Reviews: Biographical Books

The Reign of Napoleon

Asprey, Robert B. The Reign of Napoleon. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN# 0465004814. $35.00 480 pages. Hardcover.

The Reign of Napoleon Cover

I just finished reading The Reign of Napoleon and I thought I would write a review while my impressions were still fresh.

First let me address the general tone of the book. The author, in his introduction, depreciates those who "treat [Napoleon] as either demi-god...or as devil incarnate" and gives the impression that he seeks a central viewpoint. This was a large part of my motivation for buying the book. I thought I bought a biography that charted a middle course between the venom of Correlli Barnett and the uncritical worship of Vincent Cronin. I was disappointed. While not completely uncritical of Napoleon, this book certainly cuts him every possible break, particularly in regards to the admittedly difficult subject of his Imperial motivations. Other individuals are usually seen in terms of their loyalty or utility to the Emperor.  Conversely, the motivations of those opposed to Napoleon are seen in the worst possible light, and an excessively great deal is made of the role of British money as a factor in motivating them.

There is a very extensive bibliography, over 18 pages in length. I am rather dubious, however, as to how well the author has absorbed all this material. Certainly, a much smaller list of publications is cited in the notes; far and away the most common citation is Napoleon's own correspondence. While of course it is proper to use this as a primary source, I believe that the author has failed to view Napoleon's statements about himself and his battles critically.  Other citations suggest, again, that the publications actively consulted for the book may be much less numerous than the bibliography would suggest; for example, it appears that J.F.C. Fuller was very much the main source consulted for the Battle of Waterloo.  There are more modern sources available for this most famous of all Napoleonic battles.

There are some strong points; the book is well written (though perhaps a little too florid) and the author shows a good understanding of guerrilla warfare (as he should, being the author of War in the Shadows, a book on that subject).  Conversely, even within the confines of his pro-Napoleonic viewpoint, Mr. Asprey does not seem to have immersed himself within the period very well. There are a number of clumsy errors, such as placing the death of Auguste Caulaincourt at Smolensk (it was actually at Borodino) or "an enterprising Austrian officer loaded some heavy grain mills on barges which easily smashed through the repaired structures". Not only does this miss the peripheral point that the mills were floating mills built onto the barges, but he dates this two days after the battle, though in fact it happened during it.

Asprey describes some of the campaigns better than others. The simpler campaigns are described fairly well, but—even within the confines of his own viewpoint—his descriptions of the more complex 1813 and 1814 campaigns are very vague.  Since this book is very much a military history of Napoleon's reign, this is especially disappointing.

I shall now include what I consider two of the more egregious passages.

The Battle of Aspern-Essling:

"Charles had meanwhile brought together about 90,000 troops who, supported by some 200 cannon, fell on the new arrivals in late afternoon. Attack after attack was repulsed during the next few hours with Bessieres, Espagne and St. Germain's cavalry performing brilliantly, broaching the Austrian squares that bristled with bayonets, sharp, hot actions which closed at dark but not before the brave Espagne was killed..."

"Fighting began again at 4 a.m. with massive attacks on Massena's corps which not only held but suddenly counterattacked, a fierce charge that set the enemy running. Noting that Charles had deployed most of his strength opposite the French flanks, Napoleon ordered Lannes to attack the enemy center, Oudinot on the left, Boudet on the right, St. Hilaire in the middle with Bessieres' cuirassiers in support."

"This effort was succeeding brilliantly when the French suddenly became unwelcome hosts to an adverse fortune of war, unseasonably warm weather. Tributary rivers hugely pregnant with waters released by a premature melt-off in the mountains delivered their children into the Danube. Rising in its wrath the mighty river tore whole trees from its banks, battering rams that smashed into the two main boat bridges."

"Napoleon learned the bad news about 7 a.m. when he believed himself on the verge of a great victory. The enemy left, center, and right were in rout, cannons reversed as gunners hurried from the already blood-soaked field. Suddenly aides galloped to Massena, Lannes and Bessieres: draw in your troops, conserve your ammunition, Lannes to hold the field while the army fell back on Essling. Soon noticing the tactical shift the enemy turned its ranks, swiveled its cannon and during the next ten hours fired 40,000 lethal iron balls while its infantry tried in vain to break through the thin protective rearguard. The French, hoarding cartridges with the care of Croesus clutching a gold coin, somehow managed to hold the village despite repeated enemy attacks."

