Monday, 3 March 2014

A Glorious Past And A Selective Memory

If you want to become British, you will have to pass your ‘life in the UK’ test. This means that you should know about the main battles that the British have won. In your daily life, you will be reminded at every possible opportunity about such battles.  Don’t bother too much to learn about the ones the British have lost.

The thing is, I am French. We French also have a selective historical memory, but the other way around: we are mainly taught about the battles that France has won. I belong to generation of students that never, ever heard about Napoleon. For some reason, it wasn’t mentioned in the history manuals. I understand that things are slightly different in the UK, because most of my British friends are experts on the Napoleonic wars. Apparently they had to learn about Napoleon over and over again. They are always shocked when I don’t seem to understand their allusions to this part of our shared history (For the record, I really don’t understand them). That said, very kindly, I was once given a lovely lecture by some well-meaning colleagues. A real crash course on the Napoleonic wars. What a treat! Be prepared…It happened a few years ago.

That day, everybody from the accounting department seemed to be crammed in my office. What was going on?

One of the accounting clerks, started the show:

“So how does it feel to be in the enemy’s land today?’

What was going on? What were they talking about?

“Today is the 197th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo! And, with my team, we are going to celebrate the great achievements of the Duke of Wellington.”

Great. I was in for a treat. I immediately thought that I would have to book myself a business trip when it was going to be the battle of Trafalgar anniversary. It was obviously too late for Waterloo. Where the hell were all my French colleagues? For once I wished they were at the office, despite their constant whining.

Someone had even brought me a present: a Napoleon hat, with its characteristic bicorne.

“ You have to wear it all day, it is our office’s tradition. And you are the only French citizen in the office today, so wear it with pride!”

“No way! Over my dead body!”

I was so not going to wear this. It clashed with my dress anyway.

I knew absolutely nothing about Napoleon. Frankly, it hadn’t bothered me at all. Until today, that was. I felt I was about to receive a crash course on the Napoleonic wars. Lucky me.

“ Waterloo is one of our greatest victories”, I was explained. Great.

What was wrong with everybody? Why did they care so much about Waterloo?

A couple of hours later, new invasion of my office. Most of my colleagues were dressed in old army uniforms, and some even had a plastic sword.

“It is the end of the morning and the French have launch a diversionary attack on Hougoumont.”

“I, Wellington, will stand firm. I will not be fooled by such a tactic”.

The accounting clerk walked around my desk solemnly twice. The other colleagues weren’t saying a word. They didn’t even crack a smile. Eventually they left.

Unfortunately for me, this was only the start.

Shortly afterwards, he was back with a plastic gun that he firmly put on my desk. Another colleague went behind me, grabbed the fake gun and pretended to shoot some of the other colleagues in army uniform. Some fell on the ground, pretending to be dead. 'Wellington' spoke again:

“ The French have Captured Papelotte and La Haye Sainte. We have suffered heavy casualties but so have they. “

“-We will keep standing! “

“ Aye Aye”

“The Prussian are helping us on one side. Napoleon –he points at me- sent the infantry and the cavalry to face them.”

He mimicked the noise of a horse.

“Mind the horse, Wellington” I mumbled.

He continued, undeterred:

“ As a result, the French army in the middle of the front line becomes weaker. This is our breakthrough! We get La Haye Sainte back. ”

They are really into it. I had never seen them so focused. If only they could have shown the same enthusiasm when paying for my expenses. I was still waiting to be reimbursed for a business trip made a couple of months before the re-enactment. Somehow I felt that I shouldn’t mention it that day. They all left, pretending to be riding horses. Where the hell was I? How could I escape?

I was looking up on Google to see what was next, in order to find out more about this battle. How were we managing without Google? I was also thinking of sneaking out of the office today but the secretary was clearly monitoring my every move. No escape was possible.

And she warned me:

“Napoleon cannot leave the battle! It would be treachery!”

I felt trapped. I hadn’t realised that, that day, I would have to endure the re-enactment of Waterloo. And I couldn’t do anything about it.

They came back after lunch. It all started again:

“Napoleon –still pointing at me- is trying to capture back La Haye Sainte. He sends in more and more cavalry, but we resist and eventually they have no choice but to retreat. Hurray!”

All cheered. I wanted to bury my head in the sand.

”Napoleon is trying to prevent us from joining the Prussian army. He is splitting his forces into half. Fatal mistake.”

“ Yay, the French have got it all wrong! Three cheers for the Allies!”

“Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!”

I wondered why they were all getting so worked up. I was also hoping that we would soon reach the end of the re-enactment. I just had to be patient.

“ The Prussian army and Wellington finally meet. The French are fleeing. It is a definite victory. It is the end of the Napoleonic wars!”

“ Bravo!”

They all clapped at each other, happy of their historical reconstitution.

“That was funny, wasn’t it”

“ Hysterical! Completely hysterical!”

I didn’t know what to answer; this was the first word that came to my mind. I needed to say something else. They were all waiting for it and I had been silent for far too long.

“Yes, it was good. I learned a lot. But, let’s face reality here: you couldn’t have done it without the Prussians, could you?”

“ How dare you? We won, and it is what matters. It was a strategic alliance”

“Bloody French. Sore losers.”

“Bloody Napoleon”

“Oh, and don’t forget to take back the cavalry with you!”

It looked like, for my colleagues, whatever I was doing, I will always be French, with or without a British passport.

