Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Incomparable, Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry Regiment - T.E. Crowdy

I have just finished reading Incomparable, Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry Regiment by T.E. Crowdy and, as usual, thought I would share my thoughts.

I have to say, I was a bit confused at first as I was expecting the traditional regimental history, leading the reader through an historical trail of events that the regiment was involved in with the usual highlights and anecdotes of participants from the regiment who witnessed them. 

To a certain extent that is what this book is, but done very much in a first person presentation, in that many of  the events are described as they happened, often in letters home to family or friends and carry all the immediacy and emotion to the events witnessed by the various writers, of which there are many. We are introduced to several characters throughout the book from senior officers to junior chasseurs, as the text moves through the history of Napoleonic France and the various campaigns that the 9th Legere were involved in.

The book has more than a decade and a half of research behind it and builds on the work of two French military historians of the regiment, Captain L Dubois who wrote a short history of the regiment in 1839 and Captain Leon Loy, to whom the book is dedicated and who produced a detailed summary of the regiment's campaigns.

The story of the Ninth starts in the Autumn of 1799 in the five floor barrack building, known as the Babylone Casern in the Rue de Babylone close to the Hotel des Invalides. The reader is given a picture of life in barracks at that time, sprinkled with names of some of the characters that will come to populate the story of the regiment. Meanwhile the man who would command the events that come to dominate the story steps of a boat from Egypt on the 9th of October and boards a carriage to Paris.

From this Prologue the book launches into the events surrounding the years of the War of the First Coalition 1792 -97 and we are given a description of the dress of the chasseurs and the regiment's elite carabiniers, and how the desperate lack of money in France at that time was reflected in the empty coffers of the regiment, that was still expected to clothe and train the new recruits. This process, ideally, required four months of arms drill, platoon manoeuvres as well as physically hardening the new recruits with route marches which became progressively longer.

The lack of everything, time, money, food and in the end recruits becomes a recurring theme as the book progresses.

The Battle of Marengo is where we learn how "the Ninth" as it was commonly known received it's epithet "incomparable", in a battle that Napoleon was losing. General Desaix leading his division away from the battle turned it around and, unlike another French general fifteen years later, decided to march to the sound of the guns. On both occasions the 9th Legere were part of the detached force and its performance on the former occasion, holding back the Austrian centre and counterattacking at the point of the bayonet allowed Napoleon enough time to rally his army and reinforce the attack turning the tide of the battle, but seeing the death of the hero of the hour, Desaix, at his moment of victory.

General Louis Desaix, the man who would be irrevocably linked to the 9th Legere at Marengo and who did the right thing, saving Napoleon's reputation, but dying before he could deflect any of the glory.
Napoleon, always with an eye on controlling the story and building the myth, wrote a eulogy for Desaix and his role, writing the words he imagined the dead general would have said had it not been the case that Desaix died immediately as a musket ball hit him square in the chest and exited through his right shoulder blade, there were no words.

According to Napoleon, he exclaimed as he fell "Go tell the First Consul I die with the regret of not having done enough to live in posterity", he then added "The 9th Light have earned the title Incomparable."

The 9th Legere, carabiniers on the right of the line, turn the Battle of Marengo, General Desaix falls mortally wounded
The men of the 9th Legere certainly paid the price for their epithet, losing nearly a third of their number with 400 killed or seriously wounded, including 18 officers.

After Marengo and Napoleon's rise, the book follows the history and the campaigns that the Ninth participated in, which covers Napoleon's rise to power, life in the Boulogne Camp, the Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland campaigns of 1805, 1806 and 1807. These days of the glory years for Napoleon and his growing empire are described by the various memoirs and letters as days of victory and glory, interspersed with the moments of terror and grief at loss of friends, but with the warm hearth of home awaiting the veterans at the conclusion of another victorious campaign. I found it interesting that not all the officers in the Ninth were keen on Napoleon becoming Emperor and those who voted against the idea found their careers blighted, only rising through the ranks because of necessity and their obvious merits.

The text touched on the reality of the war for those left at home and in the days where recruits generally came from the same area and when news of loved ones away relied on the letters home from them and their friends in the regiment, the dread of potential bad news was very real. I found it particularly moving to read a letter quoted, written by Marie Valance on the 11th May 1805, to the Director of the Military Hospital at Amiens, enquiring about news of her twenty year old son Dominique Aubert, conscripted from the commune of Corcieux and serving in the fifth company, first battalion 9th Legere,

"who since 17th January has not sent any news. He mentioned to me that for four months he was sick at the hospital of Amiens. Since then his companions have written they have not seen him anymore. One of them mentioned he had died and it must have been in Amiens."

Aubert had died on the 27th February 1805 and she received the confirmation on the 24th May, comparatively quickly for those times, but as the text points out, more delay would have been expected if the enquiry was to hospitals in Germany, East Prussia and Spain.

Officer of Carabiniers, 9th Legere, Otto Manuscript 1807

With the War in Spain in 1808, the glory years were over and years of short campaigns to. In the writings of veterans from the marches into Poland, you get descriptions of Napoleon's principle of making war pay for itself, and there are several accounts of villages and farms being ransacked by the French troops in search for food, kindling and bedding material. The reporter remarks about the poor Polish farmer left without any means to sustain his family once the troops had left, and these people were allied to the French and seeking liberation.When this rapacious approach to warfare was carried into Spain, the French found themselves fighting a new kind of warfare very much more akin to the total war of more modern times.

