Wednesday 29 July 2015

Book Review: Journal of the Russian Campaign of 1812 - Fezensac

De Fezensac isn't as gifted or evocative a writer as say Coignet or Bourgogne, but nonetheless, as another piece in the patchwork of primary sources on Russia 1812, his journal of that campaign is, for me, essential reading.

My copy is the edition from the Ken Trotman Military History Monographs series. A simple but handsome paperback, it reproduces a translation by Col. Knollys, of the Scots Guards [1]. Originally published in 1852, only forty years after the momentous events it describes, veterans of the era were still alive, and the campaign of 1812 remained a vivid and and fascinating living memory. Even now, over 200 years later, and despite the participants themselves being long gone, I personally find their stories are still as vivid and fascinating as ever.

Knollys prefaces the Journal with a lengthy sketch of most of the 1812 campaign, which, at over 120 pages, is almost as long as the Journal itself [2]. This is both generally useful, as scene setting if you don't know the overall campaign, and as a refresher if you do, and also addresses specifics that connect with De Fezensac's account. 

As well as Knollys' lengthy introduction, the book benefits from a very nice and reasonably large - considering the size of the book itself (a small paperback) - fold-out map. This isn't the clearest of maps, but it does have most of the key places marked on it. This map is not only useful, but is also a very beautiful old-fashioned thing, highly evocative of the era it describes.

The Prince of Neuchatel, aka Louis-Alexandre Berthier.

In his own preface, De Fezensac explains that his Journal, not originally intended for wider publication [3], is a book of two parts: the first concerns his period as an ADC to the Prince of Neuchatel, i.e. Berthier, Napoleon's right hand man and organisational mastermind, whilst the second sees him as Colonel in command of the 4th Regt of line infantry, in Marshal Ney's III Corps.

In 'Part The First', he narrates the auspicious outset of the campaign, with the seemingly easy conquest of Lithuania, and follows the long road as the triumphant progress of the invading army begins to look a bit shaky, as the French and their allies begin to melt away, even though the Russians won't give battle. [4] 

And so he progresses, narrating his staff level view. This part of the narrative is more generalised and comprehensive, quite naturally given his position in the army, than the latter half, where he takes a more local ground level view. Although the top brass, and Napoleon especially, are often described by Fezensac as out of touch with the harsher realities of the developing campaign - even at this early stage - it wasn't all cushy for the 'big hats' and their staff: as early as p. 14 he observes that 'The generals and other officers bivouacked like the rest of the army.' 

He continues as ADC to Berthier, of whom he gives a brief but candid and predominantly very positive pen portrait, as far as Borodino. After Borodino, on arriving at Mojaisk, and due to the very considerable losses at that ever so bloody battle, known to Fezensac and his French comrades as the Battle of Moskowa, he is given command of the 4th Line Infantry regiment.

A latter day Montesquieu-Fezensac, in 1950, beneath an unknown Napoleonic painting.

Sadly Fezensac is a rather shadowy elusive figure. I was unable to find any pictures of him at all. I did find serval pictures of relatives. One was even closer to Napoleon, being involved in the domestic affairs of the Bonapartes (he's portrayed in a rather sentimental picture - which I've included towards the bottom of this post - showing Napoleon dandling the king Of Rome on his knee at breakfast!). The Montesquieu-Fezensac family as a whole was an ancient aristocratic one, which suffered quite badly during the revolution. That said, some of them survived and thrived, as the family connections with Napoleon's regime shows. And later in the C19th Proust would base a central character in his epic novel, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (known in English as In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past), on another member of the clan, which is, in turn, why we have the above picture.

Turning briefly from the narrative to Fezensac: as mentioned in the above aside, re my inability to find any images of our author, another and later member of the wider family - the aesthete and dandy Robert de Montesquiou, 'a scion of the famous French Montesquiou-Fézensac Family', [5] was destined to be immortalised by Proust. 

As a result of this, Life magazine ran a feature on his descendants, describing them as 'Personalities Duc De Fezensac - Family Proustian France, 1950'. The picture above comes from this feature, and shows a male member of the family on a rather grand staircase below an imposing painting, depicting sappers (of the Imperial Guard?) tending to what appears to be a very young and apparently mortally wounded officer. [6]

Returning now to Fezensac's narrative, the larger 'Part The Second' is where an already interesting story becomes really fascinating. From the occupation and eventual evacuation of Moscow, to his part in the rearguard work on the gruelling and bloody retreat, it's pretty clear De Fezensac prefers to be in active service rather than on the staff. The excitement of his now more direct involvement is ably and effectively communicated in his narrative.

