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BullDog6901 Jan 2012 3:45 p.m. PST

I'm by no means an expert on the Napoleonic Wars, so would be interested to hear the opinions of those who are more knowledgeable than I.

In this months' BBC History magazine, there is an article on the most 'over-rated people in history'. Given that it was headed by a photo of Sir Winston Churchill, it seemed like a fairly blatant attempt to twist some tails – so perhaps it shouldn't have surprised me to see Napoleon listed there.
The rationale for his inclusion was that he, unlike some other 'great commanders' listed by the author, lost several battles and his invasion of Russia was nothing short of an utter disaster.

So is there anything behind this claim, or was the author merely being controversial for the sake of controversy?

1234567801 Jan 2012 3:53 p.m. PST

Ultimately he was a total failure so it is probably reasonable to regard him as over-rated.

Personal logo 20thmaine Supporting Member of TMP01 Jan 2012 3:57 p.m. PST

ditto – he achieved a lot, then it was all swept away in his own lifetime. That's not true success.

Personal logo Lentulus Supporting Member of TMP01 Jan 2012 4:03 p.m. PST

Getting highly rated as a general is a two phase process:

(1) Beat everyone at the start, meaning you can't be ignored.

(2) Lose in the end, leaving the winners to write the memoirs.

And if you were average from day one, what does that say about your opponents? So what do those opponents say about you after? "He was the greatest general ever! And we beat him! Yea us!"

Now, I have no opinion on the "overrated" part since I have no idea who's keeping the league tables, but I am always distrustful of average people with perfect hindsight pointing at the past and saying "But he was average too! It's not fair!"

controversial for the sake of controversy?

You say that if it were a bad thing. Anything that gets a person's blood pressure up about history is probably good for them in the long run.

Maxshadow01 Jan 2012 4:03 p.m. PST

To me there is
A) questioning accepted history
B)recognition that historical giants had their foibles that have often been brushed over.
then there is
C) which is to completely discount the achievements of historical giants by money gubbing nobodies in the hope of achieving some unearned academic recognition and some pop notoriety that may sell some books.
of course I could be mistaken. :oP

Spreewaldgurken01 Jan 2012 4:13 p.m. PST

"… in the hope of achieving some academic recognition and some pop notoriety…"

I believe you'll find that those two are mutually exclusive.

M C MonkeyDew01 Jan 2012 5:45 p.m. PST

"Overrated people" is different from "overrated military commanders".

Nappy was quite the mercurial figure and not overrated.

I'm sure Oscar Wilde would rate him highly successful!

KTravlos01 Jan 2012 9:03 p.m. PST

I would say that he was not the best military commander but neither an average one. He had moments of genius and also moments of stupidity as far as the military part of his career is concerned. There are superior commanders (Alexander, Malborough, Maurice de Sax) but he is in the tops.

JSchutt01 Jan 2012 9:06 p.m. PST

They are trying to sell magazines, not enlighten anyone. I have never heard of a person being over-rated in the abscence of specific criteria. Utter tripe.

dragon601 Jan 2012 9:41 p.m. PST

colinjallen wrote:
Ultimately he was a total failure so it is probably reasonable to regard him as over-rated.

20thmaine wrote:
ditto – he achieved a lot, then it was all swept away in his own lifetime. That's not true success.

I respectively disagree. Europe would not be the europe we know if not for Napoleon. Germany, Italy, even France still bear his stamp.

DOUGKL01 Jan 2012 10:45 p.m. PST

I respectively disagree. Europe would not be the europe we know if not for Napoleon. Germany, Italy, even France still bear his stamp.

Including the State of Louisianna here in the USA. The framework of it's legal system is the Code Napoleon.

Doug em4miniatures02 Jan 2012 2:47 a.m. PST

Who was the author…?


von Winterfeldt02 Jan 2012 3:25 a.m. PST

he was most underrated in propaganda

1234567802 Jan 2012 3:59 a.m. PST

Look at what Napoleon was trying to achieve; did he achieve it?

