Napoleon the Great Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Napoleon Bonaparte lived one of the most extraordinary of all human lives. In the space of just 20 years, from October 1795, when as a young artillery captain he cleared the streets of Paris of insurrectionists, to his final defeat at the (horribly mismanaged) battle of Waterloo in June 1815, Napoleon transformed France and Europe.
After seizing power in a coup d'état, he ended the corruption and incompetence into which the revolution had descended. In a series of dazzling battles, he reinvented the art of warfare; in peace he completely remade the laws of France, modernised her systems of education and administration, and presided over a flourishing of the beautiful Empire style in the arts.
The impossibility of defeating his most persistent enemy, Great Britain, led him to make draining and ultimately fatal expeditions into Spain and Russia, where half a million Frenchmen died, and his empire began to unravel.
More than any other modern biographer, Andrew Roberts conveys Napoleon's tremendous energy, both physical and intellectual, and the attractiveness of his personality even to his enemies. He has walked 53 of Napoleon's 60 battlefields and has absorbed the gigantic new French edition of Napoleon's letters, which allows a complete reevaluation of this exceptional man.
He overturns many received opinions, including the myth of a great romance with Josephine: She took a lover immediately after their marriage, and, as Roberts shows, he had three times as many mistresses as he acknowledged.
Of the climactic Battle of Leipzig in 1813, as the fighting closed around them, a French sergeant major wrote, "No-one who has not experienced it can have any idea of the enthusiasm that burst forth among the half-starved, exhausted soldiers when the Emperor was there in person. If all were demoralised and he appeared, his presence was like an electric shock. All shouted 'Vive l'Empereur!' and everyone charged blindly into the fire."
Andrew Roberts is a biographer and historian of international renown whose books include Salisbury: Victorian Titan (winner, the Wolfson Prize for History); Masters and Commanders; and The Storm of War, which reached number two on the Sunday Times best seller list. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Societies of Literature and Arts. He appears regularly on British television and radio and writes for the Sunday Telegraph, Spectator, Literary Review, Mail on Sunday and Daily Telegraph.
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|Listening Length||37 hours and 23 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com.au Release Date||20 February 2015|
|Best Sellers Rank|| 2,972 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
1 in Napoleonic War History
1 in French History
2 in 19th Century History
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Top reviews from Australia
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Best of all, a rollicking good read. Highly recommended. One of the best history biographies I have read.
Top reviews from other countries
It’s certainly an excellent antidote to that kind of thinking, and one I personally needed, as I’ve tended to share the view of Napoleon as a military dictator whose overthrow was much to be desired. That’s not to say that the figure that emerges from Roberts’ account is not still a military dictator. Indeed, in his ‘Conclusion’ Roberts makes clear that Napoleon was first and last a military man:
'… it was from the ethos of the army that he took most of his beliefs and his assumptions. The army imbued him with a strong belief in the importance of applied intelligence, hierarchy based on merit, law and order, hard work, mental toughness and physical courage, as well as contempt for self-serving lawyers and politicians.'
What’s more, what he overthrew in his military coup was indeed a cabal of self-serving lawyers and politicians, by no means the ideal of a democratic republic that we all might admire. And while in general terms, I can find little to like about a military dictatorship, there is much to be said for ‘applied intelligence, hierarchy based on merit, law and order, hard work’. Roberts shows that Napoleon strove hard to create a France imbued with these values.
Indeed, as he points out, many of Napoleon’s achievements in these fields have lived on in a way his purely military successes have not. Most notably, this is true of the foundations of law both in France (the <i>code Napoléon</i>) and in other countries whose constitution he profoundly transformed. Promotion on merit, except when it came to putting family members into positions of power, often far beyond their abilities, was a principle he sought to establish and, as an aspiration at least, it lives on strongly today. Moreover, he did away with the privileges of classes to move towards a system based on equality before the law.
And Roberts describes Napoleon’s extraordinary capacity for hard work, revealed even in such simple measures as the sheer number of letters he wrote, or his capacity to issue instructions about such matters as the musical performances in Paris while on the eve of a major battle.
Nor, as Roberts makes clear repeatedly, was he a tyrant. He allowed a certain level of dissent and, while he moved against opponents who became too threatening, with rare exceptions he stopped far short of persecuting, let alone murdering them. Indeed, the nations that banded together to defeat him, were far crueller and far more iniquitous than he ever was. With the possible exception of Britain, where parliamentary rule was strong, allowing the potential at least of a slow move towards some measure of democracy, the major powers arrayed against him – Austria, Russia and Prussia – were such that his regime, with all its faults, seemed deeply preferable.
