La GRANDE ARMEE

The following is the Prologue from the above book.


The Old Soldiers

The Grande Armee - that was yesterday. In 1935, in the village where I live seven months of the year, I spoke with a farm worker, then seventy-nine years of age, who had seen the survivors of that army with his own eyes. There were some in his country, all octogenarians. One of them had fought at Austerlitz and described in detail the huts which they had built before the battle from branches, the fires blazing, in the glacial night to celebrate the anniversary of the Enperor's coronation; then the morning mist and the battle; the imperial Russian guard in white uniform, all mounted on black horses, the clash in the black smoke, the Russians and Austrians in flight and hiding in the marshes. This man spoke half in dialect and half in French which he had only learned after joining the army.

There were five of these survivors in one of these hamlets. In winter, they sat in the cantou - the inglenook by the chimney and its fire. But each morning, regardless of the weather, my informant remembered this detail; the men made their ablutions outdoors. This consisted of plunging their hands into a bucket of cold water and rubbing their faces - army-style, they said proudly. They shaved on Sundays.

In that region in about 1865, there were not thirty-six parties. Either, one was for the government, bonapartist, or republican and in opposition. But even the republicans looked with respect upon the survivors of that epoch. They did not snigger when one of them rose and gave a military salute on pronouncing the Emperor's name, nor did they mock when another, fantasising a trifle, rummaged in his memories, which mingled with tales the old sweats had told him. Thus he claimed and, no doubtly, believed that he had been at the Pyramids and had made the retreat in Russia; occasionally, he even claimed to have been in the Indies! These were the lucky men, since none was crippled or one-armed. They would willingly show their scars which showed violet on their very white skin. They wore flannel which they never doffed. One often had reddened eyes and wept much: a legacy of Russia, he would say, and refused to go out when it was snowing.

Such memories from the mouth of a man for whom I had both affection and respect hold perhaps the genis of this book. They were little enough when compared with what I was to read later about the campaigns of the Grande Armee, but they gave me valuable guidance which books could not offer. I could never forget these tales heard in my infancy.

As the inhabitants of every country recall, Napoleon's armies swept through Europe. A Hungarian friend asked me: 'What is still left to write concerning Napoleon?' Nothing, of course, after the hundreds of thousands of books that gave been published about his reign. One can also say that one can write indefinitely, and this is what has happened; the river has not ceased to flow. Jean Tulard has placed in exergue one of Stendhal's observations: 'From today until fifty years on, it will be neccessary to revise Napoleon's story every year.' For myself, it is not in any way the individual that haunts me; indeed, his distrust of men and his ignorance of maritime affairs tended to deter me. What gripped me were the observations of an old countryman who spoke to me of the survivors of the Old Guard, which led to more and more research and to reading books of memoirs - asking myself as I read: 'How had they been able to survive all that; who, in truth, were these men?' The old soldiers who stood to attention when the Emperor's name was spoken had, miraculously, survived nameless butcheries, had marched in serried ranks before the enemy guns, had seen comrades fall beside them, their chests smashed by cannonballs. had seen heads rolling from a sabre-cut, had in Spain, seen the bodies of friends roasted and crucified head-down over a fire, had themselves fired 'into the brown' on crowds of women and children who had taken refuge in churches. In Russia, leaving their bivouacs of a mourning and seeing their friends frozen to death and lying under a tree as rigid as stone, transformed into statues. For months and years they had lived contentedly as an occupying army in towns and villages of all of Europe, dancing with German, Austrian, Polish girls, sleeping with them, and they knew of many comrades who had stayed there, forgetting the army, forgetting France. The French, in an army two-thirds composed of foreigners, had learned a smattering of every European language, They had, also, been pillagers, thieves, rapists, had drunk and guzzled into oblivion and had suffered the worst fanines. Heroes, torturers and martyrs, perhaps a unique experience for all time and place. Can we see these men in close-up, beyond the legends to which they themselves have contributed?

Such is the line of approach which I have tried to take, and it was not easy. History according to the official record - including The Bulletin of the Grande Armee which has inflamed the imagination of so many romantics - we know their worth. Thrilling revelations are mixed with coldblooded lies or adroit approximations in all the souvenirs and memoirs of the great, military as will as civilian, when it was necessary at some moment or another to shine or to cover-up a weakness, an error or a crime. Even the testimony of the humble cannot be accepted without scrutiny. All were written after the event, sometimes long after, memory and compassion influence choice and even modest men like to dramatise. Often, too, they like to shine, and why not? That truth one cannot in honesty conceal from the public; the triage of tons of documents, of a million testimonies, cannot guarantee absolute truth. Mathematically exact history does not exist.

At the beginning of my project, I had thought to recount the story of the Grande Armee while speaking as little as possible of Napoleon - absolutly everything from the point of view of the men in the ranks. That was naive. Firstly, the man was there, present in the arena, very often in person, risking his life as few of the great commanders have done in modern war, not only surveying the battles through a telescope from the top of a hillock, but galloping under fire. and while present at the summit of Europe and alone deciding the course of his wars, often with genius, the life and death and the sufferings of the soldiers of the Grande Armee. For these reasons, I have mentioned him more often than I had at first expected. And also because he was constantly in the minds of his men, an obsessive father-image, often a father-refuge: 'Le Tondu knows his business; he'll get us out of this.' Often detested - 'Long live the Emperor!' time and again, but during the retreat from Russia when he abandoned the army to rush to Paris where his presence was politically necessary, an officer of the Guard entered the bivouac and exclaimed: 'So, the brigand has gone?' Sunspots do not prevent a star from shining. We must tell the whole tale.


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