Recent Writing on Napoleon and His Wars
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Recent Writing on Napoleon and His Wars
The Wars against Napoleon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars. By Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider. El Dorado Hills, Calif.: Savas Beatie, 2008. ISBN 978-1-93271-4437-1. Maps. Illustrations. Index. Pp. xi, 227. $32.95.
The War of Wars: the Epic Struggle between Britain and France, 1789-1815. By Robert Harvey. London: Constable and Robinson, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84529-635-3. Maps. Illustrations. Select bibliography. Index. Pp. xiii, 962. $18.95.
Napoleon as a General: Command from the Battlefield to Grand Strategy. By Jonathon Riley. London: Cromwell, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84725-180-0. Maps. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 227. $31.95.
Napoleon's Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War. By Ronald Fraser. New York: Verso, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84467-67-082-6. Maps. Glossary. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xlviii, 587. $54.95. [End Page 209]

Let us begin with a rather obvious question. Over the past two hundred years the subject of Napoleon Bonaparte, his wars and his empire is one that has been discussed ad infinitum by numerous scholars in Britain, France and other countries. Why this should be the case is obvious enough, but it does rather beg a very serious question. In brief, if so much has been said already, is there anything left to say now? To this question, however, the answer is a most unequivocal 'yes': there are many areas that, at least in English, remain all but unexplored, and others that are in great need of further attention. Amongst these last, particular mention should be made of the military aspects of the question. If this last statement is doubted, let us consider the historiography. In effect, this is dominated by certain rather formulaic approaches which were for far too long pursued to the exclusion of almost everything else. Thus, the campaigns of Marengo, Austerlitz and the rest have generally been viewed either as an integral part of lives of Napoleon or as an exercise in narrative undertaken for its own sake. In both cases, the result is the same in that what we get is a series of linked stories that are retailed in greater or lesser detail according to the space that is available and the audience that is being catered for but rarely move away from the sphere of operational history. There is nothing wrong with this approach per se - before deeper issues can be discussed, it is essential to get to grips with the chronology of the wars and to develop a clear understanding of their detail - while it has on occasion not only been pursued in masterly fashion but married with effective discussions of such matters as Napoleon's generalship and the contemporary art of war. Yet the chief thrust remains essentially uniform, and is hardly varied by the numerous studies that have appeared of individual campaigns such as those of Wagram or Waterloo. Nor do such works address the whole of the story. Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind here is the so-called 'new military history' that views wars and warfare as as much as social and political phenomena as they are military ones, but much more serious is the fact that simple narratives of Napoleon's campaigns do not provide comprehensive coverage even of areas of study that are central to conventional military history. Until the publication of the current reviewer's own Napoleon's Wars: an International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), for example, the vital subject of the diplomatic background to the conflict could only be accessed through studies that, however magisterial, tended to cover a much broader period of European history, while there were, too, almost no discrete studies of Napoleon as a military commander (in 1967 one book was published with this self-same title by James Marshall-Cornwall, but unfortunately this was no more than yet another operational narrative). There is, then, still much to be discussed, and it is encouraging to see that the scholars whose work is discussed here have all realised that this is the case. That said, however, their efforts represent something of a...