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Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Paris

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Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Paris

Postby Laurent » December 16th, 2011, 2:34 pm

Hi all,

Yesterday was the 171th Anniversary of the return of the body of Napoleon Bonaparte in France. There was a little ceremony in Paris (I did not attend).

On December 15th 1840, although It is freezing cold, a crowd of one hundred thousand people hurry along the route of the procession. The following passage is extracted from the "Memoirs" of the veteran Jean-Marie Putigny, a brave of the Grande Armée.
He was born on June 9th 1774 at Saillenard (Saône-et-Loire). He began his war service in 1792. At first he is in the Armée du Nord, in Vendée, then in Italy. Later he was a member of the Grande Armée at Austerlitz, Auerstadt Eylau and Wagram. He was also present in the retreat from Russia and the fall of the Empire.

His testimony was published by his descendant Bob Putigny at first in 1950 (Gallimard) and in 1980 (Copernicus). He was a simple man, fully engaged and Bonapartist. His life was entirely devoted to Napoleon and the coming back of the latter in Paris is like a culmination in Putigny’s heart. Jean-Marie Putigny was made Baron of the Empire in 1809 and officer of the Legion d’Honneur in 1815. He died at Tournus, May 5th, 1849, exactly 28 years after the death of "his" beloved Emperor.

Putigny arrived in Paris from home on December 14th 1840. He went on the banks of the Seine to reach the place where the boat has just arrived, containing the ashes of the Emperor, but let’s listen to him :

[I translated the text below (please excuse the English), which was kindly supplied to me by Christophe Bourachot as the original French version].

"I have just arrived at the “pont de Neuilly”. Two hundred feet away from here, a small ship has just docked at the quay of the Seine. He is there in his coffin. My emotion is so intense, feelings, memories are occurring at such a speed that I am going like an automaton, seeing nothing but this black box on the deck of the ship : Him. But I have to wait for a long time before I can get closer and finally reach the platform in the middle of an army of ghosts : wrinkled faces, curved silhouettes, faded uniforms of all ranks from various former armies...

I hardly recognise some friends, and after having tried to look at them better, through them I realize what I am now : an old man ...

The night has come now. The wind gusts are blowing along the river and are lengthening the fire flares close to the Emperor. They also quicken the fire around which we try to warm up a bit.
We, the veterans of the Grande Armée, coughing and shivering, who wanted to cherish him for the first night of his return to France.

By ten degrees [Celsius] below zero, despite the wool sweaters, my Russian rheumatism awakes, my arms and shoulders are bent by the cold. I cannot feel my feet or the fingers of my hands, my ears hurt.

Du to a lack of wood, all fires are now extinguished. I can protect myself away from the icy north wind by standing against one of the columns of the only existing building on the platform, a wooden structure topped by a very high pediment in which they stored a huge machine before dawn : the imperial hearse. Hours and minutes follow one another endless ... Finally, sun is rising.

At nine o'clock, after a gun salute, the bells ring : the sailors of the vessel carrying the coffin are crossing the gateway, the Emperor is with us again on the soil of France. I forget the cold and my poor pain ... Tears roll down my cheeks, while the coffin is placed in the hearse and the procession is formed.

Places have been booked for everyone : for officials, for soldiers of the new army, for civil servants, for callow youths who had not met Him, for their father who had betrayed Him and had fought against Him.

But no one was concerned about us, his former companions, his followers, the "Imperials" as they say again, coming from all over the country, as one man, to accompany Him to his final resting place.

It is only after a delegation of mayors, councilors and other small civil servant, that we are allowed to walk one last time, behind our Emperor.

After the sleepless night on an empty stomach since yesterday afternoon, it seems to be colder. The rise from the “pont de Neuilly” to the “Etoile” (where stands the triumphal Arch) in Paris is an ordeal for most of us. I can hardly breathe.

My legs are leaden, my feet hurt, but I am strongly willing to apply myself to walk straight, denying anyone helps me, although I risk to fall at every step. On this really bad road, we stumble into the holes and ruts where the hearse bogs down several times.

Although it is snowing and that there are only a few kilometers to go, this funeral march reminds Austerlitz for the effort and Russia for the cold, for I am no more thirty years old ! I am old now and the Emperor is dead.

