Sunday Sermon: Military Glory – Heroism

I grew up reading feats of military derring-do, and watching films like “Seven Samurai” and “Harakiri” – books and movies about martial glory and the character of the warrior. I noticed early on that a big piece of military glory and heroism is the stand against great odds – the acceptance that one’s mission will probably cost one’s life, but that’s a secondary concern: doing the right thing matters more. I read a lot about the samurai and bushido, and I always deeply felt the distinction between katsujin ken (the life-giving sword) and setsunin-to (the life-taking sword). Somehow it all ties together in my formative anarchy as part of something basically anti-authoritarian, because the authority and the establishment usually are the “powers that be” against which the life-giving sword must work.

Sometimes the whole thing breaks down, and it’s just the “sword of despair” (my Japanese can’t render that) (update: a friend renders it as “zetsunen ken”) sometimes you know you’re going to lose and you choose a pointless quest; it’s very existentialist, really. The search for meaning is a byproduct of your situation, and your life’s meaning is how you act(ed) in that situation.

Russia! (Illustration by Thomason)

Russia! (Illustration by Thomason)

One of the other great influences on me as a kid was the memoirs of Baron De Marbot. Marbot managed to be in the middle of some of the most interesting things in the Napoleonic Wars, rubbed shoulders with generals and marshals, marched to Moscow and back, sword duelled English officers in front of the assembled ranks of troops – he was there, and he did it. And he writes about it with this wonderful bluff frankness, unfailingly describing his actions directly, and unfailingly being gracious even to his foes.

There is a specific edition of Marbot that you can find on Ebay and Amazon rare books, illustrated by John Thomason [amazon] The illustrations are really wonderful stuff; you can get a copy for $6-$10. You can also get Marbot free online in various places.[]

Marbot’s memoirs are full of examples of military glory of the most interesting and problematic kind. Please, bear with me; I am going to quote a chunk at length. I find myself unable to stop turning the pages once I get going – and I know how this story ends.

The morning after Eylau [source]

The morning after Eylau [source]

Marbot fought in many of the great battles of the Napoleonic wars (he sat Waterloo out…) including Eylau, which took place Feb 7 and 8, 1807. Eylau was a badly managed meat-grinder that prefigured some of the later battles like Borodino – generally lacking Napoleon’s coup de main ability to sweep the field. Midway during the battle on the second day, Marshall Augereau’s corps wound up pushed ahead of the French main body, over-extended, and was slammed by a locally superior Russian force that surrounded them and began to cut them down. It is at this point in the battle where we drop to Marbot’s account of what happened to his horse Lisette, and himself.

It was this mare that I was riding at the time when the remains of Marshal Augereau’s corps, shattered by a hail of cannon and grape shot, were attempting to re−form in the area of the cemetery. You will recall that the 14th Line regiment had stayed alone on the little hill, which it might leave only if ordered to do so by the Emperor. The snow having stopped for a moment, one could see this gallant regiment almost completely surrounded by the enemy, waving its Eagle aloft to show that it still stood fast and needed help. The Emperor, touched by the devotion to duty of these brave men, decided to attempt their rescue; he told Marshal Augereau to send an officer with orders to them to quit the hillock, form a small square and withdraw towards us; while a brigade of cavalry would go to meet them and second their efforts.

This was before the great charge made by Murat and his cavalry, and it was almost impossible to carry out the Emperor’s command because a swarm of Cossacks separated us from the 14th. It was clear that any officer sent towards the unfortunate regiment would be killed or captured before he got there. Nevertheless, an order is an order; and the marshal had to obey.

It was the custom, in the imperial army, for the aides to line up a few paces from their general, and the one in front went off first; when he had completed his mission, he joined the back of the queue, so that as each took his turn to carry orders, the dangers were shared equally. A brave captain of engineers, named Froissart, who, although not an aide−de−camp, was attached to the marshal’s staff, was nearest to him and was sent off to carry the order to the 14th. He left at the gallop; we lost sight of him in the midst of the Cossacks and never saw him again, nor did we know what became of him.

The marshal, seeing that the 14th did not budge, sent another officer, named David. He suffered the same fate as Froissart, and we heard no more of him. It is likely that they were both killed, and having been stripped of their clothing their bodies were not recognisable among the many dead who covered the ground. For the third time the marshal called out “An officer to take orders “!…It was my turn.

