David Crane

Riding for a fall | 8 March 2018

The second volume of Michael Broers’s biography covers the glory years of 1805–1810; but the triumphs contained within them the seeds of defeat

On 20 July 1805, just three months before the battle of Trafalgar destroyed a combined French and Spanish fleet, the Emperor Napoleon ordered his chief-of-staff to ‘embark everything’ for the invasion of England that he had been dreaming of for two years. ‘My intention is to land at four different points,’ he explained to Berthier, ‘at a short distance from one another… Inform the four marshals there is not an instant to be lost.’

While there is possibly no saga in his whole astonishing career — Russia included — that so vividly exposes the curious and almost wilful blind spots in Bonaparte’s make-up, his enemies would have done well to pay closer attention. It is impossible to say if the invasion was ever more than fantasy; but those two years since the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens had not been wasted, and just a month after that letter to Berthier, the Army of the Ocean Coast, which for month after month had been trained and drilled and hardened and forged into the greatest army Europe had ever seen, turned its back on its channel camps and England to march on a world hopelessly ill-prepared to face it.

The ‘Army of England’ was no more, and the Grande Armée born. If the ‘good times’, as Michael Broers put it in the first volume of this biography, were behind Napoleon, ‘the years of greatness’ lay ahead. In his St Helena exile Napoleon would always look back on the Civil Code as his crowning achievement, but the Napoleon of legend, the Napoleon who still so violently divides opinion — Hegel’s ‘spirit of the age’ or a Corsican Hitler — will always be inseparably linked with the triumphs of Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt and Wagram that form the core of this second volume.

However it might look with the benefit of hindsight, though, there cannot have seemed anything inevitable about these victories when Napoleon performed his grand pirouette and turned his army towards central Europe and Britain’s Austrian and Russian allies.

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