Napoleon's Wars by Charles Esdaile

The next few books that I plan on reading and reviewing will be on the time period from the discovery of the New World to the Napoleonic Wars – I know that is a large period of time.   I will be bouncing around in this time period.

The first of these books is Napoleon’s Wars by Charles Esdaile.  At 565 pages, it is an excellent political history of the Napoleonic Wars.  Esdaile’s basic argument is that the chief motivating factor for Napoleon and his wars was his ego and his lust for power.   Napoleon was never truly happy unless he was fighting for glory and fame.

Before going any further, I want to say that Esdaile is not completely objective.  He is English and an Anglophile.  Although he supports his argument remarkably, you must keep in mind that he blames Napoleon for a lot of things that went wrong in Europe at this time.  I think that Napoleon screwed up Europe for nearly two decades, but I am not sure that he is to blame for everything.  For example, he is not responsible for the initial break-up of Poland – they can thank the Prussians, Russians, and Austrians.

When it comes to the Napoleonic Wars, I am also an Anglophile and a Francophobe.  I think that Napoleon not only did more harm than good to Europe, but he also delayed France’s economic development for decades.  He bled France dry and almost single-handedly ruined her industry and trade through his ingenious Continental Blockade.   I will say that the French Revolution years were not kind to France either – but this begs the question of which was worse for France, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars or continuing under Bourbon misrule?

Don’t expect a lot of discussion on the battles in this book because you will not find much on them – there are plenty of other books for that.  Esdaile briefly touches on the major actions, but mainly steers clear of detailed analysis – although he does spend more time on the Russian and Waterloo campaigns.

However, you will find an excellent discussion of the political maneuverings of the various European players – primarily Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and obviously France.  These maneuverings are fascinating to read about – how the Prussians, Russians, and Austrians at one time or another allied themselves with France (some because they were so beat up by Napoleon that they did not really have a choice).

I find Esdaile’s point that Napoleon did not know when to stop when he was ahead very interesting.  There were numerous times when he could have stopped the wars and rested on his laurels (after the Third Coalition for example) with the tremendous gains in territory and influence for France, but each time he choose to take an even bolder move than his previous ones.  First, taking out Austria, then Prussia, then Spain, and then trying to take out Russia.

One point of contention I have read about the book is that Esdaile takes Napoleon to task for his egregious acts, but does not do the same for the other actors.  I disagree with this point because he does take Great Britain to task for several of their missteps – primarily their wayward excursion to South America and their decision to shell Copenhagen in the Royal Navy’s successful attempt to secure the Danish fleet.  He also rightfully calls Tsar Alexander I on his hypocrisy for wanting greater freedoms for the peoples of Europe, but not for his own subjects.

Esdaile includes eight maps of Europe that cover the time period studied – these are very helpful when Esdaile discusses the various German states.  He also includes sixteen pages of color photographs.

In conclusion, this book is a fine political history of the Napoleonic Wars.

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