I greatly enjoy Geoffrey Wawro’s work. His writing is crisp, his arguments clear, his learning deep but lightly worn. His study on the Austo-Prussian War of 1866 is spectacularly good, though perhaps too hard on the Austrians and I’m still partial to Gordon Craig’s old study of Koeniggraetz. In this post, I want to focus on his 2000 volume Warfare and Society in Europe 1792 – 1914, which I have used very successfully in teaching, and intend to use again.
First of all, the book is pitched at just the right level for undergraduate teaching, and is a great reference for grad students as well (though of course the bibliography needs updating after nearly 15 years). The chapters are anywhere from 18 to 36 pages, rendering them ideal for subject overviews that also state arguments for class discussion.
Despite the opening date of 1792, Napoleon and the French Revolution do not dominate the narrative so much as explain and contextualize the century of war-making that followed. The chapter is 23 pages, leaving enough time to identify the salient points of the Revolution and Napoleon’s impact on the art of war. In particular, Wawro deftly shows how social, tactical, and political issues cannot be considered in isolation from each other, as too many histories of Napoleonic warfare. The character of warfare was changing, as Dennis Showalter has argued began during the Seven Years War. “Civilians,” writes Wawro, “were drawn inexorably into the fighting and brutally sacrificed. Methods of strategy and tactics also change” (5). Crucially, Wawro asks “How did Napoleon keep French-occupied Europe and the multinational Grande Armée going?” (16) Another subtext of the chapter (and in some measure of the book) is the theme of “modern war,” which term crops up throughout the Napoleon chapter. speaking of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, he says, “Here at last was modern war: mass armies and mass slaughter, with no immediately apparent result. (Of course the fact that fewer than 80,000 men were injured by 2.09 million projectiles indicated just how far ‘modern war’ had yet to go to become truly modern.)” (20) Statements like this make the book a gold mine for teaching, as they present students with positions to argue for or against–and, full disclosure, there are many points throughout the book with which I disagree. But that’s part of the pleasure of using the book in the classroom.
Slightly less successful, in my opinion, is the chapter assessing Napoleon’s legacy, “Restoration and Revolution, 1815-49,” but that is due to two factors. First, every military historian has his or her opinions on Clausewitz and Jomini, and it will be a cold day in Hades when you can find two who agree in every particular. So, I have a different and somewhat less critical interpretation of Jomini, and indeed a less polarized picture of Jomini’s position viz-a-viz Clauswitz. Second, and partly the cause of the first point, the most incisive analysis of the Napoleonic legacy is, in my opinion, Hew Strachan’s European Armies and the Conduct of War, which actually does not take as its starting point the opinion that Clausewitz somehow grasped an “essential truth” of “modern war” that Jomini had missed. That, I think would be to give Clausewitz too much prescience, and Jomini too little. Rather, I prefer Strachan’s argument that Jomini better fit the cultural and social world of post-Napoleonic Europe. This aside, the chapter discusses technological advances and the utility of force in post-1815 conflicts that should lead to great classroom discussions.