In The Wake of the Emperor:
Memoirs and Letters of French Soldiers in Napoleon’s Armies 1805-1814
Jonas de Neef
Self-published (Imprint: Lulu.com), 2021
Hardback, 289 pages
Historians of the Napoleonic period will have many publications by Gareth Glover in their library, based upon the letters and diaries of British soldiers. In The Wake of the Emperor is a valuable addition to this genre by Jonas de Neef, bringing to our attention the memoirs and letters of Napoleon’s soldiers, translated into English. As David Markham writes in his foreword to the book:
The writings of higher officers…often have a political agenda and may be designed to make the writer appear more important…Junior officers may not be able to present a broad overview of a battle, but they generally have no political agenda and are perhaps more honest…they give much more of a ‘real life’ understanding of what it is actually like to be in a campaign.
The author of this book has presented a wide range of letters and unpublished memoirs from throughout the period to illustrate this very point, providing interesting and sometimes moving details of life on campaign under Napoleon. These letters have not been published before. They tell of events in the field, but the writers often include more personal details by asking after friends and family.
Captain Maffre wrote several letters describing the preparations for the 1805 Campaign, from the march of the Army from its camp at Boulogne to the area of operations. He relates the diversion from the route of march to search for food, and being billeted upon the inhabitants, including complaints about not having been paid for six months. His other correspondence deals with the campaigns in Prussia and Poland, and the battle of Eylau. His letters include news of friends who had been wounded or captured, asking the recipient to pass on such news to their family.
These letters from numerous correspondents take us around Europe and into the Peninsula. Maurice de Maltzen relates his arrival in Bayonne, on the march to Spain:
No resources [are to be found] in this miserable city, cluttered with soldiers. Everything there is exorbitantly expensive. The troops not only support the shopkeepers but…make them rich.
He describes the aftermath of the siege of Saragossa and the entry of the French into the city. His letters also provide the opinion of junior officers of some of their superiors such as General Junot:
He came to the trench a few times, bowing his head at all times, showing anxiety wherever he was led to. This surprised me because it is said he is courageous…he is as brutal as a grenadier and very haughty to all that surround him.
De Maltzen even sent his pants measurements to his sister asking her to have some comfortable ones made for him as his uniform pants and underwear cannot be worn together and are unwearable in the summer!
The horrors of the war in the Peninsula are described by Dragoon officer Daubon, who tells of the aftermath of the Battle of Bailen and the fate of many of the French prisoners of war, relating how …the townspeople gathered to slit the prisoners’ throats. Some of the soldiers whose writings are included leave us with a feeling of admiration. Dr Treille, a surgeon in Dupont’s Army, could have left with the bulk of the French force but discovered a farm courtyard in which were five hundred wounded. He decided to remain with them and saw to their treatment for the next three weeks, despite being the only surgeon present and having no medicines.
Jonas de Neef has included as an introduction to some of the letters/memoirs a short biography of the writer, such as for Grognard Jean Michaud, who was conscripted into the fusilier-grenadiers of the Imperial Guard in 1807. His letters tell of joining the army, lack of food, asking his family for money with which to purchase extra provisions, marching to join the Grande Armée in the scorching heat, arriving in Königsburg after the battle of Friedland, suffering from scabies, returning to France, life in garrison, marching into Spain, and serving in the invasion of Russia, where he died.
These letters and memoirs provide a varied look at life in Napoleon’s armies, both on campaign and in garrison, and the hazards all soldiers faced, be they the enemy, the weather, lack of food, scabies, or ill-fitting pants! Jonas has provided us with a fascinating and often poignant collection of accounts of these men. In The Wake of the Emperor allows historians to get into the minds of the men who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. Recommended reading.