He lost every campaign after 1809, he left France defeated, essentially bankrupt, reduced to even less that its natural frontiers and ruled by the same family that had been there before the revolution. Despite that, some revere him as a genius and find any excuse to consider him a success.

Keraunos02 Jan 2012 3:59 a.m. PST

if you want to read a bigger case for the 'bad Napoleon', try Corelli barnett.

the guts of it is – absolutely no idea about logistics – whch is the basis for a great general, he was an all or nothing battle general who would sacrifice every army on the roll of one die, who got lucky a lot, but who evertually came undone the way all such lightening war merchants do – by the enemies determining to fight long and not play into his hands.

so austerlitz, for example, was a bit of luck that alexander overruled his generals and made the obvious attack, rather than clever generalship to anticipate alexander, and a masterful plan well executed.

Had alexander not stuck his oar in, Napoleon was about a week away from having to retreat back to vienna – an all or nothing gamble on alexander insisting (Pompey like) on a victory by battle.

there is some truth in it, but basically, you have to start with a negative position on the man to really take hold of the idea.

churchill has a similar case to be made – he motivated the british to fight when the elites were prepared to compromise (torys do that), and he rallied morale through the blitx, etc vs the guy who prolonged the war by two years by not finishing the italians in africa when he could (and instead stopping the advance to land troops in greece).
the man responsible for gallipoli – but also the man who moved the home fleet out of the way at the first real hint of the first world war.

there is a quote about churchill haveing 10 ideas every day – 2 of which were brilliant, and the rest of which were insane, and the trick for his advisers being to work out which was which.
that he was an alcoholic and an adventurer and a manic depressive is at the root of the case.

opinions vary on which is the more accurate in either case.

summerfield02 Jan 2012 5:05 a.m. PST

I would also add Frederick II normally know as Frederick the Great was overrated. He lost as many battles as he won.

Femeng202 Jan 2012 5:22 a.m. PST

Churchill was NOT responsible for Gallipoli. He had the idea and it was turned down. It called for a joint expedition so that the army could take the shore batteries from the rear. Months later, both the Army and the Navy decided they had to try – seperately. The Navy failed by a single line of mines taking out their battlewagons, but this warned the Turks so that they were ready for the army. By this time Churchill was a battalion commander in France, being the scapegoat.

malcolmmccallum02 Jan 2012 5:50 a.m. PST

and Mohammed Ali is an overrated boxer because he isn't still champion.

1234567802 Jan 2012 5:58 a.m. PST

Malcolm, that is a poor analogy in that any sports champion will eventually no longer be the champion. Napoleon was trying to create a dynasty that would rule a France which was the dominant power in Europe. That went well, didn't it?

As a general, I believe that he was good but nowhere near as good as his acolytes would have one believe.

Spreewaldgurken02 Jan 2012 6:38 a.m. PST

Muhammad Ali was one of my childhood heroes (the boxer, not the 19th century Egyptian autocrat.) Later in adulthood it occurred to me that the reason everybody called him "The Greatest" was because HE had taught us all to call him that. Of course, he'd reply, "It ain't braggin, if it's true!"

When I think about the word "overrated" I usually think not so much in terms of what the person himself did or didn't do, but rather, how others – usually much later – make claims for how great he was. After all, the word implies some sort of "rating," so presumably that's done by others, not him.

I recently read that Kim Jong Il wrote six operas and 1,500 books while in college. That sort of absurd exaggeration is pretty useless as propaganda since as soon as he's gone, nobody is forced to believe it anymore. No one is ever going to overrate Kim Jong Il.

It's much more powerful and effective when other people create your myths for you, after the fact (although obviously then you have no control over it.) It's an article of faith among most Americans now that Ronald Reagan never raised taxes, cut spending, shrunk the government, never negotiated with terrorists or enemies of the US, secured the borders against illegal immigration, and always fought against abortion, all while single-handedly bringing down the Berlin Wall. His own administration didn't make those claims… since, obviously, none of them are true. But that's how he's "rated" now, 30 years later.

