Thursday, June 21, 2012

Budgeting the Lives of Men: An interview with historical fiction author M.M. Bennetts

Today I have the pleasure of again talking with historical fiction author and Napoleonic Wars expert M.M. Bennetts.

Prince Alexander Tchernyschev 

1) Please tell us about your book.

The new book is titled Or Fear of Peace. It opens in the summer of 1813, with a break-in and some more espionage. (I like espionage.) Then the action moves to Continental Europe--to Prussia and Saxony, France and Austria--to cover the battles there and the fall of Napoleon in 1813-14.

When I began work on Of Honest Fame, my last book, I thought it was going to end one way. Only it didn't. Book three was intended to focus on Italy and its travails during the Napoleonic period. But then, Of Honest Fame ended so fluidly, and there were, all of a sudden, all of these readers bombarding me with, "What next? What happened next?" Which I hadn't expected.

So I began to rethink and ruminate, to stop trying to impose my will on the history and the characters and let it show itself to me.

I never wanted to write a direct sequel. I had always favoured the Trollopian not-quite-a-sequel method instead. But after much consideration, I knew that there were still many issues I needed to cover with at least some of the characters from the previous book. So despite my misgivings, the new book is a sequel to the last one, and will take these characters through to the end of the war in 1814.

2) One wouldn't be surprised if an English author focused primarily on English characters and situations in a book set during the Napoleonic Wars. Now, you've done that previously with May 1812 and Of Honest Fame though you've definitely had more international situations. What made you interested in focusing more on the Russian Front of the war?

I think, generally because of Austen, we may imagine that the British weren't up to their ears in the European theatre of war. She only refers to the Napoleonic conflict obliquely. Though of course, Wellington was leading the British troops and their allies to victory against the French in Spain at the time. And that's got quite a lot of heroism and derring-do, and that's tended to be our focus if we have considered the Continental situation at all.

Also, history is taught in boxes at the university level--English history, Scottish history, Polish history, Russian's like food on a child's plate, don't let the peas touch the mash and for heaven's sake don't let the mash touch the...

But that's not how it was, at least not at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The sheer scale of the war had forced the isolationist British to forge alliance after alliance to beat Napoleon, so they were in there with both feet. The educated Russians spoke French, as did the educated Prussians and Austrians. Viscount Castlereagh spoke French adequately, although his study was always littered with French novels so that he could understand them better. His brother was a diplomatic aide to the Russians.

The Russian head of intelligence in Paris was also working with London. Pozzo di Borgo was a Corsican who worked for both the Russians and the British. And the cultural encounters and barriers that these people broke through in order to unite so that they could fight back to back and beat Napoleon and his unconquerable Grande Armee. That's an amazing story in itself!

In terms of our understanding of the situation though, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism opened up all sorts of avenues for research which had been closed to Westerners, in some cases for nearly a century. The Russian war effort against Napoleon was one of these.

I'm by nature the most side-trackable researcher and historian. I'll get fascinated by one thing which will lead me completely off and then I'll find another thing, of equal fascination, and I'll track that down. And I always want to know more. And more.

As a result of researching Of Honest Fame, I came across Adam Zamoyski's stellar 1812, about the disastrous French invasion of Russia. Subsequently, I encountered the work of Dominic Lieven and his astounding Russia Against Napoleon. He's a case of a Westerner gaining access to sources that no one has seen for maybe 150-200 years.

So suddenly, instead of a history of the Napoleonic era told by Brits to celebrate the achievements of Brits, here's a volume looking at the extra-ordinary achievement of Russia--which was a vast but in many ways backward and poor country--in opposing Napoleon from the east: recruiting and modernising the army, transporting hundreds of thousands of men across hundreds of thousands of miles, organising supply trains that stretched over half a continent. The logistics alone take one's breath away! But there was this ferocious bravery amidst all these forgotten battles too. Every page was a revelation!

That said, I've also got rerouted into the Prussian theatre of war and the splendid defence of Berlin in the autumn of 1813. Did you know there were three distinct armies formed by the allies to take Napoleon on from the east? The Army of the North was composed of Cossacks, Swedes under the former French Marechal Bernadotte (who turns out to be a bit of a skunk), and Prussians. Amazing! 

Lord Castlereagh

3) Tell us a little about your main characters.

Well, because of those readers I told you were nagging me, Boy Tirrell, one of the protagonists from Of Honest Fame, is obviously present and accounted for, spying and generally making a nuisance of himself.

Lord Castlereagh is also a main player--he was on the Continent from January through April 1814, as part of the Allied Command, the moving headquarters of Tsar Alexander, the Prussian King, and Metternich--the Austrian Foreign Minister. For after all, Britain was basically paying for the whole show through million-pound subsidies to the various European powers.