"VIVE L’EMPEREUR! ". These repeated cries spring from the huge crowd, among which we march for over two hours. This time I cannot believe my ears, but I feel my heart swelling, as in that of all the French, the Emperor is still alive ... "

Jean-Marie PUTIGNY."

Laurent
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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Mark » December 16th, 2011, 2:48 pm

Thanks for the interesting post, Laurent! I didn't realise some in France still mark the anniversary of Napoleon's return - I hear he is viewed, understandably, with mixed and different feelings by the French today. Often the following years of conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars are forgot to history yet the events have profound effects even up to today.

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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Ian » January 6th, 2012, 11:13 pm

Thank you for that Laurent. I believe that when Napoleon was exhumed from his grave on St. Helena his body hadn't deteriorated at all since he was buried. Wasn't it his body that returned to France not his ashes?
Many people believe that should Napoleon's body be exhumed today he would still be in a well preserved state.

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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Banker » January 7th, 2012, 12:41 am

Very interesting to read thanks for posting

Regards Steve
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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » February 10th, 2012, 9:04 pm

Thank you very much for posting this French primary account of Napoleon's funeral, Laurent. I've always wondered how the French experienced the event, which my great-grandfather witnessed as well. He was a young American art student, newly arrived in France from Virginia. His father, a Colonel of the 67th Virginia Militia, had fought in the War of 1812 and forbade his son to set foot on British soil.

Here is the account of his departure from Le Havre and arrival in Paris, December 1840:
At six o'clock that evening we took the Diligence for Paris. In passing through Rouen, we stopped a few minutes. The view on the Quai was very fine, a grand illuminated arch being thrown over the Seine in honor of the remains of Napoleon which were daily expected to pass. I must give you an account of the funeral of Napoleon, which I had the good fortune to witness yesterday. All Paris has been agog with the preparation - for several weeks the Chamber of Deputies having voted two millions of francs for the purpose. The avenues, through which the procession was to pass were adorned for miles with triumphal pillars, enriched with stands of colors, eagles and shields, and inscribed with the names and dates of the great victories. There were colossal statues, proffering wreaths of laurel and glittering crowns; and huge altars from which rose clouds of incense. Near the Hotel des Invalids were ranged statues of the most distinguished soldiers of France from Charlemagne up to the present time; all in attitudes of salutation. Such was the eagerness to procure seats that some of the balconies on the Champs Elysees rented for three thousand francs; single seats were taken at from twenty to a hundred francs. Several of my American acquaintances procured places a week beforehand, and on the day of the procession were chased or crowded out of them although they had paid twenty-five or thirty francs for their tickets. On the morning of the procession, I bought one of the best places on the avenue for five francs. Lines of soldiers guarded the passage on each side for several miles and the crowd collected to view the pageant. A hundred thousand soldiers arrayed, with colors and martial music, passed in review before us. Regiment after regiment of Cavalry, splendidly equipped, rode by; their arms and brazen helmets flashing in the sun; then came immense bodies of Infantry, with muffled drums and their forests of bayonets; then the iron-bound Cuirassiers - what magnificent looking troops they were! - glittering in polished steel, with their stern visages and long moustache. (Who would believe that such troops could have been beaten, absolutely crushed, as they were at Waterloo?) Squadrons of Lancers, and long trains of Artillery, followed in their turn; until as far as the eye could reach either way, the broad avenue glittered with armed men. One ceases to wonder that the potentates of Europe are fond of war. Such a sight would make a coward brave.

First came a long train of funeral coaches and after these one leading a war horse of the Emperor, richly caparisoned; then followed a fine body of sailors who belonged to the vessels which were engaged in transporting the remains from St. Helena. A band of three hundred musicians playing a funeral dirge, preceded the great Car; which, gorgeous with purple and gold, and rolling on gilded wheels, was drawn by horse covered with cloth of gold. Four Marshals of France were the bearers; and behind the Car, wearing wreath laurel and marching with halting steps, came a remnant of the old Imperial Guard. It consisted of a few hundred grey headed, withered, war-worn soldiers; many of whom were maimed and almost helpless. The dust of him, whose name once shook the world, was now before me. I did not breathe; I saw nothing but the coffin of Napoleon. Several persons addressed remarks to me at the time but the words conveyed no impression.