I've seen Churchill get hijacked like that, by many people who have their own particular causes to advance. Nobody is more often hijacked into Over-Rated-Land than the US Founders, who are everything to everybody, whenever anybody needs to make an argument.

vtsaogames02 Jan 2012 8:34 a.m. PST

"Including the State of Louisianna here in the USA. The framework of it's legal system is the Code Napoleon."

So said Faulkner, but not true. France only had possession of Louisiana under Napoleon for several weeks before selling it to Jefferson. The law in place was Spanish Bourbon law on top of the previous French Bourbon law. So yes, Louisiana does not have the base of English Common law that most other US states are based on, but Napoleon didn't have much time at all for the Code Napoleon to sink in. He was too busy running a continental shell game.

FatherOfAllLogic02 Jan 2012 8:43 a.m. PST

Well Marlborough's accomplishments were all swept away before he died when the new English government left their allies in the lurch and marched away. The French retook most of the lost fortresses in Flanders and their guy was sitting on the throne in Spain. These questions cannot be resolved subjectively, and objectivity is selective. A great general masters logistics? "Quartermaster Wars-available this summer!"

1234567802 Jan 2012 9:26 a.m. PST

The difference is that it was not due to Marlborough, but due to the politicians. His achievements stand by themselves.

Connard Sage02 Jan 2012 9:35 a.m. PST

So yes, Louisiana does not have the base of English Common law that most other US states are based on, but Napoleon didn't have much time at all for the Code Napoleon to sink in. He was too busy running a continental shell game.

He had no time at all. The Code Napoleon hadn't been adopted by France when the Louisiana Purchase was arranged. Some history:

Code Napoleon published March 1804 (It was actually originally titled the code civil des francais, it wasn't called the code Napoleon until 1807)

Louisiana Purchase 1803-1804

France hands New Orleans over to the American government December 1803. Formal agreements signed in St. Louis legally ceding ownership of the territories to the United States March 1804.

BullDog6902 Jan 2012 10:34 a.m. PST

M C LeSingeDew

Not sure if you read the magazine, but funnily enough Oscar Wilde is another of those identified as being 'over-rated'.

The author of the piece on Napoleon was written by Saul David, perhaps best known for his book on the Zulu War. Though I didn't mention it in my opening post, he specifically claims that he considers Napoleon to be over-rated as a military commander:

Napoleon is 'considered the finest military commander of his era, and one of the greatest of all time. Does he deserve to be ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caeser, Gustavus Adolphus? Was he a better general than, say, Suvorov or the Duke of Wellington? Not in my opinion.'

Leaving aside the obvious impact he had on Europe (and even further afield), is this fair?

PS. if anyone is intersted, aside from Napoleon, Churchill and Wilde, the rest of those considered 'over-rated' are: Sparactus, Matilda, Edward IV, Henry V, Mary Queen of Scots, John Locke, William Wilberforce, Beden-Powell, MalcomX and Charles Darwin.
Most of these arguments seem to my eye to be based mainly on the historian in question having a dislike for the historical figure – for example, Denis Judd considers Baden-Powell to be 'over-rated as a historical figure' mainly because he let Africans die during the siege of Mafeking and disapproved of Bleeped text.

M C MonkeyDew02 Jan 2012 10:47 a.m. PST

BullDog69, no I had not. That is funny! : )

I do agree that N is overrated as a military commander for many of the reasons already cited by others. However not overrated as a major historical figure.

Oscar Wilde may well be overrated as well yet remains eminently quotable. I'm more of a Shaw fan myself although he may well be overrated as well. Most everything is you know : )

BullDog6902 Jan 2012 2:19 p.m. PST

M C LeSingeDew

Yes – certainly not over-rated as a historical figure.

Incidentally, the 'bleeped' word in my previous post was the technical term for 'choking the chicken'.

ratisbon02 Jan 2012 7:11 p.m. PST

I suspect the rankings have more to do with Saul David selling books and making a very good living on TV than they do with those he prejudicially rated.

The two individuals he desires to belittle are Churchill and Napoleon. The others, as a group are not of consequence as few know, or think they know, enough about them to care.

As for my take, David works for the BBC and travels in academic circles. Odds are 95% he's a Socialist. Churchill, was a Conservative. Nuff said!

