Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Summer Holiday Special Part II


Since I promissed you a second part to the Summer Holiday Special I'd rather deliver, right?

During the two weeks we were away, I managed to paint 19 Scottish Highlanders for the Great War. These are HäT miniatures and I think they're OK. The poses are a bit mediocre and the facial detail could be better, but since these chaps will be running over muddy fields towards certain death by all kinds of ghastly stuff, I'm not looking to close.

Now I also told you guys I bought 3 books containing Dutch soldier's diaries of the Napoleonic wars and I said I'd also elaborate on them as well. 

Now first let's look at what struck me regarding the differences between reprinted British and French diaries/ memoires and Dutch ones. British and French diaries are presented as a whole document, no things omitted, some notes added to put stuff into context and perhaps a piece concerning the original writer and his or her place in the events mentioned in the book.
The Dutch diaries I've read do not resemble this at all, just one of them is more or less a "true" diary in the sense as mentioned above in that there's the largest part of the original manuscript included. The others are extremely abbreviated and in one case almost entirely fiction... Second part is that two of the books really showed the reluctance of the writers to participate in the armies of the French oppressor. 

Let's take a closer look:

Book one is called "To Moscow, to Moscow!" and pretends to relate the diary of Captain Dumonceau, a young Belgian chap whose daddy already held a high position in the French administration of the Dutch territories and who was a soldier as well. I bought it in a regular bookshop and as such this is a commercially available book. This young man ended up in the famous Red Lancers and as such this book relates his experiences in that ill-fated of campaigns: the Russian Campaign of 1812.
He survived and became Inspector General of the Dutch Cavalry and ADC to the new King William I of the United Netherlands after 1815.
So far that's all very well, but what I have not said is the fact that these proceedings are related to the reader in a story-form interlaced with pieces from the original manuscripts: ARGH! While I understand the need to simplify things for the audience at large, it was really disappointing not to be able to read the entire story in the man's own words.
Apart from all this, the book has inspired me to paint up a squadron of Red Lancers...

Book Two is called "My travellings as a Guard d'Honneur". Bought with the last book at the Harskamp Museumshop, see last blogpost, this one is published by a small private Publishing company and not really commercially available.It's the only one of the 3 books which can call itself a true diary, since it presents the entire text of the original manuscript. This work was written by a young man of some substance from the province of Zeeland (Walcheren, probably more known to you, is part of this province) who was inducted in Napoleon's Guard d'Honneurs. His parents had already saved him twice from conscription by "buying"a replacement, just about anyone willing to join up in change of a large sum of money. But this time there was no escaping his faith because Napoleon had decreed that no-one was allowed to elude the service by arranging replacements. Funnily enough he relates not being able to ride well and travelling to the depot in Versailles by coach and only upon the way towards Germany (for what would turn out to be the Leipzig Campaign) would he learn to ride on the go.
A saillant detail is that he and two friends bolted at the first opportunity they got, which was right before the big battle, and travelled back home. Not a bad book, but not inspiring as well.

Book three...this one is really truly awful. This book is called "Jan Leenders Lerk, a Frisian soldier in the army of Napoleon." Appalled by the picture of the badly painted miniature soldier on the front-cover I almost left on the shelve and in hindsight that might just have been for the better. Why? Well I'll tell you why. This book is written by one of the great-great grandchildren of the soldier in the title, both he, his brother and their wives have tried to find out what happened to their soldierly forebear and this book is the result of their trials.   
Nothing wrong with that, I imagine you're thinking and you would be right but for one thing: searching through quite a lot of Dutch archives and even the French ones at Vincennes, the editors only came up with 4 facts:
Fact 1: Jan Leenders Lerk was called on for conscription in 1812 to be inducted into the 125th Regiment of the Line.
Fact 2: this regiment was amalgamated with the 134th before the end of the year.
Fact 3: Lerk disappeared from the regiments ranks around the time of the battle for Leipzig...
Fact 4: he survived and came home because in 1815 he became father to a second son (he already had one daughter and another son before 1812).

This doesn't fill a book so what these people have done is take the story of the campaign of 1813, all the names of conscripts from the Northern provinces who enlisted in the 125th/ 134th RdL and made up a story of hwo they were brutally called upon to serve Boney against their will. How they were reluctantly drilled on the way towards Germany. How they made a pact to desert, how this failed right upon the battle of Leipzig and how eventually only Jan Lerk was left and deserted with a German also forced to join the Eagles. That they make him desert is due to the fact that there's a tale in the family that one of their forebears deserted from Napoleon's army. Apart from the fact that the entire story is fiction they make quite a lot of errors in their description of things which do not make the book any clearer or easier to read, specially for laymen. Two examples are these: the writers use the words companies, regiments and battalions without knowing just what they contain, and thus mix them up horribly. When discussing the bridging of some of the German streams the French need to cross, they call the engineers "architects"...

Repeating all this here, just makes me wanna cry and stop typing, but i'll persevere, for there's one very important thing I've learned from these books. Dumonceau was the only one who volunteered to join the Eagles, the others didn't. I've read a very scientific and elaborately researched book about the impact of the French subscription in the Southern parts of the Netherlands (where I live) and this combined with the books above gave me the following insight: in the Southern provinces the French had invaded as early as 1795 and these became part of the Empire as a regular department. We're talking about much of present day Belgium and Limburg (the present day Dutch province I live in), conscription and other French laws were introduced from the get go. This conscription did raise opposition immediately as well. The book I mentioned earlier has studied quite a lot of court-cases of people who had tried to evade conscription or of people held responsible of loved ones who were hiding from conscription. Since the Batavian Repunlic, later the kingdom of Holland under Louis Napoleon (Boney's brother), was so close many men escaped there because it was rather easy. The French therefore targeted the people they left behind thus forcing the refugees to turn themselves in and serve anyway.

Now strangely it appears that the large amount of men resisting conscription were inspired to do so by the catholic priests who had enjoyed great power before the coming of the French and were now ejected from power, their funds and even their monasteries and churches now used as barracks, hospitals and stables. As soon as Napoleon made his peace with the Pope, all trouble wa over and resistance against the French and thus conscription stops.

The Dutch provinces, preciously mentioned as being part of the Batavian Republic and the Kingdom of Holland were exempted from conscription for a long time. The army was made up of volunteers, so conscription was not necessary, specially when there also was a presence of French garrisons in the most important fortresses of the country. Only when the Dutch army is integrated in the French in 1810, when Louis is dethroned and the Kingdom of Holland is annexed into the Empire that the Emperor imposes conscription upon the Dutch people. That in combination with the economical crisis due to the Continental System made the Dutch hate the French regime and resist conscription.
Is this your big insight I hear you mumble? No indeed! One of the biggest "concerns Wellington supposedly had of his Dutch-Belgian Allies, was that he couldn't be sure they were going to stand and fight the French or run over and join them, since they'd fought for him so long. The above shows that he needn't have feared the Dutch to desert him because they hated Boney and only a small proportion had really fought for him with their hearts in it. Of the Belgians this cannot be said with as much certainty, but they held firm in the end anyway.

Oh well, now I know to really look through the book when I find another Dutch soldier's "diary" again...

Cheers Sander

1 comment:

peter said...

I will have a look at the first book! Sounds interesting! Thanks for sharing Sander!