When he saw before him the son of his old friend, and, I think I may dare to say, his favourite aide−de−camp, the good marshal’s face fell and his eyes filled with tears, for he could not disguise from himself that he was sending me to an almost certain death; but the Emperor’s order had to be obeyed; I was a soldier; no one else could take my place, I would not have allowed something so dishonourable. So I took off! Now, while prepared to sacrifice my life, I thought it my duty to take every precaution which might save it. I had noticed that the two officers who had gone before me had left with drawn sabres, which made me think that they intended to defend themselves against the Cossacks who would attack them during the ride. This intention was in my opinion ill−advised, for they would have been forced to stop and fight a multitude of enemies who, in the end, had overwhelmed them. I adopted a different approach, and leaving my sabre in its scabbard, I thought of myself as a rider who, to win the prize in a race, goes as fast as possible by the shortest route towards the winning post without taking any notice of what is to right or left of him during his passage. Now, my winning post being the hillock occupied by the 14th, I resolved to get there without paying any attention to the Cossacks, whom I blotted out of my thoughts.

This system worked perfectly. Lisette, light as a swallow, and flying rather than galloping, rushed through space, leaping over the piled up bodies of men and horses, over ditches and the broken mountings of guns, as well as the half−extinguished bivouac fires. Thousands of Cossacks were scattered about the plain. The first ones to see me behaved like hunters who, having raised a hare, mark its presence by shouts of “Yours! Yours!” But none of them tried to stop me, firstly because I was going so fast, and also perhaps because each one thought I would be caught by his comrades who were further on. In this way I escaped from them all and arrived at the 14th without either I or my excellent mare having suffered a scratch.

I found the 14th formed in a square on top of the hillock; but the slope of the ground was so gentle that the enemy cavalry had been able to carry out a number of charges, which had been vigourously repelled, so that they were surrounded by heap of the dead bodies of horses and Russian Dragoons, which formed a sort of rampart, and now made the position almost inaccessible to cavalry; for even with the aid of our infantrymen, I had great difficulty in getting over this bloody and frightful defence work, but at last I was inside the square.

2Since the death of Colonel Savary, killed during the crossing of the Ukra, the 14th had been commanded by a battalion commander; when I gave this officer the order which I carried, for him to leave his position and try to rejoin the army corps, he replied that the enemy artillery which had been firing at them for an hour had occasioned such heavy losses that the handful of soldiers which he had left would inevitably be exterminated if they went down onto the level ground; and anyway there was no time to prepare for the execution of this movement, since a Russian column, coming to attack, was now close to us. “I can see no way of saving the regiment,” said the battalion commander. “Go back to the Emperor and say good−bye to him from the 14th; and take back the Eagle which we can no longer defend.”

The Eagles of the infantry were very heavy, and their weight was increased by the long thick pole of oak on which they were mounted. I was bending forward and attempting to detach the Eagle from its pole, when one of the many bullets which the Russians were firing at us went through the back part of my hat, very close to my head. The shock was made worse by the fact that the hat was held on by a strong leather strap which went under my chin, and so offered more resistance to the blow. I was partially stunned by this, and found myself unable to move. However the column of Russian infantry was now climbing the hillock; they were Grenadiers, whose headgear, garnished with metal, looked like mitres. These men, full of liquor, flung themselves on the feeble remnants of the 14th, who defended themselves bravely with their bayonets, and even when the square was broken, formed themselves into little groups and continued for a long time the unequal struggle.

In my confused state, I was unable to react in any way; I was attacked by a drunken Russian soldier, who thrust his bayonet into my left arm, and then, aiming another blow at me, lost his balance and missing his mark, he slashed Lisette‘s haunch.

The pain of this injury aroused her ferocious instincts, she grabbed the soldier with her teeth and tore away the greater part of his face,then, kicking and biting, she forced her way through the melee and taking the path by which we had come, she went off at the gallop in the direction of the Eylau cemetery while, thanks to the Hussar’s saddle in which I was seated, I remained on her back.

As we approached Eylau a new danger arose. The snow had started to fall again and in the poor visibility a battalion of the Guard took me for a Russian and opened fire on me, but although my cloak and my saddle were hit, both I and my mare were untouched. Lisette, continuing to gallop, went through the three lines of infantry like a grass−snake through a hedge, but this last burst of speed drained her resources, she was losing a lot of blood because one of the big veins in her haunch had been cut, she collapsed suddenly and fell, throwing me to the ground, where I was rendered unconscious.

I must have remained in this state for about four hours, and I was not aroused by the great charge of Murat’s ninety squadrons of cavalry, which went past me and perhaps over me. When I came to, this is the dreadful position in which I found myself. I was completely naked except for my hat and my right boot. A soldier of the transport section, believing me to be dead, had despoiled me, as was customary, and in an attempt to remove my boot, was dragging at my leg, with one foot on my stomach. I was able to raise the upper part of my body and to spit out some clots of blood, my face, shoulders and chest were badly bruised, and blood from my wounded arm reddened the rest of my body. I gazed around with haggard eyes, and must have been a horrible spectacle. The transport driver made off with my possessions before I could summon my wits and address a word to him. I was too dazed and weak to move, and unable to call for help. The cold was increasing and I had little hope of surviving without some form of miracle, and something like a miracle took place.

