Writing a review of a magazine is a peculiar thing. For one, a specific issue may focus on content about which the reviewer cares little. Also, the quality relies in most cases on the quality of others - authors, columnists and photographers - all of whom may have good and bad issues. So I have held off on writing this until I had seen several issues of First Empire and could form a more complete judgment of the whole.
First of all, if you have not seen it before, First Empire is a full color professionally produced magazine of 40 pages. It is edited by David Watkins and features from contributions from well known Napoleonic scholars. It heralds itself as “The International Magazine for the Napoleonic Enthusiast, Historian and Gamer.” Of the 40 pages, about 3-4 are ads while the remainder are devoted to every aspect of the Napoleonic period.
The magazine covers the entire period from the grandest strategy to the tiniest detail. Issue 84, for example, had a “multiple choice” exercise in command and analysis of Bailen; coverage of the reenactment at Waterloo on the 190th anniversary of the battle; a look at the role of the 6th Light brigade at Waterloo; and a brief piece on British and French muskets, and more. Most issues have a uniform plate, period illustrations, and reenactments are often used to illustrate various articles and reviews.
In general the writing and photography are very good. The layout is sensible, legible and easy on the eyes. Physically it is a very attractive magazine. And in general the content is pretty interesting. A few of the pieces can be a bit dry, but reactions to a writer’s style are such a personal taste I shall not dwell on them. It is not, however, image intensive. It is driven by writing, so if you’re looking for “eye-candy” you will want to look elsewhere.
I have two major criticisms regarding the magazine, and one minor. First, that many of the articles do not seem to have a point to them. Second, the incredible diversity of the content left me feeling the magazine lacked focus (though I admit this may be appealing to some). Third (the little one) is that typos and misspellings are rather too common.
My first major charge, that some articles have no “point” is not to imply that they are vacuous or mere “fluff.” Rather, many of the pieces do not establish any sort of context or thesis. As a result they provide information, but no analysis. Let me provide an example. In issue 86 there is a piece entitled “Maida Snippets” which begins:
The Battle of Maida (San Pietro di Maida) was a small action in Calabria in the toe of Italy. It did not have nay long-lasting strategic consequences but it did help bolster British and Allied morale after the disaster at Austerlitz in a period when the French army was at the peak of its effectiveness and seemed unbeatable on the continent.”
There then follow a number of quotes from various sources (mostly published sources) about the battle. What is lacking, however, is a thesis to hold them together. The piece is simply a selection of interesting anecdotes with a few observations by the author. The conclusion is not really a conclusion. While the various accounts are briefly evaluated there is no serious attempt to reconcile them. And while there are evaluations of them, they are largely unsupported by any evidence. So in the conclusion when I read “Men of a lower social class were less likely to embellish or ‘spin’ an account for personal gain.” I looked back for the evidence to support this. But the social class of the various authors quoted is now here listed or discussed (though it can be guessed at).
Here is another example. In issue 84 there is a piece entitled “on Muskets.” It has no introductory paragraph at all, beginning instead with two paragraphs about the Long Land Pattern. There follows a paragraph on the short land pattern and another on the India pattern. The author then compares an India pattern from his collection to official specs; adds a few notes about recruitment requirements for height. Then come 3 “Observations on Height” and the conclusion “...that muskets with the 39 inch barrel were more wieldy during the reloading drill.” He then examines French muskets in similar fashion. Next comes a comparison of British and French muskets and their relative “wieldiness” based on his own handling of the two. Following that is a lengthy quote from a drill manual on the reloading drill (and even here it is not definitively stated whether it is the 1798 or 1804 drill being quoted). The article winds to a close with a section called “Observations.” These are two: first that it is unlikely the ball was spat into the barrel and, second, that the windage may easily have allowed loading while the ball was still in the cartridge paper.
Without a thesis, a point of view, or an introduction it reads less like an article and more like notes for an article. Was the point to compare the wieldiness? Then where are the quotes from actual combatants or contemporaries? Was it to answer a question about reloading? Then why all the examination of barrel length?
The Bottom Line
In the end, I would rate First Empire a “try before you buy.” What strikes me as a lack of focus may strike you as wonderful breadth and variety. Nuggets that feel to me unconnected and wandering may appeal to you. But at about $55 per year (6 issues) it is not a subscription to be picked up on a whim.