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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Swords Around A Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée", by Colonel John R. Elting (USA, Ret.)

769 pages, Free Press, ISBN-10: 030-6807572
Throughout history, few armies have left as great and enduring a legend as Napoleon's Grande Armée. In existence for only a decade, this powerful weapon--numbering at its peak over one million soldiers from France as well as from varied vassal and allied states--swiftly conquered vast territories across Europe and threatened to overrun more. In this outstanding new masterwork, military professional and historian John R. Elting paints an exciting, detailed picture of the magnificent fighting force created by the genius and power of Napoleon. This is history engaging as a war novel as Swords Around a Throne recreates the daily life of the Grande Armée's soldiers and leaders and the conditions under which they existed and fought, including rations, pay, mud and disease, mobile hospitals, camp followers, loot, marches, baggage, uniforms, and more. Placing the reader in the boots of individuals, from yard-bird conscripts to generals, Elting carries us along the Armée's path, through triumph and disaster, in peace and at war. Sharing the experiences of the men (and women) who served in, services, and supported this awesome military force, the reader meets the Emperor himself, his extraordinary officers such as Berthier, Caulaincourt, New, and others, as well as the ordinary Frenchmen and foreigners who, imbued with the Armée's unique fighting spirit, followed its eagles.

Swords Around A Throne is the result of thirty years of research and is a first rate organizational history of the Grande Armée. Quite simply, the Grande Arméeis covered from muzzle to butt plate. All of the combat arms are meticulously covered, as well as the supporting services, and such esoteric topics as law and order, the armies of the Revolution, as well as the Royal Army of the ancien regime just prior to the conflagration of 1789. The flotsam and jetsam of the Grande Armée is covered in painstaking detail: vivandieres, colors, decorations, music, medical services and practices, food, marches, replacements, and draft dodgers.

There are excellent chapters on logistics, strategy and tactics (which I consider superb and quite informative), as well as three chapters on the end of the Empire and the Grande Armée itself. Marshals and generals, and lesser personalities are given their due, and are generously covered in some detail, especially some virtual unknowns that some of us may have barely heard of, if at all. The Imperial Navy has a chapter dedicated to it, especially detailing its support of land operations. Allied and foreign troops in the Grande Armée are given their just due, and the chapter on the Grande Armée's enemies is enlightening and very well done. One of the best chapters is on the Imperial General Staff. This attention has been long overdue and recognizes its value in the Emperor's method of waging war, as well as the value of its chief, Marshal Berthier. It was the first great modern staff, and Berthier the first of the great chiefs of staff. Two of the reasons for the Emperor's ability of waging such sweeping, quick and deadly campaigns were the efficiency of Berthier and the staff.

If Swords Around A Throne has a weakness, it is that you hunger for more information. There is so much that is unsaid that it again makes the student in all of us go out and do research on his own. In my personal opinion that is one Col. Elting's purposes. At heart, he is still the teacher, and is trying to have us improve our knowledge of the period, which is one of the most fascinating in military history. The list of sources in the back is impressive, most being either archival sources or first hand accounts of combatants or participants. Some, unfortunately for English-only speakers, are still in French and many are hard to find, but there are many libraries that do hold these unique volumes, such as Antoine de Brack's Light Cavalry Outposts.

In short, this is the best volume on the Grande Armée in English, probably in any language. I haven't read anything either as entertaining or as accurate in over 30 years of studying the period. Both of these volumes are a must for any Napoleonic library. Historians, enthusiasts, wargamers, and modellers will benefit from reading and studying these two volumes from an author I consider the premier Napoleonic historian of our day.

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