Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Fire and Sword" - Simon Scarrow

While Simon Scarrow is better known for his Roman legionary series, he's also writing a fictionalised account of Wellington and Bonaparte's lives - he's now up to the third volume (pictured left) which I've just finished, and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in 18th and early 19th century military history...

Scarrow has chosen to write the book so that the lives of the two commanders are shown in parallel - typically he has two or three chapters on Bonaparte at a specific point in his careers/life, and then does the same for Wellington showing what he was doing at the same time. It's a very interesting approach, but one that didn't work quite so well in the second volume as it covered the period when Wellington was in India, which was simply too far away from Europe to allow the usual reaction you would expect to breaking news in the continent.In this volume however, with both protagonists in Europe, it works as well as it did in the first volume.

This book runs from just after the return of Wellington from India as the victor of Assaye, and the crowning of Bonaparte as Emperor, to the point where Wellington commands the British army in the Peninsula having just ejected Soult's army from Portugal.

I had approached this book slightly warily, as to be honest, I thought the second volume was a bit duff - there was no interplay of characters due to geographical distance, and I thought the writing was a little weak. Happily, I need not have worried though, as Scarrow was back to the standard he set with the first volume...

This book spans the period from when (militarily at least) Bonaparte was probably at his his most skilled, to just after his peak. The highlight of this period being Jena & Auerstadt, Eylau and the total humbling of Prussia/Russia at the Treaty of Tilsit. There's an excellent little vignette in the book, by the way, about a supposed meeting between Queen Louisa of Prussia and Bonaparte at Tilsit one night, where she had attempted (you can imagine how!) and failed to make him change his mind about the almost ruinous conditions he'd laid on Prussia.

Most historians seem to think that tactically and strategically, Bonaparte was never at his best after this period - it ends with his disastrous handling of the Spanish issue. Scarrow seems to think that Bonaparte may have had psychological problems (megalomania) that were exacerbated by his success.. there's clear indications that his handling of situations militarily after this time were not as deft - more sledgehammer than scalpel...

So while Bonaparte was being made Emperor of France, and driving all of Europe before him, Wellington was struggling to make his name - throughout the book his career is primarily political, but there's interesting sections on the "Danish adventure" when he commanded a brigade in the British force that besieged and bombarded Copenhagen in order to deprive the French of the Danish fleet (a sad interlude if ever there was one), and at last his chance to shine in the Peninsula (the first time) with Vimiero before being recalled. After the death of Sir John Moore however, Wellington was given command again, and the books end with his success at Oporto against Soult.

Excellent stuff - and as one of the reviewers on Amazon put it - please don't make us wait too long for the next and final one!

Steve the Wargamer rates this an 8 or 9 out of 10..

The picture by the way is titled "Napoleon Bonaparte Receiving Queen Louisa of Prussia at Tilsit, 6th July 1807", painted in 1837 by Nicolas Louis Francois Gosse. Not received in the way she wanted, I dare say...


  1. I'm not far behind you as I'm part way through having just finished books 5 and 6 of his Macro/Cato Roman saga. I do find Scarrow one of the better historical writers around at the moment. Some have claerly just jumped on the bandwagon and their books are tosh.

    I'm sure at home I have one of those 'what if' books based on the Napoleonic wars and one of the questions posed is that Bonaparte calls a halt after Tilsit.


  2. I reckon (from my very limited knowledge on the Napoleonic Wars) that it would have made a lot of sense if he'd done exactly that.. he had his piece with Russia, Prussia and Austria were out of the picture, and Britain was out of reach (and vice versa)..

    ...*but* the relationship with Russia seemed to go stale of it's own account (maybe he didn't try hard enough??), Austria and Prussia re-armed, and the British landed in Portugal - he still would have had a fight on his hands even without the disastrous decision to invade Russia and stick his nose into Spanish royal succession..