Perhaps the most thrilling, moving and compelling part of his story is the famous episode during the retreat when the meagre tattered remains of III Corps become separated from the rest of the army. Under Ney - who more than earns his soubriquet 'the bravest of the brave' - the ever shrinking Corps makes a harrowing bid for liberty by crossing to the opposite bank of the Dnieper and fighting their way back to the tail end of the wreck of the Grand Armée.

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard during the Retreat from Moscow by Adolphe Yvon, 1856.

The bravery of Ney and III Corps doesn't end there, but is continually manifested, as the other various Corps also melt away on the retreat. At the back of the book appendices give the 'distribution and numbers' of the Grand Armée as it crossed the Niemen, and then later the returns for survivors and losses. If Fezensac's account leaves you reeling drunk with the sense of the terrible suffering these troops and their followers experienced, the dry looking but awful facts that these numbers bespeak make for sobering reading.

Eventually Fezensac arrives home, via his regiment's depot, but it is hardly the heroic return that his jubilant and confident departure had presaged: 'I arrived alone in the night, on a dung-cart, wrapped in a wolfskin...' But not only is he alive, he even has the satisfaction of emerging from his ordeal with praise from the praiseworthy (which is high praise indeed). He cites, with evident pride, a letter from Marshal Ney that describes his service on the campaign in glowing terms.

“Napoléon Ier, Marie-Louise et le roi de Rome” (the empress brings her son to her husband who is having breakfast; behind: Controller É. P. de Montesquiou-Fézensac with wife and the nurse Mme.Auchard). 1812, by Alexandre Menjaud.

Fezensac's Journal is not the best memoir of this campaign, or this era, but nonetheless it is very good, and it is certainly well worth reading.


[1] I see that Leonaur have brought out editions in paperback and hardback, minus the Knollys segment. I'd quite like to read that version, and see how it feels compared with having read Fezensac after having read Knollys!

[2] In Knollys' lengthy disquisition he makes a number of pointedly disparaging remarks about military histories by civilians, with particular reference to Walter Scott's then highly popular and successful multi-volume work. For my review of the current incarnation of this latter (in heavily abridged form), a book I must say I thoroughly enjoyed reading, click here.

[3] As with the writings of many veterans of famous campaigns, the work seems to have been commenced as a personal aide-memoir, but then worked upon and shared with family and friends. And finally, when the result of these efforts meets with interest and approbation, finished with a view to publication.

[4] Stephan Talty has written an excellent and very interesting book, The Illustrious Dead, about how Napoleon and the Grand Armée can, in a very real and meaningful sense, be described as having been vanquished not so much by either the Russians or the harsh winter weather, but the Typhus microbe.

[5] The quote is from Wikipedia. An illustrious and well-connected family, in addition to their connections with Napoleon and Proust, they at times also used the name D'Artagnan, with another member of the family also enjoying a second and fictional life, as the inspiration for another literary creation, this time from the pen of Dumas.

[6] Just as I could find no pictures of our author, I was unable to find out who the guy pictured in this black and white photo is (or was), or anything about the painting.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Book Review: The Eagle's Last Triumph - Andrew Uffindell

The Little Corporal's Last Laurels, or how Boney battered Blücher's shield at Ligny, preventing Wellington's spear-thrust at Quatre Bras, momentarily deferring defeat. 

Near the end of this excellent book, as Andrew Uffindell summarises his analysis of Ligny, he characterises Blücher's stout Prussian defence - the old hussar's favourite defence being attack (hence his nickname, Marshal Vorwarts!) - as 'a shield. Behind this shield Wellington ... would muster his units into a spear at Quatre Bras. This spear he would then hurl into the flank of the French ... at Ligny.' He goes on 'But the 'spear' never arrived... Thus Blücher was left alone to face the brunt of Napoleon's thunderbolts.'

For me these brief extracts neatly sum up the superb combination of trenchant analysis and evocative description that characterise this very informative and highly enjoyable book.

Originally published in 1994, Uffindell's book on Napoleon's final victory - against the Prussians at Ligny, on 16th June, 1815 - has been reissued to coincide with the bicentenary of Waterloo. As Uffindell says in his preface, 'Interest in Waterloo is unlikely to fade'. Indeed, and quite naturally, as so many of us continue to remember the events of two centuries past, this area of publishing is clearly enjoying something of a boom right now. [1]

Ligny, by Ernest Crofts. Napoleon can be seen here, atop the hill at Brye, by the windmill (the lower right sail of the windmill is pointing at him!).

