Modern history

Preface and Acknowledgements

Conqueror or liberator? Aggressor or victim? Sinner or saint? Man of blood or martyr? For two hundred years the argument with regard to Napoleon and his foreign policy has rumbled on unabated: it shows no sign of coming to an end, let alone being resolved. The reasons are perfectly clear. Throughout his career Napoleon had an eye on posterity, whilst his exile to the tiny island of St Helena provided him with ample opportunity literally to make history. Through his edited table-talk, through the interviews that he conceded to passing guests and travellers, and through the memoirs that he encouraged his companions to write, he reached out beyond the confines of grave and exile, and established a version of events which historians have found impossible to ignore.

More than any other figure in history, meanwhile, Napoleon has had the capacity to inspire a loyal band of followers to spend their lives in a crusade to defend his historical reputation. Armed with the ‘holy scripture’ handed down on the mount of St Helena, and aided by a variety of political and historical fellow travellers, these latterday soldiers of the grande armée have for generation after generation variously sought to persuade the world that their hero desired only to defend the honour of France, to preserve the French Revolution, to liberate the rest of Europe from the chains of the ancien régime and even to create a united Europe that would have been a precursor of the current European Union. By constantly returning to the charge, they have kept the debate alive and, amongst other things, made this book possible. Indeed, not just possible but essential: their arguments are so powerful and attractive that they have in effect won the battle for the public mind. People who have never heard of Brumaire, Marengo, Austerlitz or Wagram, nevertheless ‘know’ that Napoleon somehow stands for liberty, progress and the advancement of the ‘little man’. Hence the triumph of Napoleon as brand name, and the prominence his figure has achieved in the world of advertising (and perhaps the cinema: Napoleon is not just one of the most written about personalities in history, but is also reputed to be the one that, after Jesus Christ, has been the most portrayed on film).

The idea that any one book could possibly reverse this situation is laughable, but for all that the attempt must be made. Thus the Napoleon who stands so tall in the public mind, the Napoleon who to this day exerts so great a pull on the public imagination, is the Napoleon that the emperor himself wished us to see, the Napoleon who first emerged in the propaganda of a hundred imperial bulletins and a thousand copies of Le Moniteur and was then enshrined for all time in the legend of St Helena. By the same token, all the arguments that have been used - and are still used - to create a positive image of the emperor are in effect the arguments of Napoleon himself. Each and every one of those arguments, however, is open at the very least to serious question, and there are now few academic historians who accept them at anything like face value. Yet academic historians rarely attract the audience that they deserve, and the first purpose of this book is therefore to synthesize their work and insert it into a debate from which it is all too often absent.

But Napoleon’s Wars is not just one more contribution to the Napoleon controversy. It is also an attempt to approach the subject from a very different perspective. Hitherto the subject of the Napoleonic Wars has almost always been handled through one or other of two prisms: either as a biography of Napoleon or as a study of his campaigns. As historical genres there is nothing wrong with either of these approaches, but they do have certain limitations in that they concentrate on a story that is distinctly unidimensional and, worse, retell a story that has been told over and over again. In consequence, a survey of the historiography of the Napoleonic Wars cannot but leave the observer with a sense of dissatisfaction. What we have is invariably a litany of Napoleon’s battles, but the Napoleonic Wars did not solely consist of Napoleon’s battles, but were also waged in a series of theatres - the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, the Balkans, Scandinavia - which the emperor either never graced with his presence at all or only visited very briefly. Of these other theatres of war, all of them situated on the peripheries of the Continent, only the first has received detailed treatment (and even then in a fashion that has been just as skewed). We therefore come to the second purpose of Napoleon’s Wars: to write a history of the Napoleonic Wars that reflects their pan-European dimension and is not just francocentric. In doing so I have had to fill in many gaps, and the result is sometimes somewhat curious; I have had to expend far more ink on the Serbian revolt of than on the battle of Austerlitz, for example. But if this is the case I make no apologies; there would be neither merit nor point in wasting words on narratives that are already two a penny.

