A Progress Report…

You know that part of a project when you’ve got about a billion different elements clanging about in your head demanding recognition and attention and to be top dog and you know all of them are probably important or essential but you can’t for the life of you sort out how to make anything other than goulash out of the whole mess–maybe a bit more paprika will help?  Well, it’s rather like that.

europe1815A break-through occurred on a day-trip with my rather ingenious and maths-minded daughter a bit ago, when I put forward my difficulty with all the research (no, I am not going to tell you how many tomes or how many languages…) and asked if she could see her way to organising it all for me.  She, being very whizzy at these sorts of problems, had three different solutions in about 30 seconds.  All of which were excellent.  (I hate that.  It’s so breathtakingly easy and she makes it all seem so obvious…)

So we spent several days together with me downloading the contents of my brain and the many books and journals into her magic notebook, which she then turned into a frighteningly efficient thing for cross-referencing as well as a series of maps and other such intellectual delights…we still have several volumes to go.

But it was at this point, when she looked at the pages and pages of notes she’d made, the outsize cast of historical personages (I hadn’t even mentioned the fictional additions…) that she observed, “No wonder you’ve had problems.  This is like a game of chess with twenty players!

“For heaven’s sake, you’ve got five separate armies on the move…”

And that pretty much sums it up.  (Okay, yah, there are a great many generals and staff officers with Russian and Prussian surnames, I admit that…)

But since then, since then–and even with the delicious manifold diversions offered by the Christmas season–progress has not only seemed possible, but has got underway.  Of course, no one is more astonished at this than self.  But there it is.

NPG 891,Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Lord Castlereagh),by Sir Thomas LawrenceA new opening chapter has presented itself which makes brilliant sense of all sorts of things and which just popped out of the too many notebooks of research notes and I find myself in the unusual position of being quite positive, hopeful and even feeling a bit of the old Bennetts wit returning to the page…

So that’s me.  Yes, a trifle overwhelmed by the too much that I know, but with help gaining some sense of control over it all…and you know what that means, don’t you?  That means a book will dribble itself out of my thoughts onto the page and into your hands eventually.

So thanks for all the support, cheer, and encouragement.  It’s meant more than you’ll ever know…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

[do follow me on Twitter: @mmbennetts ]


My Journey with Jane Austen…

Over the last little while, I have got to know a rather splendid person, one I’ve come to admire immensely.  Her name is Sue Pomeroy and she’s the director of a film-to-be about Jane Austen…

You know, there’s so much hype and chatter and all sorts about Austen’s work these days, but so often, at least to me, she seems to have got lost in it all.  Forgotten.  And perhaps it was that which made me warm so much to Sue and her ideas.  Because she puts Jane herself back into the picture.  And I love that.  I just love it.  And I thought you would too.

Ovecoming Pride & Prejudice coverSo without further ado, please welcome Sue Pomeroy talking about her Journey with Jane Austen

“My first encounter with Jane Austen was on a school trip to a stage production of – I think it must have been Emma.

“All I remember was an old fashioned ‘box set’ and actors wandering about with cups of tea in tights and carpet slippers, speaking very archly.  It was a total turn off and it put me off Jane Austen for years.  If that was the best Jane Austen could offer I wanted nothing more to do with her.

“The highlight of the evening was when one of the students dropped a box of Maltesers in the back row and they all bounced down under the staggered seats for ages.  That at least made us laugh.

“How wrong first impressions can sometimes be!  As the plot of her novel of that name reveals, sometimes first impressions prove to be the exact opposite of the truth.

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

“When I turned back to Jane Austen some years later to read Pride and Prejudice I realised how wrong I had been in my estimation of her.  I had reacted to the creaky theatre production and not to her at all.  So, somewhat humbled, I started afresh with a rediscovery of this rather brilliant novelist.

“The other major factor in my re-assessment of Jane Austen was my stay in East Berlin.  Strange, but true.

“I was thrilled to be awarded an arts bursary to work behind the Berlin Wall with the world famous Berliner Ensemble.  What an amazing experience that was.

“One of the things I saw at very close quarters were the tactics employed by writers and playwrights to step around the censorship of the communist regime, and get their ideas across.  For instance there were no less than three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in East Berlin during one season, which bemused me – until I realised they were using ‘the Wall’ in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, acted out by the rude mechanicals as a comment on the ‘die Mauer’, the Berlin wall.

“The more productions I saw in East Berlin the clearer it became – writers were using symbolism, humour and comedy as well as adaptations of classical work, to communicate their ideas. The audience knew this and were looking out for all the clues to the author’s real views.  In a repressive regime you have to employ all sorts of inventive ways to step around the political restrictions.

