History More Interesting Than the Myths

Napoleon and Wellington are historically joined at the hip because of their epic encounter at Waterloo. Yet other apparent similarities are striking: both were born in the same year (1769), both were born of prominent fathers who died when the boys were in early adolescence, both had four brothers and three sisters, both spoke French as their second language, both were self-taught in military matters, both led their nations (Wellington as prime minister from 1828-30), they even shared two mistresses (though perhaps less remarkably Wellington picked them up after Napoleon’s defeat), and one of Wellington’s brothers even married the sister-in-law of the ex-wife of one of Napoleon’s brothers.

But

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in Napoleon and Wellington Andrew Roberts has not set out to offer a full-orbed dual biography. Rather his purpose is to compare and contrast Napoleon and Wellington especially as their lives and events led up to and followed Waterloo. In particular, he focuses on what the two thought of each other before and after 1815.

Perhaps because of Napoleon’s outsized personality, genius, and accomplishments, historians have been prone to see the contrasts between the two adversaries in high relief. As one put it, “Whereas Napoleon consistently misunderstood and underrated Wellington, Wellington was never in doubt about the genius of Napoleon.”

Roberts comments, “Yet the reality is not nearly so simple. History might not repeat itself, but historians repeat one another, and the myth has grown up of ludicrous Napoleonic over-confidence. This in turn almost for the sake of contrast, has spawned a mirror myth of Wellington’s modesty and near-perfect gentlemanliness, always ready to accord Napoleon the first place in the hierarchy of generalship. It is these two myths that the present work sets out to dispel, for the truth is far less straightforward and much more interesting.” (pp xxxi-xxxii).

To do so, Roberts largely follows Wellington’s career and brings in Napoleon as needed to round out the larger context and to lead up to their confrontation in 1815. I was happy with that choice since I knew less of Wellington and since even summarizing Napoleon’s life would have unbalanced the work. Wellington’s campaign against French forces in Portugal and Spain (1808-13) was especially instructive in understanding his military mind and his approach to Waterloo.

No, Wellington was not always the consummate, self-effacing gentleman. Roberts’s thesis (spoiler alert) is that Wellington did indeed always praise Napoleon publicly for his military prowess since to denigrate the emperor would be to tarnish Wellington’s own reputation as the conqueror of the world’s greatest general. In private, however, Wellington was quite critical of Napoleon’s strategies and tactics especially in the Russian campaign as well as at Waterloo.

Napoleon, on the other hand, expressed considerable appreciation for Wellington and his victories prior to Waterloo. To put himself in a better light following 1815, however, he criticized Wellington and chalked up his victory to dumb luck and to the mistakes of Bonaparte’s own underlings.

And who won history? Europe today more closely resembles Napoleon’s vision of a united continent significantly influenced by a logical, organized Napoleonic legal code (though not under French hegemony) than it resembles Wellington’s aristocratic sensibilities and a legal system based on precedent.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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