Reviews: Books of General Interest

1814: Trahisons et Reniements

Patat, Jean-Pierre. 1814: Trahisons et Reniements. Paris: Bernard Giovanangeli Éditeur, 2011. 254 p. ISBN# 9782758700982. Paperback. 20 €.

This is a book written in French, so I will make an introductory apology for any failure to appreciate the finer points of style. The subtitle of “Treasons and Denials” sets the tone: this is an account of Napoleon's first abdication with the emphasis on the individuals involved in it. The “Prologue” covers an outline of events, then there are chapters on Talleyrand, Alexander of Russia, the Hapsburgs and their followers, Marie-Louise, the Marshals, the intellectuals, the Bourbons, Caulaincourt and, finally, Napoleon. This format leads to a certain amount of duplication and some confusion in the narrative; there is a brief chronology of events at the back of the book which might have been more helpful at the front. The procedure is to look at the history of the individuals or groups, with particular emphasis on their previous relations with Napoleon, and to discuss how it affected the part they played in his downfall; it is not a detailed analysis of the abdication itself.

There is nothing new about the narrative and a look at the “Bibliography” shows that there is no new material here, it is entirely based on previously published histories and well-known memoirs; the author's contribution lies in analysis of the motivations of the participants in the drama. The chapter on Marie-Louise gives a perceptive and sympathetic view of that much-maligned lady and is the more effective because it is largely based on her correspondence, presumably taken from one of the biographies listed. I say 'presumably' because they are unattributed and it is on this point that the book presents a serious problem— none of the facts on which the argument is based are supported by evidence and almost none of the quotations are given a source. While it can be said that a work intended for general readers does not want to be complicated by extensive footnotes there should at least be links to references at the back of the book. In fact there are footnotes but most of them are commentary or extra material.

When a writer is using quotations taken from secondary sources, without attribution, it is particularly important that those quotations and sources should be of the highest quality: reading through the earlier chapters I found matters stated as fact that I suspected to be disputed and began to be uneasy about deductions being made from quotations without context or date. There is a footnote on p. 67 which does quote directly from Caulaincourt's Memoires but gets it wrong. The quote refers to Napoleon's comment to Caulaincourt at the burning of Smolensk which it gives as “Bah, Gentlemen! Remember this, a good enemy is a dead enemy!” The actual remark was (using Austin's translation, but verified from Caulaincourt) “Bah! Remember, gentlemen, what one of the Roman emperors said: “an enemy's corpse always smells good!” Once read, surely not easily forgotten!

When I reached the chapter on the Marshals, where I have more knowledge, my doubts were confirmed. There is no attempt to pin down who said what, and when, at Fontainebleau and no hard details of the dates the individuals made their submissions to the new government or left Fontainebleau, it is all vague gossip and clichés: it is doubtful whether Berthier's death the following year was suicide and even more so that this followed a refusal of his offer of service from Napoleon. There are separate sections on Marmont, Ney and Macdonald, criticising the first two and praising the third. Macdonald's Souvenirs are listed in the bibliography but if the author had actually read them he might have got the biographical details right, instead, he appears to have taken them from a poor-quality potted biography, and then garbled them. How can someone who has written a book about 1813 write that in that campaign Macdonald was heavily beaten “'aux environs de Berlin” (p. 151) when the Katzbach is around 150 miles from Berlin? Marmont and Ney get the usual hackneyed allegations brought up against them, some of them probably justified, but in no instance given a source. A story that was new to me is that during the 1814 campaign Ney had openly discussed killing Napoleon (p. 141); who recorded this we are not told - surely an allegation of that magnitude calls for some sort of evidence!

Throughout the narrative of the events of April 1814 I repeatedly found recognisable incidents in the wrong place and strange assertions such as that the letter Beurnonville wrote to Macdonald had been wrongly addressed to “maréchal Macdonald, duc de Raguse” so that Marmont, who was duc de Raguse, opened it first (p. 152). There is some confusion about this letter, Caulaincourt says there were separate letters to the different marshals, Macdonald (who should know) says it was addressed to him and to some others and that Marmont, receiving it first, had already opened it. Unless someone has found the actual letter, the story of it being incorrectly addressed (which is improbable since Beurnonville was Macdonald's oldest friend) must be a later invention and its appearance here strongly suggests that the author is using a secondary source and has not actually consulted the original memoirs. Having found so many errors and evidence of such carelessness in the sections I know something about it is reasonable to assume that the same standards apply to the rest of the book. Any author is allowed a few minor slips but the nature and number of these errors suggests a serious lack of concern for historical accuracy.

There seems little point in discussing the arguments of the book since they cannot be of more value than the evidence they are based on; however, it is worth looking at the final chapter on Napoleon himself. Looking back briefly at how Napoleon came to be in the position of defending the soil of France at the beginning of 1814, the author makes it clear that he had brought his troubles on himself and that the outlook was almost hopeless from the beginning. “A situation that puts the utility of continuing the war into question. Was it necessary to engage in new combats, to have some tens of thousands of boys (the ‘Marie-Louises’) killed or maimed, to prolong a war that was evidently lost?” (p. 226) (“Une situation telle que la question peut se poser immédiatement de l'utilité de poursuivre la guerre. Faut-il engager de nouveaux combats, faire tuer ou estropier encore quelques dizaines de milliers degamins (les “Marie-Louise”) pour prolonger une guerre évidemment perdue?”) The question is rhetorical yet it is answered by another rhetorical question a little later after we are told that Napoleon had been determined to drive the enemy from French soil and that after the victories of February it seemed possible he might yet succeed. Realists, says the author, (p. 228) might call this a “costly and futile swan-song”, “But to save honour in a desperate situation, at Champaubert in 1814, as at Rezonville in1870, as at Saumur in 1940, is that nothing?” (“Mais ‘sauver l'honneur’ dans une situation désespérée, à Champaubert en 1814, comme à Rezonville en 1870, comme à Saumur en 1940, n'est-ce rien?”) This seems to be the theme of the book, that Napoleon's 1814 campaign made up for his earlier errors and that, given the contemptible nature of his adversaries, “he was one of the rare actors of that dramatic period who came out of it undamaged and even greater” (“Introduction”, p. 6) (“Il est un des rares acteurs de cette période dramatique qui en ressorte intact et même grandi.”)

Reviewed by Susan Howard

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2012


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