Friday, 24 November 2017

Napoleon on Elba

Last week's post was particularly popular (posts about Napoleon always are), so this week we carry the story on to Napoleon's time on Elba.

Able was I ...

When Napoleon accepted his defeat in April 1814, he accepted also the idea that he would go into exile. Exile was to me made a less onerous punishment because the French government promised to pay him six million francs a year as his pension.

It was suggested that he might go to Corfu or Corsica, the country where he was born. However he chose Elba, an island between Corsica and Italy.

Enfola Beach, Elba. Photo: Michael Joachim Lucke

Besides his pension he had been promised that he would retain the status of a sovereign, so the Emperor of France became the absolute ruler of this island of about 85 square miles, and a few smaller islands around it. As the ruler, he was entitled to his own army, although, compared to the armies he had once led, it was little more than an honour guard, with around 700 men.

At first, Napoleon seemed reconciled to exile. The pension, he had observed, was “a great deal for a soldier as I am”. He was to be joined by his sister, Pauline, who was too ill to travel with him when he first left France, and he expected his mother, his wife and his son to move to Elba later.

He threw himself enthusiastically into public works: building new roads, improving the quality of the streets, and making plans for the development of the iron mines that were the country's main industry. To the irritation of the Allied powers, he started to recruit new soldiers from Italy. Arguably, as the recognised ruler of Elba, he had a perfect right to do this. In any case, he pointed out that with Moorish pirates regularly operating in the area he had a duty to maintain an army large enough to garrison the defences of Elba and its surrounding islands.

Flag designed by Napoleon for Elba

Princess Pauline did not arrive until June, but her appearance at Elba substantially improved social life on the island with balls, concerts, and theatrical performances enlivening the place. What had originally been a guardhouse to the mansion that Napoleon had made his home was turned into a theatre, where plays were performed by the princess herself, her ladies and the officers of the guard.
Whether the 700 soldiers of Napoleon's private army were amused by the new social opportunities we do not know, but it is certain that they were bored and Napoleon himself referred to them affectionately as his "grumblers". The soldiers who had accompanied Napoleon to Elba were all volunteers – indeed, some officers had resigned their commissions and enlisted in the ranks so that they could go into exile with their leader. They constituted some of his most loyal troops, many of them battle hardened. Napoleon regularly reviewed them and insisted that they continue to train. Artillery enthusiast that he was, he had them practising regularly with both regular round shot and heated shot. Despite this, though, there is no doubt that they found life on Elba, though comfortable, profoundly dull.

Napoleon's enthusiasm for his new realm gradually waned. To his dismay, the French government reneged on the promise of a pension and the cost of maintaining his court and his army vastly exceeded the revenue that could be extracted from Elba’s iron mining and its other limited revenue-raising opportunities. Servants were let go, building plans were abandoned and Napoleon, from keeping himself busy inspecting his projects around the island, began to sulk around the house, putting on weight.

Napoleon on Elba

The arrival of his mother, to whom he was devoted, improved his mood, but he was genuinely distressed when it became clear that his wife and son were not to join him. His wife was Marie Louise (who had replaced Josephine in 1810). She was the daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria and the Austrian government was unhappy with the idea of her and her son forming the focus of Napoleon's new court. She was persuaded not to join him and Napoleon seems to have accepted this, but he could not come to terms with the idea that he would never again see his son.

The shortages of money and the absence of his son soured his mood. He regularly received news of the situation in France from his supporters there as well as studying the French and British newspapers. By the spring of 1815, he was convinced that there were plans to force him from Elba – plans which he said he would resist by force. “Avant cela il faut faire une brèche dans mes fortifications, et nous verrons.” He believed that the Allies might send him to St Helena and subsequent events suggest that this may have been in their minds.

Faced with what Napoleon saw as a threat to his future on Elba, the refusal of the French to pay his pension or the Austrians to allow his son to visit the island, he looked at the disenchantment of the French with their restored monarchy and decided that he would be better off returning to Paris.

Napoleon's brief experiment with ruling a small island in the Mediterranean was coming to an end and the events that would lead to Waterloo were being set in motion.

