Introducing the First Total War…

Where shall I start?

Possibly with a definition of total war, yes?

Total war, which is what WWII most definitely was, is warfare that does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but rather holds that whoever is not fighting alongside one is an enemy and therefore should be exterminated.  Hence just as Hitler was clear that he had to wipe out all resistance to his plans of conquest and rule wherever it might be found, so too 200 years ago, the French brought that level of savage conquest to every corner of Europe…

So, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

What happened in 1789 that changed the course of world history?  Yes, that’s right, Jane Austen had her fourteenth birthday–though what kind of cakey she had or if she had cakey, I can’t tell you.

However, there was something else, which involved a few more people and was possibly–I know it’s hard to credit–even more important than that.  It was the beginning of the French Revolution.

Now before I go any further, let me just say that the coming of the French Revolution was no surprise to observers of the age.  France had been bankrupt for some time, the political machine addicted to privilege, the various classes entrenched in their opposition to change, the general population impoverished, the crime rate staggering, the roads impassable, the harvests meagre, inflation was soaring and the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, alienated from everyone.

The question hadn’t been if there would be a seismic change, the questions were when and how and what?  But no one  in their wildest nightmares imagined what was to come.

Within a few months, the summer stand-off between king and people and various political factions had devolved into an elitest power struggle, the Third Estate (everyone besides the aristocracy and clergy) were in the ascendancy, and the country was fast sliding past civil disobedience into fierce sectarian violence.  By the summer of 1791, King Louis XVI was a prisoner and counter-revolution was sweeping the countryside, in its wake bloody suppression in which thousands were killed.

In Paris, the revolutionaries were relentless and mesmerising in their determination to take their ideology of republican fervour and a moral cleansing (as they saw it) of bloodshed to all the crowned heads in Europe.  On 20th April 1792, France declared war on Austria.

Prussia joined Austria on the battlefield against this new Republican France–and the pitiless wars that would consume the Continent began as France rolled out her vast conscript armies, which over the next 23 years would unleash a torrent of ruthless destruction, pillage, economic strangulation and savage invasion, reaching from the Atlantic shores of Portugal in the west to Egypt and the Acre in the south, and the heart of Russia in the east.

It was to become the first total war, invented by the French, by Robespierre and St Just and other French ideologues.  (Another word for that might be sociopaths…)

In Paris, where paranoia and mob-rule dominated, some 4000-6000 people fell victim over just four days to the vicious slaughter of the September Massacres.

The rest of Europe looked on in stunned and speechless horror.

Louis XVI was eventually tried and found guilty of treason.  He was executed by guillotine on 21st January 1793.  By late that spring, the vainglorious and perhaps pot-valiant rulers of France had declared war on virtually every country in Europe–however woefully unprepared for such a situation they were.

However, failing to succeed with fervour and without much else on the battlefield, with France itself in a state of roiling revolution, counter-revolution and economic disaster, the ‘war party’ of the Brissotins fell, leaving the Committee of Public Safety–a 12 man governing body which included the lawyer, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis de St. Just, and later the painter Jacques-Louis David–in charge of what would soon be known as the Reign of Terror.

Louis XVI’s wife, the hated Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, was beheaded on 16 October 1793.

But she and Louis were hardly alone.  Over the next two years, nearly 40,000 men, women and children would be executed in Paris and throughout France, their deaths ordered by this group of men who believed in the ‘complete destruction of everything that is opposed to the committee.’

Nor were they all or even mostly aristocrats who climbed the scaffold to the guillotine.  Only 17% of the victims of this genocide were of aristocratic birth.  The others were predominantly made up of the clergy–prayer had been outlawed as anti-revolutionary and subversive and the clergy turned out into the streets–and members of the Third Estate…

But these most fanatical leaders of the Revolution soon themselves fell foul of public mood which had begun to swing away from their devastating devotion to bloodshed.  On 28 July 1794, Robespierre himself, along with others of the committee, was guillotined.

Meanwhile, a young Corsican artillery officer had been dispatched to serve in the siege by the British of Toulon in September 1793.  He was energetic, determined, and even wildly fearless in the face of overwhelming odds.

His name was Napoleon Buonaparte, and for his part in the successful action in Toulon, he was made a brigadier, and France, longing for a victory after so many losses against the better equipped, better-fed, better-led armies ranged against her, rejoiced.

1794 saw the French armies getting walloped on all fronts.  1795 saw a new executive government for France, this time a Directory.  But not everyone was thrilled with the turn of events and on 3 October, Paris erupted (yet again) in a revolt which was soon put down by the Directory’s defenders near the Tuileries palace.

Among these defenders was Bonaparte, and whatever the true case of the situation, within days the conviction had spread that it was Napoleon Bonaparte who had stilled the insurrection with “a whiff of grapeshot”.  He was the hero of the hour, the darling of the Parisian salons.

On 9 March 1796, he married Rose de Beauharnais, whom he renamed Josephine.

Two days later, he departed for Italy to command the French so-called Army of Italy.  And it is really from this point forward that the fate of France, indeed the fate of Europe, merges with the personal fortunes of this opportunist, energetic, glory-seeking Corsican general.

His 1796 conquest of Italy left Europe agog.  Within a few brief months, the independent principalities of Piedmont, Tuscany, Modena and the Papal States had been forced to make peace with him.  His rag-tag army had overrun northern Italy and had defeated a series of Austrian armies.

Whilst Buonaparte was away from Paris, France sought to spearhead an invasion of Britain, starting with an invasion force of 40,000 men who were to land in Ireland, cause a Republican uprising, and then move on to overthrow the British government.  But fierce weather drove the French troop ships from the coast of Ireland–and the plan was abandoned.

Elsewhere in Europe, French defeats served only to highlight his brilliance on the battlefield, reinforcing his importance to the Directory.  And the Directory needed good news, for France itself had sunk into a vacuum of political corruption, economic privation and failure, indolence and lawlessness–even as in Italy, Napoleon had transformed the army into a propaganda machine and a power base and was trying his hand at state-making, turfing out the former rulers and creating the Cispadane and Transpadane Republics (which he would subsequently transform into the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics).

Verona surrendered; Venice was seized.  By the end of the summer, Napoleon had made himself virtual king of northern Italy, and the French plunder of that land was on a scale unsurpassed either before or since, with Napoleon the chief beneficiary.

