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 Today ~ The Surrender and the Taking of Moscow…

Following their defeat at the hands of Napoleon and the Grande Armee at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians fell back to tend to their wounded and work out what to do next. 

Although the Commander-in-Chief, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, had given his word to the Tsar that he would never allow the French to take the capital, Moscow, it increasingly looked as though the Russians had no alternative.  

If they fought the French at the gates of the city, in the state they were, the Russian army would undoubtedly be destroyed.  Which would mean both capital and the army would be lost.  Continue reading

200 years ago this week v. modern life…

I’ve been slacking recently and not covering the bicentenaries as they’ve occurred.  And for that I apologise. 

But though some of that is down to mea culpa–I’ve been battling an advanced case of writers’ block, aka Writers’ Himalayas–another part is just modern technology being, er, modern technology. 

That is to say, when it works, great; when it doesn’t, not so good. 

All last weekend, the broadband connections went in and out of service.  By Tuesday it had opted for a complete demonstration of moody teenager passive resistance “Don’t want to.”  And it didn’t.  Quite successfully for nearly 24 hours. 

So, what bicentenaries have occurred in the past week? 

Well, chiefly, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, which officially commenced on 24 June 1812.

(And yes, it turned out to be one of the dumbest, most hen-witted, most inconceivable self-inflicted human disasters in the history of mankind.  He was good at setting new standards though, was Napoleon.)

So what happened, you ask? 

Well, it’s like this. 

Napoleon got the brilliant idea that he wanted to be big cheese of all of Europe.  And one of the methods by which he planned to achieve this big cheesiness was total French domination of trade on the Continent.  (Which is a simplistic view of the Continental Blockade, I know.) 

But he reckoned it was a good idea.

Sadly, the rest of the Continent didn’t find it so much fun to be without the means to trade their goods with nations such as Britain, and this brought about a great deal of unemployment, poverty, destitution, did I mention poverty, destruction of industry, food shortages, etc.  

Anyway, by 1811, Russia had decided the Continental Blockade just wasn’t, er, in their best interests economically speaking…so they’d re-opened their ports to British shipping and trade.  And this, as you will imagine, made the little Corsican despot hopping mad.  So he set about planning the demise of Russia.

(Stop laughing.  This boy thought big.)

Meanwhile, it transpires that Lord Wellington, the British Commander in Chief of the operations in the Peninsula against French troops, wasn’t the only one who’d been studying Napoleon’s “form”.  A number of Russian generals and advisors to the Tsar had as well.  And what they reckoned was that he would eventually not be able to stand the idea of anyone disobeying his will (by opening up trade with Britain once more) and would invade.  But, as I say, they’d been looking hard at how he’d won all those impressive victories at Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram…and they’d seen that what he liked best was to mass his huge army against his enemy and fight a battle of total annihilation.  And when he was directing that process, there was none better. 

But what would happen if Napoleon and his men were deprived of that “big” battle?  What would happen if they had to be on the march for months on end without ever gaining a decisive victory?  He knew (and they knew) that politically he couldn’t afford to be away from Paris for more than a year.  How would he cope with an elusive enemy who wouldn’t stand and give battle?

And this, the advisors and tacticians reckoned, was the way to destroy him.  (And they did want to destroy him.  Never doubt that.  He was hated throughout Europe and many Prussians and Russians and Italians openly referred to him as the anti-Christ.)

So, throughout the year of 1811 and during the first months of 1812, Napoleon built the greatest army Europe had ever seen.  The Grande Armee.  Numbering on paper some 590,687 troops, over 157,878 horses, he had among other things special extra-sturdy carts for transporting guns and goods all those extra miles into Russia.  And during the early months of 1812, he had all these troops massed all along the Russian border–in Prussia and Poland and Silesia.  Not only that, but the actual number of French and allied troops in the theatre of operations was more like 678,000.

(The Russian diplomat/spies working in Paris–Count Karl von Nesselrode and Prince Aleksandr Chernyshev–kept the Tsar fully informed.) 

(If you’ll remember that in 1800, the population of London stood at 1 million–that may give you some sense of scale.  His army was larger than half the population of Europe’s largest city.) 

By June, Napoleon and his troops had taken over Poland.  Thrown out the previous government and set it up along lines which suited himself and his requirements–not the wishes of the disappointed Poles who’d been hoodwinked into believing that he meant to free them and bring them liberty, fraternity and all that good stuff.  He wasn’t about that–he just wanted their able-bodied men in his army, most particularly their Polish lancers.  (French occupation of Poland in 1812 is one of the country’s darkest hours.) 

