We have left our eighteenth-century novelists--Fielding, Richardson, and Smollett--safely behind us, with all their solidity and their audacity, their sincerity, and their coarseness of fibre. They have brought us, as you perceive, to the end of the shelf. What, not wearied? Ready for yet another? Let us run down this next row, then, and I will tell you a few things which may be of interest, though they will be dull enough if you have not been born with that love of books in your heart which is among the choicest gifts of the gods. If that is wanting, then one might as well play music to the deaf, or walk round the Academy with the colour-blind, as appeal to the book-sense of an unfortunate who has it not.
There is this old brown volume in the corner. How it got there I cannot imagine, for it is one of those which I bought for threepence out of the remnant box in Edinburgh, and its weather-beaten comrades are up yonder in the back gallery, while this one has elbowed its way among the quality in the stalls. But it is worth a word or two. Take it out and handle it! See how swarthy it is, how squat, with how bullet-proof a cover of scaling leather. Now open the fly-leaf "Ex libris Guilielmi Whyte. 1672" in faded yellow ink. I wonder who William Whyte may have been, and what he did upon earth in the reign of the merry monarch. A pragmatical seventeenth-century lawyer, I should judge, by that hard, angular writing. The date of issue is 1642, so it was printed just about the time when the Pilgrim Fathers were settling down into their new American home, and the first Charles's head was still firm upon his shoulders, though a little puzzled, no doubt, at what was going on around it. The book is in Latin--though Cicero might not have admitted it--and it treats of the laws of warfare.
I picture some pedantic Dugald Dalgetty bearing it about under his buff coat, or down in his holster, and turning up the reference for every fresh emergency which occurred. "Hullo! here's a well!" says he. "I wonder if I may poison it?" Out comes the book, and he runs a dirty forefinger down the index. "Ob fas est aquam hostis venere," etc. "Tut, tut, it's not allowed. But here are some of the enemy in a barn? What about that?" "Ob fas est hostem incendio," etc. "Yes; he says we may. Quick, Ambrose, up with the straw and the tinder box." Warfare was no child's play about the time when Tilly sacked Magdeburg, and Cromwell turned his hand from the mash tub to the sword. It might not be much better now in a long campaign, when men were hardened and embittered. Many of these laws are unrepealed, and it is less than a century since highly disciplined British troops claimed their dreadful rights at Badajos and Rodrigo. Recent European wars have been so short that discipline and humanity have not had time to go to pieces, but a long war would show that man is ever the same, and that civilization is the thinnest of veneers.
Now you see that whole row of books which takes you at one sweep nearly across the shelf? I am rather proud of those, for they are my collection of Napoleonic military memoirs. There is a story told of an illiterate millionaire who gave a wholesale dealer an order for a copy of all books in any language treating of any aspect of Napoleon's career. He thought it would fill a case in his library. He was somewhat taken aback, however, when in a few weeks he received a message from the dealer that he had got 40,000 volumes, and awaited instructions as to whether he should send them on as an instalment, or wait for a complete set. The figures may not be exact, but at least they bring home the impossibility of exhausting the subject, and the danger of losing one's self for years in a huge labyrinth of reading, which may end by leaving no very definite impression upon your mind. But one might, perhaps, take a corner of it, as I have done here in the military memoirs, and there one might hope to get some finality.
Here is Marbot at this end--the first of all soldier books in the world. This is the complete three-volume French edition, with red and gold cover, smart and debonnaire like its author. Here he is in one frontispiece with his pleasant, round, boyish face, as a Captain of his beloved Chasseurs. And here in the other is the grizzled old bull-dog as a full general, looking as full of fight as ever. It was a real blow to me when some one began to throw doubts upon the authenticity of Marbot's memoirs. Homer may be dissolved into a crowd of skin-clad bards. Even Shakespeare may be jostled in his throne of honour by plausible Baconians; but the human, the gallant, the inimitable Marbot! His book is that which gives us the best picture by far of the Napoleonic soldiers, and to me they are even more interesting than their great leader, though his must ever be the most singular figure in history. But those soldiers, with their huge shakoes, their hairy knapsacks, and their hearts of steel--what men they were! And what a latent power there must be in this French nation which could go on pouring out the blood of its sons for twenty-three years with hardly a pause!