An aside on that palindrome

Napoleon never created the famous palindrome, 'Able was I ere I saw Elba.' The first recorded use of it is from 1848, long after Napoleon's death. It appears in an American publication, Gazette of the Union, Where it is credited to an anonymous Baltimore author, known only as JTR.

Further reading

For a detailed account of Napoleon's time on Elba see The Island Empire by the anonymous ‘author of Blondelle’, published by T Bosworth in 1855 and available in Google Books.

A shorter summary is available in Life and Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte translated from the French of M A Arnault and CLF Panckoucke, published by Philips Samsung and Company of Boston in 1857 and also available in Google Books.

For a detailed discussion of the origin of the palindrome, see Quote Investigator:

A word from our sponsor

Napoleon was right to believe that there were many people in France who hoped for, and in some cases actively worked for, his return. Amongst other plots, there was one to assassinate Wellington, who was representing British interests in Paris. This period is the background to the beginning of Burke at Waterloo, which is to be republished by Endeavour Press on 2 February. (It should be on pre-order from early in January.)

Of course, Napoleon did leave Elba and eventually met the British at Waterloo were James Burke played a small, but crucial, role. [Spoiler alert: Napoleon lost.]

Friday, 17 November 2017

Losing an Empire - Take 1

Another straightforward history blog this week. It's about Napoleon, as posts about l'Empereur seem particularly popular.

We all know that Napoleon finally lost his empire at Waterloo. What people often forget was that this was the second time he had lost it.

Napoleon was initially defeated in 1814. His series of brilliant military victories were followed by some dramatic defeats – notably the failure of his Russian campaign.

For the attack on Moscow, Napoleon gathered his forces into a spectacular Grand Army of 680,000 men. Although the force was hampered by the condition of the roads as the Russian winter approached, Napoleon successfully reached Moscow and occupied the city. The conventional wisdom of warfare at the time was that once your capital was lost you admitted defeat and sued for peace. Unfortunately for Napoleon, Czar Alexander was unsporting enough not to surrender, so Napoleon found himself stuck in Moscow with no obvious way forward. The situation would have been bad enough in any case, but much of Moscow was destroyed by fire – either as a result of carelessness by the French or deliberate arson by the Russians. Napoleon was now stuck there with winter setting in and no obvious way forward. After a month, he moved his forces out of the city and attempted to engage the Russians, but the Czar's army avoided a pitched battle.  

Supplies were running short and his army was no longer in any position to continue an offensive campaign. Napoleon decided to retreat.

Painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov

The retreat from Moscow has become the stuff of legend. The French army had a policy of living off the land, foraging for food in the countryside that it was moving through. The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying food stores in all the areas that the French would have to move through. Unable to find food, struggling with roads that had turned to mud under the weight of the traffic, trapped in the Russian winter without proper winter clothing and constantly harried by Russian troops who refused to form up for battle but who raided the column mercilessly, Napoleon’s Grand Army was reduced, according to some estimates, to just 22,000 men.

The losses suffered by the Grand Army were never to be made good – there simply weren't enough men of fighting age available to replenish their ranks.

Detail, "La Chef de la Grande Nation dans une triste Position", French copy of George Cruikshank's 1813 "The Head of the Great Nation, in a Queer Situation!"

Napoleon now faced the wrath of the Russians, the Prussians and the Austrians. What is often forgotten is that, by moving against Russia, Napoleon committed the classic error of European strategists and found himself fighting a two front war. When we talk about Wellington's Peninsular campaign we usually think of it as being confined to fighting in southern and central Spain and Portugal. Napoleon had had significant successes in Spain but once he left the country and concentrated his efforts on Central and Eastern Europe, the French armies there were noticeably less successful. By 1814 Wellington had driven them north and actually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself. He prepared to march on Paris, but was too late. The combined Austrian, Prussian and Russian armies had already got there.

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray

With the fall of Paris, the French government (unlike Czar Alexander after the fall of Moscow) surrendered to the Allied powers. Napoleon, whose armies were south of the city, wanted to advance northward and try to recapture it, but the government no longer supported him and his marshals refused to carry out his plans. On 11 April 1814, Napoleon signed his abdication as Emperor and he then headed south to Fréjus (near Cannes) where he boarded the British ship HMS Undaunted, which was to carry him into exile on Elba.

