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Lord Wolseley on Napoleon

Extract

With the publication in the “Pall Mall Magazine” of the first of Lord Wolseley's articles on “The Decline and Fall of Napoleon,” the inveterate controversy as to the position of the “Corsican Parvenu” in the military and general history of the world assumes a new aspect, the development of which, as psychologists, we shall watch with much interest. There have already been three great epochs in this protracted conflict of opinion. To his contemporaries and rivals of the type of Dumouriez, Bonaparte was a magnificent charlatan of mediocre ability, fit only to serve as a divisional commander under men of light and leading like themselves. The school of thought, however, which saw no genius in the famous march from Boulogne to Ulm and Austerlitz necessarily wielded an ephemeral influence, and was quickly superseded by the reactionary school, of whose views Thiers was at once the founder and the ablest exponent. Over the veteran author of “The Consulate and the Empire” the spirit of Napoleon exercised a fascination of which the records of hero-worship furnish few analogies. Then came the school of Lanfrey, Taine, and Seeley. The method which these great writers sought to pursue in investigating the life and character of Bonaparte was excellent. They set before themselves as the object to be attained a cold, critical survey, detached alike from the rancour of Dumouriez and the adulation of Thiers. But they failed, and failed badly. In spite of all their critical acumen—and perhaps because of it—the Napoleonic idea eluded their grasp. They were no better fitted for their task than Bunyan would have been for that of writing an impartial biography of Charles the Second, and the writer who will raise a real living Napoleon from the 32 volumes of “Correspondance” in which his life and thoughts are entombed has still to appear above the literary horizon. Lord Wolseley makes no attempt to fill this vacant rôle. Indeed, we doubt whether it could be adequately filled by one who believes Napoleon to have been “the greatest of all the great men” that ever lived. But he makes a contribution of much interest and value to a question that has been occasionally mooted of late years, viz., What was the mysterious malady from which the French Emperor suffered at the close of his public life in Europe? Perhaps we ought to suspend a definite answer to this question till we see what else Lord Wolseley has to say on the subject in his remaining articles. But in the meantime a rapid summary of the evidence on the point available to any student of modern French literature may not be inopportune. Of course, the matter to be considered is whether there was, in fact, at the end of Napoleon's military career a failing in his powers. Our ancestors would, no doubt, have deemed it unpatriotic to question that the “Boney” whom Wellington beat at Waterloo not only knew his best and did it, but was as competent a general as the hero of Arcola and Rivoli. But this comforting position is no longer tenable. Lord Wolseley points to the fatal delay of Napoleon at Wilna in the Russian campaign of 1812, and his equally fatal omission to support Ney at the crisis of the battle of Borodino; and, if we mistake not, the campaigns of Leipsic and Waterloo yield evidences still more cogent that the very faculty of commandership repeatedly deserted Bonaparte at the time when its presence was essential to his fortunes. The direct testimony of his contemporaries to the same fact is not wanting. Marshal Augereau (as we learn from Macdonald's memoirs) noticed it, although his coarsely-grained and jealous mind saw in it only a proof of the incompetence which he preferred to consider as a characteristic of his master, and the officers who received the fugitive Corsican on his return from Elba were astounded at his alternate fits of garrulity and silence, tremendous energy and hopeless lassitude. If, then, the fact of Napoleon's mental and physical decline is established, what was the cause? Lord Wolseley goes no further at present than “mental and moral prostration,” and there is certainly nothing extraordinary in the theory that the prodigious and continuous strain to which the mighty intellect of the great captain had for years been subjected was at last destroying its machinery. But there is also positive evidence, we think, that Napoleon had become the victim of epilepsy, and without dwelling on the subject further just now, till Lord Wolseley's series has been completed, we may point out that the theory here suggested derives some corroboration from the circumstance on which his lordship's first article offers abundant proof, that while Napoleon's power of executing his plans was impaired, the splendour of his military imagination survived, and even increased in apparent brilliancy at the last.

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The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
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Lord Wolseley on Napoleon

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