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The Wars Against Napoléon: Debunking the Myth of the Napoleonic Wars

by General Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider, Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, Calif., 2007, $32.95.

Napoléon remains one of those personalities a history enthusiast either loves or hates. In The Wars Against Napoléon, French retired four-star General Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider, president of the International Napoleonic Society, describe his foreign and military policies, centering on the French emperor’s desire for peace and explaining that he was forced to defend revolutionary France against the perpetual threats posed from abroad. The authors assert that the French government’s negotiations and peace efforts failed primarily because of the reaction of Britain, which saw in France’s progress under Napoléon a formidable rival to its own global ambitions. For that reason—in Napoléon’s case at least—Weider contradicts Henry Kissinger’s axiom that “revolutionary governments could not accept the principles of loyalty.”

In the 21st century West, terms such as constitution, civil rights, freedom of the press and liberty to vote and elect public officials are commonplace, but in the 19th century such concepts struggled for existence in a much more hostile environment. To the European monarchs, Napoléon was little more than a common thief, even as they privately harbored admiration and jealousy for his abilities. In any case, the authors believe Napoléon campaigned against the rest of Europe’s powers because he had no choice, and on the rationale that the best defense is a good offense.

The Wars Against Napoléon includes maps highlighting the emperor’s main battles up to his last campaign in 1815, culminating at Waterloo. Missing from the description of the latter battle is the role of the 3rd Dutch-Belgian Division. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had kept that division at his rear because he didn’t trust its mainly Belgian personnel. However, when the 3rd and 4th Grenadiers of Napoléon’s Old Guard were ready to administer what they hoped would be the coup de grâce to the exhausted British regiments, the Dutch-Belgian division suddenly counterattacked and threw back the guard. This incident remains overlooked but begs for a historian to put it in perspective.

Another item of interest is that in both 1814 and 1815 Napoléon threatened the bourgeois French senate and parliament with a call to arms for laborers to join the II and III Corps of the National Guard. He changed his mind on both occasions to avoid the sort of communal revolution that finally occurred in 1870. Not quite the revolutionary his predecessors had been, Napoléon pursued a policy intended to smooth class differences and avert civil war in France. Whether this book truly debunks conventional wisdom regarding the Napoleonic Wars probably depends on the reader. Nonetheless, historians who share the authors’ admiration of the late emperor will want to add this labor of love to their must-read list.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.