Review of "The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It"
The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It
By: David Bell
Throughout David Bell’s book The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, the author explores the origins and rise of modern military tactics and warfare. This type of warfare, as he explains, differed quite significantly from the fighting techniques devised and implemented during the years prior to the French Revolution. Whereas the Old Regime era focused on honor and mutual respect on the battlefield for one’s adversaries, Bell plainly demonstrates that the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars created a clear break from this noble past (Bell, pg. 5).
Bell's Main Points
With the rise of Napoleon and the collapse of the Old Regime (from the French Revolution) came warfare that maintained no “restraints” (Bell, pg. 8). Instead, battle tactics began to focus heavily upon “relentless” attacks against enemy troops and the complete annihilation of an adversary’s combat effectiveness in the field of war (Bell, pg. 234). As Bell describes, the “true and natural course” of war during this time began to involve “the commitment of every possible resource and all possible violence” to achieve victory—a concept known as “total war” (Bell, pg. 241).
This style of warfare, though practical in its overall effectiveness, was not without faults, however. While effective on the field of battle, Bell demonstrates that “total war” greatly affected civilian populations as more and more people fell victim to atrocities committed by invading armies and troops. This new style of combat also helped create great animosity among conquered populations, and led to an even more deadly and treacherous form of fighting—guerrilla warfare. Because of the effectiveness of this new style of fighting, however, Bell asserts that modern day combat still borrows heavily from the principles of total war established during the French Revolution.
All in all, Bell does a great job at demonstrating the rise and implementation of "total war" throughout France and Europe during the early 19th Century. Not only does he explain how the new system of fighting differed significantly from the aristocratic warfare of the 18th Century, but he also demonstrates the connections that modern day combat shares with the advent of this new type of warfare.
Whereas the French Revolution is the event that destroyed the old political systems of governing and the honor-based style of fighting, Bell also clearly demonstrates that Napoleon played a key role in spreading this new style of combat to the European continent. Without him, such notions of brutality may have never spread as far as they did. As his army conquered more and more countries and populations, Bell makes it very clear that Napoleon’s idea of warfare quickly permeated the minds of political leaders and civilians across Europe. Once these ideas took hold, Bell effectively demonstrates that there was no turning back to the old style of fighting. To this day, especially throughout the 20th Century, the concept of total war remains forever embedded in the strategies of military generals, rebel groups, and political leaders worldwide.
Overall, I give this book a 4/5 Star rating and highly recommend it to individuals interested in the history of France, the French Revolution, 18th-19th Century Warfare, and military strategies. This was a really fun and interesting read, to say the least!
Questions for Discussion
1.) Did the 19th Century truly mark the dawn of "total war" as David Bell proclaims? Or were there other instances of this type of warfare before the French Revolution and Napoleon?
2.) Who was Bell's intended audience for this work?
3.) Does Bell have an overarching thesis? If so, what is it?
4.) Do you find Bell's arguments to be convincing? Why or why not?
5.) What type of source material did Bell rely on most?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Broers, Michael. Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny. New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.
Colson, Bruno. Napoleon: On War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2006.
The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
History.com Staff. "Napoleon Bonaparte." History.com. 2009. Accessed December 21, 2016. http://www.history.com/topics/napoleon