Napoleon’s Other War

Napoleon’s Other War:  Bandits, Rebels and their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions by Michael Broers.  Peter Lang Ltd., Oxford, 2010.  £25.00.  232 pps.

One of the most enduring myths of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era is that the horrific violence of the Reign of Terror (1794-96) was an isolated island of atrocities in an otherwise orderly and tranquil transformation from monarchy to Republic to Empire.

Indeed, so this version of events goes, from 1794 onward, across Europe, from the Netherlands to the smaller German states to Italy to Poland, the citizens of each country turned out with joy, Tricolour-waving and jubilation to welcome in the forces of liberty, fraternity and equality, aka the French army.

Napoleon himself was quite keen on this version of events and scrupulously nurtured its promulgation.

Ehem.

Even today, with the exception of the barbarism the French invasion brought to Spain and Portugal–it’s very hard to explain away those etchings of the Disasters of War by Goya–and the work of generations of revisionist historians behind us, this myth still holds sway.

But perhaps not for long.

Because with a wealth of research and evidence which says otherwise, Oxford lecturer, Michael Broers, turns this zealously promoted image on its head in Napoleon’s Other War:  Bandits, Rebels and their Pursuers in the Age of Revolutions. 

As depicted by Broers, Western Europe at the end of the 18th century was not the setting for a gentle Austen comedy of manners.

As he shows, if it had anything in common with the English works of the period, it would have been with the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe–where the lawless countryside is fraught with danger, haunted by gangs of ruffians, brigands and highwaymen.

Indeed, unlike Britain, most European countries, France included, suffered from serious and chronic rural criminality–gangs of violent thieves, (brigands was the preferred word of the age) which preyed upon and robbed just about anyone as long as they were defenceless.

Widows were an obvious target as were poor labourers journeying from one job to another, or poorer farmers.  Extortion, torture, family vendettas based on honour, murder, smuggling–these were more or less the norm.

The French Revolution with its ideology of fierce anti-clericalism (most rural areas were devoutly Catholic) and the breakdown of law and order only exacerbated the problem.

From the outset in France, rural reaction against the urban Revolutionary government launched many into a life of crime and peripatetic counter-revolution.  Perhaps the most striking and persistent of these counter-revolutions occurred in the Vendee, where eventually, between 200,000 and 250,000 Vendeans, including women and children, were killed by French forces loyal to the Revolutionary government in Paris.

Subsequently, local uprisings and insurgencies followed as the French army invaded country after country.

The resistance and savage reprisals in Naples are well-documented.  Less well-documented is the resistance in Tuscany, the revolt in the Tyrol and elsewhere as local populations resisted the imposition of French taxes, the pillaging by the French troops, French law, and most especially conscription into the French army which across the empire came to be called ‘the blood tax’.

But by this time, Napoleon–no stranger to vendetta himself–was in power and his brutal and bloody methods of repressing what he called brigandry were well-established.

(All forms of resistance were lumped together in his definition–even, for example, refusing to supply French soldiers with bread.)

Broers examines these many insurgencies in detail, as well as Napoleon’s creation of the Gendarmerie–the small bands of French ‘police’ who were meant to tame occupied territory.  Country by country, Broers shows how it worked, when it worked and where it didn’t work.  (The thrice-yearly rounding up of conscripts always required armed intervention.)

He also includes mini-biographies of the ‘trouble-shooters’ Napoleon sent out into the areas of greatest local resistance–all were colourful, and violent–complete cowboys by any definition.

Broers also shines the clearest light of any historian to date on the make-up of the bands and groups who resisted French rule, and finds them uniformly lacking in nationalist fervour, but instead defending their family honour, their wives and daughters, their local traditions, their religion and the local clergy, their farms.  This is true even in, or perhaps especially, in Spain, where legend calls the insurgency a national uprising.

Broers expands his net to examine other and more sinister examples of brigandry in the age too, and includes a chapter on Ali Pasha, perhaps the greatest (I use the word advisedly) of all brigand chiefs.  Certainly his reign was the most violent and sadistic.  Reading it, I found myself forced to wonder again at the reliability of Lord Byron’s opinions and accounts of his contemporaries, as he wrote of Ali Pasha with admiration and even fondness, and is reputed to have had an affaire with him.

But given that this is the first history to consider the fate of the ‘common man’ caught up in the tide of Napoleonic power-lust and pillage, it is unfortunate that Broers has written it mainly for an academic audience rather than for the wider popular readership.

Because both Broers and the subject matter deserve to be more widely read.  Indeed this is an account that needs to be studied, to be acknowledged and understood.

Equally, though by no means as graphic as many of the other books on Napoleonic terror tactics and atrocities, various accounts will still require a strong stomach.

Anyone serious about understanding the vast theatre of war that was Napoleonic Europe, anyone wishing to penetrate the myriad layers of Napoleonic disinformation and spin, will want to read this book.   And then perhaps to sit quietly for some little time, to mourn the enormity of the brutal repression visited upon the lands and peoples of Napoleon’s Empire.

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4 comments on “Napoleon’s Other War

  1. cavalrytales says:

    I’ll have to wait until I can get it for a fiver on ebay.

  2. Great post, absolutely fascinating.

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