Friday, 16 October 2015

On the Napoleonic Wars - David G Chandler

"History is an argument without end." 

A great quote to end a fascinating and, what I found, very personal collection of essays, anecdotes and a semi-autobiographical account from one of the great historians of the twentieth century, Dr David G Chandler.

On the Napoleonic Wars was first published in 1994 following Dr Chandler's retirement as Head of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, a post he held for nearly fourteen years. In a glittering academic and literary career, Chandler's influence and contribution to military history and particularly the Malburian and Napoleonic eras was enormous and extended into all aspects of the subject to include the arts, with his work as adviser to the BBC TV production of War & Peace in the 70's plus other TV and film credits with Channel 4 and NBS.

His support extended to the Sealed Knot and  Napoleonic Association re-enactment groups and for our hobby, wargaming, with his editorship at Osprey publishing and his attendance at shows such as the Napoleonic Fair in London where I met the great man in 1996 and got his autograph.

I feel I have grown up under the influence of Chandler's writing and thoughts which have had a great influence on my own thinking particularly about Napoleon's contribution and place in military history and he remains, for me, a huge hero in the subject and a member of that glittering group that included some great names and personalities from that time, such as Brigadier Peter Young, Christopher Duffy, Anthony Brett James and John Keegan.

I was prompted to finally get around to reading this book following its reference in the last book I reviewed back in August "The Peninsular War, A New History" by Charles Esdaile and I am more and more finding this is an interesting way of linking up my reading by following up on referenced books that featured in the one I have just finished.

So this book is a collection of essays presented by David Chandler at various venues and times through his long career. The collection is prefaced by an introduction about Chandler's early life, schooling, joining the army and university education which gives a great insight into the influences and experiences that shaped the man and gave direction to what he wanted to do with his life. This is neatly followed by a short three page summary on what is military history? This question is developed further with a follow up question, what is it for?

Both questions set up the description of the conversation, some might say argument, about our understanding of events and the people that shaped them. The author goes on to illustrate his inclusive approach to the study of history by his welcoming of all those with a passion for the subject, not just the academic elite, adding "all have a valuable role to play providing they accord the same toleration to other views that they require themselves."

What then follows are sixteen distinct chapters covering the essays and lectures with Dr Chandler's introduction to each explaining the background and other additional information about the subjects presented. The subjects covered are varied and range across the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Specifically they are:
1. The Origins of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
2.The Reconquest of Egypt: the British View
3. The Egyptian Campaign of 1801
4. Adjusting the Record: Napoleon and Marengo
5. The Napoleonic Marshalate
6, Napoleon's Masterpiece: Austerlitz, 2nd December 1805
7. Column versus Line: the Case of Maida, 1806
8. The Battle of Sahagun, 1808
9. Wellington in the Peninsula: a Reassessment
10. Wellington and the Guerillas
11. The Russian Army at War, 1807 and 1812
12. Borodino 1812
13. Retreat from Moscow
14. An Undergroom at War: Edward Healey, 1815
15. How Wars are Decided: Napoleon - the Fall of a Giant?
16. Napoleon: Classical Military Theory and the Jominian Legacy

I have to say I to say I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through this great selection of titles so entertainingly constructed with nuggets of facts that illuminated the work throughout. I found myself wandering what the author would have made of the recent BBC TV production "Napoleon" by Andrew Roberts and I am sure it would have provoked a lot of good natured disagreement and I am of the Chandler school of thought when he described the quote from Clarendon describing Cromwell as a potential descriptor for Napoleon, "a great bad man" adding that he undoubtedly marked history.

This book is a great read for the Napoleonic enthusiast and I would recommend you make a point of getting a copy and reading it if you fall into that category. As before, one book leads to another, and after agreeing with Chandler on how difficult a read Clausewitz can be I am now going to take up his recommendation to get stuck into Jomini's "The Art of War" which has been on my must read shelf for too long and deserves my serious study.

Dr David Chandler sadly passed away on the 10th of October 2004 at the age of 70 and his legacy of great works still informs Napoleonic studies today  and he rightly commands great esteem alongside the likes of Sir Charles Oman.


  1. Chandler's Campaigns of Napoleon was one of the first books that fostered my interest in the Napoleonic Wars. Although well worn, today, I still pull it off the shelf when needing a quick overview. On the Napoleonic Wars looking equally inviting.

    I have read through Jomini on more than one occasion. My copy of Jomini is well-worn too. Like Clausewitz, I found it heavy going but a bit easier to digest. That was many, many years ago. Perhaps today, it would make more sense to a grognard with many miles in his legs?

    As always, I appreciate your book reviews and candid recommendations.

    1. Thanks Jon

      The Campaign's of Napoleon and Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars are alongside my copies of Napier, Fortescue and Oman as the foundation stones of my own Napoleonic library and I am still kicking myself for not picking up a signed first edition hardback copy of the former for just £30.

      In addition I was relying on Chandler as my guide to the battlefield of Waterloo this summer and his former tour plan that he used to lead the Sandhurst trips to Belgium formed the basis for my own tour. I know I have him and the local knowledge of our guide to thank for the amazing view of Waterloo from the perspective of the Prussians as we emerged from the Paris Wood.

