woensdag 26 september 2012

Another interview from early september 2012, taken between the many dead corpses and still warm guns at Borodino. Dimi & Karsten from World's smallest Grande Armée were able to have a chat with the bravest of the brave after the fight. Napoleon's most glorious commander, Marshall Ney himself, gave us access to his headquarters where we witnessed a most euforic moment amidst his general staff. The fatigue after the fight was forgotten for just a single moment. Thanks to Franky Simon for granting us this moment. Thanks also to the 8ième régiment de Ligne.

vrijdag 21 september 2012

For all those who think we'll freeze to death in Russia & Belarus... Today we were at the VK Ateliers in Molenbeek, to fit the uniforms ('never say costume to a uniform') we will be wearing in Russia.  Although, let's be honest, they're nothing more than (beautiful) costumes to us. Most of it is lightweight fleece, trying hard to look like wool or leather. Original materials would be too heavy for our 21st century ankles & knees. The overcoat is a temporary white fitting form. The result will be in grey fleece. Thanks to Lies van Assche & Chantal & company from the VK Ateliers.

dinsdag 18 september 2012

Did you ever hear about Joseph Abbeel? He was a carabineer of Napoleons army, a conscript soldier from Vrasene (Belgium). Like many ten thousands of his fellow Belgians, Joseph was forced into military service for the French Emperor. He kind of started liking his new situation though, unlike most of his Belgian comrades. After several years of service, his regiment followed the Emperor to Russia. 
Raw estimations speak of some 30.000 Belgians who started off for Moscow. How many did return? Maybe 1000? Probably less. But Joseph was one of them. Wounded, more dead than alive, he survived the horror of the retreat to Vilnius. Impossible to tell how many times death crossed his path. In Hamburg he was caught by Cossacks and brought back to Moscow (and beyond) as a prisoner. Well… maybe ‘brought’ is not the right word, for he had to walk of course. After three months in a village east of Moscow he was released. Imagine how it must have felt to start off for another 3000km journey by foot, the third in two years! And all that in hostile territory! 

Anyway, despite all the hardship, somehow Joseph managed to get home this time. He immediately started writing his memoirs. For Karsten and me, a Dutchman and a Belgian who plan to walk just a tiny part of Joseph’s trip, he feels like a friend already. His memoirs will be our lighthouse. Of course other soldiers wrote down their story as well. Walter Jacob from Württemberg for instance. And his fellow German Faber du Faur made this amazing series of gouaches. But Joseph’s journal is unique because it was written so shortly after the events. You can still feel the throbbing heart of darkness of this whole insane campaign. 

By the way... Tomorrow I’m off to the archives in Beveren to check on another Joseph, a relative (not even a distant one) of Tine, my wife. He survived the same Russian campaign, and just like Abbeel was shot in his hand. Abbeels hand could write memoirs after that, But Joseph Van de Vel couldn’t even sign his wedding register. His ‘best man’ signed for him, declaring that Joseph could not write. Maybe he never could.

In his memoirs of Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote: "Of four hundred thousand who crossed the Vistula, half were Austrians, Prussians, Saxons, Poles, Bavarians, Wurttembergers, Mecklenburgers, Spaniards, Italians, and Neapolitans. The Imperial army, strictly speaking, was one third composed of Dutch, Belgians, men from the borders of the Rhine, Piedmontese, Swiss, Genevese, Tuscans, Romans, inhabitants of the Thirty-second Military Division, of Bremen, of Hamburg, and so on: it included scarcely a hundred and forty thousand who spoke French. The Russian expedition actually cost France less than fifty thousand men.”

It is sad to read that this so called internationalist ruler, with all his talk about a European nation and so on, seeks comfort in the fact that of the people he lost in this campaign, less than fifty thousand were his compatriots. Apart from the fact that his figures are wrong, his mood is cynical. Joseph Abbeel lived in Flanders, now part of Belgium, but then annexed to France. To separate them from the French in an ultimate attempt to get on even terms with France is such a pitiful move. Vanitas, vanitas, thy name is emperor!

Dimi and Karsten from 'World's smallest Grande Armée' had an interview with Sergei Prostaliov of the St-Petersburg Cossack Guards, with some shots around the Borodino battlefield on sunday 2 september 2012.
Hope we can stay in contact, Sergei! Maybe see you in Maloyaroslavets or in Berezina.

maandag 17 september 2012

Victor Eiser and Paul Le Quere are a Canadian and an Englishman who take part in Napoleonic Re-enactments. Karsten and Dimi met them in Borodino in early september and took a small interview. Both were exhausted, having had almost no food for two days and doing nothing than marching and preparing to march. And these are men who did NOT engage into battle. But maybe they would have felt less tired if they would have been given the opportunity to chop a few Russian's heads off, because as they say: all the did during the battle was 'stand and watch'. 
We've chosen to put French subtitles to the interview because our Russian is not yet THAT good!

