Saturday, June 02, 2007

The War of Wars by Robert Harvey (Constable): Book review

This is an ambitious work of military and political history, recounting, as its subtitle says 'the epic struggle between Britain and France, 1793-1815'. But in addition to providing a narrative over its 800 pages, Harvey has an agenda: the resurrection of the style of historical analysis in which the determining role of inspirational leaders is acknowledged.

Harvey's canvas is broad, so that battles and whole campaigns have to be dealt with briefly. He is much more interested in the mechanics and social politics of naval warfare; Nelson is perhaps his favourite hero, and the book loses much of its impetus after Trafalgar had won the sea war. Minor land battles become a bare litany of x thousand lost, giving no feel for their significance or differentiation. Although writing for a general reader (p. 1), he assumes great familiarity with the participants; 'the most famous cavalry charge in history' (by Murat at Eylau) (p. 436) merits a single sentence. His account of the Russian campaign of 1812 is vastly inferior to Tolstoy's.

But it is the heroes that matter to Harvey. He attacks what he calls the 'Napoleon myths', that he was either a tyrant or a political genius; even his military skill is considered to be limited to movement and energy, and only consistently effective in his early career. But Wellington, Nelson, Sir John Moore and others are also treated in the same way: Harvey assumes that they are geniuses, and then turns to biography to explain their lapses of judgement, rather than allowing them to have good and bad days like the rest of us. He also expects that great leaders should be good people, and feels he must apologise for or excuse their political and personal failings, rather than treating them as irrelevant.

The book is hardly light reading; there is a lot of repetition (so that the comparison of the more sanguine actions with those of WW1 appears at least 5 times) and some irritating stylistic habits: he is clearly one of those who learned that split infinitive is a barbarism, but did not learn to avoid equally inelegant alternatives. There are also a surprising number of solecisms and typographic errors, such as 'rebounds to his credit'.

In the end, Harvey does not quite make his case: the book would have been better, and shorter, if he had restricted his scope to the key events and avoided the temptation to essay biographies of the principal players, tracking Napoleon's love life or the social difficulties of Nelson, which are tangential to the result.

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