Reviews: Books of General Interest

In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War, 1792-1815

Hattem, Mark van; Mariska Pool; Mathieu Willemsen (eds.). In the Wake of Napoleon: The Dutch in Time of War, 1792-1815. (Dutch Title: Voor Napoleon: Hollanders in oorlogstijd 1792-1815) Bussum, NLD: Thoth Uitgeverij; Maidstone, UK: Amalgamated Book Services, 2005. 127 p. ISBN# 9068684033. Hardcover. 34.90, $43 or 19,90 directly from Thoth.


When I first read this book, I didn't exactly know what to make of it, because it doesn't fit into any clear-cut category of books on the Napoleonic period. It's neither a picture book, nor a book on uniformology, nor a general or military history of the Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars. So what is it?

Basically, it's a written counterpart of an exhibition on Dutch soldiers and the role of the Netherlands in the Napoleonic wars that the Dutch Army Museum (Leger Museum) in Delft mounted from October 14, 2005 until April 9, 2006. Overall, as a catalogue, the book includes lots of photographs of historical uniforms, prints and paintings from all over the world and primary source material on all Dutch uniforms of the period. But the book goes beyond being a mere exhibition catalogue. The editors clearly describe their goal with the book, namely to bring historiography down to the level of the common man, to explain historical events from the perspective of individuals that participated in them, and the mutual effects that each event and individual had on each other. And they have succeeded admirably! Dutch soldiers, their uniforms, their surroundings and their achievements are brought back to life and leap from the pages into one's home.

The book opens with a general introduction by John Gill, in which he portrays the general and parallel situations in which many of Napoleon's small (mostly German) allies found themselves, including the Netherlands. The book then continues with an historical overview which guides the reader through turbulent periods when the Netherlands was the Batavian Republic, the Kingdom of Holland, part of the French Empire and finally the Kingdom of the Netherlands, giving the reader a good insight into the politics and the military of the nation in each successive period.

The main part of the book consists of individual biographies of Dutch soldiers, their leaders, a horse (William II's horse Wexy, representing the legion of horses that participated in the wars) and a woman (Ida Saint-Elme, Marshal Ney's mistress). Each biography centers not only on the individual represented, but also on the aspects that derived from the function, rank and circumstances of each individual. For example, when describing the life of a Garde d'Honneur, the writers include details on the many forms of the institution of the Garde d'Honneur, cavalry tactics and armament, and when touching upon the life of Ida Saint-Elme, a description of the life of women in Napoleonic armies in general is included. These chapters really are the heart and soul of the book, as they are able to convey some of the simple, everyday horrors that the Napoleonic wars brought into almost everyone's home. Brothers on opposite sides of a battlefield, people returning from the wars close to becoming insane, an only son dying at the age of 22, these stories tell it all. But they also tell of the pride these people took in their role as soldiers, and in doing so, open a little window for people from the 21st century to understand the martial aspects of everyday life in the Napoleonic Netherlands.

The book closes with three chapters on wholly different subjects. The first chapter is a basic introduction to Napoleonic iconography and propaganda pictures, accompanied by a selection of Goya's etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra and a collection of foreign and domestic cartoons. The second is a chapter covering the history of the Dutch small-arms factory at Culemborg. And finally there is a short general chapter on swords and sabres of the period. Although just as well-researched and readable as the biographies, these chapters seem slightly odd as a continuation of the book, as they have little direct connection to the biographies and the goal of the book. Nevertheless, these chapters also contain interesting information for both the specialist and the general audience.

Are there no drawbacks at all? Yes there are, but these are few. In their attempt to convey to the reader as much detail of certain uniforms as possible, some pictures in the lay-out are blown up to such size as to lose the overall impression. This has its pros and cons. For example, for any uniformologist, it's a treat to be able to see a picture of the actual stitching and sewing techniques used on a Kingdom of Holland officer's uniform coat. However, the picture only shows the top half of the uniform, leaving the interested reader guessing what the bottom half looks like.

Likewise, although the book is clearly well-researched vide the extensive bibliography and the many endnotes indicating the fair amount of archival research that has gone into it - small errors and missteps have crept in. For example, when describing the battle of Waterloo, Georgette Heyer's novel An Infamous Army is used as a source, and when describing the wounding of the Prince of Orange during the battle, even the "Richard Sharpe" version of him being shot by British soldiers for his mistakes is mentioned, which, although entertaining, lacks any historical evidence. On another occasion, a uniform jacket of the British 1st (Royal Scots) Regiment is mistaken for a jacket of the 1st Footguards.

And finally, the strength of the book is also part of its weakness: it tries to give an overall picture through individual biographies. This means, however, that if you are researching the campaign history of 5th Regiment of the Kingdom of Holland, you'll find precious little information, whereas if you are looking for information on Dutch officers in Napoleon's Red Lancers, you'll find plenty, because there are 2 biographies of Red Lancer officers. In short, if you are looking for particular information on Dutch units or campaigns, you may not find it here, depending on which unit and which campaign it is you research. But in the end, these are mere minor detractions from a major work on the Dutch Army during the Napoleonic Era. A recommended read!

(Note: the contents of the Dutch and English versions of the book are completely similar.)


Reviewed by Bas en Jikke de Groot
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2006


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