Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

Recently I read a book.  (I know, shocker!)  A work of historical fiction, it was.

stubbs bayAnd in this book which was set at a time when horses were the only means of transportation, we had our hero, who was meant to be a tall lanky fellow over 6′ tall, riding a little mare who, according to the author, was just over 14 hands.  And our hero was so entranced by her that he hoped the dragoons wouldn’t steal her for their own.


Well, when I stopped laughing, I mentioned this to another horsey friend of mine…and when she stopped laughing like a drain, she said, “Obviously the bloke was wearing roller skates so his feet could run smoothly alongside…”

It was an image, I will confess, I had not thought of myself.

So let’s talk hands, shall we?  Because that’s how one measures a horse’s height.

For a start, a horse’s height is measured at the withers–think the tallest bit of his shoulder.  A hand is the linear measurement of a horse’s height which is equal to four inches.

dragoon1812So according to our aforementioned novelist, his 6′ hero was riding a horse which stood 4’10” or so at the withers.  So in fact our hero was towering over this poor little pony is what he was actually doing.  And if you think that it would be good for a little ponio’s back to have a great lug of 6 foot on his back–no matter how lightly the chap rode–you should think again.

Now, yes, when one is talking about some of the  hardier breeds of pony–the New Forest ponies, here, or some of the Russian ponies that the Cossacks rode, for example…the Connemaras and those sure-footed little lads that go up and down the mountains in Spain, yes, they’re sturdy as all get out.   They’re hearty, they’re fast, they’re smart.  I love them to bits!  And I love riding them.  But I am NOT 6′ tall.  I’m nowhere near that.

Moreoever, dragoon regiments of the Napoleonic era all had height requirements.  Some of Napoleon’s were required to be no smaller than 6′ tall.  And they weren’t shrinky dinks on the British side either.  Not to mention the weight of their kit…which would mean they weren’t looking for neat little ponies–no matter how clever or quick–they were looking for the big lads of 16, 17 or even 18 hands.  (That’s 5’4″, 5’8″ or 6′ tall at the withers…)

And finally, whinnying.  A word of advice to those who haven’t met a horse–do not get your information from cowboy movies.  For in this very charming novel to which I referred earlier, every time the author mentioned horses, he had them whinnying.

dragoon2Now, whinnying is a bit of an individual thing with horses.  Some do.  Others almost never do.  But for the most part, they don’t do it much.  They’re actually very quiet animals.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for the benefit of prey animals by saying, “Hey Lion-face, here I am…aren’t you hungry?”

They may do it occasionally/rarely to say to another horse, “Oi!  Here I am, matey.  Boy, this grass looks good.  Pity you’re not here…”  And sometimes when their friends are missing–as in the other horses from their herd are off doing stuff and they’re left at home–they whinny.  But they’re not talkative toddlers.

As for whickering?  I’ve only heard it once in my entire life–and that was when a mare was in season and her boyfriend du jour was getting a little resty at not being as up close and personal as he would have liked (I was on his back, so this wasn’t possible…)  So don’t even use the phrase.  Please, oh, please, don’t use it.

They do snort.  A lot.  And I know a few horses who have this nifty little trick of wheezing heavily when they’re on the uphill, so that the novice on their back thinks they’re about to croak and doesn’t make them canter.  Clever, very clever.

Also, they do this shakey thing, rather like a Labrador just out of the river, shaking off the water–and when you’re on their back, this jiggles you something chronic.

But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…)



200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Bautzen…

So where were we?

Ah yes, Saxony…retreating eastward from Lutzen with the Russian and Prussian armies.  Followed–not very swiftly because they had very few horses–by the French led by Napoleon.

marshal neyBut Napoleon did something else, too.  Because–despite what had happened in Russia the year previously–he still clung to the belief that if one took the enemy’s capital they would be forced to negotiate terms, etc.  So with that in mind, he ordered Marshal Ney to march down the Elbe, with an army of 45,000 troops, to raise the Prussian sieges at Wittenberg and Torgau, and to scare the breeches off the right flank of the united Allied army…And then, he ordered Ney to take back Berlin–the Prussian capital.

It seemed a clever enough plan.  (That’s when you should start to worry…)  And he also hoped that threatening the Prussian capital, besides being a morale-breaker, would have the added advantage of splitting the Allied army and allow him to deliver a coup de grace to the remaining Allied troops he was pursuing in the direction of Dresden.