By December 1797, when he returned to Paris, Napoleon was the national hero.  And this made him dangerous.  Very dangerous indeed.  Hence, when he put forward his new bright idea to the Directory–still a cesspool of corruption and connivance–that he should take an army to Egypt, conquer it and set up a French colony there which could in turn threaten Great Britain’s trade with India, the Directory said, “What a great idea! Off you go then…”

But that didn’t turn out so well, for in the middle of his spate of victories over the ill-prepared, mediaevally-armed Mamelukes, Britain’s Lord Nelson led the Royal Navy to defeat and destroy the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1st-2nd August 1798, thus marooning the French army.

Eventually, his army crippled by disease and casualties sustained at the Battle of Acre, Napoleon abandoned them, fleeing back to France on 24th August 1799, where he proclaimed the whole to have been a rip-roaring success and victory for France.  (No kidding.)  But having got a taste for command and absolute power, his ambitions could not be contained.

With the help of his brother, Lucien, he orchestrated a coup d’etat against the financially incompetent Directory on 9th November, aka 17 Brumaire under the arcane Revolutionary calendar.

Within weeks, a new government, a Consulate of three with Napoleon as First Consul was established.   On 17th February 1800, he took possession of the Tuileries Palace.  He was, by right of the new Constitution, the supreme ruler of France.

What follows for the next fourteen years is an unending history of misery, of conquest, battle, pillage and destruction, as Napoleon and his armies swept aside all barriers that stood in the way of his absolute soon-to-be imperial power and greed.  During this period of the wars, Britain, ruling the waves, would diplomatically construct coalition after coalition of European powers to oppose the Napoleonic military machine–paying out millions in subsidies to Prussia, Russia, Austria, Portugal and Spain.  Yet for a decade, no one but the British–and that at sea–could defeat the seemingly indefatigable French.

And curiously, for the first couple of years of his reign the battlefields were quiet-ish, as Napoleon consolidated his power at home, reconstituting the judiciary, the ministries, the civil code, the education system, the law-book–all to suit himself.

Britain was feeling the pinch too and between 1802-1803, under the terms of a thing called the Peace of Amiens, Europe was at peace.

Sort of.

I say sort of, because Napoleon was merely using the time to refashion the state in his own image, to build and train a conscript army, the size and force of which had never been seen before.  And of course, to arrange for his self-crowning as Emperor.

Britain then remained Napoleonic France’s implacable foe.  Consequently, Napoleon began to amass troops for an invasion, situating this ginormous military camp at Boulogne (on a clear day, it could be seen from across the English Channel).  The Royal Navy kept up a constant patrol, bless them.

France, now allied with Spain, sent forth a fleet to draw them away from the Channel, thus to provide a 24-hour window, during which time, the thousands of troops might be transported across the Channel to being the invasion.

There were two catches to this great plan.  One, the “transportation” consisted of four-foot deep barges, which, in the choppy waters of the Channel capsized almost immediately weight was put on them–the horses swam back to shore, the non-swimming troops weren’t so fortunate.

And two, that pesky Lord Nelson again, who led the fleet to victory over the French and Spanish combined fleets on 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar.  France would never again challenge Britain at sea and subsequently, Napoleon’s insatiable lust for conquest would be confined to Continental Europe.

In response, he marched his army at breakneck pace across Europe, roughing up the German principalities through which he travelled, and smashing the allied Austro-Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December (combined casualties–upwards of 30,000 men).

As a result, the centuries-old Austrian Empire was dramatically reduced and Napoleon set up the Confederation of the Rhine at Austria’s expense in the early months of 1806.

Less than a year later, on 14th October 1806, Napoleon led his troops to victory over the Prussians and Saxons at Jena; at Auerstedt on the same day, another defeat for the Allies, this time the Prussians alone, with over 10,000 Prussian casualties.

The subsequent days became a roll-call of Battles and Allied losses, of French sieges and Allied capitulations, which only concluded at the Battle of Friedland on 14th June 1807 with a costly victory over the Russians.

And all the while, these massive armies were in the field, displacing whole villages, eating everything in sight, pillaging, ripping up fruit trees to feed their cooking fires, creating a veritable sea of refugees who sought safety in the nearest forests where they fell prey to the thousands and thousands of deserters and bandits…

The Treaty of Tilsit agreed between Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, on 25th June, temporarily put an end to hostilities, leaving Napoleon free to carve up Europe as he chose.  And he did.

But soon, again, he grew restless, and now greedy for the apparently rich prize of Spain, in September 1807, he sent an army corps to the Spanish border, where they were to demand that Spain allow them to cross their territory in order to subdue Portugal who were allied with Britain.

By the end of November, the Portuguese royal family were being bundled aboard British ships, to seek sanctuary in South America.  Displeased and still greedy, Napoleon launched a full-scale invasion of Spain itself, otherwise known as his first really big mistake.  Certainly it precipitated the most brutal and savage phase of France’s conquest over her European neighbours.

Britain eventually sent a small force to aid the Spaniards who were rebelling against the French invaders, first under the command of Sir John Moore and upon his death, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Wellesley’s subsequent series of small but significant victories over the French were a first sign that France might be defeated in the field.

Napoleon now opted for economic warfare against Britain by launching the Continental System which was designed to deprive Britain of her worldwide export market by closing all European ports to her shipping and goods.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t control the seas–he had no navy–so Britain continued to trade and continued to subsidise European resistance to French rule.  European businesses and ports, however, went bankrupt in their thousands, and privation and shortages of every kind of commodity became commonplace.  (Smuggling boomed though…)

By January 1811, Napoleon (having turned his back on the ‘Spanish Ulcer’) had decided to invade Russia.  For the next year, he concentrated troops in Prussia (now a vassal state to France) until he had a combined Grande Armee of at least 480,000 men.  By the end of June, having ravished Poland, they were crossing the Niemen into Russian territory.

On 7th September they defeated-ish the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino–which was the most costly battle in terms of human life ever fought at that time.  Though they took Moscow, the French were soon forced to retreat amidst terrible winter conditions which destroyed the remnants of this once great army.

On 4th December, Napoleon abandoned his troops as he had once before.  He reached Paris on 19th December.  (Only some 30,000 of his men were all that was left to struggle home in his wake.)