A word from our sponsors

The Napoleonic wars provide the background to my series of books about James Burke. Napoleon's exile to Elba was, as we all know now, was not to mark the end of his influence in France. Even while he was exiled, Bonapartists were plotting his return and their attempts to assassinate Wellington is the starting point for Burke at Waterloo.

After being unavailable in the UK since summer, all three books about James Burke are being republished by Endeavour in January and February next year. I'm hoping that they will be available to pre-order in December and I will certainly be writing more about that over the next few weeks.

Burke served in the peninsula too. My book about his activities there has already been written, but publication depends on sales of the first three. In the past I haven't been able to work myself up into the paroxysms of anger that many authors show over book piracy, though I know that there are people who have stolen my books. Sadly, nowadays piracy is getting so bad that it is affecting people's ability to publish. If you enjoy the Burke books, please buy them. If you don't pay for them my publishers won't commission any more, which would be a shame as I've enjoyed writing them and I know many people have enjoyed reading them.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Exciting news!

I've changed the header on the blog. The new one is not a thing of beauty, but it's there temporarily to let everyone know that the James Burke books are about to be republished by Endeavour Press. There will be new covers then and a new header here.

The last few months have been very frustrating for me because my books have been unavailable outside North America since I left Accent Press. When I left Accent the idea was to be published by Endeavour Press, but I didn't realise how long it would take for my books to become available again. Actually, it was only a few months, but when you have had six books published and suddenly nobody can buy any of them it leaves you feeling a bit bereft. I'm therefore really excited and delighted to say that I have a re-publication dates for all my books.

The first to come will be the three existing books about James Burke and publication dates will be:

JAN 5: Burke in the Land of Silver
JAN 19: Burke and the Bedouin
FEB 2: Burke at Waterloo

All three books should be available to pre-order a month before publication. They will be published as Kindle e-books, which are available exclusively through Amazon. They will also be published in paperback, although they may not be available immediately the e-books are out. You can order paperbacks through your local bookshop, but you are much better off just going to Amazon.
The John Williamson books are also being republished by Endeavour and will be coming out in February/March.
I will be saying a lot more in the next few weeks about James Burke and why you should be reading the books, but for now I just wanted to let you know that we have a definite publication date. Readers in the United States and Canada have been able to buy my books all year through Simon & Schuster, but it has been frustrating not to be able to sell my boys to UK readers since I moved publisher in the summer. Everybody has told me that Endeavour are brilliant publishers and I am hoping that James Burke will be able to get to a much larger audience from January 2018.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Armour then and now

My research efforts have taken me down the sewers of Paris, onto the battlefield at Edgehill, and even through the snows of the Andes on horseback. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier than that. My son has, for the past nine years, served as an officer in the Royal Logistic Corps of the British Army. His first-hand experience of trying to stay awake on sentry and how long it takes to dig a trench have filtered into the life of James Burke and his colleagues. These days, however, you are more likely to find him in a lab coat than in the mud as his current work sees him providing technical advice on ammunition and equipment. In between answering questions from the Army and police he occasionally has time to discuss the colour of gunpowder smoke or the explosive power of a 19th century mill (wait for the next Burke book). Here he is to talk about his personal pet subject of military history: body armour.

Body armour is an often overlooked piece of equipment. It isn’t as sexy as guns so tends not to get much screen time in Hollywood. Besides, in a movie it’s easier to just have your baddies miss than protect your heroes with ceramic plates that would cover up their toned abs. The exception is found in history. When we watch films set in the days of yore you can’t have a shot without a knight in his armour astride a noble steed.

And yet, a little over 200 years later Sharpe and Burke were fighting Napoleon dressed like this:

Renactors from the British 95th Rifles

Cut forward 200 years again and the fashion has swung the other way. Today’s soldiers go to war almost as armoured up as their medieval counterparts.

US solider, Iraq 2008

Why the change? Why the change back? The answer lies largely with one man.

