Saturday 13 June 2015

Napoleon - Andrew Roberts on the BBC

Well I finally got some time to sit down and watch the first part of a new documentary about the great man Napoleon, by Andrew Roberts.

I have to say that my first thoughts after sitting through what seemed to me a very one sided view of the French emperor come dictator was, oh no here we go again with another fashionable revisionist eulogy.

I did find myself laughing ironically when the looting of Italian cities, encouraged by the French general was cast aside as just something that armies have always done and everyone has form on this aspect of warfare. To Napoleon's critics Andrew Roberts exclaimed that they should get over themselves. Then next we are told what a paragon of the enlightenment Napoleon was as exemplified by his law making and taking academics with him on his little jaunt to Egypt; oh did I mention, another country he simply decided to invade, and slaughter 4,000 prisoners of war on a beach outside of Jaffa. This as Roberts described would be a war crime by today's standards and has to be regarded as a blot on Napoleon's record, so that's ok then.

I would have preferred a much more balanced presentation about the great man. To my mind there is no doubt about Napoleon's capacity to inspire and lead men, his military abilities, certainly in the early to mid years of his career, place him in the lists of the great captains and the stability he brought to post revolutionary France, the failed state of its time, was a relief to the people of France and with his internal legal and social reforms, placed the country on the road to a more meritocratic path.

However I think it does a great disservice when the undoubted faults of the man and his personal desire for power and greater enrichment of his family which required a military coup to bring about, together with the trappings of a police state, devoid of a free press are glossed over and minimised. Ok the French government he replaced was undoubtedly corrupt and dis-functional, but it can hardly be argued that with a judiciary appointed by Napoleon, that his state structure was a massive improvement.

You could argue that his behaviour in his progress to power was no different from how the great monarchies of Europe behaved at that time, and I would agree. That however does not make Napoleon this paragon of virtue, the self made man, the law giver and saviour of Europe, that Roberts seems to suggest. Napoleon and his free-booting Marshals, answerable to no one but themselves were just another form of bad. The people of France and Europe would only find out later how bad, after all the death and destruction that the Emperor of the French would distribute as he attempted to put yet another member of his extended family on the throne of another country without any by your leave.

Napoleon was not a fascist, nor was he a saviour. He was far more complicated than either of those simple labels and I suppose my frustration is when the discussion about his remarkable rise and equally remarkable fall are couched in those terms as I feel Andrew Roberts seems to be trying to do.

Oh well, I am enjoying with great amusement the twists and turns that Andrew Roberts performs to down play the undoubted faults of his hero as he tries to convince us that we have got it all wrong and that the ferocity, ruthlessness and barbarity that his campaigns inflicted on Europe and North Africa was simply because everyone else was doing it and what else can you do when you've been provoked. I look forward to an equally challenging part two.


  1. Anyone who has taken the time to read Andrew Robert's book on Napoleon would know that the mistakes that Napoleon made were covered in greater detail & received a fair amount of criticism from the author. Time restraints & producers wanting to put their own "spin" on the subject are greater influences to the presentation.
    In addition our 21st century attitudes of rights & wrongs does play a large part in the perception of any subject.Napoleon's actions and motivations are no exception.History can only give us in the modern world the chance to correct prior wrongs & prevent us from making the same mistakes.
    Napoleon's nepotism is a perfect example of the attitude of the times that is pointed to as a great evil usually by people who would excuse the same behaviour from an hereditory monarch. But we also conveniently turn a blind eye to the same thing happen today with our "Corporate Emperors" playing the same game. It doesn't make what Napoleon did right but to me much more understandable from the perspective of the era.
    I think a (I was going to say more positive) but rather a less biased & more balanced view of Napoleon has been needed for quite some time. English language sources have been overly critical (constructive criticism is necessary) for quite some time and a programme like this may be able to counter that.
    Winston Churchill, outside his WWII motivational speeches where he used Napoleon as analogous to Hitler, was, from my readings, an admirer of Napoleon.
    Napoleon's mistakes were many but his overall body of work & legacy by and large was positive.
    At least socially via laws, education & infrastructure.



