January 23, 2007 cameron

Do We Have A Bias?

You bet! We are fans of Napoleon. No doubt about it.
I think you’ll find our opinions on the show are just that – opinions! We have never claimed to be bias free. This ain’t the BBC. 🙂

One of my objectives when I started the series was to promote the case FOR Napoleon, as I believe that the “history” of Napoleon that most of us were taught, especially if you were educated in “The Commonwealth”, was extremely biased towards the negative. It has been said that “history is written by the victor” and that was definitely true in Napoleon’s case. For many years after his downfall, except for a brief interlude during the Second Empire, it was nearly impossible to write positively about him even in France, let alone England or other European countries. If we are slightly biased FOR the man, all we are doing is balancing up the scales!

That said, we do try our best to examine, in the time that we have each episode, the case for and against. David is a very well respected Napoleonic historian and author and he takes this responsibility extremely seriously. I, on the other hand, am just an enthusiast who wants to better understand who Napoleon was. In every episode I try to make sure I get a chance to ask David about the various criticisms of Napoleon that have been put forward and David always gives his honest perspective on what really happened, based on the current historical documents available combined with a deep understanding of the time and circumstances Napoleon was operating under. It is a huge mistake to take 21st century morals and perspectives on democracy and individual rights and then suggest that Napoleon should or could have lived up to ALL of them in late 18th century France. It’s critical to understand the critical condition France was in after the Revolution and the challenges Napoleon faced by constantly having to fight off the other European powers who were determined, for various reasons, to see the Bourbons re-established on the French throne.
As David and I have pointed out time and time again, France was fighting these wars long BEFORE Napoleon ever came to power in France and although he signed lots of peace treaties in his time in power, he rarely, if ever, broke one. So although Napoleon may not have been totally innocent of fault, the blame for the “Napoleonic Wars” needs to be shouldered by the parties truly responsible.
My goal with this present series is to introduce people to Napoleonic history, not present you with a set of ready-made opinions for or against. Hopefully you will listen to this series and be inspired, as I know many of you already have been, to go out and buy a few books on the guy (especially those written by a certain J. David Markham). Then you will all, of course, make up your own mind about who he was and whether or not what he tried to do was positive or negative. Or perhaps a little bit of both.

Comments (21)

  1. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    Cameron you really said it all very right and nice, I agree with you. Personally I am of the opinion that for all of Napoleon’s mistakes there can be found explenations, excuses…it is just the truth.

    I send you all my best regards!

    Vive l’Empereur!

    Tim Van Dyck

  2. Tibichte

    I’ve just subscribed to the napoleon podcast just few days ago and since then I listened to eleven episodes nearly in two days. My wife is a bit annoyed as I am listening to the podcast all the time (in bed, eating, walking…).

    Mes chaleureux remerciements pour cette serie.



  3. Cameron


    Il est notre plaisir de vous servir. Et veuillez aller ont le sexe avec votre épouse.


  4. Tibichte


    I won’t forget your advise and will SMS to her now “don’t bathe, I am coming home”



  5. Khaldum1

    You are rightly setting the record right. Most of the Napoleonic Wars were indeed provoked by the merciless British obsession with keeping the continent divided and standing in the path of a dominant European power, whose ultimate purpose was the unification of Europe. Napoleon was not perfect, but in the annals of human government, he stands head and shoulders above anything foisted upon mankind.

    This is particularly true if one looks at the array of British miscreants, like William Pitt, whose policy was one of avarice, economic explotation and imposition of their will upon Europe. Napoleon. by any measure, is a blazing torch illuminating man’s progress. His achievements are the touchstone of the modern world. He was the antithesis of reaction and, although like all men flawed, a champion of history. Although, those of little minds and British hypocrites, with all their perfidious influence, do not rest in twisting history to unjustly and criminally tarnish the great man.

    Vive Napoleon

  6. Tibichte

    I just finished listening to the whole napoleon’s podcast. I really enjoyed it and found it very entertaining. Now I understand why Nietzsche used to consider napoleon as the father of the modern Europe.
    While i was listening to the “Sun of austerlitz”, i realized that the strategy laid by napoleaon to win the battle looks as it was inspired by the Sun Tzu’s book “The art of war”. Did napoleon or the great frederick know about Sun Tzu?