It took all that time to work off the hot ferment which the Revolution had left in men's veins. And they were not exhausted, for the very last fight which the French fought was the finest of all. Proud as we are of our infantry at Waterloo, it was really with the French cavalry that the greenest laurels of that great epic rested. They got the better of our own cavalry, they took our guns again and again, they swept a large portion of our allies from the field, and finally they rode off unbroken, and as full of fight as ever. Read Gronow's "Memoirs," that chatty little yellow volume yonder which brings all that age back to us more vividly than any more pretentious work, and you will find the chivalrous admiration which our officers expressed at the fine performance of the French horsemen.
It must be admitted that, looking back upon history, we have not always been good allies, nor yet generous co-partners in the battlefield. The first is the fault of our politics, where one party rejoices to break what the other has bound. The makers of the Treaty are staunch enough, as the Tories were under Pitt and Castlereagh, or the Whigs at the time of Queen Anne, but sooner or later the others must come in. At the end of the Marlborough wars we suddenly vamped up a peace and, left our allies in the lurch, on account of a change in domestic politics. We did the same with Frederick the Great, and would have done it in the Napoleonic days if Fox could have controlled the country. And as to our partners of the battlefield, how little we have ever said that is hearty as to the splendid staunchness of the Prussians at Waterloo. You have to read the Frenchman, Houssaye, to get a central view and to understand the part they played. Think of old Blucher, seventy years old, and ridden over by a regiment of charging cavalry the day before, yet swearing that he would come to Wellington if he had to be strapped to his horse. He nobly redeemed his promise.
The loss of the Prussians at Waterloo was not far short of our own. You would not know it, to read our historians. And then the abuse of our Belgian allies has been overdone. Some of them fought splendidly, and one brigade of infantry had a share in the critical instant when the battle was turned. This also you would not learn from British sources. Look at our Portuguese allies also! They trained into magnificent troops, and one of Wellington's earnest desires was to have ten thousand of them for his Waterloo campaign. It was a Portuguese who first topped the rampart of Badajos. They have never had their due credit, nor have the Spaniards either, for, though often defeated, it was their unconquerable pertinacity which played a great part in the struggle. No; I do not think that we are very amiable partners, but I suppose that all national history may be open to a similar charge.
It must be confessed that Marbot's details are occasionally a little hard to believe. Never in the pages of Lever has there been such a series of hairbreadth escapes and dare-devil exploits. Surely he stretched it a little sometimes. You may remember his adventure at Eylau--I think it was Eylau--how a cannon-ball, striking the top of his helmet, paralyzed him by the concussion of his spine; and how, on a Russian officer running forward to cut him down, his horse bit the man's face nearly off. This was the famous charger which savaged everything until Marbot, having bought it for next to nothing, cured it by thrusting a boiling leg of mutton into its mouth when it tried to bite him. It certainly does need a robust faith to get over these incidents. And yet, when one reflects upon the hundreds of battles and skirmishes which a Napoleonic officer must have endured--how they must have been the uninterrupted routine of his life from the first dark hair upon his lip to the first grey one upon his head, it is presumptuous to say what may or may not have been possible in such unparalleled careers. At any rate, be it fact or fiction--fact it is, in my opinion, with some artistic touching up of the high lights--there are few books which I could not spare from my shelves better than the memoirs of the gallant Marbot.
I dwell upon this particular book because it is the best; but take the whole line, and there is not one which is not full of interest. Marbot gives you the point of view of the officer. So does De Segur and De Fezensac and Colonel Gonville, each in some different branch of the service. But some are from the pens of the men in the ranks, and they are even more graphic than the others. Here, for example, are the papers of good old Cogniet, who was a grenadier of the Guard, and could neither read nor write until after the great wars were over. A tougher soldier never went into battle. Here is Sergeant Bourgogne, also with his dreadful account of that nightmare campaign in Russia, and the gallant Chevillet, trumpeter of Chasseurs, with his matter-of-fact account of all that he saw, where the daily "combat" is sandwiched in betwixt the real business of the day, which was foraging for his frugal breakfast and supper. There is no better writing, and no easier reading, than the records of these men of action.