Roberts hasn’t, however, written a hagiography. He doesn’t disguise the many faults of his subject: the vainglory, the nepotism, for instance, but also the occasions when he did drift close towards tyrannical behaviour (such as in the murder of the Duc d’Enghien, as brutal as it was unnecessary), or the errors of judgement that he frequently made. For instance, he failed to see that militarily many of his enemies had learned from his own innovations, so that towards the end of his career they were ready for the kind of brilliant strokes that had won him victories in the past.
Worse still, he often overestimated his own strength and capacity, most notably in the invasion of Russia. It cost him both his prestige and his most reliable forces (he took 500,000 men into Russia and brought only 50,000 out). That loss made his ultimate downfall inevitable.
Roberts provides an excellent, detailed and well-rounded picture of an extraordinary man, just as my French friend promised. Anyone interested in Napoleon and his period would do well to read this biography. You won’t be disappointed, either by the writing, or by the lessons it teaches.
He takes us at an easy canter through Napoleon’s “petite noblesse” upbringing in Corsica under his formidable mother, to his studies at the Brienne Military Academy and his early career in the army during the dark days of the French Revolution and the Terror that followed.
I sensed that the author became ever more an admirer of Napoleon’s achievements, military and political, as he wrote this story of his
extraordinary life. There is no arguing with their fact that Napoleon was as Wellington admitted, a military genius to rank with Alexander and Caesar, so as deserving of the epithet
“Great”, while his political and administrative achievements remain part of European life two hundred years after his death.
While Roberts takes us through all the famous victories; Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Friedland as well as the disasters of Russia and Waterloo he always reminds us that Napoleon was at the same time planning a reformed, enlightened Europe- under French
suzerainty, naturally. He also makes the more controversial but interesting case that had Napoleon not over-reached himself, with his defeat leading to European monarchies protecting their divine rights, Europe may have been spared the reforming convulsions of the nineteenth century which led to the horrors of the First and Second Wars. Discuss...
In this sympathetic biography what I found most surprising was that Napoleon was by all contemporary accounts a warm, amusing and sympathetic man, as well as a genius. His troops loved him, his wives and mistresses adored him and the account of his companiable friendship with the fourteen- year old daughter of the English family he lodged with on his arrival at St. Helena is touching - an Emperor who ruled Europe playing whist and blindman’s buff.
Napoleon’s wars cost three million European lives; how then can I still feel admiration and sympathy for a man I was brought up to think of as ‘the ogre- Boney’?
I defy anyone who reads this utterly compelling book not to share at least some of that admiration and sympathy.
In his conclusion (the penultimate chapter, the final one "Envoi" being a sentence or two on what happened to all the other leading characters in the story after Napoleon's death) Roberts sums up his life and career, and sets out to justify his choice of title, which he does convincingly. Roberts makes a powerful case for Napoleon's powers as a civil administrator who shaped much of what is great about France today. He could perhaps have made more of Napoleon's wish not to bring destruction on French soil by fighting on in 1814 and 15 as compared with his cavalier attitude to causing carnage abroad, but there we are - a life like Napoleon's is likely to be rich in contradictions.
The book is generously illustrated with 86 illustrations crammed into 24 colour plates. There are 29 maps, perhaps the least satisfactory aspect of the book as they don't always relate to the text in the most helpful way (places and features mentioned which don't appear on the map) and I've seen better battlefield maps, which don't do justice to Roberts's vivid descriptions. But these are always a challenge as the dispositions on the battlefield can change radically during the battle. A sloppy proof reading error (in the Penguin edition, presumably copied from the original hardback) on the map showing the movement of the Grande Armée from the Channel coast to the Rhine August-October 1805, prior to Austerlitz, says "1803" in the heading, which may confuse some people. One myth dispelled - it has always been said that when Napoleon gave the order to his gunners to fire on the ice across which the Russians were fleeing at Austerlitz that thousands of Russians were drowned, but Roberts tells us that recent excavations of reclaimed land at the lake have come up with only a dozen corpses and a couple of guns.
As well as covering all the main historic moments, the book also paints a vivid picture of Napoleon's psyche and the emotional rollercoaster that accompanied his journey, leaving you with some pity towards how he's treated by those closest to him - albeit not being entirely blameless himself, his tendency towards micro-management being one of his greatest strengths while also working against him.
I did genuinely really enjoyed this book, it's well written and engaging and kept me coming back. That being said, I did have some frustrations - namely that it would occasionally introduce new key figures with little introduction as to who they were or where they had originated from. There will just be a new name referenced and suddenly they're playing a pretty major part in the events of the day or are carrying a Marshal's baton - sometimes context alone was enough to piece things together and sometimes not.
Naturally I was awaiting Waterloo as the natural crescendo of the story, the high water mark - but unfortunately it almost felt like it was covered much more briefly than some of the earlier battles with much lower stakes for our protagonist. Just felt like it was almost brushed over and felt like a bit of an anti-climax to a key event I'd been looking forward to reading about in detail.
All in all, a very good read.