    1. Hi Grant,
      You make a very good point, that a time limited TV documentary is not going to allow a proper more fuller analysis of the man and his career as the book that no doubt underpins this series does. I agree that the the jingoistic often Anglocentric writing about Napoleon has been responsible for a distorted historical perception of the man up to our modern times.
      I think my concern is that Andrew Roberts in his open declaration as having Napoleon as his hero since the age of ten is clearly in danger of distorting the picture in the opposite direction and my plea is that if we are going to get a clearer understanding of what the man was all about, a more objective assessment needs to be presented across the different media be it books, TV or radio.
      Revolutions have a habit of turning out big men who dominate their political world. The French Revolution was preceded by the English (British is probably a fairer description) civil war, with the first Europen monarch to meet his end at the hands of the people, followed by Cromwell, the American Revolution and Washington. Both these prior upheavals to the political status quo make interesting comparators to the French Revolution and Napoleon. I think it could be argued that in both the other cases the people had more of a stake in what was happening to them than in Napoleonic France and at least Washington with the benefit of seeing where Cromwell went wrong had the good sense to see that the USA didn't need another King. I'm not so sure that Napoleon, for all his qualities quite ticked that very important box.
      Thanks for your comment, it's great fun engaging in these "yeah but, no but" thought storming sessions. Thank you Andrew Roberts for stirring the pot.

  2. My favorite bit of Napoleon-worship was David Chandler's summary of the 1814 campaign: Napoleon was "a giant brought down by midgets". Um, OK--certainly many of the Allied generals were, to say the least, mediocre or worse, but there were a few brighter lights among them: Wellington and Charles (Austria) come immediately to mind.

    Chris Johnson

    1. Hi Chris,
      It is fairly obvious that the Napoleon of 1814 was not the man of 1807 when at the peak of his power both militarily and intellectually. It is probably fair to say that by 1814 the situation that faced Napoleon was a combination of his own choices and decisions in the campaigns he fought after 1807. The Peninsular War, the 1809, 1812 and 1813 campaigns ripped the guts out of French manpower and more importantly French horse stocks, together with a war fatigue that took hold of him and the Marshals in a seemingly endless war. When combined with the inevitable improvement in Allied tactics and capabilities, their move to conscript armies and the rise of better general officers to lead them, it is little wonder that the end of empire happened. However there is no doubt that given all those difficulties Napoleon faced, his 1814 campaign is a truly classic masterpiece of use of the central position combined with energy and speed of action and in the months of January and February 1814 the former brilliance of the man shone through and I guess in that respect Dr Chandler makes a very good point. Even after his fall, the repercussions of his career rippled through the Europe that followed him with the rise of a united Germany and the gradual collapse of the European monarchies that culminated in the First World War a hundred years later. We name the period after him for a very good reason.


  3. Yes, I too found it too one sided for my liking.

    It is difficult to dismiss Napoleon's achievements and his strategic abilities, but he had plenty of faults and skipping over them in a couple of sentances does this account no favours. Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of the great man's military genius, that puts him on a different level to his contempories in the field of war, but he was no saint.


    1. Hi Vince.
      To be fair, Grant, above, makes a good point that a TV documentary does not really allow the time to do justice to the subject. I also think there is an element of BBC sensationalising going on here, by attempting to suggest that they are breaking new ground with revalations about how we have all been misled and that the record can be set straight. You can't blame them with all the worry about the licence fee and with those winds of change blowing through their corridors.

      That said, I think that Andrew Roberts is representative of a revisionist body of thought around Napoleon and his works, that in their drive to paint a more rose tinted picture of their hero are in danger of going too far the other way from the equally distorted views from the previous two centuries. I wrote my piece purely to put in a plea for a more objective approach.

      Like you I hugely admire many aspects of Napoleon and if I was putting the celebrity dinner guest list together, he along with Hanibal and Julius Caesar would be their and I am sure the conversation would be utterly absorbing. As an admirer of the Duke of Wellington, I'm not sure I would want to have dinner with him.