And then, with a certain degree of sabre-rattling–allegedly he was hoping that the Tsar wouldn’t tolerate the invasion of his sacred country, but would see this huge army massed on its borders and come out and beg for peace–he got ready to cross the River Niemen into Russia proper. 

On the night of the 23rd June, he worked up the rousing speech which would be read out to his soldiers on the following day, and had the presses of his propaganda unit all ready to print and distribute the thing.  And this is what he wrote:

Soldiers!  The Second Polish War has begun.  The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit: at Tilsit Russia swore an eternal alliance with France and war on England.  She is now violating her promises.  She refuses to give an explanation of her strange behaviour unless the French eagles retire beyond the Rhine, thereby leaving our allies at her mercy.  Russia is tempting fate!  And she will meet her destiny.  Does she think we have become degenerate?  Are we not longer the soldiers of Austerlitz?  She has forced us into a choice between dishonour and war.  There can be no question as to which we choose, so let us advance!  Let us cross the Niemen!  Let us take the war onto her territory.  The Second Polish War will be glorious for French arms, as was the first; but the peace will conclude will be a lasting one, and will put an end to that arrogant influence which Russia has been exerting on the affairs of Europe over the past fifty years.

Russian sources suggest that a truer number of forces crossing the Niemen on the 24th June would be 450,000.  Plus, probably some 50,000 civilians who followed in the wake of the army.  Not least because although Napoleon had intended that there should be ample provisions for his men in Prussia and Poland before they crossed into Russian territory–the reality was somewhat different.

A bad winter and a late spring thaw had meant that the poor farmlands of Prussia and Poland were sown even later than usual, thus the harvest, upon which Napoleon expected his soldiers to live, hadn’t happened. 

The grain was still green.  The horses ate it and got colic.  The men ate it and died of dysentery.  And it’s probable that between a third and a half of French forces died before the crossing of the Niemen. 

Still across the River Niemen they would go.  At ten o’clock on the evening of the 24th, three companies of the 13th Light Infantry crossed the Niemen silently in boats.  Shortly thereafter three pontoon bridges were put in place by General Jean-Baptiste Eble and his men. 

The invasion had begun. 

A year later, there would be less than 30,000 survivors.  (Some put the number as low as 7,000.)  

Of the 32,700 Bavarians who crossed with Napoleon, by 1 January 1813, only 4000 were still alive–that’s 12% of the total.  Of the 52,000 troops belonging to the Army of Italy which crossed into Russia in June, only 2844 men reassembled in January–just over 5%. 

As I said, one of the greatest self-induced human disasters of all time.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812…

This is a bit awkward. 

On the one hand, it’s fair to say that I would have done just about anything to have on hand the information that Andrew Lambert brings to light in the aforementioned tome when I was writing my May 1812

I would have sold…well, maybe not my soul, but quite probably any number of cakes and mousse au chocolat for the happiness of having all of these documents and accounts so clearly and beautifully laid out before me relating to the three-way trade wars between Napoleonic Europe, Great Britain and the young United States. 

Instead, I spent months piecing together the history of the various Napoleonic and British acts and the American reactions to them.  It was always a case of two lines in this history providing a little information, another small paragraph in another history…

But even if it’s too late for me to include some of the juicier elements in my work, Andrew Lambert has now, at last, most concisely and exhaustively pulled together all the various strands of this messy historic sampler.  And it makes for eye-popping reading. 

(It doesn’t leave many of the American leaders of the time on their pedestals though.  Nor does it paint a very edifying picture of the American press at the time.  Napoleon doesn’t come out very different though–though Lambert did make my day when he called him a ‘fraudster’.  That was a truly happy moment for self.)

But perhaps the greatest challenge to modern American readers will be that Lambert unequivocally proves that the United States did not win the War of 1812. 

They lost.  They achieved none of their alleged aims.  Neither did they attain any of their genuine goals.

What they did achieve was the destruction of New England’s economy, the bankruptcy of their federal government, the burning of the capital, Washington, mass unemployment, destitution and…and…and…

For those who don’t know, who haven’t heard me rant on the subject, the whole thing got started when Napoleon came up with the cunning plan to wage economic warfare on Great Britain.  This he believed would economically cripple Britain so that she could no longer subsidise Continental powers to fight against him, thus allowing him to take the place over.  Very clever, eh? 

So he issued these decrees known as the Berlin and Milan decrees of 1806 and 1807 which were his attempt to exclude all British goods as well as the British ships that carried those goods from any and all Continental ports and markets. 