The story of defence technology is a perpetual cycle of better weapons leading to better armour, leading to better weapons. In the 1300s the longbow was the guided missile of its day. The bleeding edge of military technology, her devastating bodkin arrows were cutting down armies in a similar way to the machine guns of the First World War. However, by the 16th century, the longbow was already being phased out in favour of firearms. The thin plate of Richard of York just couldn’t stand up to a bullet and armour was becoming ever thicker, heavier and all encompassing. Pretty soon knights were being lifted onto horses by winches, but the gunpowder and firearms development kept pace. By 1530 arquebuses so large and powerful they resembled portable cannon, complete with support stands, were in use in Spain and Italy. The days of the heavy knight were over.

By the time of the English Civil War, the use of armour was limited. With the demise of individually commissioned knightly armour came the opportunity to dress your armies in uniforms. In England, the Civil War marked the beginning of the idea of uniformed armies. At the start of the war, the infantry on both sides wore their civilian clothing but gradually the idea of issue clothing took hold. The Parliamentarian forces were more likely to wear some sort of uniform, as the Parliamentarians had more financial resources (they controlled London with its economic power) and were thus better positioned to provide clothing to their troops. An early order from Parliament said “that all soldiers should have delivered unto them at their first marching coats, shoes, shirts and caps, in all to the value of seventeen shillings for every man”. The issue of armour, though, was limited. Helmets, backplates and breastplates were issued to pikemen, though often only the front ranks would be armoured, the rest relying on thick leather or cotton clothing to provide them with some sort of protection. Musketeers usually didn't wear armour at all.

Civil War soldiers at Edgehill (Thanks to the Sealed Knot)

As an aside, it's worth noting that the clothing here was "uniform" in the sense that standard clothing was issued. Uniforms were not used to distinguish between opposing armies. People often wore coloured sashes to indicate which side they were on. Given the quality of dye technology at the time, the colours were often not that clear and there were frequent instances of clashes between different units on the same side or, indeed, of people failing to attack the enemy because they were unaware of which side they were on.

Cavalry was a different matter. There was no central supply of uniform to the cavalry by either side. The dress of cavalry troops was left to the commanders and often reflected the personal vanity of the senior officers. (This remained this case with some units even in the Napoleonic Wars.) The King's Lifeguard of Horse became known as "The Troop of Show” because of the fineness of their uniform. Most cavalrymen wore leather coats known as "buff coats" which were considerably more expensive than the clothing issued to the Foot. The average cost of a trooper’s buff coat was between twenty-five and thirty shillings with officers coats costing considerably more. Back and breastplates were supposed to be worn over the coat (although, in practice, they often weren't). The armour and thick leather did offer practical protection, but the clothing worn by cavalry officers was at least as much about display as functionality.

Today’s Household Cavalry wear armour as a nod to their past. Photo by Marco Verch

By the time of Waterloo the British had almost completely done away with metalwork on their uniforms. The French Carabinier-à-Cheval still wore breastplates (cuirasses) and after the battle British intelligence agents were sent to investigate the dead to see how they had performed. The results were not good.

Cuirass holed by a cannonball at Waterloo
It seemed that the days of body armour were over. Conventional wisdom held that it was not possible to stop a bullet with anything that could be worn on the man and for 50 years the engineers and scientists of the day stopped trying, in much the same way they had given up alchemy 100 years before; it simply couldn’t be done.

Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly was born in Australia in 1854. In October 1878 he, his brother and two friends killed a sergeant and two police constables. The “Stringyback murders” caused the Kelly gang to become outlaws: a parliamentary act authorised police or private citizens to kill them without trial. However, Ned and his gang evaded capture and embarked on a series of ever more daring bank robberies. By the time the Act lapsed in 1880 the reward for the Kelly gang was £8,000.

In June of 1880 the police tracked and surrounded Kelly and his gang to a hotel in Glenrowan. A shootout ensued that lasted most of the night and, as day broke, Kelly made his break. A large man, he seemed to tower over the police in his knee length great coat and head obscured in the morning mist. The police would, according to fokelore, later describe Kelly as a demon or the devil as he moved coolly amongst the bullets, seemingly unharmed by the firepower raining down on him. Eventually he was shot in the leg by police sergeant Steel and the truth came out.

