A Matter of Reputation…

Time has a funny habit of softening the memory of things.  Of dulling the edges of pain, blurring the focus, and letting the unspeakable fall away, unmentioned and unlamented, to be replaced by a kinder, gentler, more palatable version of events and people past.

Unless, of course, those events are constantly kept alive, in their full horror, and mankind is kept from relegating them to a place behind the forgetful cushion of time.  Like with the Holocaust or the Killing Fields of Rwanda or Cambodia…

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon led his country and all of Europe to the verge of utter ruin and desolation. 

People–looking through the tinted lenses of his propaganda-enhanced reputation–tell me I exaggerate, that I’m unkind for so saying, or that I look only at one side (my side) of the story. 

But you see, that’s exactly what I don’t do. 

One of the great achievements for an historian and author is to learn not to think for oneself, but rather to learn what they who lived through the events–both grand and catastrophic–thought, what they felt about the events which had overtaken them, what they perceived as viable solutions to their crises great and small…

By the time French troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they had a reputation for savagery, for pillage, rape, and theft on an industrial scale.  Those countries which Napoleon had previously annexed and/or invaded–Italy, much of modern-day Germany, the Netherlands, Austria–had endured such fates which leave us struggling for air. 

The billeting of some half-a-million French troops on the local populations across Europe left nothing but ruination:  A householder’s wife and daughter(s) would invariably have been used and discarded or kidnapped; he might be evicted into the street; everything to eat would be taken as well as all available drink; all livestock that wasn’t slaughtered for the feeding of the troops would be taken when or if the army moved on. 

All of one’s drawers, cellars and cupboards would be ransacked.  Whatever they could carry away with them, they took.  What they could not carry with them, they wrecked and destroyed–burning whole libraries of books, using furniture and bedding and musical instruments as well as all doors, shutters, gates and fences, to feed their fires. 

Nor were the rich or formerly powerful exempt from the destruction of the minutiae of their lives. 

When on campaign, Napoleon would take over the grandest house or castle wherever he was.  Before he moved in, his household staff would throw all of the building’s furnishings and fitments out the windows until there was nothing left but bare rooms.  Once this was done, they’d install the Emperor’s own bed and chairs and desk. 

Those rooms he personally didn’t occupy would also be stripped and his staff’s beds and accoutrements would be set up there–until they all departed for the next unfortunate’s households, taking their possessions with them.  (Plus whatever they fancied of the former owner’s property.) 

Oh and the furniture they’d thrown out the windows?  The chairs and dining tables and linen cupboards and desks?  Well, those would have been chopped up and used for firewood for the troops’ camp-fires.

This then was the modus operandi for Napoleon and his troops from 1798-1815.  It didn’t just happen once.  It happened thousands and thousands of times, in countless locations across the entire map of the Continent.  If one survived the occupation, there was nothing left of one’s home to return to and the fields and roads wide and far had all been used as open latrines–by hundreds of thousands of men–poisoning the water sources, leading to wide-spread dysentery.

And nowhere was there any redress.  Not for anyone–rich or poor.  Not for German merchants or Italian nobility or Polish peasants.  Napoleon may have promised liberty, fraternity, justice and equality–but that only applied to him and his men. 

Once they had invaded Spain, however, in 1808, the destruction took a turn for the worse (I know it doesn’t seem possible) and torture became a way of life for many of the French troops stationed there.  The resistance to even the most minor of refusals to provide fodder for the French horses, wine or livestock for the troops, was met with the most savage of reprisals. 

Russia in 1812?  Well, that was to prove the most dehumanising experience yet.  But few troops survived.

The campaign of 1813? 

By the Battle of Leipzig itself, the 16-19 October, many soldiers related that they’d had no food for three or even five days, except what they could forage of cabbage stalks from the fields or windfall apples.

The accounts after the battle recount how the French wounded were kept outside the city–there was not an inch of space within–and there was nothing to feed them.  And when I say nothing, I mean, nothing

Because you see, French destructiveness had taken a darker (stupider) turn since 1812.  In addition to burning all the furniture and books of those in whose houses and farms they were billeted, they’d also taken to using all the grain–the wheat, the hay, the barley–to feed their fires.  They apparently thought this was a great joke.  (They’d done it across Silesia and Poland too…)

If there were fruit trees or orchards, these too they’d chopped down–not necessarily to feed their fires, but just because they could.  And this too was considered a great jest.

The Prussian troops, the overworked surgeons of Leipzig, the generals all observed the slow starvation of these thousands of wounded men, their pain, but could do nothing for them.  And they observed how they took to cutting up the corpses of the horses who had died in battle and eating the meat raw–because they nothing with which to feed a cooking fire.  When that supply ran out–many resorted to cannibalism. 

In writing of these events, those who witnessed them always speak of the French troops with pity, with great sympathy and sadness, but curiously, they always concluded that the French were getting what they deserved, that they had brought these heinous calamities upon themselves by destroying everything they touched and through their despicable treatment of the locals.  And because of this, no one would lift a hand to save them from their agonising ruin and terrible lingering deaths. 

Now, if all this sounds like the work of an army gone stark raving lunatic, I think that’s probably right. 