      However on a positive note I thought this program was a darn sight better than the pap they did about the Duke of Wellington a few weeks ago. Nothing new to say and with just one episode, so condensed that it was meaningless. The career of the Duke has surely got to be worth more than that if we are truly going to get a better understanding of the magnitude of his genius. The victory that we are all getting hyped up about at Waterloo has its origins in India and the Peninsula, but you would have hardly guessed that from the rubbish that the BBC have come up with so far.

      Don't get me started!

  4. Hi Jonathan,
    I have to say I prefer books or documentary films to be written and presented by someone who can give us a viewpoint that is non biased to his subject . In this case Mr Roberts is obviously a huge fan of Napoleon there's nothing wrong with that we all have our historical idols . The gentleman did gush about Napoleons achievements while making a few very brief and somewhat polished remarks on things that you could call a stain on Napoleons name .
    I am someone who in his late fortys will never probably see the places shown in the documentary so I enjoyed that aspect I for one do not like to see constant scenes of actors and reenactors that seem to flood our documentary series . I prefer to here the viewpoint of the presenter and any experts they choose to field . In this case when the program was over I thought, yes I enjoyed that I don't agree with much that you said but in an age of TV that is all soaps and game shows it was nice to put the brushes down and take in a subject that we can debate in a friendly relaxed manner .
    So let's see what number two has to offer...............
    Regards Furphy .

    1. Hi Furphy,
      Yes I reckon that's a pretty good summary. It's good we don't all think the same way as then there would be nothing to discuss, and I agree entirely with a lot of the coffee table book rubbish that seeks to skim over important historical topics by throwing in a few re-enactors to hide the lack of content. I hope the Sean Bean, Waterloo documentary on History Channel lives up to its billing.


  5. I must admit that I also find Andrew Roberts quite readable, if a little one-sided (and I will no doubt look for the pod-cast you have brought to our attention). I found his book ‘Napoleon and Wellington’ to be hugely entertaining, even though it painted Wellington as something akin to a modern Facebook stalker with regard to his apparent pursuit of Napoleon’s sister and some of his previous amours during the occupation of Paris. Possibly the wargamer’s equivalent of a “bodice-ripper”.

    I think the thing that annoys me about modern revisionist history is that it would appear it is next to impossible to sell anything on the period without the word “Napoleon” in the title, such as Michael Leggiere’s terrific book on Von Bulow “Napoleon & Berlin” and Dominic Lieven’s excellent account of what is essentially the 1812 campaign from the Russian (and his ancestor’s) perspective in “Russia against Napoleon”. Great books both of them, but it does underline to me how 200 years later Napoleon’s name is a requisite for getting published/air-time and making sales, and whether some of the polarisation associated with it is necessary to sustain the industry.

    I suppose this is only natural as we are discussing the Napoleonic period, after all.

  6. Hi Lawrence,
    I have read a bit about Wellington's exploits with the ladies of Paris. I believe he was complimented on his prowess by one of Napoleon's mistresses and seemed to wear it as a badge of honour to show something else he was better at than the former emperor. Very silly.

    Thanks for the book references. I haven't read either, but noted for future.

    I agree that the use of Napoleon in books on the period has become a bit like using German terminology when naming wargame rules for WWII. It's all a bit predictable and no indication that the content will live up to the title.

    I am looking forward to the rest of Andrew Roberts series and he is a very engaging presenter. The views of the Bridge at Lodi were great and I hope we get more of the visits to key places in the story. His views of Malmaision brought back memories of my trip in May although we had a sunny day with no snow about.

    I just hope those interested in the subject will be inspired to get an opposing view point as I feel sure a clearer picture of Napoleon's contribution to modern times lies somewhere in between.


  7. The Jaffa executions cannot be explained within 30 seconds anyway. These prisoners could not be released. Release them, and they have the choice between going back to the army and fight France, or be executed by their own ruler (as far as I remember). But keep them prisoners and the French would have wasted their resources: food was in short supply, and using soldiers as guards would have reduced the fighting potential of an army already falling to leprosy. Last but not least, Napoleon hoped to send a message of fear. These are no excuses, but I don't think it came as an obvious decision to make.

