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Blundering to Glory – Napoleon’s Military Campaigns by Owen Connelly

July 28, 2013

Blundering to Glor

Recently, Napoleon Bonaparte has been showing up in almost every book I have read. His effect on Europe was described briefly in Postwar, his treatment of his generals and his personal relationship with Alexandre Dumas’ father was included in The Black Count, there is no way he could be left out of The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, and he’s popped up in books I read before I started this blog like Les Miserables, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. I started to get more than a little intrigued about the man and what made him great. Some internet searching led me to this book: Blundering to Glory – Napoleon’s Military Campaigns since I wasn’t ready to read a giant tome of military theory and the perspective seemed to be an interesting one. I was not disappointed.

Napoleon was great for many reasons. Many people have argued he was the greatest military strategist to ever live and his war tactics were copied and implemented in later armies across Europe. Connelly has similar feelings about Napoleon’s greatness, but argues that his military victories were the result of more than just strategy. Napoleon was a great improviser and had a keen ability to sense the weaknesses of his opponent and change tactics mid-battle. He also made many mistakes, many of them worked in his own favor helping to build his legend as a general that never lost (a legend he carefully cultivated with propaganda). In this book Connelly explains some of his most famous “blunders” and how they led to his rise to the throne as Emperor of France and ultimate fall to distant exile. The focus is on the military activity of the French during the Napoleonic Wars, but the incredibly interesting personality of the man himself is well-viewed through the lens of his work as General Bonaparte.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsican-born and Paris-educated, grew up in a very eventful time in French history. He entered the military as a young man in 1785 when he completed his education, only 4 years before the beginning of the French Revolution. His starting position in the military was as a second lieutenant in artillery and, according to Connelly, probably would never have risen higher than colonel if the events of 1789 had never happened and opened new paths to leadership in the turbulent years that followed. The personality trait that would probably serve him best in life was that he was extremely determined and this led to promotion after promotion as he showed his capabilities in the streets of Paris (firing on protesters near the Tuileries Palace in 1795), and on foreign battlefields alike (such as the Italian campaign of 1797, as a commander of the Army of Italy). He rose the ranks and made a name for himself in the French military.

This book makes short mention of this history and quickly gets into the details of the incredible battles that made Napoleon the most famous Frenchman. From Marengo, to Austerlitz, and Jena to Borodino, Connelly runs through the major battles and how Napoleon came to dominate in most cases. The author does a really excellent job of setting the scene for each of these battles, giving a feel of the political history and what Napoleon’s Grand Armée had to endure to be prepared. This book also has some excellent and concise maps of the battles and I found them to be more readable than any other battle maps I’ve ever tried to parse through. Connelly also does a really great job giving credit to Napoleon’s generals, those incredible fighters and strategists living in Bonaparte’s shadow. He argues that while Napoleon was calling the overall shots his team of first-rate generals was the factor that clinched his victories again and again.

Connelly calls Napoleon the “ultimate scrambler” and makes interesting points when discussing every battle how Napoleon’s luck and sheer self-confidence pulled him through when the battle could very easily have ended in crushing defeat. Napoleon was still a brilliant general, but many other factors helped him win.

One thing that I find extremely fascinating about Napoleon is that he wasn’t just a brilliant general, he also had a good idea of how to manipulate the press (and the truth) to get people to like him. He became extremely popular with the people of France through his own clever retelling of his military exploits and his intense personal charm. Napoleon himself was an loner and a bookworm, but when he turned on the charm he was apparently impossible to resist. It is this aspect as much as his incredible victories that made him the stuff of legend.

Napoleon meant a great deal to history and still means a great deal today. He has showed up in so many of the books I’ve been reading because it’s almost impossible to talk about Europe and not mention Napoleon Bonaparte. He carved himself into legend and won himself historic glory. I really liked this book because it did a great job explaining how this incredible man came to be, and learning more about his development as a leader gave me a better perspective on who he really was.

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From → Non-Fiction

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