Research Subjects: Eyewitness Accounts

Memoires: Fact or Fiction?

The Campaign of 1814: Introduction

By Paul L Dawson BSc Hons MA FINS

The recent rash of Waterloo related memoires and material by John franklin, Gareth Glover, and the current author, has made available to the general reader a mass of information that has slumbered in archives for many decades, or has been available in the country of origin, such as France or the Netherlands, but has not made it into the wider consciousness due to many researchers not having language skills.

The memoire as Paul Fussell has established, occupies a place between fiction and auto-biography.[1]  This fits neatly with the post-processual frame work of understanding the past as espoused by Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley.  A memoire, letter or other material used to help create a narrative of events is of limited value in terms of historical interpretation without context. This is defined as hermeneutics. Hermeneutics addresses the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted; viz: what does it mean? What were the author’s intentions? Is the source authentic?

Therefore the historians primary aim is the decoding the language of the source used, to understand the ideological intentions of the author, and to locate it within the general cultural context to which the source material belongs.[2] These themes are discussed below. The letters cited in this narrative were written down by combatants or were written down by family members long after the events had taken placed, are not necessarily a true reflection of events that happened. Each of the writers of the letters included in this work had a personal and unique of Waterloo- what they experienced will be different from participant to participant. The letters left by the participants recorded what was important to them. However the closeness of the written narrative to the events that took place will affect what is recorded.[3]

Who the writer is writing too will also impact on what they say. Writing to parents, the writer will subconsciously edit out a lot of the detail. Writing to a brother, then the content may be more graphic. In both cases the writer will concentrate on their regiment’s achievements above others. A diary entry will be more candid and honest in what took place. When an author writes about events they cannot have seen or experienced, then we must question the whole content of the text becomes questionable. If the writer has constructed a narrative of events they did not take part in, clearly this is based on what they have been told or read, which may include all of what they have written.

The further the written narrative shifts away from a diary or the events, the closer the written narrative becomes to a figuratival fiction. The recollection of crucial events will be re-evaluated and re-contextualised throughout the life of the author to the point of creating the written record- personal memoires become influenced by the socio-political, socio-economic environment and experiences of the author will have an impact on how they recall and event.[4]

For example,  between 1815 and 1832, any publication about the Napoleonic Wars would be grossly biased towards the Royalists if the author wanted to be a success; ergo the socio-poltical climate altered the authors recollections of events. For example, Batherlemy Bacheville, a participant of Waterloo, in the creation of his narrative of the events of Waterloo, goes to great lengths to note that he heard General Cambronne say the words 'The Guard dies but never surrenders'. This statement was refuted by Cambronne in June/July 1815 whilst on parole in England before returning to France for trial on 24 July 1815. Indeed the statement appears in the English press soon after Waterloo. A further example of this in relation to the material used in the authors study of over 300 French memoires and letters for Waterloo  can be found in the letter of Captain Heuillette of the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs a Pied. When confronted by General Cambronne personal rebuttal of the statement 'the Guard dies but dot not surrender' in 1815, Heuillette notes in a letter of 1845, that he begged Cambronne to admitt that he had said those words, to maintain the honour and glory of the army.[5] 

Here we see an eyewitness to these events, endeavouring to manipulate the truth soon after the events occurred to pander to the ego of the bruised army and state, recoiling after the second defeat of Napoleon, as well as the myth then growing about the battle of Waterloo and the Imperial Guard’s roll in that battle. Here two eyewitness weave then current Waterloo Myth into their narrative elements of what they experience or what they thought they experienced based upon what they have been told and read many years after the events took place. Therefore these writers have altered their own recollections [perhaps subconsciously as perhaps a desire to create a narrative that supports not only the myth around the event, but to write down what he 'thought' happened corrected by what others say about the event].  Bacheville's work like Heuillet therefore is part narrative and part fiction, as he is recalling an event that did not happen.  He is writing down what he was told was happened as opposed to what had happened- here the influence of what one wants to believe, what he has been told happen through aural and written testimony, and the unconscious process of remembering has undermined the value of his testimony. Here we have individual memories adjusted to accord with the cultural myth about Waterloo.

