Towards 2015. In The Footsteps of Napoleon

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My guest this month is an intrepid traveller, history buff and guide extraordinary, Alain Poirot

Alain is a long term resident of the Provence and passionate follower of Napoleonic campaign reenactments. Battlefield re-enactments add a different dimension to memorials. They bring out the full spectacle, the identifying colored uniforms,the regimental flags and the moving patterns of what was a chess game of life and death.

They are a glimpse into the past, an attempt to understand historical experience in a way that will frequently elude the armchair campaigner writing detailed footnotes. It is possible to claim that no landscape feels as haunted as the scene of a battle. Otto von Bismarck expressed that clearly, “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood “.

Over many years, Alain has walked over battlefields, from Waterloo to Austerlitz and on to the grim field of Borodino on the road to Moscow.

Lev Tolstoy, writing in “War and Peace”, saw it all as being “…opposed to human reason” and thought that “in historical events, great men-so-called-are but labels serving to give a name to the event.” Napoleon himself claimed that “soldiers generally win battles; generals get the credit for them”, and yet, for more than a century, military theory and practice was constantly measured against the genius, and myth, of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew very well that, not being a genuine monarch, he could never afford defeat.

We asked Alain a number of leading questions  about his fascinating interest.

LGQ : How long have you been going to Re-enactments ? 

First time was in 2001……. I had read many books on the subject but had never been to any of the battlefields. We travelled by coach from Épinal in the Vosges all the way to Moscow and back, following in the footsteps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Of course, going to Russia added to the spirit of adventure.

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What made quite an impression on me, was visiting  the site of the Berezina  river crossing in what is today Belarus. Nothing has really changed there since 1812 ! The houses in Studzienka  (the village where the two bridges over the Berezina were built) most likely look much the same as they did in 1812 …(thanks to communism) still entirely built of wood. The fields and forests are still there…no industry,  no modern buildings. One can virtually believe that Napoleon and what was left of his army saw the same landscape.

The word “ Bérézina “ has in french become synonymous with disaster. The battle of the Berezina took place on  26-29 november 1812. In itself the battle was a victory for the  French as they managed to cross the river over the two bridges built on the orders of General Eblé and his 400 mostly Dutch bridge engineers. For the Russians it was a military defeat as about 50.000  French soldiers crossed safely to the right bank of the river. However…after the crossing of the Berezina one could say that the “ Grande Armée” did not exist anymore. In the next few days the temperature dropped to – 20/30 celsius.

The next tipping point for me was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz in 2005 , near the Czech city of Brno.There I realized the importance of the 100 and the 200-year commemorations. More participants, more money is made available to organize such an event . There is much more adrenaline ….it is like drinking champagne  instead of wine !

LGQ: What got you involved ?

Reading books on the subject

LGQ: What preparations do you have to make?

All the practical elements : hotel reservations / equipment /  visas for both Russia and Belarus have to be arranged / reading / maps

LGQ  : Which battles have you attended?

The first re-enactment I saw was  of Borodino in 2001 (in Russia about 100 km from Moscow). I was with a group of  French people, all passionate followers of Napoleonic history. That year I also visited the battlefields of Austerlitz and of course the Crossing of the Berezina.

DSC_0745The next re-enactment was in December 2005 . It was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz,  still remembered today as Napoleon’s greatest victory. It was also the battle of which he was most proud ( he defeated the combined forces of the Russians/Austrians and the Prussians ). This is a battle which is still studied today in Military Academies all over the Globe.

I also went to the 2006 Austerlitz re-enactment and realized there the importance of the 200 year commemorations. They are special occasions…more excitement…more action… more spectacle .The battle which took place on December 2 , 1805 has given birth to a now very famous exclamation …”le beau soleil d’Austerlitz”

Napoleon had observed during the previous days of the battle that the morning mist regularly filled the lowland and was then slowly burnt off by the winter sun .He used that mist to disguise his troops and make a surprise attack on the Pratzen plateau. The Russians who held the Pratzen plateau were routed and it was a turning point in that day’s battle as Napoleon had split the enemy line.

On the 5th of December 2005…..the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow….it was freezing and the mist was there as well as the sun . It was perfect !

 LGQ : What do you feel you get out of it ?

Going back into the past. History.The closest I can come to how it really happened.

It is amazing what  fascination all those different nationalities have for the personage of Napoleon, whether they are French, Belgium, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, Italian, American, Canadian, etc

LGQ: Why do people participate in re-enactments ?

Going back into a time capsule…the attempt at capturing the real events… It is like living an adventure

In Borodino, participants in the re-enactment also recreated for themselves the  encampments near the battlefields with tents  identical to those used in 1812,  open wood fires for keeping warm and for preparing the food.

In December 2005 at Austerlitz,  people camped outside, near the battleground in freezing cold weather…..

In the real invasion of Russia there were 30.000 dead on Napoleon’s side and 60.000 on the Russian side at Borodino alone. About 650.000 men from various nations set out with the Grande Armée and took with them 28 million bottles of wine .

LGQ: Which future events are you preparing  for?

Waterloo  2015 and St Helena  2021

It is also amazing to see that the participants in those re-enactments come from various countries like Belgium/ France / Switzerland / Poland / Czech Rep / Italy / Russia / Belarus / Holland / USA / etc etc

These events have caught the imagination of literally thousands of men and women across the globe. At the last Borodino reenactment  there were over 100.000 spectators.

Napoleon is usually played by either Frank Samson of France or Mark Schneider of the United States of America.

The role of Napoleon at Waterloo 2015 has not been attributed yet  but will be given to either one of these two men….A fierce competition is going on between the two for this prestigious role.

DSC_0788At the major re-enactments of Austerlitz 2005 and Borodino 2012, Napoleon was played by Mark Schneider ,an actor from Virginia who looks a bit like Napoleon, he is an excellent horse rider who has earned the reputation of playing the role  vigorously.

Frank Samson is a lawyer  who has studied Napoleon’s native tongue. He, of course, is a bit dismissive of the American, a Napoleon played by an Anglo-Saxon , Quel horror ! ( please note that the role of Wellington is presently played by a New Zealander !?) The organizing  committee of Waterloo 2015 face a difficult task taking a decision. Albeit…in the late 1980’s, six Napoleons turned up at a reenactment event at Waterloo!

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