This was great!  It was going to screw British maritime power to the wall.  They were going to crumble.  Super-dooper, bring me a trooper!  (Well, he may have said words to that effect…who knows?)

Yet strangely, the Brits didn’t think having their economy or their naval power ruined by an upstart Mushroom Corsican, as they liked to call him, was such a good idea.  Nor did Napoleon have a navy with which to enforce his little programme–he’d lost that (oops) at Trafalgar. 

So they retaliated.  With the Orders in Council.  Which declared that all goods carried to the Continent had to be carried in ships which held a license from Britain, etc.  And most importantly, they stepped up their maritime campaign of stopping neutral ships and searching for British seamen who’d decided it was safer to go AWOL than to serve in the Royal Navy.  Which, given that this was a time of war, was both desertion and treason. 

This then, ostensibly, was what the Americans got hepped up about.  And the battle cry rang out, “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights!” Because it was mostly American ships they were stopping, which had, a hefty contingent of said British sailors…

And this is where Lambert’s work shines so brilliantly.  

For he demonstrates, beyond cavil, that this was really nothing but a political feint.  And it was a propaganda war from the get-go.  As he writes it, “Americans believed that large numbers of American-born sailors were being impressed.  In fact rather less than 10% of the American maritime workforce suffered this fate…A project to surrender all British sailors in American ships in return for the British ending the impressment of Americans was quietly dropped because half of all skilled seamen in American merchant ships were British.” 

President Jefferson was–he who headed off the American reaction to this economic war–as Lambert illustrates over and over again, fiercely Anglophobic and naively, determinedly Francophile.  He was putty in Napoleon’s Froggie hands.

He was also no economist.  He produced his response to the situation even before Congress had received notice of the British Orders in Council. 

And his cunning plan?  The Embargo Act which blocked the American export trade.  As Lambert says, “To punish Britain Jefferson made war on American merchants.  The results were disastrous:  economic hardship obliged American merchants and seafarers to smuggle…Jefferson hoped the Embargo Act would be a useful adjunct to Napoleon’s war against Britain, and that in return a grateful Emperor would give him the prize he really wanted, Spanish Florida.” 

But of course, the Emperor wasn’t playing. 

Yet as Lambert argues, “Jefferson’s futile Embargo had long antecedents:  in 1785 he had argued that America should follow the commercial policy of China ‘to practice neither commerce or navigation’.  He…never changed his view that American merchants were corrupt and corruptible.  He dreamt of an agricultural America…” 

And James Madison, his successor to the Presidency was just as blinkered. 

Though the Federal Government was kept afloat by the taxes and excise they collected from the New England states’ import/export businesses, to the tune of some 98%, in order to pursue their land-grab of Canada while Britain had all her troops otherwise occupied, they played into the hands of Napoleon, wrecked their own trade and economic viability and eventually were cozened into declaring war on Britain.

Lambert also puts on display the extreme bile Madison and his cronies pumped into a press too eager to play the jingoistic tunes of their politicians.  The accounts of the various naval actions–accounts which shew that British gunners were out-firing their American counterparts by 3-1–which actions were then twisted into triumphs…in a way, well, it makes for sickening reading. 

The lack of honesty or honour, the deceit on display is just…Truthfully, it’s a bit gutting.  I’d always thought that Jefferson was this visionary ‘liberty for all’ fellow, you know.  Brilliant with a quill.  With an eternally great way with words.  The most idealistic of the Enlightened thinkers.  An ingenious inventor. 

Professor Lambert has shown him to be the opposite–to be vindictive, vituperative, economically idiotic, predatory, and base.  Denying and lying about Napoleon’s tyrannical reign over Europe, sending gentle good men over to ‘negotiate’ with the monster, who obviously didn’t stick around to be negotiated with…

And the battles.  Holy wow! 

Of course, they’re written with all the verve and derring-do of a Patrick O’Brian clash at sea. 

But these were real men, and the actions pitted the professional seamen of the Royal Navy–men who drilled and drilled and worked hard at being the best in all weathers–against blaggarts and braggadocios, some brave, but too many who initiated actions against ships much, much smaller than themselves and then who crowed victory and lied about the disparity in size. 

And when they really were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and outfought, such as when the HMS Shannon took the USS Chesapeake in one of the bloodiest actions of any naval war on 1 June 1813–in 13 minutes, the American press invented scapegoats and declared it a victory anyway.

