Tag Archives: Wellington

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.

 

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

 

 

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Richmond, Virginia (and Spain)

Jean-Claude Bonnefond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant military and political leader, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t make disastrous mistakes. In that regard, the Russian Campaign of 1812 deserves top billing. His misadventures in Spain, poignantly illustrated in this painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, come in a close second.

I won’t presume to explain the Spanish debacle in detail, but for those who don’t know much about it, here’s a brief primer. When Napoleon came to power, Spain and France were allies, particularly in their opposition to England. In 1805, Napoleon’s French navy joined with the Spanish fleet to challenge Britain’s great naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, in the Battle of Trafalgar. Although Nelson died in the conflict, the Spanish and French were so thoroughly trounced that neither mounted a substantial navy again for years. Worse, the British established a continental foothold in Portugal.

Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brotherThe Spanish-French alliance never recovered. First, Napoleon moved French troops onto Spanish territory, using a proposed joint invasion of Portugal as a pretext. Then, in 1808, Spain’s King Charles IV lost a feud with his eldest son and fled to France, expecting Napoleon to support him. Instead, Napoleon used the opportunity to depose both Charles and his son, the newly crowned Ferdinand VII. Installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king in their place, Napoleon made Spain a client state of the French Empire.

Joseph, usually a man of good intentions, tried to be an enlightened ruler. Unfortunately, only a small number of educated city dwellers, the so-called afrancesados, wanted modern reforms. Understandably, the Spanish population resented foreign intervention in their cultural traditions. The Spanish Catholic church, forced to end the Inquisition, called upon the peasants to save their souls from the invaders’ influence. 

goya.shootings-3-5-1808Who can say who committed the first atrocity against the other side? Asymmetrical warfare ensued, as Spanish guerrilla fighters picked off, tortured and killed unwary French soldiers. The French responded with overwhelming force, sometimes against civilians. Francisco de Goya, initially the favored painter for Joseph Bonaparte’s court, depicted the French atrocities with a series of horrific images.

 

The painting at the top of this blog is by a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Bonnefond (1796-1860). The information card at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reads in part:

At a well in a courtyard of a monastery, two soldiers have just discovered a comrade’s epaulet and shako, or hat, and traces of a bloody struggle. A monk furtively retreats in the background. Although not a specific incident in the Peninsular War, this scene directly alludes to the tensions that flared between Napoleon and the Catholic church. 

In 1813, the British led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, defeated the French troops in Spain. Joseph Bonaparte beat a hasty retreat across the Pyrenees and home to France.

 

The Man

Finding Napoleon in London

Bert & Margaret kayaking on the Thames Sept 2014 

Part 1: Napoleon Bonaparte at Wellington’s House

When I traveled to London earlier this month, it wasn’t difficult to find traces of Napoleon Bonaparte. After all, he was arguably the British Empire’s greatest foe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. What I found is that, at least in some quarters, Napoleon was admired during his lifetime and continues to be of interest today. 

Apsley House, LondonBefore leaving on this trip, I queried my colleagues at the Napoleonic Historical Society for recommendations with a Napoleonic twist. I’ve been to London several times, yet a historic site I’d never visited topped their list: Apsley House museum, the Duke of Wellington’s home. Located at Hyde Park Corner, its address is nicknamed “No. 1 London” due to its prominent location. Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon’s forces in Spain and handed him his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, bought the house in 1817 from his older brother. He then enlarged it to befit his status as the Duke of Wellington, England’s greatest hero.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de GoyaNapoleon and the Bonapartes can be found throughout the museum. Wellington’s extensive art collection includes portraits of Napoleon and of Josephine, and a huge panorama of Waterloo with Napoleon in the foreground. The Sèvres dessert service that Napoleon gave Josephine on their divorce (and which she refused to accept) and a sword of Napoleon’s are displayed in a room off the entrance foyer. Upstairs, one grand salon features priceless Spanish paintings recovered from Joseph Bonaparte’s lost baggage carts as he fled his throne in Spain with Wellington’s troops hot on his heels. Amusingly, there is a portrait of Napoleon’s scandal-prone sister Pauline in a salon that is designated the “Military Valhalla” or “Hall of Heroes,” because the paintings in there (except hers) are all of generals. I think she would have liked that.

But most striking is the 12-foot-tall nude statue of Napoleon as Mars.

Napoleon as Mars by Antonio Canova, at Apsley House, LondonIn 1806, Antonio Canova, then considered one of the greatest living artists, sculpted it from a single block of marble (except the raised arm). The head is magnificent, but I think most of us today have the same reaction to it that Napoleon Bonaparte himself had. He deemed it “too athletic” and banished it to a hidden corner of the Louvre where the public would never see it. After Waterloo, the British government bought it from the French and presented it to Wellington.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern victor surrounding himself with portraits of his vanquished foe.  Yet, in his time, Napoleon’s genius was widely admired by military men on all sides of the conflicts.  On hearing of Napoleon’s death in St Helena, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “Now I can safely say I am the most successful general alive.”

No photography is allowed in the Apsley House so some of the photos in this blog were sourced on the Internet. But not, of course, the one of my husband and me kayaking on the Thames. That one is here to show that I don’t spend all my time looking for Napoleon.

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