(Equally, while he had been otherwise occupied on the Eastern front, Wellesley–now Lord Wellington–had been busily driving the French out of Spain…)

Within a day, he had summoned his ministers, calling for a new levy of conscripts…and he was ready to take to the field again by April.  By April too, Prussia and Russia were once again allied against him with Britain as paymaster.  His defeat of the Allies, first at Lutzen and then at Bautzen (Germany), caused some to fear.  But Austria negotiated a truce for the summer months, during which time, Russia and Prussia called up further troops and organised their supply lines.

Austria tried to press Napoleon for peace, but he–as ever the Corsican strongman–refused to negotiate and blew them off.

The Allied powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria took the field against Napoleon’s new Grande Armee and inflicted staggering casualties upon the French forces at the three-day Battle of Leipzig, 16th-18th October 1813.

The disorganised French fled westward, and for the next several months, Napoleon attempted to stave off the advancing Allied invasion of France, but with his supplies, his finances, and his wasted troops exhausted, he ultimately failed.

Thus after the Battle of Paris on 30th March 1814, Tsar Alexander entered the city in triumph.  On 6th April, Napoleon was forced by his generals to abdicate power.

From the southwest, Wellington was invading France as well.

Let joy reign supreme… Napoleon–at the behest of Tsar Alexander–was dispatched to the island of Elba.  Which he didn’t much care for.

A Congress was convened in Vienna  in September of that year, with the brief to rebalance and redistribute power to the various countries.  They were dancing and discussing and negotiating the final settlements when it was announced that Napoleon had escaped from his island prison and was making his way through France, raising a new army…

The Allies, now led by the Duke of Wellington, met Napoleon’s army on 16th-18th June 1815, at a series of battles which we refer to as Waterloo.  Napoleon was defeated.  At a cost of at least 95,000 casualties, drawn from all corners of Europe.

This time, there were to be no mistakes.  Napoleon was sent, aboard a British ship, to the island of St. Helena…where he would die in 1821.  Possibly of stomach cancer.  Possibly he was poisoned…

The Allies resumed their negotiations in Paris and Vienna, though this time they were in no mood to conciliate French demands for anything.  The treasures Napoleon and his troops had looted from the farthest ends of Europe were removed from the Louvre and sent home.  France was restored to its pre-Revolutionary borders.  Italian and German nationalism had been ignited which would eventually lead to the uprisings of the 1840s and 50s.

Over the course of the wars, Britain had paid out between £55 and £65 million in subsidies to her Continental Allies.  (That’s somewhere between £3.5 billion and £4.6 billion in today’s money.)

More than six million people had lost their lives, hundreds of thousands more were displaced refugees, and it would take until 1890 for the populations of Europe to regain their pre-Revolutionary numbers.

The number of those who lost their lives stands at somewhere between five and six million…but that’s probably not counting those who died as a result of starvation due to the French armies eating up every speck of food in a country including next year’s grain so there would be no harvest, those who lost their lives fleeing the violence, or those who were infected with any of the many diseases the French army spread (like syphilis) which killed its victims within five or so years of contraction.

Likewise we have only the vaguest idea of how many Russian civilians died courtesy of the French invasion in 1812 and its ghastly aftermath.

And thus, until 1917 or thereabouts, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were known simply as the Great War.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

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.

Napoleon as Romantic Hero? Let me think…

Poor, poor, poor, poor Napoleon.