So what happened?  And did it work out the way the upstart Corsican mushroom (I prefer the Shakespearean term, mushrump, myself…) had planned?

Er, no.

Up in Berlin, they were equally nervous about a Napoleonic approach, and they had–obviously with as much bureaucracy as the early 19th century could manage–appointed General Friedrich von Bulow to be in charge of the defense of the capital.  He had set to work with a will.

Under his direction, the troops of the newly formed Landwehr (since 17 March, service in the Landwehr was compulsory for all middle-class males and landed peasants between the ages of 17 and 40) and Landsturm were receiving enormous amounts of training, and he had as much of the rest of the populace as he could muster, digging waterways and ditches and a series of obstacles and earthworks all across the area west of the city, rendering it virtually unreachable for a marching army…Very cool.

bautzenI’ll tell you now that the peasants he drafted in to do the heavy digging complained bitterly about missing the cabbage and sugar beet harvest…And the bureaucrats not in the field with him did everything they could to make his life…er…interesting.  So interesting that often he had to ignore them.

Meanwhile, to the south in Saxony, the Allies had retreated in an orderly, almost leisurely fashion, recrossing the Elbe and eventually reaching Bautzen on the 12th May.  And all the while, they were negotiating their socks off with Austria, attempting to coax her back into the fray, while the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Metternich, played for time and power…

(Just to add to the confusion, and just as at Lutzen, the Napoleonic battle is not the only battle fought at Bautzen–there was another, this time on the 21-22 April 1945…Just thought you’d like to know that.)

Also, as a result of the outcome of the Battle of Lutzen, the king of Saxony, a fence-sitter if ever there was one, decided to jump back into Napoleon’s field (a very stupid decision…) and he ordered the fortress of Torgau to welcome the Frenchies back in.

However, with the prospect of Austria shaking off her timorous torpor, the Allies decided to have another crack at battle with the French forces.  After all, they’d had a week’s rest, while (due to his crying want of horses) Napoleon had dragged his army across the land to meet up with them.

Bautzen1813From his point of view too, he wanted nothing more than a big set battle piece, the kind like Austerlitz or Friedland, where he could wallop the enemy with sheer staggering force of numbers, and have done with it.  And again, he had a groovy plan:  on the 20th, a series of feints and skirmishing attacks would staple the Allies along a long defensive line.  They’d continue this on the 21st too.

Then, in a nifty little manoeuvre, Marshal Ney would swoop down from the North upon Barclay de Tolly and his Russian forces and instigate a headlong muddle of a retreat into the south towards Austria.  Cool or what?  (What.)

And the fly in this bowl of soup was Ney.

So, on the 20th, with Napoleon in charge at Bautzen, things went well for the French.  According to plan.  And they gave the Russians and Prussians quite a hammering–it was really pretty devastating.  The Allied leadership again and again put themselves into gravest danger, encouraging their men to stay steady and to fight on…

Then on the 21st, you might say things went pear-shaped.

Wanting to gain his share of the action, or something, Ney ordered his men not to do what Napoleon had ordered, but instead to throw their all into a struggle to the southwest, where General Blucher was holding on in a fierce attack by Marshal Soult.  And not only that, but Ney ordered another French general, Lauriston, to support him in this.

blucherFaced with these overwhelming numbers, Old Papa Blucher stopped haranguing his men as he always did with “Vorwarts mein Kinder, Vorwarts!” and began an orderly retreat, protected by Barclay de Tolly’s rather fine troops of Russian Guards and heavy cavalry…

And when I say it was orderly, I mean it was orderly.  As Langeron wrote of it:  “it was nevertheless achieved in the greatest order and without suffering the slightest loss, just like all the other retreats that this admirable Russian army made during the war, thanks to its perfect discipline, its obedience and to the innate courage of the Russian officers and soldiers…”  (He may have been a little biased, but still…)

So, the whole thing turned into another kind of damp squib for Napoleon, though of course he called it a victory because at the end of the day, the French were left in possession of the field.  Yet gone were his changes of the blistering victory he craved; without cavalry, he couldn’t succeed in cutting off any part of the Allied army and defeating that, or even of capturing their artillery.

