Posts Tagged ‘Napoleon’

There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

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There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

A short micro-history on “The Myth of The Tragedy of the Commons”

Many European mountain communities held on to their common rights to use the forest well into the 19th century. Elinor Ostrom is fond of highlighting the example of how this was the case in the Swiss Alps – where viable and long-standing communal use and ownership patterns in the highlands co-existed with private ownership in the valleys. Such was also the case in the French Pyrenees in the early decades of the 19th century.

This was still a highly forested and remote world. Local historian Georges Labouysse describes it thus: ‘The conditions of life of these mountain dwellers were hard. They live in autarky in remote valleys where the means of communication were difficult…. They didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Most of the time they weren’t even aware of the successive changes of regime since the Revolution: from 1815 to 1830 as follows: Napoleon 1st, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe: four sovereigns in fifteen years!’ He goes on to tell us:

From times immemorial, the poor country people of the Pyrenees had freely used the forest to survive: tree trunks to construct their houses, dead wood to warm themselves, grazing for small herds, poaching and wild foraging and clearing and burning to create  a few pastures.

A charcoal burner’s hut in the forest

These community rights of usage (usufruct) were coupled with quite widespread communal ownership of land and, particularly, of forests. In fact, French historians have shown that, in contrast to the situation in the rest of France, in the Pyrenees forests were, in the majority of cases, owned in common by the local communities who lived in them. Some such communal rights and ownership patterns went back to Roman and Visigoth times, but others had had to be extracted in the early Middle Ages from the local Lords – either voluntarily or often after long fights. What is more, these rights of use did not constitute a free-for-all. Just as with the English ‘commons’, these mountain communities knew precisely who had a right to what and the extent of these rights in terms of how much could be used or taken. Mostly these rights were not written down, which was to cause problems later on, but they were explicit and informal mechanisms had evolved to ensure that the rights were not abused.

In terms of any Tragedy of the Commons, the first important point here is that there wasn’t one. The local communities had used the forests for centuries, and although they had carved out a few small plots to cultivate agricultural products, or on which to graze their cattle, there had been negligible impact on the extent of forest cover and on the health of the trees. Such communities led a rather meager life to be sure, but it had certainly been, to use a modern word, ‘sustainable’.

Yet things were changing in the outside world, and not just in terms of monarchs. In the early days of the French Revolution, communities were turned into ‘communes’, but these communes remained the proprietors of the forests. Things soon changed when Napoleon took charge of the country. He called the Ariège, the Pyrenean region with which I will be primarily concerned, ‘the land of iron and of men’. He had need of both – the men for his armies, and the iron mines to supply his forges. He also needed the Pyrenean forests to supply charcoal for these forges. So he nationalized them all – they all became the property of the state. It was at this time, and over the next few decades, that deforestation in the Pyrenees started to pick up.

Iron forges like this sprang up all over the Pyrenees – they consumed huge quantities of charcoal

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ‘national’ forests were privatized. They were sold, often at knock-down prices, to the ‘rich bourgeoisie’. They became private property. The new proprietors of the forests, who were often also the owners of the large iron forges of the region, didn’t want to have any truck with the local communities’ ancestral forest rights, which they vehemently contested. Their sole interest was their own profit. Many significant fortunes were made by cutting down the trees ‘sans pitié’ to feed a rising French industry and its steam engines. It should be added that French industry was at this time (the 1820s and 1830s) still almost totally dependent on charcoal – only much later did coal come into general use.

The new regime was brought into law in 1827, with the passing of a national Forest Code. All rights of forest usage were suppressed and any ‘paysan’ who continued to exercise such rights would in future be considered, literally, an outlaw and be liable to huge fines or imprisonment. During the debates, one Deputy explicitly stated why the Forest Code was necessary:

Industry whose prosperity is growing every day demands immense resources from our forests, (resources) that mining in the entrails of the earth can’t replace, above all for reasons of combustible quality.

No question here of any Tragedy of the Commons or such like. Industry needed the wood and thus the forests would fall. To enforce their private property rights the new proprietors kicked the local people off the land and recruited ‘forest guards’ to keep them off. For the local communities all this was a disaster. For generations they had relied on the forests to survive; now they were facing destitution. Most local people couldn’t be expected to fully understand the larger political and economic forces that were starting to play out, but they could see what the consequences were for themselves in their own locales. They had been kicked out of their ‘ancestral’ forests, hated forest guards had been employed to keep them out, whole swathes of forest were being felled and more and more charcoal burning forges were appearing everywhere.

