Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Historical sources and truth

In the WS&S issue 79, there is an article on the Battle of Marengo, by Mr. Eoghan Kelly.
I have the Osprey campaign book on Marengo for quite some years now, and one thing that had struck me was the chapter on “The destruction of the Consular Guard”.

So I was very surprised to read the following: “Napoleon committed the Consular Guard, a small but elite force of less than 1000 men. These formed a square and delayed Elsnitz’s cavalry long enough to prevent their pursuit of Victor and Lanne. The Guard then retired in good order in a fighting square and regained the French lines.”
As this was so different from what I remembered, I took the Osprey Campaign book to check the chapter : ”Thrown forward by napoleon in a last bid to stabilise the French right, the Guard(formed in line) were outgunned by the smaller IR51 Splenyi (nicknamed the ‘Légion Infernale’ by the French – the regiment s’ two battalions had charged  and driven of Murat’s cavalry shortly before) for about 15 minutes and then crushed by Frimont’s(not Elsnitz) four squadrons (1. Kaiser light dragoons and Bussy Jäger zu Pferd charged into the rear). Over four hundred were taken prisoner and four guns were dismounted. About a hundred guardsmen on the right followed the flag to make their escape into a small clump”.  And there was another part in the text that struck me : “Napoleon tried to fire up the battalion of the 72e for one last effort but they declined. Lannes demanded that Bessiéres tackle Gottesehim front line with the Guard cavalry to relieve the pressure on his infantry, but the sight of two battalions of IR28 with muskets ready brought a similar response from the cavalry commander.”
And one last thing:” The First Consul wanted Boudet’s division to cover the retreat, but Desaix knew a renewed battle could be won”.

In short : the article : the Guard performed well with almost no losses and Napoleon master of the situation counter attacked and won.  Osprey: the guard was destroyed, Napoleon wanted to retreat but Desaix convinced him to renew the fight to win the battle.

As I suppose Mr Kelly didn’t improvise but relied on a source, I think we have here conflicting information on the battle.

I find it strange  that 200 years after the facts, there can still be totally different accepted sources.  It can only be that chauvinism and nationalism still colours the view of historians, often misleading the public.

As I also speak and read French, I have also some French publications on battles of the Napoleonic period. It struck me their account on battles is often totally different from the Osprey publications. A few examples: in a publication “Aspern-Essling: Napoleons first defeat?” . In their view the 1809 battle wasn’t  really a defeat. Strange: what else can it be if one is driven of the battlefield.  On wagram:  in a book on Napoleonic battles in French: the French had many trophies (flags and guns captured) the Austrians none. Osprey: the Austrian had captured more trophies than the French and for Napoleon the battle was a draw.

I find it hard to believe that something that happened two hundred years ago is still delicate. I think there is no glory in “colouring” the facts.  I won’t think less of the French or Napoleon with the Osprey account.  Of course, if the osprey account isn’t correct, it should be adjusted, but I don’t think there is no reason for a British historian  to “change the facts” of Marengo.  Where my respect crumbles is for those who change or deny facts to make themselves feel better.  Of course, in the past, there were written a lot of books and studies, that suffer from the same illness. It is sometimes hard to find sources that have an objective approach.

But it is not only the French that have tendency to history. See my posting on Waterloo (saw in a list of publications a book on the Waterloo campaign that’s called “Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe's Destiny”. My God, does the author really believes that???).

I hope one day, facts will be just that in historical publications.


  1. Interesting piece written above. One I want to contribute to in this way.
    Both the ideas 'source' and 'truth' are not defined in an absolute way. Every well respected secondary-school (and upwards) history book will start with a chapter where the connotation of historical sources are brought under attention of the students (and other readers). This is not only the case within this field of interest, (military) history. Parallels can be seen in the high regarded basic research; being medical, physics, mathematics or any other. People can have different reasons for this. I do not even exclude the possibility that the author of the source acts unintentional, misled by in- or external factors. On top of this: humans can gain the phycological variation to only believe what the 'in persona' brain accepted as correct and true. It's what leading your life does (and did) to some of us. True wisdom lies within the acceptance of the fact that thruth, as a a fact, DOES not exist but CAN exist when founded in a dialogical manner. In other words and concerning this post. One must always use as much sources as one can find. Question every source (are there political, financial, personal- or other 'colored ' contributing). One must also not forget that the freedom of thinking and free-spreech dates from the Enlightenment, roughly the times of the French and American revolutions. So talking Napoleonic battles and before that, those principles were only in their infancy and strongly effected the generic sources dating from those times. Reasons to be even more alert.
    What Soren Kierkegaard (a Danish philosopher) once warned for -people more and more compensate their, not using the ability- and freedom of thinking, by feeling a right to say and write whatever they want- (and doing so!). I must sadly agree with him there.

  2. Indeed.truth is not an exact given. But a fact, as in the example cannot be both one thing and the opposite at the same time.
    In case of the Guard example one (and maybe both) testimony is a lie.

  3. The various sources from which these conclusions came will have to be researched more in depth and breadth. I would conclude that Osprey or WS&S (or indeed both) reasoned into opposite leading funnels that, indeed, can never come to a satisfying reconstruction of the situation in real. Lies and misleading facts and figures during wartime are probably as old as since man caught his first prey. It will have been exaggerated, made more heroic or obscured weakness of the hunter. One has to be able to read in-between this. And again, only multiple sources from both sides can build up a situation that's closer to reality than lesser sources can. Facts too are food for the subjectivity of the one who noted it down. There's no black and white here, I think.