The Eagle's Last Triumph starts by examining the context, in a chapter titled Stormclouds of War, as Napoleon returns from his Elban exile, and the eagle does indeed fly, as Bonaparte had prophesied it would, from steeple to steeple.

Uffindell then turns to an analysis of the commanders and forces of the three main adversaries. He sets down a very interesting analysis of all the antagonists, but for me it was his exposition of the Prussian forces that was particularly intriguing, as English language histories have tended to focus first on the British contributions, and second on the French. This is now changing, with writers like Peter Hofschroer waving the flag for the Prussian (and other Germanic) contributions.

It's fascinating to read Uffindell's verdict re Blücher and Gneisenau, who he judges as individually flawed, but strong together. This complementary, effect arising from differences of character, is further paralleled in the combination of Wellington & Blücher, Wellington being more cautious and defensive, whilst Blücher was more reckless and fond of attacking. But returning to the Prussians, Uffindell essentially credits Blücher as the inspiration, and Gneisenau as the brains.

Gneisenau, painted by George Dawe.

Also of interest is the fact that the Prussian army - both Prussia and her army having almost been destroyed in previous campaigns against Napoleon - was not composed like either the French or British forces, having significantly less cavalry and artillery, and a much higher proportion of raw militia. They also had little or no strategic reserves, due in part to their organisational methods, and a rather different staff organisation. Whereas the French & 'British' [2] were lead by domineering controlling egos, the Prussian command was more 'staff' based.

Blücher, as Marshal Vorwarts, by  by Emil Hünten.

Next comes the build up to the 16th June, as Napoleon famously 'humbugged' Wellington, quite literally stealing a march on his British adversary. This section is great, and, like Mercer's account of his journey towards a climactic battle (Waterloo in his case), builds the excitement terrifically.

The chapter covering the action at Ligny comprises what is perhaps a surprisingly small part of the whole, at only 29 pages (pp 91-120) of a book that's only a little over 250 pages long. That means that just over 10% of the book is given over to the lynchpin narrative of the action itself. But this isn't a complaint, as it's all done so terrifically well, Uffindell situating Ligny in its context - for example by reference to Chandler's concept of the Napoleonic battle category of 'twin battles' - with the Waterloo campaign providing a twin set of twin battles (Ligny and Quatre Bras on the 16th, and Waterloo and Wavre on the 18th)!

Blücher comes a cropper at Ligny.

The description of the action itself is both information rich, and also very evocative: 'The very earth trembled with the terrific concussion of the awesome barrage. Guns spat fire and death.' Uffindell also displays a very nice slightly antiquated turn of phrase, using such terms as 'smote', for example: 'Frightful was the carnage that then ensued.' I love that!

It was frequently observed in contemporary accounts that the fighting at Ligny (and two days later at Plancenoit) was particularly savage, a bitter rivalry having grown up between the French and Prussians. Such sanguinary settings make for exciting reading. Here's just one terrifically horrible excerpt:

'Lieutenant Barral of the French grenadiers charged through Ligny, along a street paved with corpses. His feet did not touch the ground itself once. Behind him followed a French battery which trampled and galloped over the crushed bodies. The merciless passage of heavy hooves and wheels caused corpses seemingly to spring to life again by a freak of elasticity. Lieutenant Barral found it horrible to contemplate.'

A print depicting Ligny, attributed simply to 'the german School'!

Having described the battle itself very well, Uffindell turns his attention to Quatre Bras, devoting about as much space to that battle as he did to Ligny. This is very useful, as the two battles, with their inter-related balancing of forces and goals - the French dealing with two enemies they wanted to separate, whilst the Allies attempted to unite - meant the to actions were intimately connected. In this context, what Uffindel calls 'The Fatal Peregrinations Of D'Erlon', that being the title of the chapter that deals with this episode, is fascinating.

The book then goes on to relate in brief what happened on the 17th and 18th, and even what became of the protagonists after Waterloo brought this long period of warfare to its close. Numerous anecdotes derived from both contemporary and secondary sources keep the developing story highly interesting. Four example, in the move northwards towards Waterloo, Napoleon chastises a unit that retired from the field, and praises another that fought well. When Bonaparte singles out Colonel Fantin des Odoards' unit for praise, Uffindell observes: 'French soldiers would eagerly exchange an arm or a leg for such a brief, factual sentence of praise from that remarkable leader of men, Napoleon.'

Describing Waterloo itself, Uffindell's colourful language reaches a kind of apotheosis: 'Wellington's army writhed like an immense, wounded serpent. Still it bellowed defiance but blood spurted forth from innumerable wounds.' In relation to the 'near run thing' idea, this extract (referring to the split between the troops Wellington commanded who fought resolutely and the elements that broke, or the huge numbers of deserters), is worthy of note: 'In fact, Wellington's army had split into two... Never in the history of warfare has such a victorious army presented such an image of defeat.'

