Reviews: Uniform Plates & Studies



Napoleonic Uniforms

Elting, John R.  Napoleonic Uniforms. London: Greenhill Books, 2007. 2 vols. (Volume I: 426 pages and 459 color plates; Volume II: 423 pages and 458 color plates.) ISBN-13# 9781853677373. Hardcover. $299. 

"There are three sorts of uniforms for every period of history: those described in uniform regulations; those shown by the artists of that period; and that the soldiers really wore." Roger Forthoffer

In the early 1950s, John Elting, who was teaching at West Point, was put in touch with Herbert Knötel, the son of the famous uniformologist, Richard Knötel.  Herbert was living in war-ravaged Berlin and was trying to make a living selling military art. Colonel Elting initially began ordering two watercolor pictures every month from Knötel.  He was able to convince his wife that he should increase the number he ordered every month, because he needed them for his work as a professor and that they would make a nice collection.  (On a side note – I tried the same reasoning with my wife and she was not as understanding! I wonder how he pulled it off!)  Colonel Elting decided that he wanted the collection to be representative of the Napoleon's Grande Armée and began commissioning Mr. Knötel to paint specific uniforms or units for him.  Mr. Knötel died in 1963, but during the decade before he died, he had painted over 1500 watercolors of the Napoleonic Era that were purchased by Colonel Elting.  Over 900 of these paintings were of La Grande Armée and they form the basis of this book.

Napoleonic Uniforms consists of two massive volumes, each with over 450 color plates.  Virtually every type of unit and the different uniforms they wore is represented.  Not surprisingly, the Imperial Guard has the largest number of illustrations, with 173 plates. Colonel Elting did not just include the French units.  The foreigners who served with La Grande Armée are also well represented with 144 plates!

Volume I is devoted mostly to the combat arms and is broken into five parts:

Part

Topic of Plates

Number of Plates

1

The Royal Army

18

2

Emigrant Troops

7

3

Revolutionary Troops

39

4

The Army of Egypt

46

5

La Grande Armée: Command and Staff

51

5

La Grande Armée: Light Infantry

37

5

La Grande Armée: Line Infantry

57

5

La Grande Armée: Special  Infantry Units

21

5

La Grande Armée: Chasseurs-à-Cheval

44

5

La Grande Armée: Hussars

60

5

La Grande Armée: Dragoons

29

5

La Grande Armée: Lancers

19

5

La Grande Armée: Heavy Cavalry

31

 

Total:

459 Plates

Volume II finishes Part 5 and ends with Part 6.  Two-thirds of the plates in this volume cover either the foreign units or the Imperial Guard.

Part

Topic of Plates

Number of Plates

5

La Grande Armée: Artillery

28

5

La Grande Armée: Engineers

14

5

La Grande Armée: Gendarmes, Police, and Disciplinary Organizations

24

5

La Grande Armée: Service Troops

22

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Foreign Regiments

19

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Swiss Units

29

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Miscellaneous German Units

12

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Italians

8

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Poles

21

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Lithuanians

6

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Balkan Troops

17

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- a Sepoy

1

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Spaniards

19

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- Portuguese

5

5

La Grande Armée: Foreign Troops  -- King Joseph's Spanish Units

7

5

La Grande Armée: National Guard, Schools, and Guards of Honor

25

5

La Grande Armée: the Navy

15

5

La Grande Armée: the Imperial Guard

173

6

The Royal Army 1814 – 1830

13

 

Total:

458

Herbert Knötel first sketched the figure in pencil and then painted the image with watercolors.  Since the paintings are one of a kind and were not meant for mass production, you can often see the pencil lines faintly in the background.  You also can see faint traces where the painting was secured in a photo album.  Occasionally, the corner of the plate is slightly crumpled.  Below each figure would be a hand-written caption stating what the figure was.  Interestingly, if you look closely you can see where the original pencil caption had been erased and someone wrote over it with ink.  Unfortunately, there is no indication if this was done by the artist or later on by Colonel Elting.  These are not imperfections that detract from the value of the plates.  Instead they leave the reader with a sense that he has the privilege of viewing someone's much treasured, private collection.

Each plate consists of a single mounted or foot figure.  There is no background scenery and there is no ground— all there is are the figures themselves.  As mentioned already, the plates cover a wide range of units and uniforms.  They depict the soldier in every type of uniform – whether on parade, in the midst of a campaign, or the mundane everyday chores that are the life of a soldier on garrison duty. 

Some of the choice of plates were a bit surprising – such as one of a regimental fencing master and another of a senior blacksmith.  But this just adds to the charm of the collection. One of my favorites is shown below -- a line infantry soldier who is foraging.  He is sitting bareback on a small horse, with a pig draped over the front and a couple of geese slung over his soldier.  All the plates contain incredible detail and the faces are filled with expression.  Those soldiers that are on campaign are often shown to be scruffy – even with a touch of five o'clock shadow on their faces – while those on parade are spit and polish.

The plates above are examples of the quality of the artist's work. The actual plates are much larger -- usually 5.5 inches by 7.75 inches (137 mm by 194 mm)

Below each plate is a short paragraph providing a few lines on the history of the unit and about the uniform itself – whether it is compliance with the uniform regulations or if not, how it is different.

A few years ago Michael Leventhal, of Greenhill Books, asked me to poll the Napoleon Series about what we thought about a new edition of Napoleonic Uniforms and what changes we would like to see in it.  The response was very positive and the number one request was that a usable index be included.   Greenhill listened (which is very nice) and this edition includes a functional index in each volume, compiled by noted author Colonel John Gill.  It has entries for the different nationalities, different types of troops, and personalities. It does not list specific units or regiments, but instead refers the reader to the contents at the beginning of each major part.

Napoleonic Uniforms closes with a short essay on sources and a glossary.  I found the essay fascinating because it compares the styles and the accuracy of numerous different artists.  He closes with a bit of advice: 

"You will find inconsistencies in the best sources.  Variations are inevitable, even for the same unit during the same year.  An infantry regiment might have one battalion at its depot, handsomely uniformed according to a compromised between regulations and its colonel's whims; another battalion on the Polish frontier would be in patched field uniforms; a third in Spain would be improvising shoes from raw cowhide and cutting up the cloaks of dead Spaniards for trousers.  Some of the colors in the original drawings may no longer accurate: crimson fades to a pink; pigments containing white lead will turn black. Also, officers often wore their old uniforms into the field, and the best artists sometimes made mistakes. But there are lost collections to rescue and new discoveries to be made."

This edition is quite stunning!  From its gold embossed red cloth covers with stitched binding to its beribboned red slip case it is destined to be a collector's item very quickly!  I have both the original edition of Napoleonic Uniforms and Greenhill's new release; the originals were not as nicely packaged.  The originals are extremely scarce and if you can find a copy, it will be a very expensive purchase.  The cheapest used copy on Abe.com is over $700, while one listed as 'new' is being offered for $1750.   I strongly recommend that you do not delay in ordering your copy of this new edition.  If you do not order it now, in a few years you will be looking at used copies going for four or five times of what they cost today. 

Note that this book is published in the U.S. by Casemate.  Its ISBN-13 is 9781932033755.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2007

 

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