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Friday, May 2, 2014

“The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire”, by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Todd Fisher


352 pages, Osprey Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1841768311

This omnibus volume in Osprey’s relatively new Essential Histories line combines four previously published entries on the Napoleonic Wars in the series: The Rise of the Emperor, 1805-1807; The Empires Fight Back, 1808-1812; The Peninsular War, 1807-1814; The Fall of the French Empire, 1813-1815. Todd Fisher, the Executive Director of the Napoleonic Alliance and Chief Executive Officer of Emperor’s Press (which specializes in Napoleonic history), is the author of the first two parts; Gregory Fremont-Barnes, who is a Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (and who also wrote the French Revolutionary Wars volume in the Essential Histories series) is the author of the final two.

Each “book” follows a general format: opening with the background to the war, followed by a description of the comparative situations and characteristics of the armies involved-the French, the Austrian, the Russian, the Prussian, the British, etc. This is followed by a narrative history of each campaign, and finally a description of the situation at the end of the campaign. Short descriptions of peripheral actions (i.e., usually, except for the Peninsular War section, those where Napoleon was not present) in other theaters are also included. In addition, each “book” includes one or two “portraits”, short, self-contained biographies of soldiers and civilians. One of the portraits by Fisher, for example, is of Philippe-René Girault, a soldier-musician who served during both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Another is of Louise Fusil, a French actress caught up in Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. Fremont-Barnes chooses a couple of politicians to profile-Canning and Castlereagh, as well as a common soldier and an artillery officer. Fremont-Barnes also presents an essay on the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on the arts, and also a conclusion giving the consequences of the wars and detailing Napoleon’s legacy.

The nature of the book dictates that it will be written with broad strokes and generalizations characteristic of a survey-type work. Armies are often described with national stereotypes-the French fight with élan, the Austrians conservative, the Russians doggedly stoic, etc. But it is unfair to compare a work like this to monographs detailing a specific battle, campaign, army, etc. Both authors present their narratives in a readable manner. Fisher is generally more sympathetic towards the French, while Fremont-Barnes leans towards the Allies, especially the British, somewhat balancing each other. But some might criticize the emphasis on the French and British as short-shifting the other participants. Fisher tends to emphasize those battles under Napoleon's purview, while in the Peninsula “book” Fremont-Barnes emphasizes those where Wellington was present. Fremont-Barnes makes greater use of contemporary quotations than Fisher does.

As is to be expected from an Osprey book, the work is generously peppered with illustrations and maps- including contemporary prints, paintings, etc. Maps of battles and campaigns aid the reader in following the action, but the volume lacks the highly detailed situation maps one has grown accustomed to with Osprey's battle histories. Oddly, for example, there was no map of the battlefield of Austerlitz included, though there was one for the campaigns up to and following that pivotal battle. The reader should not expect startling new theories about the Napoleonic Wars. Osprey books are not the proper venue for propounding new, controversial theories or focusing on political, diplomatic or social history. Osprey knows its customers and the focus is squarely on the military, and the audience for this book would mainly be the reader with a casual interest in the subject or the novice just starting out studying the era.

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