Reviews: Military Books

Armies of the Napoleonic Wars

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory (Editor). Armies of the Napoleonic Wars. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2011. 283 pages. ISBN# 1848840675. Hardcover. £25

When I first received Armies of the Napoleonic Wars in the mail, I wasn’t expecting too much.  How could a book, which has less than 300 pages, cover such a complex topic?  Furthermore, the book was divided into ten chapters, each dedicated to a different country’s army (or in the case of minor German states, many countries).  This meant that the average chapter was less than 30 pages long to cover a 25 year period.   I was totally skeptical that it would be worth my time to read.  But as I started reading it, the more engrossed I became and I am very happy to report that my initial impressions were completely wrong!

The various chapters in Armies of the Napoleonic Wars were written by some of the most respected names in the study of Napoleonic military history. Hence, the approach each took towards their topic was different. Half of the authors provided overviews on how their nation’s army evolved over three decades of warfare, while the others discussed in length events or something unique to that nation which impacted the make-up of its army.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes provided surveys of both the French and British armies.  Because of the size of the French army, Dr. Fremont-Barnes limited his discussion of it to the combat arms (infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments) and how the composition, organization, and deployment of the regiments evolved to meet the demands of the numerous campaigns.  Because it was significantly smaller, he was able to expand his study of the British Army to include the support corps – such as the medical department, the commissary, engineers, headquarters, and foreign troops.

David Hollins’ study looks closely at all aspects of the Austrian Army.  He includes much information on the Army’s HQ and staff, the changing organization of the infantry and cavalry regiments (to include squadron and regimental strengths, titles, recruiting areas, colonels, etc.), the artillery, the technical services, the landwehr, and the insurrection.

Oliver Schmidt looked at the organization of the Prussian Army and its organization and the impact the bitter defeat in 1806 had it.  Information is given about the national and provincial command structure down to how the regiments changed over the years. Several pages are even devoted to the various Free Corps and foreign units that were part of the army.

Although Alexander Mikaberidze’s essay on the Russian Army covered its organization over the years, much of its focus was on the recruitment/conscription of its soldiers and how future officers were brought into the army (and the subsequent problems caused by the lack of a system for ensuring the qualifications for commissioning officers.)

Jack Gill had one of the longest chapters.  In it he examines the Confederation of the Rhine and the contributions from the various states which formed the Confederation to the French Empire. He briefly discusses the organization of the military establishment of each state, but more importantly he provides an insightful analysis of the role they played in the various campaigns of Napoleon.

Charles Esdaile focused not on the organization of the Spanish Army, but on the various social and political factors and divisions that wracked the country before Napoleon invaded and how they affected the recruitment, supply, and deployment of the different Spanish armies over the six years of the war. As Professor Esdaile put it “The most crucial point to make here is that even before Napoleon ordered his forces to seize control, Spain was a deeply radicalized society. On the one hand long years of war with Britain had combined with natural disaster and serious structural difficulties in the Spanish economy to cause abject misery amongst large sections of the populace, whilst on the other that self-same populace had been deluded by a faction of churchmen and aristocrats eager to turn back the enlightened reforms of Charles III and Charles IV. . .”[1] But despite all these difficulties “. . . the Spaniards fought, kept fighting and refused pointblank to countenance defeat, let alone a political accommodation with the enemy.”[2]

Malyn Newitt examined the Portuguese Army, from its early disasters in 1807 to one of the more professional forces on the continent by 1814.  Much of the chapter is spent on the efforts of Marshal Beresford to reform the army – including filling the ranks, training, equipping, feeding, and organizing it.

Jaroslaw Czubaty’s chapter on the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw was a bit more conventional in the sense it cover the organization of the Polish army from its birth in early 1807 through its death in 1814.  Yet, Doctor Czubaty also goes into considerable detail on the political infighting that caused so many problems for the army in its early days.

Frederick Schneid states in his article on the Kingdom of Italy, that it “. . . provided the largest contingent of satellite troops for Napoleon’s imperial armies.  Their participation in virtually every campaign of the Napoleonic Wars made the Italian Army vital to Napoleon’s military ambitions.”[3] He shows how its growth and organization was directly tied to the French Army.  As the French Army evolved over the years so did the Italian Army.  And as the fortunes of the French rose and fell, so did the Italian’s.

In reality Armies of the Napoleonic Wars is a one volume encyclopedia.  Like most encyclopedias, the articles are too short to satisfy a researcher with broad expertise on the subject.  However it provides enough detail to answer most general questions on any given army of the era.  One feature that I really found very useful was the ten page “Further Reading” appendix that provides the reader with a list of sources for him to conduct his own research.  Sources in this section are divided by topic, providing the reader with a ready-made list for each army!  Since I know of no individual who is an expert on all armies of the Era, Armies of the Napoleonic Wars should be in the library of anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars or military history. It will be a reference book that will be turned to time and again.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham


[1] Page 193

[2] Page 192

[3] Page 252


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2011

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