    Overall, I don't think French TV would have dared making such a one sided documentary (that a French expatriate speaking!). At least it changes from the good old English "Napoleon was evil" rhetoric :)

    1. Hi Blancard,
      Great to hear a French expatriate view from the other side of the hill.
      You are right, the time constraints of doing programs like this restrict a proper consideration of the facts.

      It does make a refreshing change from the previously stereotypical anglocentric view of Napoleon, but I think modern analysis is mostly leaning that way anyway. I am not sure Andrew Roberts does the cause of looking at Napoleon, the general, the politician and the statesman in a more rounded way much good when he seeks to minimise the faults of "his hero" in a very matter of fact way. My plea to the BBC is stop being sensationalist, the subject matter doesn't need to be treated in that manner as it is very interesting in its own right and deserving of a more balanced appraisal.

      Thanks for your thoughts and comments

  8. I completely agree. Yes, Napoleon was a great man, with many strengths. However, to downplay his obvious faults does him a disservice - he should neither be held on a pedestal or demonised as a 19th century Hitler. I felt that the presenter was trying so hard to get people to like Napoleon, that he ended up glossing over the negative aspects of his career and personality, and overemphasising his positive qualities. For example, the presenter mentions how, in 'the new Napoleonic France', an innkeepers son was capable of becoming a king - and ascending so high based solely on merit, rather than blood or family name. What he neglects to mention, is that the innkeepers son who became king (of Naples) was appointed to that position because he was the brother-in-law of Napoleon. In Napoleonic France, an innkeepers son still couldn't become king, unless he had familial ties to the emperor. In that respect, France was the same as it had always been: one ruling dynasty was replaced by another. Yes, Napoleon did create certain reforms which improved upon the old laws, but he also outlawed a free press, and oppressed citizens all over Europe while simultaneously claiming he had 'liberated' them. There are many other such examples (although I won't go into them all here). I can't help feeling that if Andrew Roberts had presented us with Napoleon the man - with all his strengths and weaknesses - he could have told a much more humanising (and true) story. Instead he presented us with a whitewashed idol. The documentaries came across as biased and inaccurate, which is a shame. I have yet to watch the third instalment, however, so will wait to see if that (as I suspect it is) is presented in an equally biased way.

    1. Hi Christine, and welcome to the blog.
      I watched the third and final instalment last night covering 1812-15 and St Helena. After the second episode I had decided to view the piece in the spirit it was made, ie an homage to the Napoleon Andrew Roberts would have liked him to be rather than who he was.

      The attempt to gloss over the Peninsular War atrocities was equally laughable, and I could have just about gone with, both sides (Spanish and French) behaved atrociously, if you ignore the fact that it was the French who were the aggressors, and he barely covered all the other stuff they got up to in other countries in the name of bringing enlightenment to the rest of Europe all the while "making war pay for itself", taken to a new level in Russia.

      One mantra Roberts liked to use was that Napoleon had war declared against him more times than he declared against others, Roberts highlighting Spain, Portugal and Russia in 1812 when he was forced into acting. This has been trumpeted by other "apologists" for Napoleon's behaviour as if he had nothing to with the causes for those declarations of hostilities being made.

      I did hear an interesting interview with Prof. Tim Blanning from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge talking on the BBC History Magazine Waterloo Special podcast, who pretty much dismissed Roberts "love in" for the French Emperor, describing Napoleon as a war criminal, which under a modern definition you might get him on, but I always think it is difficult to use the standards of modern times to judge historical characters.

      As I stated and I think you concur, I would prefer to watch a more balanced assessment and not be treated as an idiot with over simplistic pronouncements either way. I think it would be interesting to watch a debate between Roberts and Blanning to get at the real Napoleon who is probably somewhere between those two learned opinions.

      Thanks for your comment

  9. Hello Jonathan,

    I am a long time visitor, first time commenter.

    I am currently watching this series on BBC IView with my partner who has little to no knowledge of Napoleon herself. I myself am an unashamed Francophile who is currently writing my doctoral thesis on Stadion's creation of ‘german Hapsburg nationalism’ before and during the 1809 Danube campaign.

