I took up History for my undergraduate studies because I love the subject. But in the last two and half years I have not written almost anything related to my subject, despite Baba urging me time and again to do so, and even supplying me with ideas about what I could write on. Hopefully I will get around to working on one or two of them before I wrap up my formal education in History. Today though, I want to post something rather special and very dear to me.
Term papers and regular written assignments should be a part of every academic curriculum. It isn't in my college though, particularly in our department, adding to an ever-growing list of complaints that many of us have against the department. But I don't want to gripe today. We did finally get a chance to try our hands at writing a term paper this semester for one of our papers on Modern Europe. The paper spans the time period between 1789 and 1848, a time of epoch making changes that the historian Eric Hobsbawm so rightly termed the Age of Revolutions. Our professor asked us to submit a paper on any event or aspect that would fall within the purview of our course.
The task was as daunting as it was thrilling. It was quite difficult narrowing down on any one topic from a period as intense and diverse as this. On top of that there were constraints of practicality - as an undergraduate student trying her hands at her first term paper with limited access to source material, and more importantly, time, there was only so much that could be done. Many of us came up with grandiose paper ideas in the initial excitement of the task and our race to impress the professor with originality, but these were quickly dashed when the paucity of time and resources as well as expertise dawned on us.
How I came about writing on this topic is itself a funny story. This was in fact the first paper idea that had sprung to my mind; I have a distinctly easier time working with literature-oriented ideas, so this is hardly surprising. But my seniors warned me that the professor had a reputation for actively disliking the use of literature as source. I reluctantly gave up my plan and set about planning a paper with a rather convoluted theme involving deep history, environment and colonialism. I did not understand the idea very clearly - it was suggested by a senior - and went on postponing the work. So imagine my delight when the professor made a casual remark in class one day about how nobody in my batch seemed interested in working on literary topics. I literally jumped up from my seat with my hand in the air, and within five minutes it was fixed; I was going to work on Brigadier Gerard after all. Talk about lucky breaks!
For the next three days I worked harder than I had in the previous two years combined, and by the fourth day I was done, and in the nick of time too.I am rarely completely satisfied with my writings, but this one is an exception. I feel this is one of the best essays I have ever written. I was so pleased when I went through it, I realised that it did not matter to me whether or not the professor liked the paper and graded it well. He did in fact like it though, and while I generally find self aggrandizement distasteful, for one I will say that getting the highest marks in class was well deserved.
I hope some people will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Baba has to be thanked of course, not merely because I consulted him constantly while writing the paper, but also because my love for literature as well as my inheritance of books comes from him.
Also, it is Baba who suggested I put this one up on the blog. Thank God he is constantly after me about keeping this blog alive!
History Through the Lens of Literature:
The Napoleonic Era as portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard
There is much debate among scholars over the appropriateness of treating literature as a historical source. Historians of the realist imperialist school of thought refuse to accept literature as a valid source, while liberal post-modernists are more open to the idea. However, sometimes the best practice may be to draw one’s own conclusions about such matters. For that, making a study of a famous piece of literature in terms of its historical validity is a useful step.
Napoleon Bonaparte once commented “what a novel my life is”. Indeed, the Napoleonic era continued to colour the brightest minds of the world throughout the nineteenth century. The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a wonderful example of Napoleon’s impact on literature. Based at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these are tales of adventure as narrated by the protagonist Etienne Gerard, now an old man living in Paris, about his days in the Emperor’s army. Across seventeen short stories, Conan Doyle, claimed by many to be the greatest storyteller in English literature, brought to life a period of great turmoil and flux making use of one of the most quintessential aspects of war: the soldier who tells tales to the enthralled civilians back home. The tales work as a reflection of real battles fought by Napoleon’s army across Europe. Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in the Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars, originally from Gascony like Dumas’s d’Artagnan, spent the most glorious days of his soldiering life with the Hussars of Conflans. The young and dashing Gerard was the bravest soldier and the most gallant gentleman in all of France, or so he believed. The most outstanding quality about Gerard was his vanity, but his courage made a close second. Brigadier Gerard is probably the most loveable character created by Conan Doyle, and his astonishing conceit and remarkable thick headedness is not only forgivable but even enjoyable for the reader who savours a jolly good yarn based in one of the most exciting periods of human history.