When push comes to pull the British dislike the French and most particularly not only Napoleon but the idea of Napoleon. Saul David is British. Napoleon was French. Nuff said!

As for Napoleon's greatness, one cannot travel in France without being reminded of his legacy in its towns and villages and no other man, that I am aware of, has an Era named for him (The Age of Napoleon). Finally, were he not a great man, the British would not, to this day, continue to villify him out of fear and hatred.

Bob Coggins

Whirlwind02 Jan 2012 8:08 p.m. PST

When push comes to pull the British dislike the French and most particularly not only Napoleon but the idea of Napoleon. Saul David is British. Napoleon was French. Nuff said!

Sigh. About as accurate as saying that when push comes to pull, Americans interested in the Napoleonic Wars dislike the British, and most particularly not only the British but the British beating Napoleon and consistently defeating his Army. Bob Coggins is an American. Saul David is British. Nuff said!

Naturally we shall not do Bob Coggins the favour of actually playing his rules to see if they are any good, we shall just rely on our intuition that it must be pro-French rubbish.


BullDog6903 Jan 2012 1:40 a.m. PST

Just to clarify, the piece was written by a whole bunch of historians, not just Saul David. David wrote the piece on Napoleon, but the piece about Churchill was written by a Mr Christopher Lee – presumably not the Christopher Lee of Hammer Horror fame.

1234567803 Jan 2012 2:15 a.m. PST

Curiously, the British and the Americans seem to be fonder of Napoleon than the French are. The British do not vilify him!

In Britain it is not known as "The Age of Napoleon", and I am not sure that it is anywhere else really, but as The Regency Period. I believe that the French tend to refer to it as First Empire, rather than The Age of Napoleon.

As for no other man having a period named after him, which Napoleon does not actually have, how about Georgian (named after the series of King Georges), Regency (named after the Prince Regent) and Edwardian. If we want to stop being sexist, how about Elizabethan and Victorian?

Ivan the Reasonable03 Jan 2012 2:50 a.m. PST

Ratisbon/Bob, Poppycock.

1234567803 Jan 2012 3:07 a.m. PST

I am not convinced that Charles Darwin counts as being "not of consequence"; in many ways, he is a more significant figure than anyone else on the list.

As for Saul David being a socialist and Chrchill being a Conservative, I have no idea about the former's political views but Churchill's were far more complex than just being a Conservative; from 1904 to 1924 he was a member of the Liberal party and served in the cabinet.

M C MonkeyDew03 Jan 2012 5:41 a.m. PST

ratisbon…ever hear of the "Christian Era"? It was is so popular they even named the period before him after him too.

Thanks for the chuckle, I do hope you were :) when you said that so we all know we are still friends : )

A thorough reading of the thread will reveal the telling "Napoleon is 'considered the finest military commander of his era, and one of the greatest of all time. Does he deserve to be ranked alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caeser, Gustavus Adolphus? Was he a better general than, say, Suvorov or the Duke of Wellington? Not in my opinion.'"

Which speaks to N.'s military abilities alone the merits of which makes for an entertaining if predictable debate.

Thanks for the first good laugh of a dull winter's morn.

ratisbon03 Jan 2012 8:41 a.m. PST

I don't like kings of any stripe and I'm not particularly fond of Napoleon I, but then you've got to consider him in the context of his era. When I ask, under whom would I prefer to live and have the greatest chance to prosper, Napoleon or the hereditary criminals who ruled Europe for the benefit of themselves and their noble cronies; the only answer is Napoleon.

Wellington was a good soldier and a miserable PM, but most of all an unreconstructed snob who supported the continued rule of those in power and, according to Christopher Duffy, did more to harm the British army than Napoleon.

Duffy wrote in "The Military History in the Age of Reason," "The most pronounced moral traits of the English [in the 18th Century British was little used] were violence and patriotism….All classes were united in their contempt for foreigners….There is nothing exceptional about the hatred the English bore against the French….The English hate everyone else as well." Even though I have numerous British friends, when taken as a group I don't find the British very much different today.

