Saturday, September 15, 2012


Jeff's review of:
Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns
By Owen Connelly
History 317 -- French Revolution and Naploeon I
Jan. 22, 1996

Owen Connelly, in Blundering to Glory, does an excellent job tracing Napoleon's miltary campaigns from Toulon to Waterloo. Connelly follows the life of Bonaparte from his family experiences at Corsica through his rule of France and subsequent fall from power after his last defeat, all the while keeping the reader entranced at this child of the French Revolution. The focus is on Napoleon's battlefield genius, and his ability to emerge victorious from any desperate situation, essentially "blundering to glory."

The author is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and former president of the Society for French Historical Studies. His books include The Epoch of NapoleonNapoleon's Satellite Kingdoms and the textbook French Revolution and Napoleonic Era. Connelly's military background includes service as an infantry officer in the Korean War and duty as an instructor at the Ranger School, Florida Camp. In providing such a detailed account of Napoleon's military campaigns, the reader is assured that Connelly is well-researched and knows the period of French history.

Blundering to Glory is organized chronologically, covering Napoleon's rapid rise to prominence in the early 1970s with as much exuberance and detail as the disastrous Russian campaign in 1812. My one wish is that Connelly had covered the legacy of Napoleon's wartime tactics for future wars in Europe. There is no doubt that Bonaparte had a tremendous impact on how wars were fought in the 19th century, not only in Europe but in the United States' Civil War as well.

Connelly is very critical of Napoleon, quick to call any mistake a "blunder" or "a waste." He feels that Napoleon was not so much a great general, but rather a good scrambler who never quit. After analyzing the Italian Campaign of 1796-97, Connelly summed up Napoleon's military aptitude of "blundering to glory":

If we look at his military errors, it is evident that Napoleon was not a seer who could divine the movements of the enemy from the start and plan his campaign flawlessly. He won because he never stopped going after the enemy.
Napoleon never stopped working, even all through the night, continually looking over maps and talking to his officers. If he failed, he would merely work on a new plan or continually attack the enemy until he wore him down.

I like the way Connelly is not afraid to malign such a hero as Napoleon Bonaparte, and he has no qualms about criticizing any decision made that could be defined as a "blunder." Connelly pounces on Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, saying "the entire affair was a blunder, a waste, and accomplished nothing, militarily or in terms of the power balance." There was no glory to be sought except for Napoleon's own propagandist methods to gain stature politically.

Connelly consistently emphasizes the point that Napoleon was going nowhere without his exceptional officer corps. Concerning the Battle of Castiglione in the Italian Campaign, Connelly says that Bonaparte was taking risks with highly complicated maneuvers, and only his two top-notch generals led him to victory -- "What is certain is that without Massena and Augereau, he probably would have been destroyed."

At the Battle of Auerstadt, Connelly points out that "major credit for destroying the Prussian army must go to Davout," who defeated a greater number of forces. Napoleon had been in action at Jena, ten miles to the south, with a superior advantage over a smaller army of the Prussians, namely because he had "made one gross misjudgment" on the movement of the enemy forces.

Connelly attacks the Emperor for his inability to give Davout recognition for winning such an important battle, because "when it came to sharing reputations, Napoleon was not generous." The Little Corporal praised himself for winning at Jena and proclaimed that was where victory over the Prussians was assured. Connelly rebutts, "if that is not an outright falsifications, it is an interesting piece of self-deception."

In the Russian Campaign of 1812, the Battle of Borodino played a large part in the loss of morale of the troops prior to entering Moscow. The battle was a victory of sorts in that the Russians retreated and the French moved forward to take the capital. Connelly suggests that the battle could have been decisive had Napoleon dispatched the Guard. When Murat and Ney argued that if the Guard had been committed, the battle could have been won with one final assault. However, "Napoleon then displayed a hesitation never know before" and the troops were not sent into the conflict.

Connelly contends that though it is not certain whether the Guard would have won the battle, "it is certain that Napoleon's hesitation gave the Russians a chance to reorganize" on another set hills in order to fight all afternoon.

Connelly also shows how Napoleon benefitted in his victory from the ignorance of his enemy generals. During the winter retreat from the devastating Russian campaign, "probably Napoleon's reputation alone saved the 'Grande Armee' from total destruction." The Russian generals were apprehensive to attack him, afraid of his strategic ability and they were not sure of his troop size.

Connelly attributes the victory at Arcola in November, 1796 more to "incompetence of Alvinczy," the Austrian general, and less to the drive of Napoleon. If Alvinczy had any courage to attack the "'scrambler in the swamps'," or if he had trapped Napoleon's troops in the swamps, the outcome would have differed greatly

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, in part for its military history but also for its insight into Napoleon Bonaparte. I was never aware of the ineptitude he displayed during so many battles and am surprised at the luck he had to stay in power for so long. If not for the fear he instilled in so many people from his charisma and the ability of his subordinates in the army, he would have been out of power rather quickly as leader of France.

I have lost some respect for his battlefield genius because I prefer leaders who need not rely on stubborness to get them through the battle, but instead use ability to see a plan from the start to have it carried through to victory. I came in thinking that Napoleon was a better strategic general than he really was. There is an admiration for his hard work and his proficiency of regrouping and the loyalty he commanded from his people, who were more than ready to have him lead their country for many years longer.

In the end, Connelly keeps the reader fascinated on the magnetic leader and reveals many facets about one of the greatest and most studied figures in history.

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