BOOK REVIEW / An imperial lather: Tim Blanning on two books that shed light on the grandeur and littleness of Napoleon

FRANCE conquered Germany not once but several times between 1792 and 1812. By 1809 nothing was done in German-speaking Europe (vastly more extensive than it is today) without Napoleon's consent. To set the seal on his hegemony, he divorced Josephine and married a daughter of the Habsburg emperor, a sexual humiliation of the old order without precedent - rather as if a victorious Adolf Hitler had claimed the hand of Princess Margaret.

Yet this came at a time when the Germans were rapidly establishing a decisive lead over their neighbours in every sphere: they were more numerous, more literate, more enterprising and, generally speaking, more prosperous. As David Hume had observed back in 1748, when on a trip through the Rhineland: 'Germany is undoubtedly a very fine country, full of industrious, honest people, and were it united it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world.'

So how did the French do it? The liberation of the state by the reforms of the Revolution provides part of the answer, and room must always be found in any explanation for the genius of Napoleon. The intense animosity between the two German superpowers, which led most Austrians to assume that Prussia rather than France was enemy number one (and vice versa) also played a part. Less obvious, but also crucial, is the reason revealed by John Gill's detailed narrative of the campaign of 1809 (With Eagles to Glory, Greenhill, pounds 30) The French were always able to find German princes to do their dirty work for them.

In essence, this was just another episode in a civil war which had been running in the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation' for many centuries, between a centripetal emperor trying to centralise authority and the centrifugal princes trying not only to stop him but to set up in business themselves as independent states. The French had often exploited this rivalry in the past, but Napoleon introduced a radical new twist. He selected certain favoured princes, allowing them to gobble up their neighbours and giving them fancy new titles. So the Elector of Bavaria, for example, increased his territory and population by 50 per cent and became a king into the bargain. But there was price to pay: Napoleon expected large numbers of men and large amounts of money to keep his war machine going.

This strategy had the signal advantage of keeping the more populous Germans divided and using them to fight French wars. As Gill shows, in considerable detail, Napoleon could not have done what he did in 1809 if he had not been able to incorporate the German contingents in his 'Grand Army'. Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hessen, Saxony, together with Napoleon's brand-new creations of Westphalia and Berg, were all obliged to send their troops to fight the Austrians.

The war of 1809 was more exciting than previous Napoleonic campaigns because there was an element of uncertainty. For the first time the apparently invincible general actually lost a battle - at Aspern, just outside Vienna, on 21 May 1809. Fortunately for him, the Habsburgs were overcome by their success and displayed once again their traditional skill in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, losing, narrowly, the decisive battle at Wagram six weeks later. This relative failure was due more to Napoleon's own mistakes, and to an improved Austrian performance, than to any shortcomings of his German troops, who proved equal to the best French veterans.

John Gill presents this fascinating episode very much as a military historian of the most positivist kind. There is no scenesetting, no consideration of the non-military assets and problems of the combatants, not even a review of the international situation. We are plunged straight into day one of the campaign - 10 April 1809 - and are taken through to the end, day by day, unit by unit.

The great strength of the book is a sound and clearly expressed narrative. Although a serving officer, Major Gill has somehow found the time to read an enormous amount of literature, both contemporary and historical, on every last detail. He has visited every battlefield and has followed every engagement in his mind's eye on the ground. The result is a densely textured account which will appeal most to the more battle-hardened veterans of military history, and especially, to the war-gamers among them. The less initiated reader will find it heavier going, although progress is eased by the 50 excellent maps and 40 informative tables. Less helpful are the muddy little line drawings military historians seem to like so much.

The personal decline of Napoleon which became evident during the course of the 1809 campaign is revealed in all its pathetic finality in Somerset de Chair's edition of Napoleon's rambling and mawkish apologia pro vita sua dictated during his exile on St Helena (Napoleon on Napoleon, Cassell, pounds 20). A selection from an edition first published in 1945 and marred by proof-reading which is sloppy even by modern standards, it should be read by any statesman proposing to write his memoirs, as an awful warning against protesting too much. The account of Waterloo, for example, is studded with sentences beginning 'If only . . .', prefacing yet another attempt to shift the blame for defeat on to a subordinate. Napoleon on Napoleon makes him sound petty and cheap.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis