Book Review – The First Total War by David A. Bell

Note:I recently published two entries here and here, which brought this blog up to 49 posts.  I figured why wait to hit that big number 50?  So here’s a review I wrote in college, resurrected from my plethora of saved files, hopefully it helps some student out there understand The First Total War by David A. Bell.

The First Total War, A Deep Analysis of Napoleonic Power

Book Cover, The First Total War

Book Cover, The First Total War

The notion of “total war” has fascinated military and social historians since the devastating world wars, and most historians mark those events as the beginning of the age of total war. In The First Total War, David A. Bell challenges that idea and places the beginning of total war during the Napoleonic Era. Bell, a Harvard educated historian of French history, is charting a new kind of military history, one which examines the culture of warfare, not just the analysis of battles and generals. The decline of the old aristocratic ways of fighting wars, combined with the literary and philosophical ideas about perpetual peace following a final catastrophic conflict led to the birth of a new, more violent form of warfare in revolutionary France. Bell argues that understanding that such warfare originated there allows the reader to understand the current ideas about apocalyptic war in the modern world. First, he challenges the contempt many modern historians have for the 18th Century aristocratic style of warfare. While it is difficult for modern minds to understand the formal, play-acting style of fighting, Bell argues that the very things people ridicule 18th Century warfare for is the very thing that enabled war to be limited in death and destruction. Second, Bell traces the development of philosophical and literary thoughts about the nature of warfare, especially the transition from thinking of war as a normal and consistent part of life to thinking about war as an unusual exception. That transition directly led to more extreme warfare because it made nations see the Napoleonic Wars as a last great war that would usher in an era of perpetual peace. Finally, the eruption of total war itself begins in the Vendee and spreads to irregular guerrilla wars in Italy, Spain and Portugal before ending in Prussia, where total war began official government policy backed by royalty. Bell’s writing style is very interpretive, as he builds arguments and often breaks the narrative to compare his subject (warfare from 1792-1815) to modern day events.[1]

The aristocratic mode of fighting wars dominated the 18th Century and has drawn much criticism from modern historians, yet Bell looks back upon that time with nostalgia. Without ideology and ideas of nationalism, total war was exceedingly rare. However silly the rules of war may seem to a modern observer, they succeeded in limiting the destruction caused by wars and acknowledged the reality that war is a part of human existence, not something that will ever disappear.[2] Here and throughout his book Bell gives brief biographical sketches of the prominent players in each event or theme he examines. We are introduced to the duc de Lauzun, who perfectly represents the aristocrat who can both fight in battle and perform flawlessly at court. Lauzun’s later execution also symbolizes the death of the aristocratic way of fighting, at least in France. Such biographical sketches are expertly interwoven throughout the book to humanize and serve as stand-ins for abstract ideas such as the Enlightenment, honor and brutality. As a narrative device the biographical sketches make the great changes understandable to the average reader. Even his sources sometimes benefit from a brief biography. D’Holbach, a prominent source of Bell’s that argued for the end of aristocratic warfare and notions of honor, is quoted as saying that war was an exception due only to bad rulers fighting for petty causes. “The state of society is a state of war of the sovereign against all, and of each of its members against the others.”[3]

Early on the book Bell relies heavily on the works of literary giants and philosophes to define the nature of warfare. In doing so Bell implies that the thoughts of these educated elites can represent the thoughts of the masses. He recognizes that there are limits to how far this sort of generalization can go, but understandably there were few tracts written about lower class or uneducated people about their feelings for the war. And since the philosophes were widely read among elites and often enjoyed favor at court it is in fact reasonable to assume that they influenced official policy. Perhaps the most importance influence on how the aristocrats viewed war was a man named Fenelon. His best known work Telemachus outlined his philosophy that war was a scourge to be avoided at all costs, directly challenging the aristocratic notion that war was nearly a sport. “War may sometimes be necessary but it is the shame of the human race.”[4] The abbe de Saint-Pierre was another prominent intellectual who advocated for a utopian vision of international cooperation. It was this sort of anti-war mentality that took root and inadvertently triggered the most violent paroxysm of war the world would see until the Twentieth Century. Bell’s reliance on the works of these early philosophes effectively sets the stage for what will come in the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign. Their principles accurately reflect the Enlightenment thinking that was sweeping Europe and was the justification for the French Revolution.