The full image of Theodore Yung's Ligny artwork, as used on the book cover.

Having told the story, and done so very well, Uffindell turns to the analysis, and in this way revisits much of the action, extending the breadth and depth of his already excellent treatment. Doing so inevitably results in Uffindell addressing some of the contentious issues that surround this campaign.

And so it is that, like so many other books coming out on Waterloo at present, whether totally new or just re-issued, this one addresses some of the controversies that this epic and epochal battle has left to posterity. However, unlike some of these other books, The Eagles Last Triumph doesn't seek to justify its existence primarily on this basis, nor does it get bogged down, despite a very high level of detail, in either the examination of such issues, or the potentially partisan arguments that can rage over them (even all these years later!). 

Whilst Uffindell doesn't say too much about Grouchy, he does spend a lot of time dealing with D'Erlon's wanderings. I found this fascinating, and hope one day to perhaps trace the route Uffindell suggests, in the tracks of I Corps. Although he doesn't have much to say, positive or negative, about Grouchy, he does come to the defence of the 'bravest of the brave': 'Ney cannot be blamed for failing to seize the crossroads.' Uffindell may of course be right, but that never stopped people, Napoleon himself being the chief example, from doing so!

D'Erlon, from the French Wikipedia entry on him.

As if all this wasn't enough, Uffindell then devotes a sizeable chunk at the end of the book to information useful to those who might be thinking of visiting the battlefield today. Having been to the area twice in the last two years, I love this sort of stuff. It certainly whets my appetite for another visit! On p. 220 he expresses the challenges weather presents in an appropriately martial but still poetic manner: 'Generals Mist and Rain, the old enemies of the battlefield visitor, are redoubtable adversaries.'

Uffindell also sheds light on something that struck me when I photographed crops at Waterloo earlier this year (there's a pic on my Waterloo post here, if you're interested). The corn growing near Hougoumont was only a few feet tall - two probably, perhaps three at the most. 'The crops today' he tells us 'are much shorter than they were two centuries ago. In 1815, after the battle, observers could follow the march of various battalions in all directions by the swathes of trodden down corn. Sergeant James Anton of the 42nd Highlanders commented that the crops were as high as his bonnet... Before charging British infantry squares, the French cavalry often had to send forward an intrepid horsemen to plant a lance before a square to indicate its position amidst the rye. The French would then charge towards the lance pennon.'

Another thing that strikes the contemporary visitor to Napoleonic battlefields is the contrast between what brought one there, and what one now sees. In relation to this, I found it quite moving when Uffindell cited an anecdote from the memoirs of Louis Canler (of D'Erlon's Corps), regarding a French soldier his column passes, sprawled by the roadside with both legs blown off. Despite his suffering, this earnest young warrior still cried out 'Long live the Emperor! I have lost both my legs but I couldn't give a damn! Victory is ours! Long live the Emperor!'

Uffindell reflects, rather sombrely, 'Today, the cars from Charleroi to Brussels rush unheedingly past the spot where the Frenchman bled to death.'

Another handsome map from Alison.

Having read this, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I think it's time to read On The Fields Of Glory, another Uffindell book I have on the shelves. [3] However, as to The Eagles Last Triumph, I for one would certainly recommend it as an excellent Napoleonic read.

Up next, perhaps?


Whilst looking for pictures to illustrate this post I found this page, which has lots of interesting images, including many contemporary pictures of locations and monuments on the modern day battlefield. 


[1] - He also says his book has been updated. I can't comment on any changes, as I have neither got nor read the previous edition. 

[2] - British is in inverted commas because the forces under Wellginton were of course predominantly continental, being composed of Dutch, Belgian and numerous Germanic contingents.

[3] - Actually I'd intended to take that on our recent Waterloo trip, as it's a book all about visiting the battlefields of the Waterloo campaign. I opted instead to take Ardennes, 1944, by Antony Beevor ('cause I was two thirds through it already!), and the abridged version of Captain Mercer's Waterloo Journal (because it was much shorter!).

Saturday 11 July 2015

Book Review: 1812, Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow - Adam Zamoyski

One of the most exciting and engaging reads on this perenially fascinating apocalyptic campaign.

Some while ago I was in a proper frenzy of reading about the Russian 1812 campaign. It's the chief subject in my ever growing Napoleonic library, and I intend to read and review all the books on the subject I can.