  7. Cameron

    J. J. M. Amiot’s French translation of The Art Of War was published in 1772 (the first Sun Tzu translation available to the Western world) was an instant success and was reprinted ten years later. I don’t believe there is any hard evidence that Napoleon read it but I guess it is likely. He was a voracious reader who kept a massive portable library with him on most campaigns.

  8. Colin


    I think the podcasts so far have covered the period where it is easiest to see the good side of Napoleon. I think that most of his mistakes date from the period of the Russian campaign and its aftermath so it will be interesting to see how you cover that. I personally find his deserting of the army in the depth of Russia to be hard to swallow.

    Incidentally I would be interested to know how he managed to get back to France so quickly given the conditions and the available technology.


  9. Cameron

    Colin, I think you’re right. So far we’ve covered his meteoric rise, but from 1807 onwards there are more struggles with keeping it all together. The Russian campaign is obviously a great tragedy but I’m not sure I agree that he “deserted” the army. It’s the Emperor’s job to be where he is needed and he was needed in Paris. He stayed with the army until it was obvious that there was nothing left for him to do there. As for getting back to Paris, he was famous for riding his horses HARD.

  10. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    He never deserted his army in Egypt either, huh, Cam? 😉

    I love that the admirers of Napoleon are well versed in the art of ‘spin’.

    As for The Art of War – When I read it, it was Wellington that came to mind more so than the Emperor.

  11. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    The Emperor had to return to Paris, because there had been a attempt for a ‘coup d’état’ by a Malet and it was only from Paris that he could regain controll of the situation in Europe after the campaign in Russia and he had to prepare a new campaign, because the orther powers in Europe weren’t so willy to agree to peace as Napoleon desired…He first conceived a military masterpiece (who said something about Wellington?) by getting his Grande Armée (what remained of it) over the Berezina and then bring it as near as possible to the Polish border, well before the crossing of the Berezina, Napoleon knew about the attempted coup d’état…

    He travelled back by sleigh and carriage, and probably changed often the horses, so he didn’t rode them hard…he arrived just before midnight on the 18th of December 1812 at the Tuileries in Paris.

    (e.g. in the empire of Djenghis Khan messangers travelled sometimes up to 500 km a day, by using a ‘regular system of horse-stations’)

    No hi didn’t deserted his army in Egypt…

    Please read this to know the truth:


    or this:

    Napoleon decides to return to France

    After the battle (Aboukir, not the naval battle), Napoleon dispatched an aide-de-camp to the Turkish Admiral to agree on a delivery of supplies for the prisoners. Sidney Smith handed this officer a copy of the Gazette française printed in Frankfurt, dated June 10, 1799. Napoleon spent the night reading the news: there had been French defeats in Germany at the hands of Archduke Karl and in Italy at those of Souvarov. The Austrians and Russians were on the point of returning to France and restoring the Bourbon monarchy. With all its conquests swept away, the impotent Directory was staggering from crisis to crisis. It seemed like the death knell of the Republic. At dawn, Napoleon reached his decision: he would return to France. He could certainly be more useful in the homeland, even to the army of the Orient. In fact, what would become of the army if the Bourbons returned to power? They would doubtless join forces with the English. Kléber was amply qualified to assume command during his absence.

    It should be added that in May 1799, the Directory had ordered Napoleon to return to help defend France’s borders. The message never reached its intended recipient, since it was intercepted by the English.

    Once back in Cairo, Napoleon resumed all his activities. The sheiks and the ulemas were deeply impressed by his lightning victory over the powerful army of Mustapha Pasha. For them, and for all Egyptians, he was now Sultan Kebir, the Sultan of Fire. They bowed low before him, swearing eternal fidelity. He wrote instructions for Kléber that included not only general political directives, but also details for the effective continuance of the administration of Egypt. He ended with: “In France, my everyday concern will be to obtain reinforcements for the army of Egypt.” He drew up the list of those he would take with him: Bourrienne, Berthier, Eugène de Beauharnais, Duroc, Marmont, Monge, Berthollet, Vivant Denon, the Mamelouk Roustan and three hundred soldiers.
    After reading the newspaper provided by Sidney Smith, Napoleon felt certain that disasters were taking place in France; indeed he was convinced that the enemy had crossed the Alps, and had already occupied several southern departments. Accordingly, when we were approaching France, he ordered the captain to set a course for Port-Vendre. We came into Corsica with a stiff wind behind. We landed in Ajaccio, where we availed ourselves of the latest news. (We learned that Masséna had driven Souvarov back, and that Brune was holding his own against the Austrians.)

