I would like to thank you, madame, for having me here today. It’s always a pleasure to talk about my work in such a fine setting. As you probably know, Fighting for Napoleon has just been released by Pen and Sword. This historical study is a labour of love and a family affair. My own ancestor, Jean Lambert Wilkin, served in the French artillery and fought at the battle of Austerlitz. Admittedly, he deserted in 1808 after four years of service…
Fighting for Napoleon is probably the first book in English entirely based around the correspondence of ordinary soldiers serving in the French army between 1799 and 1815. My father and I found more than 1,500 letters in the archives of Liège (Belgium). What makes this extraordinary body of sources essential is its lack of hindsight and its humility. Soldiers didn’t write for posterity and had no illusion of being important. They only wanted to keep alive a tenuous link with their family. French men wrote about everything. Battles, murders, food, uniforms and travelling were all common subjects. This correspondence tells us far more about the ordinary life in the French army than memoirs. French soldiers didn’t shy away from telling horrific stories of mutilations or brutal raids on civilian communities in Spain to their loved ones. This violence is not to be mistaken with coldness or inhumanity. French soldiers clearly had a different moral compass and felt that mistreating civilians was an inevitable part of warfare. All the aspirations of young men are represented in these letters. Money and family were important topics, but not as much as love. Far away from their fiancées, soldiers tried their best to keep the flame of romance alive. This is not to say that they didn’t seek romance with local girls or paid for sex.
Fighting for Napoleon is divided in thematic chapters looking at essential aspects of the French army. Letters are carefully explained and their authors have been systematically identified. I hope, madame, that you and your audience will enjoy reading this book. It is time for me to bid you farewell. Let me offer you, as a token of my appreciation, a love letter written by Augustin Moyarts, a young man who was conscripted in the artillery in 1809. I’m glad to say that he survived the Napoleonic wars.
On board of the Trajan [A ship] 27 August 1812
My dear Marianne, this travel causes me displeasure because I am far from you. It seems to me that I have no interest in anything since I left you. Nothing interests me except if it relates to you. There is not even one thought that is about something else than you. I am not afraid because being away will not stop you from loving me, you said so yourself. I have such esteem for you that I cannot doubt the sincerity of your virtue. I feel perfectly safe about your fidelity but I am sad to be away. The reasons for which I love you are tormenting me. Miss, these days without you are lost. You must know how impatient I am to finish traveling. Your letters comfort me in my exile. I am your most faithful and tender servant. I received your letter on the fourth of this month. I was very pleased to know that you are in perfect health. I am well and we left for Antwerp. As soon as we arrived, we embarked again. I hoped to come home before embarking but I also hope to see you during winter. I end this letter by kissing you. With all my heart, I am for life your faithful friend. Greetings to your father, mother, brother and sister.
About the Author
Dr Bernard Wilkin is a military historian and a lecturer at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Fighting for Napoleon (Pen & Sword, 2015) and several articles on military history from 1799 to 1815. He can be contacted on twitter: @bernardwilkin
Written content of this post copyright © Bernard Wilkin, 2016.