I’m back from watching Napoleon and, given that many of the people I know (and thousands of those I don’t) will be rushing to share their views, I thought I’d join in.
Is it a good movie? I thought so (though my partner, who watched it with me, was not convinced). It is a wonderful piece of cinema. The fact that we watched it on a huge IMAX screen helped. It is, in every sense, a big film and worth catching in the cinema. Waiting for it to turn up on Apple TV may be a mistake.
What it isn’t is a film about Napoleon, the historical character. It’s best viewed as a romantic drama loosely based on the characters and events of Napoleonic France. There’s no point in playing every historian’s favourite game of ‘spot the mistakes’. They start in the first few minutes of the film, which are so determinedly ahistorical as to suggest that Ridley Scott is making it plain that this is not a conventional historical drama. This is historical entertainment for a generation brought up on the Amazon version of Vanity Fair or on Downton Abbey.
I enjoyed it because I liked the interpretation of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine. Josephine has a significant role in my book Burke and the Pimpernel Affair, so I’m interested in her character, but I do not claim to be an expert. The way the relationship is shown in the film seemed credible to me even if some of the details did not. How you feel about Scott’s take on Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage will probably define how you feel about the film as a whole because everything else is subordinated to it. Most notably, Napoleon abandons his army in Egypt not because of the military and political imperatives that drove him back to Paris but because Josephine has been having an affair. Whilst it’s true as Ridley Scott points out, that I — and other, better, historians — weren’t there, so what do we know? it seems implausible, especially as the affair had been flagrantly started back when Napoleon was on campaign in Italy.
Napoleon’s military achievements are sketched out simply as a background against which to tell the story of his romance. Even the Russian campaign is presented mainly through letters home telling her how much he’s missing her. Yes, he was married to Marie-Louise of Austria by then, but, as far as the film is concerned, it’s still all about Josephine. Marie-Louise is introduced in one scene, produces a son in the next and is then never seen again. Josephine is given more screen time holding the heir than his mother.
When I say the military achievements are ‘sketched out’, I’m being generous. While the battle scenes are enormous, there a very few of them. We get a quick sketch of Toulon, then straight on to the Battle of the Pyramids. (That’s one battle I do know about because it features in Burke and the Bedouin and it’s fair to say that Scott’s depiction of it has hardly any details in common with the real thing.) We get wonderful aerial shots of Austerlitz and then we’re retreating from Moscow. In the next scene (literally) we’re abdicating. (The abdication document is easily available online, so I’m not sure why even that detail doesn’t look quite right, but I’m trying not to quibble.)
The strangest editorial decision is the way that the Battle of Waterloo is represented. It’s entirely understandable that Scott isn’t concerned with what historical purists think about the representation of the other battles, but Waterloo is a famous battle in film, as well as history books. Why Scott has decided to present such an idiosyncratic and, let’s face it, wrong picture of the battle is a mystery. I was really looking forward to the battle of Waterloo and ended struggling to watch.
After that, it’s just an interview with Wellington aboard the Victory (standing in for the Bellerophon and confusing my partner, who may not be a Napoleon buff but who recognises the most famous ship of the time in Britain) and then St Helena where he is shown sitting in the garden and rewriting history before apparently dropping dead on camera, ahistorical to the last.
So, yes, a good movie but not a great movie, and a horrible waste of a wonderful story.
James Burke and Napoleon
My James Burke books are all set during the Wars with France and Napoleon is the big bad wolf behind most of the plots, but only once do we see the man himself. That’s in Burke and the Bedouin, which has a rather better account of the Battle of the Pyramids than Ridley Scott offers, as well as a thrilling story of derring-do in the desert. It features the Battle of the Nile, too.
To encourage everyone to get a better picture of what Napoleon was doing in Egypt, Burke and the Bedouin is just 99p on Kindle until 29 November.
The Battle of Waterloo also features in the series in the unimaginatively titled Burke at Waterloo. You get the Battle of Quatre Bras and an assassination plot against the Duke of Wellington thrown in.
Will it be historically accurate? Even judging from the trailers (and Ridley Scott’s own comments) the answer to that is a very loud NO!
