Leipzig, by Bruno Colson © Perrin
How can you write the story of a battle that took place two hundred years ago? This is precisely the question Bruno Colson tries to answer in his book on the battle of Leipzig. Well-known for his research on the Napoleonic Wars, Colson presents here a very detailed account, though it is one that is easy to read. First and foremost, it is an extremely thorough study of the various aspects of the Napoleonic war, but it also considers some contemporary research issues, such as the emergence of the concept of a “total war”.
A common criticism of works on Napoleonic campaigns or battles is that they are incomplete or one-sided. This certainly cannot be said about Colson's account of Leipzig. In his account of the ‘Battle of the Nations', Bruno Colson follows the line of his previous book De la guerre (Perrin, 2011). He has undertaken the formidable and demanding task of reading again all the original sources (whether hand-written or published) from the different countries involved in the conflict, in order to give a balanced view of the events. His account then puts into perspective the preconceived ideas passed on by an old or partisan historiography, itself often the result of an a posteriori and political revision of the original events.
Whilst former research focused on the viewpoint of commanders-in-chief and on the grand manoeuvres, modern research has endeavoured to put the soldier back to the centre of the battle account. In line with this, Colson considers in turn the different viewpoints of the main characters in the battle, from the highest commanding posts in both camps, to the soldiers. His “grass roots vision” makes the atmosphere of the fighting real and tangible. It is true that such description usually belongs to the work of a novelist, but in his book, Bruno Colson achieves the rare combination of a lively narrative with historical precision. Each moment of the battle is examined and analysed without the account ever becoming tedious. And in addition to battle details, there is a wealth of information on the fighting techniques used during the Empire.
The battle of Leipzig broke every record at the time, both for its geographical spread and for the number of men (and hence casualties) involved in the conflict. However, one of the particularities of this confrontation is how close it was to a main city. Already in 1809, many civilians had witnessed the Essling and Wagram battles from the highest points of Vienna. In Leipzig, a great part of the inhabitants had not left the city. They watched the fighting then “from their windows”. There are many civilian accounts of the battle, often unknown in France, which shed a new light on the way the non-fighting part of the population saw the Napoleonic Wars. Bruno Colson describes these and shows how many amongst the non-partisan bystanders desired only an end to the fighting. He also describes the recycling of abandoned military material as soon as the battle was over. Much modern research concentrate on the soldiers' experience of the fighting and the psychological consequences. In this respect, Colson's attention to the impact of the same fighting on the local populations is new and adds new area of research, and as such is certainly not the least of the qualities of Bruno Colson's book.
François Houdecek, Project Manager of the Publication of the Correspondence of Napoleon
This book was awarded the Fondation Napoléon First Empire Prize for 2013.
Place and publisher: Paris: Perrin
Date of publication: 2013
Number of pages: 493