      I have had Jomini on the shelf for years, but only dipped in and out for specific reading but have decided to tackle it complete and will share my thoughts when its finished. Given Chandler's comments about it's focus on the practicalities of Napoleonic warfare rather that the more philosophical approach of Clausewitz, I have a feeling that there may be some material in it that may compliment C&G and the way we currently use the rules.

      The great thing about this book is the prose matches the man I met in 1996 and his pleasant jovial but quietly understated intellect shines through with his ability to marshal the facts with a care to keep a hold on the subjectivity that can often creep in to historical writing. That personal insight to the man makes it stand out for me alongside his other works.

  2. I thought this was a fantastic book and I'm not a serious napoleonic gamer (on land anyway!). Apparently his obituary in the The Daily Telegraph said his "comprehensive account of Napoleon's battles" (his classic "The Campaigns of Napoleon") is "unlikely to be improved upon, despite a legion of rivals"

    He did indeed write many other great books and I wish he had written one on the English Civil War because I think he would have some very interesting insights.

    1. Hi Paul.
      I absolutely agree with your assessment on a man who will, I am sure, still be considered a giant in the field a hundred years from now and The Campaigns of Napoleon will long remain his signature work.

      However I know he would want enthusiasts to dig deeper into his other work as, like all of us, our thoughts and ideas develop as we go and its only by reading across the complete catalogue of works that you can see that greater and more rewarding picture. I think this book points to that development with the choice of subjects and the description of how they came to be written and the thought process behind them.

      As for the the English Civil War, you may well be right. It is interesting that the Malburian era and the campaigns of the greatest British General was Chandler's first love, but that even Napoleon managed to eclipse that passion and generate most of his work, so perhaps Cromwell et al were struggling when compared to those two eras and a lifetime is not long enough to allow enough time to do another period justice.

  3. I was very fortunate to go on a Peninsular War Battlefield in the mid-90s on which David Chandler was the "tame expert". It was a rather elderly, serious group and Chandler would, by turns, delight them with the appropriate reading from Napier, then horrify them by then reading the equally appropriate passage from Sharpe! His view was that Bernard Cornwell was excellent at describing the action of a battle. He was a delightful travelling companion.

    1. Oh I am so jealous, what a fantastic memory.
      David Chandler was a gentleman scholar and superstar and given his massive contribution in writing and presenting about the Napoleonic era, a huge loss.
      I am sure though he will be watching, from on high, the new BBC version of War and Peace this autumn and putting together his own critique of the series. Now that would be worth reading!

  4. I remember picking up 'campaigns of Napoleon' from military book club that my brother David joined when I had just begun napoleonic painting. From the outer cover art it had me fixed. Read it when travelling over to Hong Kong to visit my other bro before the handover and it still fills me with enthusiasm for the period.

    1. I wonder how many of us were drawn into Napoleonics by something of Chandler's prodigious work, quite a few I suspect.
      A great memory Paul, and one to hold on to when you need to rekindle the enthusiasm for the period every now and then. Mine is the picture of the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo in the Ranger Book for Boys that I wrote about on the Waterloo bicentennial this year, and it was with Chandler's book in hand, that I travelled around Belgium in June and who provided the basis to the whole tour.

  5. Hi JJ - very much enjoying your reviews and efforts in tackling tomes sitting on the shelves which is indeed something I am also in the middle of! Love reading David Chandler and always ground his style and tempo very easy to process. Enjoyed his tv appearances in various shows especially "The a Great Commanders" when he describes Napoleon at Austerlitz.
    As an aside, in my early days of dating, a very clever girlfriend purchased Chandlers "Campaigns of Napoleon" for me for my birthday.

    Early case of knowing your partner.

    Well I just had to marry her after that didn't I chaps. Sitting on the couch opposite as I type this some 26 years later!

    1. Hi Carlo, thank you. I think the great part about our hobby is its multifaceted aspects, and the reading is just one of the many pleasures it has to offer, but one we can do just about anywhere. I usually have a book at hand when at work for those little "down time" moments when you need to feed the mind.

      What a girl, somethings are just meant to be. My significant other is not such a fan and has even had to suffer a tour around Gettysburg on her honeymoon, which I tried to soften with a romantic tour around the town in a horse and carriage. In the end she developed into a cricket girl and so we share a passion for the "great game".
      Congratulations on the 26 years, definitely the right girl.

  6. A wonderful academic. His Waterloo: The Hundred Days (given to me by my parents at 6!) inspired me to be a historian. Now it is my profession and I will never be able thank Chandler enough (despite the journal articles I have to write and the first year tutorials I have to teach). Wonderful reflection and thank you JJ.

    1. Hi Kurt, I had a feeling that my review would spark similar feelings about the great man as my own and as exemplified by your own experience, his impact will likely carry on for quite a time as his thoughts and ideas have clearly influenced a lot of people. I too love The Hunded Days and it was a great companion on my trip this summer.