Of two military titans

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts; Widenfeld and Nicolson, London; 25.

THE author is a 38-year-old, Cambridge-educated historian, who in the past ten years has produced five well-written, assiduously researched books. He was only 28 when his biography of Lord Halifax appeared - it was appropriately called The Holy Fox.

India knew Halifax as Lord Irwin - Viceroy from 1926 to 1931. The next book, Eminent Churchillians, carried highly critical essays on Mountbatten and Arthur Bryant, the historian. I have not read the third Roberts book, The Aachen Memorandum. His fourth book, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, I enjoyed and much admired.

Before I come to Napoleon and Wellington, I wish to take this young man to task for a rather silly, gratuitous and bumptious observation he recently made on the Hindi film Lagaan. Andrew Roberts said: "It is a sign of India's continuing inferiority complex that 50 years after independence they have to make this sort of drivel." Where in the name of heaven did he pick up the absurd and nonsensical notion that India was suffering from any complex? Amartya Sen in Cambridge, the IT wizards in the United States and Sachin Tendulkar in India are not producing drivel. Mr. Roberts would do well to stick to writing history and not venture into areas about which he has no expertise. His views on Lagaan have the same validity as that of a village carpenter's on nuclear physics.

Napoleon and Wellington were born in the same year - 1769. The former died in 1821 on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Wellington died in 1852 in London. Wellington, as Arthur Wellesley, saw service in India between 1797 and 1805. He participated in the siege of Srirangapatnam in 1799, and became Governor of Mysore after Tipu Sultan was killed. His name in Indian history is associated with the Second Mahratta War. His victory at Assay on September 23, 1803 won Arthur Wellesley his Knighthood the next year. His elder brother, Richard, was at the time Governor-General. While both were considerable womanisers, the senior Wellesley was much more sexually energetic. In 1810 he became Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, where his licentiousness became notorious. Wellington - as he now was - rebuked his brother and "suggested that his brother's career would prosper better were he castrated..."

In 1781 Wellington lost his father, Napoleon his in 1785. In 1791 Napoleon was made First Lieutenant, Wellington became Captain. Then Napoleon's career took off. By 1795 Napoleon was a General, Wellington a Colonel. In 1804 Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French. Wellington was a Major-General. Both were 35. In the next seven years Napoleon promulgated the Code Napoleon and became master of Europe - an undoubted military genius and an imaginative administrator. In 1809 Wellington was made a Viscount and beat the French in Portugal and Spain. In 1812 Napoleon very unwisely attacked Russia and that was the beginning of the end.

All this is reasonably well known. What is novel is the deft, scholarly and magisterial manner in which the author has dealt with the parallel careers of these two military titans. The climax of course came at Waterloo in June 1815, when Napoleon and Wellington faced each other (they never met) for the first and last time. It was touch and go. The momentous battle would have gone either way, but the arrival at 6 p.m. on June 18 of Prince Gebhard Von Blucher of Prussia with 30,000 troops tilted the balance in favour of Wellington. The rest, as they say, is history.

But the book does not end there. Napoleon was banished to St. Helena. There he brooded and relived his great victories and abused Wellington, whom he called the "sepoy general". Wellington became a Duke, a very great hero in England. He became Prime Minister in 1828 for two years. He too relived Waterloo and in private called Napoleon names but in public said that the Frenchman alone on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. Wellington had another success. He slept with two of Napoleon's mistresses. One of them, Josephina Grassini, the Italian singer, was one of the most beautiful women of her age. The other, Marguerite Weimer, asked about the sexual prowess of her two lovers, gave an answer which makes her a footnote of a footnote in history. Her verdict was that "Monsieur Le Duc etait de beaucoup le plus fort" - in plain English, the Duke was much the stronger!

In a quite brilliant concluding chapter Andrew Roberts offers his masterly summing up. Let me quote:

Napoleon's programme of a politically united Europe controlled by a centralised (French-led) bureaucracy, of careers open to talent and of a written body of laws, has defeated Wellington's assumptions of British Sovereign Independence, class distinctions and the supremacy of English common law based upon established, sometimes ancient, precedent. 'I wish to found a European system, a European code of laws, a European judiciary,' wrote Napoleon on St. Helena. There would be but one people in Europe. There is some irony in the fact that Waterloo was fought a mere 12 miles from Brussels, the capital of today's European Union. For, although Wellington won the battle, it is Napoleon's dream that is coming true.

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