(Not.)
Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauI mean, look at him, poor fellow, sent by that nasty-wasty British Government (what a pack of Grinches, eh?) to that pestiferous outcrop of black rocks in the middle of bally-nowhere, a.k.a. the island of St. Helena, and all because he’d been just a little naughty and had the bad luck to lose at Waterloo.  I mean, are they a bunch of bad winners or what?  Meanies.
(Not.)
Yes, yes, yes…of course I’ve made the mistake (again) of reading a blog by someone or other about poor, poor, poor old Boney.  And how he was forced into surrendering to the Brits, blah-di-blah…
Uhm, could we just go over a fact or two here?  Like about how he came to be in that position in the first place?
Right.
napoleon1814So, in the spring of 1814, after having run rampant over the Continent since roughly 1796, slaughtering some 5-6 million people in the process, all the way from the coast of Portugal in the west to the Kremlin in the east, Napoleon (poor fellow) had been beat to a standstill by the Allied forces of the Prussians, Russians and Austrians at the gates of Paris.
And following the Battle of Paris, when the Russians whooped those French troops who were meant to defend the capital, having drained the country of every ounce of anything resembling food or fodder or hard cash, Napoleon who was hanging out at Fontainbleau, was urged, advised, encouraged by his advisors and marshalls and generals, for the sake of the country, to abdicate power.
Which he did.  But not before he had attempted suicide, swallowing a delicious concoction of opium, belladonna and white hellebore, which he’d carried on his person for some time.  But he apparently had the constitution of an ox.  Or the poison had lost its viv during the disastrous Russian campaign, so he, er, was soon found sitting at the table (which I have seen) signing his name to the abdication papers.
So, what to do with the troublesome teen, eh?  Bootcamp?  Outward Bound?  Betty Ford?
alexander 1814The Tsar of all Russia, Alexander I, because he still rather liked and admired Napoleon, conceived of the clever plan to ship him off to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, where he could still have his own little kingdom and be happy making daisy-chains and frolicking in the sunshine and things.
The French, like Talleyrand, thought it was a bad idea.  The Austrians thought it was a disastrous idea.  The Prussians wanted him executed by firing squad.  And the British refused to have anything to do with it because they heartily disapproved–they thought it was asking for trouble.
Nevertheless, it fell to the Brits to get him there and keep him there by virtue of the fact that the Royal Navy rules the waves of the Mediterranean and elsewhere and nobody else had any ships to speak of.  So on 4 May 1814, HMS Undaunted delivered him to the 16-mile-long island of Elba.
Hence, during the ensuing months, everyone across Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief, ate food, slept in their beds without worrying about their villages being pillaged and shelled, and then met in Vienna to try and sort out some kind of modern peace plan for the much-trampled-on peoples of Europe.  This lasted for months.
During which time, Napoleon, down on his island poverty-dise constructed a new palace, furnished it, taxed the population, came up with various schemes, waited for his wife and son to arrive (they never did) and got bored.  So, on 26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped his lead, boarded the 16-gun brig, Inconstant, and made for France.
Where he proceeded to raise a new army.
The restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII eventually skedaddled and headed for Belgium.
wellingtonThe Duke of Wellington, who’d been busy at the Congress of Vienna, also headed for Belgium where he was to be Commander in Chief of the Allied Army; the Prussian Army under General Blucher also got moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, the crowned heads of Europe had put together a statement which read “The Powers declare that Napoleon Buonaparte has placed himself outside all human relations and that, as the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has delivered himself up to public justice.”  And for good measure they claimed that he had forfeited “his sole lawful right to exist.”
It was the 1815 equivalent of the United Nations declaring someone an international war criminal, really.
And some 100 days following his escape, Napoleon was beaten, rolled up, squashed, creamed and otherwise defeated at the 4-day event now known as the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).
But what happened then? you ask.  Didn’t poor, poor, poor Napoleon just get snatched up by those clamouring bullies the English and thrown higgledy-piggledy onto the HMS Bellerophon without so much as an embroidered imperial hanky?
Er, no.  Not really.
The British were kind of busy, er, mopping up at Waterloo and in Brussels, you might say.  Total casualties of the days’ fighting were something in the region of 115,000 men.  Napoleon’s losses were approximately 41,400 killed or wounded, 7000 captured and 10,000 missing.
Those are big numbers.
Nevertheless, having just inflicted this new grievous loss upon France, Napoleon headed back to Paris, determined to raise yet another army–he had a plan to use General Grouchy’s troops as a core, combine them with the reserves of the National Guard and…and…impose a new round of conscription (also known as the blood tax) in order to take on the Allies with a new army of 300,000 in order to avenge Waterloo.
(I kid you not.  That was his new plan.)
But others in France…well, this time they weren’t so keen.  Or maybe they’d finally worked out that he was stark, raving bonkers and a power-junkie megalomaniac.  So, these fellows, including many within his own government, got to work to undermine him.  They included his former minister of police, Fouche, and several prominent men in the French legislature, including the Marquis de Lafayette, a former Bonapartist and hero of the American and French Revolutions.
Napoleon’s brother Lucien spoke to defend his brother as did the author of the novel, Manon Lescaut, Emmanuel Sieyes.
But it was Lafayette’s words which carried the day in response to a cry to rally the French to “drive the barbarians from our country.”
“Have you forgot where the bones of our sons and brothers whiten?  The deserts of Egypt, the snows of Russia, and now the plains of Belgium–Will it also be the streets of Paris?  France,” Lafayette lamented, already had a few million victims “of this one man who wanted to fight all Europe!  Enough!”
While the French legislature debated, Napoleon’s friends and advisors (including brother Lucien) were urging him to send in the army in order to seize power.  Advice that, for once, he did not take.
napo-creepOn 22 June–four days after the catastrophe at Waterloo–the French legislature ordered him to step down from the throne of his own free will or they would remove him.  They gave him an hour to make up his mind.  At 3.00 in the afternoon, therefore, for the second time, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated.
And with the Allied powers now heading for or encamped in Paris, Napoleon decided the best plan was to scarper.  Note that–it was his idea.
He first headed out to Malmaison, the home he’d shared with Josephine on the banks of the Seine, until he’d divorced her.  And now she was dead, though he felt her presence there…
Still, with the Prussians closing in–for the Prussians, whom his troops had brutalised for years and years, it was payback time–and the French unable or unwilling to guarantee his safety, the government ordered him out of France.
Ever the helpful one though, Napoleon offered to resume his post as general and rally the remaining army, then defeat the vicious invaders and cast them out, etc.
Strangely, this generous offer was declined.   So he left for the port of Rochefort secretly, where he trusted he would find a ship bound for the United States, or barring that, one bound for Mexico or South America.
He’d been told that there were two French frigates awaiting his pleasure, but, uh, when he got to Rochefort, they’d been joined by two of the Royal Navy’s finest, including HMS Bellerophon.  Ehem.  He toyed with the idea of escape, possibly in a barrel or on a small fishing boat, but then decided it was beneath his dignity, and so, on 15 July, he surrendered to the British and boarded the Bellerophon.
He still had a plan.  This time it was that the British would offer him asylum.  (He seems to have missed that all that stuff about killing 5-6 million people and being a war criminal.  Or maybe he thought it was irrelevant.)
The British Government declined to take him up on this–I can’t possibly imagine why–and since the island-paradise-close-to-Europe plan hadn’t worked out so well for them, they opted for the island-hell-as-far-away-from-civilisation-as-possible (nearest neighbour 700 miles away) plan.
And so, on 17 October 1815, still protesting that he’d been tricked and cheated by the British Government (yuh, like that’s credible) he was landed at Jamestown, St. Helena…where he died, in May 1821.  But not before he did his best to rewrite history and claim that all he’d ever really wanted was peace…
Yuh, right.  Poor baby.
Romantic hero?  I don’t think so…

Le Grand Chiffre…or am I talking in code?

Sorry, sorry, sorry…yes, that headline is me laughing at my own jokes.  Sorry.  It was too good to pass up.

Anyway…codes.  Secret codes.

FrenchiesplantingminesleavingMoscowWell…The reason I’m on about this at the minute is that last Sunday, as announced in this news feature, a page of a letter written by Napoleon in code was going under the hammer at some auction or other.  And this particular letter was of great interest because it detailed what the French army were to do–blow stuff up–upon their retreat from Moscow in October 1812.  So, of great interest to historians and particularly Russian historians.

But of course, as so often happens, the, er, author of this bijou article-ette didn’t quite get his facts right with his comments about Napoleon’s Secret Coded Letter…chiefly because, he writes as though this was the only one.  A one-off.  And how spooky, secret-agenty was that?

Er, not exactly.

Since the days of Louis XIV, back in the late 17th century, the French Foreign Ministry had excelled in code-work.  And let’s face it, in those days of shifting loyalties and French expansionism, they probably needed to.

Anyway, over the hundred or so years, they had developed several examples of petits chiffres (little ciphers) of some 600 characters.

And the way this thing worked was they had the numbers 1-600 written down on their deciphering sheet, and corresponding to these numbers were words, so that when the secretary wrote down his message, he would substitute the numbers for the words in the sentences, which resulted in a pretty confusing or inconclusive reading of the information for anyone without the code book.

By 1750 or so, this enciphering table had been expanded to 1200 numbers, rendering the encrypted messages even more difficult to interpret.  And of course, there were more esoteric codes employing hieroglyphs too.

Copies of these ciphering tables had remained untouched during the years of Revolution in the French foreign ministry drawers, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-used and expanded upon.  But at first Napoleon didn’t have need of them.