They had to resist. Starting 1n 1828 they did so. This was the famous (at least locally) Guerre des Demoiselles. The new forest proprietors, who were usually also the owners of the forges, had contested the communities’ right to use the forests. When the communities had sought redress in the local courts they were asked to show written documentary proof. Of course such ‘charters’ granting these rights had either never existed or had long since been destroyed. But the locals looked for them in any case. On the 4th September 1828 they broke into the Town Hall of Sentein in the Ariège and broke open chests looking for such documentary proof – but in vain. Labouysse describes what happened next, in despair:

They undertook actions which were to mark the collective memory of this country (pays). Thus in February 1829, in the forest of Bethmale, the agents of repression – the famous forest guards paid by the private proprietors or by the State and whom the population called Salamanders (because their uniforms were black and yellow) roughly searched the houses of a few isolated peasants. Suddenly eight men appeared, disguised and armed with various instruments, who chased them away. This is the start of a permanent insurrection.

In 1829 and 1830 the resistance grew and spread over the whole region. Eventually it is estimated that 150,000 people were involved. In general, the resistance was comprised of young men, usually under twenty, joined by numerous veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The bands became larger, and local leaders emerged. The most famous of these was called ‘Vidalou’ – in reality a certain Jean-Baptiste Lafforgue. Wherever they went, the forest guards, the Salamanders, were confronted by groups of such ‘disguised’ young men, who tried to stop them preventing access to the forests. They were in fact disguised as women or ladies (Demoiselles), hence the name given to the insurrection: La Guerre des Demoiselles. On eyewitness has left us this description of the Demoiselles:

The leader with whom I spoke was very tall, wore a underskirt over his …  grey trousers, had a sheep’s skin on his head which covered his whole face, (and) where he had made three openings to be able to see and breath; he wore a light cavalry sabre. Another, armed with an axe and of normal height, was covered with a dress tightened with a red belt to which was attached a pistol; his face was smeared black, with pig bristles implanted all over his face, and mainly in his eyebrows and top lip; he was ‘coiffured’ with a ‘shako’ (a hussar’s helmet). The rest of the band was more or less dressed in the same manner.

The bizarre disguises were necessary to prevent the Demoiselles from being identified. When individuals were brought before the courts they were often released because there was no solid evidence as to true their identity. Yet the manner in which they were dressed also finds echoes in the history of the local carnivals when, similar to the tradition in much of Europe, for a few days each year the world really was ‘turned upside down’. Lords served the peasants and women lorded it over men.

The Demoiselles had the support of nearly all the local population, including most of the village Mayors. The prefect of the Ariège wrote to the French Minister of the Interior in 1830 that it wouldn’t be of any use to try to plant spies or informers in the communities because:

The interests of the country people of the Ariège, in matters that concern the forests, are so linked that one can’t hope to find secret agents for the authorities, other than by buying them at a very high price.

The people of the Ariege still celebrate the victory of the Demoiselles

But the central government needed to act to protect the rights of private property. They had been told that ‘the inhabitants of the Ariège were ‘as savage and brutal as the bears they raise’. They sent in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmerie. But to little effect, despite instituting the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ even for individual ‘subversive’ acts. Not only did the Demoiselles have the support of the local populace – even the local freemasons, clergy, postmen and customs men were on their side – but they were also employing classic hit and run guerilla tactics, which the French troops found difficult to counter. As military repression didn’t seem to be working, the government decided to negotiate. Finally, on the 23rd February 1831, the French Interior Ministry issued an ordinance revoking all the statutes of the 1827 forest code. A general amnesty was proclaimed; all convicted offenders were released and all trials stopped. Ancestral rights to the use of the forest were restored. The people of the Ariège had won a significant, historic, but ultimately Pyrrhic, victory!

By the 1830s, many regions of the Pyrenean uplands were indeed experiencing significant deforestation. Michael Williams quotes several contemporary reports that described the scene ‘with phrases and words like “landscapes of desolation,” “blasted,” “terrible aspect,” and “terrible nudity of bare and sterile rock.”’ But, as we have seen, this deforestation, at least in the Pyrenees, was not the result of local communities having had common use of the forests, it was quite clearly the result, first of Napoleon’s need to wood to supply his armies and, later, of the privatized forests being exploited by private owners to supply wood and charcoal for the French industrial revolution.

The Ariege forests were saved as much by the shift to coal as by reforestation programmes

The Demoiselles were to return sporadically over the course of the next forty years. But in the long-term they weren’t able to stop the private felling and exploitation of the Pyrenean forests. This went on. The local people found it more and more difficult to survive, as their forests were cut down and their access and use was increasingly hampered. Like millions of Europeans in the 19th century, they emigrated in their droves to the growing towns and cities of France. There to become new members of the burgeoning urban proletariat. As regards the forests of the Pyrenees, what is left of them today can’t be put down to later French reforestation efforts, of which there were many, but rather they owe their existence to the fact that eventually French industry shifted to the use of coal, and later imported oil, and away from charcoal, as its primary source of energy. In this sense fossil fuels did save some of Europe’s forests.