Moreover, of the total 167,000 men he’d brought to battle, he had lost some 25,000 of them, as against 10,850 lost by the Allies out of their total of some 97,000 troops.  Not only that, but the French losses were irreplaceable–Napoleon had already called up all the reserves France could muster for this new army and the territory from which she could restock her military machine was rapidly shrinking too…

BautzenRussiansAnd finally, again, just as a Lutzen, the Russians cleared the fields of battle of everything–again denying the French any share of plunder.  And that just completely unnerved them, poor dears.

Then, to make matters worse, the day after Bautzen, on the 22nd May, the French van caught up with that pesky Russian rearguard as it became stuck in a traffic jam of horses, gun carriages, troops and fleeing civilians on the streets of Reichenbach.  It was the moment the French been waiting for!

(You’d think by now they’d know better…)

The Russians did not panic or give in to over-excitement though.  Their commanders, Miloradovich and Eugen of Wurttemberg took their position atop a hill as the road leads out of town and held it against the French while the remainder of the Allied forces retreated.  Then they took up position on another height between Reichenbach and Markersdorf and held that, stopping the French in their tracks.

BautzenandBlucher1813And funnily enough–this was what was known as Eugen’s ‘retreat in echelon’ which turned the whole thing into a process roughly resembling a slug travelling through treacle.  Which, this won’t surprise you, made Napoleon so cross he took command of the vanguard himself.  Ha ha ha!  And led them on, into another situation just like the last two, in  Markersdorf…during which the first shot from the Russian artillery fatally wounded his closest friend and Marshal of the Court, Geraud Duroc.

And that’s kind of it.  For the time being, Napoleon and his troops had had enough.  (There’s a first time for everything.)

So tune in next time, kids, to see what sort of a rabbit Prince Metternich pulled out of his hat…

The sheer delight of historical slang…

I am by nature a perfectionist.  (I know, I know, the fastest way to drive yourself crazy.)

I am also, again by a twist of nature, a stickler for detail.  (Yes, that’s right, the second most direct route to madness.  Particularly if you’re a historian writing historical fiction.)

Together these two probably constitute the fastest way to send yourself round the twist, or perhaps along the quickest route to total eccentricity.

(No comment from the pit, you!)

GreatParisCipherAnd this peculiar combination of traits has seen me doing everything from riding long distances hell for leather through gale force winds and sheets of rain–terrifying, invigorating, brilliant!–to enable me to write truthfully of an age when horses were the only mode of transportation, to learning to take snuff one-handed, to learning to crack the Napoleonic codes spies used two hundred years ago.

Obviously, it was this that led me to undertake that–what’s the opposite of a wild goose chase?–tricksy bit of sleuthing over the last few weeks about the waltz, to which I’ve previously referred after I’d come up against was the visit by Tsar Alexander to Britain in June 1814…

incroyable1[He, as the victor over Napoleon, was paying us a little visit to cement the friendship between our countries, to flirt, to play the saviour of Europe to an adoring audience, to flirt…He was wildly popular in London.  (He brought his pet poodle with him.  Does that help or hinder?)

And one of the things for which he was famous was dancing all night.  Quite literally.  Whether because he genuinely liked it or whether because it was an opportunity for him to get closer, I don’t know, but he did love to waltz.  But I kept being teased by this one thing–his visit was in 1814, yet too many authors and websites were insisting the waltz wasn’t done till 1816.

alexander 1814Still,  I couldn’t really imagine the local aristocratic lovelies saying to the 6-foot tall, blond hero and emperor in his spiffing formal uniform, “No, your Imperial Immenseness, the waltz is too immodest for me and I don’t know how…”?

No, not so much, hunh?  Doesn’t really work, does it…]

So, admittedly, some of my work is just plain bonkers.  Yes, I do know that.

But, you see, all of it–every miniscule minute iota of it–is absolutely necessary so that I can convey as powerfully and dramatically and accurately to the reader what it was to live 200 years ago.  Because above and beyond all things and at all times, I strive to put the reader in the room.  (Not to tell a modern tale in dress-up clothes, but to put you in the room!)

Still, one of the tricksier areas of research though is speech.  Because I can read their letters, their journals, even their books and speeches, but who talks everyday as they write in letters?  Or diaries?  Those may be marginally better perhaps, but it’s still not the same as a recording, is it?

