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Apportioning the honours

22 November 2006

4:28 PM

22 November 2006

4:28 PM

The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britain and France, 1793-1815 Robert Harvey

Constable & Robinson, pp.800, 25

Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte? This is the question that Robert Harvey, journalist and former MP, asks at the end of his most comprehensive account of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. It is pertinent, as he points out, since all the coalition members at one time or another lay claim to the honours:

Dogged Austria deserves a large share of the credit for rising from defeat again and again. Prussia, after its lamentable initial performance, renewed some of its national pride at the end. Russia can claim credit for the 1812 campaign, in which although there was no great feat of Russian arms, the French were completely routed.

Harvey’s final verdict is, however, unequivocal: ‘the lion’s share must surely go to Britain’. Pitt’s and then Grenville’s continental coalition-building, the Royal Navy’s ‘astounding feats’ under Nelson and others like him, and Wellington’s ‘relentless performance’ in the Peninsula; these were the pillars of victory.

It was the failure of France to invade or strangle Britain economically that first frustrated revolutionary and Napoleonic France when continental Europe lay prostrate at his feet; and it was the Peninsular War that first exposed France’s weakness and tied down huge French armies, encouraging first Russia and then Austria and Prussia back into the war.

Indeed, he might even have praised British ministers further for their impressive economic organisation, British gold in large measure subsidising these coalition comebacks, and for the remarkable mobilisation of British and Irish manpower (proportionately, Britain had more men under arms than ever the levée en masse managed).

But it is not uncritical praise. Harvey faults Pitt and Grenville for rising to the French challenge too slowly, and then Castlereagh and Liverpool for ignoring the possibility of peace with France (while, of course, praising the ‘implacable commitment’ with which the defeat of Bonaparte was pursued, ministers being convinced that ‘Napoleon would learn nothing except by defeat’). He is rightly critical of the early performance of the army, too: in Flanders, besides swearing terribly, it was useless. But under Wellington it became unbeatable. The duke does not escape criticism, however — for instance over his decision to lay siege to Badajoz, and his conduct of the assault. Only the Royal Navy, says Harvey, was at the outset fit for purpose and remained so.

And his opinion of l’Empereur?

In essence he was a military dictator, a superb general, and a conqueror utterly unprincipled and ruthless in the pursuit of his own self- promotion, subordinating France to his own glory even though his country and the French people sacrificed themselves in the hundreds of thousands in his cause — and then, after much suffering, destroyed it. He was a military genius, a political and diplomatic third-rater, and a monster.

Actually, while acknowledging his field generalship, Harvey questions Bonaparte’s campaigning genius. He describes how the Leipzig campaign began well but collapsed when he overextended himself: ‘Napoleon as a commander, though gifted, never realised his own limitations’. It was the beginning of the end for him, defeated by Wellington in the south and by allied armies in the east. His domestic base crumbled until he was left with no one but his military chiefs, and in the end they too deserted him.

In all this he can be seen not to be a megalomaniac or a genius, but a leader reflecting domestic imperatives who only occasionally allowed his manic self-confidence to overcome his sense of realism. For the most part, it was revolutionary and expansionary France which guided Napoleon’s policies, not he who guided them. If this book’s thesis is correct, he emerges as a much more human and limited figure than the superman painted by his supporters, or the globe-conquering megalomaniac portrayed by his detractors.

And his legacy? Harvey is again trenchant: France was plunged into more reactionary ways than those of the Ancien Régime, thwarting a middle-class and economic revolution that was already underway, and continuing to stifle democracy (even the Code Napoleon was no certain improvement): ‘France never recovered from this: right up to modern times, it has veered between a parliamentary and an autocratic centralist system with the latter usually winning, most recently with the imposition of the Gaullist constitution after 1959.’ His exporting of ‘worthy’ revolutionary values was, too, a myth: far from advancing a meritocratic middle class and destroying the feudal aristocracy, ‘he and his clan of flashy nepotistic neo-monarchs advanced their own friends and sympathisers’.

And yet The War of Wars is no Tory polemic. Harvey’s narrative and the development of his thesis are comprehensive, clear, persuasive and entertaining; indeed, it is truly impressive. There are not enough maps, however, to convey the epic nature of the struggle visually. In fact Harvey is let down by rather lacklustre production: flimsy paper, few illustrations and these monochrome and not always sharply reproduced, and shaky proof-reading (Tilsit becomes Tikrit at one point). But this apart, I doubt a better account of the never-ending war will be written in many a year.

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