It seems almost mandatory nowadays that histories of the 1812 campaign such as this - from Alexander Spring's Patriotic War to the numerous Alexander Mikaberidze titles, such as The Battle of Borodino - are not complete without making bold claims to 'exclusive' use of Russian documents not translated or cited before.

For french speakers: an interview with the author, in which he displays his admirable command of French.

This claim to exclusive use of original sources is duly trotted out amongst the varied claims to greatness made on Zamoyski's behalf, on the back cover blurb, along with the oft-repeated fact that he's fluent in six languages. Of course I'm very impressed by both claims, as evidence of scholarly accomplishment, although I must confess that reading or hearing the latter every time Zamoyski is mentioned gets a bit galling after a while! 

Not being a professional historian myself I can't really comment on how true it is that there's lot of original research here. It wouldn't surprise me though, as Zamoyski's book is certainly very rich in contemporary anecdote, and all the better for it. What I can say with certainty, however, is that the copious use made of these first-hand accounts is amongst the most effective I've enjoyed to date.

A beautiful map from the series by Alison,
this one depicting Krasnoi.

Fortunately what we have here is a rare example of a book that lives up to (perhaps even exceeds?) the hyperbole bestowed upon it. 

Amongst the many books I continue to devour on Napoleonic subjetcs, all too many are either a bit dry, often in an attempt to be comprehensive, or else overly enthusiastic in a 'military buff' vein, and therefore not very balanced. Zamoyski, however, is spot on: both critical of, and suitably awed by, all the things that make this story so compelling. From the high politics and grand if illusory dreams of some of the chief protagonists, to the collapse of humanity into bestial brutality in battle and on the march, he always hits exactly the right note, allowing the reader to respond to the unfolding events in their own way.

One of the iconic images of Russia, 1812: Ney with the rearguard.

There are so many episodes, on every scale, from the mammoth battles, to the tiniest details of acts both heroic and heinous, that capture one's imagination. And Zamoyski has the gift of retelling the story in a way that is engaging without being intrusive. He also covers everything in a way that balances all the potential components as harmoniously as one could hope for, couching important details in their broader contexts, and beginning and ending the book in a way that eases you in and out of a narrative so compelling you don't really want it to end. Masterful!

Adolf Northern's painting of Napoleon during the retreat.

I love this sort of history book, and found myself more or less glued to it on a daily basis - constrained only by such intrusions as work, eating, sleeping, etc! -  until finishing it just moments before I started typing my first draft of this review (quite some time ago now). On finishing the book I felt a mixture of exhaustion and exaltation. Thankfully one's journey as a reader allows one to vicariously experience this mind (and limb) numbing episode from the comfort of a nice settee!

I've refrained from trying to relate any content, as Zamoyski does it so well you really ought to buy the book and enjoy him delivering the tale. But I'll end by mentioning that, very close to the end of the book, he relates how one disappointed Frenchman decided to rewrite history - an early example of the sort of thing that has subsequently developed into the now fecund genre of 'alternative history' - his story diverging from reality at the point where Napoleon retreats from Moscow. I won't give away this alternative history, but I will say that this single paragraph alone practically justifies the price of the book, and this is a book literally stuffed with such treasures.

Faber du Faur's images of the retreat are superb, if sometimes rather harrowing. Here French troops bivouac amidst burned-out buildings and calcinated corpses, near Mozaisk.

Book Review: Rites of Peace - Zamoyski

Adam Zamoyski's account of the Byzantine horse-trading of Napoleonic era diplomacy and intriguing proves remarkably readable.

As ever Zamoyski is, by and large, pretty pithily concise, nearly always managing to keep even the most serpentine and potentially dull intricacies of politics and administration sufficiently exciting to maintain interest. His narrative of the reconstituting of Europe by the victors of the Napoleonic wars is pepped up by a large cast of colourful characters - a 'cast list' would've been useful, and a glossary wouldn't have gone amiss either - as well as by the rumblings of conflict and the creaking of bed springs (many and varied were the types of 'congress' in Vienna at this point in time!).

Of the three Zamoyski titles I've read so far, the others being 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow and Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe, this was by far the toughest: let's face it, the Byzantine contortions and horse-trading of international diplomacy don't make for light, easy, or even very stimulating reading. But the shambolic so-called Congress of Vienna was both interesting - or perhaps intriguing would be a more apt word? - and of course very important, so hats off to Zamoyski for rendering a readable English language account.

Le Gateau de Rois: a French satirical print showing
the Ancien Regime kings slicing up the European
cake at the Congress of Vienna.

