In 2009 I had the privilege of addressing a Polish sponsored conference in Warsaw on aspects of the secret intelligence war against the Nazis. Osprey had recently published my book Deceiving Hitler, which sets out the complex organisations and personalities employed in tactical and strategic deception by the British, and this was the subject of my paper. During the conference I spoke with a veteran of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and he asked what my next book was about. When I outlined my plans to write the history of Napoleon’s 9th Light Infantry Regiment, he was somewhat surprised. ‘Napoleon?’ he queried, as if I was talking about ancient history.
It got worse. Not only did I want to write a book set in the Napoleonic era (I had previously written five ‘series’ books on the era for Osprey), I had chosen a relatively obscure subject. The book was not directly about Napoleon or his Marshals, or even a broad study of the French army or its tactics; it was the story of a single regiment and the experiences of the men who served in it. Why?
In my research and travels I have found that the experience of soldiers throughout history is fairly universal. Earlier that year I had spoken at a conference in Vienna commemorating the bicentennial of Napoleon’s 1809 Wagram campaign. At the conference I gave an account of the campaign from the point of view of one of the Ninth’s conscripts, and afterwards an elderly American veteran came up to me and said he completely identified with that Napoleonic soldier’s experience. Suddenly he had a tangible link to them of Napoleon’s army. He got it.
My passion for the 9th Light Infantry and the detail of how I came across the subject is set out in the collection of essays which supplement the main work and will be available in eBook format from August 2012. For the present, I’ll just say that once I accessed the regiment’s archives at Vincennes, it was a story I could not let go of. It had to be told.
Great credit must go to Osprey for supporting this project. I had been talking about it for a number of years, but I had yet to complete my research and had been uncertain how to approach and structure the story. Eventually I was satisfied with the way ahead, so on a speaking tour in America I had lunch in Manhattan with Osprey’s John Tintera and was able to pitch the project to him. One of my friends who studied script writing once told me the best pitches can be summed up in a few words - the sci-fi movie Aliens was ‘Jaws in space’ a simple statement that captures the essence of the story. For me, the book I wanted to write was equally simple; ‘A Napoleonic band of brothers’.
In the same way HBO’s highly successful Band of Brothers TV series introduced an audience to the experiences of Major Winters, Captain Speirs, ‘Wild Bill’ Guarnere and all, I saw my project as a way of following the Napoleonic era through a set of characters who really lived - the likes of Mathieu Labassée, Pierre Gros and Robert Marthe, to name a few. This Napoleonic band of brothers rode the maelstrom of war and politics unleashed by the French Revolution and delivered a spectacular success at Marengo in 1800, thus cementing Napoleon’s rule. Then, as the wars of the First Empire commenced, they made way for a new generation who marched on that long road to Waterloo in 1815.
While introducing these new characters, the book was anchored on a great, well known story arc – Napoleon’s campaigns from Marengo to Waterloo. It was therefore a new interpretation of a subject familiar to many readers.
Appearing to warm to the pitch, John asked if the 9th Light was one of those regiments Napoleon gave a special nickname to. This was the moment to mass the artillery and unleash the heavy cavalry reserve. I pictured in my mind’s eye this word which Napoleon called bestowed on the regiment and saw it emblazoned on the cover of the book I was pitching for: ‘INCOMPARABLE’.
Of course, a pitch over lunch is one thing; the project still required a detailed synopsis, a structured chapter plan and estimated word count before it went for final approval. The contracts were signed in August 2009 and after two years work, I submitted the first draft and artwork in September 2011. This was edited and refined over the winter, with the final draft approved over Easter. Now in July, the first advanced copies are back from the printers and at last, the book I pitched over lunch in New York is a reality.
While the editing process was underway I began collating some of the surplus research material and planning what to do with it. Having concentrated on the years 1799-1815 in my book, I had cut a lot of the detail on the regiment’s early history. I have a particular fondness for the years before the French Revolution in which the corps was formed, trained and developed, so I approached Osprey with the idea of writing a supplementary piece which might be published as an eBook. Thus was born Incomparable: A Collection of Essays, which will be released in August. This eBook serves equally well as an introduction to the main work, Incomparable: Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry (released in September) or as supplementary information for those who have enjoyed the main book first.
Thank you Terry! Don't forget, you have a chance to win one of two copies of the essays, weeks before their release. Simply go to the Incomparable facebook page and click the thumbs up sign to 'like' it. The winners will be chosen on the 20th of July. Good luck!