Tag Archives: Waterloo

Miscellany The Man

My favorite Novel about Napoleon Bonaparte (sort of)

Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

When I recently rediscovered Georgette Heyer’s historical novel, AN INFAMOUS ARMY, I realized it was the first Napoleonic novel I had ever read. I was thirteen when my mother introduced me to Heyer’s famous Regency novels. Most of them are love stories in the mode of Jane Austin. AN INFAMOUS ARMY is a strange mixture: half romance, half detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo. It’s told from the British point of view, definitely not Napoleon Bonaparte’s.

Written in 1937, AN INFAMOUS ARMY is the third book of a trilogy so Heyer fans will have had plenty of time to become enchanted with its main characters. It takes place in Brussels, where English society is enjoying the peaceful continent during Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement on Elba. That is, until Napoleon escapes his exile and reclaims his crown. Then Europe’s armies quickly gather to confront the Emperor’s Grande Armée in nearby Waterloo.

The book’s first 270 pages fly by with romantic stories that are a shade darker than Heyer’s usual delightful heroine-has-greater-than-expected-depth-and-snares-worldly-hero fare. Instead, in preparation for the great battle, she introduces the reader to much more complex characters and relationships. For the following 200 pages, the high-society women tend to the wounded and dying. Many of the men heroically die or lose limbs on the battlefield.

Heyer places her male antagonist, Colonel Charles Audley, on the British General Wellington’s staff. We see the battle through his eyes as, under cannon fire, he couriers orders from Wellington across the battlefield to his troops. Always a sticker for historical detail, Heyer’s battle descriptions are so accurate and inspiring that she lectured at Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy. Apparently, for some years, AN INFAMOUS ARMY was required reading there. Here’s a sample from the moment that the battle swung irretrievably to British victory:

‘The [French] Chasseur column, advancing steadily, was met by a frontal fire of over eighteen hundred muskets from the 95th Rifles and the 71st Highlanders, and as it staggered, the Fighting 52nd, the men in third and fourth line loading and passing muskets forward to the first two lines, riddled its flank. It broke, and fell into hideous disorder, almost decimated by a fire it could not, from its clumsy formation, return. A cry of horror arose, taken up by battalion after battalion down the French lines: La Guard recule! [The Guard is retreating!]”

As you see, this novel goes well beyond its charming love story.

In AN INFAMOUS ARMY, Napoleon Bonaparte only has cameo appearances as a distant figure rallying his troops. At one point, a young British officer informs Wellington that he could order cannon fire onto Napoleon and his senior officers to which the noble Wellington responds, “No, no, I won’t have it. It is not the business of general officers to be firing upon one another.” War was fought under more aristocratic rules back then.

Rereading the novel, I was amused to see that it must have provided my first exposure to Napoleon Bonaparte’s adversary on St Helena Island, Sir Hudson Lowe. Ironically, when Wellington arrived at Brussels before the battle, he dismissed Sir Hudson who was quartermaster, replacing him with someone whom he “could trust to do his work without forever wishing to copy Prussian methods.” In other words, in Wellington’s opinion, the worse sort of bureaucrat.

Since this novel is told from a British perspective, you might think that “an infamous army” refers to Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. It’s actually a quote from Wellington describing his own disorganized, green troops: “I have got an infamous army, very weak, and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff.” Napoleon might have said the same of his army, but when the day was over, Wellington had the decisive victory that changed the course of European history.

I highly recommend this book. It delights on so many levels.

 

Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon’s Exile on St Helena 200th Anniversary

Approaching St Helena at Dawn

On October 15, 1815, four months after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on St Helena Island for his second and last exile. As you can see in the photo above, the island rises out of the south Atlantic Ocean like a forbidding rock in a vacant sea. It’s the very definition of remote: five thousand miles from France, a thousand from the coast of Africa, and eighteen hundred from South America. Its sheer cliffs could forestall rescue attempts. And British forces had already fortified it. During Napoleon’s stay—ending in his death on May 5, 1821—those troops would increase to over 2,000 men.

Just eight months before arriving in St Helena, Napoleon had escaped his loosely-guarded exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. He’d made the three-day sail to the French coast, and marched 500 miles to Paris, gathering an army and the support of the French people along the way.

But it didn’t really matter what the French wanted. The British, the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Russians were not going to accept Napoleon’s return under any circumstances. Even if Napoleon had defeated the British and Prussian armies at Waterloo, the enemy coalition would have fought on until he was defeated. Ultimately, he had no chance against their overwhelming numbers.

Napoleon Dictating on St HelenaSo why did Napoleon leave his comfortable exile in Elba? Some speculate that he was bored. Others blame Louis XVIII, the restored French king, for reneging on his treaty commitment to supply Napoleon the funds to maintain his 1,000-man army and his status as Emperor of Elba. Or perhaps it was because he’d been separated from his beloved son, the Eaglet. And then came the final straw: rumor that the Coalition powers, meeting at the Congress of Vienna, planned to move him from Elba to St Helena.

Despite his heroic effort to avoid that fate, St Helena is where Napoleon spent his last five and a half years under an ignoble British house arrest.

Miscellany The Man

200th Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Loss at Waterloo

 

Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.

Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.

Napoleon addresses guard at WaterlooA few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)

Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.

A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.



In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:

On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart

Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte

 

 

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg