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Fighting For Napoleon (Paperback)

French Soldiers' Letters 1799-1815

Military > Pre-WWI > Napoleonic > Battle of Waterloo

By Bernard Wilkin, Rene Wilkin
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 192
ISBN: 9781399019668
Published: 26th April 2022



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The French side of the Napoleonic Wars is often seen from a strategic point of view, or in terms of military organization and battlefield tactics, or through officers' memoirs. It is rarely seen from the perspective of the lowest ranks of the army, and the experience of the ordinary soldiers is less well known and is often misunderstood. That is why this account, based on more than 1,600 letters written by French soldiers of the Napoleonic armies, is of such value. It adds to the existing literature by exploring every aspect of the life of a French soldier during the period 1799-1815.

The book will be fascinating and informative reading for military and cultural historians, but it will also appeal to anyone who is interested in the war experience of common soldiers. It offers the English-speaking audience a French view of a conflict which is too often limited to the traditional memoirs of Captain Coignet, Colonel Marbot or Sergeant Bourgogne.

Fighting for Napoleon is a unique study of the French soldier through their own letters, describing all aspects of life in the French army. The soldier’s experience is presented in a well-researched and riveting story, and for an understanding of the French army of the time this book is recommended reading.

The Waterloo Journal

This work takes us into the daily life of the Grande Armée, with its suffering and the atrocities committed…. Unlike diaries and memoirs written by officers, they captured the real experience of the common soldier...The authors have compiled a very valuable work.

La Libre Belgique

Based on more than 1,600 letters - most of which have never been published before - this work provides the reader with a good insight into the lives of ordinary French of the Napoleonic Wars. These conflicts are rarely seen from the perspective of the lowly 'other ranks' of an army, so the experience of ordinary soldiers is less well known. Direct accounts of campaigns and battle, recruitment and training, barrack life, the experience of captivity and being wounded are all here, based on letters written most by uneducated men to their immediate family. A few illustrations are included as is a chronology of the Napoleonic Wars, a bibliography and an index. This really is fascinating stuff, and surely a 'must' for students of Napoleonic warfare.

Military Modelling, April 2016 - Stuart Asquith

Mentioned in guest blog post

Catherine Curzon’s blog

A superb guide to the experience and motivation of military service that is based on a wide trawl of relevant letters. Built around the collection of the Archives de l’Etat à Liège which kept more than 1,500 letters, all written by soldiers from the Ourthe department and the vast majority written by conscripts. The organisation is clear and appropriate. Three of the chapters are chronological, dealing with particular conflicts and the records they left, one deals with conscription and desertion, one life in the army, and one wounds, illness and captivity. The authors show that the conscripts mostly perceived compulsory service as a burden, and a heavy one. They argue that Alan Forrest’s citation of a letter from an enthusiastic conscript from Liège pushed an a typical attitude to the fore, as the vast majority of these soldiers did not fight for France or for any abstract reason. This correction of Forrest is most valuable as the subject suffers from too much selective quotation. The personal prestige of Napoleon is presented as a factor, but the high rate of desertion, especially after 1812, is employed as an appropriate comment on this charisma... A first-rate work that is of much wider significance.

French History Website - Jeremy Black

This book gives a totally different picture of the French army, using previously unpublished personal letters of French soldiers from the lowest ranks. The range of topics discussed by these men with their families is surprising. Many talk about their wellbeing or life in the army, others about the campaigns, the emperor, the act of killing, women, love, captivity in England, or just about food. The authors have done an excellent job in providing historical comments and identifying all the soldiers who penned this correspondence. To summarise, this is a very good and entertaining read for those who have an interest in the
Napoleonic wars and want a fresh perspective. 5*

-Amazon Review

I have been fascinated by the First Empire for a long time and have bought many books on the subject. So why acquire another one? The simple answer is that there is nothing like it in English. Letters after letters of low-ranking soldiers talking about life in the army of Napoleon. Forget about heroes and Legions of Honours. These men were modest labourers or workers and had no ambition to remain famous. That's precisely what makes this book so interesting and valuable. Writing very simply, these French soldiers tell things as they were. There are plenty of previously unknown details contained in their correspondence. They obviously talk a great deal about battles and campaigns but they also give plenty of information about other aspects of their ordinary lives. This book is fascinating from cover to back and is carefully supported by a rigorous but accessible enough historical narrative. A must have. 5*

-Amazon Review

French memoirs are slowly being translated for the British market but there has never been a book about French soldiers' letters. I've found this book hard to put down. Forget about the glitter and beautiful uniforms. This study is about hardship and though soldiers living a truly miserable life. This book paints a powerful, yet nuanced, picture of the French Napoleonic army. Written by two professional historians, it is a perfect blend of letters talking about battles, daily life, captivity in England, etc. A true eye-opener. 5*

-Amazon review
 Bernard Wilkin

About Bernard Wilkin

Bernard Wilkin is a Belgian historian who works as a lecturer at the University of Exeter, where he specialises in the history of the French army and the French people at war, from Napoleon to the end of the Third Republic. He has published on various subjects such as propaganda in France during the two world wars, morale in the French army and on the home front during the Great War. René Wilkin, the father of Bernard, studied and taught history in the city of Liège where he was born. He is now retired but continues to work on Napoleonic history from a French perspective.

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