The Battle Of Winterfell And The Napoleonic Wars

The prelude to the Battle of Winterfell looked familiar: two armies arrayed at dawn, glaring suspiciously at each other across a patch of land soon to be called a battlefield, horses nervously and impatiently pawing at the ground in front of them, weary soldiers waiting for the slaughter and carnage that has always been the grunt’s fate, and finally, kings and generals sizing up the scene, waiting for the moment when they would cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. So did the battle itself: brutal hacking fights with sword and spear and hand, bloody confusion, piles of bodies, men crushed to death, and then, finally, a decisive cavalry charge.

Those with an interest in military history–and within it, the gory details of the Napoleonic Wars–will have visualized many such scenes in their readings. (The extensive use of bows and arrows and the phalanx in the Battle of Winterfell makes it resemble older battles of the medieval and Roman eras too.) In Sergei Bondarchuk‘s epic Waterloo, the opening scenes of the battle–before the first French artillery barrage–show the resemblance of the prelude to combat quite clearly. Moreover, as in Bondarchuk’s production, the makers of Game of Thrones were decidedly old-fashioned: they relied, even if not as heavily as Bondarchuk, on actual masses of men, materiel, and horses. (Bondarchuk, of course, had no recourse to digital effects the way the makers of Game of Thrones do.)

The many descriptions of famous battles of the Napoleonic era, such as, for instance, those of the Battle of Borodino during the fatal Russian campaign in 1812–which Napoleon himself described as the ‘most terrible’ of his long and storied career–in turn, were re-invoked while watching the Battle of Winterfell. Consider, for instance, the following:

Inside the redoubt, horsemen and foot soldiers, gripped by a frenzy of slaughter, were butchering each other without any semblance of order…

The Raievski Redoubt presented a gruesome sight. ‘The redoubt and the area around it offered an aspect which exceeded the worst horrors one could ever dream of,’ according to an officer of the Vistula Legion, which had come up in support of the attacking force. ‘The approaches, the ditches and the earthwork itself had disappeared under a mound of dead and dying, of an average depth of 6 to 8 men, heaped one upon the other.

The Lifeguard Horse was deployed to the left of the Guard Cavalry. Its four squadrons were formed in one line, squadron by squadron with intervals. When the trumpets crashed out with brazen voice the two outfits began their magnificient advance. The fighting itself took place on a rye field and the onrush on both sides was so terrific that some of the most forward horses and men went down like poppies in a hurricane.

Because I mentioned the Battle of Waterloo, let me close with the final key resemblance between a Napoleonic conflict and the Battle of Winterfell. The latter was ended by the arrival of the Arryn cavalry (a surreptitious supporting force arranged by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger.) The Battle of Waterloo–the last Napoleonic battle–was brought to its conclusion by the arrival of the Prussian forces led by General Blücher; till then, even though Wellington‘s forces had seemed ascendant, a final coup de grace had not been delivered. Wellington himself desperately awaited relief; as he grimly noted, “Night or the Prussians must come.” When they did, it must have seemed like a scene right out of the movies. Or a television show.

Robespierre On The Iraq War

In 1792, Revolutionary France debated, and prepared for, war. It was surrounded by monarchies who cared little for this upstart viper in the nest; and conversely, a sworn “enemy of the ancien regime” could not but both despise and fear what lay just beyond its borders: precisely the same entity in kind as was being combated at home. War often seemed inevitable in those days, and it would come, soon enough, on April 20th, when France declared war on Austria. But Revolutionary France, true to its spirit, devoted considerable time and energy to debating the decision to continue politics by such means.

Some, like the war’s most “categorical…passionate [and] persuasive” proponent, Jacques Pierre Brissot, “imagined war rallying the country behind the Revolution and forcing the duplicitous King [Louis XVI] either to support the war and the Revolution or reveal his counterrevolutionary intentions.” But just as important, was the “crusading” aspect of the war:

War would carry liberation to the oppressed peoples of Europe, groaning still under the despotism France had thrown off. [Jordan, pp. 84]

The most passionate opponent of the war was Maximilien Robespierre. His denunciation of war plans had many dimensions to it. They remain remarkably prescient and insightful.