In the early Napoleonic campaigns, they had used letters written in a petit chiffre–which were normally composed of number substitutions for about 50 words, but these were quite easy to crack–and if that message fell into the wrong hands, it would only be a matter of a few hours before the contents were decoded.

However, when Napoleonic troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they found themselves in exceedingly hostile territory, among exceedingly hostile natives…and with the two main armies being separated by hundreds of miles across exceedingly hostile terrain where anything might happen…well…to put it mildly, communication just got a whole lot more difficult.

Yes, in France and across much of the conquered German lands to the east, telegraphs had been erected to aid in the speedy transmission of information from Paris to the other parts of the Napoleonic Empire, but this wasn’t going to work in Spain.  The Pyrenees Mountains were in the way, for a start…

So, it’s at this point, that they go back to the idea of enciphering their letters.  That way, if the Spanish guerrillas captured the courier (as so often happened) even if that happened, neither he, nor, after 1809, his British counterparts and allies could read the thing.  Brilliant, yes?  And by 1811, the need was acute.

marmont1And it’s at this point that Marshal Marmont, assuming command of the Army of Portugal as they called these French divisions, ordered the creation of a new cipher–bigger than the old–comprised of some 1200 numeric substitutions.  And a great many of those numerals would have been used to indicate locations.  Genius!

The next step came from Napoleon himself who ordered the creation of a new cipher, a grand chiffre, for his brother Joseph, nominally King of Spain, (he’s a bit of a feckless loser, to be honest) and to be used to shore up Joseph’s waning authority–and he starts sending the letters to Spain written in this.  But the problem was that not everyone, including Joseph, had the new encryption tables…So, the King resorts to writing things out–writing en clair, as it’s known.

The British too, at this point, are coming into possession of more and more of these coded letters and they’ve got their own code-breakers beavering away at cracking the codes.

The codes vary in difficulty.

Some break words into syllables or even letters and combine separate numbers to form words phonetically or to partially spell them out–as say, if one were to break the word etait (was or were) into four:  et-a-i-t, then it might look something like this when enciphered.  20.14.59.29.  (As if in fact it did when found in a letter from one French officer…)

By the winter of 1811, amidst the confusion of too many code tables and who knew what and when, Napoleon had his chief fixer in Paris, Hugues Maret, compose a new cipher which was to be sent out to all the Marshals in Spain and Portugal and to King Joseph too.  The table had 1200 code numbers, which was expanded to include another 200 numbers which mainly described Spanish places or terms.

GreatParisCipherThe new more complex code, le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Paris Cipher as it was now called, allowed for the same words to be broken up and encrypted in several different ways–making it nearly impossible for a British code-breaker to crack the thing.

Thus the sentence (this is from an actual letter), “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he was the cause of the capture of [Ciudad] Rodrigo” looked like this when encrypted, “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he 20.14.59.29 the 36.49.1.12.63.14.17 of 6.28 27.30.31.21.17.41.40.30.49.10.41.39.31.43.10”.

You can imagine the rolling of eyes in the British camp when they came across this stuff…But, as the guerrillas were picking off French couriers with the same ease as shooting fish in a barrel, any and all French messages between Napoleon and his cohorts were written using this code–so you might say, there were nothing but coded letters.

lettersdecodedbyScovellAnyway, despite the challenge or perhaps because of it, a rather canny and quite tenacious fellow by the name of George Scovell didn’t roll his eyes and give up, he cracked the Frenchie blighter!

It didn’t happen all at once and he wasn’t alone in working at it.  Copies of the encoded messages captured by guerrillas were sent on by Wellington to the Foreign Office, the War Office and Horse Guards in London, and their home-grown boffins were hard at work on it too.

[A word about the decrypting process:  the code-breaker’s eye naturally seeks out the repetitive sequences or particular numbers.  For example, the letter e is the most commonly used letter in English.  It also occurs quite frequently in French and Spanish, as does u.  So, the genius of the Great Paris Code is that they didn’t just use numbers for single letters, they also used bigrams and/or whole word codes.  Which makes it almost impossible for the code-breaker to develop a rule.

By having the endings of French plural verbs encoded–that’s ons, ez and ent–again, they’re making it more difficult to establish the rules as the cryptographer might spell the letters out using numbers for each letter, or they might vary that with numbers to represent the verb endings.  So a code-breaker can never be sure where the words begin or end–it’s just this fiendish stream of numbers across the page.

And the big break didn’t come until the French in the field began to get sloppy and write enough of their letters en clair that Scovell and the others could deduce the encoded words from the context within the sentence.]

But Scovell, because he had greater access to all the incoming captured communications, and because of his hard work, fine brain and excellent French, was the man to crack the thing wide open–and this without the help of Alan Turing or a prototype Enigma computer…

But it was that huge.

For decrypting the Grand Chiffre enabled Wellington and the British troops to outflank and outmanoeuvre the French, even as Napoleon was withdrawing 30,000 of the best of them for his campaign against Russia…

I don’t know how long it took–but the French didn’t learn for the longest time that the Grand Chiffre had been virtually decoded and that the British knew in advance what they were likely to be up to and were responding accordingly.  Possibly by the time they worked that out, it was too late–Joseph was abandoning Madrid, Wellington had the French on the run…And this is about at the same time as Napoleon is invading Russia–so just prior to writing the abovementioned letter in code, which as you’ve seen, was hardly a singular event… (punk)

May 1812Okay.  So how cool is that?

(And yes, the reason I learned all this stuff, including how to crack these coded messages, was so that I could put it in my novel, May 1812…right at the beginning.  And yes, there on the cover of the book is a page from Scovell’s decryption table, now found in the National Archive.)

I’ve been tagged for the Next Big Thing…

It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me that I’ve been tagged by the rather charming Debra Brown, author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, in a blog game called The Next Big Thing.

This game involves answering questions about my work-in-progress or a piece that I would like to become the next big thing!  And after the questions, I will tag five more authors.

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:
 
1.) What is the title of your book?
 
Or Fear of Peace
 
2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
 
From the British viewpoint, the historical and fictional focus during the Napoleonic wars tends to be the Peninsular Campaign (fought under the command of the Duke of Wellington), the Naval conflict in which the Royal Navy led by Lord Nelson and others trumped the French, and Waterloo where the British and Allied forces–again commanded by Wellington–defeated Napoleon for good and all. 
 
