A LOOK IN THE ARCHIVES
Carnet de la Sabretache: Revue Militaire Rétrospective Paris, Berger-Levrault et cie. Publiée par la Société la Sabretache. t. 1-10, 1893-1902; ser. 2, t. 1-11, 1903-1912; ser. 3, t. 1-10, 1913-1927; ser. 4, t. 1-10, 1928-1937; ser. 5, t. 1-2, 1939-1940; ser. 5, 1941-1969?.
Primary source material is the lifeblood of historical research. All else comes later: analysis, conclusions, and credible secondary sources by competent historians, argument and discussion. Sometimes a source comes to hand that fulfills the requirement and is in itself a gold mine of first-hand accounts. A source that gives insight into a period, an army, and the people who run the gamut from general officer to 'sad-sack' private who is just trying to stay alive in the most hostile environment imaginable.
I am very lucky, through the foresight of a very dear friend who, unfortunately and to our collective great loss, is no longer with us, to be in possession of twenty-five volumes of the early editions of the French military history magazine, La Sabretache. Covering the years 1893-1929, they average 500-600 pages in length, and although many periods of French military history are covered, between 60% and 75% of the material is of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. What is covered in these volumes is an immense amount of material, most of which is barely used today or even known to most students of the period.
The material contains personal memoirs and collections of letters from many notable personages such as Desaix, that talented general Napoleon considered the 'most balanced' of his lieutenants and who was killed leading the assault that won the day at Marengo in 1800. Others featured include Broussier and Teste, talented division commanders who served well during the Empire, both fighting hard in Eugene's Army of Italy in 1809. Another is Druout, the 'honest, awkward gunner,' dubbed the 'Sage of the Grande Armee' for his innate intelligence, intensely loyal to Napoleon, and one of the true artillery experts in the Grande Armee, who led the artillery assault at Lutzen in 1813 that blew out the allied center and paved the way for the battle-winning attack by the Imperial Guard.
Additionally, there are letters from less well-known soldiers such as Brigadier Pilloy, who charged as a cuirassier at Waterloo in 1815, and swears that the French cavalry rode over and through British squares; or, former Royalists such as Lauthonnaye and Saint-Chamans, and Soultrait, who willingly served the Empire and Napoleon until the return of the Bourbons in 1814, remaining loyal to the King through 1815. One can read the strange tale of Dembowski, the Polish officer attempting to return to France after Haiti, and being helped by fellow Masons; or, Sgt. Oyon describing one of the roughest cavalry charges he had ever participated in, one that was made up of all the mounted officers of a foot dragoon unit.
Finally, there are after action reports, such as those detailing Senarmont's decisive artillery action at Friedland in 1807; Oudinot's part in the assault river crossing at the Berezina in 1812; or, the 84th Ligne's epic fight at Graz in 1809 against odds of one to ten, after which the regiment was awarded the battle honor, 'Un Contra Dix.'
In addition to these treasures, there are reproductions of discharge certificates, letterhead from the Dromedary Regiment in Egypt, uniform descriptions by such authorities as General Vanson and O. Hollander, as well as periodic special articles and sections on such artists as Detaille.
What is available here is not a run of the mill collection of documents and references, but a mini-archive of highly detailed and accurate information that gives a snap shot of an era and the people that populated it. It is a very large picture of the Grande Armee, its generals and enlisted men, junior officers and authorities on its many aspects. If you come across any of these volumes, I highly recommended that you pick them up. You may just be surprised, and very pleased, at what you find in each volume.
Reviewed by Kevin Kiley. January 2002
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