So one of the great finds and great delights of my life has been to come upon and read–cover to cover and more than once–a book called The Vulgar Tongue:  Buckish Slang and Pickpocket Eloquence by Captain Francis Grose, originally published in 1785 and continuing in publication until 1812…

Imagine, a book full of words like:

Slubber de gullion — a dirty, nasty fellow;
Nocky boy — A dull simple fellow;
Basting — beating; Spider-shanked — thin-legged;
Kinchin — a little child, Kinchin coes, orphan beggar boys educated in thieving…

Go ahead, try rolling them about in your mouth, letting them fall into speech.  An intoxication of language, really.  Sheer absolute joy.

It’s all too evocative, too atmospheric not to revel in it.  But the use of just a smattering of such slang in the dialogue easily transforms it from modern to, well, a sense of what they must have spoken like.

We can’t be sure, of course.

printshopwindow1And we always have the awkwardness of, in my case (I write about Napoleonic Europe), 200 years of history and hind-sight as an obstacle.  But the slang gives us a feeling for the roistering, boisterous, rambling world of London that Jane Austen did not talk about, the world of the military, the Britain that had as yet no police force, the city that hadn’t yet been ripped up by the Victorians for the installation of sewers, and the countryside given over to farming.

But even a simple reading of dictionaries of historical slang give one a sense of their different perception of things, of what mattered to them, what their daily lives encompassed, who they met with and how they perceived their fellows.  It’s an education in itself.   Occasionally shocking, often surprising, always ebullient.

As I say, tremendous fun.

And as for me, well, I’ve learned at least one thing, I can tell you–I am without a doubt a plaguey saucebox and a scapegrace.  Ha ha ha ha.  (But you probably already knew that.  Though now, you have the precise nomenclature, yes?)

photo by B.Bennetts

Gaining a sense of proportion…

Statistics.  A lot of people don’t like them.  A lot of people start to squirm when you bring them up.

Mostly, I think, because stats have his unseemly way of disproving our most favourite and cherished theories about our past.

But I do like statistics.  I like the fact that they don’t have feelings.  They’re not telling us stuff to make us look stupid or to be superior.  Statistics just are.

We’re the ones who put the negative or positive spin on things and therefore either accept that maybe we’d got it a little bit wrong or else, as is more often is the case, someone stomps off in a hissy fit…Indeed, statistics are a prime illustration of Shakespeare’s statement, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Anyway, ever since I read Andrew Lambert’s fine examination of the War of 1812 in The Challenge, I’ve been weighing up the statistical evidence about that conflict and its relative importance to the rest of the world circa 1812.

(I mean, I’ve heard it called the Second War of American Independence–and this alongside of claims that the Americans won it.  Ehem.)

And  it seems to me that at least part of the problem with understanding the Anglo-American conflict of 1812-1814 or even properly evaluating it, or indeed appreciating why it merits so little attention on the world stage, derives from a failure to appreciate the size and scale of the thing or a lack of context, if you will.

And the only way I know how to clear up this confusion is through a study of the stats.

napo-creepAnd this is where my liking of stats turns to love.  Because, you see, they tell me all sorts of things I want to know.  Scale, for example.  For in this examination of the stats or facts, scale is most important.

Because if one weighs the colonial cousins’ claims of battles won, or casualties, or costs against what else was happening at the same time..well, there’s only one way to describe the situation…they’re utterly dwarfed by the Napoleonic conflict which was raging on the Continent and to which the contretemps with America was only a side-show.  And a tiny one at that.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

Napoleon fought many great battles:  Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo.  To name but a handful of the hundreds…(that’s right, hundreds…)

At Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, he and his 50,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry took on the combined Russian and Austrian armies consisting of some 69,460 infantry and 16,565 cavalry.

Despite the odds against him, he won the day, losing in the neighbourhood of 10,000 troops to the Allies’ 16,000 dead and wounded and 20,000 captured.  (Though some believe the numbers of Russian dead to have been in excess of 21,000.)

Do you see what I mean about the scale of the conflict?  And that’s just one battle, one day’s action.

But let’s look at the year of 1812 itself.

When Napoleon crossed the River Niemen to invade Russia at the end of June 1812, he had some 550,000 troops (perhaps more), over 150,000 horses, and his private baggage train alone contained more than 100 vehicles with all the accoutrements of emperorship he thought he might need–silver, wines, books, posh outfits and uniforms, furniture, cooks with their saucepans, servants, china and crystal…

borodino4At the Battle of Borodino on the 7 September, between the Grand Armee and the Russian forces which faced them, there were some 200,000 men on the field that day.

