“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!


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