Throughout the day, I received emails from British colleagues with whom I did not have to interact. They were all asking me how the re-enactment had gone. They were all extremely proud of Waterloo. I didn’t understand.

In France, although we celebrate the end of WW1 and WW2, we barely mention other battles. We don't even mention past victories, and for obvious reasons we don't talk about defeats at all.

I replied to all of them that all went well, thank you very much, and that on 14th of October we would celebrate the French victory of Hastings. After all, we needed to be balanced, right? If we had celebrated Waterloo, we also needed to celebrate a French victory. It was all about openness and inclusion, I said.

The response I got was that the battle of Hastings was far too long ago. Oh, the bad faith!


  1. God how weird. I can assure you that most Brits wouldn't be able to tell you much about Napoleon or any battle dates. I'm laughing at the strangeness of it all.

    1. It was really weird, wasn't it? I felt I was being punished for being French!

  2. Oh - too good! I have a Brit friend over here who knows military details to the Nth degree. I supposed you have a point , too, about what the schools do and don't teach. Hell, we could all be in China.

    1. We were supposed to learn something different every year, but then they reshuffled everything and as a result we never studied the Napoleonic wars. Sad but true.

  3. You worked in a strange place... I would have been mortified if it happened to me... Like you I know nothing about Napoleon but let's face it, I've always found French history to be a bit boring. But now and again Napoleon is mentioned during conversations I have with colleagues and I don't know what the fuss is all about... Thankfully I don't think he ever fought the Irish so I won't have to endured any re-enactment in my office !

    1. Lucky you! We probably belong to the same generation of students who never heard about Napoleon...In London, it seems to be an obsession...

  4. It is wonderful that they were commemorating an Irish General who kept the British End up and saved their skin!! Mind you when somebody once had the temerity to ask him if he considered himself Irish Lord Mornington's son (aka Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington) snorted at his interrogator and snarled "My good man, just because Jesus was born in a stable it did not make him a horse!!" I'm afraid it is not just in your office that the Battle of Waterloo is recreated:

    1. As much as I like history, I didn't understand what the fuss was all about. It felt a bit like an ambush!

  5. That is the most bizarre thing I've heard in a long time. What a bunch of nuts in your office!

    1. Thank you! I left a few months later to set up my own business...

  6. That is weird, but here in the U.S. they literally reenact the civil war. On the battlefields, with uniforms, guns, cannons, food they ate back then, etc. They spent 4 days reenacting Gettysburg in July because it was an anniversary. Sorry, I just don't get how it it's fun to reenact the horror of those battles.

    Sounds like a fun place you work at!!

    1. Well, if you choose to attend a re-enactment, I can understand, right. After al, it is your choice. In this case, it was an ambush!

  7. If I'd been in your shoes, I'd have been insulted and annoyed. So what? Waterloo was 200 years ago and it wouldn't have been a great victory if Napoleon hadn't been a great general. I can't imagine having to put up with a bunch of ill-mannered English oafs. One thing is a reenactment but another is rudeness at someone else's expense. As a matter of fact, Napoleon had the Brits on the run until Waterloo. They were so scared he'd invade that "Boney will get you" became a classic threat for naughty kids. What I did find a bit weird was that you'd never, ever heard about Napoleon, nor is he in the history manuals in France. So the Napoleonic wars never happened? Nor was he a self-crowned emperor? Where did Louis Napoleon come from then?

    1. The funny thing, Penelope, is that I am a bit Italian too. I didn't understand what the fuss was all about. What I understood, though, is that they all had too much time on their hands...

  8. That is by far the most hilarious piece of yours I've read Muriel! Thoroughly enjoyed it! :)

    1. Thank you, Rohit! I suppose that the French and the British will never understand each other...

  9. Be glad you don't live in the States to be confronted with the infernal Civil War re-enactments...

    1. I don't mind re-enactments if you choose to attend them. But, in this case, it was an ambush...

  10. Can't say anyone I know wants to quote battles at me but the enctments are a big thing for some, don't ask me why, but it is usually our civil war...

    1. I know...I can promise you that I didn't know what to do and felt very ill at ease. The thing is, I have Italian blood too, and I really didn't get what the fuss was all about.

  11. I remember a Google bomb from a few years ago:

    Sorry, Muriel. Some people have a weird sense of humor. Maybe they just wanted you to feel included in their festivities. After all, when people think of Waterloo, it's Napoleon's defeat - not Wellington's victory - they generally remember. Most people would recognize Napoleon, but wouldn't pick Wellington out of a line-up. While you may have been cast in the role of a famous loser, he was also the more colorful, memorable figure. And the subject of one of my favorite paintings, by Jacques Louis David: Le Sacre de Napoléon. I do not see what the big deal is over the Mona Lisa - Le Sacre de Napoléon makes me wish for infinitely large pockets.

    We have a lot of passionate re-enactors here in the US, too. They don't usually bring it to the office, though.

    1. I tell you, Holly, it was an office ambush. I had no choice in the matter.I can understand that peple are passionate about history. As you say, I didn't expect it in the office...

  12. I thought all French people knew about Napoleon! I wonder why he has faded out of the history books. Or did I get something wrong somewhere?
    The reenactment sounds very bizarre !!

    1. I belong to a generation of students who have never heard of Napoleon. This is because we were supposed to study French history in a chronological order, and then some politician came along and reshuffled the whole thing. As a result, I never had to study Napoleon. Sad but true. This is why I don't 'get' Napoleon jokes, etc...