The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot: Late Lieutenant-General in the French Army, Volume 1 - Arthur John Butler, Jean-Baptiste de Marbot _The Memoirs of General Baron de Marbot_ (vol. 1) were something I approached with a small amount of trepidation. There was a fairly good chance that these remembrances of an old Napoleonic soldier from the Grande Armée might be dry as dust, but they are actually quite entertaining. Marbot is a charming raconteur and it is easy to believe that Arthur Conan Doyle used this book as one of his primary sources when writing his equally charming adventures of the Brigadier Etienne Gerard. Some have seen Marbot himself as the inspiration for Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard, but while the General is certainly not averse to blowing his own horn when the occasion permits (even to the point of allowing himself to second guess Napoleon with the wisdom of hindsight) he seems to me an altogether more mindful figure than Gerard. I think, though, that his very first mentor might as well be Gerard himself and I’m sure his description tickled Doyle’s imagination: "This example of the old type of Hussar was a rowdy, quarrelsome, swashbuckling, tippler, but also brave to the point of foolhardiness; for the rest, he was completely ignorant of anything that was not connected with his horse, his arms and his duties in the face of the enemy."

We begin with a quick glimpse into Marbot’s early life and education, his memories of an idyllic childhood, and his attachment to his father, a French general whose example did much to inspire Marbot in his own military pursuits. Both were actually present at the seige of Genoa where Marbot’s father died under the horrific circumstances of famine which the defending soldiers and townsfolk experienced. Indeed I was a little surprised to see that Marbot’s descriptions of his military experiences were not all simply the glorious memories of a swashbuckling soldier coloured with splendour by the misty glow of hindsight. After the siege of Genoa Marbot was forced to convalesce as he experienced something akin to shellshock and
…fell into a state of sombre melancholy, and [his] health
deteriorated. [He] had suffered so much, physically and mentally! [He]
became incapable of doing any work.

After recovering and returning to active duty Marbot rose quickly through the ranks and was aide-de-camp for many of Napoleon’s greatest generals, thus giving him an intimate view of the actions and decisions and the power brokers of the day. This has resulted in more than a few amusing anecdotes, such as the story of the body of General Morland, killed in battle on the Pratzen heights, which was supposedly preserved in a cask of rum in order that Napoleon might inter it in a mausoleum to be built on the Esplanade des Invalides. It appears that the mausoleum was never built and the general’s body was still in a room in the school of medicine when Napoleon lost his empire in 1814. So much for the glory of the dead. Or again the classic tale of intrigue revolving around M. de Czernicheff, a Russian colonel and intimate of the Czar who according to Marbot was “Handsome, courteous, likeable, highly deceitful and exquisitely polite…” and used his political connections to gain access to the French court at which point he beguiled a clerk of the Ministry for War to sell him secrets. He was not apprehended, being warned by a lover of Napoleon’s suspicion, leaving the poor clerk to be shot by a firing squad.

Marbot is also not averse to pointing out the failings of his superiors. He notes with disdain the attitude of a foppish general who disbelieved Marbot’s scouting report of a sizeable Russian force ahead of them and instead decided to continue his luncheon and then barrel ahead with no regard for what he had been told lies beyond the nearby forest, much to his eventual chagrin. He will, at times, even go so far as to question the wisdom of some of the decisions of the Emperor himself, attributing hubris to some of his more fatal decisions, despite his obvious love for his commander.

All in all this was an entertaining read as it not only gave me some grounding in an era of history with which I was not previously much familiar, but a pleasurable one as well as it was seen through the eyes of one who had lived through it and was not afraid to give his opinions and let slip a few anecdotes that gave colour to his tale.