Reviews: Biographical Books

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life

By Alan Schom

Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life. N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1997. 888p. ISBN# 0060172142. $40. Also available in paperback from HarperCollins, (ISBN# 0060929588) for $22.

Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life cover

Alan Schom's recent biography, Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life, has enthusiastically joined the ranks of that half of Napoleonic literature that is a "waste of good paper and printer's ink." Schom dedicates his tome, in part, to Emile Zola, "who gave his life to the struggle for historical truth." It is a pity that the author didn't follow this sage advice when researching and writing this diatribe.

In his preface Schom states, "I was astonished to find there was no one volume biography covering all aspects of his [Napoleon's] life." Undoubtedly, Vincent Cronin, Emil Ludwig, and Jean Tulard would be surprised by this assertion. This volume is rife with error, innuendo, and slander. Schom bases his study on dubious sources —references that are either inaccurate, have been ghostwritten, or have long been discredited by reliable historians— including the memoirs of Bourrienne, Thiebault, and Madame Junot. The author's conclusions are often overly simplistic and illogical. They are colored by a too obvious built-in prejudice against the French Emperor and his subordinates, and are not history but fiction.

Errors of fact are myriad. Some of the more fantastic examples include the author's repeated claims and accusations that Marshal Soult was a coward who "generally fled when fighting became intense." Schom's strength and casualty figures are generally inaccurate and wide of the mark (at times some quick math also renders them illogical). Schom claims that Lannes "despised the Emperor by 1806" but gives no support for this claim. He repeatedly states that many French commanders refused to support their colleagues on the battlefield without presenting any evidence to back this up. While hardly a band of brothers, there are few instances where they failed each other on the battlefield or on campaign. Bernadotte ignored the fighting at Auerstadt in 1806, and St. Cyr definitely failed Vandamme in 1813, but these instances are few and far between.

Schom continually confuses the professional relationship between Napoleon and Berthier in 1800 with the Army of the Reserve in the Marengo Campaign. Schom goes on to repeat and compound the error that Berthier commanded the Army of Germany in 1813 when he did not. Schom does his best throughout the book to denigrate Berthier, both professionally and personally, undoubtedly swallowing Jomini's malice and wild imagination whole. He also totally misses the fact that Berthier was the chief of staff of the Army of Italy in 1796, merely stating that he and Napoleon met briefly that year.

Schom continually does his prejudiced best to blacken Napoleon's reputation. Schom repeatedly refers to Napoleon as "Bonaparte" after 1804 when he would properly be styled the Emperor Napoleon or just Napoleon. Schom also accuses Napoleon of crimes which cover the gamut of extortion, murder, cowardice, sadomasochism, sadism, theft, brutality, callousness, that he bankrupted France (in fact, Napoleon always balanced his budgets and into 1814 France had practically no national debt), that he had epilepsy (of which there is no evidence), and that Napoleon was a psychopath. For this last gem Schom states that he had consulted medical friends who confirmed his "diagnosis." This is not history --it is nonsense. No evidence is cited for any of these claims, only hearsay and personal opinion.

Further minor errors include the claim that British troops at Waterloo were unblooded recruits, that Friant (he spells the name 'Friand'), as well as Michel, were mortally wounded at Waterloo leading cavalry charges (both were hit in the Old Guard assault at the end of the battle and only Michel was killed), that Desaix commanded and led Monnier's division in the decisive counterattack at Marengo (it was Boudet's). Additionally, he concludes that the Battle of Friedland went exactly as planned (the main attack by Ney was initially defeated which prompted Senarmont's famous artillery assault), that the French had orders to take no prisoners at Austerlitz, and that "Napoleon could not abide his commanders sharing the limelight." Furthermore, he places Rapp and Mouton in Aspern instead of Essling for their counterattack against Rosenberg, and finally, that Austerlitz was an accident instead of a well-laid trap. Schom makes the fantastic statement that Napoleon abandoned the Pratzen plateau because he didn't have enough troops and artillery to hold it. By Schom's count another 40,000 troops and proportional artillery support would have been needed. One could go on listing the errors contained in the pages of this work.

The author claims that this book took ten years to research. If so, the time was wasted. Schom's Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life should be listed as a work of fiction, for it is filled with half-truths and outright falsehoods that slanders a gallant military commander and talented head of state who deserves better. He slanders as well the tough and talented subordinates who led one of the greatest armies in military history, men who marched the length and breadth of Europe and entered every capitol of continental Europe as conquerors. This book belongs in only one place-the dustbin.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley


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