The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were earth-shattering in their importance. The glorious monarchies of Europe were never quite the same, Edmund Burke spawned modern conservativism with his Reflections on the Revolution in France, America doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase, and nationalism became a potent force. But, according to David Bell in The First Total War, that wasn’t all.
In Bell’s view, the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic War were world-changing because the concept of “total war” came from them. Before then, battles and wars were fought with small, professional armies made up of mercenaries and the dredges of society led by aristocrats. After, wars were fought by masses of conscripts led by professional officers. As a result, they were far more brutal and destructive. Bell thinks those changes created the concept of total war.
But is that thesis as convincing as it is novel? I have my doubts, as I’ll explain in the analysis section.
The First Total War is essentially a book about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. It begins with the wars of the early 18th Century and ends with Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena, giving a relatively concise summary of what happened in between.
Bell uses those events to chart the course of how warfare changed in the interim, largely because of the forces unleashed by the French Revolution.
When the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, they set events in motion far beyond what they might have predicted. A new government was established, at first headed by Louis XVI, and the nation was thrown into turmoil. Louis was dragged from Versailles and taken to Paris, church property around the nation was seized, and anti-aristocratic sentiment pulsed through the nation.
The rest of Europe, composed as it was of monarchical, aristocratic states, was horrified, Britain most of all. It was even more horrified when aristocrats had to flee the country and Louis was killed. Then, despite a declaration of peace by the National Assembly, France launched a pre-emptive war against Austria and its Prussian ally, sending masses of volunteers into Austrian-controlled Belgium.
That conflict sparked decades of war that brought with them vast changes in how war was waged. Those changes are the main subject matter of The First Total War and are Bell describes them by telling the tale of how the wars were waged. French troops carried out a holocaust of sorts in the Vendee, where they massacred hundreds of thousands of their countrymen to pacify the countryside, marched across battlefields from Moscow to Alexandria, and were pitted against the conventional armies of Europe. Conscripts and volunteers fought in their multitudes against the professional armies of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia and were sent to fight guerillas everywhere from Italy to Spain.
In The First Total War, Bell describes most of those campaigns in varying levels of detail, spending the most time on the Vendee and the Russian and Spanish campaigns.
During that time, the rest of Europe changed too. While Britain kept its small and professional army, led by the Duke of Wellington, other European states followed France’s lead and created massive armies of conscripts with which they could fight similarly composed French armies. The technology of war stayed mostly constant, but the number of men who used it and the tactics with which it was used changed.
Furthermore, as Bell describes in vivid detail in The First Total War, war got far, far bloodier. Whereas most previous conflicts resulted in a few large battles and were mostly wars of positioning, Napoleon, able to draw on massive reserves of conscripts, sent column after column of troops into the meatgrinder. Millions died.
War changed and Bell tells the tale of why and how.
Analysis of The First Total War by David Bell
While it isn’t terrible, The First Total War is not a particularly convincing or good book.
On one hand, it does have some positive attributes. Bell’s writing is excellent, the wars it covers are described in an interesting way, it’s not overly long, and Bell does his best to relate the events in it to current events.
However, it has far more negative attributes than positive ones.
My main gripe is that the thesis isn’t very convincing. Yes, the Napoleonic Wars were long and bloody. They involved millions of troops and over a million people died because of them. Militaries changed, civilians were massacred, and the general scale of the war was far different than most of the aristocratic wars that preceded it. But he never presented a satisfactory example of what made it any different from the other large-scale, bloody conflicts that preceded it.
For example, why was the Thirty Years’ War not the first total war? Millions of Germans and others died, vast amounts of resources were mobilized to fuel that conflict, numerous countries participated, and Europe was changed forever as a result. Does that not qualify it?
There’s a fair argument to be made that the Thirty Years War wasn’t a total war. For one, all of society wasn’t mobilized to wage it. But the same could be said of the Napoleonic Wars. All of Britain wasn’t mobilized. All of Austria wasn’t mobilized. Even in France, while there was conscription, the rest of society largely went on with life. I didn’t think Bell proved his point as well as he needed to.
Additionally, the organization of the book was somewhat lacking. It’s organized chronologically, which would have made sense if it were meant to be a history of the Napoleonic Wars. But it wasn’t. It’s supposed to be about why those wars were the first total war. Had Bell stuck to showing how different aspects of war and society changed enough to make those wars a total war, perhaps it could have been more convincing. Since he didn’t, the organization of the book detracted from, rather than helped, his attempts to prove the veracity of his thesis.
My final gripe is that Bell got far too caught up in certain specific events. For example, a large chunk of the book is about the conflict in the Vendee, in which a collection of aristocrats and highly religious peasants fought against the revolutionary armies and temporarily won. Bell describes in fascinating and terrifying detail how the National Assembly sent an army of “hell columns” to pacify the area by burning towns and massacring civilians. He does the same when describing the guerilla war in Spain.
Those chapters are interesting, like the rest of The First Total War, but not particularly relevant to the book. Anti-guerilla wars were waged that way throughout history; the Romans sent legions to massacre and pacify territory, Viking bands roamed England, and bands of American patriots and loyalists battled during the American Revolution. As with my point on the Thirty Years War, Bell doesn’t satisfactorily explain what made anti-guerilla warfare during the Napoleonic Wars any more indicative of total war than those past, similar examples.
Overall, The First Total War is an interesting book, albeit one with too many flaws to be convincing. Perhaps Bell is right and Europe was in a state of total war. But he doesn’t prove that in the book; he would have needed better explanations, more evidence, and a better way of organizing his thoughts to do so.
I didn’t dislike The First Total War. Like I said, it was interesting and Bell wrote it in a way that makes it easy for a novice to read. And as a brief history of the wars sparked by the French Revolution it’s relatively good.
But he doesn’t prove his thesis in it, which is a shame because it is a thought-provoking thesis.
So, should you read it? Maybe. I wouldn’t tell you not to, but I also wouldn’t tell you that you certainly should. If you want an introduction to Napoleon and the French Revolution, it might be a good start, although I’m sure that there are better books to read. But if you want to learn what a total war is, then this certainly isn’t the book you’d want to read. Perhaps Armageddon, The Last Lion, or The Rise of American Air Power would be a better start.
By: Gen Z Conservative