25 November, 2010

Fourriers, Grognards, and Dolmans -- Alors!

My current novel-in-progress begins in 1799 and follows Napoleon's Grande Armeé from Egypt to Austria, Russia and beyond. I've put together a plot and characters, that was the easy part. So was writing the first thirty thousand words or so. Now I'm catching up on my period research, especially making sure I have military formations, uniforms, and tactics correct for the battle scenes that come later.

What did I get myself into?

 Fig. 1: Yes, he fought in that getup.

It's bewildering. First off there's the ranks. In the French army a brigadier did not command a brigade--he was a corporal in a cavalry troop. Similarly one must not confuse a maréchal des logis -- supply sergeant -- with a Marshal of the Empire.

And speaking of marshals, mon général Grouchy would appreciate it if everyone would pronounce his name correctly and stop intimating that he wears green fur and lives in a garbage can.

But I wouldn't doubt that somewhere, somewhen, there was a regiment of hussars, or chasseurs-à-pied, or mameluke lancers clad in green fur of exactly Oscar's hue. 

These guys wore anything -- especially the cavalry. No two hussar regiments had the same uniform. And the hats!  You've got shakos, busbies, cocked hats, square-topped Polish headgear I can't remember the name of right now... Napoleon's big bicorne seems rather staid when you line him up against a regiment of grenadiers with two foot of bearskin bonnet per man.

How did they fight in all that kit? I've been reading personal accounts of Napoleon's soldiers and not one has mentioned a man being killed because of the ridiculous outfit he had to fight in. But there are several accounts of men being shot through the hat and being unharmed. One tells of a man who lost his hat in a cavalry action but was able to get it back from the enemy for a small 'ransom' the next day.

An excellent and comprehensive reference is Swords Around a Throne by American officer John R. Elting. He provides uniform guides and in-depth looks at each branch of service. I'm also reading diaries of a couple of Imperial Guard infantrymen and a cavalryman named Marbot who rose from the ranks to command a regiment of chasseurs at Waterloo.

My biggest surprise so far? The number of horses involved. The poor animals are much less durable than men, and it was easy to wear them out. Officers had several and used them in rotation... or ride each into the ground in turn. Many regiments had no idea how to care for their horses, and got them killed by letting them graze too freely (or not enough). Some soldiers knew what they were doing, but not the French... a Polish lancer regiment came back from Russia with two hundred horses out of a thousand while many French cavalry managed only to save a few mounts for their officers.

Next up, I need to get a better idea about contemporary life in civilian France at that time. Unfortunately the bulk of novels in English from that time are set in, well, England. And I will do a lot of things for my craft but I'm not reading a raft of crappy Regency romances. So next on my plate is to learn enough French to read Balzac (although his novels are set after the wars), Paul Adam and Emile Zola... I've already been plowing through the daily Paris newspapers of the period, helpfully scanned and available online at gallica.fr.

Next, I think I'll write something set in the modern era. In Schenectady. It worked for Vonnegut!


  1. Wow Pete! What an undertaking. The research for my novel Closing the Door was enough to keep me in the present, or at least as far back as my memory will take me, forever!

    Good luck.

  2. (Nice axe, by the way....)

    Marbot is a splendid read! Have you tried Osprey for the tactical and organisational detail? They're usually a godsend; condensed text, clear illustrations, and good diagrams.

    I would have thought that much of the research you mention is something you should do after the first draft. Aren't correct rank names, for example, and regimental uniforms, are only needed if encountered. When you draft, isn't it enough to write, "He was wearing the distinctive DETAIL HEAR uniform of the SCARY CAVALRY REGIMENT"?

    My own take, including a mind map, here: http://zornhau.livejournal.com/210274.html

  3. Yes, i have a couple of the ospreys and they're a great resource. Love the idea about leaving the details blank in the first draft--I have done that a little, exactly as you noted with uniform details and regiments! But the research is sometimes also needed to find out where and when things happened, make sure mon général Desaix was actually with his division at such and such a time, etc. Thanks for the comment!