“That opened my eyes when I got back to reading Jane Austen.  It was her delicious wit and mischievous sense of humour that allowed her to find her own unique voice and deal with issues that would not have been considered palatable for a woman to voice openly in Regency England!

20130609_151400“She exposes hypocrisy within the church, the obsequious behaviour of the landed gentry to anyone of title, the blind obsession among the upper classes with breeding, the limited opportunity for intelligent women when a good marriage offered their best, and only, chance of happiness.

“In the period in which she was writing, novels were dealing with fantasy, great adventures, romantic extremism and epic subjects.  Jane on the other hand created novels which reflected the real world which she observed in great detail.  She had strong opinions and her characters played out her views on the world she lived in.  I am sure she got away with it through her wit and comedy.

“By the time I was working on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was smitten.  The more I worked on the adaptation, the more Jane Austen’s novel resembled a beautifully crafted cut jewel, shimmering as you hold it up to the light.

JA1“We took the production on an extensive UK tour of No 1 theatres at the same time as the BBC series was broadcast, and enjoyed the same rapturous reception.  It was fascinating to see the audience response to the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.  They picked up all the nuances of the hidden barb, the ‘off the cuff’ witticism, the send up satire. As readers would have done when first reading the novel, published during Jane’s own lifetime.

“Over the years, I feel I have become closer and closer to Jane Austen.  I feel I have got to know her as a person.  And my feelings toward her are of the greatest admiration, and an almost sisterly pride in her achievements.  I also feel a little protective of her.  To watch the public enthusiasm for her work grow to such proportions is breath taking.  And I sometimes wonder when I hear the experts pronouncing on her work, see the opulent screen adaptations and observe the universal delight in dressing up in frocks and breeches, what would Jane have made of it all?

JA2“I see her in her modest cottage in Chawton, writing away quietly, leaving the squeaky door so she could hide her papers when someone came in and I wonder if we have forgotten her individual journey to bring those novels to fruition and then to publication. Hers was not an easy life, as a poor country parson’s daughter, and it became less easy after her father died and she and her mother and sister had to rely on the generosity of others to get by.

“Her sense of humour, her love of family and her deep faith must have sustained her through some of the difficult times, but I do feel for her.  My heart goes out to her. This single woman, writing, keeping the flame of hope and love alive.

“That has been the catalyst for wanting to make this film. The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is wonderful, but amid all the adulation and admiration and commercialisation I see a woman at her desk, in a small English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving.  I want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year, and the people we have met on our journey to film them.

“But before we all get carried away with the delight and the fun of it all, I want to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story.  To look at what it must have taken to write six brilliant novels as a woman at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and how Jane overcame the pride and prejudice of her own life and times to become a published author.  That’s what my film will be exploring.


Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about Jane Austen’s life and work.

Fuschia Films logoTo find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/.

For more on Fuchsia Films see http://www.fuschiafilms.com

For regular updates follow the project on twitter @JaneAustenFilm and @FuschiaFilmsLtd

and www.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice


Reflections on the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813)

Leipzig4I’ve just completed a brief segment for a television programme on the Battle of Leipzig…and I’ll be frank, I think I sounded a complete numpty. So I thought I’d jot down a few bits of what I should have said and would have said if I’d had my wits about me, rather than…er…whatever it was I did say.

So let me begin by saying that the Battle of Leipzig, or the Battle of the Nations as it’s often called, was the game-changer of the Napoleonic wars, and Napoleon’s loss there opened the door for the invasion of France in early 1814 and eventually his abdication in April of that year.

So what happened to turn the Emperor of France and the Victor of Europe into the world’s biggest loser.  Well, let me put it to you this way, a lot of things just went hideously wrong on the day.  And when I say hideous, I mean inconceivably hideous.

napoleon1814For a start, there was the French army itself.  You may recall that when he lost those 450,000 men in Russia the previous year, well, when he’d got back to Paris on the 18 December, on the 19th at a levee, he’d announced that by spring he would need a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops.  I can only guess at the boggling that went on behind his back.

The authorities did their best, but by October of 1813, the Nouveau Grande Armee was still an army comprised of raw recruits.  The seasoned veterans which had been the glue holding the whole together for over a decade were all gone–dead in the snows of Russia.  So too were thousands of the officers.  As for the French cavalry–they’d been pretty much wiped out by the Russian campaign, and they couldn’t be put back together again–France simply didn’t have the horses.  At all.

Another thing had happened in the meantime too, and that was, the three main armies of the Allied forces–the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians–had all instituted sweeping reforms to their military structures so that the combined armies of the Allies were not the same badly led badly trained troops that Napoleon had faced and walloped previously.

