Andrew Roberts's parallel biography of Napoleon and Wellington, concentrating on the Battle of Waterloo (though the actual battle occupies but a chapter) deals with a number of fascinating subjects, including the posthumous reputations of the two men, both the various cults that have grown up around each and the far more interesting historical analyses.

There is no question that both were interested in how history would judge them. Napoleon seems to have spent his exile on St Helena not just in re-fighting Waterloo but in lining up ever changing culprits for his defeat. Oddly enough it was never the Duke, who, in Napoleon's view ought not to have done any of the things he had done or made any of the decisions he had made because they were clearly wrong. A clear example of the supposed French attitude of "yes, it may work in practice but does it work in theory?".

Wellington responded by analyzing at great length though only in private (in public he remained indifferent to the various barbs from Napoleon's worshippers and praised the man as a great general as well as an admirable reformer) the Russian campaign in which he pointed out every mistake Napoleon made as he had perceived them. The memorandum was published posthumously and may be said, according to Mr Roberts, to be Wellington's response to Napoleon's criticisms of Waterloo. There is an obvious difference between the two: Wellington was analyzing Napoleon's mistakes in a campaign that was a catastrophic defeat, Napoleon was analyzing mistakes made by the unquestioned victory of Waterloo.

There is some indication that Wellington may have inspired and even contributed to an important article in 1843 in "the foremost Tory intellectual publication of the day", the Quarterly Review, by Sir Francis Head, a regular contributor to the publication who had been at Charleroi and Waterloo, that destroyed several recent publications, including one by Clausewitz that "proved" that both Wellington and Blucher had been "surprised, outmanoeuvred, and out-generalled" by Napoleon.

In exile Napoleon was convinced that the Bourbons would have to recognize him and allot him necessary honour. It was the Orleanists who brought his body back to Paris and had it buried with great pomp and circumstance and very shortly after his conqueror's death, the nephew, Louis-Napoleon, proclaimed himself Emperor and apparently restored the legitimacy of the Bonapartist rule. Then again, it is better to draw a veil over the Second Empire and its less than glorious final demise.

Whatever the effects of Napoleon's rule and career, his ideas and and thirst for glory may have had on France and French history (and that, let us face it, a never ending discussion that cannot be fitted into one paragraph), Mr Roberts thinks that his political ideas were ultimately triumphant. Here are the final two paragraphs of this excellent book:
In one of his administrative rather than military phases, the first consul predicted that the Code Napoléon would be remembered long after his victories were forgotten. In the Prussian Rhenish provinces the Code lasted until 1900, and it still forms the basis of much of European jurisprudence today, a legal system that has already established its legislative primacy over British domestic law-making. As the authors of the 1993 edition of the legal textbook French Administrative Law point out: 'Napoleon may perhaps be thought of as the principal .... inspiration of the European Court [of Justice], which is itself buttressed by the principles of administrative law that his own institution, the Conseil d'Etat, has evolved during the last 190 years.

Napoleon's programme, of a politically united Europe controlled by a centralised (French-led) bureaucracy, of careers open to talent and of a written body of laws, has defeated Wellington's assumptions of British sovereign independence, class distinctions and the supremacy of English common law based upon established, sometimes ancient, precedent. 'I wished to found a European system, a European code of laws, a European judiciary,' wrote Napoleon on St Helena. 'There would be but one people in Europe.' There is some irony in the fact that Waterloo was fought a mere twelve miles from Brussels, the capital of today's European Union. For, although Wellington won the battle, it is Napoleon's dream that is coming true.
Well, up to a point as Mr Roberts might admit today. (The book was published in 2001.)

Certainly the thinking behind the organization that has evolved into the European Union was just that: an imposition of a Napoleonic, French-led system on as much of Europe as can be managed. But things have not really turned out that way and the system is showing some signs of fraying, interestingly enough for the same reasons as the Napoleonic empire could not really have survived. In its own way the EU is also in need of further "conquests" though these are not achieved through warfare but economic and political force majeure and, more importantly for the future, there are strong signs of nationalist opposition to any further advances of the system. The dream of "but one people in Europe" remains just that - a dream.


  1. dfordoom Says:
  2. The old saying that history is written by the victors isn't always true. Often the losers end up being more famous and sometimes the winners get forgotten completely. Hitler failed completely but he's much better known among ordinary people than Bismarck, whose career was one of unbroken success. And how many people remember George B. McClellan, who regularly defeated Robert E. Lee?

  3. Helen Says:
  4. When it comes to Wellington and Napoleon I think they are about equally well known in both countries.

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