We have our small litany of names–Trafalgar, Waterloo, the Battle of the Nile, the Peninsular Wars–and we think that’s it…though what that it might be, well, we’re not quite certain…
It had to do with a splenetic little Frenchman, didn’t it? An Emperor, wasn’t he? He made France great…or did he? And his wife wore great frocks…
Going further, we have our canon of heroism which includes Nelson and Wellington, and their fictional subordinates, men like Hornblower, Aubrey and Sharpe.
Or we may have arrived in early 19th century England, courtesy of the novels of Miss Austen, she who wove a world of pastoral and private contentment–a mirror of that green and pleasant land–undisturbed by the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, unvisited by the vicissitudes of Continental life and the French Revolution or two decades of unceasing war.
And we think we know. We believe we understand…But do we? Is there not more? Much more?
OHF_smallThe answer is yes. Or a myriad of yeses. So many, indeed, that they constitute a veritable encyclopaedia of untold stories–for from the blood-soaked ashes of the French Revolution had risen the military genius of Napoleon Buonaparte whose meteoric rise to power and domination over not just France but all of Europe was as blindingly brilliant as his fall was ruinous.
Indeed, the eye-witness accounts from Prussia, from Italy, from Austria and Russia during this period tell quite different stories from those with which we are familiar.
For over this brief period of years, from 1792 onward, as the tentacles of French Imperial power stretched out to amalgamate and assimilate all of Europe–from Portugal to Poland–into a French Empire (and woe betide all who resisted) these years of endless war, the first total war, the war which was until 1917 known simply as The Great War, these years too witnessed the birth of our modern world.
At least five (some say six) million people died during these wars and it’s likely that we’ll never know the full number of those lost. Of that number, perhaps half were French or some 10% of France’s population. That is a great many sons, husbands and fathers who never came home, a great many losses for any country to bear. (What happened to their wives and sweethearts?)
And the refugees? Whenever the colossal armies, swollen by mass conscription, marched into a territory–and they moved into Prussia, Saxony, Bohemia and Poland quite regularly–the locals wisely left. They bundled their necessities onto carts and gathering up their children, headed for the forests, leaving their best belongings buried in the cellars. If and when they returned, their village might or might not be left standing, their animals would all have been stolen, their crops trampled underfoot, their dwellings ransacked and pillaged, dilapidated and torched.
Imagine how much firewood was required to feed the cooking fires of 150,000 men over a course of months. Imagine how much fodder to feed their horses.
Were there any trees left standing after the French army had marched through one’s country? Any trees at all? Any thatch left on the cottages? (They fed thatch to their horses when grain was scarce.)
Picture every road in Europe clogged with strings of horses, turning to quagmire beneath the thousands of hooves and the thousands of baggage carts loaded with tents and saddles, spare forges and canteen equipment, carrying cannon and artillery, overflowing with food and drink for the soldiers, and the endless stream of troops, marching with their muskets slung upside down to avoid rain dripping down the barrels.
Only the British, armed with their highly skilled crews and well-armed and well-sailed wooden battalions of ships could hem in the Napoleonic powerhouse, and through the might of the Royal Navy preserve the peace of their own country. (No marching French armies there!)
May 1812Yet even in bucolic Britain–allegedly far removed from the battlefields–all of life must be viewed through the lens of this interminable war.
Indeed, it confronted them at every turn: Income tax had been introduced to pay for it and everyone railed about paying that! The theatres provided a non-stop whirl of military spectacles to enthrall their audiences; the caricaturists had found the gift that went on giving in the fubsy Corsican despot.
English newspapers were full of reports of the Navy and Army successes and/or disasters, Parliamentarians raged and ranted about it. Inflation was on a runaway course to the heavens; the manufacturers were unable to export to the Continental markets and many were ruined. The Press Gangs roamed the ports; the Prime Minister was assassinated…
indeed, because of the unprecedented scope of Napoleon’s military triumphs and ambitions, in some way or other, it can truthfully be said that Napoleonic France impacted directly on every single European living in the early 19th century and for generations to come.
Yet amidst all this turmoil, Beethoven was writing symphonies, Byron was writing poetry, George III was going mad, and Turner was transforming art.
As I say, an encyclopaedia of untold stories…
This is the world I write about, a world of war and little peace, of battlefields and ballrooms, of wealth and want, the world of my novels, May 1812 (Authonomy Gold Medal in 2009) and Of Honest Fame. It was tragic, desperate, shimmering with excitement and derring-do, inventive, beautiful, heroic, gritty and gorgeous, soaring and awash with tears.
Let me take you there.
Let me take you into their houses, into the House of Commons, onto the battlefields of Spain and Saxony.
CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddCome with me on this journey from London to Paris to Poland and beyond. Let me tell you their stories. Let me show you.
Welcome to my world…
(Or, alternately, while you await the next installment, catch up with me and my latest work, Castles, Customs, & Kings–True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, a work to which I contributed several essays and upon which I worked as editor. It’s a wonderful book and it’s full of the most fascinating and arcane bits of research from the early Britons to Regency dining and theatre! And yes, I do love history that much…)