    Baron de Ménéval, Secretary to the First Consul and Emperor, wrote an account of this stay in Ajaccio, which was to be Napoleon’s last on the island of his childhood: “Held up in Ajaccio by unfavourable winds, General Bonaparte found the troops in a lamentable state. For nineteen months, the soldiers had received neither pay nor supplies of any kind. He hastened to distribute to them all the money he had, that is, forty thousand francs, keeping for himself only as much as he needed to finish his voyage to Paris.” On October 7, favourable winds returned and the fleet set sail for Saint-Raphaël, where it arrived without mishap on October 9, 1799. They were not subjected to quarantine, the enthusiastic crowd greeting Napoleon with cries of: “We’d rather have the plague than the Austrians.”

    Texts by General Michel Franceschi and Ben Weider.

    I send you all my best regards,


  12. Cameron

    Tim – thanks again for the great detailed commentary! Terrific stuff.

    Chris from Perth – I guess that’s one of the enduring fascinations of Napoleon. There are cases for and against.
    Again I point out that I don’t know what I have to gain by “spinning” in his benefit. I’m not on the payroll! However, as a student of Napoleonic history I have to say that Napoleon LOVED being with his army. Napoleon’s last words as he lay dying were ‘France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Josephine.’ He was, first and foremost, a military man.

    That said, he was also a politician and there are times, especially when the army’s enemies have the upperhand, when a politician needs to be in control. I don’t think it requires much “spin” to suggest that in both cases mentioned above, there were genuine reasons for Napoleon to be in Paris urgently. If you disagree, tell us why!

  13. bu

    Dear Cameron, David and listeners,

    I’ve read all these comments and it’s obvious that there are some people who’re not fand of the way that Cameron and David present to us (listeners) Napoleonic history, but to tell you the truth, it is the first time I see two people who obviously do “like” Napoleon, and are telling us the history not only in a positive way. I’ve read a lot of books by many authors, some of them are for and some against Napoleonic rule, and the things that are told by David and Cameron are quite objective.
    As it goes to “deserting” his army… well none said anything about Czar Alexander when after Austerlitz he left his army, so lets be fair.
    I think if someone decides to criticize Napoleon’s actions please do not forget to look at the actions of other leaders of European countries.

    Cameron and David, you are doing a great job and I’m sure that most of the listeners would say the same!

  14. Cameron

    Thanks bu! I really do try to be as balanced as possible and I hope our listeners can tell. Great point about Alexander. We could also point to a contemporary example of George W. Bush’s failure to personally stay in Iraq for the last 3 years. As Commander In Chief, is he accused of deserting the army?

  15. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    Indeed great point about Czar Alexander, Napoleon was perfectly capable of making the Czar prisoner after Austerlizt, but he didn’t do it, he even send the prisoners of the Russian Imperial Guard back to Russia to show that he did only want peace.

    During his last two days the Emperor was unconscious (he was poisoned); he only made some noises which the others interpreted as ‘France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Josephine’ during the period of those two days, when he died at 5:49 PM on Saturday the 5th of May 1821 he didn’t say anything…

    …but all his words keep resounding for centuries!

    I send you all my best regards,


  16. Christopher from Perth, Australia

    “…Napoleon LOVED being with his army. Napoleon’s last words as he lay dying were ‘France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Josephine.’ He was, first and foremost, a military man.”

    I would say he loved being with them when they were winning.

    Egypt, Russia and the Peninsula would prove that even true love had its limitations.

  17. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    He had to leave the Peninsula because Talleyrand, Fouché and even Murat were plotting in Paris and because Austria was preparing once agian for war…When he almost got the English in Spain, the Frech discovered over more than a 1000 British weman and children, although he was an ‘ogre’ in their eyes, Napoleon was still trusted when it came to looking after their wifes and kids, what he did.