By evening, the French casualties stood somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, and the Russians had lost between 38,500 to 58,000 casualties.  (A year later, the corpses of 35, 478 horses were found and buried…)

So many lost and all on one day!  And yes, those numbers are shocking!  Horrifying even.

AlbrechtAdam20Sept1812When he scurried back over the border in December 1812, Napoleon had lost all but some 30,000 survivors, plus all the booty he’d tried to pillage, plus that rather splendid baggage train full of imperial geegaws and only 500 horses or so made it back–and they, bless ’em, were as you will imagine no longer fit for service.

And despite his casual, criminal loss of so many of the finest troops and horses the world had ever seen–some half a million men–despite that, upon his return to Paris in December 1812, he set about raising a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops.

The number, honestly, beggars belief!  Can you imagine that many troops being marched all over the relatively small area of eastern France on their way to the front which would open up in Saxony in the spring of 1813?

sabres2Now remind me, how many troops did the Americans send up to take Canada during the conflict of 1812?  After an artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered his 2500 American troops to the British General Brock and his 1300 Anglo-Canadian troops…

I hate to put it this way, but in terms of numbers, those stats put this in the realm of what in the European conflict of the day would be called ‘a skirmish’.  Nothing more.

(Wellington lost 4500 men at the Siege of Badajoz in April 1812, in a space of just over 200 yards and in less than two hours fighting…)

Likewise, the naval battles of this 1812 sideshow (because that’s what it was) tell a similar story.

We think of the great battles of the age:  the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar and what do we see?  Fleets of ships fighting it out, blowing each other to smithereens for the supremacy of the seas.

aboukirbay2The Battle of the Nile saw 13 British ships of the line plus 2 other smaller vessels take on 13 French ships of the line, plus 4 frigates of which, by the battle’s end, only 2 ships of the line and 2 others escaped.

The Battle of Copenhagen saw the British fleet of 12 ships of the line plus six others take on a combined fleet of 24 ships of the line, plus over 11 others.

And the greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s signature battle, saw 33 British ships (27 ships of the line plus 6 others) facing and defeating the combined French and Spanish fleets comprised of 41 vessels.

These are victories.  Victories in what was an existential struggle against Napoleonic terror and despotism.

And against the kind of stakes for which the British and their allies were fighting against this Napoleonic military empire, a one-off battle between ill-matched opponents, such as the USS Hornet against the smaller British sloop Peacock just doesn’t merit a look-in.

And if you doubt me, just look at those numbers again.  In all, some 5 to 6 million souls died in Napoleon’s wars of conquest and loss–and that’s not counting the refugee crisis, nor the overall loss of life due to starvation or disease which the presence of such vast armies living off the land caused.  (Frankly, it’s impossible to know how many thousands and thousands of peasants died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, for example…)

And that’s nearly the entire American population in 1812…

leipzig2So before anyone comes after me to insist on the awesomeness of the firewall at New Orleans, or the brilliance of American ship-building at the time (the French were also building very sea-worthy vessels at the time…) remember I’m going to cite the torching of Smolensk, the bombardment of Vienna, the sieges of Acre, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, the conflagration of Moscow, the three-day battle of Leipzig…and all those friendly stats that I love so much.

An award of sorts…

Greetings earthlings.

I appear to have won an award of sorts.  Or have been nominated for one.  Or something.

(Yes, yes, as usual, interaction with the rest of the human race is leaving me bemused and slightly dysfunctional…)

Anyway, the deal is this.  I display this logo-ey-thing and tell you some rivetingly interesting stuff about self.  (No, there will be no pictures, not of me anyway…) And then do some other bits and bobs.

very-inspiring-awardSo.  Here we go.  Award logo:

And now the list of things I must do:

1. Display the logo on your blog.  Check.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.  That kind (and possibly delusional) soul is Anna Belfrage.  (I should add that she’s offered me cake, Red Velvet cake, so I’m kind of partial to her…I’m sure you can see that…)

3. State 7 things about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.

5. Notify your nominees.

So here’s the stating seven things about self.  (Are these meant to be intimate details, I ask myself?  Or things like, “I like broccoli”?  Hmn, tough decision.)