What I hope is clear from this modest micro-history is that the deforestation that took place in the French Pyrenees was not caused at all by a Tragedy of the Commons. It was the result of political and economic developments in France as a whole and, at the local level, the deforestation was carried out by the new private owners of the forests, not by the local communities who had lost their rights to use the ‘commons’.

Sources and references

 Georges Labouysse,  D’étranges demoiselles,  Occitania, 2006 ; François Baby, La guerre des Demoiselles en Ariège (1829-1872), Montbel, 1972;  Jean-François Soulet, Les Pyrénées au XIXe siècle. L’éveil d’une société civile, éditions Sud-Ouest, Luçon, 2004;René Dupont, La guerre des Demoiselles dans les forêts de l’Ariège (1829-1831), Travaux du laboratoire forestier de Toulouse; Toulouse ; Prosper Barousse, Les Demoiselles, La Mosaïque du Midi, 1839 ; Michel Dubedat, Le procès des Demoiselles. Résistance à l’application du Code forestier dans les montagnes de l’Ariège (1828-1830), Bulletin de la société ariégeoise des sciences lettres et arts, 1899-1900.

‘The rain will destroy us if it lasts much longer.’ – Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Saint Jean de Luz, 31 October, 1813

It’s raining today in Itxassou in the Basque region of southwest France. As I look of the window I can see that the River Nive is running high. Two hundred years ago in November 1813 it was also raining and early snow covered the nearby hills. The British and allied army commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – the Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington – had just arrived in this part of the world and the troops of his most trusted general, Sir Rowland Hill, were ‘cantoned’ in Itxassou and in the neighbouring villages of Cambo, Espelette, Larressore and Souraide. They were waiting for the weather to improve so they could cross the Nive, on the other bank of which the French army under Marshal Soult had taken up defensive positions all the way from Bayonne on the coast to Saint Jean Pierre de Port. The crossing took place on 9 December, 1813.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte

Briefly the background to all this is that in 1813  we are seeing the last stages of the long and bloody Peninsular War, which the Spanish rather quaintly call the War of Independence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his older brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and the French were in charge of the country. The British had to rescue them. It was a huge, tortuous and brutal effort that took over five years. The decisive victory took place on 21 June 1813 just south of Vitoria – Gastiez (now the capital of Basque Spain) where Wellington’s British, German and Spanish army routed the French.  Joseph Bonaparte and his still huge army started a long and drawn-out fighting retreat over the Pyrenees and back into France. There were many skirmishes and battles and thousands on both sides continued to die.

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

In France the Battle of the Nivelle was fought on 10 November 1813 near the village of Sare on the flanks of the La Rhune.

 Soon after midnight, on the morning of 10 November, the columns of the allies under Wellington wound down the passes of the mountains in silence, lighted by the moon. At earliest dawn the attack was made on the lines of the enemy, and by sunset, in a succession of brilliant charges, the allies had broken the line. Soult had been out-manœuvred and outfought on his own long-prepared ground, and beaten at every point. The French, numbering seventy thousand men, had been placed in carefully selected positions. Strongly entrenched, they knew the roads, and were fighting to protect their native land from invasion; yet they suffered themselves to be dislodged from every point assailed with a lack of spirit that surprised the allies.

Under cover of night Soult withdrew and concentrated his forces in front of Bayonne. Wellington took up a position within two miles of the enemy, his left resting on the sea and his right on Cambo. As the weather was stormy and wet, all operations ceased. The roads were execrable, the crossroads a quagmire. It was not possible at that time of the year to move artillery over the sodden ground, and even communication between the wings was difficult.

The losing French army retreated again to the north side of the River Nive, which they believed they could defend and prevent the British from crossing.

After the Battle of the Nivelle, Wellington had wanted to immediately attempt a crossing of the Nive but the appalling weather made it impossible. The ‘roads’ had turned into muddy bogs and the river was so high that the available fords were impassable. As the rains continued to pore down, on the 16th November Wellington sent orders to ‘canton’ the army.

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

General Sir Rowland Hill’s division was ordered to canton Itxassou, Larressore, Cambo, Espelette and Souraide. Sir Rowland was Wellington’s must steady, reliable and trusted general. He was so loved for his care that his troops nick-named him ‘Daddy Hill’. And one of Hill’s soldiers was the famous Levi Grisdale. Grisdale had captured French General Lefebvre at the  Battle of Benavente in Spain in December 1808, had fought at the Battle of Vitoria in June and would go on to personally lead the Prussians of Marshal Blucher onto the field of Waterloo in 1815. But for now Levi was with his elite cavalry regiment, the 10th King’s Own Hussars, waiting to cross the Nive. Levi was more likely to have been billeted in Larressore than in Itxassou, but it’s nice to think that one of my family also looked through the rain on the River Nive two hundred years ago!