Some reviewers of this book (e.g. several I've read on the Amazon UK website) have criticised this book on account of what they regard too much weight being given to the seamier aspects of this narrative, in particular the sexual stuff. I've read that some feel this cheapen's the account. They certainly help make it more readable! But there's not as much of this sort of salacious stuff as some of those reviewers imply.

It's also been said that Zamoyski, being of Polish extraction himself - and Polish nobility, no less! - gives either the Polish aspect of the story too much weight, or is otherwise off-balance in some partisan way. In fact, in my view, he stays remarkably balanced and on-topic throughout, devoting as much time and space to the fate of Saxony as Poland, for example, and even sticking resolutely with the diplomatic threads through the turbulent and exciting '100 Days'.

A more sobre image of the congress, as the protagonists
liked to see themselves: dignified men of power!
(Metternich lounging at centre, Talleyrand at right,
facing the viewer)

I believe I agree with his underlying idea that post-Vienna Europe was a doomed King Canute-like attempt to hold back - or 'arrest', in Zamoyski's terms - the general direction of socio-political movement that had preceded and to some degree continued within Napoleonic Europe. This also suggests, although such speculations for the most part fall outside Zamoyski's ambit, that Napoleonic Europe, despite all the conflicts of the period, was a less retrograde entity than the Europe Vienna sought to reinstate.

Nearly all the central protagonists who comprise the 'architects' of the Congress, from Tsar Alexander via Wellington to Metternich, are reactionary 'ancien regime' types, and, as many contemporary observers noted, including some of the participants, appeared to be carving up the new Europe according to old interests, and just as self-interestedly (even more so, perhaps?) as Boney had, and yet with less consideration of the ordinary 'souls' over whom they ruled, and who they would trade like so much cattle during the Congress.

Le Congrès s'amuse: a French satirical caricature of The
Congress of Vienna, by Forceval. The central trio are
Francis II of Austria, Czar Alexander, and Wellington.

The only thing that ultimately united the major powers was fear of change driven from 'below'. This stance underpinned not only their roles in the Napoleonic wars but also their pursuit of the peace: whether it was the mob-rule of 'Jacobin' France or the despotism of the Corsican 'upstart' Buonaparte (his enemies and detractors would nearly always use the more Italianate Corsican spelling of his name), any and all perceived threats to their own supposed 'legitimacy' were to be crushed. 

Looking at the napoleonic Wars from this vantage point, I feel inclined to join Hazlitt in reaching for the post-Waterloo wine to drown sorrows rather than celebrate.

In the end I think I broadly agree with Zamoyski's analysis, which, in very simplistic terms, sets out the Congress as retrograde and doomed to failure in the long run. The revolutionary or enlightenment genie was out of the bottle, and there was little the Kings Canute could do - thought they tried their level best - to reverse that tide. Certainly they held up, even temporarily reversing in places, the general movevement of the post-Enlightenment tide, but ultimately they failed to stem it. Looking back now we see that they've all been washed away. 

Intriguingly only England, chief banker (and, arguably, chief agitator) to the Napoleonic Wars, and a force for conservatism throughout, remains a monarchist nation amongst the chief Great Powers that attended the Congress of Vienna.


NOTES, etc:

The wiki entry on the Congress of Vienna.

A Damned Serious Business - Waterloo 1815, the Battle & its Books (Cambridge University Library)

I'm really revelling in all the stuff that's currently going on to mark the bicentenary of Waterloo. 

It's especially nice when there's something good to see locally. Earlier in the year there was the excellent show of prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum (click here to read my post about that exhibition), and now there's another print heavy show - A Damned Serious Business - this time at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, in the basement of the very austere Cambridge University Library [1].

Cambridge University Library.

I ended up spending nearly two hours at this small one room show. It's small, yes, but it's also jam-packed with excellent stuff. 

Unsurprisingly, given the exhibitions subtitle and the fact it's taking place in a library, the exhibits are predominantly drawn from books published during the period, with an emphasis on printed matter. 

There are some terrific books on display here, and it's so nice for ordinary members of the public to have access to stuff that's generally only looked at (and that very rarely) by scholars.

One of the largest and most de-luxe of the books, whose partial title is 'The campaign of Waterloo : illustrated with engravings of Les Quatre Bras ... and other principal scenes of action' is credited to Robert Bowyer. The notes on this particularly impressive exhibit go on to say:

'The artist of the original drawings for the plates in this large-format volume of The campaign of Waterloo is not named, but appears to have visited the site in the weeks following the battle. Bowyer acknowledged an obligation to Captain Wildman, an aide-de-camp to the Marquess of Anglesea (the former Earl of Uxbridge, Wellington’s cavalry commander at Waterloo), for the ‘accuracy and fidelity’ of the ‘grand view of the battle’ which forms the centrepiece of the volume.'

