I am an excellent soldier. I do not say this because I am prejudiced in my own favour, but because I really am so.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘How the Brigadier Won His Medal’ (1894)
I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been anything but a fine one.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom’ (1895)
In the early 1850s, as French troops begin mobilizing for the Crimea, an old, grey-haired man named Etienne Gerard settles down with a bottle or two of wine in a Parisian café to tell tales of his glory days as a Hussar in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. And what glory there was back then, when the Emperor had all Europe at his feet.
‘I was the first swordsman, the most dashing rider, the hero of a hundred adventures,’ boasts Gerard, ‘the hero of Ratisbon, the victor of Jena, the man who broke the square at Austerlitz.’ And he promises us adventures that have no equal. ‘You will hear of my duel with the six fencing masters, and you will be told how, single-handed, I charged the Austrian Hussars of Graz and brought their silver kettledrum back upon the crupper of my mare.’
As it happens, neither of those incidents is ever related; maybe, as with the Giant Rat of Sumatra, the world is not yet ready. But Arthur Conan Doyle did record other deeds of daring, danger and dash, tales of pluck and luck, of distressed damsels and femmes fatales, of secret societies, undercover missions and breathtaking escapes. These are – as Brigadier Gerard himself puts it – ‘the remarkable exploits which have won me the love of so many beautiful women, and the respect of so many noble men’. And they’re simply wonderful.
So what kind of man is Gerard, this hero who ‘has fought the men and kissed the women in fourteen separate kingdoms’? His superior officer, the Comte de Lasalle, has the pithiest description: ‘all spurs and moustaches, with never a thought beyond women and horses.’ It’s hard to tell which of these is the most important to Gerard, but the moustaches shouldn’t be overlooked. ‘In the whole light cavalry it would have been hard to find a finer pair of whiskers,’ he tells us. ‘Murat’s may have been a shade longer, but the best judges are agreed that Murat’s were a shade too long.’
It’s not the only time we hear comparisons with other officers. Here’s Gerard on Colonel Despienne: ‘He was a tiny fellow, about three inches short of the proper height for a man – he was exactly three inches shorter than myself.’ We happily accept these evaluations, because Gerard is, as he reassures us, strictly objective: ‘I am a man singularly free from conceit.’
Similarly, he’s not blinded by patriotism, so he can give us the unblinkered wisdom of his experience. ‘Foolish, inexperienced people of every nation always think that their own soldiers are braver than any others,’ he muses.
But when one has seen as much as I have done, one understands that there is no very marked difference, and that although nations differ very much in discipline, they are all equally brave – except that the French have rather more courage than the rest.
He is, he insists, an art-lover (‘in which respect I show my good taste and my breeding’), though his aesthetic sensibility sometimes falls victim to the rough and tumble of the soldiering life:
When Lefebvre was selling the plunder after the fall of Danzig, I bought a very fine picture, called Nymphs Surprised in a Wood, and I carried it with me through two campaigns, until my charger had the misfortune to put his hoof through it.
One might also cite in this context ‘the affair of the Italian fencing-master at Milan’, to which Gerard makes passing reference. This man upset an opera singer and – since ‘it is intolerable that a public affront should be put upon a pretty woman’ – Gerard challenged him to a duel. It being a matter of honour, the Italian’s widow was given a pension.
As a young man, Gerard dreamt of leaving this life in a blaze of glory, but – unlike, say, John Buchan’s heroes – he’s not so keen on the idea of quiet, unacknowledged duty. ‘It would have been a heroic death,’ he reflects, as he considers and rejects a dangerous course of action, ‘but who was there to see it or to chronicle it?’ When it seems that his time really has come, he takes comfort in the idea of posthumous honour: ‘I thought also how nobly I would seem to have acted if ever the story came to be told.’
He enjoys extraordinary good fortune, but this is not coincidence, merely part of the proper order of the world: ‘Chance is a woman, my friends, and she has her eye always upon a gallant Hussar.’ He is also, lest we forget, a valiant soldier, adept at horsemanship and equally at home with pistol or sword, and fiercely, unwaveringly loyal.
