Manuscript memoir of a captured French officer's experiences in Spain, 1808-1809. Title: Recollections / By / H de Montvaillant. PENINSULAR CAMPAIGN – MONTVAILLANT NAPOLEONIC WARS, H. de.
Manuscript memoir of a captured French officer's experiences in Spain, 1808-1809. Title: Recollections / By / H de Montvaillant.

Manuscript memoir of a captured French officer's experiences in Spain, 1808-1809. Title: Recollections / By / H de Montvaillant. [Hunthill House, Scotland, 1814].

4to (230 x 185 mm). [10], 233, [4] pp. Written in an italic hand in English, with occasional corrections or additions in a different hand, on wove paper, watermarked Budgen & Wilmott / 1812. Four unnumbered pages of French text at front and four at back, the latter dated 27 May 1814, in a different hand, apparently the author’s, on different paper with no visible watermark. Very good; some occasional spotting. Contemporary red straight-grained morocco, gilt edges (scuffed and scraped, joints strained, head of spine chipped).***

A first-hand, unpublished memoir by a French army officer of the terrible Peninsular War. The narrator was one of few survivors of the surrender of French forces after the Battle of Bailén in July 1808. The background to this event was Napoleon's attempt to complete the isolation of England from the continent by sending a French army into the Iberian Peninsula to seize the coast of Portugal and occupy Spain. Napoleon later referred to the Peninsular War, characterized by appalling cruelty on both sides, as the 'Spanish ulcer'; it was to be one of the primary factors in his downfall. Although written in a matter-of-fact tone, the details of this memoir are searing.

General Pierre Dupont de l'Étang was charged with securing French control of the major cities in Spain. Dupont's 20,000 men had initial success, but as they penetrated deeper into Spain they faced increasing resistance. The present diary traces the route and experiences of Dupont's army to its furthest point of penetration into Spain: Córdoba. There, after a particularly bloody and cruel occupation, the army was forced to withdraw and was soon overwhelmed. Dupont surrendered his army at Bailén. Originally promised safe passage, most of the French were slaughtered immediately after their surrender.

The start of the Peninsular War marks the commencement of the memoir, written by H. de Montvaillant, an officer from Montpellier who was serving in the second Corps d’Observation of the Gironde, placed under the direction of General Dupont. Although the starting date of the campaign is generally accepted as March 1808, by Montvaillant’s account the French had already occupied the town of Vittoria (50 miles west of Pamplona) by Dec. 22, 1807. By January 9, 1808 French troops had advanced to south of Burgos, heading toward Valladolid. At every stopover small detachments were left behind to guard the roads, thereby diminishing the strength of the army as it travelled. Spanish guerrilla activity took a toll on the troops; so much so that the author records that the troops had to “redouble our vigilance, and [take] measures the most severe ever adapted to ensure our safety” (p. 58). On Feb. 16 they entered Medina del Campo on their way to Madrid. Montvaillant records his impressions of the city, its palaces and inhabitants. Toledo was the next destination, where he notes a visit to the palace library, and the suppression of an uprising led by monks.

By the end of May the French had occupied Consuegra and entered La Carolina in Andalusia. It is at this point that the narrative takes on an ominous tone. About to enter Seville, Montvaillant notes a change in circumstances in the countryside and the inhabitants. The population is abandoning villages and fleeing. He records that the senior officers assumed that the army would only be harassed by small bands of “brigands” (p. 84), a far cry from the massive insurgency that it encountered: “We learned that the insurgents each day gathered strength, and that the Junta of Seville was determined to stop us in our march. The following days we got to the little town Baylen [Bailén], in whose plains two months afterwards our destiny was decided” (p. 86). The French attacked and sacked the city of Córdoba: “Neither tears, promises, or humble supplications could arrest the thirst for pillage...” (p. 89); discipline was nonexistent, and the drunkenness and looting continued for eight days. Soon after Montvaillant is ordered back to the village of Alcolea, not far from Bailén, to guard a bridge crossing. While there he discovers the slaughter of the French sick and wounded who had been left along the line of march while the main body of General Dupont's troops had taken Córdoba.

