Monday, June 28, 2010


A review of Robert Asprey’s The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte (2001)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Asprey's second book on Napoleon Bonaparte picks up right were the first one had left off, Napoleon now Emperor of the French, was engaging in a series of wars and struggles known as the Napoleonic Wars. Europe was determined to destroy this usurper to power and he was determined to beat them back and gobble up their kingdoms as well.

(Emperor Napoleon I)

“Neither was Napoleon that father of the wars that accompanied the process, as his detractors would have us believe. Almost constant warfare between was the legacy of the revolutionary chaos, a series of wars invoked by European and English rulers determined to topple this dangerous interloper and restore Bourbon feudalistic rule to France” p.xxii

(Emperor Napoleon on this throne)

In this war, Napoleon had the greatest victory of his career, the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors; Napoleon would defeat the forces of Austria and Russia at the same time. William Pitt the Younger is said to have collapsed dead at the news. This battle marked the official end of the Holy Roman Empire, as its last Emperor Francis II, dissolved it in favor of the Austrian Empire and proclaimed himself Emperor Francis I. Austerlitz had made Napoleon the master of continental Europe. Although he would still have adventures by conquering Prussia and fighting in Poland, he was clearly the man in charge. He would use his new position to create the Continental System that would force the great Empire of the Sea, Great Britain, into an impossible position. He would create puppet states and place his own brothers and in-laws on to those thrones.

(the last Holy Roman Emperor, first Austrian Emperor)

“Napoleon’s gentle if contemptuous treatment of Czar Alexander is curious, as if regarding the Russians as visitors from another planet. He disparaged Russian arms, having noted even before Austerlitz that the cavalry although splendidly turned out had not yet learned to use savers effectively. ‘The Russian troops are brave,’ he commented after Austerlitz, ‘their generals are inexperienced, their soldiers ignorant and sluggish which in truth makes their armies to be little feared.’ He regarded Alexander as an ambitious but inexperienced and impetuous young man surrounded and controlled by firebrand courtiers such as Prince Dolgoruky who were in English pay. Alexander’s participation in the Third Coalition was a temporary aberration, an unwise intrusion in European affairs. ‘Russia is the sole power in Europe able to make war of fantasy,’ he wrote. ‘After a battle lost or won, the Russians vanish; France, Austria, Prussia, to the contrary, must live a long time with the results of war.” p. 2

However, enforcing the Continental System would prove costly for the Emperor of the French. He would invade Portugal through Spain in order to enforce it. When the Spanish royal family began to give Napoleon a hard time, he would depose the King of Spain, Charles IV, in favor of his own older brother Joseph. Once more, a Bonaparte would take a throne of a Bourbon king. Spain however would never be fully conquered and Napoleon would have to invest to many troops fighting the Spanish guerrilla* forces.

(King Charles IV of Spain)

(Napoleon's older brother Joseph Bonaparte now King of Spain)

“A final weakness stemmed from Napoleon himself. His diplomacy was atrocious. The exclusion of either King Charles or Prince Ferdinand from rule was doomed from the beginning, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Spanish character would have realized. The center of power envisaged by Napoleon did not exist. The grandees who had propped up the throne were despised as the French. Military occupation had turned into a war of pacification that neither Napoleon nor his generals how to fight. It was a fast-moving series of small wars in a big country, not a war of corps or divisions. Early successes, a few hundred insurgents shot here, a few thousand there, villages burned, arms collected, private properties and fortunes sequestered, officials and priests forced to swear allegiance to the new crown, cities and towns required to pay enormous ‘contributions’—all these were ingredients for a massive civil explosion.” p.113

For want of an heir, Napoleon was forced to divorce Josephine and remarried this time to Marie Louise of Austria, ironically the niece of the infamous Queen Marie Antoinette. The new Empress would give birth to the Baby Napoleon, known as the King of Rome.

(the new wife and son, Empress Marie Louise and the King of Rome)

(King of Rome as a young man)

Nothing however would be as equally disastrous as Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Seeking to punish Tsar Alexander I for his backing out of the Continental System, Napoleon invaded the Russian Empire. The French Emperor would have victory after victory, but as Russia withdrew, the Russians burnt their own cities and farms. As the winter came the French had no resources and they had to retreat with very heavy losses. Seeing Napoleon as weak, the rest of Europe joined in to help destroy him. The French were eventual overwhelmed and were forced to surrender. Napoleon would be exiled to Elba, and King Louis XVIII was put on the throne that his brother had lost.

(Tsar Alexander I of Russia)

(King Louis XVIII brother of the murdered King returns to the family throne.)

Napoleon was restless in Elba and plotted his way back to the throne of France. King Louis XVIII had made quite a mess of things, just like his brother, and Napoleon would land in France to claim what he felt was rightfully his.

“It was surely one of the boldest acts in history, Napoleon landed on the southern coast of France with 1,000 soldiers, two cannons and some very fiery words set forth in three proclamations, one to the French people, one to the French army, and one to the Old Guard.” p.375

Napoleon's new reign would last one hundred days. This brief reign would cause immediate war. Napoleon would fight his last battle at Waterloo, where he lost to allied forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington.

(The Duke of Wellington, the man who finshed Napoleon)

This time Napoleon would be exiled to St. Helena where he would remain in a gilded cage until his death. Napoleon's legacy is a mixed one, Asprey's work on him stands out because he does not give in to either side, the British paint him as a monster and the French a saint. He was both and neither, Asprey presents Napoleon as an incredible human being and that is it. He is a man who was the winner of a thousand battles who was ultimately brought down in the end. He took on the entire world and lost but he is remembered for taking it on.

*These were of course the original guerrilla forces.

{Video is taken from the 2002 TV movie Napoleon}

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