by Antoine Vanner
Though the focus of my own writing – as in my novel Britannia’s Wolf – is on the mid-Victorian period, I retain a lively interest in the Napoleonic era. I have always found the plight of prisoners of war of this time as particularly poignant.
Over 100,000 of them were brought to Britain during the wars with France that raged from 1793 to 1815, with only a one-year break in 1802/03. Enlisted soldiers and seamen had the worst of it with many being confined in horrific conditions on moored hulks. The luckier ones were housed in the specially built prison on Dartmoor, to which many American prisoners were also sent from 1812 to 1815.
Officers were however given the opportunity to give their parole – their word of honour, in writing, not to escape – and to live relatively normal lives in lodgings in a few specified British towns. The French established a similar regime for British officer prisoners at Verdun in Eastern France.
Unlike in earlier wars between Britain and France, only limited exchanges of prisoners took place in the Napoleonic period and those unfortunate enough to be captured early in the wars faced long periods in detention. In the case of seamen, removal of skilled men from active service was of particular benefit to the captor. This reflected the fact that, given the technology of the time, an effective soldier could be trained in a matter of weeks whereas mastery of nautical skills demanded years of experience.
For French and British officer prisoners – and for the large number of wealthy British civilian tourists whom the French somewhat unsportingly interned in 1803 – life was as close to normal as was possible in the circumstances. Social relations seem to have been relaxed – and even warm, as discussed later in this article.
Once the initial fervour of Revolution had died down and social stability had been restored by Napoleon, ideological differences as we understand them today were almost non-existent. The concept of “a gentleman” transcended national boundaries and apart from the painful necessity of fighting each other occasionally, personal animosity seems to have been remarkably low between the British and the French at all levels of society. This may have been due to the facts that Britain’s civilian population was never exposed to French foraging and that when Britain did invade France, in 1814, Wellington ensured that French civilians were spared the sort of rapine that had disgraced British victories in Spain at Badajoz and San Sebastian.
The most notable French prisoner in Britain was Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, who had fallen out with the Emperor in 1809 and who attempted to flee from Italy to the United States. He was captured by the Royal Navy and brought to Britain – where on landing he was apparently cheered by a crowd that approved his part in the family quarrel. Placed under liberally-interpreted “house arrest”, Lucien was permitted by the British Government to purchase a large country house at Thorngrove in Worcestershire and to establish himself as a member of local society. His son, also Lucien and later a distinguished philologist, was born there and two of his daughters would later marry into the British aristocracy.
Large numbers of less highly connected officers also spent long periods in Britain. On arrival in Britain an officer prisoner was the responsibility of the Admiralty’s Transport Board. Once he had signed a parole document he was provided with a copy of its terms in French and English. It also carried a physical description of him, so that it served as an identity card which he was thereafter required to carry.
Formalities complete, the prisoner was assigned to a “parole town”. One such was the Alresford, one of no less than eleven such towns in Hampshire and one which still contains sad memorials to these men. The Transport Board had an agent in each town – in Alresford’s case a solicitor called John Dunn – who arranged for billeting the prisoner on a suitable local family.
Each prisoner was required to report to the agent twice a week, an obligation made less onerous by being also the occasion for drawing one shilling and sixpence a day for subsistence. The agent heard and resolved complaints, supervised conduct, and submitted reports and accounts to the Transport Board, which hoped to recover costs from the French Government at the end of hostilities. Should a prisoner die then the agent arranged the funeral, sold his possessions, and as far as circumstances allowed transmitted the proceeds to his family. Some prisoners had their wives living with them, possibly captured at sea and choosing to stay with their spouses in captivity.
In Alresford prisoners were free to walk up to one mile along the turnpike road – now the A31 highway – which led eastwards towards Guildford, 30 miles away, and westwards to Winchester, 8 miles distant. The prisoners were not permitted to leave the highway or cross fields and it is not clear if they were allowed to walk on lesser roads leading from the town. Any such prohibition would have been very painful since Alresford is set in one of the most beautiful rural landscapes in Britain and strolling in it would have been some solace to the prisoner.
The village of Chawton, home of Jane Austen, lies a mere 9 miles to the east and she would have used the turnpike on her frequent visits to Winchester. As she passed through Alresford, Jane would almost certainly have seen French prisoners. She would perhaps have felt a chill at the realisation that her two brothers in the Royal Navy might someday endure a similar fate in France. Though she makes a naval officer the hero of “Persuasion”, and as her cousin Eliza’s French husband had been guillotined during the Terror, it is perhaps regrettable that she did not work in a French prisoner as a character.