First, Robespierre noted that “during a war the people forget the issues that most essentially concern their civil and political rights and fix their attention only on external affairs.” Because war is conducted by the “executive authority” and the military, during war, the people direct “all their interest and all their hopes to the generals and the ministers of the executive authority.” Such slavish devotion to those in power–especially since in conducting the war, Revolutionary France would have been “fighting under the aegis of the Bourbon Monarchy”–results in a characteristically eloquent denunciation: War is “the familiar coffin of all free peoples.”

But it was the “crusading” and “utopian” aspect of the war that seemingly most troubled Robespierre, for in it he could detect an internal incoherence. The vision of lands and peoples invaded by Revolutionary France welcoming their conquerors struck him as risible:

The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced. [It is] in the nature of things that the progress of reason is slow [and] no one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.

Robespierre did not waver from this conviction. A year after France had entered that period of its history which would be characterized by almost incessant outbreaks and declarations of war, Robespierre wrote that “One can encourage freedom never create it by an invading force.”

The historical illiteracy of those who declared war on Iraq is oft-commented on; here is yet more evidence for that claim.

Note: This post is cribbed from David P. Jordan‘s The Revolutionary Life of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 82-86; all quotes and citations originate there.)

From Austerlitz To Auschwitz

I’ve only recently read Elie Wiesel‘s Night (last week, in fact), and as is my habit, I skipped the preface (by Robert McAfee Brown) and the foreword (by François Mauriac) and went straight to the text. Once I was done, I returned to these preliminary sections. In the foreword, I read Mauriac describe his encounter with a young Wiesel, and how it led him to memories of the Occupation (of France):

I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had seen during those somber years had left so deep a mark upon me as those trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. Yet I did not even see them myself! My wife described them to me, her voice still filled with horror.

I read these lines with some puzzlement. Austerlitz?  I knew of only two Austerlitzes: the first, the scene of Napoleon’s greatest military triumph; the second, W.G. Sebald‘s novel (which I have not read yet.) Didn’t Mauriac mean ‘Auschwitz’ instead? Had his wife–whom I knew nothing about–been to Auschwitz, survived, and brought back these visions of deported Jewish children? If Mauriac did mean ‘Auschwitz’ then surely this was the most bizarre typo I had seen in a very long time. For it would have run together a place which has now passed into our collective memory as a zone of unimaginable atrocity, and a venue of military conflict, whose name has come to represent the zenith of one of the most remarkable lives of all time. Had Mauriac, somehow, unthinkingly, as he sat down at his typewriter, run together the typographic similarity of these two words in his mind, and pressed the wrong keys? But even if that was the case, how had such a howler made it through the editing gauntlet?

As might be expected, I went online to assuage my confusion. There I found that Mauriac had not made a mistake. He was indeed speaking of ‘Austerlitz station.’ To be precise, he was referring to Gare d’Austerlitz “one of the six large terminus railway stations in Paris…situated on the left bank of the Seine in the southeastern part of the city, in the 13th arrondissement.” It was built in 1840, the year Napoleon’s remains were returned from Helena to be buried at Hôtel des Invalides. During the Second World War,  the Vichy Regime set up internment camps to hold Jews being deported to concentration and death camps. Among them was Drancy internment camp, which included five subcamps; three of these were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps. When these Jews were finally sent to their final destinations, they departed from one of Paris’ stations. One of them, of course, was Austerlitz station, where Mauriac’s wife would have seen the sights she reported to her husband. Perhaps some of the children she saw went to Auschwitz too. (This photograph shows deportees at Austerlitz station in 1941.)

So no typo, but even then, what terrible irony. A symbol of French military ingenuity and brilliance and valor, where Napoleon took on the Old Empires and beat them to establish a new European order, sullied by these associations with the greatest European atrocity of all.

Do Sancho Panzas Trump Don Quixotes?