Connected with this issue is the third aim of Napoleon’s Wars. Although this is anything but clear from the conventional historiography, Napoleon did not just exist in a vacuum. Like the French Revolution before him, he rather emerged in a Europe whose international history was dominated by events, not in the West, but rather in the East. The focus of attention at the time was above all on Poland and the Ottoman Empire, and the manoeuvring that centred on these two states - the one defunct by 1800 and the other already the proverbial ‘sick man’ of Europe, albeit a sick man that was currently making real efforts to fight off his disease. These foci did not alter either for the events of 1789 or for those of 1789. What this book also attempts to do, then, is to place the Napoleonic Wars in their true context. The idea, admittedly, is not an original one: in 1995, Paul Schroeder’s magisterial Transformation of European Politics attempted much the same task. But this present work represents the first attempt to look at the Napoleonic Wars alone. Whilst Schroeder does the same thing, and doubtless much more elegantly, he does so in the context of a study that ranges all the way from 1763 to 1848, almost concealing the fact that it is one of the most important twentieth-century contributions to the Napoleon controversy.

So much, then, for rationale and justification. As ever, my debts are many. At the top of the list must stand my agent, Bill Hamilton, whose suggestion that I should write ‘a big book on Napoleon’ sparked off the process of thought that eventually led me to where I am today. Next in line come my editor at Penguin Books, Simon Winder, who has been the soul of faith, patience and encouragement alike, and his assistant, Chloe Campbell, who is truly one of the jewels in Penguin’s crown. This work being in many respects a synthesis, I should next add the staff of the British Library, the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, and finally the Sydney Jones Library at the University of Liverpool, much technical assistance also having been received from Cecilia Mackay, who carried out all the picture research, and Jane Robertson whose careful copy-editing has greatly enhanced the text. Then, too, there are my colleagues, and especially my many co-workers in the field of Napoleonic history. Graced as I am by a particularly distinguished peer group, I should here especially like to mention Marianne Elliot, Alan Forrest, Tim Blanning, Michael Broers, Rory Muir, Christopher Hall, Michael Rowe, Janet Hartley, Jeremy Black, Paul Schroeder, Enno Kraehe, Clive Emsley, Malcolm Crook, Desmond Gregory, Michael Duffy, John Lynn, Stuart Woolf, David Gates, Alexander Grab, Geoffrey Ellis, Donald Horward, Owen Connelly, Harold Parker, Jean Tulard, Phillip Dwyer, Brendan Simms, Rick Schneid and, last but not least, Gunther Rothenburg and David Chandler, both of whom sadly passed away shortly before the manuscript of Napoleon’s Wars was completed. For reasons of space, I am unable to acknowledge my many borrowings from them (and, indeed, many other scholars) in proper form, but I am none the less grateful to them all, and am well aware that without their efforts this book could probably never have been written; from many of them, too, I have received the warmest friendship, the best of company and the kindest of support and encouragement. Finally, there is my family. Camp-followers as heroic and long suffering in their way as any of the poor souls who trudged along in the wake of Napoleon’s armies, Alison, Andrew, Helen, Maribel and Bernadette have walked with me every step of the long road that has led from Amiens to Waterloo and, like their predecessors, deserve much in the way of recognition.

Lastly, a word on technicalities. All quotations have been put into modern English in terms of punctuation and spelling, whilst outdated anglicisms have in general also been eschewed (so that Saragossa, for example, is rendered ‘Zaragoza’, Leghorn ‘Livorno’ and Gothenburg ‘Göteborg’). By contrast, in the many instances in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans where foreign names have changed in the wake of twentieth-century shifts in frontiers, ethnicities and political allegiances, foreign names have for the most part been left in the form most likely to be familiar to readers of Napoleonic history: for the modern form, please see the glossary at the end of the book. There are, however, a few exceptions. To refer to Alexandria, Prague, Warsaw and Moscow by any other names would be both affected and unhelpful, whilst one or two very small places have completely defeated all efforts to discover the modern version. One such is Pläswitz, the Silesian village where an armistice was agreed between Napoleon and his Russian and Prussian opponents in June 1813: indeed, there is no agreement even on the German name for this place: ‘Pläswitz’ is only the most common element in a list which includes Parchwitz, Plaeswitz, Pleiswitz, Plasswitz and Pleschwitz. For all such inadequacies and inconsistencies, not to mention the factual errors - all my own - that the text may contain, I can only offer my apologies.

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