Crowdy quotes an officer of the 24th Line,in the same brigade with the 9th Legere in Spain, Jules Marnier;

"This southern war was a war of extermination. But if one had to blame the inhabitants of that unfortunate country for having become carried away by some bloody cruelties, it is fair to say these cruelties gave rise to wild reprisals. If a dog of a Frenchman, as these fanatics designated us, counted for little in their eyes, a damned Spaniard counted for very little at the end of a French bayonet. We killed them without reason, at random, in passing".

Carabinier and Fusilier Chasseur of the 9th Legere - Otto Manuscript 1807
With the newly raised fourth battalion sent to the Danube in the war with Austria in 1809, the veteran first and second battalions together with the third were committed to Spain, with action against the British at Talavera, Barossa, the siege of Cadiz and the third battalion participating in the fall of Badajoz in 1812 where it was captured as a whole. The dejection and demoralisation really comes through from the veterans in Spain as there appears no end to the war and they feel forgotten by an Emperor who is more and more distant with each passing year. As the tide turns, the first officers and men start to desert the regiment and a yearning for an end to war becomes more apparent in their writing.

Involved in the project to model Talavera, I found it was very interesting to see the battle from the other side of the lines. Having seen the quote before I was interested that it came from an officer in the 9th Legere when reporting hearing the British fire at Casa de Salinas. Lieutenant Felix Girod of the 2nd company, 2nd battalion is quoted,

"It was the first time the noise of an English fusillade had reached our ears and I may say it was of a nature which made a certain impression on us. Indeed, never had we heard a rolling fire as well fed as that."

On the night attack on the Cerro de Medellin, Girod describes how they quickly swept aside Low's KGL brigade in a rush or bayonets and whilst surging up the hill he noticed a carabinier brake ranks and walk back down the hill between the two columns, repeating "How is it possible men who have never met before can do such harm...!".  No one stopped the man to pull him back into the ranks.

He goes on to say that once on the summit, battalion commander Regeau, who had taken command of the regiment when Colonel Meunier had fallen shot and wounded after the fight with the KGL, became impatient for the rest of the division to arrive. Fearing being surrounded, he ordered the Ninth to about face and descend the hill, in as he describes some disorder, with the officers following trying to slow the descent by repeated shouts of Halt! Halt!

Girod reported that he only had 50 men left in his company following the abortive attack and was forced to space them out at 25 pace intervals as he commanded the battalion's sentinels along the Portina stream.

As the book enters the latter part of the war covering 1813/14 and the 100 days in 1815, the story seems to be an anti climax as after defeat and retreat you read about soldiers returning home following Napoleon's abdication and looking forward to peace, but with others still determined to rise again. The ultimate anticlimax is the chapter covering the 100 days as with the defeat of the Prussians at Ligny the Ninth join Marshal Grouchy on his lethargic wild goose chase to Wavre only to suffer the frustration of hearing the artillery bombardment from afar but being unable to intervene this final time.

I very much enjoyed the mix of historical references, French and others, combined with the memoirs of the officers and men of the Ninth and I found the text rolled along in an interesting way, with little snippets of detail revealing the day to day lives of these men. I have just grabbed examples of some of the quotes in the book, but the coverage of the fighting in Northern Italy and the Eylau/ Friedland campaigns provided plenty of material for scenarios and campaign factors that could be fun to model. The near loss of one of the Ninth's Eagles is covered and one gets a real sense of the commitment the men had to their Emperor and his aims and the need to live up to the epithet he gave them.

General Ruffin - a jolly good chap
This book covers all this but, for me, just as importantly gives you an insight into the men that fought, led and died in the service of their Emperor; and when I am putting my toy soldiers out on the table and observing the model of General Ruffin leading his division across the Portina Stream, I can now picture the man who led a brigade at Friedland and is described as tall, dashing, and handsome, popular among his subordinates and celebrated as one of the best dinner companions in the army and certainly enjoyed his drink - now there would have been a chap to have had a chat with!

All in all a jolly good read.

P.S. If like me you are interested in combining the history of the Peninsular War with the cuisine of the countries involved check out Sara Seydak's recipe for authentic Portuguese Piri Piri sauces, ideal for getting the chicken on the barbecue this summer. Whilst touring around Torres Vedras, Vimeiro and Rolica a few years ago, we fell in love with Portuguese style Piri Piri Chicken. Sara has an interesting blog that looks at the history of this period from a Portuguese stand point and looks at the social history as well as the military, plus she has a great title for the name of her blog.


Next up, 1/4th Regiment Duchy of Warsaw Infantry, Talavera Night Attack Game Two.


  1. Evening Johnathon,
    I must admit I did like this book, it gave a really interesting perspective on the unit and was written in a way that wasnt dry. Definitely worth buying.
    Thanks Robbie

    1. Hi Robbie,
      Yes I really liked the style of intermixing detail from the histories with words of the veterans relating those events described in their own words. A very pleasing addition to the book shelf.

  2. Fantastic review, really enjoyed reading it!

  3. It sounds like a must have Jonathan

  4. Thanks for your comments chaps. I really enjoyed this book and it made a good detour to a view from the other side of the hill.

  5. Thanks for that, Jonathon. Great review. I was just about to base my third légere regiment on the 9th, so it is very timely! Crowdy's Fench infantry handbook is my constant companion these days, so I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for this one.

    1. Cheers Bill, glad you enjoyed the it. I must check out Crowdy's other title as well. After reading this one and your remarks about the other, it sounds like a good read.

  6. $13 as an e-book! First one I've ever bought.