If these two eye-witnesses have altered their memoires, either consciously or subconsciously, how do we know that their entire narrative is what they actually witnessed? Does their work therefore have any value to us? Therefore we must test these sources against independent and ideally verifiable sources.  Which returns us to the statement of Paul Fussell, that memoires occupy a place between auto-biography and fiction.[6]

As we have looked at earlier, when dealing with memoires, we must also be conscious of when the author was writing down what they thought took placed- as we have seen with French memoires written years after the event, they have redacted or contaminated by the social-political world they were writing in, writing to support myth, and writing to distance themselves from the shame of defeat  Where different authors comment on the same incident, years after the event, and appear to corroborate each other and create a fixed point in the narrative we must ask, did the author experience this first hand and thus we have two points of reference for the event or are they  both relying on what a previous author has said, For example, a letter written by General Petit between 1815 and 1820, was used as the basis for the narrative of Waterloo published in 1821 in Victoires, Conquetes Desastres des Francais. Indeed some portions of this secondary re-working of the original letter can be found in Siborne and his account of Waterloo, as well as the work of Hypolite de Mauduit and in the biography part auto-biography of General Friant. Here therefore we have four apparently unique and independent references relying on the same point of source material.

Also, we must bear in mind that the writer may not have understood what he saw. The English Newspaper, the Morning Post of 5th August 1815 prints a letter from a member of the Lifeguards:[7]

A letter from a Life Guardsman, now at Paris, speaking of the havoc made among the Cuirassiers of the Imperial Guards at the battle of Waterloo contains the following homely, but emphatical description:- until we came up without heavy horses and superior weight of metal, nothing was done with the cuirassiers. Unless one got now and then a random cut at their faces, not one of them gave way. We therefore gallopped at them, and fairly rode them down. When they were unhorsed, we cracked them like lobsters in their shells, and by the coming up of the cannon afterwards, thousands of them were squeezed as flat a pancakes.

Here, an eye-witness in his letter, written soon after the battle, is describing the events he thought he saw. The Imperial Guard had no cuirassiers in 1815, but in wanting to make his regiment’s feat of arms, more important, and to also back in the triumphalism of the defeat of the Imperial Guard and his desire to attach it to his regiment, he makes the cuirassiers, Imperial Guard.  This is a very important factor to consider in eye-witness statements. The writer in wanting to emphasis the roll of his regiment in the battle, often states that they were attacked by or they defeated the Imperial Guard.

Therefore, when an author states that they attacked or were attacked by the Imperial Guard, we cannot be certain that the Imperial Guard was involved in this incident. Because an eye-witness says they were engaged with the Imperial Guard, it does not necessarily mean that they were. The writers, also, may not have been familiar with the French army, and of course the French officers would not be able to discern various Allied regiments, so they often guessed at what they saw. Ergo any Lancer becomes a Polish Lancer by Allied writers, which is clearly a nonsense just like with the attribution of the cuirassiers to Guard status, and affiliation of Dragoons to the Empress Dragoons, and likewise with Chasseurs a Cheval of the Line becoming the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Imperial Guard. Any Frenchman wearing a bearskin becomes a Grenadier and by association Imperial Guard, any lancer becomes Polish, any Cuirassier Garde Imperiale etc. Mercer mistakes the Elite Gendarmes of the Imperial Guard for the Grenadiers a Cheval.

The outcome of this, means that we have to be very cautious in relying on Allied eye-witnesses to the movements of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo and in the campaign. It seems in the years after Waterloo and at the time, each allied regiment in the vicinity to the final assault of the Imperial Guard, became so pre-occupied in in claiming the distinction of destroying the Imperial Guard, which for 15 years had been seen since Marengo as a solid indestructible wall of granite, which of course it was not as we see in the next chapter, the writers did not write about what else was going on near to them, and as we have seen, altered their memories t claim part of the credit in destroying the Guard.

Furthermore, the author writing to the Morning Post in his narrative the writer makes it clear that only his regiment could defeat the cuirassiers, whilst historical opinion notes that the cuirassiers were successfully attacked by other allied cavalry regiment. He attributes his regiment’s success to riding larger more powerful horses than the French, having more impetus in their charge and having better swords and training. This may be partially true. The French were attacking up the slope to La Haie Sainte, whereas the allied cavalry charged down the slope, and would have had more impetus. However, without further archival research to identify the size of the mounts used by the cuirassiers attacked by the Lifeguards and the size of mounts of the Lifeguards, the comment about relative horse sizes, cannot be corroborated as fact, and is merely heresay.

