Nationalism or honest history…

The teaching of history to children often or usually involves blaming all or most of one event on one person.  This is done in the name of simplifying things so that they’re easily understandable.  For American children, one of those figures is George III.

His truculent and tyrannical behaviour is credited with causing the American Revolution and losing for Great Britain her prosperous American colonies.

He was used as a figure of hate at the time too–so perhaps this isn’t surprising.

And all sorts of stories are trotted out in support of this theory, and no doubt they will go on being trotted out for decades to come.  Proof of his incalculable stupidity is found in his not learning to read until he was 16, for example.

Yet, (and I apologise if this comes as a rude shock to anyone) history is rarely so simple as to be entirely the making of one man.  Even a king.

And in George III’s case, although I was raised and taught to hold him in contempt, I found, when confronted by some facts that I had to rethink my conclusions and abandon my happy nationalist view of the man. 

Because, as it turns out, he wasn’t at all as they portrayed him either in the press of his day or in my childhood history lessons.

I came face to face with this at a rather unusual and fine exhibition about him at the Queen’s Gallery in London a few years ago.  For this exhibition focused on his patronage of the arts and sciences.  And what a patron he turned out to be.

He was tremendous!  No other word for it.

He was a fiend for books, and was ever acquiring and reading all the latest books on discovery, exploration, scientific endeavour.  Moreover, he was in contact with the authors, writing to them, asking them questions, encouraging them to take their work further.  Then he’d recommend the book to everybody he met…(What writer couldn’t use a friend like him?)

He was utterly fascinated by all the technological advances in clock-making–a hot technology at the time.  George was held spellbound by all the work going into developing barometers and had a vast collection of the things.  Because he didn’t just take a passive interest.

No, if you developed the thing and built it, he bought one, he kept it, he wanted you to come and explain it all to him while he asked intelligent questions; then he shewed it off to people as a proud father.  Which got you more customers…

He brought this same level of commitment, this same spark, to the agricultural developments and technological innovations of the time too.

He was constantly in touch with his great friend, the father of modern agriculture, Coke of Norfolk.  And he would write letters, get answers, and then try it all out on Crown lands–draining, using better types of seed, breeding his pigs and cows carefully so as to build stronger herds…he wasn’t called Farmer George for nothing.

He was so devoted to farming, in fact, that he used to drive his coachman crazy–because all along the routes they travelled, instead of twiddling his thumbs like a good monarch, he was always looking out the window at the landscape, at those fields…

Every time he’d see one that looked particularly good, he’d rap on the roof of the carriage and demand to be let down so that he could inspect it, so that he could talk to the farmer, maybe learn something or make some suggestions or offer to send the seed from a kind of wheat he was testing at home…

It took them hours and hours to make simple journeys because of this.

He kept up a correspondence with all the farmers he spoke to too, and there are thousands and thousands of letters to prove it in the Archives.

And did you know that, although he was the king, and even though he’d only met his bride some 48 hours earlier, on the morning after their wedding, he got up early and went and made her tea and brought it to her in bed?  He remained that faithfully devoted to her all their lives too.

As for that not reading until he was sixteen–I’ve latterly come to wonder if he didn’t suffer from severe dyslexia…which puts a whole different spin on that nugget of information.

I’ve also concluded that had he ever have been allowed to travel outside Great Britain, to the American colonies, for example, there very well might not have been a Rebellion.

Because through his interest and devotion to their husbandry, he would have become a personal friend of all those New England farmers, writing to them about their farms, sending samples of his best wheat seed, a piglet for Farmer Brown, a calf for Farmer Peach…so much so that when the Revolutionary boys came around, they wouldn’t have been talking about a distant tyrant, they would have been talking about a friend.  And their hot words would have fallen on cold ground.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a great deal recently, because of a book I’m reading on the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1814.

Because this setting aside of much-cherished nationalist myths in the face of facts just didn’t happen for the author.  Instead, he allowed his heritage as a Pole to get very much in the way of his understanding of his subject.