Finally, Bell comes to the topic of total war itself, once he has detailed the changes in thinking among elites. The people have become riled up for total war by the French Revolutionary governments; they have been taught to believe a final apocalyptic war is needed to free the world from tyranny and preserve their new liberal system. And so the French initiate total war, a concept that Bell defines as mobilization of the population (which seldom resulted in expected numbers), brutality towards the opponent, and including civilians among the targets of military action. The French efforts to eliminate royalist opposition in the Vendee resulted in a brutal campaign of extermination. Bell quotes Republican general Francois-Nicolas Salomon: “Since this is a war of brigands, we must become brigands ourselves. We must, for a time, forget all military rules.”[5] Bell attributes a variant of this quote from many sources throughout the book, from the Revolution right up to the modern United States. It represents, in a phrase, what his book is about: the abandonment of civilized rules of war. Bell’s new form of cultural military history is best represented by his treatment of battles. The nature of the battles is at the forefront, not the tactics or strategies involved in the battles. Similarly, Bell does not overuse dates in discussing his battles, for they are not relevant to his argument. Used sparingly only to give context to events his is careful not to inundate the reader with statistics except where they are necessary in evidencing the brutality of total war. Dates are rarely used and given only to provide context, the book is more about ideas. While the book is organized in chronological order, the reader is only introduced to relevant battles. Instead of being a comprehensive history of campaigns, only the battles that best reflect his thesis of total war and dehumanization of the enemy are used. The crackdown in the Vendee, the revolts in Italy, Spain and Portugal are all used as examples. Drawing from eye-witness accounts, Bell paints a picture of horrific war. By the first decade of the 19th Century soldiers who felt they were taking part in a great historical event began recording their thoughts, and serve as the backbone of his depiction of the invasion of Russia and other trials. Official reports from officers in the field report the telling brutalities committed by rebels and French regulars. Staying true to the cultural elements his book are based on, Bell also frequently resorts to artistic depictions of battle to reflect changing sensibilities. Initially paintings by the likes of David beautify death in a noble cause, but by the time the Napoleonic Wars were grinding to a halt the depictions had turned grotesque, showing severed limbs and propaganda.[6]

No book is perfect, however, and Bell’s largest mistake is overlooking the prevalence of the aristocratic way of war in the rest of Europe. The change in France is clear enough, but he only sporadically mentions how the rest of Europe failed to adapt. But he fails to credit the Duke of Wellington with defeating Napoleon and seems to ascribe Napoleon’s defeat to the guerrilla warfare. One wonders if the effectiveness of such irregular warfare is overstated in military histories, and while Bell has introduced new ideas to the field of military history, perhaps he has not broken with all traditional ways of thinking about war. The book is academic: it has an introduction, a clear argument, and frequently breaks the narrative to discuss historiography and historical debates, but his prose is fluid and accessible, and his thoughts are organized effectively into a narrative that even a novice to French history will enjoy. In his introduction Bell writes that the targeted audience of his book is average readers. His goal is to get readers re-thinking their assumptions about the evolution of warfare, and admits scholars may find little new in his book. In this Bell certainly succeeds. Maybe the facts are old but the analysis is new and even scholars can benefit from reading The First Total War.

On the whole Bell’s work is revolutionary. It opens up the often stagnant field of military history to new avenues of research and new ways of thinking. Effectively weaving biographical sketches in with relevant battles and trends in the way the masses looked at war, The First Total War is a deep analysis of the way Europe–Frenchmen especially–abandoned aristocratic modes of war and embraced a new era of violent total war to achieve ideological goals. A well-researched argument and narrative substantiated with relevant and effective primary sources serve to make this book a must-read among military and cultural historians for years to come.


[1] Frequently, the American war and occupation in Iraq.

[2] David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007), 316-317.

[3] Bell, 69.

[4] Bell, 62.

[5] Bell, 170.

[6] The attempts at artistic propaganda were used to show how the public was being told to hate their enemies and think of opponents as sub-human. Specifically Bell cites the example of a British cartoon depicting Napoleon as a baby cradled in the arms of Satan. Bell, 255.