06 July 2015

Waterloo and French literature

Many years ago I had a Classics Illustrated Comic called "Waterloo" based on a novel by someone I'd never heard of nor could ever remember. I copied the pictures of the soldiers a lot and for a long time it was all I knew about the battle of Waterloo.

Now I am all grown up. Erckmann-Chatrian were a pair of writers who wrote historical novels about French history. When I checked what they had written I found that Waterloo was actually a sequel to The Conscript: The Story of the French War of 1813. Naturally I went to gutenberg.org to find a copy and began to read, expecting the usual late nineteenth century pro-Emperor, pro-gloire rhetoric. I was quite taken aback by the following quote:

If those who are now masters, and who tell us that God placed them here on earth to make us happy, would foresee at the beginning of a campaign the poor old men, the hapless mothers, whose very hearts they have torn away to satisfy their pride—if they could see the tears and hear the groans of these poor people when they are coldly told 'Your son is dead; you will see him no more; he perished, crushed by horses' hoofs, or torn to pieces by a cannon-ball, or died mayhap afar off in a hospital, after having his arm or leg cut off,—burning with fever, without one kind word to console him, but calling for his parents as when he was an infant,'—if, I say, these haughty ones of earth could thus see the tears of those mothers, I do not believe that one among them would be barbarous enough to continue the war. But they think nothing of this; they think other folks do not love their children as they love theirs; they think people are no more than beasts. They are wrong; all their great genius, their lofty notions of glory, are as nothing, for there is only one thing for which a people should fly to arms—men, women, children—old and young. It is when their liberty is assailed as ours was in '92—then all should die or conquer together; he who remains behind is a coward, who would have others fight for him;—the victory then is not for a few, but for all;—then sons and fathers are defending their families; if they are killed, it is a misfortune, to be sure, but they die for their rights. Such a man, Joseph, is the only just one, the one of which no one can complain; all others are shameful, and the glory they bring is not glory fit for a man, but only for a wild beast."'


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