France’s early-19th-century emperor was one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived: “What a novel my life has been!” he himself observed with complacency. It remains fiercely disputed, however, whether Bonaparte was an enlightened despot who laid the foundations of modern Europe or, instead, a megalomaniac who wrought greater misery than any man before the coming of Hitler.
Andrew Roberts, a British historian who has written widely and well about both statesmen and generals, is in no doubt of his own view. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” he writes, applying to Napoleon the Latin inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral. “If you need a monument, look around.” Mr. Roberts means that the laws and structure of modern France—indeed, to a significant degree, of all Europe—derive from those created by Napoleon.
But his deployment of the Wren line invites an alternative interpretation: The emperor’s most immediate legacy was a mountain of corpses, starting with the 400,000 dead that his army left in Russia during its 1812 invasion. That most hubristic act of his reign alone cost as many lives as the U.S. lost in World War II.
Bonaparte was born in 1769, the second son of a minor Corsican squire. His ambition and abilities manifested themselves early. He read voraciously, excelled at mathematics and boasted a fabulous memory. Even as a child, he rejected association with defeat, spurning the Carthaginian side in Roman-era school games.
He won a royal scholarship to the military school at Brienne-le-Château, where he was taught by Franciscan monks. He became prodigiously literate, and Mr. Roberts describes him as a writer manqué. He was an ardent admirer of the ancient Scottish poet Ossian (even after his works were exposed as a modern hoax) but, in the decades following France’s expulsion from India and North America, learned to regard Britain as an implacable enemy.
Commissioned into the artillery in 1785, he was, four years later, dismissive of the implications of the fall of the Bastille: “Calm will return,” he wrote to his brother. Soon, however, he became an enthusiastic revolutionary. His meteoric rise began in 1793, when he played a heroic role in recapturing Toulon from French royalists backed by British troops. Here was the first revelation of his demonic energy and tactical wizardry, which found full play in an army desperately short of officers after the loss of so many to the royalist cause.
In December of that year, he was promoted to brigadier general at the age of 24 and in 1794 became artillery commander of the Army of Italy. He suffered one of the few failures of his career when entrusted with command of an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Corsica, but he was then posted to the army’s strategic planning office. In Paris in 1795, he won the gratitude of the revolutionary government by suppressing with a liberal infusion of grapeshot a mob revolting against a new constitution.
Elevation to command of the Army of the Interior followed, together with marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais, widow of a guillotined aristocrat. She made no pretense of loving him but was in sore need of a protector. She was six years older and far more sexually experienced than Napoleon, and indulged lovers throughout their marriage. But he adored her to the last, forgiving everything.
In 1796, he left Paris to command the Army of Italy against the Austrians committed to the overthrow of the revolutionary regime. Just 26, he said: “I shall be old when I return.” The months that followed brought the first full flowering of his military genius as a commander in chief at Montenotte, Arcoli, the bridge at Lodi, Rivoli and the taking of Mantua. He moved fast, then concentrated force at the decisive point. He displayed a brilliant eye for ground, together with a mastery of the vital art of logistics.
He became the first commander to employ a chief of staff. He imposed harsh discipline but took unprecedented care of soldiers’ needs, and especially of the wounded. He awarded medals for valor that were keenly prized and achieved a rapport with his men, who conferred on him a love unsurpassed by any general in history. His favored lieutenants—the likes of Junot, Marmont and Masséna—were mostly swaggering rogues of no birth, distinguished by courage, dash and loyalty to himself.
He imposed ruthless sanctions against any Italian who dared to oppose him, shooting priests and taking hostages at will. He transmitted to Paris and to the world a version of events that ornamented his reputation, but he gave birth to the cynical French expression “to lie like a bulletin.”
In Italy, he became assured of his own greatness. In the spring of 1797 he installed himself and his family in high state in conquered Venice. He often said afterward: “I no longer regarded myself as a simple general, but as a man called on to decide the fate of peoples.” He returned to Paris having led his army within 100 miles of Vienna and forced an armistice on Austria.
His next campaign, in Egypt, began with triumph at the battle of the Pyramids against the Mamluks but swiftly degenerated when Nelson destroyed the French fleet on the Nile, and Sir Sidney Smith and the Turks withstood his siege of the Ottoman port of Acre. The author acknowledges that Bonaparte’s bayonet massacre of several thousand Turkish prisoners was scarcely the act of a parfait gentil knight.
Nor was his dispatch to Paris of Lt. Jean-Noël Fourès so that the coast was clear for the general to sleep with the lieutenant’s wife, Pauline. This ruse misfired when the Royal Navy captured the ship carrying Fourès across the Mediterranean and chivalrously returned him to Alexandria. The couple were divorced. When Napoleon fled Egypt with his staff, he passed Pauline on to his officers Junot and Kléber. She lived to a great age, making an implausible fortune in the Brazilian timber trade.
Bonaparte’s indefatigable propaganda machine ensured him a hero’s welcome on his return to Paris in 1799, though the army he abandoned in Egypt was obliged to capitulate to the British two years later. It was almost inevitable that he became one of three members of the new Consulate, and soon afterward First Consul and de facto ruler of France.
The social extravagances of the Revolution were undone, with royalist émigrés permitted to return, rights of property restored, “citoyen” replaced as a mode of address by “monsieur.” The rule of law was reinstated and soon also the old calendar. Freedom of speech, however, was rigorously suppressed. Napoleon’s awesome administrative powers were deployed to create a new autocracy, incomparably more efficient than that of the Ancien Régime.
