Napoleon’s Faithful Soldier: the story of Louis Pierre Louvel (part 1)

Paris 1820. Five years after Waterloo. Napoleon is dying on St Helena. The Bourbon dynasty is restored to the French throne, reactionaries determined to obliterate Napoleon’s memory. Officially he is referred to as Bonaparte, sometimes as the Monster.

A prison cell. A male prisoner in solitary confinement, under heavy guard, obviously guilty of a serious crime. He is thin and fevered and has recent bruises and scars on his face. He wears the shabby remains of a military uniform. He paces his cell constantly. He has a military bearing and his pacing has the stamp of the drill square.

Two guards discuss the prisoner. They reveal that he is indifferent to his approaching execution. He shows no sign of remorse or wish to confess and insists that he committed his crime for Napoleon. The guard instantly corrects himself: “for Bonaparte, the Monster.” The prisoner’s only constant demand is for paper and ink.

Alone, the prisoner is writing in his cell. He already has a big stack of papers. The top sheet reads “For my son, Napoleon Louvel. In memory.” The manuscript continues “Although my son will never read these words, for his sake I have decided to set down some account of my life. This was worthless and insignificant in every respect until at the last I was able to execute an action for His Majesty the Emperor.”

The prisoner Louvel’s story is told in retrospect, through his written autobiography. It begins with him as a teenage boy in the provinces. He is an apprentice saddle-maker. He detests this occupation and longs for a better life. One day his drudgery is interrupted by bugles, drums and fifes. It is a detachment of the French Revolutionary Army of Italy, commanded by the young General Buonaparte (still with his Corsican-Italian spelling.) The boy Louvel is entranced. He runs after the detachment, keeping pace with it for many miles. Eventually he enlists in the infantry.

Louvel’s military career takes him through every major campaign of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic army. His own record is unspectacular: it takes him until 1812 before he is at last commissioned as a lieutenant, during the retreat from Moscow. But the diary reveals his intense commitment to the army and to Napoleon in particular. The army gives him comradeship, purpose, total fulfilment. He carries with him everywhere an icon of Napoleon leading the Army of Italy, on a cheap mass-produced image of Epinal. He has managed to smuggle the image into his prison cell and gazes at it in the thin moonlight which penetrates his window.

Louvel’s army career is narrated in a curious style. He gives a very accurate and detailed account of each campaign, with the units, commanders and manœuvres involved. There is a minute account of Napoleon’s movements and appearance in each battle. However, Louvel’s own movements are somewhat sketchy: he makes himself an anonymous member of his unit. However, his comrades are described most carefully. A few episodes in battle are told in detail, but even in these Louvel almost seems to suggest that he was an observer not a participant: Pierre Bezukhov at Borodino, Fabrizio at Waterloo… However, one constant theme is his pride at being part of the Napoleonic army. His characteristic phrase is “I had the honour on that day to be serving in the 10th regiment… I was fortunate enough to be close to the Hussars…”

From time to time Louvel goes back to his home village. He records its prosperity, thanks to Napoleon. The saddle-maker in particular has an enormous order book. He offers Louvel a job in his former trade, but Louvel scornfully refuses. There can be no peace for him until Napoleon’s enemies are destroyed.

Louvel meets a vivacious cantinière. She takes a liking to this dark, intense soldier. They settle in Louvel’s home village. His army pay and the small property which comes to him through the Napoleonic Code enable them to live cheerfully, if modestly. Their son is born within a week of Napoleon’s, the King of Rome. Of course Louvel’s son is named Napoleon in honour of the architect of his life and happiness.

1812. Louvel has hardly got to know his son when he is recalled to the Grande Armée. At the battle of Borodino occurs the greatest event of his life. His company is paraded for inspection by a dumpy colonel of hussars, at least so it appears from his uniform. However, an electric current runs through the company: it is Napoleon. Amazingly, the Emperor reaches out and tweaks Louvel’s ear. Louvel describes the incident in minute detail, but is tormented by doubt: was it the right ear or the left? He paces his cell, trying to remember his position relative to Napoleon…

Louvel survives the retreat from Moscow, although his fingers suffer permanently from frostbite. He is stoic in the face of incredible hardship. His faith in Napoleon never wavers. As the remains of the army re-cross the Niemen he is made a lieutenant.

1814. Napoleon’s first abdication. Louvel learns the news while serving with his regiment. His world falls apart. A fellow officer looks forward to peace. Louvel strikes him.

The new Bourbon régime halves the pay of the army. Louvel’s family is destitute. They spend a bitter winter and spring. Then Napoleon returns from Elba. Louvel serves at Waterloo, only to taste the bitterness of final defeat and Napoleon’s exile to St Helena.

The second Bourbon restoration is even worse for Louvel than the first. While he is still with his regiment, trudging slowly back from Waterloo an outbreak of reactionary White terror breaks out in his home village. His family are driven from their home. He returns to a looted empty house. From friends he learns that his wife and son have made for a nearby town. Desperately, he marches there at the double and inquires after a woman and a little boy. No news of them, and the same at the next town. Finally, he discovers them – dead. The official cause he ignores. He blames the Bourbon terror for their deaths by starvation.

Louvel walks to Paris in search of justice and work. There he catches a glimpse of the Royal family. He is filled with loathing for the replacements for Napoleon and the destroyers of his life and family. He resolves at once to annihilate the Bourbon dynasty. The task is easier than it might appear, for the dynasty is unlikely to reproduce itself. We see its members through Louvel’s eyes. The King, a grotesquely obese widower. His brother and heir, the Comte d’Artois, another elderly widower. His two sons are the Duc d’Angouleme, highly religious, long-married to his embittered cousin, childless and rumoured impotent, and his younger brother, the Duc de Berri.

Louvel’s hatred focuses on this Bourbon. About the same age as himself, the Duc de Berri swaggers and affects a military bearing, and tries to fraternize with soldiers and veterans. Louvel despises him all the more, since Berri has never been a soldier and returned to France only with the armies of its enemies. Although unmarried, Berri is the only Bourbon likely to father an heir and continue the dynasty.

Louvel finds employment in Paris in his old trade of saddlery. He lives in poverty. He spends any spare time and money in cafés and taverns frequented by veterans of the Grande Armée, reliving old battles and campaigns. From time to time he hears rumours of a Bonapartist conspiracy but nothing is ever done. He decides that he himself must accomplish some individual act for Napoleon. His thoughts turn to wiping out the Royal family, source and symbol of France’s misfortune and his own. He studies bombs and infernal machines and poisons but despairs at his chance of using them.

One day he goes to a familiar tavern. A noisy celebration is in progress. A rich man in an elaborate uniform is standing round after round of drinks to soldiers and veterans. It is the Duc de Berri. Louvel refuses to accept a drink from him. An acquaintance remarks that Berri is about to be married and continues casually “I suppose that will mean an heir to the throne, after all none of the others can.” At this, Louvel stands up, tense and shaking. He stares at Berri for a long time before striding out of the tavern.

Over the next few days Louvel devours every newspaper story about Berri and his marriage and tries to follow Berri’s public appearances. He has a great stroke of fortune: he obtains a job, still as a saddle-maker, in the Royal Household. Of course he sees almost nothing of the Royal family but he picks up gossip and learns more about Berri’s habits and personality.
One morning Louvel is working alone at his job. He is interrupted by a man staggering into the stables dead drunk. It is the Duc de Berri after an all-night party. They are alone. Louvel has his saddler’s awl in his hand, sharp and deadly. He raises his hand

17. May 2021 by rkh
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