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Swords around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée Review


You have read of the great battles of the Napoleonic Wars, from Wagram, to Austerlitz, to Borodino, to Leipzig, and above all else Waterloo, thrilled in the charge of cuirassiers, the crash of artillery, the smoke-filled lines of regular infantry, the clouds of skirmishers, you have followed the Eagles on the march from Lisbon to Moscow - and you crave to more know, crave to know what the troops ate, what they wore, what Napoleon's schedule was like, the structure of the army and its different services, how hospitals were run and organized, how disease impacted the army, how troops traveled, their eagles and their structures, how troops were raised, how communication happened - you want to know it all! If this is you, then there can surely be no better fit for you than John R. Elting's book Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée. This encyclopedia story of the French military from the French Royal Army before the Revolution, to the desperate struggles to preserve the young Republic during the 1790s, to the glory days of Napoleon and then finally the tragic Hundred Days is an incredibly rich and detailed presentation of the French military, written with humor, style, and a mind-boggling amount of detail and information which sprawls across nearly 700 pages. Not for the faint of hearted, but tremendously rewarding for those who dare to traverse it, both in knowledge gained but also in the laughter, humanity, and spirit which it is inmbibed with.


The structure of the book is vaguely chronological, as it begins with the French Royal Army and its structure, its promise and evolution, but above all else its decline and stagnation, before it continues on with the travails of the Revolution and then the formation of the Imperial Army under Napoleon. These chapters are a combination of both operational and tactical histories, but focus, like the rest of the book, on organization, supply, training, methods, doctrine, command, and politics of the French military. After this, in chapter 4, it moves into the mainstay of the book - the actual structure and all of the components of the Napoleonic military, presented in loving detail, beginning with Napoleon himself and his service headquarters that accompanied him on campaign. After this it moves onto the general headquarters and the command services, then the communication, espionage, and dispatch system, then the Marshals of the Empire, followed by other commanders.

The troops begin with the Imperial Guard, followed up by infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineering, the medical corps, the navy, horses and personnel resupply, trumpets, flags, and banners, foreign troops in French service, the different allied anx auxiliary armies serving alongside the French, the gendarmes and interior troops, disciplinary troops and punishments, uniforms, marching order and formations, housing in the field, weapons and equipment, a description of the various enemies which the French faced, Napoleons operational art, strategy (although the book focuses more on the operational level rather than the strategic level) and the tactics of the French military, logistics and resupply, food, pay, and supplies, the lives of soldiers and their relationship to women, looting, their awards and medals, ceremonies, the camp followers and women accompanying the army, the transformations that gripped the army during the Bourbon reformation, and then at last the Hundred Days and Napoleon's organization of the army and the operational level nature of military operations during the brief campaign, and the final fate of the army and its leaders during the final Bourbon restoration.

Napoleon in bivouac on the field of Wagram

Napoleon in bivouac on the field of Wagram

It is difficult to go more into detail without drowning the reader: over 600 pages of encyclopedic density make for a book which even in the most basic summary is quite lengthy to recount!

The first thing which might strike you in the book - well, other than the length as you go through well over 600 pages of text, but you'll learn to like that soon! - is the incredible number of anecdotes and stories John Elting has accumulated. A French general who took advantage of Italian hospitality customs to simply loot everything he wanted from their house, an artillery captain in the French army who was still angry at Napoleon being promoted above him even after Austerlitz, French troops staging an ambush of Austrian irregular troops to get their red uniforms for facing for their own, the bandit shot by a pinwheeling French ramrod and the jubilation of the local population - Elting has an incredible turn of phrase and a vast collection of stories to bring the Napoleonic era to light.

This is shown too in the incredible character portraits of Napoleon, his marshals, his foes - what a riot! There is a brilliant degree of characterization, quite the treat in a chapter on the marshals or on the Emperor himself, whose quirks from his prolific reading and harsh literary criticism - simply throwing books which he didn't like out of the window of his campaign carriage - to his disciplining of troops in battle and on the campaign, literally booting wavering conscripts back into the swaying battle line, clogged by gunsmoke, against the muzzle flashes of the enemy, or setting guns when their crews fumbled in their transport on the roads - truly, the moniker insult of the "little corporal" being an accurate one! His incredibly industrious and scientific mine, almost computer-like, or his horrible handwriting and the brilliant partnership with his chief of staff Berthier, the only man capable of reading his writing! And what of the marshals? Wild, firery, crude Marat, iron Davout, hard-bitten Massena? All of them receive a description that causes them to leap from the page, larger than life. Even enemy generals receive this same treatment, bringing Blücher or Kutnezov or Wellington to life, although Elting is certainly partial to Napoleon and hostile particularly to the Bourbons. Anecedotes about them are still hilarious though, such as the gauche attempts to inspire troop loyalty.

The average soldier too, receives a deeply personal touch. Their time in Spain, the relations between the poor suffering average British and French soldier their, their duties, life, uniforms, suffering, routines, fighting, food, medicine, their pleasures and their sadnesses, their esprit de corps - the average man is not neglected nor forgotten, and stories of their escapades with local women, or their devotion to their banners and eagles, life on campaign in the mud and snow and misery of Poland and Russia, or just the state of maintenance of their barracks are a wonderful insight into them.

Most impressive is the simply stunning degree of research and reading which went into making this project. It shows itself constantly throughout with the sheer amount of detail that the writer can provide, about the organization, structure, life, campaigns, equipment, uniforms (although it is a shame that there aren't photos or drawings of these uniforms, which would have brought them to life even more: the book does have pictures at the start of every chapter, but there is no truly in depth presentation of the uniforms), commanders, honors, operations, and evolution of the Grande Armee. It is hard to overstate the sheer importance of this: Elting's book is a superlative authoritative source about the entire force of Napoleon's military in its actual composition, although it might not go in for lengthy campaign studies like other books. I don't think there could possibly be another book which provides a greater and broader degree of detail about the subject,

Reading through Swords around a Throne is a massive undertaking, but if you have any interest at all in the Napoleonic era and its armies, it is sure to be one which will pass far more quickly than you had imagined. It is probably best to read another book for an introduction into the period or be somewhat familar with it, as it doesn't attempt to provide for a general campaign and military history, but for anyone wanting a truly in-depth book about the Napoleonic military, this is the one to flock too.