In Stendhal‘s The Charterhouse of Parma, the Conte says to ‘our hero’ Fabrizio:

A half brainless individual, but one who keeps his eyes open and day in day out acts with prudence, will often enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over men of imagination. It was by a foolish error of imagination that Napoleon was led to surrender to the prudent John Bull instead of seeking to escape to America. John Bull, in his counting-house, had a good laugh over that letter of his in which he quotes Themistocles. In all ages, the base Sancho Panzas will, in the long run, triumph over the sublimely noble Don Quixotes.

The Conte’s opening claim is a familiar one: the practical, the grounded, the concrete, the earthy, trumps the idealistic, the wild and woolly, the speculative; the force of the practical can fill the sails of the sluggish and race them past the bold; the worker ant equipped with a superior work ethic will find greater rewards than a brilliant, but lazy, genius; the giant, like Napoleon, can be brought down by an army of determined and united midgets.  The Conte does not specify the domains to which his remarks apply but the open-ended way in which  he makes them suggests a generality extending across the political, the creative, and the artistic.

Sports fans, of course, are used to these sorts of judgments: the histories of many games are littered with stories of dazzling stars whose flashes of brilliance ensured several glorious moments in the sun, but no extended success, while journeymen weekday performers, persistent to the point of dullness, racked up numerically superior careers and thus dominated the recordbooks. Thus, the endless debates about whether statistics lie, whether the greatness of a sportsman should be judged by a cold table of numbers or by the pleasure brought to viewers. But sports at least offers a temptingly objective standard for comparison because of its statistics. (These have not ended debate however, but rather, sparked an efflorescence of ever more baroque statistics with which to wage these endless battles.)

Matters are perhaps more complicated elsewhere. How are we to assess the truth of the Conte’s remarks in  creative domains such as writing or the arts? Are the rewards for the worker ant to be measured in terms of monetary gains or recognition by peers or posterity? There are no objective statistics here to rely on. Might one dazzling, Supernova-like novella, featuring one display after another of verbal pyrotechnics and piercing insights into the human condition, written by a dissolute Quixote, outweigh an entire corpus of stolid prose written by a persistent Panza? Is the worth or the importance of the artist measured by a body of work–and its corresponding influence in its domain–or by an outstanding production that by virtue of being an outlier skews the scales in its favor? Answers to these questions are not easy for they often bring us into contact with one of the oldest and most intractable of all questions in the arts: What is it that makes a work a classic over and above its persistence and endurance through time?

Note: Excerpt from Penguin edition (1958); translated by Margaret R. B. Shaw

No Matter Where You Go, There’s Home: Robert Viscusi’s Astoria

This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.

I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time.  The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.

When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:

It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.

I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again.  As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’

Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria  shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.

Grazie Professore!

Generals and their Strategies: Patton and Napoleon on the Koran

Today, on my new Tumblr (samirchopra.tumblr.com) I posted two quotes on the Koran (or the Quran, take your pick). The first, by George S. Patton:

Just finished reading the Koran—a good book and interesting. (George S. Patton Jr., War As I Knew It, Bantam Books, 1981, page 5. War Diary for North Africa landings ‘Operation Torch’, 2nd November 1942)

Patton wrote these lines on board the USS Augusta as the Western Task Force headed for landings on Morocco to enter into battle with French Vichy Forces. (Operation Torch was an attack on French North Africa, ostensibly to remove  Axis forces from North Africa, improve Allied naval control of the Mediterranean and aid in the preparation, hopefully, of an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943.) He appears to have read the Koran as part of a self-imposed ‘backgrounder’ in Morocco’s history and culture. In his diary entries that follow, Patton keeps up a stream of commentary on Morocco’s culture and institutions, but shows little evidence of applying any particular principles gleaned from the Koran. There is, however, a note of a conversation with the Sultan of Morocco–during a meeting held after the surrender of Vichy forces–in which Patton’s reading of Koran might have helped:

When the initial conversation had terminated, he informed me that, since we were in Mohammedan country, he hoped the American soldier would show proper respect for Mohammedan institutions. I told him that such an order had been issued in forceful language prior to our departure from the United States and would be enforced. I further stated that since in all armies, including the American Army, there might be some foolish persons, I hoped that he would report to me any incidents of sacrilege which some individual soldier might commit.