I turned away with a feeling of deep disappointment. I had looked for tumult; I had thought that the enthusiasm of the people would be boundless; I expected to see the guard broken through, the horses torn from their places and the Car dragged by the populace; but there was none of it. They jabbered, jested and admired the gold. The soldiers presented arms - they were so ordered. The Altars smoked - it was so written in the programme. The pageant was magnificent beyond conception - it was worthy of France - but it seemed to be regarded more as a something to amuse the people than a tribute of respect to the ashes of their Emperor. During the whole time the hawkers never ceased to cry, "Regardez, Messieurs! les petits Napoleons, pour trois sous." The stalls displayed Emperors done in glass, with their bellies full of Eau de Cologne! There was more of moral sublimity in a meeting of the Baltimore Convention, by far, than in this.

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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Laurent » February 10th, 2012, 10:43 pm

Ian wrote:Thank you for that Laurent. I believe that when Napoleon was exhumed from his grave on St. Helena his body hadn't deteriorated at all since he was buried. Wasn't it his body that returned to France not his ashes?
Many people believe that should Napoleon's body be exhumed today he would still be in a well preserved state.

Ian


Yes Ian, all the witnesses told that when Napoleon was exhumed from his grave on St. Helena his body wasn't detariorated, probably because the body had been isolated into four coffins, nested the one into the other, all of them placed into a solid stone grave. Unfortunaltely it would be difficult to say how would be the body now in the Invalides, but probably not so good...
In France, we always talk about the "return of the ashes" (retour des cendres) but the "return of the remains" would be actualy more appropriate. I think this is because in French the word ashes has a stronger emotional and religious meaning than "remains".
This is the opportunity to say that quite a lot of people in France believe that there was a cheat at St.Helena and that the body of Napoleon had not been given back to France and is currently not in his current big coffin in the Invalides in Paris. Some French historians (Thierry Lentz and Jacques Macé) try now to demonstrate that the theory of the man at the source of this tale ( a French journalist, M. Rétif, who wrote a book in 1969 "English, give Napoleon back to us !") is not really serious. Another different issue is the possible poisonning of Napoléon at St-Helena, but this issue is still unclear at the moment.

To Sarah,
The "return of the ashes" was actualy a big organised event in Paris which was watched by a very huge crowd. Your ancestor was lucky to attend this historical event and let you a precious written testimony. The return of the ashes was made possible by the last King of the French, Louis Philippe, who was quite a fan of Napoleon.

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Laurent
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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby OXFORDMON » February 10th, 2012, 10:55 pm

Very interesting read, thank you all.

David Chandler called Napoleon 'A great, bad, man', would the French agree?

Andy.
"Thus the war terminated, and with it all remembrance of the veteran's services" Gen W F P Napier.
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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Laurent » February 16th, 2012, 11:18 am

Andy,
I don't exactly know what David Chandler meant with "great and bad" and sorry but I did not read this author.
I have no goal to speak on behalf of the French but what I can say is quite simple and factual : each time a french TV Channel or magazine/newspaper organizes a public survey on "what is your favorite historical character ? (from all nationalies) ", Napoléon Ist is at the first or second place. And each time Napoléon contests the first place with Général de Gaulle.
So "Great and bad", I don't know, but esteemed by the French surely...
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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Mark » February 16th, 2012, 11:57 am

Laurent

Is there a split in France about how people feel regarding Napoleon - i.e. some see him positively while others are more negative?

From a British point of view he is of course seen more negatively so our view of him tends to be so.

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Re: Told by a Veteran : the return of Napoleon ashes in Pari

Postby Laurent » February 16th, 2012, 1:09 pm

I would not say there is a split because all the French know they are indebted to Napoléon du to his civil heritage they live every day in France.
To go further, French people who know a little bit history are aware that the putsch of Napoléon in 1799 was a gesture of Nation salvation to stop the french revolution, e.g. to save France from the deadlock both inside as there were no required institutions to govern properly, and outside to stop the unending foreign attacks of France from 1792. It means, Napoleon as Consul then Emperor is seen as the harvest of the French revolution and specialy the foreign attacks on France.
Now it is true that some minorities who do not like Napoleon (and defend other interests) manage to be quite harmful in France, I mean to avoid an official support for some remembrances (e.g. Austerlitz in 2005). This is efficient lobbying only but won't erase what the strong majority think, e.g. one major material of the French identity.
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