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Maintains The Standard
on 13 June 2007
The Generals, the second volume of Simon Scarrow's series on the lives of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Athur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, picks up where volume one, Young Bloods, left off. Napoleon is a young officer in revolutionary France. Wellesley has returned from campaigning in the Low Countries and is stationed back in Dublin. Neither man is satisfied with his position in life and both are seeking advancement; although for differing motives.
From there The Generals follows both men's paths as they begin to advance their careers. Napoleon's takes him first to Italy, then on to Egypt before a triumphant return to France the assumption of dictatorial powers as First Consul. Wellesley's take him to India, where he is destined to remain for most of the book, converting the East India Company's slim holdings into the largest territory in the British Empire.
As a result The Generals covers some of the most fascinating moments in both men's lives in the period leading up to the commencement of the Iberian campaign. It deals with how both men won their reputations as military strategists and the events that shaped their future attitudes to war and politics.
It does all this very well, covering the most important events in sufficient detail but without forgetting that this is history as enjoyable fiction and getting bogged down in minutae. Purist historians will quibble over some minor factual liberties, which Scarrow owns up to in his afterword, and the glossing over of many of the wider political events of time (everything being seen directly from the perspective of one man or the other) but unless you're planning to sit an exam on the subject of either man's life The Generals is a well written, accessible, exciting study of both men's acheivements and personalities that holds the reader's attention.
Of course by trying to cram in years of world changing history Scarrow is forced to skip over some detail. This gives the narrative an episodic feel as it jumps from one 'big' event to another; a sensation that is increased by the need to constantly move from Napoleon to Wellesley and back. Scarrow is to be congratulated on the fact that the need for these constant shifts of perspective and time do not damage the overall flow of the narrative or the enjoyment of it.
What do however, succeed in doing is highlighting the disparity in the level of each man's acheivements. Whilst Wellesley is no slouch, his successes are limited to the military theatre of India, whilst Napoleon must deal with both military, domestic and diplomatic challenges as he assumes greater powers. This gives the book a slightly lopsided feel. When focusing on Napoleon their is a far greater number and wider scope of events to cover, but in order to do each one must be skated over quickly. With Wellesley events are primarily military in nature (although some diplomatic issues are addressed) so battles can be covered in more detail but are not necessarily of as broad interest.
Further imbalance in the narrative is caused by the author having to address Napoleon's private life in some detail, something he doesn't have to do after the first few chapters with the batchelor Wellesley. Moreover, whilst Bonaparte's stormy marriage to Josephine is important to the story of his life, it also requires greater finesse than scenes of political intrigue or military combat. Unfortunately, crammed into a crowded narrative, Scarrow cannot afford it the attention it deserves and as a result it has something of the feeling of a soap opera, with Josephine little more than a characture.
Minor quibbles over narrative balance, pacing and characterisation aside however, The Generals is up to the standard of Young Bloods, and in terms of excitement surpasses it. Its never going to be praised for its depth of characterisation, subtext or historical accuracy, but if you want a broad insight in the lives of two of history's greatest military minds it can be highly recommended.