One–The greatest thing I’ve achieved is living and learning to walk again.  Two years ago, I was in hospital with a cornucopia of dread diseases and had no hope of survival.  By late March, I was back home and determined to live and walk again.  And I remember reading on FB people crowing about they’d written 200-million billion words that day, and I’d think, “Yes, but I took ten steps today.  By myself.”

Two–I subsequently learned to ride again.  Which was as hard or harder than the walking bit.  But I have the dearest most wonderful friends, who insisted that I could do this.  One got me on a dear and beloved horse I’ve known for years, and he walked me round and round the paddock.  I didn’t tell him–perhaps I didn’t need to–that my greatest fear was that I couldn’t dismount, having lost all the muscles in my back and shoulders.  It didn’t matter though, he lifted me off as though I weighed nothing and insisted I come again soon.  I owe him and that horse my life.  Without horses, I am nothing.

Other–so wonderful–friends insisted that I could and would hack out again.  So once I’d mastered the rising trot again (took a few months) and the dismounting issue, they took me out on the Downs.  And then there’s Tomtom, (he’s a horse, in case you hadn’t guessed.)  He has, throughout this fight back to life, been my brother, my friend, my greatest supporter, the one who’s said when my body says no, “It’s okay, I’ll carry you…we’ll get there.  Lean on me.”

Three–I don’t read German as well as I wish I did.

Four–I played the Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven when I was 13.

Five–I’m currently playing a lot of music by Einaudi.  It was his Una Mattina (on my iPod) that kept me dreaming, hoping, praying, breathing, and plotting during the months of being in hospital…it kept me praying that I would write another novel with Boy Tirrell in it; every time I hear it, he is conjured up.  So in so many ways, I owe Maestro Einaudi for, if not my life, then the return of my imagination and my literary ambitions.

Six–I really do like broccoli.  And carrots.  (Tomtom likes them more…)  And peas.  And cauliflower.  Love ’em. But I hate, hate, hate broad beans.  And hate more than anything asparagus!

Seven–Coming back to life is a very lonely place.  You lose lots of friends.  And the world you wake up to, the world you’ve fought like stink to be a part of again is rarely as you imagined it was.  But I have had the great gift, the great pleasure, the great kindness of those who have loved my books encouraging me, supporting me (though they didn’t know it) and cherishing me.  Thank you all so very, very much.  Bless you.

Item 4.  I don’t know 15 other bloggers.  Honestly.  But I’ll have a go listing those four I do know and admire–great friends and interesting authors.

Jonathan Hopkins.

Jenni James.

Terry Kroenung.

Piotr Mierzejewski.

5…I’ll just go do that now, shall I?



200 Years Ago Today ~ The Temperature Plummeted and…

Righto…where were we? 

Ah yes. 

With Napoleon and his French troops–the remaining French troops I should have said–leaving Moscow on the 19th October.   Weighed down with all sorts of goodies–there were carts and waggons filled with essentials like brandy and rum, coffee and tea, sugar accompanying each regiment.  And every officer who could manage it had his own little private store of trophies of war in his own little private cart–gold and silver objects, books, furs, holy icons, iron bedsteads…

The trouble was, of course, that within miles of the city gates, the cart wheels and the horses pulling them began to sink into the soft soil of the steppes…and hence were abandoned.  It’s said that the road–dirt tracks–that lead from Borowsk to Mozhaik was covered with discarded treasures, with icons, books, candlesticks, trinkets…

The inventory kept by one NCO, Sergeant Bourgogne provides a rather vivid picture.  In his knapsack he had “several pounds of sugar; half a bottle of liqueur; a woman’s Chinese silk dress; a woman’s riding cloak; several gold and silver ornaments; some lockets; two silver-mounted crosses; a Russian prince’s spittoon; a piece of the cross of Ivan the Great…”  And he was wearing “a yellow waistcoat of padded silk and a cape lined with ermine, beneath which he worse a pouch into which he had stuffed more stuff includinga crucifix in gold and silver and a little Chinese porcelein vase…” 

So this cavalcade of slow carts laden with booty and trudging men slowly made its way from Moscow to Troitskoe and onto Forminskoie and from there to Maloyaroslavets…(no, you don’t have to try to pronounce that–there is no pop quiz on the schedule…)

And it was at Maloyaroslavets, on 24 October, that the Russian army–having marched all the previous couple of days in the pissing rain (which washed out the roads such as they were and flooded the streams, making crossing with artillery hazardous to say the least)–fought the French to a stand-off…The town itself, of 10,000 souls, was destroyed and held by the French under Napoleon’s step-son, Eugene Beauharnais.  The Russians, as they had before, retreated. 

