Reviews: Military Books

Le Soldat Impérial, 1800-1814

Morvan, Jean

Paris: Librairie Historique Fabrice Teissèdre, 1904, (1999 Reprint). 2 volumes, 520 and 525 pages, respectively. 480 FF.

Fabrice Teissèdre has been running his antiquarian bookstore for quite some time. Myself and others have recommended it as a key place to visit when one is in Paris. It is a somewhat high-end shop and prices do tend to be steep, yet the mere pleasure of visiting, perusing through the many volumes and the occasional great find are worth it. What is less known is that he has endeavored for the past three years to become a publisher, focusing on the Napoleonic era. This started with the regular monthly reprints of long-unavailable memoirs quite often published at the turn of the century in the wonderful "Carnets de la Sabretache." I will (hopefully) discuss these in another review.

Given the success of these, the scope of publishing has enlarged to include both original unpublished documents (such as the Carnets de Campagne of General Guyot), but also a series called "Les Classiques," which focuses on reprinting the "classics" of Napoleonic literature. The first was Koch's Journal des Opérations des 3e et 5e Corps en 1813. The second work to be reprinted in this series offers a wider interest and is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the Napoleonic soldier. Unfortunately for the non-French fluent community, it represents over 1000 pages of dense Gallic text! So if you've been kind enough to read this review up to this line and yet have never been able to master the intricacies of the imparfait du subjonctif, you are kindly forgiven if you drop out now.

Jean Morvan published his work in 1904, a Sorbonne-bred historian, he was the arch-typical example of this breed of great historical researchers which mushroomed between 1880 and WW1 (including Houssaye, Masson, etc.). A staunch left-wing republican, his political views and the understanding of his times have to be taken into consideration when reading his work. This last comment is not meant as derogatory, but more as a cautious warning. Morvan is NOT a Bonapartist and, in contradiction to the likes of Detaille, Masson, etc. he places a very harsh judgment on the Emperor's management. This actually makes his study all the more valuable as he ran "opposite" to the majority of the prevailing opinions of his time when it came to Napoleonic studies.

The scope of the study is huge. This is NOT a study of the Napoleonic wars. The summarized table of contents will immediately help you understand what this work is about:

Vol. 1: recruitment, equipment, instruction, pay, supplies, administration;
Vol. 2: life in the field, battle, mortality, prisoners, rewards, morale.

Such studies are, close to a century later, not commonplace, but quite well recognized (John Ellis's study on the WW2 soldier, etc.), but if one thinks back to 1904, such an approach was truly ground-breaking. And indeed, this is what makes Morvan's work a classic; one that has been gleefully plundered by all good authors ever since. Morvan starts in 1800, when Bonaparte mutates into Napoleon and the Republic is at best just a stamp on an official letterhead, and he ends in 1814, with the Marie-Louise youngsters and the actual end of the Imperial army. 1815 is beyond his area of interest. He focuses on a continuous thread, looking at the evolution and, quite often, degradation of a system that is bent on producing the first army of its time.

Details abound and one will understand all about conscription or how supplies came to the army, etc. Obviously in close to a century since its original publication, much has been unearthed that Morvan, either because lack of time or lack of access, could not have. Yet, most of it is still valid, and even if new methodology can still bring a lot to such studies, the bulk is already in Morvan. It obviously makes for a fascinating read, but even with a perfect grasp of French, it will be a bit of a heavy read at times. One should consider it as a reference work to which one can go back for information (very much like the Six or Martinien).

Are there any negatives to point out? Some will certainly find the price a bit steep. I'd argue the opposite, our "passion" is a niche one and this work, scarcely available, usually fetches high prices in auctions or shops (3000 FF+), at 480 FF, it's actually a bargain, despite being softbound volumes. It can be ordered directly from Teissèdre or from the other usual suppliers of Napoleonic literature in France (such as: Tradition/LCV).

Morvan, Jean. Le Soldat Impérial, 1800-1814. Paris: Librairie Historique Fabrice Teissèdre, 1904, (1999 Reprint). 2 volumes, 520 and 525 pages, respectively. 480 FF.

The address for Librairie Historique Fabrice Teissèdre is 14 rue Séguier, 75006 Paris, France (phone: 33 1 53 10 35 10, fax: 33 1 53 10 35 11).

Reviewed by Yves Martin


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