The Transport Board’s daily allowance seems to have been on the meagre side and many of the prisoners supplemented their incomes by giving lessons in French, fencing or drawing. Others seem to have made for sale tobacco boxes, sets of dominoes and bobbins used in making lace. Some may have built model ships of the type made from bone and rigged with human hair which are associated with French prisoners – one occasionally appears at auction houses. Whether to supplement their diet, or to satisfy French gastronomic taste, prisoners were frequently seen gathering snails, much to the amazement of the locals.
The most notable reminder of the prisoners in modern Alresford is to be found in the graveyard of the ancient church of St. John the Baptist. Here one can find headstones which commemorate four prisoners, and the wife of another, who lie buried here. A small plaque alludes to deaths brought on by tropical diseases carried back from the West Indies. Though brief, the inscription on each stone tells a tale of tragedy:
· Pierre Garnier – Sub-Lieutenant of the French 66th Regiment of Foot, died on 31st July 1811 at the age of 36. I have been unable to locate a book written about him by Audrey Deacon, entitled The Prisoner from Perrecy (1988) but his details appear to be that he had served since 1796 and sailed to Guadeloupe in 1810, being captured that year in the British attack that eliminated this last French base in the Caribbean. Garnier arrived in Alresford in June 1811, but already appeared to be ill, possibly due to a fever brought from West Indies. Before dying he prepared a claim for arrears of half-pay to which he was entitled as a prisoner but the claim was not settled (on behalf of his heirs) until six years after the end of the war.
· Jean de Lhuille – Lieutenant of Artillery, died August 6th 1812 at the age of 51. He was the oldest commemorated with a headstone and considering his junior rank one wonders what his story might have been. Was he a promoted ranker? Was he perhaps a civilian but enrolled in some part-time militia on Guadeloupe and captured at the same time as Pierre Garnier?
· Joseph Hypolite Riqueffe – Naval Ensign, died December 12th 1810, aged 28. It is interesting that his affiliation is given as the “Imperial and Royal” French Navy and not the “Imperial” alone. He was “regretted by his comrades and all who knew him” and one suspects that the latter category was not confined to Frenchmen.
· Mr.C. Lavau – Merchant Navy officer, died December 23rd 1811 at the age of 29. Given that much of Britain’s naval war against Napoleon was a war against commerce, and conducted with higher standards of humanity than the U-Boat wars of the 20th Century, there is a good chance that he might have been captured at sea.
· Madame Marie Louise Fournier – wife of Captain F. Berlet of the French Artillery, died 11th April 1812 aged 44. This is the saddest of the gravestones and one wonders how she had come to be in Alresford. Had she perhaps been captured with her husband, perhaps in Guadeloupe, and had she volunteered to stay with him? Had he perhaps been wounded and needing nursing? Or had she offered to come to Britain to stay with him after he had been captured somewhere else?
Yet in parallel with these tragedies life went on as pleasantly as it could and relations between British hosts and reluctant French guests seem to have been generally cordial. French prisoners seem to have participated in social gatherings and one such was to be at The Swan Inn (still in business and proud of having hosted Oliver Cromwell) in 1810 when the agent, John Dunn, and other Alresford notables were invited to attend an Anglo-French assembly to celebrate Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria. Somebody must have tipped off the Admiralty’s Transport Board, which then prohibited the celebration as being unpatriotic.
It is also notable that the tradition of prisoner of war theatricals, which was so much a feature of WW2 camps, especially British ones, seems to have been well established in Alresford. On one occasion some spoilsport at the Transport Board got wind of the fact that French officers had formed a theatre and warned John Dunn that if it continued the prisoners would be moved elsewhere. One hopes that this warning was treated with the contempt it deserved!
Other than Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard’s brief captivity in Britain, I know of only one notable work of fiction which builds on social relations between the British and their French prisoners. This is a tragic short story by Rudyard Kipling in his Rewards and Fairies and it centres on a girl who, unknown to herself, is dying of consumption. Her father has become friendly with a French prisoner, a doctor, René Laennec, who is on the process of inventing the stethoscope. Another friend is Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, who is just back from India. The climax of the story is an unbearably poignant account of a dinner at which all three men realise that the girl is dying, but she does not know it herself. Wellesley, who himself was partly educated in France, would have had no hesitation to be on friendly terms with a cultivated Frenchman, prisoner or not. I’d like to think that social interactions of this type were not uncommon – and there’s scope here for many a convincing fictional plot!
In preparing the above article I have been heavily indebted to the “About Alresford” website and to an article on it by Peter Hoggarth, dating from 1991, on the French prisoners. The photographs have been taken by myself.
Antoine Vanner had had an adventurous and rewarding life, living and working long-term in eight countries and doing short-term assignments in many more. He is fascinated by history, especially of the nineteenth century, and this provides the foundation for his Dawlish Chronicles novels, the first of which, Britannia's Wolf was published early in 2013 and the second of which is due towards the year's end. He maintains a very extensive website: www.dawlishchronicles.com.