Sunday 6 September 2015

Book Review: March of the Twenty Six - R. F. Delderfield

Informative and fun, if somewhat simple and broad-brushed.

It's not uncommon for reviewers to note that Delderfield is not what most people would call a scholarly author, in the contemporary sense. Personally I don't find that this detracts from the main merits of this short and highly enjoyable book, the chief of which is that it's a rip-snortingly good read. Compared with, for example, the dry as dust Napoleon's Wars this is a book ten-thousand times more likely to promote further interest and reading in Napoleonic history, even if Esdaile's book is more scrupulously comprehensive and scholarly.

Berthier, Napoleon's right hand man.

Delderfield's book is more like the many memoirs of the era itself - colourful, exciting, engaging, full of anecdote (a good one new on me was learning that at one battle, amongst a Cossack force of 20,000 cavalry that attacked Marshal MacDonald, there was a contingent of Bashkirs armed with bows and arrows!), and unabashedly partisan, consequently requiring that it be taken with a generous pinch o' salt/snuff - and in my view is none the worse for it.

Indeed, he reflects on these issues briefly in his postscript 'The Sources Of This Book': 'Some of these memoirs are absorbing, some accurate but dull, some lively but unreliable.' Having just read a fairly large tranche of serious, scholarly Napoleonic material Delderfield's relaxed enthusiasm comes as a welcome dose of flavoursome humanity. Reading this book is like being regaled by a knowledgeable, witty, and avuncular 'buff'; if you're interested in the subject, great fun.

Delderfield is clearly attracted, as are most with an interest in this period, to the colour, excitement, romance, grandeur (and alongside these things, fascinated also by the squalor, terror, and horror, naturally) of monumental struggles on epic scales. Such people and events lend themselves readily to the almost surrealistic exaggerations one sees in the works of contemporary cartoonists like Cruikshank and Gillray.

Murat according to British caricaturist Cruikshank!

Murat, renowned cavalry leader, and 'dandy king', as he himself might've preferred to be viewed!?

Whilst Delderfield doesn't take his portrayals quite that far - he doesn't caricature them quite so brazenly, tho' he gets close - one does sense a simplification and stylisation, which renders the characters of the marshals in broad brush strokes, perhaps like colourful 'commedia dell'arte' type figures, in the stagey drama of Napoleonic Europe. Broers struggles manfully with this in his depiction of bandits-cum-rebels in his book Napoleon's Other War, which only goes to show that not to see these figures in such lights is perhaps to miss some of these reasons we find them interesting in the first place.

Bernadotte: from private soldier to King of Sweden... impressive! Delderfield doesn't like him tho'!

I have deliberately refrained from detailing the lives of the subjects, I'd recommend reading this and the David Chandler helmed Napoleon's Marshals for more info (after which books on the individuals might be the next port of call). But I will say - as Andrew Roberts also effusively noets in his recent TV series on Napoleon - that the energetic release of talent in the Napoleonic meritocracy was an amazing moment: that the second son of a barrel-cooper could rise so high and so fast (Ney), or that another young man could go from private soldier to the founder of a hereditary monarchy still sitting on the Swedish throne (Bernadotte) is surely remarkable, and not unworthy of our interest?

So, yes, do by all means read such more in-depth scholarly works on the marshals as are out there. But read this as well. It's well-written, comprehensive - it's an enjoyable overview of Napoleon's life and campaigns as much as the story of the marshals - and most of all, it's fun.

Marshal Ney, Prince of Moscow, Bravest of the Brave, etc.


Astute observers might note that three marshals I've chosen to illustrate here with portraits - i.e. all burn Bernadotte - came to rather sad ends: Berthier in what might've been suicide (or was he pushed out for that window?), and Murat and Ney in front of firing squads.

Murat, according to the memoirs of his wife - and Napoleon's sister - Caroline, saying 'Soldats! Faites votre devoir! Droit au cœur mais épargnez le visage. Feu!' or 'Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!'

Ney was executed in, and indeed was the 'star' victim of, what is known as the 'White Terror', or the meting out of Royalist revenge on regaining power. He to was allowed to give hisn own executioners the order to fire (famously refusing a blindfold). After all the fuss Royalists made about the murder of the Duc d'Enghien - a central plank in the 'black legend' that they used to defame Napoleon - this is surely an example of nakedly crass hypocrisy!?

A very poignant painting, Gérôme's 1868 work La Mort du Maréchal Ney.