I’ve already written about Scott’s interesting reinvention of the Battle of the Pyramids. Even the few seconds shown in the trailer are horribly inaccurate. But I don’t really care. The film looks amazing. And, for those who want to know what the battle was really like, there’s always the description in Burke and the Bedouin. In the interests of historical education, I’m selling the book for just 99p/99 cents from 23 to 29 November. I’m spending £22 on my ticket to the movie: 99p to get it right seems a small price to pay.
Many Napoleonic wars enthusiasts dismiss Napoleon as a tyrannical megalomaniac who was good for nothing but war and who achieved little that benefitted France. This ignores the introduction of the prefecture system which enabled effective government across the whole country, his reform of the civil legal code which has a significant impact on legal principles across Europe even today, and his enthusiastic support of technical improvements across a range of scientific endeavours.
I’m writing this now because I have been reading Valerie Poore’s excellent blog about barge life in the Netherlands. She’s recently been writing about the history of some of the canals on the French-Belgian border and Napoleon’s name comes up time and time again. It was Napoleon who pushed for the Canal de Saint Quentin to be finished, a project that connected Paris by water to the coalfields of Belgium. It was originally conceived in the 1730s but abandoned due to other political priorities. Napoleon resurrected the scheme in 1801 and, with his drive and support, it was opened in 1810.
The Canal de Saint Quentin was just part of Napoleon’s vision for expanding the canal networks that linked France with its neighbours. In 1806 he gave orders to build the Canal de la Sensée (originally Censée) to link the Scarpe River and the Escaut River (English: Scheldt). Work didn’t start, though, until 1819, long after his defeat at Waterloo. It was open to navigation in 1820 and is still a working canal today.
This reminded me that when Napoleon invaded Egypt, in part to provide an overland route for his armies to march to India, he considered the idea of building a canal to link the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez. He had his surveyor, Jacques-Marie Le Pere carry out a survey on the feasibility of excavating a canal north from Suez. Unfortunately, attacks from Bedouin combined with extremes of temperature and vicious dust storms meant that his findings were false. He concluded that the Red Sea was almost 33 feet higher than the Mediterranean and that any attempt to link the two would lead to massive flooding. Only later was his error detected. The sea levels were in fact almost the same and just over 50 years later the Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was to start construction of the modern canal. The historian Paul Strathern claims, though, that “the modern inauguration of this project, and the French involvement in it, certainly originated with Napoleon.”
It wasn’t just canals that Napoleon was enthusiastic about. Like all great generals going back to the time of the ancient Persians, he recognised the importance of roads in moving troops around his growing empire. Military roads were built connecting France to Germany, Italy, Spain and so on. In Croatia, the road known as ‘Napoleon’s Road’ or the ‘French Road’ was built primarily thanks to Napoleon’s military commander and duke of Dubrovnik, August Marmont. The 61km road extends from the south-east of Orebić to the north-west of the peninsula. Communication axes were an absolute political priority for Napoleon. Natural boundaries, such as the Alps between France and Italy, were traversed using post stations that allowed mail transit from one side to the other.
Within France, roads linked Paris to the regions, consolidating the capital’s grip on the provinces.
Napoleon’s enthusiasm for construction projects didn’t stop at roads and canals. He identified the lack of a proper sewage system as one of Paris’s main problems and, under his rule, the first vaulted sewer network was built. It was only 30 km long, but it marked a major step forward in the disposal of Paris’s waste and he regarded it as the most important thing he did for the city. The sewers followed the pattern of the streets above and were labelled with street names so you could and still can navigate the city as straightforwardly underground as above. Here’s part of it, which I photographed on a fascinating underground adventure.
So besides bringing years of war, economic turmoil and political repression to virtually all of continental Europe, what did Napoleon do for us? The answer is: more than you think.
Paul Strathern (2008) Napoleon in Egypt Vintage Books: London
Europeana Napoleon and urbanism in the 19th century: Protecting oneself https://www.europeana.eu/en/exhibitions/napoleon-and-urbanism-in-the-19th-century/protecting-oneself-destruction-and-reconstruction-of-the-city
Last week was the anniversary of the Battle of the Nile back in 1798. Nowadays we associate Nelson so firmly with Trafalgar that his other victories can be overlooked. Back in the early 19th century, though, the Nile featured prominently on memorials like this one at Greenwich.
