Book Review:
Napoleon and Wellington

By Andrew Roberts

We know from much reported statements by the two leading generals of the Napoleonic Era - Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French, and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington - that they had differing opinions of each other. But how did they really regard each other?

Did Bonaparte really believe that the British general, who regularly defeated some of his top marshals in the Peninsular War, was not a serious opponent?

Did Wellington truly think that Bonaparte's hat was worth 40,000 men on the battlefield? What did he privately tell people?

A book from academic and prize-winning author, Andrew Roberts, Napoleon and Wellington, delves into what the enemies said publicly and what they thought privately.

Roberts begins by mapping an interesting comparative chronology of the pair with key events on facing pages and then goes on to detail similarities in the men's ages, upbringings and relationships.

While Bonaparte rose much higher and had an almost all-conquering political and military career, Wellington was never overawed by his opponent and, in fact, did not consider him to have the same level of martial skills as his own.

He privately criticised the emperor's campaigning and lack of caution. As a man who tried to limit his own casualties, Wellington also was not enamoured with Bonaparte's willingness to sacrifice lives for his ambitions.

In fact, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat sneered at Bonaparte's early social status and called him Buonaparte, the original Italian spelling of his name, to try to put him in his social place.

Wellington never regarded Bonaparte as a gentleman and took great pleasure in pointing out his Corsican nature when the French emperor did what the Englishman thought was vengeful behaviour. The kidnapping and execution of the Duc d'Enghien gave Wellington ammunition, as did Bonaparte's inclusion in his will a large sum of money for the man charged with trying to assassinate his British opponent.

On his part, Bonaparte refused - until very late in the Peninsular War - to acknowledge Wellington's obvious military abilities.

He had, after all, defeated every general and marshal the French could put up against him, and did so with a smaller army. And by tying down so many veteran French troops in Spain, as well as helping to sink the idea of French invincibility, Wellington opened the door for Bonaparte's eventual defeat.

Nevertheless, the French leader dismissed Wellington as a "Sepoy General", a derogatory statement meaning that because the Englishman did well against Indian troops, it was another matter against veteran European ones. Bonaparte did not know, or refused to accept, that some of the Indian princes had European trained armies and were particularly good fighters.

Of course the two greatest generals of the age met only once on the battlefield and in that Wellington showed how he could see off the French in the same old way. Bonaparte's dismissal of the British on the morning of the great battle may have only been to bolster his more cautious commanders - many of whom had fought Wellington - but it did open the way for suggestions that the French emperor approached Waterloo with an unrealistic overconfidence.

In Napoleon and Wellington, Roberts devotes 150 pages to the great military clash and then follows up with some excellent information on the post-Waterloo struggle of rivalry and propaganda between the pair.

Wellington, who had helped protect Bonaparte from the vengeful Prussians, was clearly upset by the offer of money to his would-be assassin, and called the deposed emperor a "shabby fellow".

From exile, Bonaparte began his greatest campaign - that of creating the Napoleonic legend - and clearly won the exchange.

Roberts delves into the boudoirs of both men and how Wellington, whether deliberately or not, struck up very, very close friendships with two of Bonaparte's lovers, hired some of his former staff and even bought from Pauline Bonaparte her large home in Paris for use as the British Embassy.

At 350 pages, Napoleon and Wellington is a considerable work and is filled with many interesting facts and side stories. Its detail is absorbing and certainly opens up many channels for discussion, although it sometimes becomes a little wordy.

The book includes 16 pages of colour and black and white images of the leading characters of the period and each is of very high printed quality. The whole feel of Napoleon and Wellington is one of quality production and it will sit well in any serious library.

Roberts has done the study of the Napoleonic Era a tremendous amount of good in opening up the minds of the rivals to public gaze. It is fair to say that having read Napoleon and Wellington, you will look at the great struggle in a very different light.

- Richard Moore






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