The whole unfoldment of action which led to the burning of the capital makes for pretty gob-smacking reading too.  There’s always been this prim, self-righteous shock and horror professed over those meanie Brits who came and burned (can you imagine anything so demonic, so savage?) the charming, innocent, delightful little American capital. 

(Forgive me if I’m sounding sarky here.) 

But hang on a minute, one wants to say to Madison and his mates.  This was war.  You declared it on Britain.  Did you think it’d be a picnic?  A riparian entertainment with sparklers? 

Did you miss the part about there being a world war on?  Did Jefferson, in his Francophile gushing, not notice that one of the methods of military engagement was the occupation [and destruction] of the enemy’s capital?  Such as Napoleon did to Berlin.  And Vienna.  And Madrid.  And Moscow.  Or did he fail to read those parts of the news bulletins?  

And what happened really? 

It had needed only 4000 troops to capture the American capital and torch the various public buildings, including the White House and the Navy Yard, as Lambert says, “revealing the unimaginable folly of a government that deliberately picked a fight with a global power, allegedly about questions of principle, without bothering to raise an army or navy capable of defending the country.  By 1814 the only effective American armies were attempting to conquer Canada.”     

The war whimpered to a close in 1814 with the American negotiators quietly dropping all the demands for which they’d allegedly gone to war.  They just wanted out.  They couldn’t afford any more of it.  And Napoleon hadn’t won in Russia as they’d hoped he would.  In fact, he’d lost all of his Empire and been forced to abdicate. (Ouch.)

So, they stopped whinging about British deserters being removed from American ships, etc.  They stopped sending troops up to take Canada–they changed their song from we’ll get Canada and land, land, land, to isn’t it great we haven’t lost any territory…that kind of thing. 

At this point, I’m probably just babbling. 

What can I tell you?  Lambert has simply blown me out of the water with his searing account of this disastrous American war which they’ve somehow blagged into an iconic victory over a 19th century superpower.   

And there are so many reasons for recommending this book that I can only gawp at the sheer number of them.  So all I can honestly say is:  Buy it.  Read it.  Wonder at it.  Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge.  It really is that good.

Napoleonland? You’re having a laff…

No, I’m not.  It is not a joke.  And no, I am not making it up. 

I don’t have to.  A former French minister, one Yves Jego, beat me to it. 

(Yes, I am already laughing…)

According to a recent Telegraph article, Monsieur Jego has drawn up plans for an amusement park to rival Disneyland (in whose mind?) to be located at the site of the French Emperor’s (mushroom Corsican upstart) final win against the Austrians in 1814, at Montereau just south of Paris. 

I’ll wager the Austrians can’t wait to visit! 

The article, by , reported that “the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, in which the Duke of Wellington ended Napoleon’s rule in France, could be recreated on a daily basis with visitors perhaps even able be able to take part in the reenactments.”

You mean I could watch Napoleon sitting painfully (he had piles) upon his poor horse as his army got the stuffings kicked out of them?  Where do I sign up?

“They will also be able to take in a water show recreating the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, in which Lord Nelson scored a decisive victory over a French and Spanish coalition aboard HMS Victory but died in the process.  [An interesting choice, given that Napoleon reported Trafalgar as a French victory.]

“But the park will also give pride of place to Napoleon’s greatest victories, in particular the Battle of Austerlitz in which the Russo-Austrian army was decisively defeated.

“Other curious potential attractions include a ski run through a battlefield ‘surrounded by the frozen bodies of soldiers and horses’ and a recreation of Louis XVI being guillotined during the revolution…

“‘It’s going to be fun for the family,’ Mr Jégo told the Times.”

I can hardly wait. 

Think of the possibilities. 

They could have the Russian Invasion ride–always a favourite–where you could gasp with delight as Moscow goes up in flames, watch as 73,000 men die in one day, and you’d get a special lessons in looting and pillage and firebombing wooden cities like Smolensk.  

Imagine too the fun of watching 500,000 French soldiers and re-enactors freezing to death while their trousers fall down because the tin buttons on their trousers have turned to powder.  Think too of the laughs as all about you blokes fell to the ground with dysentery and their horses drowned in the mire of the Polish sandy roads.  And of course, there’d be an extra-special Russian peasant village sideshow where deserters get tortured.  Uncooked horse-burgers will be on offer for those who are feeling peckish.  And sno-cones, of course.

And speaking of torture, who wants to join me for the Peninsular War ride?  Now that’s going to be a spiffing example of history merging with fun, fun, fun, don’t you reckon?  