As with many battles, the name isn’t geographically accurate. The battle of the Nile didn’t actually take place at the Nile but at Abū Qīr Bay near Alexandria. Napoleon had invaded Egypt, his troops travelling in an enormous French fleet. After the troops had been successfully landed, his warships remained on the Egyptian coast ready to protect his lines of supply. They moored near the shore in the shelter of the bay.
Conventionally, naval battles were fought broadside to broadside, one ship against another. The French fleet was immensely strong. L’Orient, the French flagship mounted 118 guns. The French anchorage meant that the ships’ broadsides were facing out to sea, allowing an enormous concentration of fire to be brought to bear on any force attacking from the Mediterranean.
The British fleet that discovered the French lying at anchor was, on paper, vastly inferior. However, the British realised that the French had anchored slightly too far out into the open sea, allowing a channel between their line and the shore. The British split their force, some ships sailing between the French and the shore while others sailed between the shore and the open sea. With an onshore wind, the French were unable to manoeuvre away from their anchorage and the British sailed slowly down the line, each French ship being engaged one after the other by at least two British ships firing simultaneously from both sides.
The tactic was overwhelmingly successful. Of the 13 French ships of the line, nine were captured and two destroyed. No British ships were lost.
The most dramatic moment of the battle was the loss of L’Orient which caught fire and exploded when the flames spread to the powder magazine. The Captain’s young son had been ordered by his father to stand at his position until his father told him to move. His father having died, the son is said to have remained on deck and died. His death is commemorated in the poem, Casabianca:
The boy stood on the burning deck Whence all but he had fled.
After the battle, the British had complete naval dominance in the Mediterranean. With his lines of supply cut off, Napoleon’s plans to use Egypt as a jumping off point for further invasions were in disarray. Napoleon fled back to France the following year and the French army lingered on in Egypt until surrendering to the British in 1801.
Burke and the Bedouin
The Battle of the Nile is the climax of Burke and the Bedouin. William Brown is on board, the Orion, one of the British ships, and witnesses L’Orient’s sinking.
“It’s the Orient… The Orient is ablaze… The Orient is sinking.”
An officer appeared. “All hands on deck!”
Confused, William joined the procession of seamen clambering onto the deck. The night was still warm, but after the atmosphere of the gun deck, it was bliss to breathe fresh air.
Out here, the view was dominated by the blaze from the Orient. Sales and rigging were well alight and the spars were dropping onto the deck. Flames could be seen running along the joints between her timbers, where they had been sealed with tar. Here and there, the fire had spread to the timbers themselves. Against the light, the crew could be seen desperately throwing water onto the fire, but many had clearly already given up hope and were shimmying down ropes to escape into the sea.
“Stop gawping! Start dousing the deck.”
Buckets of water appeared, passed hand-to-hand up ship from the bilges or hauled to the deck from the sea below. While most of the men from the gun deck poured the water over the timbers at their feet, the crew who had been manning the sails aloft hauled buckets from the deck and soaked the canvas and ropes.
William could not understand the reason for this frantic activity, but it became all too clear after they had been at work for only a few minutes.
William had his back to the Orient when it happened. The night was lit up with a brilliant flash of light and, while his brain was still trying to comprehend what he had seen, the noise of the explosion rolled across the ship. William felt himself pushed forward by the force of the blast.
William fell to the deck, along with the rest of the crew.
Debris from the wreck flew across the ship. Pieces of hot metal scoured tracks in Saumarez’s immaculate deck. Pieces of the Orient‘s hull – two yards long and three feet thick – were hurled at the Orion as if they weighed no more than pieces of paper. There was other debris too – things William did not want to look at too closely. Most of the bodies were in pieces too small to be recognised as human, but William saw what was clearly an arm, the fist still clenched, although whatever it had been holding was lost somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Like all the Burke books, Burke and the Bedouin is first and foremost a spy story. But I wanted to describe one of Nelson’s greatest victories for a generation that has no longer grown up with the tale. There are French spies and a beautiful woman and midnight gallops across the desert, but the story ends with the historical reality of the Battle of the Nile and the end of Napoleon’s dreams of conquest in the east.
