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Napoleon on War: A Book Review

By John Sneed
10/10/2016 • HistoryNet

Colson, Bruno. Napoleon on War. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2015. $45.00

Bruno Colson is a professor of history specializing in the history of military thought at the Universite de Namur in Belgium. He is the author of several books on military history and strategy. His current project is a biography of Carl von Clausewitz.

Very few people in history have captured the interest and imagination of so many people as has Napoleon Bonaparte. He was a skilled political leader who rose to power in a coup d’etat in 1799 and who crowned himself “Emperor” four years later. He led one of the finest armies in the world and conquered most of Europe. He was that rare combination of power and genius. When he was forced to abdicate his throne he was exiled to the Island of Elba where he had the opportunity to increase his studies and write. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he was forced to abdicate again. He died on the island of Saint Helena at the age of 51. After almost two hundred and twenty-five years he is still studied, read, quoted, and biographed as much as any historical person who ever lived.

His writings and tactics were the textbooks of military universities all over the world. Robert E. Lee quoted Napoleon often. It is said that General “Stonewall” Jackson kept a copy of Napoleon’s writing in his camp gear while on campaign. Even today, interest in Napoleon continues to enthrall historians both amateur and professional.

Bruno Colson has had an interest in Napoleon for many years. He has done the world of historians in general and military historians in particular an invaluable service with his book Napoleon on War. Like a miner digging for gold he has done the hard work of searching every available source of writings by Napoleon Bonaparte including some which have only recently become available. He has ferreted out every saying of Napoleon on the subject of war. Not only has he searched what Napoleon himself said, but he has also examined what others have reported to have heard Napoleon say on the subject of war. He has compared source with source, saying with saying, until he is sure the collection he has provided to us is a faithful record of Napoleon’s thoughts and feelings about war.

The wise historian as well as the military strategist would do well to pay attention. Napoleon led one of the finest armies in the world. He led his armies on nearly every continent, over almost every kind of terrain, conquering numerous cultures and peoples. He proved victorious time and time again. With such a wealth of experience and breadth of knowledge, there is still much that can be learned from Napoleon. Colson brings this knowledge and experience to light for the historian and the strategist to glean and learn from. The end notes alone are worth the price of the book. Those and the bibliography provide a complete guide to finding these sources for oneself and a beginning point for further research and study. Colson’s book can stand alone or it can provide a solid foundation for future historical research.

But these writings and thoughts would be extremely difficult to sort through without some type of organization. To achieve that organization, Colson has reached out to the venerable Carl von Clausewitz and his military treatise On War. Colson borrows Clausewitz’s outline and uses it as his own. In this way he categorizes Napoleon’s writings and sayings and puts them in a format that is easily understood. In Colson’s hands the outline of Clausewitz proves to be a fitting skeleton on which to hang the body of Napoleon’s work. This proves to be one of the major strengths of the book. Using Clausewitz’s outline makes the book an easy to use reference book.

If there is a drawback to the book, and this is a minor point, it is Colson’s affectation to slip from time to time from the English to the French, as though he assumes his readers will be familiar enough with French to easily translate the passages he quotes. But while this may be a distraction to the non-French speaker, it also adds a quaint ambiance to the book, almost as though one might hear the whispers of Napoleon coming through in his native tongue.

Whether one is an armchair historian or a hardcore academic, if one has an interest in the time period, or in Napoleon himself, no bookshelf is complete without this volume. This is a book that owners will go back and reference over and over. Colson truly has delivered up a treasure. It would be tragic to pass it by.

John Sneed is a second year graduate student at American Military University. He makes his home in Springfield, Missouri.

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