Therefore, the cited memoires of various participants should only be seen as the authors’ recollection of the events at the time in which they created the written narrative of them. These memoires had a different 'credibility' to the hard empirical data recovered from the documentary sources held in the French Army Archives in Paris.[8]

As critical or evaluative historians, we must also take into consideration that observers do not always understand what they saw or thought they saw. The audience to which the author of the narrative is also important, and this again is a reflection of the social-political background and time of the author.  Also, we must bear in mind that the write may not have understood what he saw.

Similar issues arise with personal letters. Soldiers writing home are doing so with self-imposed censorship and the stories told differ according to the receiver of the letter and also include what the writer deem important and also what the writer thinks the reader will think is important and how the writer understands those events/facts. They are more objective and more reliable than memoires because they are a "snapshot" and are immediate, unlike memoires, but have already passed through one level of perception filter: the writer. It is only by collating data from various accounts that something approaching a balanced view of an event can be created. One must also bear in mind that what might be reported as "fact" may just be "perception" or even rumour.  Here again, a letter like a memoire is part way between fiction and auto-biography. In many cases a writer will invent facts to suit their own ends, such as their regiment defeated such and such regiment to increase the prestige of their regiment and own deeds

Finally, we must also stress the roll of the interpreter in the creation of the narrative. We all have pre-conceived ideas, and personal biases towards historical events based on political, economic, sociological and ideological grounds, these will impact on the way that the interpreter interprets the source material. No historian is free from bias..

Testing the Sources

Of course being able to test what a letter writer or diarist says is often impossible, as noted above, the writer is bound by a set of personal perception filters, and no two people will remember the same event exactly. However at times, the diarist provides us with more details to be able to verify against known historical hard fact. In this example I use the letters of Alexander Mercer as published by Gareth Glover in the Waterloo Collection volume 1.

In these letters, Mercer states he took a lance from Clements, 7th Company Garde Imperiale and indeed provides a drawing of this episode. We can test the accuracy of Mercers claims by looking in the muster role for the Lancers of the Garde Imperiale in 1815 preserved at Fort Vincennes, outside Paris. [9]

Upon consulting this book, we do find a trooper called Clements did indeed serve in the Lancers of the Garde Imperiale.[10]  From this we find that Jules Alexandre Alexandre Henry Clement, the legitimate son of Pierre Alexandre Clement and Elisa Guieres was born 9  September 1794 in the Department of Eure & Loire [southwest of Paris].  Clement joined the Velite Squadron or Young Guard Regiment of the 2nd Lancers of the Garde Imperiale on 8 April 1813. He served in the campaigns of 1813 and of France in 1814. He passed to the Royal Corps of Light Horse Lancers on 23 July 1814.  He served in 10th Company, 3rd Squadron.  So Mercer does seem to have met a member of this illustrious regiment.

Having established that Clement did indeed exist, clearly it is case closed for Mercer and his recollections are indeed supported by verifiable independent historical records. History is never so convenient however. Historical fact tells us that Clement, along with some 79 Lancer-Velites who been enrolled in 1813 and formed the Young Guard element of the 'Dutch Lancers' were given permission to leave the regiment  on 8 April 1815. [11] Upon consulting the muster role again, we see that Clement  was granted Congedie [dismissal] from the regiment on 21 April 1815, the reason being given that he was ‘a discharged velite’.[12]  We do note that Clement did serve between 1 April and 21 April in 7th Company, but did not serve at Waterloo, as he was discharged as noted above.

We now have a question. How did Mercer meet Clement? Clement clearly did not serve in the French army at Waterloo, being discharged two months or so before the battle was fought, and had left the regiment for home on the 21 April. So how did Clement get to be at Waterloo? Or did Mercer in fact meet Clements in Paris after the battle? Mercer describes Clement as an Old Moustache, a veteran of the wars in Germany, Poland, Spain. The historical Clements was aged 21 at Waterloo, so hardly an Old Moustache and he never served in Spain or Poland. Mercer however seems to assume that because  the name Clements,  Lancier VII compagnie Garde Imperiale was cut into the lance strap, that we he was given the lance by Clements. Historically this was impossible. Therefore it seems that lance that belonged to the historical Clements was at Waterloo and he himself was not present, despite Mercers own drawings.