Moreover all of the Allied forces were now driven by a patriotic fervour to rid Europe of the enslaving French…

leipzig3Let me quote for you the order of the day which was read out to the troops from the Allied command on the morning of the 16th:  “Brave soldiers!  The most important epoch of this holy war is at hand.  The decisive hour is striking.  Prepare yourselves for battle!  The bond which unites mighty nations in one great enterprise will be drawn closer and tighter on the battlefield.  Russians!  Prussians!  Austrians!  You fight for a cause!  You fight for the independence of Europe, for the freedom of your sons, for the immortality of your name!  All for one!  One for all!  Victory is yours!”

On that first day of the battle, things were pretty evenly matched.  There were mistakes of course, and the fighting was fierce.

The Allied forces surrounded Leipzig from the north, south and east, but the west remained open and Napoleon, at the end of the day, had he had his wits about him, could have forseen that they’d fought each other to a draw and the wise move would have been to sue for peace and an orderly withdrawal…

But that’s what he didn’t do.  Because Napoleon was at heart an obsessive gambler and he was convinced as he always was that just one more throw of the dice at double or nothing stakes would deliver the victory he craved.

leipzig2On the 17th, there were minor skirmishes, but both sides were resting their troops.  But then on the 18th, all of those many mistakes caught up with the Emperor.  The weather was appalling and mired his troops in mud as they attempted to manoeuvre into place.  Due to his lack of cavalry and thus reconaissance, he didn’t have accurate reports on the Allied dispositions or troop numbers. Overnight, large reinforcements had arrived in the Allied camp, so that he and his 160,000 troops now faced an Allied army of 300,000 troops.  He was running low on supplies and ammunition.

All during the 18th, both sides fought like tigers.  By the late evening, it was clear that the Allies had won the day.  The Allies had over 60,000 casualties; French losses were in the region of 40,000…and by 2 a.m., Napoleon had given the order for retreat.

The battered French troops began streaming out of Leipzig over the western bridge even as the Allied troops rallied and threw themselves once more into the breach with a ferocity which stunned the French.  The narrow streets and lanes of Leipzig were crammed and locked with the wagonloads of wounded, guns, and soldiers…

Then, an even greater catastrophe occurred.  The chappie who’d been ordered to blow up the bridge after the French had fled the city got his timing or his charge wrong and blew the bridge while there were men on it and while many French were now trapped within the city walls.

Again, let me give you an eye-witness report, this from the French Marechal Macdonald:  “Our unhappy troops were crowded together on the river bank, whole platoons plunged into the water and were carried away; cries of despair rose from all sides.  The men perceived me.  Despite the noise and the tumult, I distinctly heard these words:  ‘Monsieur le Marechal, save your men!’ I could do nothing for them!  Overcome by rage, indignation, fury, I wept!”

leipzig6The French retreat was the antithesis of orderly; it was chaos–with many abandoning their field guns, deserting, and many more contracting typhus as they ran away.  The Allied troops swept into the city of Leipzig and in so doing brought the number of French prisoners to over 30,000.   To be honest, the French army never recovered.

Meanwhile, those French prisoners of war fell victim to their own folly–before the battle, in fits of rage and destruction, they had pillaged widely, throwing on the fire whatever they could not consume.  Indeed, they ripped up hundreds of fruit trees from beyond the city walls and fed these to the fires as well.  Thus, as prisoners of war, there was literally nothing to feed them and they starved to death, or survived by eating the flesh of the dead horses, or even, according to some eye-witnesses their fallen comrades.

Over 600,000 men had taken part in this four-day battle.   But of the many losses, Napoleon’s were the worst, for he could not replace them–he’d already exhausted France of her young men for this New Grande Armee and there simply were no new recruits to be had.

Indeed, he had so impoverished France with his war-lust, that in the spring of 1814, when the Prussians–keen for revenge and lots of pillage–invaded France, their letters home tell of unspeakable poverty–they write that although they had meant to pillage and rob, there was nothing to take and the French peasants were so destitute, they made Prussian peasants look like wealthy burghers…

And finally, the Battle of the Nations taught the Allied leaders the one thing they’d always doubted:  they could win; they could defeat the military genius of Napoleon–he’d never been beaten before, but now victory could be theirs!

And it was…

(And it would take poor France another 75 years to recover…)

One man’s hero is another man’s…

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the historical PR that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century recently.  In particular, the carefully fostered impression that the US and the UK were centuries’ long allies with a ‘special relationship’ and all that–a mindset that was, of course, born out of the vicissitudes of two World Wars…

It’s a thing I think about a great deal, actually.  Because the research I’ve been doing over the last two to three years has taught me that 200 years ago, the opposite was true.

