The best hidden histories on The Napoleonic Wars

The Books I Picked & Why

The Terror Before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War

By Tom Pocock

Book cover of The Terror Before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War

Why this book?

Tom Pocock, a Naval Correspondent for The Times and Defence Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, has been described as the foremost authority on Admiral Nelson. But going past Nelson, in this book, he delves deeply into the lesser-known people that helped Nelson – and Britain – win the Napoleonic Wars, mission by mission, battle by battle.

This book is an absolute treasure-trove of information for anyone interested in the more secret ways Britain fought the first half of the Napoleonic Wars. “This book tells, through contemporary letters, journals, and newspapers, the gripping story of the secret war and of the shadowy but fascinating figures who did their utmost to undermine French plans.” This book inspired years of research – books and physical trips – that created The Tide Watchers. It brought the people of “the secret war” to life, American inventor Robert Fulton’s life in France, and the dedicated but little-known British spies who did what they must to stop Napoleon walking in William the Conqueror’s footsteps. Their stories inspired the characters of Duncan, Alec, Cal, and Lisbeth – and a woman whose name is lost to history, code-name “The Incomparable”, and her regular partner in espionage, the real-life Scarlet Pimpernel.


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Phantom of the Guillotine: The Real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard - Lewis Duval 1769-1844

By Elizabeth Sparrow

Book cover of Phantom of the Guillotine: The Real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard - Lewis Duval 1769-1844

Why this book?

“This enthralling biography and detective story convincingly identifies the real-life model for Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel. It delves into the politics and espionage of Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.” The real Scarlet Pimpernel, Louis Bayard was an amazing person. Baroness Orczy knew him in her childhood as Lewis Duval, a London-based French lawyer. The story of his exploits in Orczy’s novels is just a shadow of all he accomplished, which Sparrow brings to glittering life. His allies and enemies, how he influenced Napoleon and Pitt, as well as other leaders of the time, and accomplished the impossible many times over, comes alive in this story that begins in his childhood. The boy and man for whom “seeking danger was a compulsion”. It’s how real heroes, ever hidden in the shadows, are made.

I’m using this “thundering good read” now while writing my own YA series. Sent back to 1793 Lyon, Xandra and Marcus have to find and save a 19-year-old French boy they know only as Mouron (French for Scarlet Pimpernel) before the enemy can find and kill him. The man young Royalist lieutenant Louis Bayard becomes will change the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars, saving millions of lives, but killing key scientists and leaders, which is destroying the world of 2045. I also used Phantom of the Guillotine for the sequel to my book, which I hope to publish in the next year.


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Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815

By Elizabeth Sparrow

Book cover of Secret Service: British Agents in France, 1792-1815

Why this book?

“A tour de force of research, an essential document for future students of the (Napoleonic Wars) subject.”

Sparrow, “an acknowledged authority on the beginnings of the British Secret Service” is a meticulous researcher, who goes deeply into the world of British and French espionage of the time, and what motivated them to act for or betray their countries. This absolute treasure was given to me by a writer friend. I’ve marked it to bits, with highlights, notes, and Post-Its everywhere. It’s a university course on the deeper facets of the Napoleonic Wars all on its own. Leaving aside heroism, she presents facts about the politics and spymasters, and what they had to do to win the war. This book was invaluable in bringing my own book to life, making characters less hero and more human.


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Napoleon's Wars: An International History

By Charles J. Esdaile

Book cover of Napoleon's Wars: An International History

Why this book?

This compelling history goes “beyond the legend that Napoleon himself helped create, to form a new, genuinely international context for his military career.”

History is most often written by the victors, and real life is never so one-sided. Esdaile writes as though he lived Napoleon’s life, and shows that many times his decisions were made (or changed) because of acts, or provocation, by British diplomats or agents. The quote by Napoleon’s stepdaughter Hortense says it all: “Any man who becomes the sole head of a great country by means other than heredity can only maintain himself in power if he gives the nation either liberty or military glory – if he makes himself, in short, either a Washington or a conqueror...it was impossible for him to establish...an absolute power except by bemusing reason [and] by every three months presenting the French people with some new spectacle.” Esdaile brings this unspoken part of brilliant military triumphs to light, the insecurity and the bombastic, the truth and hypocrisy that was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the demands of the country he ruled as Consul and Emperor.


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Napoleonic Wars in Cartoons

By Mark Bryant

Book cover of Napoleonic Wars in Cartoons

Why this book?

This book shows the caricatures done by cartoonists of the time. If you pay enough attention to the dates, these can shed new or deeper light on accepted history. The minutiae of these cartoons teaches you a lot about the time and the thoughts of the general public, or how the media wanted to sway them to think. For example, on pages 24 and 25, the cartoons show “Citizen Fox” – showing this British subject living in France as joining the Republican system. “French Telegraph Making Signals in the Dark” (James Gillray) and “The Raft in Danger, or the Republican Crew Disappointed” (Isaac Cruikshank) shows the many wild rumors and general fear of French invasion around 1798, after the failed invasion via Ireland, who was then fighting for independence from the crushing absentee English landlords. Going deeper with this idea, you can see the fear of war on two fronts facing Britain at the time.


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