For as I’ve studied the period in ever greater depth, I’ve concluded that like the Nazi state, the Napoleonic phenomenon was not just the result of one man who was a raving megalomaniac–it was a whole country gone mad–mad with power, with greed, with egotism, with death and destruction, with sadistic pleasure even, and all humanity lost. 

Given all this, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that when the Prussian troops invaded France in early 1814, it was payback time.  

Only, as it turned out, it wasn’t. 

Because the Prussians and Russians and Austrians–none of whom had cause to love the French–found a country so impoverished as to be destitute.  A land of starving peasant women pulling the ploughs in barren fields, because Napoleon had requisitions all the farm horses, all the oxen…(and had lost them all).

It wasn’t that the Allied forces didn’t want to pillage–they did!  They were looking forward to it with great glee.  It’s that there was just nothing to take.  Not anything.  Had it not been for the rather fine Russian supply lines stretching all the way back into Poland, the Allied troops would have starved.

So, there you have it.  What was Napoleon’s reputation at the time?  What did those who lived through it think of Napoleon and the French soldiers? 

 The Devil Incarnate and the Anti-Christ is pretty much how they phrased it.  With a selection of expletive modifiers thrown in for good measure.  And I think you’ll agree, with good cause. 

But that being the case, how did Napoleon’s reputation get so burnished over time, you ask?  So full of prestige and polish and sexy uniforms?

That’s an interesting question. 

One–his propaganda machine was second to none.  And whilst all this stuff was happening, the official version of events as published in the state-controlled media and in his Bulletins was invariably upbeat, perky, and mendacious.  He was always presented as suffering through everything alongside his troops, of being a soldier’s soldier.  The accounts which shew his indifference to troops’ suffering, of walking past his dying men without so much as a glance, his coldness, his contempt for others’ losses–these were all suppressed in France. 

And then, something even more curious happened. 

During the summer and autumn of 1814–after he’d abdicated and was busy making life on Elba unbearable–the vast army of old soldiers, who now were out of work and out of money, began to congregate and talk about the good old days.  How wonderful it had been on campaign–about the camaraderie, the women, the heroism of battle, the greatness of General Napoleon. 

Their stories fell on the eager ears of a new generation of young men who knew nothing of war–mostly young lawyers as it happens, and administrators, etc–who, like the veterans were now unemployed–and not very employable anyway, in the new reactionary France under the weak auspices of Louis XVIII. 

Times were hard, the country was drowning in debt, its infrastructure in ruins–the Prussians, Russians and British were occupying their country and they hated them with a passion–wasn’t it grand under Napoleon?  Remember?  Remember how wonderful it was?  How fine we looked?  How great out power and our victories?  We were free men!  We were the greatest Empire on earth!  We ruled Europe!

Unsurprisingly, it was these men who formed the core of the new army that Napoleon raised when he escaped from Elba, returning to rule France for once again for 100 days–that army with which he fought the Allies under the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in June 1815. 

After the carnage of Waterloo–which so many people felt was an unnecessary war provoked by an outlaw state [France]–Napoleon’s international reputation tanked even further. 

But time, the exigencies of long occupation–which the French detested–and the enthusiastic efforts of his nephew, Louis-Napoleon (aka Napoleon III), to lift the Napoleonic reputation out of the mire, worked their soporific spell, so that eventually France began to look back upon that era of the First Empire as one of grandest achievement and golden glory, leaving the terror and the truth to be buried and forgot alongside all those six million souls that Napoleon’s wars consumed.

Still, today, today I reckon we’d have him up before the International Tribunal at the Hague, for genocide and crimes against humanity…do not you?


11 comments on “A Matter of Reputation…

  1. Tim Vicary says:

    Gosh, what a diatribe! Stephen Maturin would be proud of you. So would Maggie Thatcher – I remember her scornful response to the 200 year anniversary of the French Revolution, when she quite reasonably pointed out that it wasn’t entirely an unmixed blessing for mankind, what with the tumbils, mass murder and so on. I suppose my Guardian reading friends would feel a need to say that Wellington’s army wasn’t exclusively staffed by choirboys, nor the Czar’s for that matter. How would you respond to them?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Dear me, I didn’t intend for it to be a diatribe. To be honest, I’m still a bit reeling with it all myself. (Every time I think I’ve read the very worst of this war, I find something more appaling–I’d known for example of the cannibalism in Russia; the cannibalism after Leipzig–observed by several writers–was new to me.)

      No, neither Wellington’s army nor Blucher’s nor the Russian army were staffed by choirboys. And the Russian Cossacks in particular were notorious for picking up anything that glittered and walking off with it–though even with them, there seem to be eye-witness accounts stating that they were easily cowed and that they meant no harm, they were just human magpies.

      Wellington however always had, and was always aware that he had, Parliament looking over his shoulder–both at the numbers of casualties he sustained and what they got up to. When Parliament learned of the sacking of Badajoz after the siege in April 1812, they were furious to the point of recalling Wellington and the troops for a courts martial. Equally, he couldn’t sustain the casualty rates that Napoleon’s army did, simply because Parliament wouldn’t as a matter of course just call up another 300,000 men–as France did for Napoleon.

