Thursday, January 17, 2008

Napoleon and Wellington (Book #4)

Napoleon and Wellington (Andrew Roberts, 2001) is a readable and compelling dual biography/military history...but only if you already have a fair amount of knowledge of the men and the era. If, for example, the names Salamanca and Borodino don't mean anything to you, you'll be pretty lost.

The book is almost a biography of reputations--what Napoleon and Wellington thought of each other before and after Waterloo, history's verdict on both and its accuracy or lack thereof. I agree with Roberts' assessment of their characters--that as much as each one's apologists would like to make them into contrasting types, they were actually quite a bit alike in their sheer arrogance, talent, and ambition. Napoleon was the more ambitious, sure, but who knows what Wellington might've done if absolute power had been an option for him. He did, after all, rise as high as an Englishman could in both military and civilian arenas, and seemed to think it no more than his due. Which, at least on the military side, it was, but that doesn't change the fact that Wellington was the very reverse of a humble man.

So, yeah, Napoleon and Wellington weren't exactly opposites. I still like Wellington a lot more--he was more humane and had a better sense of humor, for starters--and take the minority view that he was the better general of the two.

Anyway, this is a very good read for anyone with a fair amount of knowledge of the era. One caveat, though: unlike most of the nonfiction authors I'm drawn to, Roberts is clearly a conservative. I don't think his politics color his views of Napoleon and Wellington, but I have trouble believing the Whigs were as nigh-treasonous as he paints them. Must find a more balanced book on that particular topic...


Elena Greene said...

Interesting review, Susan. It sounds like a "read sometime" rather than a necessity to me right now.

I'm about half way through WATERLOO: NEW PERSPECTIVES by David Hamilton-Williams. It's the first book I've read that is all about the battle (of course I've read shorter accounts of Waterloo elsewhere). It has loads of detail but also seems a bit pro-Napoleon. Have you read it and what do you think? I've got David Howarth's book on Waterloo next on the research pile.

Susan Wilbanks said...

I haven't read either of those books--there's so much out there on Waterloo! I've read Alessandro Barbero's THE BATTLE, which I thought was good and balanced, and the Wellington chapter on John Keegan's MASK OF COMMAND is largely about Waterloo, just to name two I've read recently.

Napoleon was a sore loser--he managed to blame just about everything for his defeat but Wellington's generalship. On some levels it's mind-boggling--why would you want to claim that the man who beat you was a lousy general who had no business fighting where and when he did? OTOH, I've done the same things with sports. :-) E.g. I can come up with a list of reasons why my beloved Mariners lost the ALCS is 2001, but the Yankees being a better team isn't one of them!

Elena Greene said...

I read your review of the Barbero book but then couldn't find it in my local library and decided the other two would do. I am no expert but the Hamilton-Williams book seems very meticulous about the facts. His analyses are what seem Napoleon-friendly. He uses the word "betrayed" a lot and so far puts a good share of the blame on Napoleon's generals. I hadn't realized some of them switched sides so many times! But I'm not up to the actual battle yet (just got past Quatre Bras) so I don't know his overall conclusions.

Susan Wilbanks said...

Let me know what you think when you get to the end.

Of course, I'm up to my ears in research books, and the hard part is finding time to read them. When I finished the Roberts book, I went through his extensive bibliography noting down everything that might be of use for my current project and ended up with 30-40 books. Only about half a dozen are in the Seattle library system, but there's always interlibrary loan, Amazon, etc.