When War Was A-Changing

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

When War Was A-Changing


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


A great THIS is a great THAT, the phrase has immemorially appealed to willing imaginations. "A great love is a great doom," Cyril Connolly wrote half a century ago, thinking of Sextus Propertius and his Cynthia. Now the French novelist Patrick Rambaud, winner of the Prix Goncourt for his novel "The Battle," has put the phrase into the mind of Napoleon Bonaparte on the eve of the battle of Essling:

"A great reputation, he thought, is a great noise. The more one makes, the further it carries. Laws, institutions, monuments, nations, men: all these disappear, but the noise continues to echo down the length of the centuries. On the Marchfield plain before him, Napoleon knew that Marcus Aurelius had crushed the Marcomans of King Vadovar, just as he would crush the Austrians of the Archduke Charles."

One hears little of this battle, also known as Aspern-Essling, fought May 21-22, 1809, across the Danube from Vienna. The two-day engagement is easy to think of as a prelude to the much more successful battle of Wagram two months later. Essling was a defeat for Napoleon, his first while in personal command. It also was a turning point of sorts.

At Essling the French emperor, accustomed to winning his victories through speed and surprise, got bogged down in a great slaughter, which heralded a change in the nature of warfare and what the French historian Louis Madelin called the great hecatombs of the future. This also was about the time that Napoleon the liberator - he had entered Vienna as a savior four years earlier - began to be seen more as the bully and target of growing nationalism from one end of Europe to the other.

Essling haunted lively minds from the beginning. The writer Henri Beyle (Stendhal) was in Vienna at the time, a commissary in the service of his relative Count Daru, Napoleon's intendant-general. Honore de Balzac conceived a novel to be called "La Bataille, Vue de l'Empire 1809," and in 1835 visited the battlefield and its environs, taking notes as he went. But he never did write his book. So Mr. Rambaud's title is not his own but, rather, a tribute to Balzac's never realized project.

The historical novel has to work harder for its living than other novels, for it offers too easy a means to cobble a tale together with some combination of reports on the famous and imagined characters put in to do the talking, swashbuckling and bodice-ripping. Mr. Rambaud's book has a little of the latter, and it grates in context because it cheapens the re-imagining of history which is the book's real achievement.

On the other hand, the novelist's resolve to show war at its up-close and personal worst works well. The vast, often desperate troop movements and actions are vividly portrayed: French troops struggling to attach the two ends of a pontoon bridge in rising, turbulent river water; columns of cavalry gingerly crossing the same bridge during the short time it stays in place; 20,000 infantrymen massing to attack and try to break the center of the Austrian line; and, shocking, a "headless trooper frozen in the saddle," riding on to collide with the Austrian artillery.

Characterization too can be a problem for the historical novel, there being such hoards of people milling about - especially when the writer has read so many books and gone to such trouble get all the details right. Essling, moreover, was the devil of a battle, two days and two nights of it, leaving 40,000 dead upon the field when Napoleon pulled the Grande Armee back to regroup, wait for reinforcements and try again another day. Mr. Rambaud has picked just a few of the great cast of French marshals, generals, staff officers, sergeant-majors and private soldiers to achieve his panoramic picture of what went on there that Whitsuntide.

He starts with the emperor, still the dynamo dominating all around him, but so coarse a person, running to fat at 40 and a filthy eater who shovels down his minestrone soup, tears his chicken apart with his fingers and then wipes them on his uniform sleeve or the nearest curtain. …

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