Was Napoleon Truly Great?

Jeremy Jennings reads Andrew Roberts as answering with an emphatic “yes” in his forthcoming biography, Napoleon: A Life:

As Roberts concedes, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars cost a total of around three million 448px-Napoleon_a_Cherbourg_bordercroppedmilitary and one million civilian deaths. Of these, 1.4 million were French. For this Napoleon must share much of the responsibility. Roberts also accepts that naval warfare was an almost total blind spot for Napoleon. Even after Trafalgar, he remained convinced that he could build a fleet capable of invading Britain, wasting men, money and material on a doomed enterprise. To this we might add Napoleon’s abandonment of his army in Egypt, the abduction and execution of the Duc d’Enghien, the reintroduction of slavery in French colonies in 1802, catastrophic defeat in Russia, and other similar blemishes to his reputation. And, of course, Napoleon ultimately brought France to her knees.

Roberts however is in no doubt that the epithet [“Napoleon the Great”] is deserved.

A general at 24, Napoleon lost only seven of 60 battles fought. In 1814 he won four separate battles in five days. His capacity for decision-making and daring on the battlefield was extraordinary. If he did not invent new military strategies, he perfected them, using new formations and artillery to maximum effect. Like Napoleon himself, his superbly trained and disciplined armies moved fast, in one case covering 400 miles in 20 marching days. None of this would have been possible without the creation of a new military culture based on honour, patriotism and devotion to Napoleon’s person.

Napoleon’s military achievements, Roberts further contends, were matched and have been outlasted by his civil achievements. Having put an end to the violence of the Terror and the disorder of the Directory, Napoleon built upon and protected the best achievements of the 1789 Revolution: meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, and efficient administration. Napoleon, Roberts writes, was no totalitarian dictator but rather “the Enlightenment on horseback”.

(Photo of a statue of Napoleon in Cherbourg-Octeville, France, by Eric Pouhier)