Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Review: Napoleon as a General

Napoleon As A General, Jonathon P. Riley
This book claims to be different because it focusses not on Napoleon’s campaigns, career or legacy, but specifically on Napoleon as a general. Yet Riley presents little that has not been covered in earlier secondary sources on same subject such as Count Yorck von Wartenburg (1902) “Napoleon as a general”, James-Marshall Cornwall (1965) “Napoleon as military commander” and David Chandler (1966) classic study “The Campaigns of Napoleon” with its section on Napoleon’s art of war. That said there are some useful insights and ideas that make it a worthwhile read.
Riley begins with a mediocre, workmanlike account of generalship and leadership which comprises many long quotes, but little analysis. This is followed by a reasonably interesting critical analysis of Napoleon’s generalship, leadership, logistical management and co-ordination of a multi-national force. The chapter on strategy provides some useful and interesting insights with regard to the continental system, the sale of the Louisiana territory and relationship with the US.
I found the case studies of most value. There are well-written and detailed accounts of Italy 1796/7, Jena-Aüstadt 1806 and Dresden and Leipzig 1813. None of this is new, of course, but a new author always brings some fresh perspectives. The choice of these three as subject matter is of itself an interesting combination rather than the more usual ‘suspects’ of say Italy 1796/7, Austerlitz, Russia, 1814 and Waterloo.
I had a few real gripes with this book. Firstly is the so often repeated tendency by English authors to over-estimate the role of the British army in the defeat of Napoleon. I am not trying to downplay the impact of the Peninsular War and Waterloo, but they are relatively small when compared with the sustained role of the Austrians, Russians and Prussians assisted by British gold and the blockade by the Royal Navy.
The second is Riley’s tendency to make too many irrelevant references and analogies to past and recent/current campaigns. He makes the point that WWI generals are commonly lambasted for losses that are comparable with those which frequently occurred during Napoleon’s time. This misses the crucial, key difference that actions in the age of Napoleon, especially those involving Napoleon himself, achieved a strategic result, while WWI did not. He also makes frequent reference to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, while missing the real analogy of Napoleon’s War in Spain and those modern guerrilla wars; the similarity of an ‘enlightened super power’ seeking to ‘liberate’ a nation from a dysfunctional regime but under-estimating the domestic response and the use of the campaign by its enemies, seeing the pyrrhic victory of conventional war, rapidly falling into a protracted ‘insurgence’.
Thirdly are some of Riley’s statements and opinions that range from unsupported and unsupportable to down right outrageous. The oft made assertion that Napoleon’s enemies’ mistakes made him look good ignores the real genius of Napoleon: his ability to react quickly to changing circumstances, his flexibility and clear thinking and his rapid and decisive responses. Riley’s statement that “... many of those who did gain access to his inner counsels–such as Lannes, Reynier and Junot–were mediocre commanders” is astounding. Junot and possibly Reynier may be justified in this, but Lannes?!
Lastly is the use of maps that are poor with most of the places that are referred to missing! I am astounded that this frustrating mistake seems to be made again and again in so many books. It is almost as if the maps are an after-though or merely some form of decoration.
My final assessment: this book is worth a read, but I’m glad that I borrowed it from the library and did not bother to add it to my personal collection.


  1. Great review James. His book on the 1813 campaign is better though still flawed, I didn't buy his contention that Napoleon was a coalition commander either. I'm sure I read somewhere that he lectures at my university but I've never come across him....

    1. You'll have to arrange to meet him to have an academic discussion!
      I presume that the section of the case study about 1813 forms the basis of the book historical content about 1813 and then it is his 'thesis' around management 101 and logistics?