A Briton cannot help asking himself, as he realizes what men these were, what would have happened if 150,000 Cogniets and Bourgognes, with Marbots to lead them, and the great captain of all time in the prime of his vigour at their head, had made their landing in Kent? For months it was touch-and-go. A single naval slip which left the Channel clear would have been followed by an embarkation from Boulogne, which had been brought by constant practice to so incredibly fine a point that the last horse was aboard within two hours of the start. Any evening might have seen the whole host upon the Pevensey Flats. What then? We know what Humbert did with a handful of men in Ireland, and the story is not reassuring. Conquest, of course, is unthinkable. The world in arms could not do that. But Napoleon never thought of the conquest of Britain. He has expressly disclaimed it. What he did contemplate was a gigantic raid in which he would do so much damage that for years to come England would be occupied at home in picking up the pieces, instead of having energy to spend abroad in thwarting his Continental plans.
Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Sheerness in flames, with London either levelled to the ground or ransomed at his own figure--that was a more feasible programme. Then, with the united fleets of conquered Europe at his back, enormous armies and an inexhaustible treasury, swollen with the ransom of Britain, he could turn to that conquest of America which would win back the old colonies of France and leave him master of the world. If the worst happened and he had met his Waterloo upon the South Downs, he would have done again what he did in Egypt and once more in Russia: hurried back to France in a swift vessel, and still had force enough to hold his own upon the Continent. It would, no doubt, have been a big stake to lay upon the table--150,000 of his best--but he could play again if he lost; while, if he won, he cleared the board. A fine game--if little Nelson had not stopped it, and with one blow fixed the edge of salt water as the limit of Napoleon's power.
There's the cast of a medal on the top of that cabinet which will bring it all close home to you. It is taken from the die of the medal which Napoleon had arranged to issue on the day that he reached London. It serves, at any rate, to show that his great muster was not a bluff, but that he really did mean serious business. On one side is his head. On the other France is engaged in strangling and throwing to earth a curious fish-tailed creature, which stands for perfidious Albion. "Frappe a Londres" is printed on one part of it, and "La Descente dans Angleterre" upon another. Struck to commemorate a conquest, it remains now as a souvenir of a fiasco. But it was a close call.
By the way, talking of Napoleon's flight from Egypt, did you ever see a curious little book called, if I remember right, "Intercepted Letters"? No; I have no copy upon this shelf, but a friend is more fortunate. It shows the almost incredible hatred which existed at the end of the eighteenth century between the two nations, descending even to the most petty personal annoyance. On this occasion the British Government intercepted a mail-bag of letters coming from French officers in Egypt to their friends at home, and they either published them, or at least allowed them to be published, in the hope, no doubt, of causing domestic complications. Was ever a more despicable action? But who knows what other injuries had been inflicted to draw forth such a retaliation? I have myself seen a burned and mutilated British mail lying where De Wet had left it; but suppose the refinement of his vengeance had gone so far as to publish it, what a thunder-bolt it might have been!
As to the French officers, I have read their letters, though even after a century one had a feeling of guilt when one did so. But, on the whole, they are a credit to the writers, and give the impression of a noble and chivalrous set of men. Whether they were all addressed to the right people is another matter, and therein lay the poisoned sting of this most un-British affair. As to the monstrous things which were done upon the other side, remember the arrest of all the poor British tourists and commercials who chanced to be in France when the war was renewed in 1803. They had run over in all trust and confidence for a little outing and change of air. They certainly got it, for Napoleon's steel grip fell upon them, and they rejoined their families in 1814. He must have had a heart of adamant and a will of iron. Look at his conduct over the naval prisoners. The natural proceeding would have been to exchange them. For some reason he did not think it good policy to do so. All representations from the British Government were set aside, save in the case of the higher officers. Hence the miseries of the hulks and the dreadful prison barracks in England. Hence also the unhappy idlers of Verdun. What splendid loyalty there must have been in those humble Frenchmen which never allowed them for one instant to turn bitterly upon the author of all their great misfortunes. It is all brought vividly home by the description of their prisons given by Borrow in "Lavengro." This is the passage--
There is a little vignette of Napoleon's men in captivity. Here is another which is worth preserving of the bearing of his veterans when wounded on the field of battle. It is from Mercer's recollections of the Battle of Waterloo. Mercer had spent the day firing case into the French cavalry at ranges from fifty to two hundred yards, losing two-thirds of his own battery in the process. In the evening he had a look at some of his own grim handiwork.
