The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History
by Alexander Mikaberidze.
Oxford University Press, 2020.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.

Reviewed by Casey Chalk

Many, I’d imagine, would be intimidated by a 960-page book on the Napoleonic era. Or perhaps they’d be uninterested, thinking the topic increasingly irrelevant to a twenty-first century whose political, social, and military realities seem so distant from a past that seems so Eurocentric and traditionalist. Georgian-American historian Alexander Mikaberidze, professor at Louisiana State University, Shreveport, proves both wrong in his magisterial new book, The Napoleonic Wars.

A truly global war

Mikaberidze, who manages to keep the narrative moving at a speedy clip, has an overarching objective: to demonstrate that the Napoleonic Wars were truly a global conflict with global implications, an authentic “world war.” In this, the author, whose work involved research in over a dozen languages, succeeds. Events that transpired in the early nineteenth century in Lisbon, Hanover, Moscow, Buenos Aires, New Orleans, Macao, Alexandria, and Nagasaki were all part of a larger, coherent narrative that has its center in Napoleonic France.

Indeed, even the French Revolution—whose roots can be found in both economic and political mismanagement—was inherently global in nature. Bourbon France in the late eighteenth century had become dangerously dependent on an international capital market on which it borrowed vast sums from foreign creditors. Its antiquated financial accounting meant that it borrowed at approximately double the rates of the Dutch and British, two of its main international competitors. Speculation on the value of the French East India Company in turn cost the government more than 20 million livres, which in turn aggravated inequality in France.

The wars of the French Revolution, beginning three years after the storming of the Bastille (1789), soon became a global conflict. The British reacted by making huge military investments in the Caribbean to ensure their domination of the trade there, seizing both French and Dutch islands (once Holland was conquered by the French Empire) over the course of the conflict. The French took the battle to North Africa and the Middle East with their Napoleon-led campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798–1801). The United States in the 1790s was forced to get involved in the Mediterranean because of Barbary pirates’ attacks on their shipping interests, at one point paying one-sixth of its federal budget in tribute to the Muslim dey of Algiers.

Besides the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, the Ottomans were also involved in the Napoleonic Wars, fighting a losing battle against the Russian Empire—indeed, it was a truce in Russian-Ottoman fighting in 1812 that enabled a Russian army to turn its attention north to Napoleon’s invasion. Both the British and French sought to court Persia, like the Ottomans a weak, stunted empire threatened by Russian aggression. There were battles in Africa, including the British seizure of the Cape Colony in South Africa from the Dutch. There was significant British military and political activity in India and the Indian Ocean; a British capture of the Dutch colony of Java; and British intrigues (admittedly failures) in Macao and Nagasaki.

One of the greatest global impacts of the era was the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas, a result of the instability that followed Napoleon’s dismantling of the Spanish Bourbon monarchy. The first successful revolution in South America occurred in 1810 in Buenos Aires. Paraguay declared its independence the following year. Simon Bolivar’s revolution in Venezuela began during this time as well. The very same year that Napoleon invaded Russia, Great Britain and the United States engaged in a two-year war that stemmed from disputes related to British attempts to beat France by controlling the Atlantic trade and battlespace.

Of course, readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels already know the global dimensions of the Napolenic era. Mikaberidze’s history answers other important questions, including why Napoleon was so successful, why he ultimately failed, and what lessons are to be learned that are worthy of contemporary application.

Brilliance and good timing

Napoleon is rightly recognized as one of the greatest military commanders in history, though Mikaberidze notes he made few original contributions to the theory of war. Rather, like Thomas Aquinas and his masterpiece Summa Theologiae, his genius lay in his ability to “synthesize prior innovations and ideas and to implement them in an effective and consistent manner.” He also came to the fore at a particularly apt moment in French history.

Revolutionary France had an unparalleled religious zealotry—motivated by abstract notions of “nation,” “people,” and “equality”—that other traditionalist, monarchical European powers in the 1790s disastrously underestimated. Beginning in 1793, France brought to bear “the full weight of the nation” in its wars, manifested in universal conscription of all single men ages eighteen to twenty-five, requisitioning of supplies from individual citizens, and ensuring mass capacity production from factories and mines. That year France raised fourteen new armies and equipped 800,000 men, something no other European power could approximate. Five years later, it raised yet another 400,000 new soldiers. While France prepared for battle, Europe was distracted by other events, such as the Austro-Ottoman War in the Balkans, and the Austro-Prussian-Russian carving up of Poland.

Napoleon built on these fortuitous conditions, reorganizing the French military and creating a corps system that gave the French army unparalleled maneuverability and flexibility. He then employed his tactical genius on the battlefield in decisive campaigns against the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians. He was an expert planner. During his decisive 1806–07 campaigns in central Europe, his troops were able to average twenty miles a day of marching because of Napoleon’s extensive preparations. He understood the advantage of mobility, lessons later imitated by Confederate generals, like Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s apocryphal comment to “get there firstest with the mostest.”

Napoleon was also enterprising. While in Egypt, he discussed with Muslim clerics the possibility of converting his army to Islam to gain a strategic advantage (it never happened). Yet he was also ruthless and selfish, ordering hundreds of captured Turks and Mamluks in the Levant executed. He then abandoned his army in Egypt to return to France and secure his ascendancy, a true inversion of the biblical prophecy, “out of Egypt I called my son.” Mikaberidze writes:

One of the greatest military minds, he was a stirring visionary, and the scale of his ambitions continues to capture people’s imagination. But his other traits are distinctly unpleasant to contemplate. He was a climber and double-dealer who exploited others for his own gain. He was egotistical and prone to nepotism, richly rewarding his relatives even when confronted with their continued incompetence; his demands for efficiency often blurred lines between lawfulness and criminality; and he cynically exploited human weaknesses whenever the occasion arose.

