Reviewer: Mr. Ewok
Rating: 3.75 Pierogies (Mr. Ewok ignored S-LYBC protocol of not quartering pierogies)
Review: Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars chronicles the conflict between Great Britain and France that began during the French Revolution and ended with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. This book is an ambitious undertaking and, on balance, Harvey performed his task quite well. Most popular histories of this period tend to focus exclusively on the main protagonists or on specific military campaigns and battles. Moreover, such works usually cover only the Napoleonic era itself while treating the French Revolution as a mere stage setting device. Harvey, however, gives the reader a fairly detailed overview of the entire period and the major players in both Britain and France prior to Napoleon’s entry onto the scene. He then seamlessly continues the story without allowing the French emperor to completely dominate the story (no mean feat).
Harvey is at his best in introducing the events, politics and personages of Europe during the tumultuous French Revolution. He does quite well in describing the factionalism and shifting political sands of Paris during the Revolution. Harvey also gives appropriate credit to a host of historical figures that are often overlooked - perhaps most notably Lazare Carnot and Charles Dumouriez, the founders of the French military machine that Napoleon so vigorously wielded. Likewise, Harvey does a good job introducing the relevant British statesmen, such as William Pitt (the Younger), and their reluctance to recognize the brewing threat across the Channel. Further, the author’s depiction of the various naval engagements between the British and French (and allied) fleets is compelling. Harvey paints a balanced portrait of the relevant players – with due regard given to Horatio Nelson’s personal flaws (mainly public infidelity and hubris) while singling out the actions of lesser known heroes, such as Thomas Cochrane, for well-deserved praise. This evenhandedness extends to Harvey’s portrayal of both Napoleon and Arthur Wellesley (Wellington). Indeed it seems not much has changed for male celebrities over the ages – as even the insufferably priggish Wellington pulled a Milledgeville or two in his day.
Harvey also adeptly handled the Peninsular and Russian campaigns by devoting an entire section to the conflict in Spain before moving on to address Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. Despite the overlap in events and the interrelated strategic picture in both theaters after 1812, Harvey shrewdly kept them separate in his book. This provides the reader with a more focused narrative that may have become muddled by a traditional chronological narrative.
So obviously I enjoyed the book yet it gets only 3.75 pierogies. That’s because unfortunately for Harvey I am somewhat of an authority on this area of history myself – albeit only a semi-literate yinzer authority. As such, this book inevitably failed to satisfy because as a general history perfect for the casual reader it necessarily lacks some of the historical detail and minutiae that appeals to readers with pre-existing Napoleonic conditions. This is particularly evident in the cursory treatment given to the many land battles. The Napoleonic Wars are punctuated with famous battles such as Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, and Borodino. If you are expecting a detailed blow-by-blow tactical account of these battles, this is not the book for you. To be fair, this was not Harvey’s goal and could have added hundreds of pages to an already thick tome – but in my view it was still a notable shortcoming to address major battles in mere paragraphs. And to the extent Harvey, a British author, betrayed any bias it was through the disparate treatment he gave to the land battles (dominated by France) vs. the sea battles (dominated by Britain). Even a minor engagement between a British frigate and its prey was often given more ink than a battle that resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and altered the balance of power in Europe.
One last sticking point for me was Harvey’s rather odd justification for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The author pulls no punches in casting Napoleon as the power-hungry ogre that he undoubtedly was – from his buffoonish attempts at diplomacy and premeditated slaughter of prisoners outside Jaffa to his naked aggression against Spain. Yet oddly when it came to one of Napoleon’s most boneheaded moves, Harvey justifies the Russian campaign as a defensive war. Eh, maybe. It’s certainly true that Tsar Alexander had grown hostile to Bonaparte in the years since Tilsit, but this was largely due to Napoleon’s insistence that Russia participate in a costly self-defeating embargo against British trade and his inflexibility in meeting Russian diplomatic concerns. Moreover, it would seem Napoleon’s decision to conquer Moscow rather than contenting himself with a new frontier at Vitebsk or Smolensk belies such a defensive motive.
That said “War of Wars” is an immensely readable and well-balanced account of the conflict between Britain and France, which defined early nineteenth century Europe. It is the perfect book for readers seeking an introduction to the events and personalities of the age and a great jumping off point for further reading. In that spirit, here are some recommendations.
For a good general biography of Napoleon:The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte - Robert Asprey
For a more detailed account of the invasion and retreat from Russia:
Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March - Adam Zamoyski
For a thorough diplomatic and military analysis of Napoleon’s defeat of the Second Coalition and the events that led to Austerlitz, see:
The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (v. 1) – Fred Kagan (of Iraq’s surge fame)
For those looking for detailed accounts of individual battles or campaigns, Osprey Publishing has an excellent series that covers the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a chapter on the modern layout of the battlefield for readers interested in historical tourism. Here is a partial list from the reviewer’s own library. These are great primers on the overall strategic picture of the Peninsular Campaign, with Austerlitz thrown in for kicks: Fuentes de Onoro, Vimiero, Badajoz (where the British army committed a full blown Roethlisberger upon taking the city), and Austerlitz.