Mr. Roberts argues that many of the vices and crimes attributed to his hero were no worse than those committed by his enemies. Wellington became rich commanding British armies. While Napoleon is calumniated for laying waste to Palestine as he retreated, Wellington did the same in Portugal during his withdrawal to the fortified lines of Torres Vedras.
But Wellington was the servant of a democratic government, while all Europe became enslaved to Napoleon’s insatiable personal ambition. Wellington acquired only a small fraction of the wealth of the Corsican, who lavished fortunes on his family and marshals. Wellington was a far more humane man than his foremost enemy, who said contemptuously: “If one thinks only of humanity . . . one should give up going to war.”
Bonaparte yearned for fresh battlefields, and the Austrians now provided these by renewing the struggle against France. Contrary to legend, Napoleon did not himself lead an army over the Alps but followed it. On June 14, 1800, he secured a lucky victory at Marengo, which secured his grip on Italy, confirming this through a Concordat with the pope designed to win the support of France’s Catholic priesthood.
In February 1801, the Austrians made peace, and a year later Napoleon was made consul for life. Britain and France signed the Peace of Amiens, but nobody expected the truce to hold. Just as a century later in World War I, though with different allegiances, the most powerful nations in Europe had become locked in a struggle for mastery that could conclude only when one was decisively defeated.
In May 1803, Britain, its trade shut out of Europe by Napoleonic tariffs, once more declared war. Bonaparte welcomed this: “We have six centuries of insults to avenge.” The years that followed witnessed his greatest victories over Britain’s allies—at Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians in December 1805, at Jena against the Prussians in October 1806, at Eylau against the Russians in February 1807.
Mr. Roberts notes the steady rise in casualties since the early revolutionary war: from a mere 6% of those engaged at Fleurus, to 15% at Austerlitz, 26% at Eylau, 31% at Borodino, 45% at Waterloo. Napoleon, now self-crowned emperor, attained the zenith of his power with the July 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, by which Russia and France carved up Prussia. But Nelson’s 1805 victory at Trafalgar ensured that Britain remained unconquered.
From 1808 onward, Bonaparte’s adventure in the Iberian peninsula, where he had placed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, became an appalling drain. His armies suffered ever-mounting losses from guerrillas and successive defeats at the hands of Wellington.
Napoleon expected Spanish gratitude. Mr. Roberts writes: “He believed, as many Frenchmen did, that modern ideas of governance could be spread across Europe through the agency of the Grand Armée.” Yet his marshals responded to resistance with a brutality unequaled in Europe until the fascist era. Talleyrand once told the czar: “The French are a civilized people; their sovereign is not.” The “Spanish ulcer” made a major contribution to France’s defeat.
In 1809, Napoleon divorced Josephine in order to marry the Hapsburg emperor’s 18-year-old daughter, Marie Louise, in pursuit of a son and a dynasty. The resulting alliance with Austria emboldened him for his catastrophic invasion of Russia. Napoleon was obsessed with the pursuit of military triumph: “I owe everything to my glory. If I sacrifice it, I lose everything. . . . I wanted to assure for France the mastery of the world.”
The latter statement highlights the flaw in Mr. Roberts’s case for the fundamental benignity of Napoleon’s career. Whatever the shortcomings of Britain and its empire, its purposes in Europe at least were vastly more enlightened and above all peaceful than those of the French emperor.
He financed his empire by brigandage, looting the entire continent’s treasuries and palaces. Mr. Roberts’s apologia for his hero includes the lines: “The fifteen-year rule of Napoleon saved the best aspects of the Revolution. . . . He convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment, and a story whose splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries.”
It is true that the continental monarchies opposing Napoleon were scarcely models of virtue or enlightenment. His stature is secure beside Alexander and Caesar, the foremost military achievers of all time. Yet in the eyes of some of us, nothing can undo the overarching reality that Napoleon was a tyrant in love with war, who murdered his enemies without scruple and whose foremost interest was the promotion of himself. It seems extraordinary that the French people continue today to revere a man who presided over bloodbaths unprecedented in European history and who brought their nation to ultimate ruin.
Napoleon first fell following his 1813 defeat by the Russians, Prussians and Austrians at Leipzig, engaging half a million combatants, more than twice as many as participated in the Waterloo campaign. Then, after his 1814 abdication and escape from Elba the following spring, he was conclusively undone before the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean outside Brussels on June 18, 1815. Mr. Roberts justly describes the latter battle as “one of the worst commanded” in all Napoleon’s wars. The emperor died in exile on St. Helena six years later.
Mr. Roberts is a masterly storyteller, but his judgments are entirely formed by veneration for his subject, whom he calls “a profound thinker” and “protean multitasker” with a “fine sense of humour.” He succumbs to self-parody by opening the book with acknowledgments to a huge cast of acquaintances headed by ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister David Cameron , former Bank of England chief Mervyn King, Henry Kissinger and New York moneybags Jayne Wrightsman, whom he thanks for showing him her collection of Napoleonic book bindings.
Yet this is a fluent account of Napoleon’s life, one in which the detail seems impeccable and most of the subsidiary judgments—such as the dismissal of absurd claims that Napoleon was poisoned on St. Helena—eminently sensible. But it is hard to identify significant new ground broken here. I would recommend Mr. Roberts’s book to anyone seeking an accessible chronicle, rich in anecdote, of Napoleon’s fantastic story.
But I would look elsewhere for a work that considers the place of imperial France in European history and that addresses the big why’s as well as cataloging the big what’s of Bonaparte’s life. Andrew Roberts belongs to a party doomed to disagree with me and mine, because they idolize their man. We, meanwhile, acknowledge his stellar quality but define him by the wretchedness he inflicted on Europe in pursuit of the vanities of la gloire.
—Mr. Hastings’s most recent book is “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.”