Marbot's Shako, Musee des Invalides

Marbot’s Shako, Musee des Invalides

That’s enough for now. A spoiler: Lisette survived; the freezing cold stopped her bleeding and Marbot was revived before he froze to death. Lisette – a problematic horse indeed – appears in several parts of Marbot’s memoirs; he obviously adored her even though she was a horrible ill-tempered creature.

The shako on the left is not the one Marbot wore at Eylau, that one is lost to history. But it’s the shako Marbot wore in the spanish campaign, where he saber-duelled a trio of English officers in the space between the lines, and got a dressing-down from a marshall for being a staff officer but acting like a wild young hussar. The split across the top is from a saber-cut that left a distinctive scar on Marbot’s forehead.

I remember thinking once, “I wonder if any of this is true” but then I remembered that Marbot (clearly) wrote his memoirs when there were still plenty of survivors from the wars, who had seen and been involved in the many battles and fights in which he participated. Had Marbot exaggerated in the slightest, he would have been socially ruined for his pains; it was a different time from today, where foreign wars stay foreign, and it’s easy for a phony to pass off as a military hero. One could not do as Marbot does, and feature imperial marshals among his cast of characters, unless it were real. His jacket, replete with saber-cuts and Marbot’s blood, found a home in the French army museum. When I was a kid, and read the label, and realized it was the jacket I had read about in the story, it left an indelible impression.

I hope that some day humanity can move past military glory and toxic masculinity, but I still admire someone like Marbot, who went into horrible places for no reason other than he had promised to do so. And I realize that’s why I tend to root for the underdog: modern mechanized warfare has become so lopsided, and we’re expected to root for military technicians that are closer to serial killers than warriors – the special forces who are so well-trained and equipped as they sneak in complete darkness (they can see) and gun down their opponents, or the snipers who shoot unsuspecting targets from beyond their ability to see them. I’m not saying that what they’re doing isn’t hard or dangerous. But it’s not the good fight, either. There is some glory when you pick up the sword of despair.


  1. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#1:
    I totally mis-phrased that, and am going to leave my comment un-corrected (but will correct it here)

    Marbot fought in the 100 days campaign but never wrote about it. (That’s the “sitting it out” I referred to) Since he never said why, in writing, we’re left to imagine that he was disgusted with the part that his unit played. The 7th was scouting for the Germans under Blucher, and was parked off on the far flank, never really did very much (the rest of the light cavalry was away from the battlefield, too, under Grouchy)

    When Napoleon abdicated after Liepzig, Marbot took the eagle off his unit standard and buried it in the dirt floor of his barn. Upon Napoleon’s return from Elba, he dug it up, and thus the 7th was the only unit during the 100 days that was marching under an earlier version of an eagle standard.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marbot at least didn’t have to worry about any contradictory testimony from members of the 14th, or Lisette.

    His name, to my anagram-riddled little brain, sounds a lot like “Rambo” – but he seems to have had much more sense of style.

  3. says

    That’s a photo of one of the 7th hussars that fought at Waterloo, taken about a decade after the battle. There are very few photos of the napoleonic veterans. More here.

    Some background: the battle of Quatre Bras took place before Waterloo. The coalition forces split – Napoleon drove Blucher’s Germans and Brunswickers away from the English, and he left Grouchy and the light cavalry in pursuit of the Germans. His idea was clearly to defeat the English and then turn on the Germans and defeat them in detail. Unfortunately, Waterloo was just – badly done. The French forces were a shadow of the professionals that he lost in Russia and Liepzig, and they didn’t maneuver on the field particularly competently. Marshall Ney, who may have been suffering from PTSD, mis-handled the heavy cavalry pretty badly (there were face-saving legends of a difficult to traverse ditch, but they probably shouldn’t have been charging through there at all) and one entire French corps commanded by D’Erlon got hammered flat by English heavy cavalry because – for no reason that makes sense – they deployed in a massed column and didn’t re-reploy.

    Professional excuse-making for Napoleon has been a cottage industry. Excuses range from that Ney lost him the battle, or that he lost it for himself by leaving Davout in command of the paris garrison (one of his best field commanders) and fielding the “second string” team. Grouchy (who was doing what he was told and pursuing the Germans) got his share of blame for not “marching to the sound of the guns” which would have put him conveniently on the English flank. But blaming Grouchy amounts to blaming him for not disobeying Napoleon Bonaparte’s orders on a battlefield, which would be disastrously stupid. I think Napoleon lost because Wellington didn’t do anything except react the right way to all of Napoleon’s moves; he let the French make mistakes, and mistakes they did make.

  4. says

    “because he had promised to”

    That is such a telling phrase. The glorious leaders pervert and subvert behaviors that we must have as a society to function, the willingness to sacrifice for the tribal group, the in-built passion to honor ones promises. They create tribes, calling them platoons, welded together with powerful personal ties. They extract promises in pleasant circumstances, to be deployed in terrible ones.