Reviews: Military Books


The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, and Fisher, Todd. The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.  (Essential Histories Special: 4.) Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004. ISBN# 1841768316. Softcover. $24.95.

The Napoleonic Wars: the Rise and Fall of an Empire

This omnibus volume in Osprey's relatively new "Essential Histories" combines four previously published entries on the Napoleonic Wars in the series: The Rise of the Emperor, 1805-1807; The Empires Fight Back, 1808-1812; The Peninsular War, 1807-1814; The Fall of the French Empire, 1813-1815.  Todd Fisher is the author of the first two parts and Gregory Fremont-Barnes is the author of the final two.  The first "book" covers Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Auerstädt, Eylau and Friedland.  The second "book" includes Eckmühl, Aspern-Essling, Wagram, Borodino, and the retreat from Russia.  The third "book" covers the battles of the Peninsular War— Vimiero, Corunna, Talavera, Bussaco, Salamanca and Vittoria.  The final "book" looks at the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars— Lützen, Leipzig and the battles in France, ending, of course, with Waterloo.

Each "book" follows a general format.  Opening with the background to the war, followed by a description of the comparative situations and characteristics of the armies involved—the French, the Austrian, the Russian, the Prussian, the British, etc.  This is followed by a narrative history of each campaign, and finally a description of the situation at the end of the campaign.  Short descriptions of peripheral actions (i.e., usually, except for the Peninsular War section, those where Napoleon was not present) in other theaters are also included.  In addition, each "book" includes one or two "portraits," short, self-contained biographies of soldiers and civilians.

One of the portraits by Fisher, for example, is of Philippe-René Girault, a soldier-musician who served during both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  Another is of Louise Fusil, a French actress caught up in Napoleon's retreat from Russia.  Fremont-Barnes chooses a couple of politicians to profile—Canning and Castlereagh, as well as a common soldier and an artillery officer. Presenting, all in all, a nice cross-section of participants from the minor to the essential. Fremont-Barnes also presents an essay on the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the arts, and also a conclusion giving the consequences of the wars and detailing Napoleon's legacy.

The nature of the book dictates that it will be written with broad strokes and generalizations characteristic of a survey-type work.  Armies are often described with national stereotypes—the French fight with élan, the Austrians conservative, the Russians doggedly stoic, etc.  But it is unfair to compare a work like this to monographs detailing a specific battle, campaign, army, etc.  Both authors present their narratives in a readable manner.  Fisher is generally more sympathetic towards the French, while Fremont-Barnes leans towards the Allies, especially the British, somewhat balancing each other. But some might criticize the emphasis on the French and British as short-shifting the other participants. Fisher tends to emphasize those battles under Napoleon's purview, while in the Peninsula "book" Fremont-Barnes emphasizes those where Wellington was present.  Fremont-Barnes makes greater use of contemporary quotations than Fisher does.

As is to be expected from an Osprey book, the work is generously peppered with illustrations and maps— including contemporary prints, paintings, etc.  Maps of battles and campaigns aid the reader in following the action, but the volume lacks the highly detailed situation maps one has grown accustomed to with Osprey's battle histories.  Oddly, for example, there was no map of the battlefield of Austerlitz included, though there was one for the campaigns up to and following that pivotal battle.

The reader should not expect startling new theories about the Napoleonic Wars.  Ospreys are not the proper venue for propounding new, controversial theories or focusing on political, diplomatic or social history.  Osprey knows its customers and the focus is squarely on the military.  The audience for this book would mainly be the reader with a casual interest in the subject or the novice just starting out studying the era.

I would have liked to have seen a brief essay appended at the beginning giving a quick overview of the general state of the military sciences, branches of service, weapons, tactics, etc. of the day.  This would have made the book even more accessible to the novice.  Had the book started out as a single volume Osprey might well have included something along these lines.  This would have been in my opinion more useful than the rather lop-sided introduction included in this volume.

The book includes a chronology, suggestions for further reading and an index. If you already have the four previously published volumes you don't need this (unless you are a completist). This volume however is a substantial savings at $24.95, compared to $14.95 each for the individual volumes.

Todd Fisher is the Executive Director of the Napoleonic Alliance, and Chief Executive Officer of Emperor's Press which specializes in Napoleonic history. Gregory Fremont-Barnes, who is a professor of history, also wrote the French Revolutionary Wars volume in the Essential Histories series.

 

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004

 

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