Reviews: Biographical Books

Reflections on a Friendship and the Writings of Colonel John Robert Elting 1911-2000

By Kevin Kiley, Major United States Marine Corps, Reserve

There have been many great and near-great historians that have passed down their work and words to us, but in recent history, none, in my opinion, have been greater than Colonel John R. Elting who passed away on the afternoon of Thursday, 25 May 2000. He is well known in historical circles as an authority both on the Napoleonic Epoch and the American soldier, of which he was a distinguished one. His career as a professional soldier spanned almost forty years, starting as an artilleryman with horse drawn French 75s in the early-1930s and ending in the late 1960s. Since that time he devoted himself to the study of war and he produced an exquisite, expert array of books on military history, many of which have either been benchmarks or definitive studies.

As some of his books have already been reviewed on this Forum, they will only be mentioned in passing. He wrote a trilogy on the Napoleonic Wars in general, and the Grande Armée in particular. Swords Around A Throne stands as the definitive work on the organizational history of the Grande Armée. There is nothing in English that can touch it, and I doubt there is anything that comes close to it in any other language as well. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars stands as a superb operational study of the wars and is paired with incomparable maps. Generally overshadowed by the monumental and authoritative Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler, which came out two years after the Atlas, it is in reality a much superior work, relying generally on primary and archival sources, and is much easier to read. Finally, his four volume uniform study, Napoleonic Uniforms, covers in great detail the Grande Armée, its enemies and allies, pictured in the authoritative, accurate, and thoroughly researched watercolors of expert uniformologist Herbert Knötel, who is generally recognized as one of the top authorities on the uniforms of all armies of the period.

These works are not the complete Elting library, however. He also did much work on the United States Army and its wars, as well as two battle studies, one on Bunker Hill in 1775, and the other on the battles of Saratoga in 1777, a military history of the War of 1812, an excellent, up to date translation of Elzear Blaze’s memoirs, and served as the consultant to the Time-Life series on the American Civil War and World War II. He also wrote the excellent books American Army Life and A Dictionary of Soldier Talk. Interestingly, he hand wrote all of his books, the manuscripts being typed by his devoted wife, Ann, who mentioned in the Preface to A Dictionary of Soldier Talk, that her typewriter had blushed a time or two at the blunt, military language defined in that interesting and quite humorous volume. Finally, he edited and contributed to the fine Company of Military Historians’ four volumes, Military Uniforms in America, and to the two volume West Point Atlas of American Wars.

For eleven years he taught military history at the United States Military Academy at West Point influencing hundreds of cadets through the years, my brother being one of them. It was he who introduced me to that fascinating book, the Atlas. Since that introduction, I have been fascinated with the Grande Armée and its terrible commander, Napoleon. However, my years of study were nothing compared to a fateful day in September 1989 when I finally met Colonel Elting.

I was in the process of reviewing two of Col Elting’s books for the Marine Corps Gazette, and wanted to have some biographical information on him for the review. Getting his address from the Department of History at West Point, I quickly wrote to him and received an immediate reply. We started to correspond, and his letters, which I have saved, were as interesting and witty as his books. I was coming up to West Point to do some research in the West Point library, and I wrote to him and asked if I could meet him. He quickly assented and I nervously presented myself at his door on a sunny afternoon, his home comfortably tucked into the Hudson Highlands in the village of Cornwall-on-Hudson.

He met me at the door with a grin and a firm handshake, and ushered me into his study, which was crammed with books, a large bookshelf which I later found out housed the large Knötel watercolor collection, a small, neat collection of Napoleonic military miniatures, to which I am proud to say I later contributed, and two chairs as well as his desk. He took his place behind his desk, ushered me into a chair with a short wave, and we began a close, mutually satisfying friendship that lasted for over 10 years.

We talked for hours, he doing most of the talking, and me doing my best to absorb what he was telling me. Most of my preconceived notions of the Napoleonic period, and of what I thought of as reliable books, went out the window. His knowledge was encyclopedic, his understanding immense, his sense of history and proportion incredible. One of the most profound things he ever told me, however, that all any of us were really doing in our studies of the Napoleonic Wars was skimming the surface. We ended that first visit with him giving me a print and the French version of Parquin’s Memoirs, he saying, ‘I’m done with it, you’re going to need it.’

We continued to correspond, very much so when I deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1990 for the Gulf War. He later told me my letters were better than any newscast, and that he devoured them, later taking them to meetings of the local chapter of The Company of Military Historians to pass on the information. I was touched, and humbled at the same time. He and his lovely wife, Ann, gave me a soldier's welcome when I returned home and came up to see him. My wife was now a regular visitor, and the four of us would chat each time we went north to see them. The second part of each visit, though, was the adjournment to his study to discuss the latest in Napoleonic scholarship, and what was worthwhile and what was not. I realize now that I was being tutored, and there could never have been a better teacher.

He continued to give me books through the years, with which to further my Napoleonic education, and hopefully my expertise: twenty-four volumes of La Sabretache, the paperback edition of Swords when it came out, various writings he had done through his career, and the odd book from time to time. We would spend time going through his volumes of Knötel prints, he carefully explaining sources and reliability of sources to me. There never was enough time, and all the visits, whether they were at his home, or at a conference, or just for a meal, passed much too quickly.

I cannot adequately communicate what this friendship meant to me. Anything I could say would be inadequate. Quite simply, he was my friend, comrade, mentor, and the closest thing I had to a father in over thirty years. He taught me more in ten too short years than I can adequately describe. He was an inspiration to study, giving sage advice without even realizing it. Kind, open-handed, fair, devoted to his wife and his country, and the Army he loved so much, he was the last of the old soldier-historians the United States produced in this century. We will never see his like again, unfortunately, and his place in the honored ranks of Napoleonic historians will never be properly filled. It is akin to Napoleon losing Lannes at Essling. Some of us who try to write and give Napoleon and the Grande Armée their just historical due, are merely making a valiant try at being historians, and can only be dubbed Colonel Elting's ‘small change.’

The ancient Greeks believed that a man never really died if his name is remembered. In that case, John Elting will never die, as his books will live forever, imparting to following generations his hare-earned wisdom and knowledge. For me, Colonel Elting truly possessed la sacre feu, the sacred fire that Napoleon considered so essential in his officers, the unconquerable will to win or not return. The world is an empty place for his passing, and is a much better place for his having been here. He will be much missed, and his many contributions remembered. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase his words on the marshals from Swords Around A Throne: "His service was hard, his name is remembered."


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