The Battle of Nations:

"A new tidal wave was racing across [Napoleon's] sea of troubles. His hesitant ally, the king of Bavaria, had gone over to the allies. Suddenly an entire Austrian army was free to join Schwarzenberg's already imposing force, suddenly the Bavarian army was at the disposal of the allies, suddenly the quantitative factor swept all before it. The enemy must be attacked before he could be reinforced. Increasingly intense, somewhat frantic and at times confusing orders called in all corps to join an attack scheduled initially for 15 October, but then delayed a day."

"Napoleon was too late. On 14 October he notified Ney and Macdonald that 'tomorrow the 15th we shall be attacked by the army of Bohemia [Schwarzenberg from the south] and by the Army of Silesia [Blucher from the northwest]. Even as he was dictating this message, General Wittgenstein with some 80,000 troops and 80 cannon was moving on Murat's position."

"Murat was all fight. Six attacks along the line were repulsed with the help of some 'beautiful cavalry charges' and a brilliant performance by Poniatowski who received his marshal's baton on the field of battle. Now came a report of Bernadotte's arrival in Merseburg with 70,000 troops, apparently to be joined by the Army of Bohemia coming from the south. Early on 15 October, Prince Schwarzenberg, commanding the allied armies, announced that 'a general and decisive battle' would take place the following day."

"Schwarzenberg was good for his word. The allied attack opened at 9 a.m., the evident plan being to outflank the French right which was defended by Murat's force of Lauriston, Poniatowski and Victor's corps. Three enormous columns preceded by 200 cannon struck the French line no fewer than six times during the morning, each attack beaten off with heavy enemy losses. A final Austrian attempt was shattered by Drouot's artillery firing mitraille almost point-blank on enemy flanks. Murat's casualties were said to number 2,500, enemy casualties an alleged 25,000 including over 3,000 prisoners."

"Elsewhere on this stinking, smoke-covered field Bertrand beat off a cavalry-partisan attack at Lindenau while Marmont, though wounded, threw Yorck's Prussians out of Mockern and managed to re-establish his line by the time darkness ended the action. The day finished with no one the winner. The human cost was heavy, an estimated 25,000 French and 30,000 allied troops. French cannon alone had fired 80,000 rounds."

"The following day was quiet. The French were joined by General Reynier's small Saxon corps, but Schwarzenberg was reinforced by Bennigsen's 40,000 Russians coming from Dresden while Bernadotte was at last moving in from Merseburg with some 70,000 men. Upset by reports of heavy enemy reinforcements Napoleon shifted Murat's force into a semi-circle about two miles south and southwest of Leipzig. He also dispatched one of Bertrand's corps to clear the Weissenfels plain of enemy light horse and secure the Saale river crossings to ensure communication with Erfurt."

"The enemy struck again on the morning of 18 October, only to be repeatedly repulsed by Lauriston, Poniatowski and Augereau backed by the Old and part of the New Guard [sic]- a fearful day's to-and-fro melee ended that evening by massive French artillery fire which forced the enemy to withdraw two or three miles from the field. Ney meanwhile fought off Blucher's attacks in the north, a success stained in mid-afternoon by most of Reynier's Saxon corps along with the Wurttemberg cavalry and the Hessians joining the enemy to open the road to Reudnitz, a crisis finally resolved by Nansouty's Guard cavalry and infantry."

"Despite a precarious situation Napoleon seemed determined to fight on, that is until that evening when his artillery generals reported that in five days the hungry cannon had eaten more than 220,000 rounds and that no more than 16,000 rounds remained, scarcely enough for two hours of fighting. Ammunition could only be replaced from depots in Erfurt and Magdeburg. Cut from Magdeburg, it was Erfurt or nothing, and speed was vital if the Bavarians were not to get there first."

So you see, according to the author, although victorious everywhere Napoleon was beaten at Aspern only the unexpected (though annual) rise of the Danube, and at Leipzig only by the sudden unexpected running out of his artillery ammunition.  For those unfamiliar with those battles, these are very uncritical points of view.  Napoleon and his army did perform well at both of these battles.  Nevertheless, the most commonly accepted versions (as for example in Chandler's The Campaigns of Napoleon) see things rather more critically, especially in regards for Napoleon's own

I am afraid that I cannot recommend you buy this book. Not because of my trivial irritation with Mr. Asprey's incorrect use of the word tentative, nor because I disagree with his highly favorable view of Napoleon and his motivations, though I do.  Rather, this book is not worth the purchase price because the author is unable to simply and clearly describe the more complex campaigns and battles of 1813 and 1814.  In a military history of Napoleon's reign, this is not acceptable.

Reviewed by James D. Gray
November 2001


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