He’s not, though, not with the best will in the world, very intelligent. One is rather reminded of the description in A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers (1902) of a military family:
Men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid.
When he is sent by Napoleon himself on a mission through heavily occupied territory, he succeeds against all the odds and delivers the message with which he’s been charged. The Emperor is furious. Gerard was meant to fail. ‘Can you not see,’ Napoleon thunders, ‘that this message contained false news, and that it was intended to deceive the enemy whilst I put a very different scheme into execution?’
But of course he hadn’t seen that. He’s a simple-minded soldier, who struggles to comprehend a direct order, let alone deal with deeper meanings and hidden agendas. He’s lost when it comes to subterfuge and strategy. As he ruefully reflects on another occasion: ‘the Emperor had no great respect for my wits.’
In short, he is – as Napoleon tells him – a ‘numskull’ and ‘a buffoon’. A very brave buffoon, but a buffoon nonetheless.
Yet all the absurd vanity, all the preposterous pomposity of the man doesn’t detract from the thrill of the adventures themselves, and it’s that combination of comedy and action that makes the Brigadier Gerard stories such a joy. In the manner of the best swashbuckling, we know we’re not meant to take it too seriously.
Nor is the humour confined to his foppish foolishness; sometimes it’s the bathos that gets you. Here he is charging alone at a troop of British Hussars:
I remember that I tried to pray as I rode, but I am a little out of practice at such things, and the only words I could remember were the prayer for fine weather which we used at the school on the evening before holidays. Even this seemed better than nothing…
There are also some lovely sequences that satirize both the French and the British. The Englishmen that Gerard meets are obsessed with hunting and gambling. There’s Milor the Hon. Sir Russell Bart, for example, who captures Gerard and then gives him a game of écarté, the prize for which is the Frenchman’s freedom. The Bart (as Gerard calls him) got himself in all sorts of trouble as a result of this incident – not so much for neglect of duty as for not clearing trumps. Such are the values of the officer class in Britain.
In the most celebrated episode, Gerard’s sent behind enemy lines in the Peninsular War and finds himself caught up in a fox-hunt. It’s not something he’s ever experienced before, but he takes to it with his customary gusto: ‘it is a great feeling, this feeling of sport, my friends, this desire to trample the fox under the hoofs of your horse.’
Far out in front of the others, he rides through the ‘herd of fox-dogs’ in his desire to be in at the kill: ‘One or two may have been hurt, but what would you have? The egg must be broken for the omelette. I could hear the huntsman shouting his congratulations behind me.’ And then, his moment of supreme triumph, he manages to kill the fox: ‘I caught him fair with such another back-handed cut as that with which I killed the aide-de-camp of the Emperor of Russia.’ For the rest of his life, he’s convinced that the British officers shouting and gesticulating at him from some way behind are in admiration of his sporting prowess.
Rather different is his account of the Germans. The best story of them all, ‘How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom’, starts on the banks of the Elbe in 1813, where the remnants of the great army that had marched into Russia the previous year hope to ‘thaw their frozen blood and try, with the help of the good German beer, to put a little between their skin and their bones’. Gerard is sent on a mission, but has no fears for his own safety:
The Germans had always seemed to me to be a kindly, gentle people, whose hands closed more readily round a pipe-stem than a sword-hilt – not out of want of valour, you understand, but because they are genial, open souls, who would rather be on good terms with all men. I did not know then that beneath that homely surface there lurks a devilry as fierce as, and far more persistent than, that of the Castilian or the Italian.
Even a man as insensitive as he, however, cannot help noticing that there are signs of nationalism in the air. At a gathering in the castle of the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, a young German poet sings, and Gerard’s account of the song seems to whisk us forward to the Biergarten of Cabaret:
It was soft, at first, and dreamy, telling of old Germany, the mother of nations, of the rich, warm plains, and the grey cities, and the fame of dead heroes. But then verse after verse rang like a trumpet-call. It was of the Germany of now, the Germany which had been taken unawares and overthrown, but which was up again, and snapping the bonds upon her giant limbs. What was life that one should covet it? What was glorious death that one should shun it? The mother, the great mother, was calling. Her sigh was in the night wind. She was crying to her own children for help. Would they come? Would they come? Would they come?