As a Pole, he clearly views the Russians as a pernicious influence, so he’s not used any Russian sources.  But since at least one half of the Allied forces which defeated Napoleon were Russian, this may sound a little skewed.  (It is.)

Moreover, he’ll use any source he can to discredit Tsar Alexander–even a source whose judgement he himself will have done everything to discredit a few pages earlier in the text.

Given that outstanding work on the Russian contribution to the war was going on at the time of writing (2007), which would have been accessible to him, his lop-sided approach is all the more remarkable.

What's so wrong about a coat like this? Nothing that I can see...

He’s not keen on the British either, even though their financial contribution to defeating Napoleon came to some £700,000,000.  (That’s in their money.)  So he undercuts everything he says about them with little stories about their inadequacies, or what he perceives as their eccentricities. For example, he frequently mentions Lord Castlereagh’s clothes, particularly a red coat he was fond of wearing…

But this author is so lacking in any understanding or appreciation of the era, of its mores, even of the basics of their dress and sensibilities, that one has to wonder at his comments–he mistakenly labels one picture a ball scene, even though it clearly cannot be one as the men are all wearing riding boots.

He does quote, at extensive length, however, from the hyperbolic gushings of Metternich to his mistress…which self-smooching ramblings most of the rest of us have learned to, er, temper with a measure of…well, reality.

All of which has rendered his 580 pages of text somewhat limited in their usefulness.  I can’t trust his conclusions, and I know and can prove that much of what he says about the Russians and Alexander is just plain wrong.  (He’s not much better on the Prussians…)

Which leaves me slogging through this tome for the names, dates and locations, and not much else.

Still, it’s research.  And I trust that at the end of it, I shall have a better sense of how my third novel will unfold.  That is, if I haven’t gone spare with all the inaccuracies and done something stupid.

But that I’ll leave that to your imagination…ha ha ha.


22 comments on “Nationalism or honest history…

  1. Rowenna says:

    I must disagree, MM–the education in history I received from my schools was far poorer than that. Poor George was barely mentioned, let alone getting the blame. No, the revolution was entirely about taxes (and, if you had a particularly good teacher, the Proclamation of 1763). Thank goodness for libraries and books, and now for blogs like this, with constant reminders that history is far more textured and complex–and interesting–than any half-hour history lesson could make it!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Ah. Well, I gave the daylong historic tours of Boston in my much younger days, and George featured heavily in those…though not in this light, of course. It wouldn’t have gone down so well at Lexington or Concord, I fear. Ha ha.

  2. Piotr says:

    You mentioned that the Polish history writer utterly neglected to portray the Russians in any favourable light, and while I find that unfortunate — as the French used Polish troops as cannon fodder, alongside other foreign legions. But in a way, I understand him. This distrust towards Russia within my parents’ generation (and older) is so deeply ingrained in the Polish psyche it can be scary. Then again, you know that region’s history better than I.

    Besides, an interesting note is that Poles fought the English not only on behalf of Napoleon but Washington too.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      What’s most unfortunate about this book is that the author has relied on ages old stereotypes and prejudices which he’s set against the current work of others who are disproving these same stereotypes and prejudices. Yes, the Prussian sources of the day made the most of the Prussian contribution; likewise the Austrian sources. But thanks to the work of scholars like Dominic Lieven, we now know that the Russian contribution to beating Napoleon was huge, Alexander knew he was going to have to fight a long war against him as early as 1810 and began preparing for it then; the Russian cavalry was superior to anything in 1813-1814 and their retreats were as orderly and precise as they could be. So most of his assertions about Alexander, about the Russian troops provisioning, their behaviour in battle and in retreat, all of that, are just plain wrong and only muddle the understanding, rather than illumining it.

      He also keeps asserting that Napoleon still could have won, as late as the invasion of Paris–which is a nonsense. And, because he’s paid so little attention to the Prussian and Russian sources, the whole thing really looks like it was a seat of the pants victory, when in fact, it wasn’t at all.