"What a strange appearance had those mighty casernes, with their blank, blind walls, without windows or grating, and their slanting roofs, out of which, through orifices where the tiles had been removed, would be protruded dozens of grim heads, feasting their prison-sick eyes on the wide expanse of country unfolded from their airy height. Ah! there was much misery in those casernes; and from those roofs, doubtless, many a wistful look was turned in the direction of lovely France. Much had the poor inmates to endure, and much to complain of, to the disgrace of England be it said--of England, in general so kind and bountiful. Rations of carrion meat, and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away, were unworthy entertainment even for the most ruffian enemy, when helpless and captive; and such, alas! was the fare in those casernes. And then, those visits, or rather ruthless inroads, called in the slang of the place 'straw-plait hunts,' when in pursuit of a contraband article, which the prisoners, in order to procure themselves a few of the necessaries and comforts of existence, were in the habit of making, red-coated battalions were marched into the prisons, who, with the bayonet's point, carried havoc and ruin into every poor convenience which ingenious wretchedness had been endeavouring to raise around it; and then the triumphant exit with the miserable booty, and worst of all, the accursed bonfire, on the barrack parade of the plait contraband, beneath the view of glaring eyeballs from those lofty roofs, amid the hurrahs of the troops frequently drowned in the curses poured down from above like a tempest-shower, or in the terrific war-whoop of 'Vive l'Empereur!'"
"I had satisfied my curiosity at Hougoumont, and was retracing my steps up the hill when my attention was called to a group of wounded Frenchmen by the calm, dignified, and soldier-like oration addressed by one of them to the rest. I cannot, like Livy, compose a fine harangue for my hero, and, of course, I could not retain the precise words, but the import of them was to exhort them to bear their sufferings with fortitude; not to repine, like women or children, at what every soldier should have made up his mind to suffer as the fortune of war, but above all, to remember that they were surrounded by Englishmen, before whom they ought to be doubly careful not to disgrace themselves by displaying such an unsoldier-like want of fortitude.What a load of moral responsibility upon one man! But his mind was insensible to moral responsibility. Surely if it had not been it must have been crushed beneath it. Now, if you want to understand the character of Napoleon--but surely I must take a fresh start before I launch on so portentous a subject as that.
"The speaker was sitting on the ground with his lance stuck upright beside him--an old veteran with thick bushy, grizzly beard, countenance like a lion--a lancer of the old guard, and no doubt had fought in many a field. One hand was flourished in the air as he spoke, the other, severed at the wrist, lay on the earth beside him; one ball (case-shot, probably) had entered his body, another had broken his leg. His suffering, after a night of exposure so mangled, must have been great; yet he betrayed it not. His bearing was that of a Roman, or perhaps an Indian warrior, and I could fancy him concluding appropriately his speech in the words of the Mexican king, 'And I too; am I on a bed of roses?'"
But before I leave the military men let me, for the credit of my own country, after that infamous incident of the letters, indicate these six well-thumbed volumes of "Napier's History." This is the story of the great Peninsular War, by one who fought through it himself, and in no history has a more chivalrous and manly account been given of one's enemy. Indeed, Napier seems to me to push it too far, for his admiration appears to extend not only to the gallant soldiers who opposed him, but to the character and to the ultimate aims of their leader. He was, in fact, a political follower of Charles James Fox, and his heart seems to have been with the enemy even at the moment when he led his men most desperately against them. In the verdict of history the action of those men who, in their honest zeal for freedom, inflamed somewhat by political strife, turned against their own country, when it was in truth the Champion of Freedom, and approved of a military despot of the most uncompromising kind, seems wildly foolish.
