Well, I just got into another argument about Napoleon today. (Again.)
This will (possibly) surprise no one.
It surprises me though. Because actually I’m a quite non-argumentative, non-competitive, quiet and easy-going sort of person who prefers animals to people because they talk less…
Well, they don’t talk at all. And I like that. And they don’t argue either. And I like that even more.
However, as I say, there have been a number of heated debates here and there about Napoleon recently–many I suspect prompted by the proposed Napoleonland theme park in France.
Anyhow. Today I got into it with someone or other who was defending Napoleon’s behaviour on the campaign in Egypt–dismissing out of hand the slaughter of 4000 pow’s at Jaffa because, well, he didn’t have enough troops to guard them so it made sense. (His troops initially refused to carry out the order because it was, even to their weird sensibility, an atrocity and against the proper conduct of war.)
…This individual also maintained that Napoleon’s idea for the doctors to poison the water of those troops who’d contracted plague in Acre was a good one, because they would have slowed down the march and probably not survived anyway… (The doctors, as it happened, refused Napoleon’s order and he later insisted it had only been an idea, a suggestion, not an order…)
And only last week, I got into it with someone else…I was talking about Napoleonland and I called him an “upstart mushroom Corsican” which is a phrase frequently used by Wellington and his brothers and others in their letters to describe him, (so I was quoting).
Well, for that I got told I’m stupid; I have a closed mind; I’m bigoted and I needed to learn more and read more widely so that I could judge him properly and in a more balanced way–rather than what I had obviously done which was having made up my mind before I knew all the facts.
The lady in question went on to say that she could never allow one of her authors (I presume she’s some sort of agent) to be so prejudiced, to which I confess I did think, “Well, the good news is I’m not one of your authors, nor am likely to be, and I thank God for it.”
(I may have suggested that she take a look at my bibliography page before she accused me of being ignorant on the subject, but I can’t tell you if she’s taken me up on that or no…)
The thing is, yes, I could spout until the cows come home on the casualties of any given battle or campaign. I could talk about the devastated economies and the poverty in France caused by his policies.
I could talk about the atrocities. Yes, I’ve become an expert in those, though not by choice really. (Nobody does that by choice.)
And the atrocities in the Al-Azhar massacre (in Egypt) were worse even than those in Spain–which is simply inconceivable. Mothers smothered their own children and then killed themselves so that the children would not fall into the hands of the French soldiers.
(No, I won’t give you the details–they read like the very worst of Bosnian war crimes.)
And perhaps all this emphasis on these sorts of things might very well cause some to look at me as though I am the most flagrantly bigoted Francophobe in history.
But I’m not.
Because you see, when I look at those casualty numbers, I don’t see numbers. I see young men. Young men of promise and hope and life. Young men with a future. Most of them were probably farmer boys, peasants–and each of them was needed on the family farm, because farming in 1812 was labour intensive.
But those young men, they’d been conscripted and taken away from those farms, dragged away in most cases by armed Gendarmes. In chains.
And each of those boys had a family. They were fathers, sons, uncles, husbands…and many, many of those families, those mothers and sisters and children, would sink into destitution because of those vast numbers of the young men lost in one battle. Just one battle.
And across Europe, this is what Napoleon and his lust for power and empire brought: Death. Destitution. Poverty. Ruination. Slaughter. To millions.
And for what?
Why did he need to invade Russia?
Why did he need to invade Spain? He lost over 30,000 troops a year there. And that’s not including the battles. So what was it for? Why did those thirty thousand French boys have to die? Why did their families have to hear nothing of them for years and then learn that their dear sons and brothers were never coming home?
So that Napoleon could achieve his aim of closing the Continent to British trade, thus economically destroying France’s traditional enemy? Is that a good reason for all those deaths?
I understand, of course, there is this contemporary desire to transmute Bonaparte into a fitting hero for historic romances…his wives did wear good frocks after all. And all those uniforms–they make great telly. Yes, I get that.
But the next time you read about a Napoleonic battle, don’t read the number of casualties, look at their faces. Listen to them crying because their legs have been shot off.
And then look on the faces of those they left back home hearing the news, and listen to their weeping as they realise their boy will never come home again, they’ll never see his face and they won’t even have his body to bury.
Then multiply that by six million.
Because that’s the Napoleonic wars. That’s what I have learned. That’s what I live with.
And if my view of Napoleon seems a little jaundiced from time to time, perhaps now, it makes sense how I got that way.
The chief war crimes prosecutor in the Hague, I forget her name, once spoke of how she coped with having to read the thousands of transcripts of atrocities…she said that she would sometimes need to leave the building and walk to the museum and there, sit in a deserted gallery just looking in silence upon a painting…Vermeer was her favourite because of the light and the stillness in his work, which restored her soul, she said, and allowed her to continue the important work she did…
Me? I groom horses. And I read John Donne.