Book Review:
Marengo: The Myth of Napoleon's Horse


By Jill Hamilton

Ever wondered why a thin and energetic Napoleon Bonaparte suddenly put on lots of weight despite maintaining his physical work rate?

Well, according to Jill Hamilton, Bonaparte was almost killed in a carriage accident at St Cloud and badly damaged his pituitary gland. This led to the early onset of Frohlich's disease, a condition that causes weight gain, a loss of hair and lethargy.

It is only one of dozens of interesting pieces of information and ideas contained within Hamilton's book Marengo: The Myth of Napoleon's Horse.

The book explores many aspects of the French commander's dealings with horses, his love for them, interest in their well-being (other than on a battlefield) and joy in riding them.

Bonaparte, however, was not a classical European rider and preferred to ride in the style he had grown up with on Corsica - one hand holding the reins with his left dangling at his side and heels high. He often slouched in the saddle, but his deportment belied his ability on horseback.

He regularly rode 20 or 30 kilometres a day at breakneck pace and had more than his fair share of thrills and spills.

His choice of mount was usually Arabian - they being small and able to stop suddenly - and they had the added advantage of making him appear bigger than his five-foot six-inch body. However, larger mounts were used if he felt the need to impress people.

Bonaparte paid a great deal of attention to horses and their care and even introduced racing to improve the bloodlines of French animals.

Despite the fact he was usually shown on a white Arab - known to history as Marengo - Bonaparte had and rode many horses and Hamilton explores how that horse became more famous than others such as Ali, Vizir, or Roitelet (I and II).

Away from Bonaparte's own mounts, the author explores how he built the French army's marvellous cavalry wing and set about organising it.

Marengo: The Myth of Napoleon's Horse is an interesting work that examines how horses were used and misused during the Napoleonic Era.

It is not, however, just for horse lovers because as well as showing another side to the Ogre of Europe, it contains good general information on the period.

- Richard Moore






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