But if Napier's politics may seem strange, his soldiering was splendid, and his prose among the very best that I know. There are passages in that work--the one which describes the breach of Badajos, that of the charge of the Fusiliers at Albuera, and that of the French advance at Fuentes d'Onoro--which once read haunt the mind for ever. The book is a worthy monument of a great national epic. Alas! for the pregnant sentence with which it closes, "So ended the great war, and with it all memory of the services of the veterans." Was there ever a British war of which the same might not have been written?
The quotation which I have given from Mercer's book turns my thoughts in the direction of the British military reminiscences of that period, less numerous, less varied, and less central than the French, but full of character and interest all the same. I have found that if I am turned loose in a large library, after hesitating over covers for half an hour or so, it is usually a book of soldier memoirs which I take down. Man is never so interesting as when he is thoroughly in earnest, and no one is so earnest as he whose life is at stake upon the event. But of all types of soldier the best is the man who is keen upon his work, and yet has general culture which enables him to see that work in its due perspective, and to sympathize with the gentler aspirations of mankind. Such a man is Mercer, an ice-cool fighter, with a sense of discipline and decorum which prevented him from moving when a bombshell was fizzing between his feet, and yet a man of thoughtful and philosophic temperament, with a weakness for solitary musings, for children, and for flowers. He has written for all time the classic account of a great battle, seen from the point of view of a battery commander. Many others of Wellington's soldiers wrote their personal reminiscences. You can get them, as I have them there, in the pleasant abridgement of "Wellington's Men" (admirably edited by Dr. Fitchett)--Anton the Highlander, Harris the rifleman, and Kincaid of the same corps. It is a most singular fate which has made an Australian nonconformist clergyman the most sympathetic and eloquent reconstructor of those old heroes, but it is a noble example of that unity of the British race, which in fifty scattered lands still mourns or rejoices over the same historic record.
And just one word, before I close down this over-long and too discursive chatter, on the subject of yonder twin red volumes which flank the shelf. They are Maxwell's "History of Wellington," and I do not think you will find a better or more readable one. The reader must ever feel towards the great soldier what his own immediate followers felt, respect rather than affection. One's failure to attain a more affectionate emotion is alleviated by the knowledge that it was the last thing which he invited or desired. "Don't be a damned fool, sir!" was his exhortation to the good citizen who had paid him a compliment. It was a curious, callous nature, brusque and limited. The hardest huntsman learns to love his hounds, but he showed no affection and a good deal of contempt for the men who had been his instruments. "They are the scum of the earth," said he. "All English soldiers are fellows who have enlisted for drink. That is the plain fact--they have all enlisted for drink." His general orders were full of undeserved reproaches at a time when the most lavish praise could hardly have met the real deserts of his army. When the wars were done he saw little, save in his official capacity, of his old comrades-in-arms. And yet, from major-general to drummer-boy, he was the man whom they would all have elected to serve under, had the work to be done once more. As one of them said, "The sight of his long nose was worth ten thousand men on a field of battle." They were themselves a leathery breed, and cared little for the gentler amenities so long as the French were well drubbed.
His mind, which was comprehensive and alert in warfare, was singularly limited in civil affairs. As a statesman he was so constant an example of devotion to duty, self-sacrifice, and high disinterested character, that the country was the better for his presence. But he fiercely opposed Catholic Emancipation, the Reform Bill, and everything upon which our modern life is founded. He could never be brought to see that a pyramid should stand on its base and not on its apex, and that the larger the pyramid, the broader should be the base. Even in military affairs he was averse from every change, and I know of no improvements which came from his initiative during all those years when his authority was supreme. The floggings which broke a man's spirit and self-respect, the leathern stock which hampered his movements, all the old traditional regime found a champion in him. On the other hand, he strongly opposed the introduction of the percussion cap as opposed to the flint and steel in the musket. Neither in war nor in politics did he rightly judge the future.