He concludes: ‘I understood then that there was something terrible in this strong, patient Germany – this mother root of nations – and I saw that such a land, so old and so beloved, never could be conquered.’ It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that, despite the period setting, this was published less than a decade before Erskine Childers identified Germany, rather than France, as Britain’s next foe in The Riddle of the Sands (1903).
It’s not the only time that a darker note enters the stories, to offset the humour and the adventure. As Gerard rides across the battlefield in the aftermath of Waterloo, he realizes that all the glory in the world cannot conceal the reality of the suffering:
There were things which I saw then, as I pressed through that dreadful crowd, which can never be banished from my mind. In evil dreams there comes back to me the memory of that flowing stream of livid, staring, screaming faces upon which I looked down. It was a nightmare. In victory one does not understand the horror of war. It is only in the cold chill of defeat that it is brought home to you.
Part of the pleasure of the stories is the way that real-life figures make guest appearances, the blend of fiction and history. (George McDonald Fraser drew on Gerard when writing his chronicles of Harry Flashman.)
Gerard himself is not to be confused with his historical namesake, the French general Count Étienne Maurice Gérard, who commanded a corps under Napoleon – though our hero does claim kinship (‘my cousin Gerard’) – but we do meet the likes of the Comte de Lasalle, Murat and the slippery Tallyrand. Above all, there’s Bonaparte himself, seen as a capricious but compelling leader of men, such as might emerge once in a nation’s history.
Gerard fills in some details that appear to have evaded historians. Napoleon, we learn, was a ‘man of strong passions and of strange revenges’, and in his youth was a member of a secret society, the Brothers of Ajaccio (a fashionable literary theme at the time of publication). There are also elements from the exile on St Helena that are undocumented elsewhere: the deposed Emperor’s attempts to write to Gerard (the only man who knows where a cache of secret documents is buried), and a desperate, doomed attempt to rescue le petit caporal.
I’ve noted before the way that British popular culture looks on Napoleon with simultaneous horror and fascination. The Corsican tyrant was so alien to the British character, and yet there’s no denying the romantic charisma of the man. Even as we look upon his works and despair, he remains pretty much the only French person who cuts any ice in this country. And here, the fact that he is the recipient of Gerard’s hero-worship does nothing to diminish him.
Gerard also makes a guest appearance in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel Uncle Bernac (1897), a very slight narrative that seems to exist solely for its portrayal of Napoleon. ‘As I draw his words and his deeds,’ reflects Louis de Laval, the narrator, ‘I feel that my own poor story withers before them.’ Well, yes, in this instance it does. By contrast, it’s a tribute to Conan Doyle’s genius that, in the Gerard stories, our brave Brigadier is not similarly overshadowed. He doesn’t think he is, either:
When the humour seized him, he would throw a hundred square miles to that man, or tear as much off the other, round off one kingdom by a river, or cut off another by a chain of mountains. That was how he used to do business, this little artilleryman, whom we had raised so high with our sabres and our bayonets. He was very civil to us always, for he knew where his power came from. We knew also, and showed it by the way in which we carried ourselves. We were agreed, you understand, that he was the finest leader in the world, but we did not forget that he had the finest men to lead.
If the Sherlock Holmes canon is self-evidently Conan Doyle’s finest creation, the Gerard tales – in my view – narrowly edge in front of the Professor Challenger stories to take second place. And for a moment, it seemed as though the Brigadier might even usurp Holmes.
The first Sherlock novels (A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and The Sign of the Four in 1890) were interleaved with historical novels – Micah Clarke (1889) and The White Company (1891) – and were followed by the first series of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in the Strand magazine in 1891–92. These were hugely successful, but Doyle was tiring of the format, and the second series of Sherlock stories culminated in ‘The Final Problem’ in December 1893.