And this makes things–all kinds of things–a bit tricky, because whilst I write historical fiction and very much appreciate my American readership, I do try to mirror the attitudes and mores of those who lived in the Napoleonic period as closely as I can.  And a great many of those attitudes and mores are simply not what my contemporary readers might expect or even approve of…

Equally, I’m often struck too by sets of circumstances which in one country led to one thing whilst in another these same sorts of events were glossed over or whitewashed.

Permit me to explain.

boston 1770On 5 March 1770, at the corner of King Street in Boston, Massachusetts, there was a bijou fracas-ette in which a mob of locals formed around a British sentry, giving him lip–was he a youngish lad?  Frightened by being surrounded and harassed?  Who knows?  At any rate, this crowd of mouthie Bostonians were just getting warmed up with the verbal abuse and then they started lobbing things.  Stones?  Rotten tomatoes?  Handfuls of muck?

At some point during the escalating row, another eight British troops joined our sentry, eventually firing into the crowd.  Three people were killed outright; several others were wounded.  And two more people later died of their wounds.

And this incident, also known as the Boston Massacre, is one of those seminal events that led directly to the American Revolution, proving as it did how viciously unfit and anti-liberty those nasty-wasty tyrants the British were.  I mean, it was an absolute gift in the propaganda war promulgated by all sorts of fellows including Paul Revere and friends.  And don’t we all cheer.

(It should be mentioned here that one officer, eight soldiers and four civilians were arrested, then charged with murder. Defended by John Adams, the lawyer and future president, six of the soldiers were acquitted, two were convicted of  manslaughter and given the reduced sentence of being branded on their hand.  Strangely, this part of the story is usually omitted by the pro-rebel propagandists…)

blucherAnyway, here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading the biography of Field-Marshal Prince Blucher, the Prussian general who fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo, defeating Napoleon, as written by Blucher’s own Chief of Staff, General Gneisenau–so plenty of eye-witness accounting here.

And when discussing the independent city-state of Hamburg, known before 1810 (when Napoleon decided to annex it) as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburgh, Gneisenau writes:

“Enormous were the exactions which Napoleon imposed and levied; cruel and relentless the robberies and spoliations that were committed and justified by his Satraps so as utterly to destroy and undermine for a series of years, the opulence and prosperity of this venerable head of the House league…

“On the 24th February 1813, when the French authorities, both civil and military, made evident preparations to evacuate the place, and leave it to its fate, the populace were not backward in expressing their sentiments of freedom and detestation of their tyrants, both vehemently and loudly.  The arms of Napoleon were torn down, and treated with every mark of contempt, the custom-house offices sacked and demolished, and several other acts of popular fury were committed.  

“Six persons were, in consequence, arrested by order of General Carra St. Cyr, and dragged before a military tribunal; their trial was of the most summary kind, no witnesses were confronted, no counsel allowed, and, after a short hour of examination, they were sentenced to be shot as traitors, in having aided an insurrection…they were inhumanly hurried to the place of execution, and into eternity…Never were liberty, justice and the natural rights of mankind more flagrantly violated, than in this instance.

Hamburg 1812“Such are some of the infamous deeds of a few of those flagitious miscreants and followers of Napoleon, who have wantonly stained with innocent blood every city, and every river, from the Scheldt to the Elbe, and from the Rhine to the Danube; evincing in all their actions a marked disdain and mockery of religion, and an avowed opposition to every thing sacred in the laws, customs, and governments of other countries.”

Gneisenau also writes of Hamburgh:  “An official and moderate estimate states the total amount of the losses caused to this city and its environs by d’Avoust [whom Gneisenau calls one of Napoleon’s Satraps] at thirteen millions sterling.  

“The population was reduced from 120,000 to 40,000 souls; more than 1500 houses were either burnt or demolished; and by d’Avoust’s unnatural, stubborn, and vindictive cruelty, more than 1600 families were stripped of their bedding, furniture, and cattle, turned out to live under the canopy of heaven, in the midst of a severe winter, and, in short, became beggars on the high roads.”

I can also tell you that during this period the independent wealth and hard-earned prosperity of Hamburg was leveled to an unending prospect of lack, poverty and wretched unemployment:  At the beginning of the Napoleonic wars Hamburg had over 400 sugar factories.  By 1812, only 3 were left, the rest victims of the pernicious Continental System which prevented the importation of raw materials from outside Europe into any port under French control.

But, besides me and probably a handful of German historians, who knows of the wretched history of this wealthy vibrant city, the loss of their liberty and their lives, by acts such as this?

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauIs it a cause celebre universally recognised as fuelling the fight for German liberation against Napoleonic despotism?  Is there any recognition that atrocities and tyranny were the legacy of Napoleonic occupation across Europe, rather than being an aberration suffered only by the Spanish?