The 10th Hussars were at this moment commanded by Colonel Richard Hussey Vivian. Vivian had found himself some very salubrious quarters in the Chateau of Saint Martin in Larressore, from where he wrote to his wife on December 2:

Here I am, my dearest Eliza, in the midst of my brigade —in the midst of the enemy! Out of the very window of the room from whence I now write this I can almost converse with the French sentries! Nothing but a narrow river (the Nive) separates us; and it is fordable in many places; but they are very quiet, harmless neighbours. We have agreed not to fire at each other; and they are too much afraid of an attack from us to make it at all probable that they will molest us in our quarters. If they chose it would not be a very difficult matter to walk into my bedroom any night. There is, however, a brigade of infantry in the village, under General Pringle, and they would hold them. We could do nothing, for it is nothing but hill and dale!

You can have no conception of anything more magnificently beautiful than the situation of my chateau, which is on the point of a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain river, and looking up a most delightful valley, through which runs the river, the hills rising from the valley on either side crowned with timber; villages in abundance, bordering on the river.  But it is to the eye only that it is now delightful. The ravages of war have depopulated these otherwise charming residences ; few, if any, of the inhabitants remain, and what few do remain are almost starving from having been eaten out of house and home by the soldiery, with whom their houses are literally crammed.

General Hill’s division, of which I command the cavalry, is posted in the villages of Cambo, Espelette, Souraide, and Larressore — altogether about 12,000 men within a space of three miles of each other. On our left, at Ustarits (sic), is the 6th Division, Sir H. Clinton, about a mile off. I am just going there to dine and sleep at General Pack’s.

They talk of an advance soon, but I do not think it possible; for the roads are in such a dreadful state from the constant rain we have had that it is perfectly impossible for troops to move.

The next day he wrote to his mother:

I am now here in the midst of my brigade, on the banks of the Nive, and the enemy is quietly opposite me; so near that I can certainly make them hear out of the room where I now write; bat they are in a great fright that we should advance, and we are really very good friends, and they do not molest me, or prevent me sleeping in perfect safety and comfort. I have a capital chateau, delightfully situated… I only wish it were in England. I could sell about £10,000 worth of timber without doing any harm…  They talk of an advance very soon. I hope so, for we are terribly off for forage, and we shall get that in front.

‘Whilst the British were in position on the banks of the Nive, in November, 1813, the French used to meet the English officers at a narrow part of the river, and chat over the campaign. One of the latter, in order to convince them of the reverses of Napoleon in Germany (the Battle of Leipzig), rolled a stone up in the Star newspaper, and endeavoured to throw it across the stream. The stone, unfortunately, went through it, which made it fall into the water. The French officer thereupon remarked, in pretty fair English, “Your good news is very soon damped.”’

General Rowland 'Daddy' Hill

General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill

This pleasant, though wet, interlude was not to last. On the 8th December issued his orders for ‘forcing the passage of the Nive’ the next day. The task was entrusted to Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill. He ‘was instructed to cross the river by fords near Cambo at daybreak of the 9th, re-establish the bridge, and assemble on the right bank the Second Division, the Portuguese Division attached to it, Vivian’s and Victor Alten’s brigades of cavalry, and Ross’s troop of horse-artillery. With these he was to advance along the road from St. Jean Pied de Port to Bayonne, and take up a position in the vicinity of Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre’.

Other divisions were to cross the river at Ustaritz and Arrauntz. Spanish General Morillo was ordered to cross the river at Itxassou in order to protect Hill’s rear from any attack by General Paris, who lay at Louhossoa, some four miles up the river from Cambo.

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

I leave the description of what followed to J. W. Fortescue, in his monumental  A History of the British Army:

Meanwhile Wellington’s orders were punctually followed. Beresford successfully laid his pontoon-bridges to an island in the river during the night; and on the morning of the 9th a beacon kindled on the height above Cambo gave the signal for attack.

The Sixth Division at once advanced upon Ustarits, drove the French sentries from the right bank of the river, and enabled the engineers not only to complete the pontoon -bridge but to repair another wooden bridge which had been partly destroyed by the French. They then crossed the water, Gruardet’s brigade of Darmagnac’s division falling back before them upon Villefranque, with little fear of being caught, for the marshy meadows were so heavy that the British could make but slow progress on their way to the road.

