Tag Archives: napoleonic wars

A Bloody Picnic: Tommy’s Humour 1914-18 by Alan Weeks

Alan Weeks is a very good social historian of the First World War on the Western Front. Having already reviewed his look at the Wipers Times, I have been looking forward a great to getting my hands on this book. First off, its a pleasure to read a book that isn’t big enough to sink the Bismarck! Given the book’s topic thats quite appropriate – wouldn’t it be ironic to read a book about Tommy hunour that was so big and wieldy that it could sink the Bismarck!

There are some fantastic stories here. Weeks has looked at virtually every aspect of humour at war, including general cheerfulness, comedy, officer-men relations, attitudes to commanders, pantomimes, humorous incidents, sex, weather, lice, rats, letters, songs, drinking, animals and the live-and-let-live system. This wide range of subjects gives us an indication of just how prevalent humour could be throughout life. It’s not difficult to imagine that humour actually made bearable what was quite a grim life. Humour could not win the war on its own, nor could it take away from the grievous casualties. But would the western front have been tougher without some light moments? Almost certainly.

There has always been something about the British Tommy that finds dry humour in even the most miserable of circumstances. And given the British military’s propensity for finding itself in miserable circumstances, this is no doubt a very useful trait. Its something that filters through to British society in general – dry British wit, as evinced by the archetypal Butler, has even been referenced in the Simpsons, of all places. I’ve read of examples of ‘Tommy humour’ during the Napoleonic Wars, which is appropriate given that the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ originates from this time.

This is a very important addition to the historiography of the western front – Alan Weeks must have spent years compiling these anecdotes. I won’t even begin to cover them all, but heres a few tasty morsels for you all:

Two of Private Webb’s comrades were killed by a grenade. An officer enquired as to what had happened… Private Webb was a good cricketer. ‘Blimey, whats happened sir’, he responded cheerfully, ‘is one over, two bowled’. Then he glanced down at the mess where he once had a leg. ‘And I’m stumped sir’.

One Sunday morning, Corps Command instructed Thorp to aim at four targets in quick succession. He chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The 6/Connaught Rangers were carefully coached before the arrival of a General to inspect them… they were particularly instructed on what their precise function in the Battalion was. The General asked one Ranger, ‘are you a Catholic?’, to which the man replied, ‘no sir, I’m a Rifleman’.

In front of the MO, one sapper was asked ‘have you been circumcised?’, to which he replied, ‘Oh no sir, thats just fair wear and tear’.

‘French girls are nice to sleep with, but not as good as you my wife. I miss you very much’.

A Bloody Picnic is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

The Fields of Death by Simon Scarrow

Like me – and, indeed, thousands of others out there – Simon Scarrow is obviously a big Sharpe fan. This book is the final instalment in his lightly-fictionalised series on the careers of Wellington and Napoleon.

The story of Wellington and Napoleon’s military careers is an epic one, and for the most part Scarrow does not overcook what are fantastic stories in the first place – the Peninsular War, the battles of Asspern, Essling and Wagram, the Invasion of Russia, the Battle of Borodino, the retreat from Moscow, the Battle of Leipzig and Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in 1814, before his return and final defeat at Waterloo.

The reader is left with a feeling that Napoleon, early in his career a gifted general, gradually became a tyrant, exactly of the kind that he fought to overthrow during the revolution. And Scarrow’s depth of understanding when describing British contemporary politics is clearly very good. The description of diplomatic intrigue between charcaters such as Talleyrand, Fouche and Metternich is insightful – after all, a good historical novel should inform as much as it entertains. And Sharpe fans will enjoy the respectful nod to Bernard Cornwell’s famous character during the Battle of Vitoria – something that could so easily have gone wrong, but works.

There are several downsides, however. I feel that by calling the Duke of Wellington ‘Arthur’, Scarrow allows the reader to develop a sense of familiarity with the him, that the man himself would almost certainly have not allowed in real life, given his well known coldness and aloof nature. Most of Napoleon’s Marshals come across as bumbling, disloyal and incompetent – Soult and Davout in particular have not been kindly treated here, compared to history’s view of them.