But those battles and campaigns, as outstanding and inspired and ginormous as they were, aren’t the biggest, the most costly, or the most devastating campaigns or battles of the Napoleonic era.  Not at all.  The big battles, the battles which determined the fates of nations, towns and millions of souls, were fought in central Europe–in modern-day Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia. 
 
And it was there, in the heart of Europe, that the Russian Tsar and his indomitable and long-suffering troops (paid for by British subsidies of over £1 million) forged a final Coalition of forces–Russians, Prussians, Austrians, British and Swedes–who fought like stink to defeat Napoleon and his vast military machine. 
 
It was the most extra-ordinary uprising by these–on the surface–fairly mediocre monarchs to throw off the enslaving yoke of Napoleonic tyranny which had destroyed their kingdoms, their empires in some cases, their economies, their populations. 
 
Napoleon was a warlord.  A monster of war, if you like.  And his vast appetite for conquest, for military glory, for pillage, had consumed all of Europe.  And these three countries–Prussia, Russia and Austria–all of which had been badly beaten and appallingly treated by Napoleon in victory, managed to pull themselves and their outmoded armies together to defend themselves and to defeat him in the years 1813-14.  And I just think that’s so inspiring. 
 
It transformed the way people thought about themselves, their national interest, their lands…
 
It’s a story that has everything:  cowardice beyond your wildest dreams, monumental folly, courage and sheer bloody-minded determination, heartbreak, love, glory, treachery and triumph, love and defeat…and out of the ashes of that a European peace that would last nearly a century. 
  
3.) Under what genre does your book fall?
 
Generic historical fiction, I’d guess.  More specifically, historical spy thriller probably…I always have spies and I enjoy writing history with the pace of a John LeCarre novel.
 
4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
 
This is probably the most difficult question of all, because I don’t think in terms of modern actors.  Not ever.  I work from period portraits and miniatures.  Then too, many of my characters are actual historical figures, so whoever played them would need to have their look.  And mostly, I don’t even try to put together a face or imagine any actors in the roles when I’m writing.  But I’ll give it a go.
 
Captain Shuster:  possibly Rob James-Collier–he has the right colouring, he’s tall enough and I imagine he’d do very well with the extra-ordinary and harsh drive that propelled these men.
 
Boy Tirrell:  Absolutely no idea!  An unknown would be best, because that kid is a shadow…(though my view of the character has very much been influenced by the portrait used in the cover for Of Honest Fame.)
 
Laurent Picamole:  A Frenchman in his mid-30s.  Tall, and a good horseman.
 
Brundle:  No idea.
 
Lord Castlereagh:  someone who looks like him?
 
Sir Charles Vane Stewart:  (Castlereagh’s younger half-brother) Again, someone who looks the part, but also someone who can play drunken wildness very well. 
 
Lord Dunphail:  A tall, dark-redhead of a Scot. 
 
The main thing would have to be they’re all fighters…determined, steely, fighting men.
 
5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
 
In a world engulfed in war, the only thing more fearsome than Napoleon’s army is peace–for when did peace with Napoleon lead to anything but ceaseless woe?
 
6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
 
I expect that my current publisher, Diiarts, will publish it.  They’ve given every indication that that is their intention…I have the contract which says so, somewhere…
 
7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  And read the intro.
 
Since I don’t write a straight draft, not ever, that’s moot.  I write a chapter at a time, editing and rewriting, until that chapter is perfect or as perfect as I can make it.  That may take 3-4 weeks or even longer.  And only when it’s complete do I move on to the next scene or chapter…
 
“Sat like a phasmid, still and wingless, his mouse-coloured coat no more seen among the tiles and slates and chimney-stacks than a heap of old sacking, for three days the boy had been watching the house on Mount Street.  Watching from the leads beneath the summer moods of a fitful London sky, watching as the shadows and light trailed across the classical portico and fine brick face, patient under a patient sky, watching as the morning was bleached of colour and the linens dried white in the yard.  Measuring out the hours from first waking to the lingering midsummer dusk which tarried like a dawdling gabey and counting the number of servants that remained within–the housekeeper, a maid, and two menservants. 
 
“Clocking their comings and goings, from that time when the scullery sashes were thrown open to admit the day, until the hour of shutting in when the jowly steward went about locking the doors and checking that the upper windows were shuttered and barred.  Perched beside an attic dormer or slouched against the flaunching of an adjacent chimney, the boy watched as the long hot hours dropped like weights, indifferent to the herring gulls and house sparrows which congregated near and far, chirruping and raucous, across the red tile ridges of the rooftops that stretched away in every direction.”
 
8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 
Dorothy Dunnett’s novels covered a vast array of themes, characters and plots and sub-plots against a backdrop of impeccable research…I’d like to think I follow in her footsteps, though in a different time period obviously.  I’m told I write John LeCarre collides with Jane Austen in a Charles Dickens’ Sauce–is that a genre?
 
9.)  Who or what inspired you to write this book?
 
My last book, Of Honest Fame, didn’t end the way I expected it to.  I had intended for the third book I wrote about the Napoleonic wars to pick up the story of Ned Hardy, a character from May 1812.  And to begin with, I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I could combine the unfinished business from Of Honest Fame with the stand-alone story and themes I’d been intending to explore in book three.  But I eventually realised I couldn’t do it. 
 
But I knew that I had to take the story of those characters from Of Honest Fame forward to the natural conclusion of the war–which is the Congress of Vienna in 1814…
 
And in the meantime, I’ve had readers–who were as surprised as me by the open ending of the previous book–nagging (it’s the only word for it and I love them for it!) me to carry the story forward…
 
Then too, there are all those men who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and fought on against these incredible odds to beat the most powerful military machine the world had ever seen.  They didn’t start out as anything special, these men, but through their tenacity in rising to the meet the exigencies of their age, they became magnificent.  I have just untold admiration for every last one of them.  They just go on inspiring me to want to get their stories out there.
 
10.)  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 
 
I’d like to think readers appreciate the extent and depth of the research I bring to my work.  I’d like to think too that the literary style is something quite special.  Though probably the fact that I always write about spies and the intelligence networks and weave that through the narrative is what gets most people going. 
 
But more important I think is this:  that my aim is not just to maybe a little show the reader what things looked like, but rather to put them in the room.  I don’t want them to read it.  I want them to live it.  To experience it.  To breathe it. 
 
