“Napoleon the Great” – A quick review…

I just popped into my local Waterstone’s (you know, that bookshop who take 50% of a writer’s ‘hard-earned’ – and they wonder why independent bookshops are on the rise??) to have a look at Andrew Roberts’ new book; “Napoleon the Great”. Military history buffs will doubtless have heard of it, and it seems to be all over the news, so I thought I’d go and take a look for myself.

Now first, I will say I didn’t buy it…I would, but you can guarantee I’ll get it for Christmas from someone or other, so I can wait a couple of months! Obviously, I didn’t read the whole 900-page volume either, but then I am a pretty good skim-reader, know the story of Napoleon very well, and was able to go to the bits I wanted to see, pretty much at will.

Well my first anxiety was at once taken care of; he hasn’t discovered my secret. I don’t think anybody will. Nobody has unearthed what I have unearthed in two hundred years, so I can rest assured. In any case, his work is a proper biography, which mine is not, so we won’t clash on the fields of battle over this one!

His writing style I liked a lot. Scarily, it is very much like my own…probably why I liked it! And he uses a lot of quotes from the people who were there, almost as many as I do, and all the same ones…in fact, it was hard to convince myself that this was not one of my own books at times!

Criticisms are very few; his maps (which is down to the publisher, I accept) are all – or mostly, taken from David Chandler’s “The Campaigns of Napoleon” from fifty years ago – but they’re accurate, and ones we all know, so we can get past that. He mentions a list of people upon which the world has bestowed the title of ‘Magnus’ or “The Great” – that being the entire premise of the work, and yet leaves out the first; Cyrus and Gustavus Adolphus, who was proclaimed so in 1633, the year after his death – but again, this is hyper-criticism on my part. I only hope the critics are as kind when it’s my turn!

To other historians, he is fair, and this, I think, is a rarity, as most try to poke holes in each other and dismiss various lines of argument in favour of their own. History is adorned with historians proverbially shitting on each other (I’m sorry, but often there is no other word for it!) – and I am glad to see that this is not the case. His bibliography and index takes up a vast amount of the book, but shows how excellently well researched his epic work has been. A work which, he says, has taken him longer than Napoleon’s imprisonment on St Helena lasted for…I know the feeling there!!

In all, I’m going to say that this is an excellent and much-needed book which brings the study fifty years back up to date since David Chandler’s outstanding work mentioned above. The detail is rich, the character studies excellent and the research faultless. In this last, he has been fortunate; having the Prime Minister as a good pal has unlocked many doors which would be closed to me and many others, but he has made good use of them, and I will be disappointed if this is one present not being unwrapped by me at Christmas.

As to the ultimate point of the book: “Napoleon the Great” – I am in two minds here.

Was he? – Certainly. The greatest, to my mind.

Should he be called so? – No.

For just as Caesar proclaimed; “I am not King, but Caesar” – so Napoleon needs nothing else.

Nice job Andrew Roberts!


Making History…

Welcome to my new Military History blog; “Making History”.

As many of my readers may know, I  am a Military History author, and Group Manager of the ‘British Military History’ group on LinkedIn – the biggest and STILL fastest growing military history forum on the web today, where we discuss not just British history any more, but pretty much all of it, from Troy to current world events and the battle against ISIS / IS / ISIL – what do they call themselves this week??

People may ask – rightly – “So what have you written, mister writer?” – It’s a fair question! Well the answer is both ‘something’ and ‘nothing yet’ I’m afraid. The ‘something’ comes from my old career – Fourteen years in the recruitment game, to be precise – and is a book covering everything ever known about the world of recruitment and employment, debunking every major recruitment study since the first one back in August 1920 to the present day. It was good, well-received and probably something only someone who likes historical study could really do. You’ll see why in a minute.

Of other ‘somethings’ is a meticulous history of the Peninsular War which I began back in 2003. I still have it – hand written, if you please – in a folder at home. It’s still very good; I read some of it the other day, and my writing style hasn’t changed a bit in the last 11 years, which always looks encouraging…I really must get that typed up some day!

And ‘nothing yet’…well that’s the current book. What began as a sojourn through two millennia of military history took on a life of its’ own until it is now fully two 900-page volumes packed with action, battle and campaign maps by the bucket, quotes, descriptions and a final sting in the tail which will turn everything ever written on military theory upon its’ head…well I can’t be accused of half-measures, now can I?

I put this down as something of an introduction, so that my readers and community on the ‘Ricky D Phillips – Military History Author’ Facebook page can know what they are following, and why they even should. This is a journey, not just about the making of history, but about the making of a historian and a writer.

Let’s get this straight right now – history is boring! It really is…and it shouldn’t be. I didn’t take history as a subject at school when I had a choice. I didn’t study it at college either – I chose Engineering, and no I didn’t go to University either…we were poor, so no passengers and earn your way! But military history has always been there, and somehow it was always a damned sight more interesting first hand.