The army had moved back to Andujar, near Bailén, and encamped. Montvaillant records that the general staff soon realized that the French were now outnumbered and that the opposition had organized itself. Dupont's army was isolated, without hope of reinforcement or re-supply, defending a garrison at the village of Andújar, situated on a flat plain in the scorching sun. The narrative is now of troop dispositions, losses, tactical mistakes, errors of the general staff, and increasing difficulties. Dupont's surrender came on July 20, 1808. The officers were segregated from the defeated army before being escorted (supposedly) to France. Most of the remaining army was slaughtered within days. Montvaillant records the details of his months-long “death march” southwards to the coast, finally arriving at Jerez de la Frontera (near Cádiz) to await embarkation to France. This never occurred. The officers’ captors kept them in Jerez, having discovered that the ruling Junta of Seville had abrogated the surrender treaty, and that the inhabitants were waiting to massacre the French on their approach to Cádiz. Montvaillant now fills his account with anecdotes of captivity and of the officers’ horrendous treatment at the hands of their escorts and guards. He is unclear as to exact dates but it seems that the French captives were held at Jerez until mid-December, before being hastily driven aboard ships to sail for the Balearic Islands (p. 141). A severe storm intervened and they were blown off course to Africa, finally coming to port at Gibraltar; several days later they were already back in Andalusia, at Málaga. Then, after more storms and much sailing, they finally made the Balearics where they were exiled to the desert island of Cabrera. There some 4400 surviving men and officers were forced to survive as best they could (p. 148). Almost 250 officers were collected from this exile after a month and taken to the capital, Palma. Imprisoned there, though in better conditions than previously, this group of officers waited; nearly half would be massacred during a riot and assault on the prison by the inhabitants of Palma. By March 1809 only 140 of the original 250 rescued officers were alive and were returned to Cabrera where the living conditions were desperate (pp. 155-165). Despite this, the officers were able to conjure up distractions. There is an account of theater productions, dances, and the jealousy and bickering among those playing female roles in these performances. Montvaillant comments that the theatrical chronicle of Cabrera would make quite a book.

Eventually the officers were placed aboard an English ship. On August 4, when they were off Cape Palos (near Cartagena), there were rumors of a prisoner exchange, which again did not occur. After several weeks aboard the English ship, Montvalliant and his companions were disembarked at Portsmouth. He continued on to Salisbury, then embarked again for Leith en route to his final destination in Scotland, Jedburgh, where he remained in exile until the accession of Louis XVIII in 1814.

The text is written in an occasionally stilted English. Eight pages of notes in French by the author are inserted, four at the beginning (using wax seals to insert the bifolium) and four at the end, dated May 27, 1814. The French preface consists of a romanticized, fictionalized account of the author’s Scottish sojourn, including a temptress fairy, and concluding with the author’s promise to never forget his friends in Scotland. The English text is preceded by the title-leaf and a one-page dedicatory poem, introduced by a statement that these “`Recollections’ in an English Garb, are presented by the sincerest of Friends to the Author,” and dated Hunt Hill, 1 January 1814. The first of the four final pages in French provides some information about the history of the manuscript (the remaining pages contain literary notes including translations into French of poems by Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott). According to these comments, the diary was originally written in French, and was translated into English by the narrator’s benefactors in Jedburgh. During his years of exile Montvaillant had befriended a well-off family (Rutherford?), the owners of nearby Hunthill House, to whose three young daughters he became deeply attached. Without them, he claims, he would not have survived the loneliness of his exile. To pay them homage, and in acknowledgement of his gratitude, he dedicated his memoir to them. His friends retained the original French version as a valued keepsake of their friend and an engrossing biographical narrative, and presented him with this translation, which he brought back to France, planning to render it anew into French, to share with his family and close friends. The annotations in the text appear to be the author’s. He emphasizes that he plans to keep the manuscript unpublished; perhaps the memories were too painful. Item #2677

Price: $8,800.00