Thursday, 28 April 2016

My five favourite Napoleonic War books.

I'm stepping away from the mid-19th century this week and back to the Napoleonic world of James Burke.

The James Burke books take us from Napoleon's Egyptian adventure (Burke and the Bedouin) to his defeat at Waterloo (Burke at Waterloo) via the disastrous British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver). I'm currently working on another James Burke adventure set in the Peninsular War.

The Napoleonic Wars offer great scope for novelists and there are some excellent books set in this period. Here are five of the best (not written by me). Enjoy.

Sharpe’s Company by Bernard Cornwell. There are an awful lot of Sharpe books and it's difficult to choose between them. This is one of Cornwell’s own favourites and is a fast paced story set around the fall of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. There is a lot of military action, but also plenty of description of the relationships between the various regiments and the life of the men. Cornwell's novels bring the Napoleonic Wars alive. If your school history lessons concentrated (as mine did) on the long list of battles and the makeup of the continually shifting alliances, then these books give a useful reminder that there were real people in those red (or, in Sharpe's case, green) uniforms. Sharpe isn't an especially rounded or credible character, but he's rounded and credible enough. And the details of military life are fascinating.

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow. It's easy to sneer at Scarrow's books. They aren't 'proper' novels. The characterisation is thin and the dialogue unconvincing. But Scarrow approaches the Napoleonic Wars from the opposite direction to Cornwell. His main interest is the way that Napoleon and Wellington planned their campaigns at the grand strategic level and how these grand plans worked out in blood and terror on the battlefield. Fields of Death may not be great literature, but by the end of it I understood more about how and why Napoleon was finally defeated than I had ever learned before.

The Recollections of Rifleman Harris by Christopher Hibbert. For a real infantryman's view of the war, you can do no better than read Rifleman Harris's account. Harris told his story in his own words after the war had ended. There is no sense of grand strategy, no neat little parcels of story. Harris advances across Europe and retreats back to the North Sea coast without ever bothering about objectives and political goals. He's more interested in staying alive, bedding the local women and keeping on the right side of his officers. A worm's eye account of Napoleonic warfare and a valuable antidote to modern romanticisation of history.
[An aside here: I read a lot of old books that are well out of copyright and yet which someone is collecting money for when they sell it on Amazon. If you find this objectionable, download Rifleman Harris free and legally from]

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian. British control of the seas was crucial to success in the Napoleonic Wars and any list of books about them has to include at least one set at sea. When I was young, the obvious choice would have been one of C S Forester's Hornblower novels, but nowadays I think Patrick O'Brian is more in fashion. His attention to nautical detail is impressive and in Aubrey and Maturin he has produced two well-rounded characters, whose adventures are easy to get caught up in. As with Sharpe, it's difficult to pick out any individual book in the series. Master and Commander is the first of twenty completed novels (a twenty-first being unfinished at the time of O’Brian’s death).

The Officer’s Prey by Armand Cabasson. UK readers will find an easy diet of Napoleonic War stories featuring British heroes and perfidious Frogs. The Officer’s Prey provides an interesting look at things from the other side. The book is essentially a murder mystery, but it is set against the background of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Although the story is a detective thriller, there is an enormous amount of military detail. Armand Cabasson is a Napoleonic Wars expert, and it shows. If you are interested in Napoleon's march on Moscow (and the retreat), the interminable descriptions of uniforms and details of the different regiments will be gripping, though for many readers they may become tedious. The descriptions of the horror of war and the scale of the disaster that was the retreat are well handled, though. 

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