      But the point is that if you’re going to play historian in this well-informed a field, you have to lay aside your personal preferences, your personal prejudices, your private feelings of nationalism, and go for the truth–insofar as you can get to it. And he just didn’t. At all. Which means that even though it’s a recent book, (2007) already, it’s hopelessly outdated in its conclusions.

      The Poles were, as far as I understand it, a mercenary force in the 18th century. Like the Hessians, who fought on behalf of the British in the American Revolution. 18th century armies were without exception made up of mercenaries, and very often were known to switch sides during the night, depending on who was paying better.

  3. Piotr says:

    The Polish legions weren’t mercenaries, well not in the traditional sense anyway. Please look up Henryk Dąbrowski, he’s one of the prominent figures behind the Polish Legion.

    After the Third Partition of Poland (1795), many Poles believed that revolutionary France and her allies would come to Poland’s aid. France’s enemies included Poland’s partitioners, Prussia, Austria and Imperial Russia. Many Polish soldiers, officers and volunteers therefore emigrated, especially to Italy (leading to the expression, “the Polish Legions in Italy”) and to France, where they joined forces with the local military.

    The number of Polish recruits soon reached many thousands. With support from Napoleon Bonaparte, Polish military units were formed, bearing Polish military ranks and commanded by Polish officers. They became known as the “Polish Legions” and were considered a Polish army in exile, under French command.

    Their commanders included Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, Karol Kniaziewicz, Józef Wybicki and Antoni Amilkar Kosiński.

    So yeah, Napoleon promised us Poland back, and we wanted to believe him that he would come through with his promise. Oddly enough, as I write this I ask myself why we were so blind. Then again, if you look at our history, Poland once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea as part of its Commonwealth with Lithuania and championed Catholic idealisms against the Ottomans. We were forward thinkers, who prided ourselves in being true nationalists and not some pawns for kings (whom we elected). We wanted our country back.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The fact that they did go fight for some a country or government, that they sought foreign service when their own country did not provide them with employment, makes them mercenaries in the 18th century sense. Bonaparte himself, when things weren’t looking so rosy at home, considered finding employment as a soldier for the Ottomans. Many of those serving in the higher ranks of the Russian army were Balts–and this caused them problems with the pro-Russians in government who thought the higher eschelons of the army should be filled with Russians only. There were also Frenchmen serving in Russia–they hadn’t liked the regime at home and had found service elsewhere. This is how armies worked in those days.

      There were very few powers or people in the early nineteenth century who weren’t betrayed by Bonaparte. He broke every promise, every treaty, every vow, as soon as it ceased to be in his interest. This was one of the hardest lessons for both sides of this war. The allies had to all learn that he honoured nothing except himself and could not be negotiated with, and he had to learn that breaking your word that many times will eventually lead to no one trusting a word you say. By spring 1814, the allies had learned their lesson. He never did.

      • Piotr says:

        And here we are… a third novel on the way? 🙂

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Well, I thought I knew what I was doing when I started this current research. Now, I think it may not be so simple as I had first imagined it might be…so I reckon it’s a case of do the research and see what happens…Ha ha ha.

      • Jan says:

        “The fact that they did go fight for some country or government, that they sought foreign service when their own country did not provide them with employment, makes them mercenaries in the 18th century sense.”

        Right, but not in either the 20th/21st century sense or the 15th century sense.

        Individuals, especially officers of talent, would go serve in foreign armies and would generally act and be treated as a national of that army during their term of service. The Poles in the American Revolution (all two of them that I know of 🙂 were in this category.

        Bodies of men raised in another nation were a different thing. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, these were most frequently units raised by their home nation that were loaned or hired out to other states. None of these thought of themselves or were generally regarded as mercenaries–they were serving *their* monarch; they were just doing so by fighting in another monarch’s war. Sometimes they were even serving the same monarch, who happened to be double-hatted, as it were. The various German states troops in the American Revolution were like this, as were Dutch units in English service during the Nine Years War.