Back when we only had four TV channels, it seems ‘The World at War’ was always on, or ‘Das Boot’ – pretty much on repeat! My first memory of life (I’m 35 as I write – about half the age of your average military history buff!) was my parents dancing around the front room as the Canberra (on which they had only sailed the previous year) brought the boys back from the Falklands War. The fire ships sprayed arcs of water over the ‘Great White Whale’, the band struck up ‘Rule Britannia’ and my Dad paraded in an old WWII tin hat with “1982 Falklands Liberation Army” painted on the front…confusing was not the word, but even then, I got the idea that something big had just happened!

I watched the first televised war in 1990 in the Gulf, with my Dad turfing me out of bed in the middle of the night saying; “We’re at war, and it’s on telly! We’re giving them hell, you’ve got to see this!” – I was eleven at the time, but seeing ‘shock and awe’ beamed directly into your living room was something special to see! Shortly after, Dad picked up an old army Landrover and we found twenty Iraqi Republican Guard battle helmets in the back. There’s still one in my old bedroom back in London…the other nineteen are in the loft as memory serves!

The collection of objects d’art has grown over the years, to include a 1796  light-pattern cavalry sabre, a heavy cavalry sword, a short-sword with a pistol in the guard from the 1600’s, an Admiral’s dress sword with an ivory hilt shaped like a sea-dragon, a Belgian pin-fire revolver which Great Uncle Bill picked up in the trenches, a couple of Prussian bayonets Great Uncle Joe dug up on the war graves commission after the war (he had a worse job; going out there and digging up and identifying the bodies) and a Vichy French cap badge, bullets, casings, a full set of WWII medals and a great collection of photographs from Great Uncle Jim who served in the second world war. I have some great pictures of naval battles, battleships, action shots from El Alamein and even a close up polaroid of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel…where he got that from, I will never know! – Oh yes an a bomb…well, half of a bomb which my Dad dug up with a tractor back in the 60’s…he made the papers with that find. We still have the cutting somewhere.

None of our family were war heroes, although serving in WWI, WW2, Korea and Suez without a scratch in any of them. Perhaps we are a charmed breed! We do have a George Cross from Great-great-great Grandfather Henry Blogg – ‘The King of the Lifeboatmen’ – still more lives saved at sea than any other. Eight hundred and seventy three in total…and a dog. But no war heroes, sadly. Perhaps saving lives is more creditable anyway.

But I digress…’History is boring’ I said…and it is, at least the way it is taught. “And then this happened…and then that happened…” – this is not fun. Nearly all of history is part of, or is shaped by warfare. It is an action story, not a recital – or it should be. Show someone today the film ‘300’ and they’ll say “Good action film!” – just try to tell them about the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC and see how long you’ll hold their attention! Same story, but one has more action, invokes more interest and teaches more by engagement…this is how I write.

My current book (which is heavily under wraps for a bit longer) is, I admit, a bit of a beast. No spine could hold 1800 pages. Reading it would be a work-out in itself! It became two volumes instead. You can read it end to end now, but it needs beefing up at the start now, in order to match the detail of the later chapters. I must say though, it is worth it. Every page is full of action, battle, genius, great heroes, impossible victories – it is a tour de force par excellence if I say so myself…and I do. I’ll stand by that when it comes out.

I often say I wish I had started with a smaller book, but heck, the corner-stone of your first church really should be a solid one, shouldn’t it??

That said, this is just the first book of many which are planned. There are somewhere around forty in the works after this in quick succession, and the next four or five are already laid out ready. The research is done, the format is laid out, I know exactly what will go where and what it will look like, page by page. Each book compliments the last and the next in the series, however disparate the subject matters, and if it isn’t action-packed and fun to read then I cut it out and start again…as Bernard Cornwell says; “It isn’t about facts, but story.”

I aim to write the books that have not been written. Too often, writers play safe, knowing what publishers like, and what will be accepted. Who wants another 200-page hum-drum called ‘Waterloo’ or something as spectacularly unimaginative?? Military history is about inventiveness, upsetting the established regime, flashes of brilliance, fighting against the odds. Nobody ever achieved great things by a ‘culture of average’ now did they? So why do we write about great things averagely? – It is something I do not subscribe to.

My Facebook page is there for updates in my writings and my journey, with a bit of fun ‘on this day’, or facts or trivia thrown in. My LinkedIn Group is there for experts, laymen and armchair generals – all are welcome! And we promote writers too, oddly enough.

But this is about ‘Making History’ not reciting it. Let’s tell action stories. War stories. The great things and the funny things that the veterans recounted to me on the beaches of Normandy  in 2004 which kept me riveted. History may be ancient to many people, but to me, there is as much ‘shock and awe’ in the siege of Troy or the campaigns of Napoleon as there is on TV, Facebook or your Twitter feed today.

So please join me on Facebook or LinkedIn as I prepare to do to history what Alexander did to Persia, what Hannibal did to Rome, what Napoleon did to all of Europe and what Hitler did to the world – turn it on its’ head and give it a kick up the backside!

It’s time to make history.