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.
Usually these days, I write my Friday blogs on Thursdays or, at very least, have a good idea by then of what I’m going to talk about. This week, though, I’m sitting here in the middle of the morning with very little idea of what I’m going to say.
Part of the reason for this is that I am in the throes of tidying up the latest Burke book, Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras, ahead of sending it out to beta readers. (If you are interested in beta reading the book, do let me know.) The book sees Burke back in the Peninsula. I wrote it because, having visited the Lines of Torres Vedras, I was so fascinated by them that I wanted to base a novel there. It’s likely to do me no harm commercially, because I’ve been looking at sales and it’s clear that books that are most obviously related to Napoleonic campaigns that people know are the ones that they want to read. That’s Burke in the Peninsula and Burke at Waterloo.
The lines of Torres Vedras are interesting in terms of military historical fiction, because any stories set there are unlikely to feature any serious fighting. The lines were such a strong defensive position that, after one initial probing attack, the French hunkered down to wait Wellington out. A mistake, as it turns out, as Wellington had prepared for this and was in a much better position to wait than they were. So what am I writing about? Well, we know that there was a spy ring broken in Portugal in 1810 and spying is Burke’s job, so expect evil plots amidst the fortifications.
Anyway, while I’ve been removing redundant paragraphs and hacking away at cliches, I haven’t been preparing my blog. What I have found time to do was to read Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. Love him or loathe him, it’s a fascinating book and I would have quite liked to review it, but it seems to rouse such strong feelings that I fear my blog might just turn into a battlefield of Napoleonic proportions. If people would like to see a review, do let me know. Just be aware that I approve comments before they show on my site and, though I have never blocked one so far, I’m very happy to block anybody who posts with some of the more virulent views I’ve seen expressed for and against Harry and Meghan.
I’ve also been giving a bit of thought to a possible third book in the Galbraith and Pole series. The first two seem quite popular, but while I can reasonably expect that fans of James Burke will look at Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras, people who read my historical fiction do not necessarily have any interest in my Urban Fantasy. What about you? Are you reading this because you are interested in historical fiction or because you have read my urban fantasy books? Or maybe you just like reading my more random stuff here.
I mainly post history related stuff on my blog, but occasionally I’ll write something about fantasy. Which would you rather see? Or do you enjoy both?
One of the reasons that it can sometimes be difficult to work out what to write about it is that I do post largely into a void. I get the odd comment and sometimes people take up some of the things I’ve talked about on Twitter (I’m @TomCW99), but mostly I just put stuff out there and hope that somebody enjoys it. WordPress assures me that quite a lot of people read my stuff and they can’t all be bots. Why not let me know who you are and what you want in Comments (below) or get in touch through my ‘Contact’ page? And if you do want to read a book review of Spare, let me know that too.