        A few units, more as time went on, were formed of men who were political exiles from their home country, taking service with a crown that was an ally of their former monarch or at least somewhat sympathetic to their cause or, finally and least, at least likely to be at war with their foes. The Scots and Irish regiments in France and Spain were one example of this; the Poles under Napoleon another.

        Then you get the Scots who would just show up en masse in foreign armies because they were good at fighting and it was better than staying at home. Gustaf Adolf’s Scots in the Thirty Years’ War were of this ilk, as were (AFAIK) the Scots in Dutch service in the late 17th century.

        Lastly you get the really sad cases, the “foreign” regiments in armies like Napoleonic France and (to some extent) the British forces of the same period, that were raised primarily from men who had been captured either in combat or as deserters from the enemy and who had the choice of serving under arms for you or getting shut up in whatever PoW facilities you had. A good many of them would simply desert again at the first chance they got. Some of the “legions” in the Continental Army during the American Revolution were formed from these. I’d probably count the Saxon regiments that were involuntarily “incorporated” into the Prussian Army after the capitulation of Pirna.

        But I would disagree with the statement that “18th century armies were without exception made up of mercenaries, and very often were known to switch sides during the night, depending on who was paying better.” Eighteenth century soldiers were often unwilling conscripts and often included men who were not nationals of the army they were serving in, but almsot none of them were mercenaries, and I can’t recall a single instance of a unit, let alone an army, being bribed to switch sides. Renaissance Italy? Yes. Enlightenment Germany/France/etc.? Not that I’m aware of.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Uhm, that final statement about the 18th century armies came from the mouth of Professor John Gagliardo, with whom I studied the period, so I shall invite you to duke it out with him. You’re taller, so I think I’ll put my money on you… *wink* Then too, historical views have altered substantially since I was studying with him, so it may be that I am hopelessly out of date…

      • Jan says:

        I think it might be a somewhat one-sided discussion, as I gather he passed away about six years ago. 😦

        Looking at what I can find of his publication list, I get the feeling that he was more of a big-picture man than a specialist in military history, so I think I’ll hold my ground until I’ve had the opportunity to do more research.

        I’m pretty familiar with the campaigns and major actions of the Seven Years War and the War of the Austrian Succession, somewhat familiar with the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Quadruple Alliance, and have some scraped familiarity with the Great Northern War, and I don’t recall ever hearing of armies switching sides for cash.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Where’s your sense of adventure? Where’s your Ouija board? I’m trying to recall…a dangerous pastime, you know…We read On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes, something about the classical balance of power, possibly some Voltaire, definitely some Hume, Enlightened Despotism by someone or other, Rousseau…You seriously expect me to remember?

      • Jan says:

        Indeed I do not expect you to. 🙂

        Now, I would wager that one of *my* profs (James B. Wood) would have been more comfortable with that statement applied to his wheelhouse, but then his primary field of publication was the Thirty Years War and the French Wars of Religion. 🙂

      • M M Bennetts says:

        So much of the difficulty, I believe, is that the past 30 years have seen such an overhauling of historical theory; so many historians have gone back to original sources and what they’ve found often is quite the opposite of the received wisdom of the centuries, and keeping up with all of it is sometimes just beyond one.

        Wait till you’re over next and I tell you about what the Inshore Squadron found when they examined all the log books from Trafalgar–which hadn’t been looked at for over 100 years! Amazing stuff.

      • Jan says:

        Well, and there’s also the temptation, I think, if you are sufficiently magisterial–and your chappie sounds like he was the Professor Kingsfield of History–to pronounce on stuff you have a passing familiarity with but not deep knowledge.

        Christopher Duffy was one of the leading scholars of 18th century European warfare in the last century and something like a contemporary of your fellow (b. 1936) It’s primarily through his work that I’ve learned about what was going on in Europe and how that fitted with the American Revolution and later developments in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. (Brent Nosworthy is another excellent author that spans both periods.) I think Duffy would acknowledge all five of the types of “foreign” troops I described, just not those of the last paragraph.

