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Friday, January 20, 2012

"The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History's Greatest Soldier", by David G. Chandler

1172 pages, Charles Scribner's Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0025236608
Dr. David G. Chandler's "The Campaigns of Napoleon" has been in print for over thirty years. There must be some reason why it has remained so important and popular. In simple terms it is a masterpiece. In fact it has on numerous occasions been recognized as one of the most important books on Napoleon throughout modern times. It has of late been recognized by le Général de Gaulle in 1967 and later in 2002 by President Vladimir Putin.

This book is really three books in one: it is partly a biography of Napoleon, partly an analysis of his art of war, and partly a history of his campaigns. It covers Bonaparte's youth, his meteoric rise to prominence after the French Revolution, and every campaign that he participated in. I've read this book cover to cover three times, and individual chapters so many times that I've lost count. Chandler's writing style is engrossing and easy to read, not dry summaries of facts and events and dates. He is both a great writer and a great historian.

My (or others') disagreements with Chandler on individual points simply do not detract from this masterly work. I would agree, however, that this book is very Anglo-centric, probably its biggest drawback. Historians are often looking for balance in their assessments, and it is in this area that Chandler is weakest. I think he overplays the role of the English in ultimately defeating Napoleon, although this is a problem with virtually everything that has been written about Napoleon by the English. Oddly, I would also agree that Chandler treats Napoleon with almost hero worship. Too much hyperbole perhaps, but this is more of a literary criticism of the text rather than historical. One negative comment that other reviewers have made regarding this book is that it is either factually incorrect or incomplete/not sufficiently detailed, etc. These are insignificant criticisms in my view. There are no gross historical errors in this book, either in facts or in interpretation, to my knowledge. If you want a balanced, broad view of any historical era, you must read a variety of primary and secondary sources. In the case of the Napoleonic wars, you must read French, German, and Russian sources as well. This book is not the only word on the subject, but the best written in English. This is the BEST book on the subject, this is one of the best histories ever written, even if neither perfect nor exhaustive.
I HIGHLY recommend this book. It is WELL worth the money to purchase it and the time spent to read it. If I had to throw out all but ten of my books, this is one of the ten I would keep. I would recommend this book to someone who is not particularly interested in the era. This is an outstanding book. 

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