In general I always tend to lean towards a nice heavy book with lots of juicy content for me to get to grips with when reading historical works. Napoleon at Bay 1814 by F. Loraine Petre aims more towards providing the facts in a simple and easy to read fashion without getting too side-tracked by any unique perspectives or stories from the people involved. What it does do it does very well and although at first I found the book a bit small, it certainly covered the subject area extensively. The book leans almost completely towards the military sphere and so its focus is almost entirely on the campaign of 1814 and not on the political or personal issues of the period.
The story of the campaign in 1814 as told in Napoleon at Bay is broken down into the following chapters:
Chapter 1 – From Hanau to Châlons
This Chapter begins by giving the reader an overview of the situation at the end of 1813 and beginning of 1814, and rightly points out that the campaign of 1814 is simply the continuation of the campaign of 1812 which began with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Petre gives a good overview of the troop layouts and of Napoleon’s need to constantly cover Paris during this campaign as well as the diverging political views and desires of the allied armies. In fact the strongest part of this chapter seems to be the analysis provided about the allied armies, their possible routes of action and of the political back and forth that was being played during late 1813.
There is a thorough breakdown of troop dispositions provided to set the stage for the campaigning to commence in 1814. Petre finishes the chapter with the general lay of the land around which the campaigning will begin.
Chapter 2 – Brienne and La Rothière
This chapter gives a good outline of the frantic manoeuvring before and during the battles at Brienne and La Rothière. Petre gives the dispositions of the allied armies, noting the separation of Schwarzenberg to Blücher and the effective use of Napoleon’s manoeuvrability. He is excellent at moving the story forward in an almost dramatic way, detailing the excitement of the positions being reversed and the tide of the battles being turned again and again. He passes some great analysis on the battles, explaining the mistakes both commanders made, how the outcomes could have been different but also why certain actions were taken when it really looked as if a different one should have been.
Chapter 3 – The Retreat after La Rothière
This chapter details the retreat of Napoleon after the battle of La Rothière and covers the period between the 1st February 1814 until 10th February. It details the allies losing contact with Napoleon’s forces and the subsequent successful regrouping at Troyes which allowed Napoleon to continue to harry and assault the now divided allied forces. It shows the failure of the marshals to co-ordinate, which Napoleon knew, would end up costing him valuable time to get into positions to attack and suggests the Austrians were hindering Blücher and his ability to combat Napoleon.
Chapter 4 – Champaubert, Montmirail, and Vauchamps
This chapter details the re-organization of the French and their assault on Blücher’s forces throughout the time period of 10th February – 14th February and the subsequent Prussian retreat. A good analysis is again provided by Petre at the end of this chapter of the manoeuvres made by Napoleon and how they were so successful.
Chapter 5 – Napoleon returns to the Seine
This chapter details the advance of the Austrians and subsequent withdrawal when they learned of Napoleon’s advance against them, followed by defeat at Montereau. Petre gives a good overview as to Austrian caution and hesitation to engage against Napoleon once regrouped and explains their further retreat even with superior numbers. He also lays out the political overtures for armistices and peace talks during this period and the reasons for them failing.
Chapter 6 – The Second Pursuit of Blücher
This chapter details Blücher’s second attempt at marching on Paris and the manoeuvring around it. Petre outlines the controversy of the surrender of Soissons and its effect on the campaign as to whether it saved Blücher or not, as well as the break down for the curious estimations of troop numbers as thought by Napoleon at the time.
Chapter 7 – Craonne
This chapter details the dispositions of the troops of Napoleon and Blücher up to the 7th March 1814 and outlines the battle around the Craonne area. Petre outlines his thoughts on Ney attacking too early and without orders to do so. He gives an excellent break down of the battle and troop movements and attacks and once again good analysis of the reason for French success (or Pyrrhic victory as he calls it).
Chapter 8 – Laon and Reims
This chapter details the fighting around the area of Laon, beginning in the early hours of the 9th March. Petre highlights the neglect of Marmont at Athies which almost resulted in disaster for Napoleon and the hesitancy of Gneisenau, who had temporarily taken over from Blücher, as saving the Emperor. The surprise attack at Reims on the 13th March, with a manoeuvre the Prussians thought impossible, still showed that Napoleon was a genius and had not lost the vigour of his youth.