There could be living tableaux of Goya’s etchings of the Disasters of War as well as his famous Third of May, all presided over by King Joseph–Napoleon’s elder brother, known by the Spanish as Pepe Botella (Joe the Fat)…And for that realistic touch, there could be a recreation of the French cavalry charge through the streets of Madrid, slicing the Madrilenos until the streets were knee-high in blood and bones…I bet that would get the Spanish visitors queueing up! 

The Italian occupation village will offer special lessons in looting great works of art, including how to remove frescos from walls, how to melt down chalices and altarpieces, and how to remove oil paintings from their frames, roll them up and stick them in your rucksack…

And if you’re staging Austerlitz where the Austrians and Russians were massacred, (and I know those Russian tourists will want to linger there…) why not go all out and have Ulm, Jena and Wagram too?

And Leipzig!  Don’t neglect that–the Battle of the Nations it’s also called, M. Jego.  In case you didn’t know.  That’s where Austria, Prussia and Russia whipped your scrawny French, er, seating apparatus… 

There could be special kiosks where you can go to contract typhus–that ought to be a giggle a minute! 

But wait, this is fun for the whole family, isn’t that right?  So there needs to be something for the big boys too, doesn’t there?  So how about a Paulina Bonaparte ride–no minimum height requirement, just age of consent. 

Obviously, the cafes will want to reflect Napoleonic cuisine…so, because of the Continental Blockade he instituted I think it’s only fair if the Park serve no coffee, no tea and offer neither sugar nor chocolate in any form. 

And I’m thinking for tickets–you could have the Battle of the Nile ticket–which is just for the evening, until the whole thing is blown sky-high; the Trafalgar ticket–the daylong French disaster; or the Waterloo ticket–three days of unalloyed amusement, and visitors can start picking over the corpses on the third evening…

I mean, M. Jego is right, isn’t he?  Over six million people died in the Napoleonic wars, just 200 years ago.  And that’s something France, and Europe too, ought to be celebrating! 


One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is that there are no barriers.  No ‘this belongs to another faculty, like the Music faculty’ moments in the work. 

(Though I dare say this may hold true for biographers as well.) 

Because all these disciplines–music, art, literature, philosophy–are invaluable for understanding those who people the past, and their perceptions of their world.  And none, I think, is more effective for this than music.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, with music we get the rare chance to hear what they heard, and perhaps in that instant to understand something of the world in which they lived.  We experience with them what made them laugh, what made them weep.

Which brings me to the utterly delicious and delightful composer of early 19th century opera, Gioachino Rossini.  (I went to hear his Il barbiere di Siviglia just last month…and it was heaven!) Continue reading

Napoleon’s Ruinous Retreat from Russia…

This isn’t a very festive topic, I’ll admit.  Not full of Christmas cheer and a wassail or anything.  And I’m sorry for that.  Truly I am.  For I should like to be telling you something to bring joy and laughter and goodwill to men, but…

But you see, 199 years ago this week, the infamous 29th Bulletin announced to France that the Grande Armee had been lost amidst the winter snows of the Russian plains, that few of them would be returning from the Russian wilderness…though of course, Napoleon lied about this as he did about everything else. 

And this was shortly followed by the reappearance of Napoleon in Paris.  Alone.  With only his secretary, Caulaincourt at his side.  And no army.  Not any.

And I can’t get this out of my head.  Not this week.  Not that I believe it’s a sequence of bicentennials that the French government will wish to commemorate next year.  Though possibly the Russians will…

For nearly a year, Napoleon had been planning the invasion of Russia–ever since Russia had quietly reopened her ports to British ships and trade in 1811.  (This really pissed him off.)  And during that time he had amassed one of the largest land armies ever seen–the Grande Armee–the Great Army. 

The recruiting officers had been busier than ever, squeezing the hated ‘blood tax’ out of the peoples across Europe; more than one year’s class of conscripts had been mobilised.  Allies too had been forced to send troops–Bavaria, Westphalia, Saxony, Italy, Holland…50,000 troops from Poland…

And the sum of troops for this expedition?  On paper, at least 450,000 troops.  (Some military experts put the number much higher–all the way up at 650,000.  Though the estimates of Russian spies of the time is around the 450,000 mark.) 

Nor does this take into account the hordes of accompanying civilians.  Napoleon’s household alone contained some 100 to 150 civilians–butchers, cooks, vintners, bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, laundresses…And many of Napoleon’s generals also had large ‘households’ which accompanied them into occupied territory.  Then there are the thousands of soldiers who brought their wives and children; there are the bakers, saddlers, blacksmiths, brandy-sellers, and camp followers…some 50,000 people, is the conservative estimate of the number of civilians. 