Patton’s reading of the Koran then, appears to be a self-edificatory strategy: to equip himself with knowledge that would aid him in an understanding of a country, whose population was almost entirely Muslim, and which he would soon administer as a military governor.

The second quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte:

I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness. (Letter to Sheikh El-Messiri, (28 August 1798); published in Correspondance Napoleon edited by Henri Plon (1861), Vol.4, No. 3148, p. 420)

Napoleon being Napoleon, this drawing upon, and citing of the Koran, is more interesting. It foreshadows Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, which reinstated most of the Church’s civil status in France, his assembling the Jewish Grand Sanhedrin in 1806 and his establishing Judaism as one of the official religions of post-revolutionary France in 1807.  For Napoleon, religion was yet another arrow in his quiver, one that would aid in efficient rule. For a man who so easily moved from the military to the political and back again, this stocking of his arsenal would have been the proverbial no-brainer: a good general always calls upon all available resources in winning a battle or waging a protracted campaign.

Wellington, Shwellington: Waterloo and Napoleon, Perfect Together

In September 2008, I visited Waterloo. I was visiting Brussels for work, and on arriving there in the morning, quickly realized that the best way to spend my first, jet-lagged day would be to travel to the site of Napoleon’s Last Stand. Armed with directions, train time-tables, a restless stomach, a camera, a thin sweatshirt, and my copy of War and Peace–I had started reading it a few days prior to my trip–I set off.

I promptly fell asleep on the train out of Brussels, but awoke at the correct station–Braine-l’Alleud–to scramble out onto the platform. On exiting the station, I quickly realized that Waterloo is not like American historic sites: I was a mile or so away from the battlefield, but there were no signs, no souvenir shops, no visible indicators that I was in close proximity to a tourist attraction. Momentarily confused by my map, I asked for directions again, and began walking.  This first road-sign assured me I was on the right track:

As did various street signs. The man himself gets an avenue:

As does the ‘old bastard‘ who made the Iron Duke into a hero:

I walked through quiet, deserted, windswept streets, still wondering how it was that more signs of museum and battlefield commercialization were not visible. The first sight of the battlefield was the Butte Du Lion:

And then, walking on for a bit, I arrived at a small cluster of buildings, which included the museum and some shops. Commercialization at last! I had been starting to think I was on a different planet.

(I would stop at the Le Cambronne Taverne for a beer afterwards.)

A map showing the order of battle and force deployments was available inside the museum:

The battlefield itself lay behind the museum; nondescript fields, really, through which I toured on a little tram. (Some of the topography of the region has changed, of course; the famous slopes that allowed Wellington’s forces to seek cover from French artillery are no longer visible for instance, having been dug up to provide material for the Butte Du Lion.)

After finishing my battlefield tour, I ascended the Butte Du Lion for a panoramic view of the battlefield. (All the while I was being lashed by cold winds that raked the region.)

In case you had forgotten, here is the date of the battle:

Part of the panorama:

Then it was time to check out a ‘circular naturalistic painting by Parisian artist Louis Dumoulin…on a canvas some 110 meters in circumference….accompanied by a soundtrack of battle noises including blaring bugles and cannon fire:’

This part of the painting depicts Ney‘s doomed cavalry charge:

Incidentally, Ney also has an avenue named after him. Some consolation, I suppose.

The Waterloo Museum also includes the Musee De Cires, featuring wax works–the one below possibly depicting the  fateful delay on the first morning.

And a Napoleon death mask:

Afterwards, as I sat at the Le Cambronne Taverne, drinking my beer, and trying to warm myself after being exposed to that grey, cold day, I wondered again about the curiousness of Waterloo as a site for Napoleon’s greatest defeat: his vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington, is scarcely visible. Napoleon’s last triumph, perhaps.