During the six days he spent in Malta during his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon replaced the medieval administration with a governing council; introduced street lighting; reformed the hospitals, the postal service and the university; installed fountains and allowed the Jews to build a synagogue.
The same pattern emerged in Egypt. He immediately stated issuing orders for reform: changes to the inefficient government and to the postal system (highly important to a man who wrote more than 33,000 letters during his life); he introduced street lighting and street cleaning, a proper tax system, hospitals, a printing press and so on. All this was done on his own initiative, not that of the government back in France which must have wondered, not for the first time, at the fascinating human phenomenon before their eyes.
Of course there was hubris on his part as well, though with the French administration weak and corrupt after the Revolution, one is sympathetic to Napoleon’s seizure of power as First Consul. A general at 24, he was still only 30 when he became the most powerful man in France. Under the new consulate there was naturally “a spate of decrees”: the anti-emigre laws were repealed ( he had no personal grudge against the old aristocracy); there were pensions for war widows (he was invariably generous in this respect); non-juring priests were not deported for refusing to take the Constitutional Oath – another sign of his enlightened toleration.
Roberts cites many examples of Napoleon’s military genius. He had a great chess player’s ability to think out his opponents’ moves and strategy in advance and thus to anticipate them. Weeks before his most famous victory at the battle of Austerlitz, he “dictated instantly and without hesitation the whole plan of the campaign…all had been foreseen during this hurried dictation.” For the first time since Charlemagne, and before him Hannibal, he took a huge army across the Alps – one of the “wonders of military history”, as Roberts comments.
By the time I had finished reading, I was – almost – sorry that this extraordinary career had been brought to an end at Waterloo. Wellington knew that Napoleon was his military superior; he admitted that his victory was a “damned close-run thing” and Napoleon often lamented during his exile on St Helena that he could not re-run Waterloo over again. Unlike some other historical figures he was loved by his staff, his valets and his household; many accounts – including one by the Austrian Metternich, his political arch-enemy – testify to his charm and the fascination of his conversation and company. One can’t help thinking that the decision to place him permanently on a remote island in the south Atlantic was more a measure of his opponents’ fear of him rather than his own failure.
There is much more to be said, not least on Napoleon’s personal life, his upbringing, his military education and early successes and his relationship with women, such as “Madame Mere” his mother or the kind-hearted but incurably extravagant Empress Josephine, but this I will leave to other readers. I do recommend this book: detailed, well-paced and authoritative, and making use of many new letters than are now accessible since the early biographies were written. As Roberts states in his introduction and then demonstrates in his narrative, the young boy from an impoverished family of minor Corsican nobility did become one of the great statesmen of history – unlike the man with whom he is wrongly compared, the sociopathic son of a minor Austrian customs official.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.