And for months before the invasion began at the end of June 1812, this vast swarm of humanity–more than half the population of London at the time, it was–amassed in Prussia and Poland.  Oh, and don’t forget the 450,000 horses in readiness for the beginning of the Polish Campaign as it was called.  (Napoleon hadn’t yet officially announced it as a plan to invade Russia.) 

But already there were problems. 

Europe was in the grip of a period of exceedingly cold winters which lasted well beyond their usual allotted time.  So, across Prussia and Poland, in those stretches of land where Napoleon had his armies camped in readiness for his arrival, the harvest–that harvest which was meant to feed this vast army of men and horses–wasn’t ripe.  It was still too green.  So the horses fed upon it and died, in their thousands, of colic. 

Even Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, was reduced to living off acorns…

And the troops went hungry–they starved or became ill with dysentery.  They suffered horribly from dehydration too.  And died. 

Poland was frighteningly poor.  Even by the low standards of the day.  The French occupation of their country made paupers of most Poles.  Literally.

So despite what Napoleon said in that official Bulletin to which I referred earlier, that all the problems were due to horrible weather on the homeward journey (and that’s still the version of events many people believe), the fact is a third to one half of his army was dead before Napoleon crossed the River Niemen into Russian territory on the 28th June 1812.

And that’s not counting deserters…(because the French didn’t count deserters.  They didn’t admit that anyone deserted.)  There were probably some 30,000 deserters roaming the countryside and pillaging by this point.

So, Napoleon crosses the Niemen with his game plan–the plan he loves.  He believes the Russians won’t tolerate invasion, that they’ll instantly run out to meet him, and either negotiate a peace, or there’ll be a decisive battle in which he’ll whoop the socks off them and then he’ll dictate terms to the Tsar.  (He liked being in charge, Napoleon did.)

However, the Russians had their own game plan.  And it didn’t look anything like his. 

Instead of giving battle, they just kept withdrawing.  Day after day, week after week.  Across a Russian landscape that had been stripped bare–scorched earth. 

The weather wasn’t great either.  Daytime temperatures were up around 37 degrees Celsius.   And there was a massive storm, one which turned the roads to bog, so that men and horses drowned.  Or froze to death when the bogs froze at night.  Some 10,000 to 35,000 horses died in this agony.

And all the while, Napoleon issued instructions to his intermediary, Maret, to publish accounts of non-existent triumphs in the official Bulletins, and ended each letter to his wife with the sentence, “The emperor’s health has never been better.”  (Which was also untrue.  He was suffering from a severe bladder infection known as dysuria.) 

So across this Russian landscape, with starvation stalking his men and horses, Napoleon pursued the retreating Russian troops–determined to gain a decisive victory, bewildered that no emissary from Alexander arrived to beg for peace on any terms. 

Vilna, Vitebsk, and everything in between all fell to the French troops and were wrecked by them.   Their sick filled the houses converted into hospitals and then filled the mass graves in which they buried them.   They took the city of Smolensk, but their artillery shells set fire to the city’s wooden buildings–and it became a living hellfire.  Once destroyed, the troops would find no place to rest or recuperate within its walls, and no food neither…

The Russians under General Mikhail Kutuzov finally gave battle at a place called Borodino, not far from Moscow, on the 7th September 1812. 

I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, so I shan’t now go into details.  But the number of casualties is staggering–even for the Napoleonic era.  The Russians may have had more men–at least on paper–but 31,000 of them were militiamen and armed only with pikes and axes.  So probably the Russians had about 125,000 troops.  And they faced a French army of  perhaps 130,000.  By the close of day, the French had lost some 35,000 men; and the Russians somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000–with much of their officer corps wiped out.

Both sides declared it a victory; Kutuzov ordered a retreat and by the 14th of September, the Russian army was passing through Moscow–joining a mass exodus of Muscovites–at least two-thirds of the city’s population.

Again, Napoleon misread the Russians.  He firmly that if he occupied their beloved Moscow, the Russians would come begging for peace. 

Napoleon entered Moscow on the 15 September and took up his headquarters in the evacuated Kremlin.  But just as he was getting comfortable, fires were started throughout the city upon the orders of the Governor of Moscow, Rostopchin.  Over the next six days, the fires raged, destroying some three-quarters of the city.  The starving French soldiers looted and pillaged whatever was left.  The wounded were left in the streets to die. 