Chapter 9 – Arcis-Sur-Aube
This chapter details the actions of the Austrians against Napoleon’s Marshalls, the divisions within the allied camp and the movements of Napoleon to attack the Austrian general Schwarzenberg. The battle at Arcis on 20th – 21st March is detailed, including both Napoleon’s and Schwarzenberg’s assumptions and misunderstandings of the situation at hand.
Chapter 10 – The General Advance on Paris
This chapter covers Napoleon’s disengagement from the battle of Arcis, the failure of Schwarzenberg to harass the French, the destruction of the allied lines of communication to Switzerland and the general allied march on Paris which ended in its capitulation. The chapter ends with the abdication of Napoleon but it is not done in any detail as Petre rightly points out that this is focused mainly on military affairs and that much better political books have been written about the subject.
Overall this has been a very easy book to read. The information provided was very in depth; however Petre manages to write as if he is telling a story. I often found my heart pumping a bit faster when it came to the descriptions for some of the nail-bitingly close run battles, which is quite the achievement as often history books can be a bit dull and as a reader you can simply get lost in the endless listing of what’s happening. Petre often gives an outline of troop numbers to give a good overhead picture of the armies at the beginning of his chapters which leaves the majority of the writing for the quick moving marches and counter marches. Because of this the writing flows and doesn’t get bogged down until the end of the chapter when he usually finishes with a battle.
The only real weakness for this book, which I will be covering more about in the section on illustrations and maps, is that there are no maps provided. This makes it a bit difficult to understand what all the troop movements mean relative to the whole picture. Unless you have a naturally amazing gift at remembering the location of all the places mentioned it’s easy to lose track of where certain towns, rivers and obstacles are in France and this means Petre could be talking about anywhere really. It is for this reason I recommend having some good maps to hand when reading this so that you can refresh yourself every time the armies move and counter move to various locations.
Whilst in general I do prefer slightly longer books, I actually found Napoleon at Bay the perfect size for the subject at hand. The book sits at 168 pages in total which is actually a fair amount of size for covering the period of January 1814 to April 1814. It should also be noted that while Petre does mention some of the political situations during this time it is only in relevance to the military situation which is his primary focus and therefore the book is a good length in this regard. The size of the book can be seen to the right here with an A4 pad for scale.
Petre also provides his references and sources during his writing which is a method I like as it allows him to input relevant snippets of information outside of the main text, and so not disturb the flow of the story. It also helps in that we can clearly see where the information he has used comes from and so we can follow the sources to find out further information on a specific subject.
As said earlier this is the real weakness of the book. No maps are given in this book which I think are actually a necessity. Given the military focus of this book, and the detailed nature of the troop movements, many maps should be provided throughout to show where the various brigades, corps and armies were stationed during the different phases. This is needed to explain the importance of the marches on certain cities, the crossing of certain rivers, why the lack of pontoons was an issue and the importance of cutting lines of communications – all of which were major factors throughout this campaign. This also affects the readability of the book in general as the reader is very quickly lost as to who is marching where and why it is important and the names of the places all begin to mean nothing without a visual guide to show their relevance.
Overall I really enjoyed Napoleon at Bay 1814 by F. Loraine Petre. The flow was excellent and the descriptions of the battles were the right balance between depth of information and quick moving narrative. In fact I would say that the main strength of the book was its ability to catch the reader in the excitement of the battle and perfectly capture the fog of war so that we could see train wrecks about to happen even though the main movers of the campaign could not. The book is a good size and is easily able to be finished in a day and the author provides lots of useful sources with information for us to explore further. An example of the author providing good references can be seen to left where a separate section at the bottom of the page provides further information without interrupting the main text.
As said above the main weakness of the book is its lack of maps which could really help with the understanding of the movements of the armies and the importance of the battles that were fought. This unfortunately brings the score down greatly as well for my overall score when other areas of the book are actually very good. Another slight weakness would be that perhaps more of the political side of things could be explored so as to frame the whole picture a bit more, however Petre does give his reasons for not doing so and what he does provide is enough for the subject of the book.