        In fact, his first published work, IIRC, is a life of Maximillian Ulysses Browne, an expatriate general of the first order, who was born in Switzerland to exiled Irish parents and eventually rose to the rank of field marshal in the Austrian army. “The ablest soldier of an able time”, to borrow James Goldman’s phrase. Brave, smart, capable, able to play the political game in the interest of getting the job done, he was unquestionably the best leader the Austrians had, but he accepted a subordinate command under the Empress’s brother in law when court politics dictated it. And he had the Prince Hal touch, willing to sleep in the snow beside his common foot soldiers and, in the end, dying from a wound taken leading his men from the front at the battle of Prague (combat wounds being a pretty uncommon form of demise for Austrian field marshals).

      • M M Bennetts says:

        You’re honestly expecting me to remember or to draw any sane conclusions from my university years? Well, if we’re talking about St. Andrews, then obviously I can–about the sherry trifle at Hendersons, about the fudge doughnuts at Fisher and Donaldson, about the chocolate gateau at Mrs. Whibley’s, about how after a year of intensive study on all the works of Botticelli I could not look at Primavera for another ten years, about my beloved 1967 Triumph with the cherrywood dash and the red leather seats…But what went on in the lecture hall? Please, I’ve had four children. Any pretense of intelligent life is long gone! A casualty of too much pink Lego, too many dolls, and too many tiny pairs of jodhpurs.

        Anyway, I would also have to be honest–my period of expertise is just that bit later than yours, starting in last decade of the 18th century. And in that period, there are scads of mercenaries, and that’s how they were perceived too. The top names in the Russian army under Alexander are Barclay de Tolly as well as several Prussians–who were regarded with suspicion by the Russians, though their loyalty was never in doubt and without them, the Russian army wouldn’t have been half so effective as it was. France too had its fair share of Poles and Italians in the officer ranks, but whereas France assimilated these men, the other countries didn’t and when they were promoted above the heads of those with national ties, there was usually trouble.

        There were also handfuls of French deserters–though these poor souls usually went awol and turned bandit–who abandoned the march to Moscow in 1812 and who subsequently fought for the Russians against the French, this after they’d been taken in by the locals, returned to health, etc.

      • Jan says:

        Really, I’m just making observations–not expecting you to recall anything! 🙂

        I’m quite familiar with the Napoleonic period too; my mention of Duffy was just because I was reacting to what struck me as a rather odd remark about the European armies of the 18th century.

        I think part of the difficulty too is that the term “mercenary” tends to carry a lot of heavily weighted baggage and, for the modern audience, connotations that just don’t match the reality of the past. For our generation, I think it suggests Mad Mike Hoare, Bob Denard, Richard Burton in The Wild Geese and Frederick Forsuth’s Dogs of War. For the current genration, it’s Blackwater/Xe/Academi andother “gun for hire” private security firms. And behind it all, there’s also the condottieiri who Machiavelli wrote about in The Prince, all of these being guys who fought only or primarily for money and would switch sides at the drop of a hat.

        But while the flag ranks of the Russian army (and those of various other sates) were full of Germans during the Napoleonic Wars, men like Eugen von Württemberg, von Diebitsch, von Bennigsen, von Tettenborn, and von Wintzingerode, these were not men who joined the Russian Army for money or who could have been bought off by a well-timed bag of gold. They were not really even soldiers of fortune; they were members of the central European minor or major aristocracy who served in one or more armies as opportunity permitted. But all of them fundamentally fighting for the established order against the forces of Revolutionary France. Most of them ended up in the Russian Army either through ties to Russia of blood or marriage or because, having fought for Austria or smaller German states, they were left when these nations were defeated with no options but retirement or seeking a place in Russian service, as it was the remaining undefeated anti-French belligerent.

        Some of the others with outwardly German names (von Baggovut, von Buxhoweden, von Osten-Sacken) were Balts who had some German roots, and were probably distrusted by “pure” Russians but were born in Russia and served their entire military careers in the Russian army. Barclay de Tolly was one of these–his family was German speaking (and claimed Scots descent!), but they had lived in (Baltic) Russia and served the Tsars for generations.