Captain Shuster will also once again be donning his uniform and making his presence felt in Saxony, and Dunphail will be showing his face as well.

But there are a raft of new characters too.

Charles Vane Stewart, Castlereagh's younger half-brother, was with the Russian army as an ADC. He was present at all the major battles and he's a tremendous character--he wrote his brother frequently with the inside scoop on all the operations, following the death of his wife in 1812 he suffered from depression, he drank like a fish, he was wild, handsome, effervescent and utterly charming.

I've also found a rather superlative Russian envoy, diplomat, spy and General in the Russian Army, who led these columns of Cossacks against the retreating French, harassing them, nabbing their couriers, creating these clouds of confusion around the French commanders so that they often didn't have a clue where they were meant to be or who they were meant to be linking up with. Because of him, and his Cossacks, often the Allies knew far more about the French movements than the French did. It's all great stuff and he's just fantastic.

4) You've previously described your first book as a "love/war story examining domestic crises" and your second book as "Bennetts without the nice". What does that make this third book?

Ha ha ha. Can I get back to you on that one?

It's about the war.

There was so much more to this war than most of us can even comprehend. So many more battles, battles which utterly destroyed the villages where people had lived and worked for centuries. The pillaging of whole countries. And in 1813-14, here were these four vast armies of 200,000-300,000 men plus horses, camped our across Central Europe--from Poland across Austria, Saxony, Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) and all the way north to the Baltic Sea, consuming everything in sight and then going hungry. Deserters everywhere--the just laid down their arms and melted away. The refugee problem was a crisis beyond mentioning.

And there's almost nothing written about it all in English. Traditionally, we've just looked the other way. I can't do that.

5) A lot of brilliant historical work has been done in recent decades that has given us far greater insight into the Napoleonic Wars from the both the perspective of the English and the French. Can you tell us a bit about the status of historical research and materials as far as the Russian-related campaigns?

The Russian experience of the war is just opening up for historians, really. And it's slow work, primarily because of the language barrier. But there's also the West's decades-old lack of trust in the Russians. A lot of which, actually, turns out to have started with Napoleonic propaganda.

For example, French lore about the taking of Paris by the Russians in April 1814 tell us that the streets were filled with these unclean, shaggy, ferocious creatures on shaggy ponies--Cossacks--and they were abusive to the Parisians, etc. But that turns out to be propaganda. Alexander had kept back his best regiments for the taking of Paris and when he led them into the city, they were all in their newest, most polished, best uniforms. And they were welcomed. It was a dazzling spectacle, just as Alexander intended it to be. He saw himself as Europe's saviour and that's how he presented himself in Paris. There was no looting. No pillage. And the Cossacks who did ride into the city, they may have looked outlandish to Parisian eyes, but they weren't the savages the press latterly made them out to be.

And there's an even greater absence of source material on Prussia and on their contribution to the defeat of Napoleon. And they were absolutely key. But at the moment, I'm working from one of the few books in English to treat the defence of Berlin in 1813.

So although I hope like anything to get everything correct, I equally sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of our research and recognition that the defeat of Napoleon was a massive Allied effort: it took all of Europe fighting together to bring him down, with all hands contributing as and however they could.

6) The Russian winter did quite the number on the Grand Armée, but the Russians certainly helped things along by making sure there would be nothing for the French as they moved deeper into Russia. Of course, the French paid dearly in lives, but what sort of impact did this combination of scorched Earth and Fabian strategies have on the Russians?

There are two sides to that. The French beggared the countries in which they were quartered before the invasion. And Napoleon intended, as he always did, to have his troops live off the land. But the harvest was late in 1812, so there was nothing for his troops nor for his horses to eat. Probably half his army had died of dysentery, starvation and dehydration before they ever crossed the border into Russia.

Then too, it can be very hard for anyone to understand just how vast Russia is. Napoleon may have invaded Russia and it may have made mincemeat of him and his troops, but there was so much more to Russia than he could ever comprehend. He only dipped his toe in.

His invasion did leave the Russian army in pretty bad nick. Yes. But Kutuzov, the Russian general, was very wise in retreat and by pulling back and pulling back, he did much to save the heart of the army allowing them enough R&R so they could live to fight another day.

Equally, within about five minutes of Napoleon's retreat, the orders went out for massive mobilisation to refill the ranks of the army. Equally, the Russian civil service threw its whole might into requisitioning not just grain, but also horses, carts for transport, uniforms, wood for grain depots. With Napoleon's retreat too, the ports were once again open to British trade--and British subsidies started flowing in.

But never underestimate the sacrifice and determination of the Russian peoples to get another army together to once and for all rid Europe of the man they considered the anti-Christ.