As their robberies had become more dangerous, Kelly and his gang had commissioned a blacksmith to make them suits of armour out of ploughs. Each weighed around 40 kg and covered the head, shoulders and thighs. Worn under their greatcoats it wasn’t immediately visible to the police, who had dismissed intelligence reports of the Kelly gang’s imperviousness to bullets as tall tales. However, with Kelly down and a high profile trial and hanging to follow, the truth was plain to see and the press ran with the story everywhere.

Kelly’s armour is still on display in Victoria, complete with 18 bullet strikes
The story of Kelly’s armour was the talk of the civilised world. (Imagine if today the Hatton garden robbers had been found to use newly discovered force fields or teleporters.) Questions about why British troops weren’t using Kelly-style body armour were even asked in parliament. The four suits of armour were split up and sent across the globe (even today there is some confusion about where they all ended up) and Europe’s armies and scientists turned to developing Kelly’s suits into mass producible equipment. Thirty years later the militarisation prior to the First World War would accelerate technological innovation yet further and by the outbreak of war suits not dissimilar to Kelly’s were on display amongst all the major powers.

The Germans favoured a 'lobster' armour that was fairly effective but heavy and cumbersome. (It tended to be reserved for machine gun crews who didn't need to move a lot.)

German WWI “lobster” armour. (Photo by Halibutt)
The British design was generally considered better, as the bravery citation for Lt. Hugh Cowell Kinred, 14th Bn. Gloucester. Regiment, reveals: "For conspicuous gallantry. When a bomb thrown by the enemy fell at his feet in the trench, he at once threw himself on it, and was blown into the air and much bruised and cut by the explosion, his life being saved by his steel waistcoat. His plucky action saved many casualties."

As body armour proved itself in battle over and over again, it became increasingly prevalent. Although in 1914 very few soldiers were equipped with any sort of armour, by the end of the war the Brodie helmet would become synonymous with the British Tommy. Body armour was here to stay, all thanks to the notoriety and ingenuity of four bushrangers from Victoria.

A Word from our Sponsor

I love writing these blogs – or getting other people to write for me – but the idea is to encourage you to read my books. I've been fairly quiet about this lately because since the summer they have only been available in North America. Come January, though, all three of my books about James Burke and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars will be republished by Endeavour Press. They should be available on pre-order soon after Christmas. I'll be writing a lot more about this between now and then, but if you could promise yourself that you will buy one as a slightly delayed Christmas present, I'd be thrilled. Wonderful as it is to know that so many people read and enjoy this blog, it would be nice if that translated into more sales of the books.

Thank you.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Some news and some pretty pictures

Here we are with the end of another week fast approaching and it's time for me to produce my weekly blog post. 

I generally turn out around a thousand words a week on a range of subjects. I try to keep it vaguely focused on history or writing, but tango and other things do sneak in. Fortunately I enjoy producing my blog, which is a good thing because I spend quite a long time doing it. I'm thrilled that thousands of you read it. I know very few of you actually "follow" it – largely, I suspect, because unless you're on Google+ (and who is?) there's no real point. You can follow me on Twitter (@TomCW99), though, and get a link to every new blog post as it comes out. I’d appreciate the Twitter follows: I have 560 at present and people tell me I should have more.

Writing the blog is an opportunity for me to write about things that interest me and, when I'm lucky, to connect with some of my readers. I'm always hoping to hear from people through the ‘Comment’ box at the bottom of the page, although I know that not very many people will write. Please do – I read them all and it's always appreciated.

What's bringing on this burst of introspection? Well, since the summer the blog really has been a labour of love. In theory it helps me sell my books, but unless you live in North America (where you can buy my stuff through Simon & Schuster), you won't have been able to get hold of anything I've written. This is because I have been changing publishers and publishing schedules mean that there is a hiatus between leaving one and taking up with another. However, this week I've been told that Endeavour Press will be publishing all six of my books in fairly rapid succession starting in January next year – which is now just two months away. This means that over the next few weeks you can expect to see slightly more about why you should buy my books and rather less about tango.

For now, though, as you've been kind enough to read this I'm just throwing in some nice pictures of dancers that I've taken over the years (plus one that someone took of me).




La Boca - Buenos Aires