Talking Point with Peter Hicks > “Soldiers, you are naked!”

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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In March 1796, a twenty-six-year-old Corsican general harangued his raggle-taggle troops in the mountains above Nice. “You are naked”, he cried, “poorly fed … I wish to bring you into the richest plains in the world.” Not far from the bi-millennial anniversary of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, Napoleon Bonaparte was about to embark on his own epic destiny.

At least that’s how Napoleon told it…

Talking Point with Peter Hicks > “Soldiers, you are naked!”

About twenty-years after the fact, the exiled Emperor on St Helena dictated the story of the First Italian Campaign to the Comte de Montholon as part of his memoirs, including the stirring words of his speech, word for word. In 1823, the Count faithfully published what Napoleon had dictated to him, and when Napoleon III published the correspondence of his uncle forty or so years after that, the account (and the proclamation) was set in stone.

And yet, this is not the whole story.

Napoleon did not in fact energise his men with precisely this text. It is true he said something similar. There exist letters of his which are thematically close, but they are not exactly the same. Better still, we possess the proclamation he actually made. It is hidden (pretty much forgotten) in state publications of 1797, and it was recounted to the Directory not by Napoleon (still in Italy at the time) but by his right-hand man Berthier. This speech too bears some of the sentiments of the 1817 text, but none of the vigour.

“This is no longer a defensive war; this is a war of invasion; it will be conquests that you are to make. You have no artillery train, no stores; you are without artillery, without uniforms, without shoes, and without pay; you lack everything, but you are rich in courage. Well then! Here are your stores, your artillery, you have iron and lead; let us march, and in a few days these will all be yours’ (He showed them the fertile plains of Piedmont and Lombardy). “The enemy”, he added, “outnumbers you fourfold; we will win more glory from this”.

On St Helena, Napoleon had plenty of time to read. We know from Las Cases that he returned to a book on the Romans that he had loved in his youth, Abbé Rollin’s Histoire ancienne. He also went back to the work of the Roman historian Livy and the story of the great Carthaginian general, the anti-hero of antiquity, who also aged twenty-six (so Napoleon thought) had crossed the Alps to military glory in Italy.

The First Italian campaign, with its Lodi and its Rivoli, had fixed Napoleon’s star in the ascendant. When he re-penned the proclamation, the fallen Emperor was dreaming of his past glories, that time he went one better than Hannibal. And rather like the way in which David’s breath-taking painting of the crossing of the Alps obscures the reality of the actual, depressingly drab journey painted by Delaroche, just so this reworking of several famous speeches by Hannibal (as invented by Livy) completely outshines the actual proclamation of 1796:

“Soldiers, you are naked, poorly fed. The Government owes you a great deal, but can give you nothing. The patience, the courage that you showed  amongst these rocks is admirable, but it brings you no reputation, the blaze of glory does not shine on you. I wish to bring you into the richest plains in the world. Wealthy provinces, great cities will be within your power. You will meet with honour, glory and riches. Soldiers of Italy, might you lack the courage or the staying power?”

Faced with this piece of creative writing, should we be surprised that some French commentators thought Napoleon the greatest French writer of the nineteenth century?

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