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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars & Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée

Elting, John Robert and Vincent J. Esposito. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. Revised edition. London: Greenhill, 1999. 400 pages. ISBN# 1853673463. $80.00. Hardcover.

Elting, John Robert. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée. N.Y.: Da Capo, 1997. 784 pages. ISBN# 030607572. $19.95. Softcover.

13 October 1806, the Landgrafenberg near Jena, Saxony-

The long artillery column belonging to Marshal Lannes' V Corps had taken the wrong road up to the plateau where the rest of the V Corps was waiting and was now stuck behind the lead gun, hopelessly jammed between two large rocks. The senior NCOs were disgusted, both because the officers had gotten them all lost, and because they had wandered off to find supper for themselves leaving the growing problem in their laps. In the time-honored tradition of professional soldiers, they decided to light their pipes.

As soon as the column had come to a slamming, bone jarring halt amid cursing gunners, stumbling horses, and embarrassed officers, exhausted drivers had slid from their mounts to check if their horses and harness were undamaged. That done, pipes had been lighted and the tired, worn out column had taken a break. Horses snuffled the sparse grass in the rocky defile; gunners had gone to sleep propped up against gun wheels; artillery-train drivers had dozed off atop their equally worn out mounts; sergeants and chiefs of section had nonchalantly strolled up and down the column casually checking men, guns, and equipment. You never knew, they might actually start moving again before daylight.

Darkness had already fallen, and the only light in the defile came from pipes being relighted or the occasional horse's show striking a rock. The only sounds were the creaking of leather, the low whinnies of hungry horses, and snoring artillerymen. The Grande Armée's forced marches could be man and horse killing nightmares; you slept when you could.

There was a sudden stir on the ledge above the defile. Startled NCOs looked up from their pipes to notice two men, one holding a lantern. A stern rebuke from a senior marechal des logis chef was choked off in mid-sentence when it was noticed that the man without the lantern wore a simple bicorne and overcoat. The whispered warning of "l'Empereur!" ran down the column like wildfire. A sudden, shocked, and profane shudder ran the length of the stalled column. Intense activity suddenly erupted as the NCOs realized who was present. Sleepy drivers were knocked awake. Horses ears pricked up, unwary drivers being thrown from their saddles as their mounts shook themselves awake; pipes were put out. Cannoneers asleep beside their guns were kicked awake by now-alert sergeants and corporals. From a sleepy mass of horseflesh and humanity the column now became a hub of alert and disciplined activity.

Napoleon, tight-lipped in his fury as he was told the situation from a veteran marechal des logis, gave a few quiet, succinct orders, and once again became a young captain of artillery. The lead gun crew, supervised by the senior NCOs and directed by the Emperor himself, skillfully worked the gun loose from its granite prison. Acting on instructions from Napoleon's companion, a General Aide-de-Camp, the entire column mounted and lurched forward into motion-alert, motivated gunners pulling alongside straining team horses, leather harness creaking under the strain of guns and caissons, to work together up the crude defile.

Watching with grim satisfaction back atop his perch on the side of the defile, Napoleon took the salute from the passing companies, until all were well on their way to rejoin their corps on the plateau. Then the Emperor turned on his heel, mounted his horse, and he and his aide went back to the deadly business awaiting them on the Landgrafenberg.

Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars

Nowhere in the English language has the epic saga of Napoleon's Grande Armée been better told than in two books by John R. Elting, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars and Swords Around A Throne - Napoleon's Grande Armée Envisioned by the author as the first two volumes of a trilogy on the period (the last part is the four volumes of uniform prints by Herbert Knotel), the author has produced two standard, authoritative works on the French Emperor and the army he led as victors to every capitol of continental Europe.

The Atlas was designed as a textbook for cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point and fulfilled that role admirably until superseded by a much abridged text in the 1970s because of a shortened course content. Written in a concise, witty, easily flowing style, it traces the Napoleon's wars from the Italian campaigns of 1796-97 to Waterloo in 1815. Based on extensive research, much of it being primary and archival sources, it is arranged in a half text/half map format. Each map is paired with accompanying text on the facing page. The maps display in color (blue for the French, red for the allies) the troops' dispositions, type, strength, and commanders at the times and dates specified in the title box of each map.

This is a revised and updated reprint of the original, authorized by Col. Elting and the Department of History at West Point. It corrects the few errors on maps and text, and includes a new preface by the author, as well as biographies of General Esposito and Col. Elting. The greatest update, however, is to the "Recommended Reading List." This is one of the great strengths of the Atlas. It lists and annotates hundreds of books most useful in conducting further reading or research, warts and all. It includes the best Napoleonic scholarship written since 1964, many by experts in their own right, as well as stalwart, reliable volumes from the old list. It is an unparalleled research aid to both student and scholar.