The concern of this paper, however, remains the validity of the book in terms of its historical accuracy and content. And this is evident in almost every individual story in varying degrees. We learn about how Brigadier Gerard came to be a part of the Hussars in the story ‘How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans’. The war having come to a halt in Germany but raging fiercely in Spain, Napoleon sent Gerard from the Hussars of Chamberan to serve ‘as senior captain to the Hussars of Conflans, which were at that time the 5th Army Corps under Marshal Lannes’1 as reinforcement for the army in the Pyrenees. Here, Conan Doyle gives a very realistic picture of the second siege of Saragossa under Marshal Lannes, Napoleon’s personal friend about whom the Emperor commented that he had found the man a pygmy and left him a giant! The siege of Saragossa was symbolic of conditions throughout Spain. Doyle’s description of the city filled with hordes of Spaniard ‘soldiers, peasants, priests – all filled with the most furious hatred of the French, and the most savage determination to perish before they would surrender’ and the difficulties that the French soldiers faced in overpowering the city2 is as accurate as any historian’s. Napoleon’s peninsular conquest is considered by many scholars as one of the early signs indicating his eventual downfall. As Gunther Rotherberg points out, the great general failed to take into account the potential of a popular resistance supported by the armed forces with a secure supply route, while also being deluded about the precarious food supplies for his own army and the difficulty in movement and communication in Spain3. Ultimately, Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’ played a significant role in his inevitable demise.
The same story also brings to light other factors of interest to the historian. In describing his adventures, Brigadier Gerard made repeated mention of the reputation of the Spaniards as cruel and prone to torture and mutilation. It is significant that of all the various reconnaissance missions that the brigadier carried out, this was the only one where he was given a vial of poison which he could use in case of capture. The Spanish reputation was borne out when Gerard found Monsieur Hubert, the French soldier whose mission Gerard had been instructed to complete, crucified to the walls of a house. The stories based on the Emperor’s peninsular conquests bring out various aspects of war as a whole, particularly the dark and inhuman sides of it, the side that the protagonist remained blissfully unconcerned about in the most part, focusing rather on the glory and honour of war. In Spain Gerard met some opportunists of the lowest order, ‘bandits, who embody atavistic values that enlightened Europeans thought they had seen the last of, and which can be seen in Goya’s paintings, the Disasters of War.’ In Spain he met El Cuchillo or ‘The Knife’, an ordinary man whose inner monster had been awakened by war, who was now a notorious guerrilla chief who found pleasure in blank verse and torture, such as burying French soldiers alive.4 Characters and events remained close enough to the reality to be an honest reflection of the experience of the Grande Armée in its peninsular encounters.
Throughout his stories, Conan Doyle placed his brigadier in battles and events the accuracy of which would make the historian proud. In ‘How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshall Millefleurs’ Gerard was seen taking orders from Marshal Massena after his 1810 offensive was stopped by the English army at the Lines of Torres Vedras, lines of forts built in secrecy on the order of the Duke of Wellington to defend Lisbon from French conquest. The Marshal’s frustration at having to retire from a failed conquest is likely to have been very close to what the real Marshal must have experienced.5 It was to Torres Vedras that Gerard was sent by Massena to ascertain the distribution of Wellington’s troops in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’, and in ‘How the Brigadier Saved the Army’, he saved the troops of General Clausel from annihilation by lighting up the signal beacon for the general to fall back upon the main army, while himself coming face to face with the infamous guerrilla chief named Manuelo,‘ The Smiler’, and just about escaping with his life.