I don’t think so.  Quite the opposite even.  And curiously, at the time that these events were unfolding 200 years ago, those sons of liberty in the fledgling United States (which had just fought with such ferocity against the tyranny of George III, under the banners of “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me”) were allies of Napoleonic France–that nation referred to by Gneisenau as “a brotherhood of butchers”.

Nor that one would know any of this if one were to visit Paris–a city I love, don’t get me wrong–for there, one encounters the PR-perfect image of Napoleon the just, Napoleon the liberator, Napoleon the airbrushed uber-hero with all his jolly, merry, urbane marshals and men.  Quite the little imperial Robin Hood’s band, weren’t they?

Which therefore for me is a problem.  Because that’s not what he was, that’s not who he was, and that’s not how his contemporaries saw him.  At all.

And this was brought home to me rather forcefully in this letter, written by Horatio, Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and Trafalgar, which recently went under the hammer…

HoratioNelsonNelson wrote: “I hate rebels, I hate traitors, I hate tyranny come from where it will. I have seen much of the world, and I have learnt from experience to hate and detest republics.

“There is nothing but tyranny & oppression, I have never known a good act done by a Republican, it is contrary to his character under the mask of Liberty.  He is a tyrant, a many headed monster that devours your happiness and property. Nothing is free from this monster’s grasp.  A republic has no affection for its subjects.

“A King may be ill advised and act wrong, a Republic never acts right, for a knot of villains support each other, and together they do what no single person dare attempt.  

“I pray God this war was over and a monarch placed on the throne of France, not that I like any Frenchman be he royalist or be he republican, but the French republicans have shown themselves such villains.  I form not my opinion, My Dear Lord, from others, no it is from what I have seen.  They are thieves, murderers, oppressors and infidels, therefore what faith can we hold with these people.”

He is considered the consummate Englishman of the period, the hero for all time…

And that, and those views as expressed by him and by his Prussian and Russian contemporaries, those are what they really thought.  No PR, no whitewash, no political correctness…

How will my modern readers cope?

200 Years Ago ~ the Theatre of War was in Saxony…

I feel as though I’ve abandoned my many faithful readers, recently.  Treating you all to silence where there should have been erudition and wisdom or all sorts of exciting knowledge.  Or something.

I also feel I should be writing.  Seriously writing.  But I’ve not been doing that either.

All I can offer in my defense is fine weather–the likes of which we’ve not experienced for a year.  Hence I’ve been in the garden, removing the jungle of weeds from the flowerbeds…and after all the rain and foul weather, finding numerous gaps where charming perennials used to flourish.  I think it’s safe to say they drowned, bless ’em.  Ay, me.

So, what I shall I tell you about now?  Hmn.

Well, it’s something I should have perhaps mentioned last week, which marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lutzen.

Where, you say?  Lutzen.

It’s in what would now be southern Germany.  But 200 years ago, it was in the kingdom of Saxony.

Also, it wasn’t the first time that Lutzen had been the site of a great battle either.  The first time for that was 1632…but let’s focus on the events of 200 years ago, shall we?

Let me start by bringing you up to date with the action in central Europe.

Europe 1812You’ll recall that following his calamitous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon, having lost some 90% of his army of 500,000 plus men, and all their accoutrements, had scarpered home ahead of the few desperate survivors, and had said, when he reached Paris on December 18th, “I know!  Let’s build a new Grande Armee of 350,000 men!  Isn’t that a clever idea?  It’ll be just the ticket!”

(I’m paraphrasing…)

Napoleon also demanded that the lost equine element of his Grande Armee be replaced, and thus ordered some 175,000 horses be found for it.  However, even with the requisitioning of private horses and farm animals, only 29,000 horses could be found–and this lack would cost the French dear.

But what of the Russians, whose lands he and his armies had defiled?

Well, they had lost a raft of men at Borodino, make no mistake about that.  But they did have the benefit of a home court advantage, so they had withdrawn beyond Moscow and to the south and there, had spent the time recuperating, rebuilding, restoring…

alexander 1814Meanwhile, the Tsar, rather than accept–as Napoleon expected him to–that he had lost (because Napoleon said so, it must be true…), mobilised more forces, used the time for military training, and requisitioning vast quantities of fodder, of wheat, bought muskets and uniforms from Britain, etc.

And, keeping the French rearguard perpetually busy and in a state of some terror as they retreated, the Cossack bands harassed and plagued them across the plains of Russia as they staggered home, across Poland, and into Prussia.

