Reviews: Biographical Books


The Emperor's Friend: Marshal Jean Lannes

Chrisawn, Margaret Scott.  The Emperor's Friend: Marshal Jean Lannes (Contributions in Military Studies, 191.)  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.  ISBN# 0313310629. $55.95. 280 pages. Hardcover.

Jean Lannes started his military career in a hometown volunteer battalion, answering the call that la Patrie was in danger and marching off to the Revolutionary wars.  Blunt, steadfast, ready for battle or duel, Lannes developed into a careful officer who, aware of his lack of education, studied his profession every day and became one of the best corps commanders in the Grande Armée as well as one of the best general officers of his time.  Winning both Napoleon's admiration and friendship, Lannes was all soldier, having no time for carpet knights, once telling the traitorous French foreign minister, Talleyrand, to his face that he was nothing but a silk stocking full of 'human excrement.'

This fascinating soldier and man has finally 'earned' a biographer in English, and the book that Margaret Chrisawn has written is as blunt, lively, and interesting as the man himself.  The author writes as if she knew Lannes (perhaps she really has—one never knows for sure), and has traveled in his footsteps in Europe and lived among his people in France.  Accurate, well written and researched, this biography is one of the best this reviewer has ever read in over thirty-five years of studying the period.  Quite frankly, this book belongs on the bookshelf of every admirer of the Grande Armée and the men who followed the drum and led it into the fire.

Anecdotal to the point of seeming to be a novel instead of the careful history it is, the author covers Lannes personal and professional life, deftly blending the two into a story of high adventure, disappointment and, finally, tragedy.  The bright light of Lannes life was snuffed out in the environs of Vienna after the lost battle of Essling in 1809, where a chance cannon shot mortally wounded him.   Both of Lannes marriages are covered in detail, as are his adventures as both a combat commander and as ambassador to Portugal between the wars.  The stories of Lannes wearing an oversized saber to the Portuguese court scarring the carefully polished palace floors, as well as his running the English ambassador's carriage off the road, contrast interestingly with his careful leadership and the good care he took of the troops in his charge.

Lannes notorious hot and violent temper clash with the studious soldier, who continually improved his initial meager education and carefully studied his profession.  The methodical reduction of Saragossa and the expert advance guard fight at Friedland, holding off 60,000 Russians with never more than 26,000 men until Napoleon could come up with the main army and throw the Russians into the River Alle, demonstrate that he continually improved throughout his career.

One of the funniest, and best remembered, stories in the book is when Lannes, decked out in full general's regalia, returns home on leave and is remembered—and reminded of being—'that little twerp' by one of the older ladies of his village, general or no general.

Included in the book are excellent maps by Max Sewell, which greatly aid the reader through the various battles, sieges, and adventures in Lannes' campaigns.  Particularly useful are the maps of Malta, Alexandria, St. Jean d’Acre, and Ratisbon, as they are seldom, if ever, pictured in historic works on the period and greatly illuminate for the reader the terrain and built up areas described in the text.

This is no ordinary or average work.  The author has painstakingly discovered new and interesting material about Lannes that sets this biography head and shoulders above its contemporaries.  It has also placed the author in the front rank of Napoleonic scholarship, where she will undoubtedly remain, especially if she continues her writing career.  We should all be looking forward to her next effort with great expectations.  This volume is highly recommended and if you don't at least read it, you are cheating yourself out of both a literary treat, and a careful study of one of the most underrated general officers in any army of the period.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2001

 

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