Thursday 4 February 2016

Fighting for Napoleon

It's an honour to welcome Dr Bernard Wilkin to the salon today for his expert take on fighting for Napoleon, in the words of the very soldiers themselves!


Book cover
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.


Mari Christian said...

What a touching letter.I hope the lovers were eventually reunited. Thank you Dr. Wilkin. I hope to read your book soon. Thank you Catherine for featuring your remarkable guests.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Fantastic, thank you! the book is now on my TBR list - I have plenty of books showing the British pov so this is a great way to even up the perspective.

angus smith said...

I shall see if I can get our village library to buy this one , it's a non memoir as you said and so much more useful as an Historical mirror.

Captain Flashman said...

Dear Mari, Melinda and Leonard,

Thank you all for your kind comments.

Marie: I tried to find out if they eventually reunited but there is nothing conclusive in the archives.

Feel free to ask me any question either on twitter @bernardwilkin or on Goodreads.

Dr Bernard Wilkin

Captain Flashman said...

Dear all,

Thank you for your kind comments. I actually tried to find out if they reunited after the Napoleonic Wars but there is nothing conclusive in the archives. Feel free to contact me on twitter (@bernardwilkin) or on Goodreads if you have any question or if you want to chat about the book or the Napoleonic Wars.

Best wishes
Dr Bernard Wilkin

Vallypee said...

Fascinating! I shall put this on my TBR list! The letter you posted really does focus on love. The news content is only two lines or so!

Helena said...

I am wondering why or how all these letters ended up in the archives of Liege. Are they letters which were never sent and so were never read by the addressees? (Apologies for the lateness of this question; I'm catching up on my reading.)

Catherine Curzon said...

It's always a pleasure!

Catherine Curzon said...

It's a fantastic book, highly recommended.