The Brigadier Gerard stories are a fascinating study of the prevalent view of the French and the English of each other, particularly to a student of cultural history. What is interesting to remember is that the author himself was an Englishman, and yet his hero belonged to the opposing camp. Gerard was excessively vain and conceited, a perception that Christopher Coker calls ‘a stock trope for a Frenchman in English literature, particularly in the late nineteenth century’6, and yet the Englishmen found in him a greatly loveable hero. Throughout his adventures, Gerard displayed admiration towards the English in various ways, particularly to individuals who he found honourable and came to consider as friends. In ‘How the Brigadier Held the King’ Gerard was rescued from the murderous El Cuchillo by ‘Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart.’ with whom he struck up an easy camaraderie, a camaraderie that turned to partnership in the adventure of trying to capture Marshal Millefleurs, where the Bart had come with the same orders from Wellington as Gerard had from Massena: to hang the troublesome marshal. His disposition towards the English continued to stay unchanged even when he was captured by Wellington and sent as a prisoner to Dartmoor, from where he broke out and tried to escape before being recaptured and informed that he was in fact to be released and sent back to France in exchange of a Colonel Mason (How the King Held the Brigadier). The brigadier was particularly appreciative of the Englishman’s ‘sportsmanship’ even though his complete inability to understand English customs made him a source of extreme irritation to the English; in ‘The Brigadier in England’ he injured his English hosts while playing cricket and boxing through his misinterpretation of the rules of the games, and in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’ he inadvertently destroyed a traditional English fox-hunt by killing the fox, earning for himself ‘a deep, steady and unchangeable hatred’ from Wellington’s army! And yet he earned the begrudging respect of several Englishmen for his heightened sense of honour.7 In the study of war, literature can sometimes be the best instrument to bring out the nuanced and contradictory interplay of human emotions between opposing camps, usually through the interaction of individuals.
The Brigadier Gerard stories are surprisingly accurate in the placing of some of Napoleon’s greatest Marshals. One learns about the various charismatic leaders from Gerard’s eloquently expressed admiration for them. There is repeated mention of Marshal Massena, ‘a thin, sour little fellow’ who was not a favourite with his men or his officials for he was a miser, who ‘clutched on to his positions as he did to his strong box, and it took a very clever man to loosen him from either.’8 Of Marshal Ney’s bravery in the Russian conquests Gerard said with great respect ‘one man above all rose greater as the danger thickened, and won a higher name amidst disaster than he had done when he led our van to victory’, calling him ‘Ney, the red-maned Lion’.9 Of Marshal Lannes he spoke highly in context of the siege of Saragossa. And yet despite the ample praise for their courage, there is sneaking criticism where it is due, worthy of any self-respecting historian. About the failed attack on the Lines of Torres Vardes, the brigadier made no bones about admitting that internal feud between Napoleon’s marshals led to missed opportunities. In his words, ‘Ney hated Massena, and Massena hated Junot, and Soult hated them all.’10 Of others one finds scattered references throughout the stories: Murat and Berthier and Mortier and Grouchy to name a few.
With the Emperor himself the brigadier had few encounters, but they were enough to set in stone his love and loyalty for Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was a charismatic leader who had the power to draw the allegiance of the French not merely to the state but to him personally, through the Imperial Catechism, creating an almost cult status among his followers. He issued grandiloquent statements before and after battles, paying little heed to the truth and often fudging facts and figures to suit his conveniences. In the words of Gregory Fremont Barnes, ‘Napoleon was an unashamed self-publicist whose power rested on his extraordinary capacity to captivate his soldiers with his undoubted charisma and to win the hearts of the French people at large by feeding them on that heady diet whose appeal the revolutionary generation could scarcely resist: la Gloire - glory achieved on the battlefield’11This feeling of absolute loyalty is evident in Brigadier Gerard, who considered laying down his life for the Emperor a matter of great honour. Napoleon himself chose Gerard for certain mission because of his unquestioning loyalty, such as in ‘How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio’, where the Emperor needed to assassinate in secret some men from his Corsican past who had come back to haunt him, and in ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’ where Napoleon decided to test the loyalty of his men before setting them on a very delicate and dangerous mission. And yet the unequivocal devotion of the soldier to the Emperor remained unfortunately lopsided in its depth of emotion. There is an evidence of Tolstoyean irony in Gerard’s stories, in his lifelong faith and service to an Emperor who had little respect for him.12 Napoleon chose Gerard for some of the most sensitive missions because he perceived the latter to be simple minded despite his enormous courage, even awarding him the special medal of honour along with the dubious honour of calling him the man with the thickest head and the stoutest heart in his army.13 Napoleon was callous towards the suffering and losses his army faced for him, and remained unmoved by the fact that his conquests cost France the flower of a generation.
