Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-089
17 Oct. 2019
Review by Lee W. Eysturlid, Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Napoleon: A Life
By Adam Zamoyski
New York: Basic Books, 2018. Pp. xvii, 764. ISBN 978–0–465–05593–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 18th Century, 19th Century, Napoleon Print Version

Adam Zamoyski, an accomplished author of books on European history in both English and Polish, has now written a popular biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, stressing his personal life over his military career. Its forty-four long but easily digested chapters are filled with gossip and entertaining details of the Emperor's life. Nonetheless, despite its breezy style, the book will best serve readers with a more than passing knowledge of the life and wars of Napoleon; it should not be the first Napoleon biography one reads.


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In keeping with its emphasis on the personal over the military, with the exception of the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812,[1] the book provides little detail about its subject's many campaigns and battles. Even Napoleon's epic triumph at Austerlitz (2 Dec. 1805) gets less than a page. Readers learn that the French were outnumbered in troops and guns, and that Napoleon

having surveyed the ground and taken up what appeared to be defensive positions, … had anticipated the direction in which they [the Russians] would be tempted to attack and laid his plans accordingly. He instructed [Marshal Louis-Nicolas] Davout on his right wing to fall back when the Russian left challenged him and to draw them on, off the high ground, in order to make their eventual retreat more difficult. (395)

This simplification omits several critical facts: first, Davout was in the process of arriving on the French right even as the battle was starting; second, the entire French position was a false front designed to draw in the Allied armies. And, third, the Russians descended from the center on the Pratzen Heights, exposing themselves to a well-timed French counter-thrust. Nor is there any mention of the presence of a large number of Austrian troops. As for Napoleon's energetic leadership and knack for adjusting his tactics on the fly—the core of his military success—readers will have to turn to other books.

Zamoyski is, however, highly informative about the gritty realities of life on campaign, specifically in his account of the invasion of Russia. The misery of so many men and animals is brought into painfully sharp focus. Shortly after crossing the Nieman,

Men and horses exhausted by lack of food and fodder, as well as by the intense heat of the past weeks, were suddenly drenched by a downpour of cold rain which lasted through the night. The morning sun revealed a landscape littered with dead and dying horses and men; of wagons, guns, and gun carriages mired in mud; and those still alive struggling to get free. Some artillery units lost a quarter of their horses, and the cavalry did not fare much better, but it was the supply services which suffered the most; at a conservative estimate the French army lost around 50,000 horses that night. (534)

With such images and statistics, Zamoyski replaces the popular image of Napoleon as a great planner truly concerned for the well-being of his men with that of an egomaniacal tyrant who showed flashes of genius, but also a willingness to conduct costly, sloppy, wasteful campaigns in order to enhance his own power and reputation.

The most interesting section of the book concerns Bonaparte's 1799 campaign in Egypt. Here, Zamoyski gives an exotic, pivotal moment in the career of Napoleon its full due. For the first time in full command, he conquered and then ruled the portions of Egypt he had seized in the guise of a would-be enlightened sultan. The author portrays a leader possessed of an immense faith in his own abilities and willing to do what it took to succeed. This included crushing the mounting opposition among those of his benighted subjects who failed to embrace his recasting of Egypt as a French colony. Such resistance was met with brutal repression and executions.

The book centers on Napoleon as politician rather than general, starting with the efforts of the young radical to liberate Corsica. With the coming of the Revolution, the intensely ambitious and oversexed artillery lieutenant at Valence shifted his attention to succeeding in the military. He soon evolved from a ruthless commander serving others' interests to so dominating the people around him that he came to believe he was their savior.

The author identifies two other Napoleons as well. The first was the patriarch-like brother of a large and grasping clutch of siblings. Zamoyski is oddly forgiving of Napoleon's manipulations of their lives and limited abilities to further his own dynastic fantasies. The second was the lover whose known and rumored amours are reviewed in varying detail. Zamoyski makes especially good use of Napoleon's letters to Josephine.

Readers get a fuller, more nuanced behind-the-scenes view of Napoleon as First Consul and then Emperor, with many details about the creation of an imperial household. We learn fascinating particulars about the assembling and staffing, early on, of a set of "households" that traveled ahead of Bonaparte as he raced to various meetings and events; wherever he went, the emperor-by-plebiscite was always in state. Napoleon spared no expense in building his regal image, even, for example, mimicking the Bourbon fashion of walking rather than riding at formal events. A master of self-promotion, he was not above inflating his own exploits, while understating troop casualties in specially commissioned and managed newspapers or decrees.

A point of concern is the author's neglect of the many excellent studies of Napoleon published in the last twenty years or so. He cites only a single source for the battle of Austerlitz—a general study written in French by a non-military historian.[2] And, too, one misses any, even cursory, discussion of Napoleon's historical legacy. We get only three mostly polemical pages after the author's account of his subject's death at St Helena.

Readers seeking an engaging "intimate" biography of Napoleon as a spellbinding man of genius and endless ambition will enjoy and learn from Adam Zamoyski's Napoleon. Students more concerned with his place in military history will need to look elsewhere.[3]

[1] Zamoyski is best known for his Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March (NY: HarperCollins, 2004).

[2] Thierry Lentz, Nouvelle histoire du Premier Empire, 4 vols. (Paris: Fayard, 2002–10).

[3] E.g., David G. Chandler's standard Campaigns of Napoleon (1966; rpt. NY: Scribner, 1973).

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