The picture at the top of the page is ‘The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798‘ by Nicholas Pocock.
It’s till summer, so here’s a short post to allow you the maximum possible time out in the sun.
Today (21 July) is the anniversary of the Battle of the Pyramids, which gave Napoleon control of Egypt. It features in the upcoming Ridley Scott film, Napoleon, and you can see it in the trailer. Here’s a screenshot:
It looks great, doesn’t it?
Sadly, the reality didn’t feature the pyramids nearly so prominently. Napoleon understood PR in an astonishingly modern way. He wanted the French public to celebrate his glorious victory and announcing that he had won a battle at Embabeh wasn’t going to have nearly the impact of his saying he had won the Battle of the Pyramids. Here, in an 1808 painting by Louis-François, is a more realistic representation.
You can see the pyramids on the horizon, but it’s hardly the way Ridley Scott has presented it.
The battle was fought against the Mameluke army that held Egypt on behalf of the Turks. (That’s a very simplified summary of the situation but more than enough for now and, I suspect, more than you’re going to get from Ridley Scott.) The Mamelukes were regarded as fine soldiers but had never really faced a disciplined European army like the French. The Battle of the Pyramids turned into a rout and ended up little short of a massacre with the Mameluke army trying to escape across the Nile towards Cairo. Here’s a description of the end of the battle from my book, Burke and the Bedouin.
Some managed to escape to the south before the French army swung round far enough to close off that possibility. Most, though, forced to choose between yet another futile charge on the French lines and diving into the river, chose the latter. Brilliant horsemen as they were, few were able to swim their mounts even to the half-way point, and Burke watched in horror as the cream of the Mameluke Army perished in the Nile. They were joined in their doomed flight by the infantry who had been left in the camp. With the French pouring over the ramparts, they saw their only chance of survival to be flight by water. Although there were boats moored ready, the sheer number of terrified men leaping abort them led several to sink. Fire from the French crippled many others. In the chaos and confusion, boats collided and rammed into the shore, often drowning not only men on board but others who had been desperately trying to swim clear. A few craft eventually pulled out into the stream out of range of French fire but most of the men who took to the water died there. Through his telescope, Burke saw a reserve force which had been positioned between Cairo and the Nile. They should have offered some final resistance to the victorious invaders. Their commanders, though, had obviously watched the disaster and drawn from it the same conclusion as he had. There was nothing now that could stop the French army. The forces across the river turned and fled away from the city. Now, on both sides of the Nile, dust billowed into the air to the south as the remains of a once mighty army ran for the safety of the desert lands of Upper Egypt.
Burke’s mission to watch out for French plots in Egypt is overtaken by events when Napoleon invades the country. On one side: a French army, 35,000 strong. On the other: James Burke and Bernadita, the Spanish woman he has saved from captivity in Cairo.
From the Battle of the Pyramids to Nelson’s victory on the Nile, James Burke’s adventures in Egypt find him at the eye of a desert storm. Can he frustrate French plans and get Bernadita safely out of country? And are the pigeons he had to carry to Alexandria going to be any help at all?
James Burke’s second adventure is set against the background of one of Napoleon’s less well-known campaigns.
It’s real history – but not the stuff you learned at school.
The trouble with anniversaries is that they come round every year. I’ve been threatening to spend less of my time writing blog posts so as we, yet again, mark the anniversary of the British invasion of Buenos Aires, I’m recycling one from last year. (I’ve edited it a bit though.) The invasion featured a prominent role for Sir Home Popham, who is the subject of a biography that Jacqueline Reiter, one of my fellow-authors in Tales of Empire, has just finished writing. She’s a brilliant researcher and a great writer, so I hope we’ll revisit Popham soon once her book is out. (Who knows? I might even be able to persuade her to write something here.)
It would be nice if Jacqueline’s new book were to generate more interest in the invasion, as most people are unaware of it.
British forces captured Buenos Aires on 27 June 1806. It’s one of the least well-known campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars but the first of the James Burke books, Burke in the Land of Silver, centres on the run-up to this battle (not that there was really a battle) and its aftermath (which was much more exciting).
