Second installment of the two-part biography begun in The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (2000), long on data but short on interpretation.
Military historian and former marine officer Asprey knows tactics, orders of battle, and the smell of gunpowder, expertise that serves him well in writing of Napoleon’s skills on the battlefield. He is less at home, though, with the realpolitische implications of those battles and with the ideals that drove Napoleon, who wanted nothing less than to effect the creation of a league of states across the continent that would live and breathe by the ideals of the French Revolution—with himself, of course, at the head. Asprey acknowledges some of Napoleon’s civilian successes: the building of ports, orphanages, hospitals, and canals; the beautification of Paris and other cities; his devotion to public health and order. But it is General Bonaparte who captures the author’s admiration and attention, and the most successful portions here offer neat summaries of the great clashes at places like Borodino, where, Asprey writes with a cataloguer’s precision, “French cannon alone fired 90,000 balls, French muskets nearly two million rounds, firepower answered in kind by the Russians”; Wagram, where French forces managed to squeeze out a victory over Austria despite having lost their commanding general and mistakenly slaughtered their Saxon allies; and, of course, Waterloo, where a number of small errors, harmless enough in themselves, combined to cost France victory. To get at those summaries, however, readers must brave cannonades of pointless verbiage (“Napoleon deemed Austerlitz ‘a decisive victory’ without perhaps realizing that decisive is a finite adjective with a limited lifespan”) and such weird metaphors as, “From Napoleon’s standpoint it was a pretty enough canvas. Unfortunately it had the major defect that its colors would retain luster only by repeated coats of costly force.”
A hardy few may find value here. Others may want to dust off their copies of War and Peace and The Age of Napoleon.