When we have visitors or, as often, without and just because I can, I go and have a little tête-à-tête with Napoléon. He sits on his mount, ‘Marengo’ surveying Lac Laffrey about half an hour out of the city. The statue of him was originally installed in Grenoble in 1868 and was moved to it’s present site where he can look out over the water and the mountains in 1929.
On a recent visit one of my daughters asked me why people still think Napoléon was a such a great man. Of course that is a major simplification and I don’t intend to go into a detailed account of all the pros and cons of his undoubtedly iconic era but it would be wrong not to note that it includes the institution of the Napoléonic Code (or French Civil Code) parts of which are still in use around the world today. It forbad privilege based on birth, allowed freedom of religion and stated that government jobs must be given to the most qualified all of which might sound pretty musical to modern ears, I would contend. These facts might be received with some surprise by those brought up with the British version of history which tends to tell of his war-mongering and unabandoned desire to dominate the planet. The joy of Nelson’s triumph over him at Trafalgar ranks high as does his catastrophic mistake in trying to conquer Russia in winter. And of course Waterloo where he might have quoted the equally iconic Benny and Bjorn of Abba, in admitting that he was ‘finally meeting my Waterloo’.
So I told her the story of what happened at Laffrey in 1815. After the messy mistakes of 1814 when his armies had been frozen and starved into submission in Russia and simultaneously the British had made rather more headway than was cozy on French soil, he surrendered. The allies had him sent to the Island of Elba in exile. It’s not far from France – in fact rather appropriately it lies between Corsica, where he was born, and Italy from whence his parents both haled. Unfortunately for the European allies who were collectively breathing a sigh of relief, patting themselves on the back for a job well done and adjourning to a jolly fine restaurant to celebrate their undoubted brilliance, this was not a man who was going to wear a stripey prison suit and stare wistfully at the nearby mainland coast dreaming of prior greatness. Not a bit of it. Even before he was dispatched he had negotiated what might seem rather decent terms. He was allowed to keep his trusty and, by all accounts magnificent, Marengo, he dressed everyday in his customary cashmere culottes fresh pairs of which were shipped in weekly, his fine military jacket and crucially his trademark hat which he always wore in a jaunty horizontal, jutting out right and left far beyond each ear rather than the traditional North-South in order that he could be picked out instantly by his troops. He strutted around content that he was simply taking a little rest, a retreat if you will, and he plotted.
In March 1815, just a year after his surrender, he made his move. Abetted by his so called guards, he sailed back to France (complete with horse) landing in Golfe-Juan on the Côte d’Azur his plan to march with his 900 fusiliers back to Paris. Waiting for his arrival were plenteous faithful on standby for the word that it was game on. Avoiding Marseilles where the ‘desiré’, King Louis XVIII, had a copious barracks full of his own soldiers, he landed and processed through Grasses, Digne les Bains and Sisteron en route through the high French Alps. This passage forever after and to this day known as la Route Napoléon is, to be frank, not the easiest of drives in a modern car and I can barely imagine what it must have been like on horse-back and foot over 200 years ago in March which is frequently still wintry and bitter in the mountains. Admittedly it was probably a wise move not to insist on elephants as Hannibal had in 218 BC, but I equally don’t doubt that there was a nod to that feat, our Bonaparte being well disposed to all things Roman, even their defeat at the hands of a mighty strategist in them there hills. As he proudly progressed, more and more soldiers joined his ranks and by the time he reached Laffrey he had a very decent batallion with him. But here stood a problem for here stood the Kings men, guns pointed and cocked, swords ready to swash out of their well-oiled buckles and swipe lethally at the merest deft twitch of a hand all under orders from their Monarch to stop him. And stop he did. Slowly, Napoléon dismounted his horse and stood, cashmere culottes giving him the comfortable and familiar feeling of Emporordom, west to east hat reminding all fore and aft that they were facing or following Napoléon himself and uttered calmly: ‘Soldats ! je suis votre Empereur. Ne me reconnaissez-vous pas?’ – ‘soldiers, I am your Emperor, do you not recognise me?’. Then he took several steps forward, stuck out his admittedly rather fine example of a barrel chest and declared ‘S’il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son général, me voilà !’ – ‘if any of you want to kill your General, here I am!’ There followed the tiniest nano-nod to the briefest micro-pause and then a riotous and tumultuous cheer. The entire troop, all the kings men themselves, fell in behind him to march decisively onwards and later that day he descended triumphant into Grenoble.
Now what stands out to me about this story is the sheer force of personality, the charisma and the brazen confidence that he was indeed the leader and that no-one would dare to stop him. We are, of course led to believe that he was a tiny man though I understand that this was British propaganda and that he was actually of average height for the day, but nonetheless and whatever his stature, really that is quite a stunt and I adore the story.
The picture is taken from le Vercors looking over to the slopes of le Grande Serre and specifically Taillefer. Look closely and you can see that the forest on the slope is in the shape of an eagle. Some say it is a natural phenomenon but it seems to me quite a strange coincidence that the trees should have naturally taken the form of Napoléon’s preferred emblem by happenchance. I was told that he ordered a forest be planted in the shape of two eagles and if you look to the right of the intact one you can make out the wings of a second which has seemingly and rather unfortunately lost it’s head in all the unfettered excitement. Perhaps he didn’t have the time to issue such grandiose orders, after all he only relit his fire for a further hundred days before succumbing to Wellington at Waterloo and being summarily dismissed to live on Saint Helena, remote in the South Atlantic where he died supposedly of stomach cancer. In fact many believe he actually died of arsenic poisoning. I tend to believe the latter theory – after all, who was going to risk this hypnotically powerful man casting his charming spell on a fresh batch of conspiritors and causing a mighty headache to Europe all over again? If that is my given, then I prefer to believe that the people themselves either planted or felled trees to create the eagles that would forever remind those casting their eyes towards Laffrey that it’s place in history was earned at the hands of this mesmerizing and magnetic man.
History, you see, is not entirely finite, it lies in the hands of the storyteller. Is it myth, legend, a story so old that no-one can remember what is true any more? Probably. And I rather like my version. It sits kindly and if you would kindly remember, out of all things can come good if we let it. No one wants another Napoléon hawking his desire for conquest across a continent, but in the end it must be reconciled that he left a legacy that benefitted not just his own kinspeople but those that live, for example in Western Europe – even if he would have preferred the whole of Europe to be called la France ….
And what has promted this little detour into French history as retold by me? The weekly photo challenge is titled ‘Story’ and since recanting stories is what I do, I thought I would go for a big one and leave you to spot the eagle(s). You can find a glittering gallery of entries to the field, here.
Disclaimer: No-one has been harmed in my retelling of this tale so whilst begging your pardon for my poetic licence I beg you not to throw rocks at me for any sins of omission or erroneous embellishment
PS: My title is taken from Tennyson’s powerfully simple poem ‘The Eagle’:
And your bonus …. The Eagles – well I would, wouldn’t I? Desperado seems to fit the mood of those last hundred days and the film has horses and guns and you can by all means make the rest of the story up for yourselves … personally, I find it a lovely diversion.