As for The Age of Napoleon not being used, there are 3,800,000 references to it on Google. There thousands of books and documentaries which include "The Age of Napoleon" in the title or subtitle and dozens of colleges and Universities in the US, and dare I say Oxford and Cambridge, offer courses on "The Age of Napoleon." In their series, "The Story of Civilization," noted historians, Will and Ariel Durant, titled the era in their series "The Age of Napoleon," not the Age of the Regency or the Age of Wellington.

M C LeSingeDew,

Alexander was the greatest known embodiment of Emperor and Soldier in one person. In my opinion Napoleon I is next.

As for the others, Hannibal allowed his hate for Rome to ultimately lead to the obliteration of Carthage. Caesar was a great soldier who destroyed the last vestiges of the Roman Republic resulting in his assassination by his "friends" (not a consummation devoutly to be wished). Gustavus fought too few battles and had too short of a career to pass a learned judgment. In the event his line led to Charles XII who practically wrecked Sweden.

Suvorov, though a good soldier, was a lackey of the Czar and of all of the criminal royal houses of Europe. As I recall, his last campaign was a disaster after which he was recalled to Russia by the Czar, soon after to die in isolation and disgrace. Wellington fought one real battle, Waterloo, which he would have lost had it not been for the Prussians.

As previously stated and not refuted, one cannot view the countryside of France without noting the good works of Napoleon and no one can walk the streets of Paris without being reminded of the Emperor. Nor can one view or touch his sarcophagus without understanding what, for good or ill, he means to France and to modern Europe.

Bob Coggins

1234567803 Jan 2012 8:52 a.m. PST

A slight case of hero-worship there methinks;). The term "The Age of Napoleon" may be used in book titles etc but it is NOT a generally used term to describe that period of history; therefore, he does not have an era named after him, unlike the examples that I mentioned.

As for your comment that Wellington fought one real battle, there is little that can be said about such ignorance.

Turning to your comments about the British, there is a pithy Anglo-Saxon response to it that would get me in trouble here, so let me just say that the kind of foreigners that we generally dislike are ignorant ones who talk rubbish and generalise about entire nationalities;).

Ivan the Reasonable03 Jan 2012 8:57 a.m. PST

I don't like kings of any stripe
I couldn't agree more. Matt.

1234567803 Jan 2012 9:06 a.m. PST

The only king I like is King Kenny, but I might go off him if we do not get a Champions' League spot this season.

arthur181503 Jan 2012 2:45 p.m. PST

If I had been humbly born in the reign of George III, provided I had the sense to keep well away from seaport taverns (easy when one's born in Worcester) and not listen to the blandishments of silver-tongued recruiting sergeants, I could have, if I so chose, lived a peaceful life as an agricultural labourer or factory worker in one of the new industrial towns.

Had I, however, been in my late teens during the reign of Emperor Napoleon, I would have been highly likely to be conscripted and marched off to fight – perhaps to die or be crippled – and waste my youth for him in some foreign country.

True, in the former case I would never play a minor part in 'glorious' victories that would be written about in history books and recreated on wargames tables 200 years later – but I know which I'd prefer…

Perhaps Wellington, who said "I hope to God I have fought my last battle; it is a bad thing to be always fighting." had the right of it when he characterised Buonaparte as "the Jonathan Wild of Europe" and as "a great, bad man."

ratisbon03 Jan 2012 5:57 p.m. PST

Hero worship? My hero is George Washington. He defeated the British, refused to consider becoming king and walked away from the Presidentcy.

I wrote I do not care for Napoleon. Nor do I have any illusions about him. He was a tough guy and somewhat of a tyrant. What about my American English don't you Lobsterbacks understand?

Do, as I maintain, the British continue to hate and fear Napoleon? Read the posts. I rest my case!

Bob Coggins

Whirlwind03 Jan 2012 6:36 p.m. PST

Do, as I maintain, certain American enthusiasts for Napoleon, continue to hate and fear the British? Read the posts. I rest my case!

ghost0203 Jan 2012 9:45 p.m. PST

Whirlwind, some do. I may be one of them.

If there is one army I do not playing as, it is the British. Don't ask why, I have personal reasons.