His brutality in Italy was especially notorious. “Burn one or two large villages so that no traces remain,” he ordered his subordinates during an Italian insurrection. “Say that I have ordered it. Large states can only be maintained by acts of severity.” A true conman, he cleverly deceived the Spanish Bourbon monarchy to relinquish control of the throne to Napoleon’s brother Joseph.

Why did Napoleon lose?

The downfall of many a megalomaniac (or an egotistical scoundrel, as Mikaberidze portrays him) is his own arrogance. Certainly this had much to do with Napoleon’s own destruction. But there were other important factors. The Continental System—the extensive economic and political strategy Napoleon employed in an attempt to defeat Britain’s maritime power—failed because it was not pursued vigorously enough or for a sufficiently long period. British national and economic security were thus never truly threatened by the blockade, while the British navy denied France access to overseas markets. The Continental System was ultimately “more detrimental than advantageous to the Napoleonic Empire.”

Then there were the military missteps. If Napoleon could have focused his attention on the Iberian Peninsula long enough and with enough troops—Britain, eventually under the command of the Duke of Wellington, maintained a frustrating foothold in Portugal—that would have had serious consequences for British naval supremacy. So too would France’s naval building program, which would, had it been completed, have brought relative parity between the French and British navies. Yet the Corsican upstart was distracted, ultimately by Russia’s refusal to participate in the Continental System, which was devastating its economy.

Napoleon determined to punish Russia, and thus he organized one of the greatest military campaigns in modern military history, invading the Eastern European Empire with 600,000 troops. Yet the sheer size of Napoleon’s Grande Armée was a liability. It was difficult to control and maintain effective communication, let alone collect good intelligence. Russia’s poor roads made transporting military supplies in a timely fashion impossible. And Napoleon dithered at several key points, wasting valuable time. Though he defeated the Russian imperial army at Borodino and entered a burned and abandoned Moscow, he was forced to abandon Russia, and fewer than 100,000 of his soldiers re-crossed the Nieman into the French Empire.

Eventually, other European monarchies learned to copy what made Napoleon and France successful, pursuing political and military reform and incorporating elements of France’s revolutionary legacy, including centralization of bureaucracy, transforming royal subjects into citizens, and invigorating their people’s sense of liberty. “In short, they needed to employ French ideas against France,” explains Mikaberidze. After the Russia debacle, the Allies employed a frustrating war of attrition in Germany and France in 1813 that exploited their numerical superiority. When Napoleon briefly returned to power after his short exile in Elba, he was done in by his own arrogance and egotism, which led him to grossly underestimate the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

Beware Revolutions and War

One of the key lessons from this history of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is to beware the temptation of the revolution. The French revolutionary armies, for all their talk of equality and liberty, occupied other European peoples, exploited and taxed them, and harassed, fined, and imprisoned those who resisted. German radical Georg Forster as early as January 1793 observed that “the brigandage of troops has succeeded all too well in alienating souls and diverting them from the project of giving themselves to France.… The inhabitants would been less cruelly deceived if the [French] troops had told them upon arrival, ‘We have come to take everything from you.’” The harsh realities of French occupation involved levying massive war contributions, which one French historian called “nothing more than well-organized looting.” The French Empire was, in Mikaberidze’s words, a “truly institutionalized system of confiscation.”

Besides the atrocities already discussed, French armies in Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean engaged in genocidal massacres to put down a slave revolt. Once free, the revolutionary Haitians in turn committed their own atrocities against white European settlers. Napoleon also effectively co-opted the Catholic Church for his own political purposes. He crowned himself emperor, notoriously taking the crown from Pope Pius VII at a ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on December 2, 1804. He later placed the same pope under house arrest. Even George III of England described Napoleon as an existential threat to Christianity.

Napoleon consistently promised the French people order and stability, but did not deliver. He ceaselessly demanded conscripts across not only France but also Europe, especially in preparation for his invasion of Russia. After his terrible losses there, he recruited another new army of 140,000 Frenchmen that suffered terrible casualties in its turn, as did yet another army of 120,000 levied in January 1814, this one comprised largely of mere boys.

The devastation of the Napoleonic Wars is worth careful consideration. As many as four million people perished in Europe between 1792 and 1815 (2.5 percent of the continent’s population). More than a third of Frenchmen born between 1786 and 1795 died on Napoleonic battlefields. Britain’s losses were proportionate to what they lost against Germany in World War I. Spain lost proportionally more than double the population it lost during the Spanish Civil War. The total costs of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era were likely over six million people.

The legacy of war is very near to me. I served in Afghanistan. My father served in the Vietnam War. My grandfathers served in World War II, and I have great-uncles who saw action at Normandy, in France and Germany, and in the Pacific. A great-grandfather served in World War I. One great-great-grandfather served in the Civil War. I am also a father of four, including two sons. As I reflect on the devastating carnage of the Napoleonic era, a result largely of the ambitions of a man who aimed to revolutionize Europe and the world, I think about the unspoken agreement between families and the nation. The nation, when threatened, may call upon the family to offer up its sons for the service of a conflict that may never return them to their homes. Such was the case for far too many European families in the early nineteenth century. If any lesson is learned from Napoleon, let it be this: that wars be rare and quick.  

Casey Chalk is a columnist for New Oxford Review and Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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