Also, initially behind the Kaiser’s back, the Prussians had broken with France and entered into an alliance with Russia, and had begun to re-arm and on the 17th March, the Prussians declared war on France.  By late April of 1813, the Prussians had an army (not all of the them the greatest thing ever, but what they lacked in military science, they more than made up for in fervour) of some 110,000 men under the command of the fierce General Blucher.

Meanwhile, the Cossacks had kept up their drive to push the French back and back.  And it was they, under the leadership of General Prince Chernyshev, who had pushed the Frogs back across the Oder and then out of the Prussian capital, Berlin, (they were also chucked out of Hamburg) abandoning territory and fortresses like mad and they fled west and south across the Elbe, eventually holing up in and round the city of Magdeburg.

Nor was the main body of  the Russian army idle.  By April 1813, the Tsar had called up even more troops, and had mobilised the army (and their many, many horses) to move west across Lithuania and Poland in order to meet up with their Prussian allies.  Initially, they were still under the command of the veteran Field Marshall Kutuzov, but he died in Bunzlau on the 28th April.  Alexander appointed General Wittgenstein to take his place.

Moreover, the Russians and Prussians were engaged in secret negotiations with the Austrians, urging them to join abandon Napoleon and join them in a new coalition against him.

As the end of April approached, Napoleon was advancing from Erfurt toward Leipzig… (Saxony had been avoided in the past by his armies, therefore to an army which fed off the land, Saxony was an ideal place to be stationed–it was rich and the girls were buxom and pretty…)

Now, you’ll recall what I said about the French army’s lack of horses?  Yes, well, this is where that paucity began to show as it meant that among other things, Napoleon’s forces didn’t have enough mounted men to send them out to either forage or to bring back intelligence about enemy’s troop numbers or positions.  (Awkward, very awkward.)

napo-creepOn the evening of the 1st May, then, Napoleon instructed Marechal Ney to move in and take Lutzen and the villages to the south…his plan was that Ney and his troops would provide cover for the full French advance.  Obviously, he ordered Ney to send out patrols and check out the lay of the land.  Ehem.  Well, that just didn’t happen.

Therefore on the 2nd May, the Allies observed said detachment of French troops under Marechal Ney approaching Lutzen–just north of where the allied line was deployed–and this, to the allies, seemed an ideal opportunity for an ambush and a quick victory over the French.

It would prove a harder fought battle than either side anticipated.  Initially, the strength lay with the allies, who mightily outnumbered the French troops:  the combined Allied forces were some 57,000 troops facing Ney’s 8ooo and the remainder of Ney’s III’d corps.

battle of lutzen2

So…by midmorning, the Russian-Prussian command had those 57,000 troops led by Blucher in place.  And at 11.30:  “Surprise!”

By 12.30, Blucher was ordering the guns to begin pounding the French positions.  The sound of the guns carried to old Ney, who had the shock of his life, one understands.  Napoleon (who was some way off) also heard the guns roaring…

At perhaps half past two, Napoleon therefore arrived on the battlefield with the Young Guard, amidst many shouted “Vivat’s!”  And it was his presence which steadied Ney’s somewhat wobbley III’d division.

His presence does something else too, it shakes Wittgenstein’s nerve–so he doesn’t press home the advantages he has.

Anyway.  It’s a day long hard slog, with French troops fighting the determined Prussians to take, to fall back, to storm and retake and to re-lose the various villages around the place–Klein Gorschen, Rahna, Kaja and Gross Gorschen–in fierce hand to hand fighting, over the stone garden walls…until the bodies were stacked against them.

By four in the afternoon, the main Allied Army complete with the Russian Guard led by Tsar Alexander had arrived on the scene.   But Napoleon was throwing his troops into the fray like mad…

blucherField Marshall Blucher was wounded in the back and had to be removed from the field–he was bleeding so heavily he thought he was dying.  General Scharnhorst also was wounded–fatally as it turned out.  Hence local command fell to Yorck…

By 6.00 in the early evening, Napoleon had got some 80 guns into place to fire at close range into the Allied line, and once that was underway, he himself led the final attack of the Young Guard, giving the order, “La Garde au Feu!”  And at that point, the entire Allied line dissolved and fell back in great disorder.

Now we get to the tricksy part though.  The French had 20,000 casualties.  The Allies, 18,000.  Or according to a separate source, the French lost 19,655, while the Prussians lost some 8500 and the Russians 3500.  But, because the Allies left the field at the end of the day, leaving the French in possession of it, the French claimed Lutzen as a victory–even though they had a greater number of casualties.

Then something else happened, which really shook the French up.  They were, let us say, unprepared for the efficiency and orderliness of the Russian army’s method of retreat.  So, in the morning of the 3rd, when they rose to go pick over the field, foraging for uniforms, teeth from fallen soldiers, saddles on dead horses, boots, muskets, valuables, jewelry…they found nothing.