Hill simultaneously threw his corps across the river in three columns, one of them above Cambo, the others at Larressore and at Halsou, which was accomplished with only the loss of a few men drowned, though the water was so high that the men slung their cartridge-boxes round their necks to keep them dry. Foy’s division, which guarded this part of the stream, thereupon withdrew slowly, contesting every foot of ground. Fririon’s brigade retired upon Petit Mouguerre and Vieux Mouguerre, where Abbe’s division had been brought forward to support them ; while Berlier’s brigade, being cut off from the road by the advance of Clinton, was forced to retreat due east to the moorlands of Hasparren, and did not rejoin Foy until the afternoon. Paris also was compelled to retire before Morillo eastward upon Hilette (Helette) towards the shelter of Pierre Soult’s cavalry.

Nevertheless Hill’s advance had been so much retarded by the saturated soil that it was one o’clock before the head of his columns reached the heights of Loursinthoa on the road to Bayonne, where he took up a position with the Sixth Division on his left, the Third remaining to cover the bridge at Ustarits. Here he halted for two hours to let the tail of his columns come up; and during this interval d’Erlon deployed the whole of his troops between Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre, where Soult had already since noon taken up his own station. None the less the Marshal did not venture to assail Hill, and at last at three o’clock the Portuguese of Clinton’s division came down to attack Villefranque, and after one repulse succeeded in driving from it one of Darmagnac’s brigades.

A thick fog coming on before dark brought the combat to an end.

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The British and allied army had crossed the Nive, Levi Grisdale among them. But things were not over yet. Marshal Soult counter attacked on the 13th December near Saint Pierre d’Irube, near Bayonne, but Sir Rowland Hill defeated the French without Wellington’s help at the so-called Battle of the Nive. Wellington and his army trundled on across southern France, eventually to take the French surrender at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. But he, and Levi Grisdale, had to come back the next year, when Napoleon had escaped from exile, raised a new army and met the British and Prussians at Waterloo!

9 December 1813: Just another wet day in the Pays Basque.

Did a Cumbrian soldier “save England and Europe” from Napoleon?

In the mid-nineteenth century in the small Cumbrian market town of Penrith there was a public house called the ‘General Lefebvre’. Locals jokingly referred to it as the ‘General Grisdale’, after its publican, an old ex-Sergeant Major called Levi Grisdale. It seems that Levi was quite a character, and we might well imagine how on cold Cumbrian winter nights he would regale his quests with tales of his exploits as a Hussar during the Napoleonic Wars. How he had captured the French General Lefebvre in Spain, as the British army were retreating towards Corunna, or even telling of how it was he, at the Battle of Waterloo, who had led the Prussians onto the field; a decisive event that had turned the course of the battle and, it is usually argued, led to Napoleon’s final defeat.

Scouts of the 10th Hussars During the Peninsular War – W B Wollen 1905

Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story. Be that as it may, using a variety of sources (not just from the British side) plus some detailed research in the archives, undertaken by myself and others, it is possible to reconstruct something his life. Levi spent 22 years in the army, fought in 32 engagements, including at the Battle of Waterloo, rose to be a Sergeant Major and was highly decorated. There is even an anonymous essay in the Hussars’ Regimental museum entitled: How Trooper Grisdale, 10th Hussars, Saved England and Europe! This suggested, possibly with a degree of hyperbole, that it was Levi who caused Napoleon to leave the Spanish Peninsular in disgust! But the events of the Peninsular War were decisive. Many years later Napoleon wrote:

That unfortunate war destroyed me … all my disasters are bound up in that knot.

I greatly enjoyed discovering a little about Levi. What follows is my version of this Cumbrian’s life and deeds. I hope you will enjoy it too!

Levi Grisdale was born in 1783, near Penrith in Cumberland’s Lake District. He came from a long line of small yeomen farmers. His father, Solomon, and his grandfather, Jonathon, had both been farmers. They were born in the nearby small hill village of Matterdale; where the Grisdale family had lived for hundreds of years. Although obviously a country boy, Levi somehow found his way to London, where on 26th March 1803, aged just 20, he enlisted for “unlimited service” as a private or ‘trooper’ in the 10th Light Dragoons, later to become ‘Hussars’ – an elite British cavalry regiment. How and why he enlisted in the army we do not know. His older brother Thomas was probably already a soldier based at the cavalry barracks on the outskirts of Canterbury, and maybe this contributed to Levi’s decision. We know nothing of Levi’s first years in the army; but in October 1808 he, with the 10th Hussars, embarked at Portsmouth for Spain.

