Book Review:
The Iron Marshal

by John G. Gallagher


The Iron Marshal : John G GallagherFor decades I have rated Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout as the best military commander Napoleon Bonaparte had at his disposal.

For what it is worth I believe he even out-generalled his Emperor on the battlefield and if I had the choice of someone to fight a battle for my life it would be Davout not Napoleon.

The clash of arms at Auerstadt showed what a superb commander he was with his III Corps - the finest body of troops France had at its disposal - taking on a much larger Prussian army and defeating it in detail.

And when we say much-larger army Davout's 26,000 men were up against 64,000. Using his initiative and skills the marshal fended off attacks before smashed both Prussian wings and sent the enemy fleeing.

Meanwhile, Bonaparte won the more famous nearby battle of Jena with his main army dealing to what he thought was Prussia's main force.

When told of Davout's astounding victory the Emperor said: "Your Marshal must be seeing double!"

As historian Francois-Guy Hourtoulle said: "At Jena, Napoleon won a battle he could not lose. At Auerstadt, Davout won a battle he could not win."

And Auerstadt is but one example of many where Davout, his generals and troops performed astounding feats under the greatest pressures.

John Gallagher's The Iron Marshal is the only book I know of that covers Davout's extraordinary life in English.

He was a young aristocrat, though one that agreed with the ideals of the French Revolution, and he was lucky to survive as both sides looked at him, unfairly, with suspicion. In one amazing episode he broke into his arrested mother's house and burned papers that in those insane times could have led her up the steps of the guillotine.

But Davout always put France first, then his men. He was uncorruptable, a hard trainer and did not take fools lightly. He had enemies within the marshalate - such as Joachim Murat, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and Louis Berthier - but was close with the likes of Pierre Augereau, Michel Ney and Nicolas Oudinot.

He was also a superb administrator winning the hearts and minds of Poles as governor of the Duchy of Warsaw and later defended Hamburg while the rest of Napoleonic Europe fell apart. After a lengthy siege he only surrendered that major city only after the Emperor abdicated.

I could go on and on with really great insights into Davout and his military career but you are better off getting this excellent book and reading it all for yourselves.

It is one of my favourite Napoleonic titles and I am glad to see it published by Frontline Books.


- Richard Moore


The Iron Marshal, by John G Gallagher.
Frontline Books, ISBN: 978 1 52673 832 5.
Pages: 420.
Illustrations: 18 images and maps.

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