      Also, the Allied armies of the 1813 campaign and that of 1814, were closely policed in matters of requisitioning food. Plus, as I say, the Russians did have a rather superb supply train and it was thanks to them that the invading armies ate, because really there was NOTHING in France.

      But you might say it all boils down to the difference between a democracy, however corrupt and inefficient and undemocratic it might have been, and a military police state such as Napoleon had created for himself.

      • Tim Vicary says:

        Fair enough. I haven’t read all this stuff and clearly you have. It is sometimes very shocking to be confronted with what really did happen in history, rather than the sanitized version with rustling skirts and dashing heroes that one sees all over the internet. The difficulty must be, as a novelist, to write about these events with characters that are sufficiently real and sympathetic to carry the reader along, whilst at the same time dealing with events such as those you describe, which are so much bigger and more powerful than the individual that they would seem to bulldoze all free will, all private emotion. Tolstoy’s problem, perhaps. Even Patrick O’Brian, master though he was, dealt with the horrors of battle in a way that was … how to put this? … acceptable to an armchair reader. It doesn’t shock you, it doesn’t put you off, you still enjoy it. No post traumatic stress disorder, though people must have felt it, even if repressed.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        You have just exactly described the situation in which I now, as a novelist, find myself.

        When I was interviewing Dorothy Dunnett, about 2000 years ago, one thing she did say was that when writing historical fiction, one had to soften, soften, soften…that if you were to be at all accurate, you had to have your protagonist sail very close to the wind at times, but equally that there were a few things which the reader would not tolerate in their heroes. And those were places one just couldn’t go.

        So…”I learn by going where I have to go…”

  2. Tim Vicary says:

    Great minds think alike, then. Now all that remains is to do it, for you and me both. A s I saw in a tweet: a problem well defined is a problem half solved!

  3. Very interesting post. The suffering of the civilian population is often overlooked. Even hosting a “friendly” army must have been devastating to the citizens.
    I think many armies of the time behaved in a similar manner. In a situation where there are hundreds of thousands of troops, there are going to be a wide range of experiences. Some officers are better at controlling the men than others. My point is that we can’t say all of the soldiers are good or bad. Even the best behaved troops, however, must have made life a hardship on the local population just by their consumption of resources.
    Thank you for bringing this aspect of warfare to life.

  4. One of the most brilliant, appalling , horrific graphics I’ve seen maps six variables of Napoleon’s Russian campaign–an army of close to 500,000 was reduced to much less than one tenth that number… For what? Then, too, I’ve heard it said that Britain would not have been able to sustain its side of the war without the wealth of India supporting Britain’s supply lines. Fascinating, tragic stuff–thanks for presenting some of its uglier truths.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The most devastating graphics I’ve seen on Napoleon’s Russian campaign are in the back of Adam Zamoyski’s 1812, which show, country by country the number of troops sent and where and when in the campaign those numbers dwindled and then how many returned.

      Britain did require outside ‘help’ in order to supply its troops. For the years of 1809-1812, flour and wheat from the United States was shipped directly to Wellington’s troops in Spain–Britain was having a series of very bad harvests due to the mini-Ice Age.

      Also, yes, particularly after Trafalgar, Britain’s trade did support the war effort in Europe–it was British subsidies which paid for the uniforms, troops, muskets and everything besides–the overall amount they shelled out is staggering. Although, it should be added that British taxes went sky-high during this period as well, in order to pay for the war–it’s the first time income tax is introduced, for example.

  5. No diatribe at all. Interesting discussion, however. Because I loved your first two books I purchased and also checked out from the library quite a number of books on Napoleon. My first book had me thinking – wow, what a genius at warfare…and had he wondering why my history books and teachers during school years had never said anything positive about Napoleon. Then I kept reading. Your representation of events are spot on, and I am left wondering how I would have responded had I been there. Am I weird like that? I depend on gifted writers such as yourself to take me there and live through a taste. Yes, I can only digest a taste of those horrors. However, because of writers such as yourself, my soul gains a small portion of human sympathy and understanding. Just a final note from your Chicago fan – I loved your opening paragraph on this post.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Oh! Oh my goodness! Thank you so much.

      Napoleon was a genius at warfare–at least in the years leading up to Austerlitz and just after. By 1810, 1811, he’d got sloppy and his adversaries had got better. By 1813, he was an atrophied mess.

      The accounts of civilian suffering are frequently hard to come by–because in one way, Napoleon’s such a military genius and one cannot help but be dazzled by that. But another reason is that–at least for an English-speaking and reading audience–the accounts are all in German or Russian or Dutch and often they haven’t been translated and anyway, our geography when it comes to Central Europe is so poor we don’t have a flaming clue where these places are, what language they spoke, and how they were governed anyway. Only when one is talking about the Peninsula can one find a great deal of information and that’s because there were British troops there, writing in English and writing home and to their military masters, but also because such a famous artist–Goya–painted and engraved what he saw.

      I’m so pleased, so very pleased, that the books have touched you deeply though. Wow and holy wow! That just makes my week!

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