Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soult; Napoleon's Maligned Marshal - Book Review

I've just finished reading Soult; Napoleon's Maligned Marshal by Peter Hayman (sorry, no cover image available). Having a new universtiy library join the collaborative borrowing system is great; even more books to read!
Again, it is a topic that I didn't know a lot about beyond the basics; ie. that he led the crucial attack at Austerlitz, but wasn't allowed to take the honour of being named the Duke of Austerlitz because Napoleon wanted the credit all to himself; he was a great organiser of troops, but not a great battlefield commander; that he had pretensions of royalty in northern Portugal; that he chased Moore to Corruna and fought the battle of Albuera; that he quarrelled incessantly with the other marshals and King Joseph while in Spain; that he was an incorrigable looter of Spanish artworks; that he fought a losing battle to keep Wellington from invading France; and that he replaced Berthier in the 100 Days campaign with disastrous results.

What I didn't know, and seems to be a theme with the books I read lately, is that a lot of the sources that historians use are written by people with an axe to grind. Soult himself didn't leave a memoir beyond his early days in the revolutionary army; his later political roles kept him too busy to finish his memoirs of his later career. Apparently his demeanor with his juniors and even with his equals was frosty at best and downright rude at worst, which didn't endear him to the people who did write their memoirs of their time with him.

Certain periods of his life have therefore become notorious, such as his supposed angling for the crown of northern Portugal and his wholesale looting of artifacts in southern Spain, but when examined in detail, the author points out that the main peddlers of these stories want to paint Soult in a bad light and spells out reasons why we shouldn't read these stories at face value. The whole 'Roi Nicolas' episode is explained in this biography as a way of involving the local population in the method of government, rather than imposing an administration of occupation on the Portuguese. Apparently, local civic leaders had been petitioning Soult for some sort of government that would offer an alternative to the chaos left by the collapse of the Braganza administration, and one of the options called for was for Soult to become king of the northern part of Portugal. (Interestingly, Soult's first name never was 'Nicolas' and doesn't appear on any of his birth, christening, investment to the rank of marshal, or death certificates; Nicolas being more of an insult a la 'old Nick' ie. the devil). The deal struck with Bourbon Spain to carve up Portugal also involved France taking northern Portugal, and as other marshals (albeit related by marriage to Bonaparte) had become rulers of other principalities, it wasn't a far stretch to see this as an option. The clinching arguments are, though, Soult couldn't crown himself king without the blessing of Napoleon and the fact that he wasn't summarily sacked for getting too big for his boots. The greatest spreaders of this canard were the soldiers and officers of Ney's VI corps who reflected their marshal's hatred of Soult.

Again, the accusation of corruption and avarice leveled at Soult during his time administering Andalucia also seem to be fabrications and exaggerations of those who wanted to pull him down. He did loot works of art, but no more than any other French general or marshal of the period. Where he differed was in the fact that he kept these works of art for himself and refused to hand them over to the state. He didn't embezzle funds or steal for his own gain as, like all the marshals, he was already a very wealthy man. Any funds forcibly requisitioned went to supplying his army, which he did reasonably well compared to many other French commanders.

His staff work for Napoleon has also been criticised by historians, but the fact is that the final responsibility was Napoleon's. Soult argued against sending a 3rd of Napoleon's foreces under Grouchy after Blucher, instead suggesting a smaller force to observe only. He also advised caution when dealing with Wellington, preferring a flanking movement instead, but both suggestions, as we know, were dismissed. Some details stand up like his lapse in sending only one messenger, not several with copies of the same order, which resulted in delays when the lone messenger got lost during the Ligny phase of the campaign, but otherwise, even Berthier would probably have struggled had he been in Soult's place.

He has also been derided as an opportunist who serve Bonaparte and the Bourbons in turn, and then turned his coat again to serve the July monarchy. This biography emphasises his sense of duty to France and not the rulers of the country. His career post-Empire is almost just as illustrious as that under Napoleon, serving as foreign minister, minister for war and prime minister right up into his 70s. During this time he cemented the foundations of alliance with Britain that eventually ebcame the Entente Cordiale, and was one of the most admired guests at Queen Victoria's coronation. He seemed to be more loved in Britain than at home in France!
However, the author does seem to be a fan and some of his explanations did smack of trying too hard to excuse his hero's faults, such as Soult's notorious rudeness. All the other marshals were wrong and Soult was always right when it comes to the arguments in Spain between the leading personalities of the French occupation. I'm still not savvy enough with all the ins and outs of the political side of this period to know if the author is justified in his arguments.
All in all, though, I learned a lot about another figure from the period about whom I had only the barest knowledge, and enjoyed the tale, too.

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