If a cultured American is one who can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, then an educated Briton is someone who gets the jokes in 1066 and All That, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s 1930 pastiche of patriotic legends and schoolroom clichés. In that loving spoof, history is the struggle of the English to become “top nation.” All actors and events are judged Good or Bad. The Roman Conquest, for example, was “a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time.” George III was “a Bad King,” but “to a great extent insane and a Good Man.” The French Revolution started out “very interesting and romantic,” but turned into a Bad Thing: the executions and purges, the 20 years of war as the French exported their interesting and romantic idea, and the imperial rampage of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Andrew Roberts surely knows his Sellar and Yeatman. He also knows his Gibbon and Churchill. Roberts is a storyteller in the old style, a sweeper of epics and a buckler of the swash. His books include The Storm of War (2011), an acclaimed history of the Second World War, and paired biographies like Churchill and Hitler (2003) and Napoleon and Wellington (2001). Fond of an intellectual punch-up, Roberts has defended the Raj and Mrs. Thatcher as Good Things, and argued that Neville Chamberlain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was a Good Man. Here, he attempts the contrarian’s equivalent of invading Russia: rehabilitating Napoleon as “the Enlightenment on horseback.” This is a little like calling Hitler “modernity in a tank,” or FDR “liberalism in a wheelchair.” It begs the question: Was it a Good Thing that Napoleon tried to make France Top Nation?
Born in 1769, the driven and intelligent son of a distressed gentleman of Corsica, Napoleon was a professional soldier, but an amateur politician. Educated at a military academy and commissioned as an artillery officer, he was slow to see the potential of the French Revolution, but caught on quickly as it turned into a European war. Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia ganged together against revolutionary France, and most of Napoleon’s fellow officers were royalists. Napoleon capitalized brilliantly on these opportunities for gloire. Winning fame for an artillery action at Toulon, he was a brigadier general by 1793. In 1795, aged 25, he rendered himself indispensable to the revolutionary regime by wafting a “whiff of grapeshot” towards the mob outside the Paris legislature.
After that, Napoleon rose like a rocket, a new technology whose battlefield use the aristocratic Duke of Wellington thought unsporting. He restored his family’s fortunes as he ascended the ladder and, as the new commander of the Army of the Interior, married Joséphine de Beauharnais, a planter’s daughter from Martinique whose first husband had been guillotined during the Terror. In 1796, Napoleon launched the first modern war. He was expert in logistics, and he was the first commander to use a chief of staff. This professional discipline permitted a different kind of fighting: Rapid, multi-prong-ed flanking movements converged in a merciless concentration of force, a head-on collision on his terms. The Austrians surrendered before he took Vienna.
Napoleon glossed his legend for domestic consumption by sending fictionalized “bulletins” to Paris. His men loved him but spoke wryly of “lying like a bulletin.” Napoleon believed his own mythology. To emulate Alexander and eviscerate the British Empire, he turned to India. Landing at Alexandria with Egypt’s first printing press—stolen from the Vatican—he declared himself a Muslim, then smashed the medieval army of the Mameluks at the Battle of the Pyramids. But another professional, Admiral Lord Nelson, cut Napoleon’s supply line at the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon’s Indian dream sank with his fleet, and he abandoned his army in the desert.
Still, the French acclaimed him as a hero. Joining the Consulate, the ruling triumvirate, he soon rose to first consul. In 1800, the Austrians returned to the field. A lucky victory at Marengo forced the anti-French coalition to the table. The Treaty of Amiens gave Europe two years of peace, but it collapsed when Napoleon excluded Britain, the chief funder of the anti-French coalition, from the European economy. Nelson again thwarted Napoleon’s global plans at Trafalgar; but on land, Napoleon smashed the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz, and the Prussians at Jena.
When asked to name the greatest captain of all time, Wellington replied, “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.”