August, 1805: Napoleon was at Boulogne, pacing the coastal heights day after day, staring across the English Channel at the inaccessible white cliffs on the other side, waiting for his fleet to arrive and the invasion to begin. Alistair Horne, whose substantial reputation is built chiefly on his research into French history of the 20th century, cannot resist the parallel between Napoleon and Hilter, "that other warlord of 135 summers later":
"Both had risen from lowly station to command, in a short space of time, the world's most invincible land force; both were restlessly daemonic men of small stature and both were at the zenith of their power as a commander; it was almost the same time of year; the grand design was approximately similar; and each would end, in frustration, by turning his great war machine eastward instead."
Horne's central subject is the period between the aborted invasion of England in 1805 and the Tilsit treaty 23 months later. In that brief span, Napoleon virtually invented the blitzkrieg, won one dazzling victory after another, changed forever the style of warfare in Europe and struck a blow to the Continent's ancient institutions of government that would ultimately prove fatal, though a full century would pass before all the results were felt.
Napoleon's battles were the key events of this brief period, and they receive detailed attention, with maps, diagrams, charts and pictures to aid the lucid verbal descriptions. But Horne takes time to look ahead and backward, to put the hectic two years of battle in chronological context and to give relevant details of the various societies engaged in the fighting. French peasants and urban workers, he notes, were probably better-fed during Napoleon's heyday than before or after, and that may have helped to make them such formidable soldiers; the English, though they had several times come near to a bloody revolution of their own, were "the only European people who could in any way term themselves 'free men'," while Russia's armies defended a land whose population was 58 percent serfs.
At the heart of the book stands the battle of Austerlitz, one of history's most dramatic military actions, and a prime example of the combination of luck and genius that carried Napoleon to his fame. There is a rhetorical flavor in the message Napoleon sent to his troops after the battle: r"It will be enough for you to say, 'I was at Austerlitz,' to have people reply: 'There is a brave man'," but the rhetoric is rooted in reality.
(Napoleon's plan of battle was simple enough to describe in a single sentence: Lure the enemy into a flank attack and, when his forces have lost their cohesion, capture the high ground in the center, which means control of the terrain. But this classic outline conceals so many minute details, the outcome of the battle was so crucial and there were so many anecdotal and accidental factors (for example, a mist that helped to conceal Napoleon's central advance until the last minute), that descriptions of the battle can go endlessly -- in fact, a substantial shelf could be filled with books that have been devoted exclusively to Austerlitz.
That kind of detail is not Horne's assignment -- besides a wealth of background, he includes other climactic battles (Ulm, Jena, Eylau and Friedland) in his account, and he has to do it all in the format of a relatively short book that is approximately half-filled with illustrations. Horne's response to this challenge may remind the reader of the "coup d'oeil," the quick, synoptic view of a situation which is cited as one of Napoleon's chief qualities.
He is, of course, working on a terrain that has been much covered by others for more than a century and a half, and an expert on the subject will find practically nothing that has not been said somewhere before. But there is a lucidity in this account, a sure sense of what to include and what can be left out, an eye for the telling detail and above all an uncluttered grasp of the complexity of these events that make the book a pleasure to read -- at least for those who can take pleasure in reading about old battles.
In a sense, the illustrations which accompany and even dominate the text are the book's raison de'etre. Including cartoons, portraits in color, texts of documents and technical material such as maps, orders of battle, and tables showing the relative power of artillery, these illustrations are well chosen and reproduced. They add considerably to the book's interest and clarity, and they will make it attractive not only to those who enjoy old pictorial material but to war-game hobbyists, who may find here some useful additions to their repertoire.