Book Review:
The Napoleon Options


Edited by Jonathan North


I have always been of two minds when it comes to books such as this, that look at alternate scenarios/speculative history/what-ifs, depending on how you like to describe such work.

This type of historical study consists of historians examining the facts and then writing a scenario based upon the protagonists taking a different course of action than they actually did.

It is fiction based upon fact, but for all that, such a book can provide food for thought and make for an interesting and entertaining read, which is how I came to view this book.

The Napoleon Options is a collection of 10 scenarios from the period 1796-1815, each written by a different author.

Paddy Griffith examines a victorious French expedition to Ireland in 1796 and the subsequent peace that it brought to Europe.

Charles S. Grant further studies the 1790s with a look at Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt, in which the French fleet manages to return to Toulon and not suffer defeat in Aboukir Bay. This led to a successful French conquest of Egypt and Syria, and the defeat of Turkey. These countries then remained colonies of France!

Philip Haythornthwaite describes Junot's victory in Portugal in 1808, where the French are victorious at the Battle of Vimeiro, after which Dalrymple agrees the Convention of Maceira whereby the British troops would be evacuated from Portugal. Junot received a Marshal's baton for this victory and the British then had to find another way of helping Portugal and Spain.

While most of the authors change history somewhat drastically to present their alternate options, John Gill's scenario is not so radical. His section entitled Decision in Bavaria: The Austrian Invasion of 1809 looks at the manner in which the Austrians were defeated and how Napoleon came to dictate peace in Vienna.

One of the most entertaining 'alternate options' is written by Digby Smith. The Russians at Borodino manage a narrow victory over the French, with Napoleon retreating towards Smolensk, where he is captured by Cossacks and taken to Moscow.

At first, the Russians think they have a powerful bargaining chip with France, but the new Government in Paris does not want the Emperor back. France negotiates peace with her enemies and stages talks about a Bourbon restoration. Napoleon is eventually held by the British at Warwick Castle where he writes his memoirs and corresponds with Wellington. Indeed, the ex-Emperor was to give '...advice to the Duke [that] helped to ensure that his terms as Prime Minister (1828-30 and 1833-46) were two of the most constructive, best organised and most beneficial periods of British history'!!!!!

The text contains some wry humour, especially the mention of a slightly unbalanced Bonapartist, Pierre d'Offshrueure, who claimed that Napoleon had been 'poisoned by the Duke of Wellington, who had supplied him with snuff laced with arsenic. These accusations were based on the tenuous evidence of a series of receipts missing from the records of poisons sold to the Duke by his pharmacist'.

I think this is evidence that the book is based upon recent research and debate in the Napoleonic world!

The Race for the Borisov Bridge by Jonathan North describes the action on the road to Minsk where the French are victorious over the Russians. Order is restored in the retreating French army, Napoleon's political machinations wins over Austria, isolates Russia and restores Poland as a kingdom. Things go well for Napoleon. Russian units mutiny with civil unrest in Russia and the French are victorious in Spain! The Austrians establish themselves in the Ukraine, although this victory is marred by the Archduke Ferdinand being hit by a sniper's bullet just outside Sarajavo in August 1814! This is a particularly interesting 'what if'.

The Russian Campaign is followed by Napoleon being victorious in the 1813 campaign and re-establishing his control of Europe in Victory at Kulm: The 1813 Campaign written by John Gallaher.

During the Waterloo campaign the question of what would have happened if Constant Rebecque had obeyed Wellington's order of 7.00pm 15th June and abandoned Quatre Bras is one of the great 'what ifs' of history, and this question is ably examined by Peter Hofschroer.

In this scenario, Ney takes the crossroads, Wellington retreats and makes a stand at Brussels. The author asserts that Wellington was trying to deceive the Prussians into bearing the brunt of the French attack and allowing the British to slip away to Antwerp. Wellington actually did this and Blucher retreated towards the Rhine.

After this defeat the British Government made it quite clear to her allies that no more troops and no more gold would be sent to the continent. With their financial backing gone, the allies made peace with Napoleon, Louis XVIII did not regain the French throne; instead he retired to his country estate of Stratfield Saye, with a town residence of Apsley House!! Writing alternate history does allow the author free rein for a mischievous poke at historical events!!

Andrew Uffindell continues the Waterloo theme in the chapter entitled Napoleon and Waterloo, where Wellington is defeated and forced to retire to the Forest of Soignes. The battle continues on 19th June when napoleon continues the fight against the Prussians. Wellington is shot through the heart and the command of what is left of his army devolves upon Sir Rowland Hill. The Allies counterattack, the French crumble and Napoleon is killed.

Not so in Ambush at Quatre Bras by the late Colonel John Elting! Here, Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo but finds fresh troops at Quatre Bras, with which he organises an ambush of the pursuing Prussians. This action results in the death of Blucher at Genappe, and the rallying of more French troops around the crossroads. Wellington retires to Antwerp (he seems to do a lot of this in The Napoleon Options), and the Emperor has a continuing and successful career after Waterloo.

This book is certainly food for thought and each chapter will make you think about the events as they really happened. To assist with the truth, each author includes some notes about the reality of each event they describe.

I do not think this sort of book would have worked as well if one author had written all the chapters. As it is, we are treated to a work of fiction based very heavily on fact (another way of writing 'alternate scenario'!) that makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

The authors have obviously given great thought to the different paths that the protagonists could have taken, and related these stories in a well-written manner, interlaced with some mischievous humour (Wellington, Napoleon and Blucher get killed quite a lot in this book!).

A book that makes for a good read.

- Paul Chamberlain


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