And Tsar Alexander did not come begging for peace either, though every day patrols brought in scores of French foragers and marauders and deserters–so the Russians knew that the French were lacking even basic food and fodder.

Finally, after weeks of inaction–perhaps he got a whiff of snow–Napoleon decided to abandon Moscow and begin the march home, though he’d achieved none of his objectives:  he’d had the big battle, but the enemy didn’t appear to be destroyed.  They certainly hadn’t come begging for peace on any terms and his plan to force them to return to the Continental System had assuredly failed.  He’d taken their capital, but then it had been turned to ash…and meanwhile, Russian troops were attacking those French battalions in the field…

Hence on the 17th October, Napoleon, accompanied by all that was left of his armed troops–probably now some 95,000 men, or less–quitted Moscow for the long march back to Paris.  Joining them were some 40,000-50,000 civilians–and as the French troops had ransacked Moscow for treasures which they intended to bring home and sell in order to make their fortunes–some 15,000 to 40,000 carts, carriages, and wagons piled high with food and luggage and booty. 

Within a day, these treasures were being abandoned along the roadside…On the 22nd October, fierce rainstorms turned the roads into a sea of mud.  Nor was the fight against the Russians finished.

Around this time too, Napoleon sent Tsar Alexander a letter–which the Tsar apparently hardly bothered to read, though he did say, “Peace?  But as yet we have not made war.  My campaign is only just beginning.”

Straggling across this barren landscape of mud, their morale in tatters like their clothes, the remnants of the French army were harassed by the small hordes of Cossacks on their fast ponies–those left behind would be captured and taken back to Russian villages where they would be tortured to death.  

And then, on the night of 6th November, the temperatures plunged and men and horses froze to death in what was to be the beginning of the end for the survivors of this disastrous campaign.  The freezing temperatures also meant that there was no water–either for the horses or the men–without water, the remaining horses died.  And it would only grow colder.

There were more battles to come too as the now rested and remounted Russian troops mounted assaults on the retreating French, including the terrible assault as the French sought to cross the Berezina.  During those three days at the end of November, the French lost a further 25,000, though perhaps up to 10,000 of those were civilian stragglers–though, mind you, this isn’t mentioned in the 29th Bulletin either.  

At Molodechno on the 3rd of December, Napoleon composed that 29th Bulletin to which I keep referring.  He hid most of the truth of how he’d managed to lose some 450,000 troops–but he did almost admit the scale of the disaster.  He blamed the freezing weather that set in after the 6th November.  And he reassured his subjects that “the Emperor’s health has never been better.”   

Napoleon himself, determined to shore up support and save his throne, abandoned the few remaining troops on the evening of the 5th December and set off for Paris, alone with Caulaincourt, his secretary.  

For those he abandoned, further death and destruction lay at Vilna…

The 29th Bulletin was published in Paris on the 16th December and everywhere, the news it contained was met with shock and stunned grief.  Never, not once, before had Napoleon admitted anything like defeat or even setback–he’d even had Trafalgar announced as a French victory.  The scale was beyond anything anyone could imagine.

Of the possible 450,000 troops, not to mention horses and civilians, who went into Russia, no more than 50,000 came out.  Probably less than that.  And less than a quarter of those lost died in battle.  Of the nearly 30,000 Italians who had been part of the Grande Armee, only 3% survived.  Across Europe, in all those countries controlled by France, the losses were the same and grievous to be borne.

Napoleon and Caulaincourt reached Paris around midnight on the 18th December.  It was snowing.  And within three days, Napoleon was calling for a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops…

I have deliberately excluded the harrowing details of these events from this brief account, the descriptions of battles, the geography even.  For a full account, I cannot recommend strongly enough Adam Zamoyski’s 1812:  Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow.  Also, utterly fascinating as it gives the Russian account of the situation is Dominic Lieven’s superlative Russia Against Napoleon, the Battle for Europe, 1807-1814.

(Zamoyski’s ground-breaking work was such that I could not get the images out of my head–thus the truth of Russian campaign and the publication of the 29th bulletin became intrinsic elements in my novel, Of Honest Fame.)

And now, as I think yet again on all those lives squandered and all those families, those wives, daughters and sweethearts left newsless and comfortless…Well, it’s time for a cup of tea at least, I think.  Don’t you?

The underside of empire…

Among the books I took with me on holiday recently was a study of various aspects of the Napoleonic Empire in Italy–mostly administrative, as it happens.  Not, you might think, a very enlivening read for those hours on the beach.

Well, yes.

And no.

