« Icy Colours and Shapes | Main | Messiah by candlelight »

December 17, 2005

Napoleon revised?

A year or so ago, I recall reading a book published by a British historian who argued that the Napoleonic wars had been fought, much like the war in Iraq, on misinformation and the self-interest of the titled and landed ruling classes. He argued that, had Napoleon and the French Revolutionary principles triumphed, the world would have been a much better place. Well, according to a new book by a French author, that may have depended on who you were, where you were in the hierarchy of society and how "French" you could claim to be. Certainly it did not apply to anyone who was black, Russian, or from the peasantry of France!

It seems that the great Napoleon is being reviewed and some of what is now emerging from his letters, papers, journals and other archived resources is far from being a pretty picture of a great leader, reformer and enlightened governor. Recent finds of mass graves from the great retreat from Russia in 1812 - during which he managed to "loose" 450,000 to starvation, sickness and capture by the Cossack cavalry who harried them - show that many were teenage conscripts, large numbers simply froze to death and many were actually eaten by their compatriots in an effort to stay alive themselves. His General and Governor in Sainte Domingo (Haiti) ordered that all black rebels be shot, no prisoners taken and even went so far as to order that the executions were to be carried out in a manner "to strike terror into the hearts and minds of all who witnessed them". He also ordered, and there is evidence that Napoleon was fully aware of this, that women and children were to be slaughtered as well - as blacks they were obviously "giving succour" to the rebels. His orders were explicit - everyone over the age of 14 was to be killed. Genocide on a grand scale.

His treatment of the nations he overran in Europe was not much better, despite the image we have been given. More and more attrocities are coming to light in the Baltic States and the Rhinelands where his troops marched across into Poland and the East. Even worse was his record in his campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land, with the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jaffa on the beach to the North of the city. To save bullets the defenceless men women and children were bayonetted and drowned by his troops at his orders! Capping the murder of some 4,400 people in this way, was his treatment of his own troops when, a week after the massacre, they contracted the plague. Despite his imagery of "compassion" and the personal exposure - he may well have had some immunity from having contact with another form of the disease in his youth - there are indications that he had the disabled poisoned and may even have hastened the deaths of many who might have survived the plague itself.

Even in France his record is hardly one of compassion or enlightenment. He was absolutely ruthless in dealing with any insurrection or enemy. His famous pronouncement that the way to deal with the Paris mobs was to give them a whiff of grape, was hardly an invitation to a glass of wine. Rather it was a reference to the use of "grape shot" - bags of musket balls fired from a cannon with the same effect as firing a very large calibre shot gun - into any demonstrating crowd. This is how he "saved" the corrupt Revolutionary Directory and manoeuvred himself into the position of First Consul and then Emperor.

According to the new book, Napoleon Bonaparte is best compared to a certain Mr Hitler on his record of "enlightenment". In fact, the author sums up his Napoleon's feelings for his soldiers by quoting the end of the "bulletin" he issued to announce the fate of the Grande Armee in 1812. It rambles on about betrayal, enemies undermining morale and then concludes with the statement "but the Emperor's health is unimpaired!" Roughly six million people fell victim to Napoleon's world ambitions - a remarkably poignant number for a variety of reasons, not least because this is the number of "civilians" killed in his wars. The military losses are something totally separate!

Most of this will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the history of the Napoleonic Wars, the real surprise is that it is the French themselves who are now airing these views on their national "hero". Even more ironic is the fact that this book is published just as the British celebrate the - to quote Churchill - "end of the beginning" for Napoleon in the battle of Trafalgar. Even more surprising is the revelation that this was planned by the author and his publishers and supporters. Perhaps we should also look again at the question of his death in captivity on St Helena. Perhaps the murder theory is, after all, correct, but perhaps we should look at the French connections again to see if there was perhaps someone who wanted to put an end to the scheming and ambitions to free him to return to France!

The real irony in all this is that our own politcians and those of almost all the rest of Europe have fallen for the Napoleonic vision - one shared by Bismark, Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm - of "uniting" Europe under one government. So all the wars to retain our freedoms and our democracy have ultimately been undermined by the very politicians who have always started the wars! What a pity the chosen form of government is the unelected Napoleonic model of rule by decree - even if they are today called "directives"!

One thing is for sure, the new view of Napoleon will blow some academics of revisionist British History into a real flutter to defend their views. It will also not be popular in some quarters in France, but it is refreshing to have some of the nastier side of the Napoleonic "achievements" out in the open.

Maybe the likes of Nelson, Marlborough, Rodney and Wellington weren't such evil power hungry men after all!

Posted by The Gray Monk at December 17, 2005 09:14 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry: