Reviews: Books of General Interest

The Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire

By Digby Smith

Smith, Digby. The Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire: How the Emperor Self-Destructed. Greenhill Books, 2005. 239 pages. ISBN# 1853676098. Hardcover.

Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire Cover

Digby Smith is the author of several books with the emphasis on the military history of the Napoleonic wars. Some of his books were also published under the pseudonym "Otto von Pivka." Mr. Smith is known online as a busy participant of the Napoleon Series Forum. His latest book, The Decline and Fall of Napoleon's Empire, deals with the different causes of Napoleon's decline.

The book starts with Napoleon's accession to the throne and the following enthronement of a "sort of crowned cosa nostra"– as Mr. Smith puts it - which consisted of members of his family and his followers. After this Napoleon's police organization is discussed. Several letters to his ministers of police and also in 1813 to his Marshal Davout in Hamburg demonstrate with which details Napoleon dealt domestically and abroad. Also it shows how Napoleon tried to keep the absolute control in his own hands, and how far he was from being able to delegate.

After that excursion the book turns to the military weak points of his early reign. The battle of Marengo is presented as an example of Napoleon's underestimation of his enemies, which repeats itself not only in 1809 but elsewhere. A further topic is the domination of the British over the oceans and Napoleon's relationship to navigation and the navy, based on letters to the admirals and vice-admirals of his fleet.

Following that the enormous importance of the Confederation of the Rhine for the French export is discussed. Based on statistics regarding the French exports from 1805-1815, the influence of the Continental System not only on France and its allies but also on England are explained. The resistance of Napoleon to the powers of the market is shown with the measures and counter measures taken. Napoleon's inability to delegate is shown here as well, based on his Correspondance.

After that the book deals with the demands of Napoleon with which he burdened Jerome, the King of Westphalia (Napoleon's brother) and Murat, the Grand Duke of Berg (Napoleon's brother-in-law). But also it shows the disappointments which he experienced. Chapter 5, "Napoleon Centre of the Universe," reminds the reader of J.R. Elting's Swords around a Throne chapter 5. Here, as there, the structure and the tasks of Napoleon's staff and some of its members are discussed in great detail. This detailed description serves Digby Smith mainly for the purpose to highlight the meaning of the lack of an adequate training organisation and institution for staff officers in the Napoleonic Army.

After a short look at the excesses of the corruption under the Empire based on the example of the events in Spain, and the sub-chapter, "Distractions of the Flesh," which refers to the marriage to Marie-Louise, Digby Smith now turns completely towards the military and – only limitedly – to diplomacy. Economics and politics step into the background. From chapter 7 on, all military decisions from 1812 up to 1815 are mentioned and commented upon, backed up by contemporary sources (Segur, Marbot, Odeleben, Meerveld, among others). The last chapter of the book deals with the "Cent Jours" and in a sub-chapter especially with the battle of Waterloo.

The book appears with a very modern approach; Mr. Smith refers in the introduction to his intensive use of the internet for his research. Instead of the usual acknowledgement towards some institutions or other fellow historians and authors he thanks several participants of the internet-Fora for their support. Also his frequent referring to later historical personalities and events is remarkable. Mentioned are among others: the E.U., the COMECON, the Warsaw Pact, NATO, the Franco- Prussian war of 1870/71, WW2, the current war in Iraq, and U.S. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

To discuss the causes for Napoleon's downfall in only 239 pages, seems to be a very ambitious enterprise. And the book generally suffers from this limitation very much.

Anyone expecting an in depth study of economics and politics will be disappointed. The military sector covers the largest part of the book. Economy and policy (esp. domestic and financial policy) are proportionally under-represented.

The strength of the book lies with the numerous transcriptions and quotes, which are well selected and linked. These complement standard works like the ones of J. Tulard or J. Presser, where their reproduction en masse was not done. A large part of the transcriptions comes from Napoleon's voluminous Correspondance. Mr. Smith meets his own aim-- "I hope that readers will learn something new about Napoleon" --in so far as some of the quotes/transcriptions – put into context - might be new to his readers.

Especially in chapter 11, sub-chapter "Waterloo," it appears to the reader that Digby Smith is perhaps sliding back a bit too much into the topic of his previous book Charge! - Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic War (Greenhill Books, 2003). The grave mistakes of Napoleon before and during the battle are mentioned briefly but they step back far behind the - admittedly extremely interesting to read – memoirs of the French cavalry-captain Fortune Brack (meaning: Antoine Fortune de Brack). Five out of a total of eleven text-pages of this chapter are taken up with these memories to introduce and to underpin the thesis that the famous cavalry attacks of Ney were actually initialized by a coincidence.

Comparative quoting – probably also because of reasons of space – is not always used. Therefore in chapter 7, "1812, Russia – The Great Blunder," only Segur has his say, many times, but Caulaincourt not even once. To judge about the respective reliability of information, which – as mentioned above – was provided via the internet and which is identified as such, is left to the reader.

Who is the target group of this book? Beginners might be overstretched because of the several leaps in time. The incomplete "Chronology" will be of little help for them (The Peace of Amiens and the battle of Preuss-Eylau are not mentioned; the battle of Aspern-Essling is pictured as a victory for Napoleon). The book is appropriate for advanced readers, who have engaged themselves with the different sub-areas before. For them the numerous quotes and transcriptions - put in context - can be considered as a complement to previously read works.

The book provides a bibliography comprising newer and older sources. Sources are usually indicated in the text or in footnotes, but unfortunately inconsistently. The 28 illustrations of the book are in black and white and are mostly portraits of the protagonists who are mentioned in the book. Moreover it contains a map of Europe, a chronology and an "Appendix" of eight parts with statistics and (English) transcriptions of several decrees.


1          The Steps to the Throne
2          Military Blunders
3          Economic Errors
4          1809: The Puppets Fall Short of Expectations
5          Napoleon Centre of the Universe
6          Corruption
7          1812: Russia – The Great Blunder
8          The Errors of 1813
9          1813: Leipzig, the Battle of the Nations
10        1814: Flashes of Genius, Thoughts of Suicide
11        1815: One last Throw – The Hundred Days

Reviewed by Frank Mόller

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005


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