And yet in reading his letters and dispatches, one is surprised sometimes at the incisive thought and its vigorous expression. There is a passage in which he describes the way in which his soldiers would occasionally desert into some town which he was besieging. "They knew," he writes, "that they must be taken, for when we lay our bloody hands upon a place we are sure to take it, sooner or later; but they liked being dry and under cover, and then that extraordinary caprice which always pervades the English character! Our deserters are very badly treated by the enemy; those who deserted in France were treated as the lowest of mortals, slaves and scavengers. Nothing but English caprice can account for it; just what makes our noblemen associate with stage-coach drivers, and become stage-coach drivers themselves." After reading that passage, how often does the phrase "the extraordinary caprice which always pervades the English character" come back as one observes some fresh manifestation of it!
But let not my last note upon the great duke be a carping one. Rather let my final sentence be one which will remind you of his frugal and abstemious life, his carpetless floor and little camp bed, his precise courtesy which left no humblest letter unanswered, his courage which never flinched, his tenacity which never faltered, his sense of duty which made his life one long unselfish effort on behalf of what seemed to him to be the highest interest of the State. Go down and stand by the huge granite sarcophagus in the dim light of the crypt of St. Paul's, and in the hush of that austere spot, cast back your mind to the days when little England alone stood firm against the greatest soldier and the greatest army that the world has ever known. Then you feel what this dead man stood for, and you pray that we may still find such another amongst us when the clouds gather once again.
You see that the literature of Waterloo is well represented in my small military library. Of all books dealing with the personal view of the matter, I think that "Siborne's Letters," which is a collection of the narratives of surviving officers made by Siborne in the year 1827, is the most interesting. Gronow's account is also very vivid and interesting. Of the strategical narratives, Houssaye's book is my favourite. Taken from the French point of view, it gets the actions of the allies in truer perspective than any English or German account can do; but there is a fascination about that great combat which makes every narrative that bears upon it of enthralling interest.
Wellington used to say that too much was made of it, and that one would imagine that the British Army had never fought a battle before. It was a characteristic speech, but it must be admitted that the British Army never had, as a matter of fact, for many centuries fought a battle which was finally decisive of a great European war. There lies the perennial interest of the incident, that it was the last act of that long-drawn drama, and that to the very fall of the curtain no man could tell how the play would end--"the nearest run thing that ever you saw"--that was the victor's description. It is a singular thing that during those twenty-five years of incessant fighting the material and methods of warfare made so little progress. So far as I know, there was no great change in either between 1789 and 1805. The breech-loader, heavy artillery, the ironclad, all great advances in the art of war, have been invented in time of peace. There are some improvements so obvious, and at the same time so valuable, that it is extraordinary that they were not adopted. Signalling, for example, whether by heliograph or by flag-waving, would have made an immense difference in the Napoleonic campaigns. The principle of the semaphore was well known, and Belgium, with its numerous windmills, would seem to be furnished with natural semaphores. Yet in the four days during which the campaign of Waterloo was fought, the whole scheme of military operations on both sides was again and again imperilled, and finally in the case of the French brought to utter ruin by lack of that intelligence which could so easily have been conveyed. June 18th was at intervals a sunshiny day--a four-inch glass mirror would have put Napoleon in communication with Gruchy, and the whole history of Europe might have been altered. Wellington himself suffered dreadfully from defective information which might have been easily supplied. The unexpected presence of the French army was first discovered at four in the morning of June 15. It was of enormous importance to get the news rapidly to Wellington at Brussels that he might instantly concentrate his scattered forces on the best line of resistance--yet, through the folly of sending only a single messenger, this vital information did not reach him until three in the afternoon, the distance being thirty miles. Again, when Blucher was defeated at Ligny on the 16th, it was of enormous importance that Wellington should know at once the line of his retreat so as to prevent the French from driving a wedge between them. The single Prussian officer who was despatched with this information was wounded, and never reached his destination, and it was only next day that Wellington learned the Prussian plans. On what tiny things does History depend!