    Whilst Roberts is prone to hyperbole and is a tad bombastic, he is refreshing to hear. Most of the Napoleonic literature from Britain focuses on the campaigns of Wellesley against Marshals of lesser standing, written by men of very distinct origins who work is derived from a very limited number of sources.

    Britain, if there is a need to point fingers, was the bad guy. Pitt and the Regency were supported by an aristocracy who looked to gather wealth from their growing Empire and sell to the countries of Europe for vast profits. The East India Company’s monopoly over India and the use of British troops to further their economic growth serves as the perfect case study for an anti-egalitarian society.

    Over a century of British rule in Dhaka, a major city in the province of Bengal, the population fell from 150,000 to 30,000; the numbers in the overall region were reduced by a million in the famine of 1770, owing chiefly to the East India Company forced farmers to “plough up rich fields of rice or other grain for plantation of poppies” that would produce opium for sale in Europe. Blanning is a wonderful historian; his work on Joseph II is unrivaled, though his political views infiltrate his writing. Napoleon could be drawn up for war crimes, Britain for a myriad of atrocities. Though, you have rightly pointed out there is no need for political point scoring.

    It was British money made from trade the propped up the Hapsburg Empire, the Prussians and Russians, who all made significant territorial gains after France’s defeat. The Hapsburg family’s very existence is underwritten by their oppressive and nervous governance over a myriad of people who they had little to no right to rule.

    Britain’s war against France was fought for economic prosperity over social and political reform. Roberts rightly points out war was declared upon France more often than not and the invasions of Spain and Russia were strategically and morally sound if one was to view them as France’s resolute defence of her revolutionary ideals ( I for one do). Eradicate British supporters and see social reform blossom. Lose and see Metternich’s Europe which stifled social reform for a hundred years and where Britain is ruled by a minor Irish Lord supported by power purchased by money from his family coffers.

    With all due respect, Arthur Wellesley’s military career pales in comparison to that of many continental leaders (Charles’s for one) and would have been a disaster if Marmont had not of copped a splinter to the face. A hero he really was not. John Moore rarely gets a mention.

    Excuse the thoughts of a bolshie academic and thank you for such a wonderful blog.



    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi Kurt and thank you for joining in the discussion. I love reading the thoughts of bolshie academics. To quote a life coach I once heard "If we both think the same thing then one of us is redundant".

      Wow that's quite a list and probably gives a good handle on where most Francophile's come at this debate from, and as a self confessed liberalist who as I have got older has become less certain of most things and sees more shades of grey in most of them, probably confirms me in my opinion that Napoleon and his works and the effect he had on Europe are not as simple as either Roberts or Blanning would have us believe.

      I think the point about Roberts' series of programs that has caused the amount of push back that I have seen them receive is that, what you describe as refreshing, I might describe as "rose tinted" and that I don't think this approach adds to our understanding of the man or his works and their value or not as the case may be.

      I accept your point that the jingoistic nonsense that came out of Anglo-centric writers in past times helped develop a distorted view, however I think more modern works on the period have discounted a lot of that stuff and given a better balanced perspective and I see Roberts moving the agenda the other way, which does a disservice to our understanding.

      I don't recognise your descriptions of Soult, Massena, Marmont and Ney as "lesser Marshalls" and it could be considered unfair to claim that Wellington was the lesser for comprehensively beating them. To use a sporting analogy, "you can only beat what is put in front of you", and these lesser Marshals, picked by the great man himself although ham strung with a command structure that emphasised Napoleon's illegitimate hold on power and his concerns of falling to a coup from within, had very distinguished records against the other European powers.

      If you were to extend your analogy further you could claim, that Napoleon is overrated because his victories came against lesser European commanders and his performance dropped significantly when he came up against the better generals in his latter campaigns, eventually getting crushed by the "Sepoy General" himself.

      I'll continue my response in a second comment box as HTML is objecting to my verbiosity.