    I think that Russia and Egypt were already discussed on this podcast in other comments…

    Only when they were winning? And Eylau, Essling…when they suffered a lot, he was still with them and victory always followed, Friedland…Wagram…And the campaing of France in 1814, he was with them and what a victories they obtained!

    I send you all my best regards,


  18. Hi, guys,

    Forgive my absence. I am not always aware of the various strands in which one can find great comments like those above.

    I’ll only briefly comment that in my opinion Napoleon never really deserted his soldiers. In Spain, he went down, kicked butt, and then left to deal with nasty developments, leaving his brother as king and marshals in charge of the army. They proved inept and all that Napoleon did was undone. Had he stayed things might have turned out better for the French, but it is impossible to say. In any event, he was needed elsewhere and no one could reasonably expect him to stay in Spain forever.

    He certainly did not desert his men in 1812. He stayed with them until they had gained relative safety. Only then did he leave them for Paris. Again, he was Emperor and needed to put out political fires in the capital.

    Egypt comes closest to the charge, but even there he left after having defeated his enemies and learning of a need for his military leadership in France. Of course he wanted to go because he felt it would improve his political career, but if defeating the enemies of France is a boost to one’s career, c’est la vie! Moving to defend the fatherland is hardly deserting the army!

    I like and endorse Cameron’s long description of our motives in the podcast. I have no problem being considered an historian who feels that Napoleon was a positive force in history who is often accused of assorted things without justification. But I do feel that I developed this opinion from a careful and rather complete study of the subject, and I am also quite willing to be critical of Napoleon whenever it is appropriate.

    As always, I thank you all for listening and for your comments. We’ll probably do another show this week on Friedland and Tilsit.


    David Markham

  19. Joshua

    Funny you mentioned George W. Bush’s lack of presence in Iraq over the last 3 years Cameron as I was only thinking of it the other day.

    Whilst by no means should Bush be singled out for that reason, pretty much all US presidents seem to have made their military decisions from afar but I can’t imagine how they could do it. Make all the big decisions on a war based solely on the advice of others not forgetting the fact that most Presidents have little military training. How can they be expected to make a good decision? I think this relative detachment from a war is how a President can continue to fight even though the war is an absolute mess like Vietnam or Iraq or even begin a war because war is always ALWAYS horrible.

    On the other hand I think Napoleon’s presence with the army often game him a more emotional investment in the outcome of a war or battle. Napoleon was there when his friends and family of the army were killed by the enemy and I suspect that had a heavy impact on the harsh penalties he often imposed on beaten enemies rather than following Talleyrand’s more objective and probably wiser advice to temper his penalties somewhat.

  20. Tim Van Dyck

    Dear Cameron, David and all the listeners,

    Indeed wars are always horrible, this was also the view of Napoleon himself.

    If he was harsh for his beaten enemies (if you look at the treaty of Pressburg with Austria in 1805, after Austerlitz, you would doubt this harshness) this was because he had to prevent them from taking up arms again, as they did always again and kept doing, he was in fact too generous, it had perhaps been better if he had been (more) harsh to them…and do not forget that those who were beaten, where those who started the war, it was only right that they paid the costs for it.

    Talleyrand was in fact just a man who sold himself to anybody for good money, and he did betrayed Napoleon, and by consequence France, and did prevent in doing so a durable peace, he was perhaps clever, but not right! Think only of Erfurt, where he said to the Czaz that he had to oppose Napoleon…

    I send you all my best regards,


  21. Antonio

    Is it a bias to consider Napoleon and its armies directly responsible for all the death, destruction and misery brought into Portugal? Hundreds of thousands of civilians died of disease, starvation or were simply executed because of Napoleon’s will to enforce Portugal to renounce its trade with Great Britain. The French got all they deserved in Portugal (and Spain, in spite of the Spanish being responsible for inviting the French into their country, initialy as allies, with the purpose of invading and partitioning Portugal).

    Anyway, David and Cameron, thanks for your fantastic podcast and my sincerest congratulations for all the effort and hard work in doing it. I thought I knew something about Napoleon until I started listening to your show.

    Your faithfull listener,


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