Below is an embedded version of the CUL online image browser for the show, which allows you to zoom in in the artwork (and others from the same book) described above:

This beautiful image, when opened out as a double page spread, is about a metre across. Looking at this image using the CUL picture browser - embedded above - allows one to zoom in and admire the detail and skill. Terrific!

An attractive map, published 1814, showing Napoleon's new domain, upon his first abdication, the island of Elba.

There are quite a lot of maps, such as that shown above, most of which are terrifically beautiful. Sadly they've chosen not to display any of the actual original maps from Siborne's history of the campaign, which used a special technique to achieve a 3-D effect. 

One of these maps is reproduced on one of the info boards (but the 3-D effect is diminished), and several are shown in one of the accompanying videos. In the pan-and-scan shots of these maps they look both 3-D and phenomenally beautiful. 

It would have been great to have seen one of these incredible maps on display. Especially if it were to be lit directionally, from above the top of the page, so as to show off the 3-D effect.

One of Siborne's amazing maps (this is one of two depicting the battle of Ligny). The 3-D effect is exceedingly cool, and the overall detail and quality are stunning.

The books and other items on show already make this a terrific little exhibition, but it's made richer still thanks to several interactive elements.

Two of these were, I felt, particularly good: firstly, there's an enormous rectangular screen, like a very large flat screen telly, but laid more or less flat, on which you can flick through electronically scanned versions of four of the books that are on display; secondly, there's a much smaller screen (an iPad in fact), with attached headphones, on which you can watch three short films. 

The first of these allows one to see scans of all the pages from four of the books displayed in the show, in addition to whatever spreads the curators have chosen to display using the actual physical book. 

Blucher's fall at Ligny.

The second, the three short films, are all good - the first of them is hopefully viewable at the top of this post - being very interesting and surprisingly well done. 

The longest of these films is presented by the curators of the show, Mark Nicholls and John Wells, who also wrote the texts for the presentation boards - which are referred to on the exhibition website as 'themes' - that tell the story of the show as you go around the room (also reproduced in a handsome if small booklet that accompanies the exhibition). 

Then there's one featuring Bernard Simms, Cambridge academic and author of several books on the period, including the short but superb The Longest Afternoon, about the Hanoverian defence of the farm of La Haye Sainte. 

The shortest of the three is about maps. Once again this last is, whilst very good and very interesting, not as good as it could have been, had they looked at and talked about Siborne's maps.

Ponsonby's demise at Waterloo.

There are, in addition to all the books, handbills, broadsheets, and a number of letters, some written by such famous central protagonists as Wellington, and others by less well known folk, and other ephemera, including a musket ball and other 'relics' or battlefield mementoes.

A nice print of Austerlitz.

This online image in no way conveys the utter gorgeousness of what is a massive print in a huge book! [2].

One exhibit - Napoleon's own copy of the writings of Montaigne, from his library in exile on St. Helena - is both book and relic! Astonishingly beautifully bound, in a marbled calf-skin binding that almost looks like burred walnut, adorned by the imperial 'N' and those cutely regal gilt Napoleonic bees, Napoleon's Montaigne is almost talismanic. 

It's also a reminder that whilst we now have an abundance of cheap mass-market books, making us a far more literate society than existed 200 years ago, for those with the money (then or now) some books are of a completely different order, as works of art and craftsmanship.

Then there are the several enormous books, with prints that are both huge and utterly exquisite, or the bizarre but amazing fold-out depiction of Wellington's funeral procession (twenty-two yards, if fully extended!). These, like Napoleon's edition of Montaigne, are also clearly as much status symbols as utilitarian objects.

This film shows the whole of the extended fold-out artwork, as depicted in the remarkable prints in the book illustrating Wellington's funeral procession (source: the National Portrait Gallery.)

An image from a book by Guibert, showing concentration of firepower from three bodies of troops deployed in line.

It's not all about Waterloo either, the exhibition beginning with stuff produced by ultra-loyalists during the British invasion scare of the early 1800s, and containing all kinds of things covering all sorts of aspects of the period, from manuals depicting the drills for the complex battlefield manoeuvres (see above), to depictions of other battles and campaigns, from Austerlitz to the Russian 1812 campaign. 

And neither is it all serious, the superb artist George Cruikshank, for example, contributing his fantastic artistic skills to both straight and satirical works in this show.

Title page of The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen CantosIllustrated by George Cruikshank.

One of the last Cruikshank illustrations to the Hudibrastic Poem.

