With Napoleon's Guns: The Military Memoirs of an Officer of the First Empire
By Jean-Nicolas-Auguste Nol
Nol, Jean-Nicolas-Auguste. (Edited, Translated and Introduced by Rosemary Brindle). With Napoleon's Guns: The Military Memoirs of an Officer of the First Empire. London, UK and Harrisburg, PA: Greenhill Books and Stackpole Books, 2005. 231 pages. ISBN# 185367642X. Hardcover. $34.95.
[Note: This volume is a translation of Nol's mmoires originally published as Souvenirs militaires d'un officier du premier Empire, 1795-1832, by Berger-Lavrault, Paris, 1895.]
Col. Nol's career ranged from garrison duty, field commands, sieges (despite being a Horse Artillery officer), organizing trains and fitting out batteries. Because of this, Nol's mmoire sheds light on a number of tasks within the artillery that are not widely recounted, demonstrating that the many tasks in the artillery branch were not segregated specialties, and that artillery officers could see varied employment. Nol's career spanned the following:
This mmoire will be of use to those wishing to gain further understanding of the artillery, as Nol provides insight into many aspects of the employment and support of that arm during the period, the various duties that officers filled and the difficulties to be encountered. It also has particular value for those with an interest in the 1809 campaign, the later stages of the 1812 campaign and the Rhone valley in 1815.
In addition to military matters, Nol provides some useful commentary on politics in Paris, especially18 Brumaire, but also the mood in the capital in 1814 and 1815. His opinions on Napoleons regime are also scattered through the document, but they are in retrospect as it was written after retiring in 1831.
Nol makes reference to the following mmoires:
Ms Brindle has translated other mmoires, and I look forward to her future projects. This item reads well and does not have the stilted feel of an over-exact translation. There are a few passages which are problematic, probably due to a lack of knowledge in the particular military matter Nol is describing. Such problems are infrequent and can be understood in context. Lacking the original I cannot comment on the degree to which the original mmoire may have been edited by Ms Brindle. However, I can say that this edition does include substantial detail, particularly on the employment of his battery in action (such as at Wagram), the difficulties of movement (various campaigns), and loss of effectiveness (in battle at the crossing of the Piave in 1809 and on campaign in December 1812). Unfortunately the original maps and plans, of which there are seven, were not copied for this version.
Nols writing style is rather dispassionate. He avoids the hyperbole of many writers, but by avoiding personal recollections and anecdotes renders the narrative flat. There is very little information on the personalities with whom he served. What detail is provided is strictly professional in nature and pertains to those matters for which he was present and directly responsible. This is a strength in that where he is a primary source the content is free of self-promotion and bias, however it detracts from the overall readability and general interest. The honesty of his writing does not always make for clarity, since if he was unclear on a situation, it is apparent in his account. For example, he is remarkably frank regarding his control of the Bonapartist forces in 1815 during the days leading up to, and during, the combat of Loriol. His description reveals a commander that appears to be overtaken by circumstances and confused by events. Accordingly, I would rate the reliability of this mmoire as high, especially where he is clearly a primary source, in that he records the unblemished facts - as he saw them. On balance his account is more testimony than history.
He comes across as a colourless and humourless fellow, better suited for administrative than command functions. When in a command position without direct supervision he seems to have been prone to confusion. By the end of his career he sounds quite sour. I can't think of a single episode that amused me, stirred me, or made me incredulous. There is not a single incident that demonstrates leadership, though there are a number that show effective management. For all that one needs to cross-check folks like Marbot closely, his is a rip-roaring good read. This is not a book which I would pick up and read again for pleasure, but it is one that I will consult as a primary source and mine for quotes.
In conclusion, this mmoire is well written and translated. The author describes a varied career, and comes across as fundamentally honest. Certain incidents do not reflect well on his ability, which makes the entire work that much more believable. Well done Greenhill and Stackpole Books for making this mmoire available.
Reviewed by David McCracken
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005