        Were these chaps who were employed by a nation other than that in which they were born? Some of them, yes, but they weren’t really what I think people today mean by “mercenary”.

        I think the only prominent general who really “switched sides” for an inducement was the French marshal Bernadotte, who was, essentially bribed away from Napoleon in exchange for the crown of Sweden–a pretty big bribe! 🙂

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Whoa! You are kind of, just a little, preaching to the dean and chapter here.

        The question you’re raising now though is whether it’s valid to use the terms that they used, place the value judgments on people and things that they placed, or whether an historian or author of historical fiction should go with the terms and definitions they would have used and recognised.

        Obviously, there is always always going to be a measure of hindsight in our views. Nevertheless, over the past years’ of research and the writing of two novels, I’ve come to feel that if I’m writing about them, then it’s about *them*. It’s not about how I feel about what they did necessarily–obviously, I’m not in favour of atrocities of war or anything–but I try and probably fail but I do try to see the world as they might have seen it.

        I’m reminded of this which Charles Moore wrote a bit ago: “In studying history, you must imagine yourself into the truly difficult choices people had to make in the past…” And that is really the standard for which I aim.

        Whether a reader will know of Blackwater or any of the other firms which operate thus, whether they will be familiar with all the various fracas in which English mercenaries have become involved in Africa in the last decade, I cannot know that.

        And if I wrote with that spectre of speculation about what my readers knew or did not know perching on my shoulder, I’d never get anything done!

        In order for me–and for most other authors I know–to work successfully, I have to, as much as is possible, immerse myself in the world about which I’m writing. And to this end, I rely heavily on eye-witness accounts from the period and journals and letters. If they call a person a mercenary, then that’s what I’ll use. Just as if they call someone a nocky boy or a plaguey saucebox, you may be sure I’ll be doing so too…

        Not that this hasn’t got me into trouble. There are those who really do not like the terminology which was applied to Napoleon by the English, Russians and Prussians…I admit to trying to soften that for the modern reader, but sometimes the language is just too vividly wondrous and I have to go with it!

      • Jan says:

        I think there’s a difference between writing out-and-out history (where it’s best to both use the terminology employed in the period *and* to explore its meaning explicitly) and writing historical fiction where, while one wants to maintain fidelity with the past, one also has to accept that the audience is not necessarily specialist historians–a lot of it going to be general readers.

        Someone reading a novel in 21st century Britain or America may or may not be au courant with what people in 19th century Europe meant by a term. But I think it’s safe to say they are more likely to having their reading shaped by current usage of a term than by usage from two centuries ago. Therefore if the meaning has changed significantly, I think one has to advance cautiously.

        (There’s also a big difference, IMO, between using words in exposition and putting words int the mouths of characters, but that’s a whole different bast of clams.)

  4. Piotr says:

    I admire your commitment to historical accuracy. I toyed with a historical fic set in the Siege of Vienna in 1683 but found myself adding little green men, so I’ll stick to near future science fiction for now…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, that’s what was done in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s set at the time of the Peninsular Wars, but with added magic.

  5. Rudolf says:

    All I can add, and its not much a freely admit, is that history has always been this way. Nothing has changed, nor will IMHO, just watch news broadcasts from different countries… everyone sees the world tinted by their nationality, even I do, though I am no nationalist. It’s unavoidable. We are taught the history of ‘our’ country, and the history of other countries – through the eyes of our own.

    Nation States are born out of strife… or so I have always believed. What bonds a people more than anything else, is their enemies. Sadly this is still true. Though we are friends with many nations now, one doesn’t have to scratch too hard to find long held prejudices and hatreds hidden just below the surface. Like this case between the US and the UK.

    Sadly, human beings are tribal animals, and sadly also, I don’t see that changing much. I’m no scholar of history, but I am very interested in human behaviour and its causes.

    Of course you are correct, nothing is simple, never is. But nations need bad guys and simple stories that all can rally around. Looking at the modern world and the causes of strife, I see that nothing has changed.


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