Why did Argentina matter?
The British invasion of Buenos Aires is often overlooked, possibly because it does not reflect particularly well on British military prowess. Spain’s South American possessions were important primarily because of the silver that they produced. Britain was anxious that, with Spain about to join the war on Napoleon’s side, the French should not get their hands on South American bullion. South America was also felt to be a relatively soft target, because of the unrest amongst the population there who were growing increasingly unhappy with Spanish rule.
Enter Sir Home Popham
Enter the extraordinary Commodore Home Popham. Almost forgotten until recently, Popham has suddenly become fashionable with both historians and novelists, and keeps on popping up all over the place. He deserves this newfound interest because Sir Home Riggs Popham was an extraordinary character.
Popham was a naval officer: his rank kept slipping about depending on whether or not he was politically in favour and on the effectiveness of his efforts at self-promotion. He had been sent to the Cape of Good Hope with a squadron carrying 6,000 men to capture the place, but the Cape fell unexpectedly easily, leaving him with a small army and no war to use it in. At this point, he decided that he’d head to Buenos Aires, taking 1,635 men with him (the rest being left to garrison the Cape). Deprived of a change for glory in South Africa, he would find it in South America. They sound pretty much the same, so why not?
Historians still argue about whether this decision was politically sanctioned or not. It was certainly never official, but there’s quite a lot of evidence that the government did encourage him to attack Buenos Aires.
Enter James Burke
Either way, Popham arrived in the River Plate in June 1806, where he sails into the story of Burke in the Land of Silver. The Plate is a difficult river to navigate. Popham was quoted at the time as saying, “It was a bit bumpy,” as his ships nearly grounded on sandbanks. According to some accounts Popham was helped to navigate the unfamiliar river by a British agent. If so, it’s quite likely that the real James Burke was involved. Was he really? The joy of writing about a secret agent is that what exactly he did do is a secret. He may genuinely have been there, but we can’t know for sure.
Popham was in charge of the force while it was on the water, but once it landed control was handed over to Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. (He features in Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras too. If you read that, you’ll know that I’m not a fan.) He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops to mount an adequate defence and, as Popham had predicted, Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.
Things end badly
James Burke had arrived in Buenos Aires with instructions to prepare the way for a British invasion. He could congratulate himself on a job well done. But with the military victory easily achieved, Beresford had to move from winning the war to winning the peace. He told the locals he had come to liberate them from Spain and made promises of generous treatment of the city.
In the end, though, he proved no better at handling the aftermath of war than some more modern occupying powers. The confiscation of the State treasury suggested to many people that the invasion was little more than a pirate raid and restrictions on trade with Spain threatened to bankrupt the economy. A series of missteps turned the population against the British and the locals rose in revolt. The British were driven out of Buenos Aires, their tails between their legs.
With the Spanish rising against the French, Napoleon never did get his hands on that silver. The Spanish colonists became our allies again. James Burke did return to Argentina where I like to think he contributed to the struggle of the locals to free themselves from Spanish rule. Whether he did or not, the population did rise against Spain and the independence of Argentina was declared on July 9, 1816 by the Congress of Tucumán.
Nobody is quite sure what happened to James Burke after his ventures in South America, but evidence from the Army rolls suggests that he remained in the Army with a pattern of movement between regiments and ranks that suggested continued to work in intelligence until well after the war with France was over.
Burke in the Land of Silver
Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of the stories I’ve written about James Burke. All my stories have a solid basis in historical fact, but this one is the closest to a true story. Burke’s adventures, including his improbable romantic entanglements with royalty, are pretty close to what actually happened. The story grew out of my love for Buenos Aires and I have visited many of the places featured in the book. It’s a rollicking good read, as well as an excellent introduction to a little-known bit of Britain’s military and political history. It’s available on Kindle at £2.99 (buy it quickly: this price won’t hold forever) and in paperback at £7.99.
‘The Glorious Conquest of Buenos Ayres by the British Forces, 27th June 1806’ Coloured woodcut, published by G Thompson, 1806. Copyright National Army Museum and reproduced with permission.