Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Fighting For Napoleon - French Soldiers' Letters 1799-1815, Bernard Wilkin & Rene Wilkin

Whilst away on my Spanish travels I took with me and finished this fascinating and somewhat tragic book capturing details from over 1,600 letters of French Napoleonic soldiers, most of which had never been published before.

In a period when mass literacy was still not a common feature in Europe, written accounts made at or close to the times described are relatively rare, especially amongst the lower ranks who unlike the more accessible memoirs of more senior French officers are not about securing their place or reputation for posterity; but more to do with recording the mundane aspects of day to day life that in the case of many of these unfortunate men might have been the difference between life or death.

The authors are father and son, with Dr Bernard Wilkin, a Belgian historian, based in my neck of the woods at Exeter University, where he specialises in the history of the French army and French people under Napoleon.

This book makes a stark contrast with the book I reviewed earlier this month, "From Corunna to Waterloo" and illustrates my previous point, in that the former, written by two articulate privileged British Hussar officers whose concerns differed hugely from these poor French conscripts, primarily focused on getting money from family to help them survive in a French army operating under Napoleon's crude methods of supply and logistics, based on letting war pay for itself. Some of these conscripts refer to their having to take part in pillaging civilian populations, trying to mitigate their role by pointing out that unlike their comrades they took nothing of significant value or very little loot.

These letters come from the collection of the Archives de l'Etat a Liege, where the prefecture of Liege kept the letters written by French conscripts from the Ourthe department, annexed by the French Republic in 1794, formerly part of the Austrian Netherlands. Many of these letters ended up in the hands of the authorities because families were keen to provide evidence of a family member already conscripted to protect another from forced conscription. The parents of draft-dodgers would also provide letters as proof of service to avoid the large fines that conscription avoidance could incur on them.

The French conscripts common theme - endless marching and fatigue from little sleep
Much of their content is similar and mundane, focused on sending their greetings to family and friends, obtaining money from home, letting loved ones know that they and friends in the unit were well and of others from their village or town who had died or were sick. Given the levels of illiteracy, many of the letters would have been written by those able to write down the thoughts and sentiments of their comrades and these men were often promoted to NCO's. There seems little concern over the content being read by the enemy if captured and the lack of censorship is noticeable to the modern reader.

The authors have gone through the letters, pulling out the information that was occasionally added to the normal format that illustrates the other day to day concerns and observations these French soldiers recorded.

The letters are then subdivided by pertinent content according to the six subject matter chapters,
  • Chapter 1 - Serving France, covering conscription, desertion and denunciation
  • Chapter 2 - Life in the Army, citizen to soldier, duties and events
  • Chapter 3 - War against the Austrians, Russians and Prussians, Marengo and the occupation of Italy, The wars of the third, fourth and fifth coalitions.
  • Chapter 4 - The Peninsular War, the conquest of Portugal and the Spanish uprising, Guerrilla warfare, Fighting the British and the campaign of 1811, The struggle of the French in Spain and the final collapse.
  • Chapter 5 - The Decline and Fall of the French Empire covering the Russian disaster of 1812, the German campaign and the final years of Napoleon's Empire
  • Chapter 6 - Wounds, Illness and Captivity - Fearing the hospital, captivity and suffering.
The examples of letters cover all the arms and includes members of the Line and Guard regiments. The content rather reminded me of similar letters from ordinary soldiers in WWII and probably illustrates the idea of the universal warrior, in that issues affecting the front-line soldier are a common factor from the siege of Troy to the plains of Afghanistan, that of keeping fed, and surviving. However the change in the confidence in the Emperor and the bravado expressed in the earlier years as time rolled on into the later Empire is well illustrated, and reminded me much of similar letters from German soldiers in WWII and their perspective of events in that war.

Where possible the authors provide footnotes at the bottom of each letter giving the background of the writer and their subsequent fate. Many would die on campaign from disease rather than battle and a common thread is the fatigue from constant marching and not enough sleep. Many of these men were young, illiterate, unskilled and taken away from their parents and thrust into an unfamiliar hostile world, forced to survive on their wits. Some of the letters, knowing the writers fate, make tragic reading for them and their loved ones; and given that nearly all common soldiers who died in this period ended up in an unmarked grave often miles from home and lost to their families and history, the book makes a fitting tribute to all the unknown soldiers of the period.

This book as well as being a good read is very welcome addition to the literature covering the experiences of the common soldier in the Napoleonic period and gives great insight into the view from under the shako. In addition I found the massive numbers reported taking part in the various battles described, together with the enormous casualties inflicted and the amazing spellings of place names conjured up by these men an inspiration for my own writing. I am already thinking of ways to include this historical touch into my own after action reports, although some of my gaming buddies think I do that already.


The book has 180 pages and is published by Pen and Sword at a retail price of 19.99 in hardback but is on offer by them at the time of writing at £15.99.


  1. Thanks for the review Jonathan, I'll have to pick it up. Sounds like a great gateway into the life of the common soldier of the period.

  2. Thanks for sharing. This sounds great. Ill get a copy soon. I love the perspective of the common soldier and feel it brings the whole conflict into greater clarity.

  3. Thanks for a great review - can't wait to get my hands on this book.

  4. Thanks for your comments chaps. The book is quite unique and very interesting. I found it filled a gap in my understanding about who the average French soldier was and his view of the position he was in. A good read.

  5. I had been looking at this book but wasn't entirely certain how much information could be gathered from it After reading your review, I believe it is worth the time and money invested into it. Thank you for the review.