Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Death to the French" - CS Forester

...my second electronic book - I've been reading them on a Nintendo DS using the home grown "MoonShell" application, which is probably just about as far away from the dedicated e-reader experience (Kindle and the like ) as you can get; having said that you can't argue with the price of the books, and it's great to just slip in your pocket for a read whenever you have a moment.

This and all the other books I've recently downloaded were all free from either the Project Gutenberg site, or a new site that I've just discovered called Burgomeister's Books. The benefit of Burgomeister's site is that it has some newer books (I got the Eye of the Needle book from there and also a couple of James Bond's)... worth checking, but note that it is currently down with rumours of funding difficulties for his server.. adult smileys

I hadn't read this book, however, in ages but remember it from my early days in war gaming when I read anything and everything to do with the Napoleonic Wars – written by CS Forester (better known as the author of the Hornblower books), this one is set on land and is about Riflemen Dodd, a green jacket with the 95th Foot in Portugal. Separated from his regiment the book is about his adventures in trying to get back to Lisbon and his regiment, who are there with the rest of the British army...

With Dodd, Forester has depicted his riflemen hero as very much a product of his age and his training.. there are no signs of a certain Sharpe about the place in any way shape and form (although funnily enough a similar Dodd does appear in Sharpe!).. Dodd has no soft edges, he knows his duty and follows it ruthlessly even when it leads to the death of his compatriots.

Unable to return to Lisbon because the of the French siege lines in front of Torres Vedras, he takes shelter in a Portuguese village and organises them to fight the French, a regiment of whom are soon camped near the Portuguese village. The ensuing fight is to the death, and the village is soon sacked... Dodd then moves on to harassing the French by attacking their siege equipment - they are building a pontoon bridge to get over the Tagus - which he manages to burn, but not before the French decide to retreat anyway..

As the book ends Dodd finally manages to return to his companions who are now in pursuit of the French.. typically, he gives no indication whatsoever to his commanding officers when asked how he managed to survive so long..!

Forester gives a fair intimation of what war against the French must have been like - in fact there are close parallels with what was about to engulf Europe just 9 years after this book was published (1930). These parallels are so good in fact that while I was reading the book I did wonder if there was some kind of allegory going on...

Recommended, but it's not a pleasurable read - bit harrowing for that.. Steve the Wargamer gives it a solid 7 out of 10.

8 comments:

  1. Love the book reviews, keep them coming! Never heard of Dodd (or Harvey) before, and here I am sitting on a bunch of 40mm 95th thinking I only had Sharpe for inspiration...

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  2. By the way, since truly-free.org is down, any chance you could e-mail be that ebook? andy@cowell.org Thanks, and no worries if it's too much hassle.

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  3. I hope you won’t mind me jumping in here, but I’ve just read this book and it’s interesting to see comment from someone else who’s recently read it.

    "Death to the French" surprised me because it’s not, as I expected, about the glorification of war at all, but a bitter commentary on its destructive futility. In “Death to the French” aka “Rifleman Dodd”, Forester is very much drawing parallels to the horrors of WWI, which had such a devastating effect on his generation (I think he was about 15 when the war started, and though to his dismay health issues prevented him from enlisting, his father, brothers and cousins did).

    Quote from “Death to the French” - and it has to be remembered that it was Wellington who deliberately turned Portugal into a desert as part of his scorched earth policy – Forester is making the point that the French and the English were equally responsible for destroying an already poor country as well as making the connection to WWI.

    “The crops were destroyed, the fields laid waste, the villages left deserted. An enemy who relied for his food on what could be gleaned from the countryside was to be taught a lesson in war. And the ruin and desolation caused thereby might even constitute a shining example to a later generation, which with the additional advantages of poison gases and high explosive, might worthily attempt to emulate it.”

    And later:

    “That was how honour called; and glory – the man in the ranks did not bother with glory, nor did the men a century later who died in the poison gas at Ypres.”

    Forester also wrote a novel set during WWI called “The General”, and another Peninsular War novel about the Spanish Resistance called “The Gun”. As well as Bernard Cornwell, DTTF inspired R F Delderfield’s two Peninsular War novels, “Too Few for Drums” and “Seven Men of Gascony”.

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  4. Annis - excellent summary/review - thanks...

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  5. Annis, I caught that and agreed, although I have to say the specific WWI references really seemed jarring to me.

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  6. Yes, I found that too, Andy. It was quite startling and unusual in a historical novel because it momentarily throws you completely out of period. Usually parallels are drawn with more subtlety. Perhaps Forester choose the Peninsula War as a setting purely because it was it so readily comparable to WWI, another war of pointless attrition, and that was his main agenda in writing "Death to the French".

    What puzzles me is why Massena hung on so long at the Lines of Torres Vedras before withdrawing. He clearly couldn't get through, his men were starving and ill-equipped, and the British were quite comfortable on the other side, as they could easily resupply by sea at Lisbon. Does anyone have any thoughts on Massena's motives or suggestions about any useful non-fiction which might shed some light on he subject?

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  7. I can't help thinking that the fear of having to tell Bonaparte that he'd failed may have had something to do with it!

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  8. I'm sure you're right, Steve, though didn't Massena end up getting the boot regardless? I might have to hunt out a copy of Delderfield's non-fic book, "Napoleon's Marshals" which is meant to be pretty good.

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