    3. Hi Kurt, part two of War and Peace!
      I put both the Emperor and Wellington in the list of Great Captains. I am not sure Sir John Moore was the better commander and based on the record, we will never know. Moore was the founder of the modern British army and his training methods developed at Shorncliff set that development in progress. Wellesley, himself held Sir John in high esteem and would have gladly served under his command. The key noticeable difference that stands out for me is that Moore and his pronouncement that Portugal could not be defended was proved very wrong and Wellesley's memorandum predicting almost to exactness the defence of Portugal and the outcome of the war shines out and compares well with the strategic insights that Napoleon brought to this era.

      I don't think we can look at bad guys and good guys when considering the foreign policies of the various nations. All the nations were pursuing their interests and it would be unfair to single out Great Britain just because its foreign policy was on the whole successful whereas France from the end of the Seven Years War was disastrous and bankrupted the nation. I can see, from the way France at this time behaved in Haiti, that, had she been successful in India, her rule would have been no better and perhaps a lot worse.

      Great Britain was not perfect, but it had had the first revolution in Europe of a major state, it had executed a King and following 1688 it had and was developing a system of democratic account with a free press and an independent judiciary. The founding fathers of the United States came out of that tradition and I have always felt that if Oliver Cromwell had had the benefit of seeing Washington's approach, the UK may well have stayed a republic. The pressure for further democratic reform only gathered pace after the war and Wellington (excepting the Peterloo massacre) and the conservatives bowed before that pressure aware that resistance was futile.

      Napoleonic France was a dictatorship ruled by a General who assumed absolute power in a military coup, overseen by a secret police. There was no free press, Napoleon himself relied on the British press to find out what actually happened when Wellington beat his Marshals, and the judiciary followed the Code Napoleon and I guess the name says it all.

      I think for me the key stand out about the behaviour of Napoleon and his regime that often gets glossed over by his supporters is the breath taking arrogance of his will and determination to have others bow to him. In pursuit of his expansionist policy, the little guy was crushed as he put his family members on the thrones of Europe in defence of France and her "revolutionary ideals". If, as it seems his supporters would suggest, the Napoleonic revolution was such a great idea and the monarchies of Europe were so bad, it is amazing that the peoples of Russia, Prussia, Spain and Portugal rose up in such numbers to fight a people led war to rid their countries of his soldiers and his will. He pursued a policy of making war pay for itself, basically a licence for his armies to rape loot and pillage the countries he invaded, including former allies.

  10. Hi Kurt and finally - phew!,

    It is noteworthy that the Duke of Wellington insisted his army paid for their requisitions and any man guilty of threatening a civilian with a weapon, let alone using it was condemned to death. The horror inflicted in little Portugal by Napoleon's legions in pursuit of a Europe bound to his will is remembered even today with the behaviour of General Loison and the several massacres he and his troops were guilty of, leading to his nickname "maneta" or one hand and Portuguese people still talk about being put in front of Maneta as a way of describing being in trouble. These accounts of barbarism are very rarely considered by the supporters of the Emperor, but I think go a lot of the way to understanding the popular revulsion to him and his regime that eventually led to his downfall.

    Napoleon was, as I have stated earlier, a positive influence in bringing order to a post revolutionary France and the war that followed his rise and fall only speeded up a process in Europe that would culminate in 1914 and the fall of most of the European monarchies. Perhaps the reason that did not include Great Britain was that the conservative aristocracy was already one hundred years ahead of that path by 1815. I am a huge admirer of Napoleon as a military thinker and organiser and perhaps Europe needed him as the oyster needs the grain of sand, but I think Europe was better after by being rid of him.

    I stood on the ridge at Waterloo last month and followed the routes taken by the various armies involved. That particular campaign revealed two heroes, Marshal Blucher for his steadfastness in his support for an ally whom his general staff distrusted and attempted to frustrate that support. The other hero was the Duke of Wellington who lost friends that had survived the whole of the Peninsular War in that one terrible battle and had the courage of his conviction in his ability to defeat Napoleon with his "infamous army" and the good grace to describe the horror of a battle won and his hope he would never fight another. One finds it difficult to imagine Napoleon ever making such a statement.

    There we are, the random thoughts of a confirmed liberalist and napoleonic enthusiast.

    Thanks Kurt for your input, you have really inspired my thinking and caused me to test HTML to the extreme, please continue to comment, I love it.