Magazine article The Spectator

Blown Away by Napoleon

Magazine article The Spectator

Blown Away by Napoleon

Article excerpt

For much of the summer my brother Dick spends his weekends either as a skirmisher with the 69ème Voltigeurs in Napoleon's Grande Armée or -- depending on which side needs the extras -- as a redcoat of the 9th Regiment of Foot. He has frozen his balls off at the battle of Jena.

He is fluent in complex early-19th-century musket drill. He even alters his facial hair configurations according to whether or not the soldier he's playing would or wouldn't be allowed a beard.

Some people think re-enactors are silly.

My friends Robert Hardman and Andrew Roberts like to put on a sort of E.L. Wisty voice and tease them thus: 'By day I am a British Telecom engineer. But at the weekends I am Prince Rupert of the Rhine! ! !' I, however, think re-enactors are ruddy marvellous. Because they're so obsessive about living their period down to the smallest detail they keep old traditions alive -- from musketry to campcraft to making the pompom for a voltigeur's shako -- and add immeasurably to our understanding of the past.

I bet even these sticklers would have been blown away by Napoleon (BBC1, Monday), first in a new series of one-off historical dramas called Heroes and Villains. Everything about the battle scenes seemed so right, from the techniques employed by the infantry to keep their powder dry in the rain and the way the crews served their cannon to the pornographic grisliness of the slash, stab and canister-shot wounds. In fact, it was all good -- the best thing I've seen on TV this year.

We all think we know Napoleon: hat, Josephine, Waterloo, Elba. But this drama focused on a much less familiar period of his life: the time in 1793 when as a young Captain of Artillery he first shot to prominence by supervising the capture from the British of the port of Toulon.

It so very nearly didn't happen. On one side, he was frustrated by the obduracy and incompetence of senior officers who saw no reason to cede power to a Corsican upstart.

On the other, he had to negotiate his way through the complexities of French revolutionary politics, past terrifying figures like the local people's representative LouisMarie Stanislas Fréron, who would sooner guillotine you than give a talented, ambitious chap a break.

Storming the English citadel was a doddle compared with that. …

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