Napoleon’s Russian invasion of 1812 was the beginning of the end of the great French empire that he had envisioned. The invasion was riddled with various problems from the start. The most prominent were the lack of supply lines; nine large depots had been laid from Konigsberg to Warsaw, but available means of transportation could not keep up with the advancing army. Also, the massive size of the army and its frontage required the creation of new command structures and army groups. The technical limitations of the era prevented either problems from being resolved.14 Brigadier Gerard and his Hussars never went to Moscow, staying back at the communication lines of Borodino. In ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’, Gerard spoke in sorrow and resignation of the squalor and devastation he witnessed all around. Conan Doyle used a Tolstoyean eye to describe the long, black lines of retreating soldiers, snaking their way across the white plain.15 It was in Russia that the French army faced the ruthless Cossacks, who laughed at them in their misery and hung around them like wolves, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. This air of gloom makes this one of the saddest stories of the collection, with Gerard’s own despondency almost a signal to the imminent downfall of his beloved emperor.
It is a fitting end to the adventures of the brave brigadier that he would be given an important mission in that final hour, the Battle of Waterloo – a mission that he failed to carry out due to fateful turn of events – eventually bringing a close to his glorious days in the Grande Armée with a final valiant effort to protect his Emperor from capture at the hour of defeat by impersonating him to detract his English pursuers. Though history dictates that this effort had to be in vain, the brigadier earned what was possibly the greatest compliment of his life from his enemies; the Englishman failed to realise he was an imposter and exclaimed in admiration that the French Emperor was “such a horseman and such a swordsman I have never seen.”17 By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was well past his prime. He was wearied from years of campaigning and a year of exile, and ill on the very day of the battle. Waterloo led to Napoleon's final downfall, restored the balance of power in Europe and ushered in an era of nearly four decades of peace on the Continent, unquestionably qualifying the battle as one of history's most decisive.16
The last of the Brigadier Gerard stories holds that poignant note marking the end of something great. In ‘How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to His Master’, we read of an attempt by an old faithful servant of the Emperor, with Gerard’s help, to rescue Napoleon from his exile in St. Helena, only for Gerard to arrive at the moment of his master’s death. It is the last tale that the old soldier told his eager audience before going back to Gascony in his twilight years. This is the condition of many soldiers spanning age and space, veterans unable to let go of the past, civilians but ‘with an air and manner’, relics of a time long gone. In his closing chapter, Conan Doyle successfully brought to light the human cost of war, not merely in terms of those who die, but those who are forced to reintegrate into civilian society, a mere shadow of their battlefield selves.
Like all works of literature, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard was essentially written to provide hours of enjoyable reading to the lay person, not to serve as a tool for scholarship for the historian. The tales are not a fair and balanced exposition of the Napoleonic wars or the French society of the time. The chronology is not linear, and there are so many fictitious incidents that sieving out fact from fiction is a tedious exercise. One glaring shortcoming of the stories is that the human cost of the Napoleonic epic is completely ignored. In his blind devotion to his master, the brigadier overlooked the fact that Napoleon, having extinguished liberty by enslaving half of Europe and fraternity by declaring war on the other half, had only just paid lip service to equality, even in his army.17 The stories are fundamentally action packed adventures of one soldier and not a representation of the army as a whole.
However, a student of history may yet do well to pay some attention to such works of literature in one’s studies. As has been adequately illustrated in this paper, Brigadier Gerard is an excellent example of all that literature has to offer to history, if only one knows how to extract reality from the generous coating of imagination that is any good work of fiction.