Arguing the case against…

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.


11 comments on “Arguing the case against…

  1. I like this. I don’t know if you like Patrick O’Brian (I certainly do) and every word you say fits strongly with the loathing with which his character Stephen Maturin feels for Napoleon and all that he has done. It’s similar to how many in our parents’ generation felt about Hitler, but because Napoleon was further back in time he tends to be covered in a rosy glow. I read a biography of Goya once which was truly shocking. And your post also calls to mind the row which erupted in 1989 when the French celebrated 200 years of the Revolution and Maggie Thatcher refused to join in, saying she didn’t see what was so great about tumbrils and guillotines in the streets. KBO.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      One doesn’t like Patrick O’Brian; one worships at the shrine…

      The other thing about the celebrations of 1989 that was ‘interesting’ is that there was no mention of the September Massacres nor of the Reign of Terror. Not any.

      I was thinking further about it after I posted this. The Russians at the time referred to Napoleon as the Anti-Christ. And they meant it. The Italians and Spanish likewise considered him that way because of his assaults on their religion, the clergy and the pope. And regardless of what one feels about religion today, within the context of Europe in the 19th century, they were all identifying him, without exception, as the full incarnation of evil. That was their take on him.

      So thank you for stopping by. I shall of course KBO. Is there any other way?

  2. I was half-tempted by Michael Winner’s catchphrase-of-late, but since protection of my nether regions when next we meet takes priority, I’ll pass.

    It constantly amazes me why so many take Weider’s almost rose-tinted view. Particularly strange in an agent. Take comfort from the fact she’s probably never liked wizards or vampires 🙂

  3. I agree, a horrible waste of life. I felt the same when researching the First World War and reading Wilfred Owen. Yes, Donne, a fine antidote.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      D’you know, I was thinking about it in relation to WWI last night. It’s not just that they have both been titled, The Great War (the Napoleonic wars were called that until 1917, when the title was then first used for that war).

      But also–in all the dramas about WWI, showing all the horrific loss of life coupled with the complete idiocy at the top of the command structure (and lower down), here in the UK, it’s this unresolved cataclysm of an open wound, because here, not one single commander was ever brought to book for his part in the slaughter of his own men. Not Haig, not the chappies directly under Haig. None of them. Whereas the Germans, in a way, can and have moved on–the Kaiser took responsibility and abdicated.

      And with Napoleon, that same kind of refusal to accept culpability or responsibility is still sitting there, out there…

  4. All of the wars, “great” or otherwise, are hideous tragedies. It is possible to get caught up in the glamour of an era. However, it should not be possible to let that glamour blind one to the realities of such tragic events. Excellent and thought-provoking article, M. M.

  5. T.L Tyson says:

    War saddens me, no matter which one it is, because of the mass loss of life. And also because human life is so expendable. I appreciate and understand your views on the young soldiers. Not only did their families suffer the loss of their sons, fathers, Uncles, brothers, but their farms suffered from not being able to up keep.

    It always makes me wonder why we opt to keep warring. I mean, from an evolutionary standpoint, one would think we’d have learned.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think if I had known what I know now, when I started specialising in the early 19th century, I would have run a mile. Or many miles. And I guess maybe there’s been the great scholarship of the last couple of decades too–contributing to a better (scarier) sense of what happened during the Napoleonic wars.

      Now, of course, I’m driven and see it as my job to look at what happened and to value those lives which were so carelessly squandered for the vanity of one man.

  6. m.m.fahren says:

    MM: Read and then glazed over all the comments. Yep. Megalomaniac. Why, possession with obsession? We don’t know. But we do know that the details you are witnessing have been witnessed by every ‘war’ generation there is. That is if the victors bother to inquire past the celebration of economic growth etc. after the beloved event is over. Civil wars. Revolutions. Eastern wars, mid-eastern wars, European wars. Genocide all over. Nothing is pretty or glorious or comforting to me ever about war or its many facets. And I think the only successful army is one respectful of the reality and weight of pain, destruction and death they carry and inflict–even with justice to end the same– and the responsibility to heal and mend. . . It’s madness and it seems Darwinian-endless. I frankly don’t know how you can do it–all the research –and sleep. Viet Nam was quite enough for me. . .and now? I see all the carnage as One. Napoleon was obviously driven by something we don’t want to see nor care to name. But we are witnessing it now. Just about everywhere in sundry ways of destruction of life and personhood and being. Young and old. Hope your work allows people to reflect on this in a deeply spiritual way and maybe be part of the light, too. xx

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