A path to power paved with war crimes: Philip Dwyer’s Napoleon (1769 – 1799)

Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria

Bonaparte on the march in Egypt and Syria

In the course of this fine biography that charts Bonaparte’s rise from Corsica to Consul of France, one particularly distressing anecdote stands out: Following Bonaparte’s capture of Jaffa in 1799 the French troops engaged in a murderous sacking of the town, during which the soldiers kidnapped a large number of women and girls. They were “taken to the French camp and raped. Bonaparte, hearing of this, ordered that all women were to be led into the hospital courtyard by midday on pain of a severe punishment… it was believed that they would be sent back to the ruins of the town where they would find refuge. However a company of chasseurs was assembled to execute them” (p418).

This is very much a political, rather than a military biography of Bonaparte: the reader gets little sense of his tactical genius. The author’s interest is rather focused upon the exercise of power and particularly how Bonaparte parlayed his reputation for military success, often self authored and shamelessly exaggerated, into political power. But while there is little discussion of the battles there is a close consideration of Bonaparte’s role as a general-in-chief, how he organised, or failed to organise his logistics, and his policies towards conquered peoples. The disorganisation of Bonaparte’s march on Cairo pre-figures his failures in his Russian campaign, and the brutality displayed to the Arab populations of Egypt and Syria anticipates the brutality of Europe’s 19th century “scramble for Africa”, and indeed 20th and 21st century Western atrocities in the Middle East.

In considering all of this the author is at pains to emphasise that in terms of ruthlessness Bonaparte was little different from the other commanders of the era, whether British, Austrian or Russian. Yet, while this is undoubtedly true as British policy in Ireland in 1798, for example, confirms, there is something frightening about a man who could make a cold-blooded choice to slaughter those defenceless Palestinian women at Jaffa. Whatever greatness Bonaparte may ultimately have achieved it is dimmed beyond measure when one contemplates it in relation to the terror of those poor women’s last moments.

Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa

Bonaparte visits the French plague victims at Jaffa

The book is a triumph in showing Bonaparte’s path to power paralleled by his precipitous moral decline and the growth of his egotism. It is an engrossing and chilling piece of work.

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