But most notably, the fictional meeting between Wellington and Napoleon just after Waterloo just does not work, not for this reader anyway. Wellington had no desire to meet Napoleon, and there was nothing to negotiate anyway. The great advantage of historical fiction is that the writer can take historical license. But in order to work and ring true; it has to be believable… which, sadly, is not the case here. But this is a difficult story to write, as anyone who picks it up is bound to know what the ending is. So its not surprising that Scarrow has looked for ways to freshen it up.

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Filed under Army, fiction, Napoleonic War, Uncategorized

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard – Ronald Pawly

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard

From the moment Napoleon Bonaparte emerged to prominence at the recapture of Toulon in 1793, until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 and his subsequent exile to Elba, the French Army had revolutionised warfare. Napoloeon developed an Army that was overwhelmingly made up of conscripts, using a large body of poorly trained men who could be easily replaced. At the head of this mass army, however, was perhaps the most formidable Royal Household unit formed since the Roman Praetorian Guard – the Imperial Guard. The Imperial Guard came to set the standard for elite Household units, a mantle picked up by the British Foot Guards and Household Cavalry at Waterloo.

The Mounted Grenadiers were the Imperial Guards heavy cavalry, imposing in their Bearskins and chosen for their physical stature. This book, by Ronald Pawly uses regimental records and is a short history of the Mounted Grenadiers, and also contains many photos of rare weapons and equipment, as well as Osprey’s trademark artwork.

This book is pretty much a historical narrative of the unit, the part that they played in the Napoleonic French Army and the wider Napoleonic Wars. If you are looking for a comparative study of Napoleonic heavy cavalry then maybe this isnt the book for you, but if you are simply interested in reading about an elite force and studying them in depth this will make for a very good read. I can imagine this being especially interesting if you are keen on military models, wargaming or military uniforms. It is packed with facts and figures, and has clearly been written by someone who has done much research on this subject.

I must warn you, however: this book is very difficult to read without hearing the Sharpe theme tune in your head, or upon closing your eyes seeing epic scenes from the film Waterloo!

Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard is published by Osprey

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204 years since Trafalgar

The Death of Nelson, Benjamin West

'The Death of Nelson', Benjamin West

204 years ago today the Royal Navy, under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, in a monumental sea battle off the coast of South West Spain.

The Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy fleet in port for several years. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte hatched a plan to invade England. This would require the French fleet, with the support of their Spanish allies, to gain control of the English Channel, to allow the French Army to invade Southern England. To do this, the French attempted to lure the British fleet to the Carribean.

The plan almost worked. The British were lured to the Carribean, but hurriedly returned and prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching the Channel. The British then kept them bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Meanwhile, Napoleon had tired of his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve’s failures, and replaced him.

Before his replacement arrived, however, Villeneuve – with nothing to lose – put to sea, intent on fighting the Royal Navy.

The sides were not exactly evenly matched. Although the French and Spanish outnumbered the British by 33 to 27, the British sailors were far better trained, could produce a far greater rate of fire, and were far better seamen. This countered the enemies superiority in terms of the size of its ships. The Spanish in particular boasted the biggest ship in the world, the 136 gun, four-deck Santissima Trinidad. But the French and Spanish had spent many years cooped up in harbour, and had many inexperienced men onboard.

After briefing his Captains, his famous Band of Brothers, Nelson hoisted his famous ‘England Expects’ signal. The battle plan was ingenious. Dividing his fleet into two squadrons, they sailed parallel towards the enemy line. After suffering heavy damage as they approached the French and Spanish, once they broke the line they inflicted heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British had captured 22 ships, although many of these were sunk in a heavy storm after the battle.

The Death of Nelson, however, cast a sombre mood over the victory. Although he certainly had his faults – his adultery and treatment of his wife, and his excessive vanity – he was the nearest that England has ever come to a secular saint. Nelson and Trafalgar would shape the Royal Navy, and British culture, for centuries to come.

Despite the fact that it confirmed British superiority of the worlds oceans for over 100 years, the battle was perhaps not so important in the overall scheme of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had already given up the invasion of Britain, and had marched east to the battle of Austerlitz. Although it would be 10 years before Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, Trafalgar did however mean that no matter how succesful Napoleon was in Europe, Britain would always be free to fight back.

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Filed under maritime history, Napoleonic War, Navy