Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, spent a lot of time worrying about whether Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of France, was a gentleman. Napoleon accused his English foe of being a coward. Yet, Andrew Roberts shows in this dual biography, each accorded the other an odd respect, and, like wrestlers in a ring, studied his foe's moves intently all the way to their fateful encounter at Waterloo.
Publicly, Bonaparte and Wellington professed to despise each other. "Even in the boldest things he did there was always a measure of ... meanness," said Wellington of the French emperor, adding later, "Bonaparte's whole life, civil, political, and military, was a fraud." Napoleon said that Wellington "has no courage. He acted out of fear. He had one stroke of fortune, and he knows that such fortune never comes twice." Yet the two, writes Roberts, were very much alike: social outsiders who found their greatness in the army, scholars of a sort, who brought scientific rigor to the study of topography and logistics, and men capable of inspiring great heroism in their soldiers.
In the end, Roberts suggests, Wellington won his battle, but Napoleon won the war. This intriguing study shows how, and it affords much insight into the workings of these great rivals' minds. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Gossipy and anecdotal, at times amusing and at other times enlightening, this book meanders across an era looking for connections between its two greatest generals. British Sunday Telegraph contributor Roberts (Eminent Churchillians) concentrates not on the respective merits of Napoleon and Wellington, but on what they thought, wrote, and said about each other. He spices his text with vignettes such as an extensive description of Napoleon's hemorrhoid problem on the eve of Waterloo, and its successful treatment by the famous surgeon Baron Larrey. Then he demonstrates the relevance of his stories in this case by showing that Napoleon was by no means as debilitated on the day of battle as popular myth accepts. Wellington and Napoleon did not face each other until Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon, who first heard of Wellington in 1808, never showed his great rival quite the respect he deserved, let alone the respect Wellington considered his due, Roberts shows. Though partisans and critics of both men stress their differences, Roberts's text makes a convincing case that Napoleon and Wellington were more alike than either of them would have conceded. Both considered Hannibal their military hero; both carried Julius Caesar's Commentaries in the field. They even shared a couple of mistresses Wellington was at pains to show his post-Waterloo triumph in every way possible. Both were self-confident to the point of arrogance, consciously unemotional and obsessively focused on success. And they spent increasing amounts of time, particularly after 1815, blackguarding each other in the fashion of contemporary professional wrestlers. This history presumes a high level of background knowledge, but readers interested in the rivalries of the period will find it thoroughly absorbing.
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