At the end of the novel, if I’ve done my work correctly, the reader shouldn’t feel that they just read a great book about the last act of the Napoleonic wars, but that they were there.  That they saw it.  Heard it.  That if they reached out–they could touch the crumbling walls of Leipzig or the pristine painted surfaces of the Hofburg…
 
Because that’s what the best historical fiction can do.  It’s history that breathes.
 
With special thanks to Debra Brown for including me in this…and I shall now contact five other authors to see if they consent to being tagged–and among those five I’ve tagged are Terry Kroenung, Jonathan Hopkins, Alaric Bond, Jenni James… 
 

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Liberation of Madrid…

Following the rather disastrous rout at Salamanca on the 18th July, the French army–now reduced to a mere 22,000 troops–had fallen back [slowly] on Madrid, the capital of Spain and home to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, whom he had installed as king when he annexed the country. 

But King Joseph aka Pepe Botella [Joe the Fat] was…er…weak.  And immensely unpopular.  (He’s still a hate figure today.)  He didn’t command much respect among the French army either–he was no soldier and his brother kept undercutting any authority he did have by writing directly to the French generals under his command, countermanding his orders…

So, once the news had got through to Madrid and elsewhere that the French army had been smashed…and this took several weeks in some cases because the Spanish guerillas controlled almost the entire countryside and disrupting French communications was one of their chief pleasures and specialities.  So whenever a French courier was sent out, hey presto, he was ambushed and the news never got through…

Anyway, once Joseph realised that his position was untenable, he did what the Buonapartes always did when things went pear-shaped:  he grabbed as much loot as he could manage to pack into his baggage train, and hightailed it out of town.  In Joseph’s case, this was in a creaky carriage, heading south through the waterless, dusty country of Aranjuez and Albacete for Valencia. 

Accompanied by the royal household and some 2000 waggons–okay, quite a bit of loot–and maybe 15,000 civilian afranchiadas, civilians who’d collaborated with his regime and therefore didn’t rate their chances very high if they remained. 

Hence on 12 August 1812, Wellington and his Anglo-Portuguese army rolled–unobstructed and unopposed–into Madrid. 

And as Stephen Maturin would say, “The Dear knows, I give you joy!” 

All of Madrid turned out to celebrate the casting out of the French–their assault on the Madrilenos in 1808 had turned the streets to rivers of blood, literally–and the triumphal entrance of their English liberators.

William Grattan of the Connaught Rangers was there:  “In less that two hours we reached the heights which command Madrid:  the soldiers ran forward to catch a glimpse of the countless steeples that were distinguishable through the haze, and their joy was at its height when they beheld a city that had cost them so much toil and hard fighting to gain possession of.  Ten thousand voices at one and the same moment vociferated, ‘Madrid!  Madrid!’

“The enthusiasm of the army was still further increased by the thousands upon thousands of Spaniards that came from the town to accompany us in our entry:  for miles leading to the capital the roads were crowded almost to suffocation with people of all ranks who seemed to be actuated by one simultaneous burst of patriotism, and it was with difficulty that the march was conducted with that order which we were in the habit of observing.  The nearer we approached the city, the greater was the difficulty of getting on, for the people forced themselves into our ranks, and joined hand in hand with the soldiers…

“At length we entered that part of the town near which the palace stands, but the obstacles which impeded our march, great as they were before, now became ten-fold greater. 

“Nothing could stop the populace, which at this period nearly embraced half that Madrid contained, from mixing themselves with us.  The officers were nearly forced from their horses in the embraces of the females, and some there were who actually lost their seats, if not their hearts. 

“Old or young, ugly or well-looking, shared the same fate, and one, in particular, an old friend of my own, and a remarkably plain-looking personage, was nearly suffocated in the embraces of half a dozen fair Castilians.  When he recovered himself and was able to speak, he turned to me and said, ‘How infernally fond these Madrid women must be of kissing, when they have hugged nearly to death such an ill-looking fellow as me.'” 

Lowry Cole wrote home that even Wellington was completely surrounded by women and girls as he rode into town, all of them wanting to touch him and kiss him, and many of them even going so far as to cut bits off the skirt of his coat to cherish as relics. 

(Who says we invented the cult of celebrity in the 20th century?)

 And amid the “deffening shouts of Vivi les Angoles, Vivi les Ilandos!” which were being shouted from every direction, Captain Bragge adds:  “The inhabitants testified their Joy by hanging all their Curtains, Tapestry etc out of the windows…This had a very pretty effect and was greatly increased by a splendid Illumination with Immense Wax Candles.”

Can’t you just see it? 

Here’s how one Spanish eye-witness, Jose Clemente Carnicero Torribio described it:  “When the bells began to announce the entrance of our troops at about ten o’clock, it was wonderful to see the people rushing to…the Portillo de San Vicente, which was the one through which they were said to be coming.  A new town council was formed, and this immediately set forth to greet…the immortal Wellington…

To the crescendo of bells, the people massed in ever greater numbers round the Plaza de la Villa.  When a portrait of Don Fernando [Fernando VII] was placed in the window of the town hall, they simply went mad.  The cheering was incessant; hats and caps were thrown in the air; on all sides people were giving thanks to God; and everyone was filled with the greatest joy and happiness.  Another of the incidents that made the day shine our was the behaviour of the women and children of the poorer quarters.  Joseph…had made a new avenue from the palace to the Casa de Campo [the royal hunting ground]…This had been lined with fruit trees…But the crowd…ripped them up…

“When Lord Wellington arrived, many of the people who greeted him were therefore carrying branches and sprigs of greenery which they waved in time with their cheers and happy shouts of greeting.  In this manner he was accompanied to the town hall.  When he got there, the cheering redoubled…Among thunderous applause, everyone flung their arms around one another, and gave themselves over to congratulating their neighbours in the most unreserved fashion.”

Edward Somers Cocks wrote happily of his experience too:  “Our arrival produced a joy far beyond description…I was never kissed by so many pretty girls in a day in all my life, or ever expect to be again.  If we moved on horseback, the animals were embraced and pulled one way, and we were hauled and caressed the other.  On foot it was impossible to make your way…”

Not everyone enjoyed it all though, as William Wheeler of the 51st wrote:  “But amidst all this pleasure and happiness, we were obliged to submit to a custom so unenglish that I cannot but feel disgust now I am writing.  It was to be kissed by the men.  Which made it still worse, their breath was so highly seasoned with garlick, then their huge mustaches well stiffened with sweat, dust and snuff, it was like having a hair broom pushed into ones face that had been daubed in a dirty gutter.”