7) In the end, Napoleon was defeated. Many historical perspectives on him are written from the perspectives of the winners and paint a portrait of a talented yet egotistical man who ultimately let his reach exceed his grasp. Some historians have suggested that Napoleon gets a bit of a bad rap and that he wasn't any worse than many ambitious leaders at the time. He even had some rather modern ideas about things social mobility and education. Others point out that the Napoleonic Wars devastated Europe and, in many ways, that level of Continental warfare would not be repeated until The War To End All Wars, World War I. Could you give us your thoughts on Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars?

If I take a step back from my current work, I'd have to say there are probably several periods in Napoleon's rule and some were definitely more constructive and positive than others.

France, when Napoleon launched his coup, was a mess. And he brought a sense of order to a fragmenting chaotic country. With his rule, people started to know where they were once more and could function in some proper way for the first time in years.

But over time, that proper sense of order was eroded and replaced with a military dictatorship, conquering and ruling over Europe like the greatest of all Mafia kings, and that wasn't so good. His complete and utter disregard for human life sits at odds with any developing sense of morality or human rights. He used to say, "I have an income of 85,000 troops a year" and he always outspent himself. And this constant demand for more troops, the dreadful burden of conscription, decimated the European population. They didn't call it 'the blood tax' for nothing. Outside of France, he was hated.

We consider his rule from the point of view of the French Empire because he was very good at self-promotion. But what about from the point of view of the conquered nations? The Italians? The Prussians? The Saxons? The Dutch? The Spanish? The Poles? How was it for them? How was it to watch your young men be taken--often in chains--off to fight someone else's war, knowing that your son, brother, husband would never return? These are the questions I ask myself about the period.

On the battlefield, in his prime, no one could beat Napoleon. But he believed his own propaganda. And that's always a disaster--it made him beatable.

He certainly was crazed with egomania. I don't think there can be any doubt about that. And that led him to doing very stupid things. For example, all of his marechals and generals, whilst they may have been super at executing his orders, they lacked initiative, or even intelligence--without him pulling their strings, they fell to bits, they argued with each other, they fell to robbing the districts where they were lodged, they were insubordinate, they couldn't manage their own troops. Which isn't so great when you're trying to fight a war on more than one front.

And I think that by the end, by 1814, he had become a deranged monster. The suffering he inflicted on France was unspeakable. I'm not saying he hadn't brought the same measures of deprivation and disaster everywhere else he visited. He had. He fully, whenever he deemed it appropriate, unleashed the most horrific levels of terror upon resisting populations.

But do you know, when the Prussians invaded France in the spring of 1814--though they were well-up for a spot of pillage and looting as payback for what the French had done to them--their letters back home are full of their shock at the poverty and destitution of eastern France. They didn't loot and pillage, there was literally nothing to take. Napoleon had taken it all already.

He lost the war and his army was conquered in 1814 frankly because he ran out of everything. He'd lost over half a million troops in Russia in 1812. He lost 175,000 horses there as well. He'd raised another vast army by late spring 1813, but he couldn't replace the horses--so very little cavalry, and no supply trains. Then he fought the Allies at Leipzig and lost. Spectacularly. 73,000 French casualties.

And he couldn't afford that--he couldn't replace those troops. France was exhausted and he no longer had the manpower of his satellite states to draw upon either. The Banque de France was out of money. There was nothing for his remaining soldiers to eat and some 25% of them had typhus anyway. He had brought France and his army to their knees. There was nothing left. It took Europe nearly 100 years to recover the pre-Revolutionary population numbers. It was Greek tragedy, but on a continental scale.

8) There's a lot of fertile literary ground in the Napoleonic Wars. Do you intend to keep writing about this period or do you have something else in mind for future works?

Well, I've already begun the research for a novel set during the invasion of France in 1814, but this time from the point of view of the British army who invaded with Wellington, fighting their way through Spain and over the Pyrenees into southwestern France. So that's next. I think. If I don't get side-tracked. Ha ha ha.

And there's always the Congress of Vienna. So many parties. So many diplomats. So much spying.

As always, it's been such a pleasure to visit with you, J.A., and talk about this stuff which is so close to my heart. Thank you for having me.


Thanks, M.M.

If you'd like to read more from M.M., please visit her blog at

If you'd like to read an earlier interview with M.M., please click here.


Tinney Heath said...

I am so looking forward to reading this next book. The first two were amazing - some of the best historical fiction I have ever read, and I've read a lot. Thanks for this interview.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for stopping by.

K. A. Jordan said...

I remember MM from Authonomy, but lost touch when that group scattered to the winds.

Glad to see you're busy publishing. This is a fasinating(sp?) interview. I never thought that the fall of the Berlin Wall would grant access to new historical documents. I'll put your new books on my to-read list.