Col. Elting spent 11 of his 40-year army career teaching history of the military art at West Point. Additionally, he updated and corrected many of the department's reference materials and notes for the course, especially for the Napoleonic period. A combat veteran of World War II, as well as a skilled intelligence officer, there is much of 'a whiff of grapeshot' to this volume. Written by a soldier for soldiers, it has endured over the last 35 years as the definitive volume on the subject.

You ride with the Emperor reconnoitering the Rhine crossings in 1805 before the encirclement of Ulm; witness Marshal Soult's devastating, fog-shrouded assault which split, and wrecked, the allied center at Austerlitz; take your place with Marshal Davout at Auerstadt as he executes a double envelopment of the main Prussian army; ride through Prussian infantry with Murat at Jena, he with only a riding crop in his hand; stand in the freezing hell of Eylau as the Emperor, seemingly in the midst of disaster, calmly orders the massive cavalry charge that shatters the stubborn Russian infantry, saving a desperate day; limber up with General Senarmont as he leads his artillery batteries forward unsupported to assault the Russian center at Friedland; ride up the Pass of Somosierra in the neck-or-nothing charge by 150 Polish light horse as they overrun four batteries of entrenched Spanish artillery, sustaining 50% casualties. Not only is this good military history, it is high drama.

Weaknesses are few, if any. The Spanish war is covered in detail only as far as Napoleon's personal involvement. Subsequent events are neatly summarized, however. There are no notes, which may be a blessing! There is a very valuable section of biographical sketches of the Marshals and the outstanding French general officers, as well as their opponents and the political figures of both sides. The section is very instructive, but they are literally sketches. More information would have been greatly appreciated, but one has to conduct further research to find out more. Perhaps that was the author's intent, as the book originally was designed as a college text and the student's were forced to hit the books for more detailed information.

Swords Around A Throne

Swords Around A Throne is the result of thirty years of research and is a first rate organizational history of the Grande Armée. Quite simply, the Grande Arméeis covered from muzzle to butt plate. All of the combat arms are meticulously covered, as well as the supporting services, and such esoteric topics as law and order, the armies of the Revolution, as well as the Royal Army of the ancien regime just prior to the conflagration of 1789.

The flotsam and jetsam of the Grande Armée is covered in painstaking detail: vivandieres, colors, decorations, music, medical services and practices, food, marches, replacements, and draft dodgers. In essence, many of the questions raised in the Atlas are answered here. Swords is in reality a companion volume to the Atlas, and the two are complimentary. Written in the same witty, easily flowing style, it is jam-packed with anything you want to know about how the Grande Armée operated, and who the main characters in the drama of its existence were.

There are excellent chapters on logistics, strategy and tactics (which I consider superb and quite informative), as well as three chapters on the end of the Empire and the Grande Armée itself. Marshals and generals, and lesser personalities are given their due, and are generously covered in some detail, especially some virtual unknowns that some of us may have barely heard of, if at all. The Imperial Navy has a chapter dedicated to it, especially detailing its support of land operations. Allied and foreign troops in the Grande Armée are given their just due, and the chapter on the Grande Armée's enemies is enlightening and very well done.

One of the best chapters is on the Imperial General Staff. This attention has been long overdue and recognizes its value in the Emperor's method of waging war, as well as the value of its chief, Marshal Berthier. It was the first great modern staff, and Berthier the first of the great chiefs of staff. Two of the reasons for the Emperor's ability of waging such sweeping, quick and deadly campaigns were the efficiency of Berthier and the staff.

If Swords Around A Throne has a weakness, it is that you hunger for more information. There is so much that is unsaid that it again makes the student in all of us go out and do research on his own. In my personal opinion that is one Col. Elting's purposes. At heart, he is still the teacher, and is trying to have us improve our knowledge of the period, which is one of the most fascinating in military history. The list of sources in the back is impressive, most being either archival sources or first hand accounts of combatants or participants. Some, unfortunately for English-only speakers, are still in French and many are hard to find, but there are many libraries that do hold these unique volumes, such as Antoine de Brack's Light Cavalry Outposts.

In short, this is the best volume on the Grande Armée in English, probably in any language. I haven't read anything either as entertaining or as accurate in over 30 years of studying the period. Both of these volumes are a must for any Napoleonic library. Historians, enthusiasts, wargamers, and modellers will benefit from reading and studying these two volumes from an author I consider the premier Napoleonic historian of our day.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2000