Jemima Fawr03 Jan 2012 10:18 p.m. PST


What an idiotic and childish assertion. There is a vast, wide, yawning gap between 'Hate & Fear' and 'Refusing To Lick His Imperial Arse'. You might want to learn the difference.

As has been said regarding what system of government you would rather have lived in; I would rather have been a lowly, but peaceful farm worker than a conscript in the Glorious Imperial Army.

Anyway… Ghost, don't be shy. Why do you hate us? I'm interested (and loveable if you get to know me).

1234567803 Jan 2012 11:19 p.m. PST

Bob, your post began by saying that you were not particularly fond of Napoleon, but ended in a eulogy of him. Perhaps you are confused about your feelings for him; it is ok, coming out and being honest about your love for him will do you the world of good.

As for us hating and fearing him, which posts here indicate that? I cannot find any! Also, please do explain your comment that Wellington only fought one real battle.

As to ghost's hatred of the British, all that I can say is that we are really sorry for inflicting the Beckhams on you; we tried to get them to move to Paris but they just wouldn't leave the USA.

Jemima Fawr03 Jan 2012 11:57 p.m. PST

That's a good point. The Beckhams, Cheryl Cole, Piers Brosnan, Simon Cowell and Sarah Ferguson… I'd hate us too.

But then again, they did send us NORAID and Jerry Springer.

1234567804 Jan 2012 1:55 a.m. PST

I think NORAID in itself cancels out anything that we may have inflicted on them.

Jemima Fawr04 Jan 2012 2:42 a.m. PST

Piers Brosnan? I meant Piers Morgan.

Ben Waterhouse04 Jan 2012 4:38 a.m. PST

We laugh at Boney; and we don't hate anyone, we just know we are effortlessly superior to everyone.
"Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life."

Daniel S04 Jan 2012 4:51 a.m. PST

Gustavus fought too few battles and had too short of a career to pass a learned judgment. In the event his line led to Charles XII who practically wrecked Sweden.

Gustavus had a military career from 1611 to 1632, 21 years in total and you consider this "too short"?

Using battles as the sole measure of military success is misleading in the early 17th Century since warfare was conducted on a diffrent scale, speed and according to diffrent principles than in the Napoleonic period. For example the great military reformer Maurice of Nassau fought (and won) only a single large scale field battle during his 37 year career but was victorious in 110 siege warfare operations. (Sieges, surprise attacks and relife operations)

By comparison Gustavus was more willing to engage in battle but even so a good part of his career was spent in positional warfare. If we look at the 29 months he spent on campaign in Germany Gustavus fought 9 significant engagements in that time (field battles, large scale actions and assaults) of those 1 was a minor defeat, the battle of Lüten was undecided at his time of death and the remaining 7 were victories.

Breitenfeld alone is in many ways enough to judge Gustavus skill as a commander by. It saw the army of a small nation on the fringe of Europe take on a veteran army led by the most experienced and skilled commander in Europe and win a decisive victory. In Napoleonic terms it was the same as if the King of Sweden had landed in Germany after Jena-Auerstadt, joined up with the Prussian remnants and then smashed the best parts of the Grande Armeer led by Napoleon in a single battle. Not to mention doing so after 43% of the Swedish-Prussian army had been routed of the field.

Gustavus line & the Vasa dynasty ended with his daugther Christina. Charles XII belonged to the Pfalz-Zweibrücken dynast which assumed the Crown of Sweden when Christina abdicated. The only connection between Charles XII and Gustavus was Charles great-grandmother who was the older half-sister of Gustavus.

Dave Crowell04 Jan 2012 6:20 a.m. PST

The whole question of which historical figures are "over rated" really comes down to what standard of accomplishments you are using to measure them by doesn't it?

Hitler was a dismal failure in achieving most of his goals. Does that make him "overrated"?

Julius Caesar was assassinated, and failed to conquer Britain. Is he then "overrated"?

I really don't like Katy Perry or Justin Bieber who are top of the pops. Does that mean they are over rated?

I prefer Beethoven to Mozart. Is Wolfgang Amadeus thereof overrated?

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