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Dead Men Telling Tales, Napoleonic War Veterans and the Military Memoir industry, 1808-1914

Dead Men Telling Tales, Napoleonic War Veterans and the Military Memoir industry, 1808-1914

Dead Men Telling Tales, Napoleonic War Veterans and the Military Memoir industry, 1808-1914

Matilda Greig

Oxford University Press (2021), hardback

ISBN 9780192896025

Pages: 250

Illustrations: 6 B&W illustrations

The book, which is based on the author’s doctoral research, explores the production of military memoirs in the wake of the Napoleonic wars and the quite different avenues they took in Portugal, Spain, Britain, and France. It also explores in great depth, the rise and rise of this genre of writing over the period and identifies vastly different national reasons for both their production and subsequent aims. All of this is both fascinating to someone like me who has specialised in publishing British military memoirs for over twenty years but also comparing them with the productions of France and Spain primarily, with a slight nod to Portuguese works.

However, this reviewer immediately identified one significant problem with this work and that is that there is no analysis of what a military memoir actually is. Many of the British and French memoirs quoted in this work consist of reworked memories, often published many years after the events described, sometimes after the death of the memorialist, but not all. Other memoirs consist of faithful reproductions of original letters/journals written at the time or very soon after, giving an honest and current assessment of the situation as they understood it, not mired by hindsight or later social or political conventions. To treat them as the same cannot be correct and unfortunately distorts the findings, which are completely based on the later reworked memoirs. This does not necessarily negate the findings set out in the work regarding the later memoirs, but this clear dichotomy has not been explored at all.

There is also a further distinction to be made regarding the Spanish memoirs investigated here so thoroughly. The description of many of these so-called memoirs, appears to be more along the line of the British ‘Statements of Service’ compiled in 1827, which asked all officers to list their services and was used by many as their moment to provide evidence of their loyal service, list their wounds, supply independent evidence of their claims, and ultimately used to seek rewards in the form of promotions, sinecures, or titles. These would not be classed as forming part of the memoir production of Britain but has to some extent been allowed to be included in the total of Spanish memoirs, merely it would appear in most cases, because the statement was published in some way, even if only as a broadsheet to be pasted up in their hometowns.

Having said all of this, the work produced by the author, particularly on the French and Spanish memoirs, provides a very welcome well analysed and thorough investigation of the reasons that they were produced, whether politically or financially motivated or a combination of both. The vast quantity of these French and Spanish memoirs and associated reference works utilised is extremely impressive and certainly gives the work a thorough basis for its findings and conclusions; it is only a pity that the investigation of the Portuguese memoirs was not so thorough and all encompassing, but this may appear churlish from a confirmed sufferer of xenoglossophobia.

The work over eight chapters plus a conclusion, investigates the men who wrote their memoirs and how historians choose to use them or not; the varied reasons for their production and how these differed very much in each country, the quite different viewpoint each presented of the same historical events within its national historiography and the uniquely different trends in each country as to where these memoirs expanded overseas.

It also investigates the careful wording used in each country, what was specifically included and what was omitted and why; the questionable claims of authors to be simple soldiers with little literate ability or with little interest in financial gain; and the changes and additions made to subsequent editions by the demands of publishers and the literary world of the time. There is also some recognition of female relatives in the desire to see the publication of memoirs produced in later life by loved ones and a hint at female involvement in the armies, but this final aspect could have been investigated further, as no memoir by a partner of a soldier or of a camp follower was included in the study although a number do exist.

In conclusion, this book is a particularly good investigation of the growth and adaptations undertaken by the military memoir industry in the first hundred years following the end of the Napoleonic wars, particularly regarding the contemporary publishing, social, militaristic, and political worlds they emerged from. This reviewer simply wishes it had gone much further. Highly Recommended.

Gareth Glover

July 2021