I feel I have to say that I was a little surprised and disappointed to see an exhibition at such an illustrious academic institution being rather obviously and overtly partisan, in respect of their negative judgement on Napoleon, who is ultimately portrayed here as a warmonger, and even, via a borrowed summary quote, a 'bad man'. 

They do concede that British triumphalism wasn't always welcomed, even at home, never mind abroad. It's even very subtly suggested that whilst the Duke of Wellington's generalship helped win Waterloo, and his moderate conciliatory actions ushered in a welcome half century of European peace, nevertheless his conservatism wasn't all good news, either in terms of domestic British social politics, or even in terms of his military legacy. 

This is very vaguely alluded to in terms of domestic British politics, but more concretely so militarily, via a scribbled sketch by Lord Raglan. 

[insert Raglan sketch!?]

This very sketchy scrawled image, perhaps the  ugliest exhibit in the whole show, nevertheless speaks volumes. It does so because it illustrates how the conservatism that dominated the British army at the time resulted in the infamous debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade, which is what Raglan's sketch depicts. 

Essentially this was old-fashioned Napoleonic cavalry manoeuvring dashed to pieces on the teeth of evolving technology. Napoleon, artilleryman that he was, was instrumental in this evolution even as the wars that bore his name progressed. Admittedly the charge was a result of several errors, but that it could happen at all was the result of a certain post-Waterloo culture. 

That the early Victorian British army ossified as it did under Wellington's influence is shocking but fascinating, given that it was the result, in part, of deference and hero worship in relation to a man who helped defeat Napoleon by learning from him. But such are the twists of fate!

Prussian cavalry captures Bonaparte's carriage.

But returning from judgements on Wellington to those on Napoleon, it's somewhat sad to see, in this exhibition, that despite the efforts of such a high profile historian and author (and now TV and radio presenter to boot) as Andrew Roberts, the British establishment - this also remains true of the National Army Mueseum's treatment of the Siborne 'large model' (and that in spite of the works of writers like Hofschröer and others) - remains entrenched in what I'd describe  as a very deep-rooted old-fashioned 'High Tory' type conservative reading of Napoleon Buonaparte, as the Corsican upstart, and disturber of the peace, etc. [3]

Nevertheless, despite a potentially jaundiced position, and even considering that they could've enriched the show very significantly by including some of Siborne's original books and maps, this remains a terrific little exhibition. One that I would thoroughly and unhesitatingly recommend to all Napoleonic history nuts.

The exhibition runs till September 16th (Monday to Friday 9-6, Sat. 9-4.30), and is free.

APPENDIX - Some interesting related matter.

The Siborne maps:

After writing this article I went online to try and find out what the name of the technique that Siborne employed for his 3-D type maps. At the time of adding this postscript I still haven't found out what that technique was called (can anyone enlighten me?), but I did discover that the CUL have put all the maps from Siborne's accompanying 'folio' up online. Bravo! They can be found here:

Siborne maps

The Life of Napoleon:

As another interesting footnote, an original 1st Edition copy of the book from which some of the Cruikshank images are derived is on sale, here:

Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos

A far cheaper way to see the great artworks, however, is to visit this link:

Cruikshank's Life of Napoleon (a Hudibrastic Poem, etc)  at pastnow blog.

Edward Orme:

One of the books from which several images in the exhibition are derived is entitled 'Historic, Military, and Naval Anecdotes, of Personal Valour, Bravery, and Particular Incidents Which Occurred to the Armies of Great Britain and her Allies, in the Long-contested War, Terminating in the Battle of Waterloo' by Edward Orme, published in 1819. At the link below is a listing for the sale of a copy at Bonham's. A snip at £2,375!

'Particular Indcidents ... Terminating in the Battle of Waterloo'



[1] Designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, of K2 phone box fame, who also designed such iconic structures as Battersea and Bankside power stations, the latter of which now houses Tate Modern.

[2] I've said elsewhere (e.g. in a TMP post publicising this post) that the online experience of this exhibition is as good, possibly even richer - for having more material available from archives - than the actual show 'in the flesh', so to speak. Well... not in all respects! Some of the more lavish prints and other objects really need to be seen in situ to be properly appreciated.

[3] Roberts, a thorough going modern Tory, points out an interesting change that's taken place since Napoleon's own times: originally Napoleon was the doyenne of the radical left, and it was the conservative right that sought continually to tear him down. Nowadays he's as likely to be vilified by liberals and leftists as old-fashioned conservatives, and more likely to find support on the right, whether it be from the moderate (ish) right of a Thatcherite like Roberts, or the scarier extremes of the right such as Hitler.