English historian Roberts (Eminent Churchillians, 1995, etc.) delivers a satisfying study of the opposing generals of yesteryear, whose lives intersected in all sorts of odd ways.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, were alike in many respects: both were born in 1769, both lost their fathers early, both had four brothers and three sisters, both changed the spelling of their surnames in adulthood, and both were foreigners, which prompted George Bernard Shaw to quip, “An English army led by an Irish general; that might be a match for a French army led by an Italian general.” Moreover, both shared mistresses, grudging admiration and mutual contempt, and an “invincible self-assurance” that sometimes led them to commit grievous errors in the field. Yet their differences, as Roberts effectively demonstrates, were ultimately more important than their similarities: though Napoleon was a brave and resourceful commander, for example, he seems not to have taken into account the immense logistical problems attendant in trying to conquer most of Europe, with the result that he left his troops to maraud for food and drove his horses to death; whereas Wellington, more cautious, managed to bring fresher troops and mounts into the field, if not the legendary glories of his opponent. Roberts capably corrects a few myths as he follows the two generals to their ultimate contest at Waterloo, writing, for instance, that far from disdaining Wellington as an inferior, Napoleon “squeezed people for information about Wellington’s character and interests,” denigrating Wellington only after Waterloo in an effort to explain away his defeat; Wellington, for his part, returned the compliment by, in effect, saving Napoleon’s life at Waterloo—an incident that, as Roberts reports it, will be of considerable interest to students of the battle.
The shelves groan complainingly with studies of the Iron Duke and the Little Corporal. Room should be found for this one.