And Napoleon–because of so many reasons–decided to continue his retreat west, initially by retracing the army’s steps back up to  Borowsk and from thence, westward to Mozhaisk…

(In Maloyaroslavets, when it was subsequently rebuilt, they added a small plaque which reads:  “End of offensive, beginning of rout and ruin of the enemy”.)

By the 30 October, the Russians were once again in full pursuit.  Moreover, there were raiding bands of Cossacks and partisans, eager to avenge themselves on the French invaders, ready to harass the retreating troops at every opportunity, frequently capturing foraging parties or stragglers and either killing them on the spot, or bringing the home to their hamlets to be tortured to death…

Both the French and Russian sources cite this, so there can be little doubt that it happened and is not just anti-Russian propaganda.

Napoleon headed for Viasma, where he stayed for more than a day…(possibly not the wisest decision…)  The weather was growing steadily colder, there were ice floes beginning to form in the rivers… And following Napoleon’s departure, the Russians launched an attack on the French rearguard on 3 November…

It should have gone in the French troops’ favour…but by the end of the day, the French fearing that a new troop of infantry was about to mount another attack and the entire French army broke rank and panicked, running for the bridges and for anything that might afford them safety…

Snow flurries threatened…

The night of the 4th November saw the temperature dropping sharply, probably down to minus 10 C (14F), yet the remnants of this once great army were dressed in what we would today consider a summer uniform. 

(Winter uniforms didn’t exist at that time–troops didn’t fight in winter, so the need had never before arisen…)

On 6 November, Napoleon finally reached the Dnieper at Mikhailewska, with his remaining troops straggling out like a string of over-boiled spaghetti across the wintry plains–those plains which had been stripped of all food and fodder by the Russians earlier in the year. 

That night, as the temperature plummeted, the snow truly began to fall.  By morning, there would be two feet of it covering the ground in every direction…

Various accounts write of this period of the retreat thusly:  “I have just seen the most appalling sight of my life…Our men are there, sitting around their campfires just as we left them last night, but they are all dead and frozen.”

“When we got up in order to move out, many would remain seated; we would shake them to wake them up, thinking they were asleep; they were dead.” 

“It is from that point that our misery began [the cold and snow of the 6th November], and that misery was to grow and to last for another six weeks…”

Within hours, the snow was compacted into a slippery, rock-hard surface by the footfalls of the thousands of men passing over it.  The horses, without winter horseshoes, had no hope of pulling the carts and waggons…

A brief thaw on 8 November turned the road into a bog, and the following day there was a hard frost, which turned the whole plain into a sheet of ice…

Tens of thousands of the remaining horses–those which had survived the months of malnourishment and exhaustion–died over those three days.  One corps of cavalry lost 1200 horses in two days.  Some cavalry officers now took out their remaining two bullets–the first for their horse and the second for themselves–and used them. 

Equally, the loss of the draught-horses severely reduced the army’s best hope of survival.  Waggons with supplies were abandoned in their hundreds…

Writing of the terrible events that began on the 6th, one survivor recorded: 

“The sun, enveloped by the thickest mists, disappeared from sight, and the snow falling in large flakes, in an instant obscured the day, and confounded the earth with the sky.  The wind, furiously blowing, howled dreadfully through the forests and overwhelmed the firs, already bent down with the ice; while the country around, as far as the eye could reach, presented, unbroken, one white and savage appearance.

“The soldiers, vainly struggling with the snow and the wind, which rushed upon them with the violence of a whirlwind, could no longer distinguish the road; and falling into the ditches which bordered it, there found a grave.  Others pressed on towards the end of the journey, scarcely able to drag themselves along, badly mounted, badly clothed, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, shivering with the cold, and groaning with pain…

“How many unfortunate beings, on that dreadful day, dying of cold and famine, struggled hard with the agonies of death…Stretched on the road, we could distinguish only the heaps of snow which covered them, and which, at almost every step formed little undulations, like so many graves…”

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

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?