There were no Allied corpses, no abandoned guns, no forgotten flags, no lost rucksacks full of rations, nothing.  The Russian rearguard had collected everything and had withdrawn with it in perfect order.  And it completely and totally freaked out the French soldiers.  I mean, it gave them the full-on heebie-jeebies.  They didn’t know what to make of it–and in a way, more effectively than anything else that might have happened, it threw them off their stride.  For let’s face it, these guys lived for plunder!

The Allies withdrew further east, to a place called Bautzen, and regrouped.

100_1536Old Papa Blucher didn’t die, but he was kept off a horse for several weeks and made to ride in a carriage, which he didn’t much like.  And even then, he kept, to his surgeon’s dismay, breaking open his wound because he wouldn’t stay still…

And all the while, more Russian troops kept arriving from the east…and more Prussian troops–especially those of the Landwehr–kept at their military training and were sent to the front…

He didn’t know it, still less would he admit it, but it was the beginning of the end for Napoleon…

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?

Historical and/or literary digestion ~ Notes on writing

At the moment, I’m deeply immersed in reading eye-witness accounts of the Napoleonic campaigns, from the spring of 1813 through the autumn of that year, culminating in the battle to end all battles, the Battle of Leipzig.  Fought over three days in October, from the 16th to the 19th, and also known as the Battle of the Nations.  And it was fought, basically, by everyone–Russians, Austrians, Prussians, Swedes–against Napoleon and his Grande Armee.

And what these survivors are telling me is so much more poignant and truly horrifying than anything I could have imagined.  Nor is there any of the propaganda that has over the past two centuries skewed our vision of what they experienced in this War to end all wars. 

This is from Louis von Kaisenberg, who wrote to his father from Kassel on 18 February 1813, about the return of the survivors of the Russian invasion and about the terrible cost of Napoleon’s wars: 

When I recall the day on which we saw the troops march away from here in the glittering uniforms and all the freshness of youth, each man filled with hopes of winning fame and honour, and now!  We stared at the poor wretches, their heads and feet wrapped in tatters, the upper part of the body covered with rags of every possible material or else with straw matting.  Even hides, still full of dried blood, covered their nakedness. 

The expression in the pallid features was a terrible one, their eyes stared from their white, lined faces as if they could still see all the horrors which had lain in wait for them on the icy steppes of Russia; and their words sounded hollow and rough, as though cries of pain had made them hoarse.

Most of the poor devils could hardly drag themselves forward, so great was their exhaustion and sickness.  Their faces, blackened from the smoke of camp-fires, covered with weeks-old dirt from the roads, eaten away by every conceivable disease like gangrene, and gnawed by vermin, stared out of their rags with a ghostly expression…

Is it possible, dear father, that one human being can have such power in the world that he can bring all this hundred thousand-fold misfortune upon his fellow beings?  Will Almighty God not step in to remove this one man from the position in which he sits omnipotent?

But the remnants of the French Grande Armee were only the latest casualties of Napoleonic meglomania, for over the next several months, others were to write of what they were experiencing. 

(I have long wondered–though few historians ever talk about them–what of the civilian populations at this period?  Well, now I know the answers…)

General Antoine-Baudouin-Gisbert van Dedam van der Gelder, commanding a brigade under Napoleon wrote:

The French were to complain loudly when their allies deserted them during the famous days of Leipzig, but I venture to ask them whether they would tolerate humiliations and bad treatment from allies more powerful than themselves, and whether they would not turn against men who devastated their country, burning and plundering everything, beating and raping without redress being made and oblivious to every complaint.  Well!  That is what the Saxons and other Germans have been suffering for years…

Indeed!  There were even songs making the rounds in 1806, following the Battle of Jena.  The Prussian song went like this: 
Frau entfuhren,
Haus verlieren,
Nicht rasonnieren,
Und doch illuminieren:
Das ist doch zum krepieren.

(Marching troops, billeting, feeding, requisitioning, registration, wives abducted, householders evicted, and no argument allowed.) 

While the opposite side of the coin, as sung by the French troops during the plunder of Weimar:

Mettons le feu a toutes maisons! 
Venons a cinquante, cinq cent! 
Chiens, brigands, paysans,
Ouvrez donc la porte!  Panc! 

(Let’s drink, let’s burn, let’s rape!  Put to the torch all houses…Well, you get the gist…)

And this was what was still going on, even on the morning of 16 October, the first day of fighting in the Battle of Leipzig, as observed by a librarian in the town, Karl Egon Ebert:

That the immense crowd of people gathered in Leipzig could not fail to cause disorder and damage was to be foreseen; but that such devastation should occur could only have been imagined by someone who had already abandoned all faith in humanity. 