Amazing and wonderful, isn’t it?

Many Madrilenos believed this signalled the end of the war.  However, in this they were sanguine…it would be another year before the French armies were driven across the Pyrenees and back into France…Still, what a day, eh?

(Oh, and it’s a happy 250th birthday to George IV too.)

200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Salamanca

It was a dark and stormy night…

(No, really, it was.)

The rain came down in torrents…

(No, really, it did.  I’m not making this up.  This is what happened.)

Thunder boomed for hours, the lightning cracked and flashed on the polished metal of the guns, temporarily blinding the soldiers.  The winds, howling across the treeless plain, spooked the horses so that they broke free, bolting, stampeding in every direction.  A night fit for Macbeth’s weird sisters, you might have said.

But by early morning, the storm had passed and the sky was a cloudless wash of watchet blue…

For several days, the two armies–the Anglo-Portuguese army under the command of Lord Wellington and the so-called Army of Portugal (otherwise known as the Frenchies) under the command of Marshal Marmont–had been engaged on a series of manoeuvres, of marches and counter-marches, sometimes in parallel, sometimes within gunshot of each other, each hoping for the other to make a mistake, and all under a blazing sun, while the nights were so cold the soldiers were burning coffin-wood for their fires…

On the morning of the 22nd July, therefore, after rounding up their horses, the two armies again began their journeys toward Ciudad Rodrigo, sweeping onto the plains south of Salamanca, each desperate to reach the road to Ciudad Rodrigo and thus their safe path of retreat first.  

Wellington had ordered his troops into a defensive position along a ridge known as the Lesser Arapil, while the French occupied a more southerly ridge called (here’s a surprise) the Greater Arapil.  Anticipating a day of more manoeuvring, Wellington had sent the baggage train off early, down the road to Ciudad Rodrigo.

Marmont, convinced that Wellington was a fearful, defensive commander, believed that the clouds of dust he saw on that road through his telescope were the main Anglo-Portuguese army making a dash for it.  He therefore ordered his troops to string themselves out along the south for a pre-emptive strike to cut off the British retreat.

(Can I just say here, “Big mistake.  Huge.”)

So here we have, just as you can see below in the map, the Anglo-Portuguese army packed tightly together in formation, with lots of reserves at their back–just to the north–and the Frenchies, bless ’em, marching across the front of the British troops (so dumb!) and blissfully unaware of what’s over that ridge, armed with muskets, Baker rifles, cannon, and wearing red coats.

Lord Wellington, stopping briefly in a farmyard to nab a bite of lunch, was munching on a chicken leg while he watched the French manoeuvres through his glass, when he observed the French line extended and straggling along a full four miles across his army’s front. 

“By God!  That will do!” he is said to have exclaimed, throwing the remaining bit of chicken over his shoulder and leaping onto his horse. 

He galloped off for a better view, liked what he saw (particularly the fact that the French line was not arrayed for battle) and declared to his Spanish aide-de-camp, “Mon cher Alava, Marmont est perdu!”  After which he rode hell for leather over to the north-east to give his orders directly to his brother-in-law, Edward Pakenham, who was in command of the 3rd Division:  “Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill?  Throw your Division into column, take those heights in your front–and drive everything before you.”

The next hour’s events proved a rude, not to say fatal, awakening for the French. 

At close on 5.00 p.m. Pakenham did just as he was told and led his men to the westernmost edge of the ridge, then burst over the crest  to surround the leading French division of General Thomieres. 

As one British soldier later recorded:  “We were going up an ascent on whose crest masses of the enemy were stationed.  Their fire seemed capable of sweeping all before it…we retired before this overwhelming fire, but…General Pakenham approached and very good naturedly said, ‘Reform’, and…’Advance…There they are my lads; just let them feel the temper of your bayonets’.  We advanced, everyone making his mind up for mischief…the bugles along the line sounded the charge.  Forward we rushed…and awful was the retribution we exacted for our former repulse.”

(At approximately the same time as Wellington was giving his orders to Ned Pakenham, cannon-shot from the Lesser Arapil tore into the Greater Arapil and the side of Marshal Marmont, destroying two ribs and an arm.)

Pakenham drove his men forward into General Thomieres men who’d been completely taken by surprise. They managed to get off no more than one round before the feared rolling musketry of the 74th, 88th and 45th  was opened up on them. 

Pakenham’s men crushed the French infantry, the survivors throwing down their arms and running away.  Their first job done, they moved on toward the centre of the French line, which was also having more trouble than they’d anticipated–due to those reserves Wellington had and had ordered forward–General Leith’s Fifth Division and the cavalry brigade under the command of General Le Marchant. 

The battle continued for some time, with the British troops inflicting heavy casualties, breaking the entire French left, taking 2500 prisoners, 12 guns and 2 eagles.  A late effort by General Clausel and Bonnet to break the British centre was doomed.

Three French infantry divisions were available to cover the retreat into the wood south of the Arapil Grande and they fought bravely as the whole Allied army pushed forward, driving all before them. 

Victory belonged to the Allies!

The Battle of Salamanca or Los Arapils as it’s known in Spanish is known as Wellington’s masterpiece.  Some French writers have since observed that at Salamanca, Wellington beat 40,000 men in 40 minutes.  Which has a nice ring to it, I think. 

The Anglo-Portuguese army fought hard–there were some 14,000 French dead and wounded, with another 10,000 stragglers.   Generals Ferey, Thomieres and Berthelot were killed, and Marshal Marmont as well as Generals Clausel and Bonnet wounded.  In addition to this, the Allies took 20 guns, 2 Imperial eagles, and 6 colours.  All this to 5000 Allied casualties. 

Wellington himself had spent the entire battle galloping among the troops as bullets and cannonball whizzed by him–one bullet striking his saddle holster and bruising his thigh.

Wellington did not press his exhausted troops to pursue the disorganised and retreating French into sheltering woods or over the bridge of Alba over the River Tormes, and for this he has been criticised. 

However, the next day, he did order General Anson and his dragoons from the King’s German Legion to cross the bridge to harry the French rearguard.  The KGL hurried to join the fray.  Finding that Chemineau’s Brigade of the 6e Leger and 76e Ligne had been cut off by the rapid retreat, the dragoons charged the artillery battalion squares, shattering them.

For Wellington, the way was now clear to Madrid…and the final push to dislodge the French from the Iberian Peninsula was now on.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.