The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Strategies for a World War
Rowman & Littlefield (2022)
ISBN: 978 1 5381 6369 6
Jeremy Black’s latest work offers an overview and reinterpretation of the strategic decision making of the key players – including the Great Powers of Europe – during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The main theme of this book is to step back from the traditional viewpoint of this titanic struggle, where many historians have explored the operational plans and grand manoeuvres of Napoleon and the Marshalate, rather Black aims to move from the operational to focus on a solely strategic examination of the thinking that underpinned some of the most famous campaigns in military history.
This approach makes this text a great bridge between historical discussions and international relations as Black discusses the strategy of the era without the veneer of some of the grand theories of international relations such as the realist and liberal schools of thought. Instead, he looks at the strategic concerns of Europe’s main actors within the framework of the time they lived. Black does this by looking at previous historical examples, to either reveal strategic continuities or an abrupt volta face in the strategic decision making of world leaders during the Napoleonic Wars. For instance, Black discusses the continuity within the decision making of Bourbon, Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, including the desire for France’s ‘natural frontiers’ such as the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Rhine. By using these historical precedents and looking at future strategic outcomes for reference, Black weighs the success of the strategic planning of key Napoleonic players. And by following this approach he demonstrates that, despite the dramatic success of Napoleon, his lack of restraint and complete control of both France’s military and diplomacy made his acquisitions far more unstable than the careful diplomacy of Bourbon France, which had not only successfully claimed territory, but had also brought about a long-standing alliance with Austria (1756-1792).
Black also attempts to draw in a vast array of events taking place across the globe relating their relevance to the conflict born in Europe. He includes references to Russian, British, and French strategic interests in Iran and the borders of the East India Company’s territory in India, or Spain’s construction of a naval base in the Philippines, to sure up its presence in Asia, whilst still engaged with fighting in Europe. This helps to demonstrate the breadth of decision making in the foreign offices of the combatants and their need to safe-guard strategic interests across the globe. However, many of these details are constrained due to the short length of this text and it would have been interesting if it could have been covered in more detail.
Overall, this is a great introduction to some of the grand themes relating to strategic thought during the Napoleonic period. However due to its short length some of the lesser-known episodes of the conflict, are touched upon and remain tantalising morsels before the main narrative takes the reader’s attention once more. This is a great narrative alive with a wealth of knowledge and material on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which would make this a great text for anyone looking to start getting to grips with the many twists and turns of international relations at the turn of the 18th century.