Articles de La Guinguette - 2004 - août - société

Titre Sur les pas de l'armée de Napoléon
Année 2004
Mois août
Catégorie société
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour05 January 2010

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In the steps of Napoleon's army

Company, get ready! Company, attention!

In our time, we are considered as sort of foot-soldiers historians, in contrast to the big name or well known historians who talk about Napoleon and all his marshals. In the end, we are making fun of Napoleon; we are making fun of his marshals, even though he is our boss - but we are interested in Mr Everyman [0]. Your great grandfather interests us a lot more than just a marshal. It is not that the marshal does not interest us, but there are historians who have written about him, and we are not going to repeat endlessly the same thing. On the other hand Mr Everyman who went on the military campaign at the beginning of the empire [1] and then finally got himself out in 1815 and became a poor man again no doubt, he interests us a lot.

Daniel Dieu, President of the French Federation for the Recreation of History. He and few hundred of his associates have pitched their tents this weekend in Sainte-Hermine in Vendee [10]. For three weeks, they are going to live in the uniforms and customers of the Grand Army of the Emperor Napoleon:

We have the mothers of families, we have retired people, we have soldiers, civilians, students, everyone who is interested a little in history.

Some people like Jean-Paul Escalettes who comes from Toulouse to take part in it:

I play the part of a general in the engineering regiment. So, during the Empire my role was to provide all the topographic information, make the battle maps and at the same time to provide what we call generally intelligence, that is knowledge of the enemy but also the terrain. And that's why I am one of the few officers authorised in the campaign to be in civilian clothes. There at the top, that's a map table, that's a table which allows you to work standing upright, or having a map on which you can draw what you see. I have an eye glass for taking bearings, for observing the terrain; I have other materials, sextants, compasses, optical levels for taking heights for doing map work which is absolutely traditional. There are roles before, during and after the battle. So before, in effect all the work of topographical investigation, for example knowing the river fords. The crossing points for a water course at the time of Napoleon, with the horses and carriages and all that, that is extremely hard, so you have to know the water courses and especially the fords, that is strategically important. It is true that there are specialists, so they are at any rank, they are subalterns, lieutenants or captains at the level of an army; at the level of the Grand Army he's a general, but land generals who go to the front. They are professionals, they are not part-time. On the other hand as they are so few in number here they are protected by a garrison. These are valuable people who know how to do things, they have knowledge, so they must not fall into the hands of the enemy. So you put a garrison around them to defend them. During the battle, as they know the terrain well, they have an important role as advisors, but as they are also officers, quite often they also fire the guns, they take charge of a brigade, they take charge of a division, a battalion, they do the reinforcing during the battle and there are engineering generals who were killed in combat.

And so the phase after, after the battle, when there's time, when the campaign is not too quick, its their job to take stock, the summary of the battle and for example in the archive service of the army in Paris they have the summaries, the battle plans. Marengo [2], the most famous, at Marengo they made a summary of the terrain, the positions of the troops at different times, from where they were attacked, the names of the generals, everything. So they made a sort of cartographic set of minutes.

The military engineers were trained under the old regime in the royal military schools and there were excellent specialists and as they had however twenty... more than twenty years of war they were very competent in the field and it was this generation of engineers more than the young whom they trained who made the first 'Etat Major' map of France in 1880.

At dawn on the day of the big battle, reveille [4] is sounded in the tents.

At the time there was no radio, or let's say, quick way to give instructions to the troops. So everything was transmitted by military drum. One sound for such an action, another sound for some other action... There were then sounds, more flags, pennants. In the evening in the tents they used to have competitions among themselves, the drums, they invented more and more complicated things, they started from a base and then each one embroidered it, they did it, they added things to make it more complicated to try to get to the stage that the other could not reproduce it.

The reconstruction is meticulous to the last detail but even so in this role playing game there are limits:

Well, the canteen woman was the maid for everything of the officers, and the quarter mistress was the maid for everything for the men. Now maid for everything... We would not dare to say that too often. That means women of little virtue. Not in our case! Because... I don't think that it would be right.

In civilian life, Jean-Paul Escalettes is a historian of great renown, known especially for this work on the Battle of Toulouse which has been his research subject for twenty years. He has just published "Des Grognards à Napoleon", a study of the food of Napoleon's armies [6]:

To use a very French expression which we might say, they used to eat pot luck. That means that they used to eat what they found. The soldier in the field, he ate when he found something, so on the other hand that means that he often did not eat anything...

In the great French tradition, the Napoleonic campaigns become to some extent a gastronomic tour of the continent:

They imported into France all these specialities, let's say, from what has become Europe today, which was at the time foreign countries. They were the conquerors who were conquered by the countries they invaded. They brought back pasta from Italy, goulash from central Europe; from Spain they brought back the chickpea, finally there was a lot of specialities like that, and in the other direction too we had them discover things like our bread.