A Charge of the 10th Hussars under Lord Paget

The regiment, having passed through Corunna, joined up with the now retreating British army, under its Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, at Zamora on December 9, 1808. Under Sir John Slade, they became part of the army’s defensive rear-guard. They arrived at Sahagun in Spain on the 21st December – just in time to take part in the tail end of a successful action known as the Battle of Sahagun. Before the battle, Levi had been made a ‘coverer’ – a sort of bodyguard or ‘minder’ – for the fourteen year old Earl George Augustus Frederick Fitz-Clarence. It wasn’t unusual for wealthy and well-connected young men to become British officers at such a tender age, and Fitz-Clarence was certainly well-connected. He was the bastard son of the future King William IV and nephew of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – who was the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief.

During the battle Levi was wounded in the left ankle by a musket ball. It can’t have been too serious a wound because only a few days later he was to take part in another engagement. His exploits there were, in large part, responsible for us being able to reconstruct Levi’s story today. I will take some pains to explain what happened. The account I will present is based on numerous sources and on several eyewitness accounts; not just British, but also German, French and Spanish. There are some inconsistencies but when taken together they provide a coherent enough picture.

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

Despite the victory at Sahagun, the British army had continued its retreat towards Astorga and Corunna. But Napoleon had heard that the British were intent on a crossing of the River Esla, two miles from the Spanish town of Benavente. He sent his elite cavalry, the Chasseurs à cheval, commanded by one of his favourites, General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, to cut them off and prevent the crossing. But due to dreadful weather they had been slowed down and they arrived just too late. Sir John Moore had already crossed the river on the 24th and departed with the bulk of the British army. He had, however, left a strong cavalry rearguard in the town of Benavente, and a small detachment was watching the river fords. Early on the morning of 29th December, British engineers destroyed the bridge at Castrogonzalo. When Lefebvre and his force of about 500 – 600 cavalry arrived, we are told that this was at nine in the morning, there seemed no way to cross, because the river “was swollen with rain.”

Lefebvre could see that “outlying pickets of the British cavalry were stationed along the Western bank of the River Esla.” He thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the few scouts to be seen were all that remained of the British at Benavente. Eventually he managed to find one place to ford the river and, according to one report, first sent across “a peasant mounted on a mare” to see find out what response there would be. Seeing there was none, Lefebvre crossed the river “with three strong squadrons of his Chasseurs and a small detachment of Mamelukes” – though not without great difficulty.

One account, drawing on a number of sources, nicely sums up what ensued:

The French forced the outlying pickets of the British cavalry back onto the inlaying picket commanded by Loftus Otway (18th Hussars). Otway charged, despite heavy odds, but was driven back for 2 miles towards the town of Benavente. In an area where their flanks were covered by walls, the British, now reinforced by a troop or squadron of the 3rd Hussars King’s German Legion, and commanded by Brigadier-General Stewart, counter-attacked and a confused mêlée ensued. The French, though temporarily driven back, had superior numbers and forced the British hussars to retreat once more, almost back to Benavente. Stewart knew he was drawing the French towards Paget and substantial numbers of British reserves. The French had gained the upper hand in the fight and were preparing to deliver a final charge when Lord Paget made a decisive intervention. He led the 10th Hussars with squadrons of the 18th in support, around the southern outskirts of Benavente. Paget managed to conceal his squadrons from French view until he could fall on their left flank. The British swords, often dulled by their iron scabbards, were very sharp on this occasion. An eyewitness stated that he saw the arms of French troopers cut off cleanly “like Berlin sausages.” Other French soldiers were killed by blows to the head, blows which divided the head down to the chin.

The French fought their way back to the River Esla and started to cross to its eastern bank – swimming with their horses. But many were caught by the pursuing British cavalry, and either killed or made prisoner. General Lefebvre, however, did not escape. His horse had been wounded and when it entered the river it refused to cross. He and some of his men were surrounded by the British cavalry under Lord Paget, which consisted of the 18th Hussars and half of the 3rd Hussars, King’s German Legion. During this encounter Lefebvre was wounded and taken prisoner, along with about seventy of his Chasseurs.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

So who was it that captured General Lefebvre? Some British sources claim simply that it was Private Grisdale. In Levi’s own regimental book we read that Lefebvre was pursued by the “Hussars” and “refusing to stop when overtaken, was cut across the head and made prisoner by Private Levi Grisdall (sic).” Other witnesses suggest that it was in fact a German 3rd Hussar, called Private Johann Bergmann, who captured the General, and that it was he who subsequently handed over his captive to Grisdale.

Any continuing mystery, however, seems to be cleared away by later witness statements made by Private Bergmann himself. His statement is corroborated by several other German Hussars who had taken part in the action, and by letters written by some German officers who were also present. Bergmann’s extensive testimony, taken at Osterholz in 1830 , is recorded in the third person. It states that there were:

three charges that day… at the third charge, or in reality the pursuit, he came upon the officer whom he made prisoner. He was one of the first in the pursuit, and as he came up with this officer, who rode close in the rear of the enemy, the officer made a thrust at him with a long straight sword. After, however, he had parried the thrust, the officer called out ‘pardon.’ He did not trouble himself further about the man, but continued the pursuit; an English Hussar, however, who had come up to the officer at the same time with him, led the officer back.

