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Book Review: Historical
Maps of the Napoleonic Wars

Historical Maps of the Napoleonic Wars, by Simon Forty and Michael Swift.
2003, PRC Publishing, Ltd.

My wife laughs at me because when I read in bed at night I often have several reference books on the night stand as well. This is especially true when reading military history and the locations and movement of forces is key to understanding the events. I’ll often have numerous atlases or maps handy to help me keep a clear visual picture of the situation as it unfolds. Reference works devoted to maps tend to fall into two broad categories. First, there are historical atlases which cover an event or period with maps and charts. Second, there are collections of old or antique maps that have been gathered together around a period or theme. There are several of these relating to the U.S. Civil War. The text of the first kind of atlas describes the events depicted and tends to be fairly broad by definition - the focus is on the maps. The text in the second kind tends to focus on the maps as documents and deals with, for example, issues arising from poor maps, methods of mapping, or the philosophical implications of certain map types/features.

This new book by Simon Forty and Michael Swift represents a hybrid. It presents an general overview of the Napoleonic Wars followed by 135 pages of full-color maps.  Each map is accompanied by a caption describing the event, battle, or situation. The maps themselves, however, are antiques primarily from the Public Records Office at Kew in west London. The maps are in chronological order. As the authors admit, it does have somewhat of an Anglo-centric emphasis on the campaigns involving the British. Thus the Peninsular campaigns are somewhat better represented than others (there is no map of the Battle of Aspern-Essling, for example).

While I find the book an interesting addition to my library, I cannot recommend it. As a reference about the battles and campaigns it is not very useful. While the maps are well printed and in full color, many have been reduced to fit the page, hence very hard to read individual details that would be required in this kind of work. The captions, likewise, are far too general. For example, here is the caption for the map of the Battle of Friedland:

    On June 14 Napoleon finished the Russians off, losing 10,000 men in the process but inflicting twice as many casualties on Bennigsen’s army and forcing Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) to negotiate the Treaty of Tilsit, and thus end the war of the fourth coalition.

While there is nothing wrong with this statement, it adds nothing to the map. It is very clear too that the intention was not to discuss the state of mapmaking during this era, nor to address how maps were procured and what effects they had on the planning and execution of military campaigns.

In short, unless old maps of the events are interesting to you in themselves, I would suggest you consider spending your money elsewhere.

Review posted January 20, 2004

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