The book began as a series of eight lectures that Roberts gave over the last few years at the New York Historical Society, and so the biographies generally clock in at around the 20 to 25 pages mark, with a couple even shorter. The author writes about how war demands and reveals the best and worst in leadership, and his belief is that again and again a willingness to take considered risks is a very important aspect.

Thus in many ways it is Napoleon who leads the way as the greatest of all for such sheer qualities in this regard, Roberts says, and his earlier books include "Napoleon and Wellington: The Long Duel", "Waterloo: Napoleon's Last Gamble" and "Napoleon the Great". Not surprisingly, then, Roberts says Napoleon was the wartime leader against whom all the others must be judged.

The Emperor of the French was always accessible to his troops, with an almost democratic openness. He won their love because he took great care of them, for one thing working as hard as he could to make sure that the wounded were tended as well as possible. Napoleon liked to spend time with the men, joining them at the campfire, bantering and making sure they had enough wine.

Even though he was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, this was largely because he failed to do the things he had done earlier in his career strategically and tactically. Napoleon won 46 of the 60 battles he fought and had a panoply of leadership qualities, with Roberts listing no fewer than 20 important attributes the Frenchman possessed, not least of which, the historian says, was good luck.

Napoleon's success depended on his techniques of leadership, which he carefully copied from his heroes of the Ancient World, such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He had an extraordinary ability to inspire soldiers, by imbuing them with the belief that they were fighting for honour and ideology, and by rewarding service, such as his invention of the Légion d'Honneur. He believed that "One must speak to the soul, it's the only way to electrify the troops".

Just as Napoleon looked up to these earlier leaders, Winston Churchill looked up to Napoleon greatly, and Margaret Thatcher learned from Churchill. The latter earns Roberts' praise for being able to see the great threats to democracy in the 20th century posed by the Kaiser, Hitler and then Stalin and Soviet communism. Churchill looked at each of these and warned about them, in many cases being the only major British political figure to do so.

He was a workaholic and melded his life entirely around his prime ministership during the Second World War, taking only eight days' proper holiday in the whole six years of conflict.

Of the nine leaders in the book, only Hitler was genuinely lazy and lacked a proper work ethic. Understandably, he receives a fulsome dose of opprobrium from Roberts, for being a pathetic excuse for a human being, absurd, boorish, extremely lazy, self-regarding, a physically unprepossessing excuse for an Aryan superman, completely mediocre for having "a mind on extremely narrow tramlines", incapable of normal one-on-one human interaction on the basis of equality, uncomfortable in anything approaching debate or discussion, a terrible know-it-all, bore and conspiracy theorist, with absolutely no sense of humour, very little travelled and basicaly a nullity as a human being. (Roberts could perhaps have added coward, Hitler ultimately taking the easy way out by suicide rather than face the world's retribution.)

Hitler was undoubtedly charismatic but charisma is a harlot's trick, Roberts says. "Mein Kampf" was repetitive, discursive and very heavy going, even more boring than "Das Kapital". The Fuhrer employed his mesmeric public speaking to play brilliantly on the fears, resentments and hatreds in the German people after the Great War.

His leadership technique was all very well when he was doing well at the beginning part of the war fighting against Poland and France but after that it went to pot, Roberts says. In all of 1944 he gave only one speech and, unlike Churchill, he did not visit bomb sites and speak to the people. He drove past in his Mercedes-Benz with the curtains closed.

Hitler was not a great one for taking his generals' advice, so little wonder that he did not deserve to win the war on grounds of military competence. Stalin, however, did listen to his generals, and led a country that despite losing 27 million people in the Second World War nonetheless was on the winning side. For every five Germans who died in combat in the war, four were killed on the eastern front by the Red Army.

US Army general and chief of staff during the war George C. Marshall was not charismatic but had an extraordinary capacity for organisational leadership and appreciated the importance of discipline and training, as did Eisenhower.

Marshall built up the United States Army from 200,000 men in September 1939 to more than eight million by the end of the war. Churchill called him the organiser of victory. After he secured the funding from Congress, it was the European Recovery Program he proposed in 1947 – the Marshall Plan – that basically helped rebuild war-torn Europe and prevent the spread of communism.

Eisenhower was a chooser of men in general after general and then in cabinet appointment after cabinet appointment. Nelson inspired his men by wearing full-dress uniform but it made him an obvious target and spelled his doom.

Charles de Gaulle showed so much courage in close fighting in the Great War that he was famed throughout the French Army. An Anglophobe from a young age after hearing his father constantly complain about French humiliation at the hands of Britain in the Fashoda incident of 1898, he lived in Britain during the Second World War after the fall of France.

As the leader of the Free French movement he constantly demanded parity of esteem for his country with Britain and the US, and in 1945 France was given a zone of Berlin to occupy, a United Nations Security Council seat and was treated as one of the victorious powers.

Last – and surely least? – Margaret Thatcher went to war against Argentina after its fascist junta invaded the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic without warning. Almost 13,000 kilometres from Britain and home to only 1800 inhabitants, nonetheless British territory had been invaded and the liberty of Britons violated.

The islands had been a British colony since 1765 and Thatcher dispatched a task force that regained them, to the benefit of the Royal Navy's reputation, the survival of her ministry and the honour of the country. Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges said something like "The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb", but it was not a fully original quote.

Looking at war from a British angle, Churchill said in 1929 that "The story of the human race is war", and Roberts points out that in the near three quarters of a century since 1945, there has been only one year, 1966, when no British serviceman has been killed on active duty somewhere in the world.


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