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Thursday, November 19, 2015

“The Napoleonic Wars (Cassell History of Warfare)”, by Gunther Rothenberg


224 pages, Cassell, ISBN-13: 978-0304352678

Napoleon Bonaparte influenced warfare more than any other figure of his age, and arguably more than any other figure of history. He almost conquered Europe and his influence spread through society in a myriad of ways, from sugar beet production (which he stimulated) to tactics (which he influenced but did not reinvent). The Napoleonic Wars, part of a series put out by the publisher Cassell called the Cassell History of Warfare, concentrates on the military aspects of his influence, and the wars he beget over the last dozen years of his influence, 1803-15. Rothenberg is one of the better-known historians of the Napoleonic age, and his main point here – and he’s made the point elsewhere – is that the Napoleonic Wars weren’t the last wars of the classical age, but the first ones of the modern one (I would argue that in ways they were both, but that’s more of a nuance than an actual difference of opinion). The points he makes are generally well-reasoned, and the narrative tends to support them.

This is a good, crisp read for those who are interested in learning about the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte. The period in question covers the years from the 1790s to 1815 and it summarizes each major battle very succinctly. The maps are quite remarkable, and if you’re like me, sometimes they distract you from following the narrative as you want to examine them so closely. This book also examines the key military figures on both sides, most notably Napoleon, of course, but also some of the allied commanders, such as Wellington, Archduke Charles, and others. Napoleon’s marshals also get a fair amount of attention; the author likes to size them up for their talents and weaknesses as commanders, as he does for Napoleon and others. As history reveals time and again, occasionally a remarkable leader emerges who seems to shine above all others, but no matter how great he or she may become (in actuality or in perception), they too eventually fall. Such is the case with Napoleon, but that’s part of what makes reading history so interesting.

Rothenberg believes these wars may not have marked a major technological shift in warfare, but the scale and mobilization efforts launched by nations had changes significantly as a result of Napoleon. This is not a comprehensive study of the Napoleonic period, but nor was it intended to go beyond the military aspects.

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