Having thus killed off his most popular character, Doyle launched Brigadier Gerard in a one-off tale, also in the Strand, in December 1894. It was popular enough that a full series then began appearing from April 1895 onwards, collected in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896).
Mostly the stories got a good reception. The characterization of Gerard is ‘among the masterly things of current literature,’ said one paper, and another felt that in the stories ‘Conan Doyle displays the same power of writing so as to rivet the attention which has made Sherlock Holmes a worldwide favourite’. Some went further. ‘This book is altogether on a higher level than Sherlock Holmes,’ according to one over-exuberant critic. ‘In the whole range of English literature there are not eight short stories to beat the exploits of Brigadier Gerard.’ And in 1900 Conan Doyle himself said these were his own favourite work.
A second set of tales was published as The Adventures of Gerard (1903). There was also a stage play, with a new plot cobbled together from bits of others, which was less well received. ‘Emasculated Dumas,’ was the headline of a review, dismissing the piece as ‘a medley of stale situations, worn-out tricks and impossible people’. It was moderately successful, though, and Lewis Waller (best known for roles in Wilde and Ibsen) played Gerard, a role he reprised in the first movie adaptation in 1915. A later film, The Fighting Eagle (1927) had some fine swashbuckling by the admirably named Rod La Rocque, and was based on the play.
But however popular Gerard was, he never did eclipse Holmes. The final episode of the second series – ‘The Last Adventure of the Brigadier’ – appeared in the May 1903 edition of the Strand. And in the September issue that year came ‘The Empty House’, in which Sherlock returned from the dead to reclaim his position as the greatest fictional character ever. Thereafter, there was just one more Gerard tale to come, in 1910.
The Gerard stories, including Uncle Bernac, used to be most commonly found in an omnibus volume with Doyle’s earlier novel, The Great Shadow (1892), so I should say a word about that story. Apart from the shared historical setting, though, it’s a very different beast to Gerard – a pleasant enough adventure romance, but a bit unfocussed.
Again it’s Napoleon himself who dominates, though we don’t see him directly. We start in the days when the threat of invasion is felt right across Britain. Our narrator, Jack Calder, is a boy in West Inch, a tiny Borders village, but the mythic power of Napoleon cannot be avoided even here:
I can tell you that the fear of that man hung like a black shadow over all Europe, and that there was a time when the glint of a fire at night upon the coast would set every woman upon her knees and every man gripping for his musket. He had always won: that was the terror of it. The Fates seemed to be behind him. And now we knew that he lay upon the northern coast with a hundred and fifty thousand veterans, and the boats for their passage. But it is an old story, how a third of the grown folk of our country took up arms, and how our little one-eyed, one-armed man crushed their fleet. There was still to be a land of free thinking and free speaking in Europe.
It was a time when Britain had always been at war with France:
Babies who were born in the war grew to be bearded men with babies of their own, and still the war continued. Those who had served and fought in their stalwart prime grew stiff and bent, and yet the ships and the armies were struggling. It was no wonder that folk came at last to look upon it as the natural state, and thought how queer it must seem to be at peace.
And there’s another cameo by a figure from history, ‘a fine built, heavy man on a roan horse’ who stops for a moment in the village en route to join up with his militia regiment. ‘I ken him weel,’ says an onlooker. ‘He’s a lawyer in Edinburgh, and a braw hand at the stringin’ of verses. Wattie Scott is his name.’
One other detail from The Great Shadow warrants a mention. An exiled and mysterious foreigner comes to West Inch and asks Jock Calder’s father Jim about Scottish politics:
‘You used to have your own king and your own laws made at Edinburgh,’ said he. ‘Does it not fill you with rage and despair when you think that it all comes to you from London now?’
Jim took his pipe out of his mouth.
‘It was we who put our king over the English; so if there’s any rage, it should have been over yonder,’ said he.
This was clearly news to the stranger, and it silenced him for the moment.
‘Well, but your laws are made down there, and surely that is not good,’ he said at last.
‘No, it would be well to have a Parliament back in Edinburgh,’ said my father; ‘but I am kept so busy with the sheep that I have little enough time to think of such things.’