20 years of grumbling and glory with the Emperor

Epic / Wars

Jean-Roch Coignet 1776-1865

This is the latest gem that fell into my hands a few days ago.
It is not a novel.
It is not an autobiography, we will only know about the author what he deems useful to tell us.
It is the account, seen from the troops, of Bonaparte’s campaigns.

I haven’t read anything so gripping in centuries, nothing so moving – because it’s a man telling the story, not a show-off, or some kind of intellectual, or a poet lost on the battlefield. No – he is a kid first, who gets his roadmap. His apprenticeship master wants to “pay” his replacement in the army to keep him on – but Coignet refuses and bravely goes off to save France – we are in the middle of the revolutionary period – it seems that the internal affairs of the country were of interest to everyone else.

He knows nothing about the army – he knows nothing about politics. He is not interested and will never be interested.

Within three months, the officers turn them into soldiers. Direction Italy.
The leader of the Italian army was a young, unknown general named Bonaparte.

Bonaparte’s speech to the army of Italy is the most beautiful speech one can hear. A speech to make people rise from the dead.

You had fought until now for barren rocks. Deprived of everything, you have made up for everything. You have won battles without cannons, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, bivouacked without brandy and often without bread. The republican phalanxes, the soldiers of liberty, were the only ones capable of suffering what you have suffered.

But soldiers, you have done nothing, since you still have to do.

But Coignet is too far away, he hears neither the proclamation to the army of Italy, nor this speech. He hears the men vibrate as the young general passes by. That is enough for him.
It is enough for them.

At that time, the French were fighting against the aristocrats, those who wanted to stifle the French revolution and the taking of power by the people – for the people.

The first trials, inhuman – superhuman – are told with the greatest simplicity
To make cannons cross the Alps?
By hand – by carrying them – with the shoes around the neck and a necklace of dry cookies. At the first stop, Coignet is at the head of the cannon – he walks along the precipice. He makes a false move when he puts down the carriage – his cookies fall out – they were the food of the day.
Passing the Austrians ? at night, wrapping the hooves, wheels and shoes with straw
And come back to finish passing the material.

The young man’s first battle comes – he has no time to be afraid, he is caught up in the movement, in the certainty that he must go forward – that he must win – otherwise his friends behind him will be lost.
This feeling will never leave him.
He will never feel murderous madness or hatred – he is a true soldier.

He takes a cannon – it will be his first great feat of arms. A general saw him, hanging from the cannon – congratulated him and took his name.

Back in Paris, Coignet will be the first soldier of the troop to receive the Legion of Honor.

He will be part of all the great campaigns. From his point of view, no strategy – no military genius. He is “down there” – he sees the tricks of the marshals of the Empire – he wonders if the others will let themselves be taken – if not, they are dead.

And then comes the difficult time in Poland.

Battle of Eylau – Garde Impériale

At that time, Coignet joined la Garde Impériale/the Guard – the one surrounding Bonaparte.
The one that dies but does not surrender.
The one of the faithful and the brave.

In Poland, they found swamps where it is impossible to advance. You have to take your leg and move it to move forward – as best you can.
At worst? at worst? you have to find an idea.
So they will cling to stakes scattered in the swamps. Good for them if they manage to pull themselves up from one stake to another. Too bad for them if they don’t.
Fortunately for the army, the enemies were not there, picking them off like flies stuck to glue.

When they finally managed to get out of this hellish quagmire, Napoleon welcomed them by giving them their nickname: les Grognards. – those who grumble – but who advance.

He tells of the pain – the endless marches – the emperors win with our legs and not with our arms, they said in the troop. He tells of the terrible hunger – the times when they go on marauds to find a little food – and the unlikely times when food flows freely – when France makes peace with Russia and the two armies feast side by side.

The more the memories progress in time, the more poignant the story becomes.
Coignet is valuable enough that his officers notice him constantly. But he is a common kid, he can’t read, he can’t write – he can’t become an officer.
He will be one anyway – his officers will take the time to teach him.
So much so that at the age of 72, he was able to write his memories.

He recounts his tears, without false shame, when – he says – the Emperor was betrayed by his own people and had to surrender.
The tears of the entire Grande Armée.
They did not betray.
Until the end, they fought for their country and their emperor.

What is undoubtedly the most terrible is the end – when the Guard is torn apart over what to do.
They must protect Bonaparte – that is their only certainty.
When the Emperor, having understood that the defeat would be final, wanted to die as a warrior on his last battlefield, the Guard was torn apart.
Some wanted to follow him and die without surrendering – with him.
Others wanted to protect him from everything and even from himself – and prevent him from dying. Those won.
Coignet was one of the others, and at 72 he still regrets that the Guard did its job too well.

Waterloo – La Garde

There you go – so this book is a treasure – and I can’t recommend it enough.

Is it possible to make a stage adaptation?
Fifteen years ago, the answer was obviously no – because the scenes of the Grande Armée are far too large for a theatre stage.
Now that our stages are provided with more space – more means to make the space seem real – the answer is obviously yes.
Of course, we must imagine a staging that would not be a linear adaptation of the text.
But what a godsend to invent a new type of performance!
What a marvel we can draw from it
And what lessons of humanity from it.

Capitaine Jean-Roch Coignet – aged of 72

Not to mention the links that are so – so – obvious with these games that play the war.

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