Reading List: Napoleonic Wars


Battle of Waterloo re-enactment.

From 1803 to 1815, the French Empire led by Napoleon fought many bloody battles against several European powers, continuing the French Revolutionary Wars. These wars were not fought by professional soldiers, but by the people themselves; defending the nation had become a responsibility of all. This “levée en masse” (mass conscription) resulted in military conflicts on an unprecedented scale. Napoleon initially managed to conquer most of Europe, but his power began to collapse when he tried to invade Russia in 1812, with disastrous results. In 1815, he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Stendhal

As for Napoleon’s succeeding, that, my poor boy, is impossible; our gentlemen will certainly manage to destroy him. Did you not hear, a week ago, at Milan the story of the twenty-three plots to assassinate him, all so carefully planned, from which it was only by a miracle that he escaped? And at that time he was all-powerful. And you have seen that it is not the will to destroy him that is lacking in our enemies; France ceased to count after he left it.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Alexandre Dumas

“Napoleon is the Mahomet of the West, and is worshipped by his commonplace but ambitions followers, not only as a leader and lawgiver, but also as the personification of equality.”

“He!” cried the marquise: “Napoleon the type of equality! For mercy’s sake, then, what would you call Robespierre? Come, come, do not strip the latter of his just rights to bestow them on the Corsican, who, to my mind, has usurped quite enough.”

Vanity Fair (1848), William Makepeace Thackeray

Our surprised story now finds itself for a moment among very famous events and personages, and hanging on to the skirts of history. When the eagles of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican upstart, were flying from Provence, where they had perched after a brief sojourn in Elba, and from steeple to steeple until they reached the towers of Notre Dame, I wonder whether the Imperial birds had any eye for a little corner of the parish of Bloomsbury, London, which you might have thought so quiet, that even the whirring and flapping of those mighty wings would pass unobserved there?

Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo

“What is the name of this place?” inquired the wayfarer.

“Hougomont,” said the peasant woman.

The traveller straightened himself up. He walked on a few paces, and went off to look over the tops of the hedges. On the horizon through the trees, he perceived a sort of little elevation, and on this elevation something which at that distance resembled a lion.

He was on the battle-field of Waterloo.

War and Peace (1869), Leo Tolstoy

“The execution of the Duc d’Enghien,” declared Monsieur Pierre, “was a political necessity, and it seems to me that Napoleon showed greatness of soul by not fearing to take on himself the whole responsibility of that deed.”

“Dieu! Mon Dieu!” muttered Anna Pavlovna in a terrified whisper.

“What, Monsieur Pierre… Do you consider that assassination shows greatness of soul?” said the little princess, smiling and drawing her work nearer to her.

The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (1896), Arthur Conan Doyle

Our regiment of hussars was quartered with the horse chasseurs of the guard at Fontainebleau. It is, as you know, but a little place, buried in the heart of the forest, and it was wonderful at this time to see it crowded with Grand Dukes and Electors and Princes, who thronged round Napoleon like puppies round their master, each hoping that some bone might be thrown to him.

The Horatio Hornblower series (1937 – 1967), C.S. Forester

Clairvoyant, Hornblower could foresee that in a year’s time, the world would hardy remember the incident. In twenty years, it would be entirely forgotten. Yet those headless corpses up there in Muzillac; those shattered redcoats; those Frenchmen caught in the four-pounder’s blast of canister — they were as dead as if it had been a day in which history had been changed.

Master and Commander (1969), Patrick O’Brian

But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”

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