Perhaps, under other circumstances, I might have chosen something a little more frivolous or even more sanguinary than, er, a study of how the Code Napoleon was applied in Italy for less than a decade at the beginning of the 19th century.

But then, I am an historian.  And as the famous saying goes, “‘There’s no accounting for taste,’ said the old lady as she kissed the cow.”


So there I was, Continue reading

Empathy with the past…

It’s always, well, if not a shock then a surprise when it happens.

There I’ll be, reading along in a history of early 19th century Italy…or in a book of essays examining aspects of Napoleon’s civil administration and taxation policies…

(I know, it’s not exactly what one would consider sexy, is it?  Certainly not a place I’d be expecting to be stopped in my tracks.  And I’m not precisely a novice in the field of Napoleonic studies, either…)


There I am, reading along in a fine essay about popular resistence to Napoleon, etc. and the author makes a comment about Napoleon’s disastrous stranglehold of an economic policy, a.k.a. the Continental Blockade, and the British Navy’s patrol of the seas, which brought the European ports to the point of ruin.

And suddenly I get it.  I see what I have been failing to comprehend for years.  I understand just a little more fully the human disaster that was the Napoleonic era.  Continue reading

Historical reenactments…

Yes, yes, yes, I know…it’s fun to sneer at the chappies who put these things on.  To think of them as little fellows–historical geeks–who have no life and so to compensate, fill their hours dressed up in costumes reenacting battles that nobody today cares about anyway. 

Well, having just had the great privilege of watching a reenactment of a skirmish between the 95th Rifles, a detachment of the Coldstream Guard and a rather determined group of French Voltiguers, which was fought on the 17th June 1815–yes, in the hours leading up to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo–all I can say is, leave those ideas at the door…because it was superb in every way. 

The thing that most strikes the novice to these events is, of course, the noise. 

Muskets and rifles of the Napoleonic period were loud.  And I don’t just mean like the too-loud music of some passing roadster’s stereo.  I mean the boom makes you jump like sudden thunder does.  It shakes the ground beneath your feet. 

And it goes on and on.  And yes, it’s deafening.  Quite literally.

Then there’s the constant drumming–never thought of that, did you? 

But the armies of the Napoleonic period all had drummer boys–sometimes only of nine or ten years of age, they were.  And these boys marched into battle at the head of a column or line or detachment, beating out the march.  They marched onto battlefields and they kept it up–generally until they were shot dead.  Because there was no age limit on death in battle, no Geneva Convention.  And the guns of the period were notoriously scattershot.  No telling what a musket ball would hit once fired. 

Then there’s the clogging of the rifles and muskets.  Realistically, a soldier had generally two or three clear shots–that’s where the powder didn’t clog and the flint struck properly–before the whole thing would start to go a little wonky. 

Muskets and rifles both heat up very quickly and within an hour of shooting, the barrel would become too hot to handle.  And meanwhile, your barrel is clogging with powder and your flint isn’t striking, so your rifle isn’t firing, but the enemy is firing away at you quite effectively, thank you very much. 

And there’s the smoke of battle.  Again within a few short minutes of everyone firing, the air has become the heaviest sulphuric fog and you can’t really see either within it or through it. 

Then there’s all the other noise–the 95th Rifles, that’s the British sharpshooters, or Green Jackets (think Sharpe) moved up in pairs, and their commanding officer called them to move forward using a whistle.  Which, yes, could be heard shrill above the guns and the drums and the shouting…

And what one realises watching all of it unfold, is how active it all was…how unceasing, how chaotic…how terrifying.  And suddenly it all becomes very personal, intimate almost.  Very real.  Very, ‘come on, load your rifle, don’t you see that…why isn’t the dashed thing firing…Oh ‘struth, they’re moving up…’  And one understands then, as never before, how vital were those first shots of an encounter. 

One sees the scale of things as never before–certainly not conveyed by the films and the telly, however good the production. 

And of course, afterwards, there’s the joy of seeing their kit up close, their uniforms, their shoes, and the small ‘horse shoes’ they nailed to their heels to prolong the walking life of the shoes (see left).

…The small sacks of dried peas and rice and oats which they carried with them in their packs…the small bars of soap in their neat wooden boxes.  The 95th Rifles were allowed to wash and shave every third day.  And before you think–crikey!  the smell–the French armies had no such provision, since Napoleon had instigated the Continental Blockade, soap was a rare blackmarket commodity Europe-wide. 

Everything about it was just superlative, frankly.  And to anyone who writes, who thinks of writing either historical fiction or historical romance–if you have the chance, go…you’ll not regret a single moment of it.