Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) is generally recognised as one of the most important figures in world history. He was a seemingly limitless character and his life and career have fascinated generations not only in his native France but also across the world. For some it is his military career that focuses their attention; for others it is Napoleon’s rise to political power or his turbulent love life.
In truth all aspects of his life informed his character, and as a result Napoleon remains a fascinating and a divisive figure. Even within France opinions on Napoleon differ wildly. For some he remains a national hero while others point out that Napoleon’s ambition resulted in widespread death and destruction across Europe. In this postheroic age it is difficult not to regard him as a largely flawed character, despite his undoubted prowess in battle.
Napoleon’s life has spawned a huge literature, and there have been numerous studies of Napoleon, by scholars such as David Chandler, Georges Lefebvre and Charles Esdaile. These range from standard biographies to specific works focusing on the military or political aspects of Napoleon’s life. All of his biographers have struggled to encompass the totality of Napoleon’s career as general, politician and, finally, emperor. As this year sees the bicentennial anniversary of Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, there will be several new publications in 2015.
This new biography of Napoleon by the renowned French scholar Patrice Gueniffey is a new and comprehensive account of the early phase of Napoleon’s life. On its publication in France it was justifiably hailed as a masterpiece. It was originally published in two volumes; this new translation is of the first volume, which covers Napoleon’s life up to 1802. It has been ably translated by Steven Rendall: a readable and engaging book has emerged from the translation process.
The research for this new biography has taken many years, and Gueniffey has worked his way through the considerable literature on Napoleon and through contemporary material in archives in France and elsewhere. The result is a masterful biography that deconstructs Napoleon to show the myriad aspects of his character.
Napoleon once said that “great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.”
This biography sets Napoleon in the context of his age and demonstrates how his limitless ambition facilitated his rise to power during a chaotic period in French history. Gueniffey discusses Napoleon’s humble origins in Corsica and his early military career as a highly intelligent but very junior artillery officer in the army of the revolution.
It was during the first years of the revolution that Napoleon began to develop the political sensibilities that would further direct his ambition.
Posted to his native Corsica, he took part in a difficult three-way campaign between revolutionaries, royalists and Corsican nationalists. This experience of internecine warfare and politics left Napoleon with an awareness of human weaknesses and how to exploit these to further his own career.
From Gueniffey’s biography one gets a sense of the young Napoleon as a bright young man awaiting an opportunity. Such opportunities began to arrive from 1793. After his success at the siege of Toulon a series of promotions elevated Napoleon from captain to brigadier-general within a year.
His meteoric rise was not without interruption, and Napoleon was occasionally out of favour with the revolutionary government. In October 1795, however, he successfully deployed artillery against royalist counter-revolutionaries in Paris, giving them what he later referred to as “a whiff of grapeshot”. It is estimated that more than 1,000 royalists were killed, but the public saw Napoleon as the saviour of the revolution.
He was emerging as that most dangerous of things in French politics: a military hero with public support.
Young and ambitious
At this time Napoleon also began gathering a following of other young ambitious officers, such as Joseph Murat. Such men would support his rise to power and later serve as his generals and marshals. While still in his 20s he had developed a skill at attracting adherents whose careers were linked to his own fortunes and success.
Gueniffey’s account follows the young Napoleon through his early battles, examining his developing prowess on the battlefield through the lens of the Italian campaign of 1796-97. In this phase of his career Napoleon showed himself to be expert in developing reforms and tactics that had already been initiated within the French army. He also perfected his own distinctive leadership style and showed himself to be an inspirational commander and a canny manipulator of politicians, the public and the press. His style has been often imitated by modern military and political leaders.
By the early 1800s Napoleon was perhaps the most feared general in Europe, and he had perfected methods that he would employ in later campaigns against coalitions of armies that included the Russians, Prussians, Austrians, Spanish and British.
Yet Gueniffey also shows that, on occasion, Napoleon’s strategic sense failed him. His expeditions to Malta and Egypt in 1798-99 ultimately ended in failure. These strategic lapses predicted difficulties that he would later encounter in Spain and Russia.
This volume deals with Napoleon’s life up to his appointment as first consul in 1802 – or, as Gueniffey refers to it, “the top of the ladder”. Alongside the main political and military narratives, it deals with aspects of Napoleon’s personal life, his intellectual capacities and interests, and his activities as a legal and administrative reformer. The narrative is supported by more than 70 pages of footnotes; numerous quotes from the archives allow us to develop a greater sense of Napoleon and his wider context.
The book opens with a comment Napoleon made while in exile on St Helena: “What a novel my life has been!” This biography does justice to the scale of its subject, and it is a worthy study of a brilliant but flawed leader. Ultimately, it shows us Napoleon’s life as the vast canvas that it was, full of the drama and violence of history.
David Murphy lectures in military history at Maynooth University and is the author of Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917 (Pen & Sword)