Friday, 23 May 2014

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers (2014)

Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny by Michael Broers (2014)

"Are we retreating from Moscow Mon General?"

"No. We're advancing on Paris Mon Plonker".

I love that joke but unfortunately, the Russian campaign doesn't feature in this book. It only goes up until 1804. Broers is yet to write part two. But I still chuckle at that old caption about Napoleon as his army struggles through the snow. 

I also love reading big, complicated biographies of world leaders that say things like this: "To be 'for' or 'against' in Napoleonic France was a shifting, evolving process, and the closer his contemporaries were to him the more complex were the meanings of 'for' and 'against'."

BBC History magazine's front cover this month reads: "D Day: Tragedy or Triumph?" Naughty. They should know that history is more complicated than that. And, although this book is heavy (really heavy) I sometimes love to get lost in something that doesn't boil a complicated issue down to an either/or headline.

The most fascinating line in the book draws Napoleon away from other tyrants one can think of, such as Mao, Hitler and Stalin: "He had a remarkable ability to delegate the right problem to the right men and to heed them, when he needed to hold himself in check. He never surrounded himself with sycophants". The secret to his early success, perhaps.

However, and maybe this is because the book was getting close to its page count of 527 pages, Michael Broers doesn't go on to do a similar analysis of why Napoleon suddenly started to ignore his own advice in his ill-fated naval strategy that led to the disaster (for the French) of calling off an invasion of Britain, along with Trafalgar neutralising the French fleet. 

However, I'm nit-picking. There's other fascinating stuff; for instance, the Civil Code made everyone equal in law; his army reforms made soldiers aspire to join the Imperial Guard - this helped make the army a more efficient unit; and whether he was racist or not in his policy over the West Indies. 

A good read, if at times a bit bogged down in confusing detail. And not a "Not tonight Josephine" in sight. 

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