As the Army’s magazines were soon emptied, and no fresh supplies could be hoped for; and as storms howled dreadfully during these awful autumn days a great deal had to be excused on grounds of urgent need, whenever a soldier who had hardened his heart against all gentler feelings took food where he could find any and dragged away anything that could be used for burning so as to warm himself by the flames or to provide some sort of shelter against the violent weather. 

But when houses were deliberately pulled down, gardens maliciously destroyed, magnificent orchards either cut down or damaged quite needlessly, the villagers’ few remaining belongings stolen and destroyed by the French soldiers, and, finally, when during the early days such food as was found was ruined with devilish spite in the most wicked and shocking way–then even the most fanatical supporters of the French could say nothing except ‘That’s war!’

And what was Napoleon himself doing at this time? 

A medium-sized table from a farm-house was placed on the stubble field [on the Galgenberg–Gallows Hill] with a chair behind it.  Near by a huge watch-fire was blazing.  A map of the district had been nailed to the table because the weather was rough and stormy.  Most of the time Napoleon held, but seldom used, a small telescope–his sole instrument…

When Napoleon rode off to the battle, he looked sombre, withdrawn and somewhat rigid; but as soon as the first thunder of cannon sounded his taciturn face lit up.  He became talkative and animated, though his expression remained domineering and solemn, but not sullen…

On his walks he occasionally fell in with parties of wounded men, some of them in a pitiable condition.  As they were brought past him, he did not spare them a glance or move towards them:  the whole matter left him quite indifferent.

The statistics from this three-day battle make the situation even clearer.  Napoleon’s forces numbered 203,133 men and 738 guns.  The Allied forces were composed of 361,942 troops and 1,456 guns.

When the battle concluded and Napoleon and his French troops retreated in great disorder from the scene on the night of 18 October and well into the next day, 397 of his officers had been killed and 2,546 had been wounded. 

Among the other ranks, at least 43,500 had been killed or wounded; 8000 wounded were captured on the battlefields, and an additional 15,000 sick and wounded were taken captive from the Leipzig hospitals.  Another 15,000 unwounded officers and men were captured.  And 5,400 Saxons went over to the enemy.

However, over the next days, it became apparent that Napoleon had lost even more men through desertion–for of his 175,000-strong Grande Armee, he crossed the River Saale with fewer than 80,000 men.

The Allies fared far better, losing 1,792 officers and 51,982 men from a total of 361,942 men and 1,456 guns. 

(I know–that’s lots of numbers.  But at least one can gain a sense of the scale of this horrific battle from them…)

And it’s the combination of eye-watering statistics and painful first-hand accounts which are requiring the greatest philosophical digestion.  And this is due to a few things Shakespeare wrote–as highlighted recently by the historian, Simon Schama, when discussing how 400 years ago, Shakespeare (in an age of absolute monarchy!) was daring to address the issues of kingship, the burden of it, the responsibilities of it, the successes or failures of the man wearing a crown.  And it’s this that I’m most deeply pondering. 

For Shakespeare’s great military hero-monarch is Henry V.  And this is what he says on the eve of battle:

“Upon the King!  Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King!”
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what are thou, thou idol Ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!

Here though is a bit of the letter, written by the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army, General Schwarzenberg, to his wife, on the evening of the Battle of Leipzig.

When I look out of my window and see the countless watch-fires outstretched before me, and when I consider that I face the greatest military commander of our age, and one of the greatest of all time, a veritable emperor or battles, then, my dear Nani, I must admit that I feel my shoulders are too weak and will collapse under the gigantic task which weighs upon them. 

But when I gaze up at the stars, I recall that He who controls them has also marked out my course.  If it is His will that right shall prevail, and I hold our cause to be just that, then His wisdom will enlighten me and give me strength…

If all goes well, then I shall enjoy my life with you and the children, and we shall once again plant and tend our trees.

One war.  A myriad of different emotions and stories–so many of them dreadful beyond telling.  Yet Shakespeare managed, didn’t he?  He never shied from the truth, did Shakespeare?  Not even about war.  He didn’t prettify or softenthe edges–even though his audience included kings and queens who might not love his blistering honesty.

Yet, without hesitation, he delved into the darkest recesses of burdened souls and secretly breaking hearts, and always turned these explorations into a paradigm of literary and historical beauty–even a most terrible beauty that sears our minds even as we revel in its perfection. 

A thing to aim for surely.  And perhaps, this is my answer to a question that’s been kicked about recently on various fora–which writers influence you?  To whom do you return again and again to learn how to write?