Summary

Finally, we must also stress the roll of the interpreter in the creation of the narrative. We all have pre-conceived ideas, and personal biases towards historical events based on political, economic, sociological and ideological grounds, these will impact on the way that the interpretor interprets the source material. No historian is free from bias. My goal in the production of these narratives is to present a view point from the participants of the era from the Imperial Guard. Thus the narrative is the way in which these men interpreted what they experienced. It will differ from a narrative built from Dutch, Prussian or English sources. As noted earlier, history is multi-vocal, and therefore the French narrative is as equally a valid interpretation of the events of Waterloo.

 In Summary, one must stress however, that the narrative of events of the battle of Waterloo and others of the 1815 Campaign can only be based on remembrances of participants. What I present in the narrative of the events of Waterloo is an interpretation of events based upon the experiences of those involved with the Imperial Guard. It should be seen as A version of events and not THE version of events. Within the post-processual frame work as espoused by Shanks and Hodder:[13]

- Creation of the historical narrative is an ongoing process, there is no final and definitive account of the past as it was.

- Interpretation is multivocal: different interpretations of the same source material are quite possible.

- Therefore we can expect a plurality of interpretations.

- Interpretation of source material to construct a narrative is thereby affected by the response, desire and needs of different interpreters.

 We will never fully understand the battle or be able to create a single credible narrative as the sources are in the main neither empirical or corroborative or free from bias. The work of John Franklin and others in printing hundreds of eye witness accounts presents is a worthwhile endeavour and will allow a finer tuning of the narrative of events when studied critically.  However, as history is multi-vocal,  the ever increasing cacophony of voices upon Waterloo from participants, taken at face value as true reflections of events without any critical evaluation of the material in a historical manner, or selected to the suit the needs of the interpretor, I fear will not advance the academic study of the campaign or Napoleonic Epoch. These eyewitnesses earnestly believed what they wrote down, which as we have noted earlier, may not be a true reflection of the events.

To sum up, diaries and letters by eye-witnesses are often part way between fiction and auto-biography. As we have shown Mercer never met Clements, despite Mercers own inference. This therefore shows that we should not treat as literal truth the contents of a diary or letter unless it can be corroborated by an independent source, and ideally by a verifiable independent source like a muster role or casualty return. Until a memoire can be verified, it is nothing more than hearsay evidence and should be treated with utmost caution as a source to write history from. Further as historians we must all be aware of the formation processes behind memoires, letters and diaries before we can attempt to begin to verify the claims made. As history is multivocal,  the ever increasing cacophony of voices upon Waterloo from participants, taken at face value as true reflections of events without any critical evaluation of the material in a historical manner, or selected to the suit the needs of the interpreter, I fear will not advance the academic study of the campaign or Napoleonic Epoch. These eyewitnesses earnestly believed what they wrote down, which as we have noted earlier, may not be a true reflection of the events. Therefore, the cited memoires of various participants should only be seen as the author’s recollection of the events at the time in which they created the written narrative of them. These memoires had a different 'credibility' to the hard empirical data recovered from the documentary sources held in various archives in Britain and across Europe.[14]

Notes:

[1] Paul Fussel (1975) The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 311.

[2] Aron Guverich, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School in  Hodder at el (1995) Interpreting Archaeology, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 158-161. This short paper offers a good introduction to the notion and concept of the Annales school for those unfamiliar with the theory of history.

[3] Fussell p. 311

[4] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup (1999) The Houses of History, Manchester University Press, Manchester p. 231

[5] Captain Heuillette 2nd Chasseurs Journal de Toulouse 24th October 1845 p2.

[6] Fussell p. 311

[7] The Morning Post, 5th August 1815

[8] G reen & Troup p. 236.

[9] SHDDT 2 YB 87 Garde Imperiale Cavalerie register Matricule du regiment Cheveaux-Legere-Lanciers 1815

[10] SHDDT 2 YB 87 Garde Imperiale Cavalerie register Matricule du regiment Cheveaux-Legere-Lanciers 1815 number 331 page 69

[11] AN AFIV 1940 folio. 200

[12] SHDDT 2 YB 87 Garde Imperiale Cavalerie register Matricule du regiment Cheveaux-Legere-Lanciers 1815 number 331 page 69

[13] Michael Shanks and Ian Hodder, Processual, postprocessual and interpretive archaeologies in Hodder at el (1995) Interpreting Archaeology, Routledge, London and New York, p. 4.

[14] Green & Troup p. 236.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2013

 

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