Bergmann went on to say that he hadn’t known that the officer was Lefebvre until after the action, when he was told he should “have held fast the man.” He added that he was young and “did not trouble” himself about the matter.  All he remembered was that the officer “wore a dark green frock, a hat with a feather, and a long straight sword.”

All the other German witnesses and letters confirm Bergmann’s story, but we also learn that the General had fired a pistol at Bergmann “which failing in its aim, he offered him his sword and made known his wish to be taken to General Stewart.” But Bergmann “didn’t know General Stewart personally, and while he was enquiring where the general was to be found, a Hussar of the tenth English joined him, and led away the prisoner.”

So this it seems is the truth of the matter: Lefebvre was surrounded by a German troop and captured by Private Johann Bergmann. Levi Grisdale, with the 10th Hussars, might have arrived at the scene at the same time as Bergmann or very slightly after, opinions differ. Lefebvre asked to be taken to General Stewart and so Bergmann, “not knowing General Stewart personally”, handed him over to Private Grisdale who “led the prisoner away.”

Lefebvre was delivered to the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore. Moore, who, we are told, treated the General, who had suffered a superficial head wound, “kindly” and “entertained him at his table.” He also gave him his own sword to replace the one taken when he surrendered. “Speaking to him in French”, General Moore, “provided some of his own clothes; for Lefebvre was drenched and bleeding.” He then “sent a message to the French, requesting Lefebvre’s baggage, which was promptly sent.”

Napoleon, who had viewed the action from a height overlooking the river, didn’t seem too put out by the losses of what he called his “Cherished Children.” But he was very upset when he heard of Lefebvre’s capture. He wrote to Josephine (my translation):

Lefebvre has been taken. He made a skirmish for me with 300 Chasseurs; these show-offs crossed the river by swimming, and threw themselves into the middle of the English cavalry. They killed many of them; but, returning, Lefebvre’s horse was wounded: he was drowning; the current led him to the bank where the English were; he has been taken. Console his wife.

In the aftermath of the battle, a Spanish report from the town of Benavente itself, tells us that on:

The night of the 29th they (the British) used the striking pines growing on the high ground behind the hospitals as lights, at every step coming under the fire of French artillery from the other side of the river, answered feebly by the English, whose force disappeared totally by the morning, to be replaced by a dreadful silence and solitude….

The British cavalry had slipped away and, with the rest of the army, continued its horrendous winter retreat to Corunna. Levi Grisdale and the 10th Hussars were with them.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Lefebvre himself was later sent as a prisoner to England, and housed at Cheltenham where he lived for three years. As was the custom, he gave his word or “parole” as a French officer and gentleman that he would not try to escape. He was even allowed to be joined by his wife Stephanie. It seems that the couple: “were in demand socially and attended social events around the district.” Other reports tell us that General Lefebvre was in possession of a “fine signet ring of considerable value which had been given him years earlier by his Emperor Napoleon. Lefebvre used this ring as a bribe to get escape and was thus able to escape back to France, where he rejoined his Division.” This was, says one commentator, “an unpardonable sin according to English public opinion.” So much for a gentleman’s word!  The Emperor reinstated him as commander of the Chasseurs and he would go on to fight in all Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns, right up to Waterloo – where he would share the field once again with Levi Grisdale.

I have kept us a little too long in Spain. This is, after all, not the story of the retreat to Corunna, much less a history of the first Spanish chapter of the Peninsular War. After the so-called March of Death and the Battle of Corunna, Levi Grisdale was evacuated back to England by the Royal Navy – with what was left of the 10th Hussars. Here his fame started to spread. The Hampshire Telegraph of 18th February 1809 announced that Grisdale was back in Brighton with his regiment and described him as: “tall, well-made, well looking, ruddy and expressive.” He was promoted to Corporal and awarded a special silver medal by the regiment, which was inscribed:

Corporal Grisdale greatly distinguished himself on the 1st day of January 1809 (sic). This is adjudged to him by officers of the regiment.

The years passed. The regiment moved from Brighton to Romford in Essex, but was once again back in Brighton in 1812. Of this time we know little; only a few events in Levi’s life. Soon after his arrival back in England, he somehow arranged to get away to Bath, where on 29 March 1809, he married Ann Robinson in St James’ Church. Their only son, also called Levi, was born and baptized at Arundel on 12 March 1811 – sadly he was to die young. On 17 February 1813, he “was found guilty of being drunk and absent from barracks.” But, it seems, he was neither reduced to the ranks nor flogged. Other evidence suggests that the whole regiment was “undisciplined and tended to drunkenness.” Whether the leniency of his treatment was due to his record at Benavente we will probably never know.

