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The Great Battles that made the history of France


Éditions Ouest-France publishes a new work by Yves Barde and Christian Le Corre devoted to 20 of the greatest battles that have undeniably marked the history of France, by their direct consequences and / or by the subsequent recoveries which were made of them. From Alésia to Diên Biên Phu, from Marignan to Austerlitz, the authors wish to return to these founding clashes to place them in their context and demystify them.

The project

"The Great Battles which made the History of France: Truth, recovery, manipulation" is a work which, as its name suggests, claims to restore historical truth about battles, on the facts and their subsequent use. For Yves Bardes, it is a question of returning to the battles which had an impact on the fate of France, Europe, see the World. These battles whose names many have heard at school, without being able to say more. The choice fell on twenty of these emblematic battles: Alésia (52 BC), Tolbiac (496), Poitiers (732), Bouvines (1214), Orléans (1428/9), Castillon (1453), Marignan ( 1515), Rocroi (1643), Fontenoy (1745), Valmy (1792), Rivoli (1797), Marengo (1800), Austerlitz (1805), Waterloo (1815), Solferino (1859), Sedan (1870), La Marne (1914), the Battle of France (1940), the Liberation of Paris (1944), Diên Biên Phu (1953-4). The choice may seem arbitrary under certain aspects, we could have expected to see other symbolically very strong battles in our history (Gergovie, Verdun, the 1944 landings ...), but we are well aware that in the context of this kind of work the author must make choices and sacrifice a few subjects for a question of format.

Christian Le Corre has taken on the task of illustrating the book abundantly with his personal collection. It deliberately focuses on an iconography that is sometimes old, inspired by the national novel, an oriented vision, based on myths, that the texts will have to deconstruct.

Case study: Austerlitz

Let us take the time to dwell on a case, on one of the most emblematic battles in the history of France, surely one of those which will be looked at first in this book: the Battle of Austerlitz, known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, fought by Napoleon I on December 2, 1805.

Yves Bardes devotes ten pages to it, very richly illustrated by Christian Le Corre with eighteen iconographic documents. First observation therefore, we are dealing with a beautiful book, pleasant to leaf through. On the other hand, we notice that, strangely, the iconographic documents are very poorly captioned: we have drawings of Job, images of Épinal, engravings, paintings, an advertising poster ... But it is never specified. where does the document come from, when it dates and who is the author. The captions are content to describe the image very succinctly, even in a sometimes unconvincing way ... In fact we smile when we see a charge of Hussars (by Job) captioned "A charge on the plain of Austerlitz." By 2 degrees Celsius, warm furs are essential for riders ”, but this is not really the kind of information that emerges from the document, the furs which are visible there (those of the colback, the pelisse and the saddle pad). saddle) being quite simply part of the uniformology of the Hussars (inspired by the Hungarian Hussars) without the weather conditions of the day having anything to do with it. We are also surprised to see simply captioned in a chapter on Austerlitz "During the observation phases, the attack plan is carefully considered" while in the illustration we see Napoleon observing the Channel through a telescope from a cliff. .. Last flat on the illustration in this chapter on Austerlitz, some documents are of poor quality, in particular Gérard's famous painting which is vague and many details of which become imperceptible. It should also be noted that several documents used to illustrate the Grande Armée are poorly chosen, the infantrymen being represented with a shako while they still have the cocked hat at that time, a small anachronism therefore.

Once the form has been reviewed, let's focus on the substance. At first, the author explains to us the pirouette of Napoleon who sends his army stationed in Boulogne towards the coalition in the East, which was preparing to invade England. Then he presents to us the forces present, and more particularly the French forces since the composition (infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, train, health service ...) and the organization (army corps ...) of the Grande Armee are synthetically, but quite effectively, explained to us. We could perhaps qualify the mediocre quality of the Grande Armée's health services, this is quite true compared to what will be done subsequently, but it is already much better than what is done in the other contemporary armies. It is then the battle which is told to us very succinctly, too succinctly. Too succinctly, not because it will frustrate fans of Battle History, but because over-summarizing the unfolding ultimately becomes difficult to understand, especially since no map supports the point (there is no than a map at the end of the book which allows you to locate the battles). The following paragraph is devoted to some anecdotes of the battle: Napoleon in reconnaissance who falls on the Cossacks, the fires of straw by the soldiers, the later transformation of the Bulletin of the Grande Armée ... The author also describes us a table of Lejeune who however does not appear in the illustrations of the chapter ... Strange choice, it would certainly have been better to deepen the description and the explanation of Gérard's painting (which is present to him), or sacrifice some other documents to make this appear. painting by Lejeune. Yves Bardes continues with a paragraph presenting the consequences of the battle, then offers us a promising paragraph on the exaggerations of official history. It is above all a question here of denying the famous legend of the Russian soldiers drowned while trying to cross the frozen ponds on which the French artillery concentrates its fire. As Yves Bardes points out, the scene cannot have taken place like this when we know that the ponds are very shallow and that we finally found that three Russian corpses inside ... On the other hand, we are still wondering on the relationship that the author makes between this event and the "victims of the cold".

Strengths and weaknesses of the structure

Let's start with the weaknesses of the book. The illustrations are sometimes of poor quality, we talked about it for Austerlitz, but the problem is found in other battles, in particular that of Poitiers where we are presented with a reproduction from the original of Charles de Steuben's painting, so that it would certainly have been better to present the original directly to us; the same goes for Lejeune's painting on Marengo for example. Second problem with the illustrations, they are generally very badly captioned, always too succinctly, sometimes ambiguously, sometimes even erroneously. Let us take for example the chapter on the battle of Sedan, French infantrymen are presented to us with "the Chassepot rifle with bayonet and the musette stamped with the Napoleonic eagle": but it is not a question of a musette, but of a cartridge case, and the rifles with their socket bayonets shown in the image are by no means Chassepots, but more likely model 1857 rifles (or other latest generation piston rifles). Thirdly, some of the illustrations are obviously poorly chosen, either because they border on off topic, or they are repeated, or conversely that a painting is described to us without showing it to us. Finally and to finish, one wonders to what extent the bet has been successful to present images from the national novel to demystify them through analysis ... Many images are not explained with a critical mind, for example in the chapter on Alesia where nothing comes to question the omnipresence in the illustrations of Roman legionaries with late equipment and Gallic warriors with their winged or horned helmets ...

At the level of the story, it is clear that one should not seek an in-depth analysis of the tactics deployed during the battle, although some battles are a little more developed than Austerlitz. In general, the absence of maps does not facilitate the understanding of the battle. The consequences and especially the subsequent recoveries of the battle are treated very briefly, perhaps because of the (too) important place given to the image.

To conclude on the positive points, we will underline the capacity for synthesis, which allows the reader to fly over 20 battles in a few lines, which is a good point when one seeks to quickly obtain small bases on the subject. And, of course, the quantity of images is also a positive point in the sense that this book is very pleasant to look at, to leaf through, going from an image of Épinal to a photo, from an engraving to a poster, from the squares of Waterloo to the legionaries in Indochina, from Philippe Auguste in Bouvines to Gallieni in the Marne ...


Ultimately, we have here a synthetic and beautiful book, for lack of being good, which risks disappointing lovers of martial history, but which will certainly find its audience among young people in search of initiation into military history. from France.


Barde Yves, Le Corre Chritstian, The Great Battles which made the History of France: Truth, recovery, manipulation, Editions Ouest-France, 2013.


Video: Battle of Sedan: How did Prussia Win The Franco-Prussian War? Animated History (September 2021).