The lessons from past times have not been lost by their descendants:

We were able during this weekend really to live as they lived at the time, in the sense that they arrived, they occupied the castle and the church because that is the strategic place, the castle because, well, there are always good things to loot, the church because the bell tower for the engineer, that allowed... it's a good view point: you can work. We have trees, we have fruit, we have apples, we have plums, we have tomato soup, there, they have killed a sheep for us, we really worked and ate let's say as they did at the time and we dined on the local produce:

By feeling again the troubles, the pains, the sore feet, the everyday life of a trooper even if it were only a very minimal amount, that serves us well in getting closer to them, through the uniform, through the everyday life, through everything that we do, the smell of the wood fire, the rain when it falls, the cold when you have to sleep in a tent, it is very interesting. Just a week ago, we were at La Corunna in Spain [7] and we spent five days over there, there was the fighting, there was a life in the barracks with people of all nationalities, Russians, Italians, each speaking his own language but in the end, everyone understood each other very well.

Napoleon was a distant commander for these infantry men but that does not mean that they did not have an opinion on the man who knew so much glory and so much pain on the battle field:

It's that he was a genius because he effectively had a vision, an understanding let's say, of a modern time: there was the civil code [8] that you must read, but that's not his work, it is however something very modern, it is the work of a team, but in the end he knew how to take credit for it, he knew how to get a team moving, today we talk about this everywhere in business about team work, and he was already doing team work. So he was someone who on the one hand was extremely modern, and on the other hand was however an officer who had been trained under the old regime and he was as such, extremely old fashioned. You have to remember however also that the weaponry did not make progress during the Napoleonic period; he refused big inventions, the Fulton submarine [9] is a common example, this is however something very interesting to me, this man really interests me because he had great qualities and he had faults every bit as big as his qualities all right.

Well, let's say when we talk of the Revolution we right away talk about human rights etc, but we must say too that our dear Revolution was bathed in blood. And Vendee [10] paid dearly I was going to say, for its freedom.

After the Revolution but before Napoleon's rise to power, 200,000 people died in the putting down the Royalist Rebellion in Vendee. And the respect that Bonaparte solicits today in the area is due to the skill that he employed to manage the course of this bloody civil war by starting with the restoration of freedom of religion:

Quite simply, the Concordat [11] allowed the people to return to their churches or to pray to the god that they wanted. On the other hand the blood letting that had taken place for the people because of the Revolutionary war, these wars in Vendee had made huge holes in the villages and so he allowed them to escape conscription for some time, but that did not prevent very much, the people from volunteering for service in the armies of Napoleon; so we find many of them who did all of the campaigns, even sons of nobles and of the upper classes signed up. That means that by pacifying Vendee and creating La Roche-sur-Yon [12], Napoleon-Vendee [13] and all that, that appeased things. Even if the wounds and the scars remained, peace returned quite gently. The former blues [14,15] who however were people also from Vendee for the most part, and then the whites [14,15], well they were reconciled and started to work together, to live together and their hatred was appeased. And in 1815 when the English wanted to make a second front in Vendee [16], well that didn't get started, there were several groups created quickly, but together they were looking for peace and had no wish to restart the genocide as before. We owe that largely to Napoleon. The fact of restoring the churches, rebuilding the villages brought peace to this part of France, and contributed to perhaps not loving Napoleon, but appreciating Napoleon in contrast to the big dignitaries of the Revolution.

[0]Dupont-Durant are very common French names, a kind of Smith-Jones; I have translated this as Mr Everyman.

[1] The following table provides key dates in the period of history relevant to this article.

[2] Napoleon defeated Austria in the battle of Marengo in northern Italy in 1800.

[3] Etat Major map first appeared in 1818 and was the first modern map of France.

[4] Reveille is the bugle call which is sounded to awake the troops. Note that the word is the same in French and in English. Many military words in English are taken directly from French, but generally have an English pronunciation, eg sergeant, major, general, lieutenant etc.

[5] The Battle of Toulouse in 1814 was the final battle during the main phase of the Napoleonic wars. In 1815, the Battle of Waterloo concluded the war entirely. Between the two battles, Napoleon was banished to Elba but returned in 1815.

[6] Escalettes J-P (2004) Des grognards à Napoléon : Les cuisines de l'Empire suivi de Recettes pour les cérémonies et le bivouac, ISBN 978-2862664330.

[7] La Corunna is a city in the north of Spain and site of a battle in 1809 in the peninsula war.

[8] French law is based on the Civil Code introduced by Napoleon in 1804. It has been adopted as the basis of the law of many other countries.

[9] In 1801, the American Robert Fulton built the world's first submarine in France.

[10] Vendée is a Department in the west of France to the north of La Rochelle.

[11] The concordat was a law on religious freedom and tolerance enacted in 1802.

[12] La Roche-sur-Yon is the principal town of the Department of Vendée.

[13] Napoleon-Vendée is the former name of La Roche-sur-Yon.

[14] The colours of the French flag are red, white and blue. White represents the Monarchy, while red and blue represent the Republic.

[15] Following the Revolution, those who remained faithful to the monarchy, were called Royalists or Whites. Those who supported the Republic were called Blues.

[16] Following the return of Napoleon to France in 1815, the British (and other) armies mobilised in France, ultimately meeting Napoleon at Waterloo, which is today is in Belgium close to Brussels.

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Updated 05 January 2010

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