But by February 1813, Levi, by this time a Sergeant, was back in the Iberian Peninsula, serving in a coalition army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, who was later to become the Duke of Wellington. With the 10th Hussars, he fought his way through Portugal, Spain and France and, so  his regiment’s records tell us, was actively engaged at the Battles of Morales, Vitoria, Orthes and, finally, at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. Here the British and their allies were badly mauled. But news soon reached the French Marshall Soult that Napoleon had abdicated and Soult agreed to an armistice.

And that should really have been that as far as Levi Grisdale’s military campaigning days was concerned. Yet one more chapter lay ahead. A chapter that would no doubt later provide Levi with another great story to tell in his Penrith public house. Napoleon, we might recall, was to escape from his exile on the Island of Elba in February 1815. He retook the leadership of France, regathered his army, and was only definitively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. It has often been said that the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo “hung in the balance” until the arrival of the Prussian army under Prince von Blücher. One writer puts it thus:

Blücher’s army intervened with decisive and crushing effect, his vanguard drawing off Napoleon’s badly needed reserves, and his main body being instrumental in crushing French resistance. This victory led the way to a decisive victory through the relentless pursuit of the French by the Prussians.

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher's Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher’s Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

And here it is that we last hear of Levi’s active military exploits. According to his obituary, published in the Cumberland and Westmoreland Advertiser on 20 November 1855, Levi had been posted on the road where the Prussians were expected to arrive, and he led them onto the field of battle! We are also told that during the battle “his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded in the right calf by a splinter from a shell.” Finally, according to a letter written by Captain Thomas Taylor of the 10th Hussars, written to General Sir Vivian Hussey in 1829, Levi, who was a by now a Sergeant in No1 troop under Captain John Gurwood, and “who was one of the captors of Lefebvre … conducted the vedettes in withdrawing from French cavalry during the battle.

Of course, Levi Grisdale certainly did not “save England and Europe” from Napoleon. But, along with thousands of other common soldiers, he played his part and, unlike countless others on all sides, he survived to tell his tales in his pub.

What became of Levi? After he returned to England, he was promoted to Sergeant Major and remained another nine years with the 10th Hussars. When he left the army in 1825, aged only 42 but with twenty-two years of active service and thirty-two engagements behind him, his discharge papers said that he was suffering from chronic rheumatism and was “worn out by service.” Hardly surprising we might think. The army gave him a pension of 1s 10d a day. His papers also state that his intended place of residence was Bristol. He was as good as his word as and he was to become the landlord of the Stag and Star public house in Barr Street, Bristol.

Christ Church, Penrith – where Levi Grisdale is buried

Yet by 1832 Levi and his family had moved back to his native Penrith. His wife Ann died there in July of that year. It seems that Levi was not one to mourn for too long. Within about two weeks he had married again. This time a woman called Mary Western – with whom he had four children. He continued his life as a publican and, as I have mentioned, christened his pub the General Lefebvre; he even hung a large picture of the General over the entrance. During his last years, Levi Grisdale gave up his pub and worked as a gardener. He died of ‘dropsy’ on 17 November 1855 in Penrith, aged 72, his occupation being given as “Chelsea pensioner.” He was buried in the graveyard of Christ Church in Penrith.

Despite what we know about Levi’s life, we will never know what was most important to him – his family, his comrades? Nor will we know what he thought of the ruling ‘officer class’? What he thought of the social and political system that had led him to fight so many battles against adversaries he knew little about? Nor whose side he was really on? We will never know these things, though we can imagine!

As General Macarthur once said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” ‘General’ Levi Grisdale certainly died but, thankfully, his memory has not yet faded away.

Sources

Mary Grisdale. Levi Grisdale. Unpublished research 2006; David Fallowfield. Levi Grisdale 1783-1855, Unpublished article. Penrith; Philip J. Haythornthwaite. Corunna 1809: Sir John Moore’s Fighting Retreat. London: Osprey Publishing 2001; Lettres de Napoléon à Joséphine, Tome Second, Paris 1833, Firman Didot Freres; Christopher Hibbert. Corunna, Batsford 1961; Michael Clover. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Penguin Books 2003; North Ludlow Beamish. History of the King’s German Legion, Harvard 1832; Christopher Summerville. The March of Death: Sir John Moore’s Retreat to Corunna. Greenhill books 2006; Brime, D. Fernando Fernandez. Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs.  Valladolid 1881; Wikipedia.  Battle of Benavente. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Benavente.; The Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars. http://www.horsepowermuseum.co.uk/index.html .