Watch and enjoy! Paul and Victor, we'll think about you and your encouragements when we will be out there marching and freezing! Hope you'll think about us too... Vive les Grenadiers à pied de la Garde Impériale!

zaterdag 15 september 2012

Two weeks ago, on 1 and 2 september 2012 , Karsten and I went to Borodino (Russia) and gathered a few testimonies of participants. Since we plan to walk 1000 km (Moscow - Vilnius) to catch up with history, we asked those participants what they thought about our plan to follow the retreating French army that left Moscow 200 years ago. This first testimony comes from Azat, member of the 1st Bashkir Regiment that fought Napoleon under the orders of Platov and the Cossacks of the Don. Thank you Azat and all the members of this regiment for your kind hospitality on our behalf! 

These Cossack horsemen are more clever than we. Starting off on august 12th! I think Napoleon himself wished he'd done the same! Good luck boys. We prefer to have you in front of us than in the back!

donderdag 13 september 2012

“There is a well known, so-called sophism of the ancients consisting in this, that Achilles could never catch up with a tortoise he was following, in spite of the fact that he traveled ten times as fast as the tortoise. By the time Achilles has covered the distance that separated him from the tortoise, the tortoise has covered one tenth of that distance ahead of him: when Achilles has covered that tenth, the tortoise has covered another one hundredth, and so on forever. This problem seemed to the ancients insoluble. The absurd answer (that Achilles could never overtake the tortoise) resulted from this: that motion was arbitrarily divided into discontinuous elements, whereas the motion both of Achilles and of the tortoise was continuous.
(…) To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man's mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units. The first method of history is to take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event always flows uninterruptedly from another.
The second method is to consider the actions of some one man — a king or a commander — as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills; whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed by the activity of a single historic personage.
(…) The historians, (…)  lay before us the sayings and doings of a few dozen men in a building in the city of Paris, calling these sayings and doings"the Revolution"; then they give a detailed biography of Napoleon and of certain people favorable or hostile to him; tell of the influence some of these people had on others, and say: that is why this movement took place and those are its laws.
(…) To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved. No one can say in how far it is possible for man to advance in this way toward an understanding of the laws of history; but it is evident that only along that path does the possibility of discovering the laws of history lie, and that as yet not a millionth part as much mental effort has been applied in this direction by historians as has been devoted to describing the actions of various kings, commanders, and ministers and propounding the historians' own reflections concerning these actions.
from Lev Tolstoy “War and Peace”

We, Dimi & Karsten, believe that this fragment by Tolstoy gives us the legitimacy to call ourselves historians. We will form an infinitesimal tiny ‘army’ that will go in search of tiny human elements that will link us, during 52 days, with the simple soldiers that formed Napoleons ‘incredibely shrinking army’ (from 600.000 to 35.000 in six months time). In our conversations with Russians, Belarusians and Lithuanians, we will try to grasp those tiny human elements that link those people to the peasants and serfs of the days of 1812.
To all those who say: “who cares what happened then, let’s look at now”, our answer is “Now is an arbitrarily division of a discontinuous discourse, but can become part of a continuous movement of you accept it as being part of then”. Our quest for then in now will start on the 16th of October, the day we will leave Moscow and head southwest, two tortoises trying to catch up with Achilles. 

(this and other images on this website are based on gouaches by Faber du Faur, a Wurthenburger officer who followed Napoleon through his Russian campaign)

woensdag 12 september 2012

Summer's almost over. Russian nights are cold already. We bought our gear yesterday and are definitely up to something !!

zaterdag 8 september 2012

Still working for others, eager to work for myself. I will come there step by step.

Private Karsten

donderdag 6 september 2012

Walking from Moscow to Vilnius... in wintertime, following the Grande Armée

A historical walk combined with wit and music, resulting in a book and a stage play.

Two musicians, also visual artists, are travelling through history while adopting a tremendously slow pace. For they will travel the distance between Moscow and Vilnius by means of their own legs. Exactly 200 years after the events, day by day, two men follow the trail that the severely mutilated army of Napoleon took when leaving Moscow in 1812, pursued by Kutuzov’s army. 

Their questions: are there any traces left between Moscow and Vilnius of the events that occurred in the early winter days of 1812 on Russian soil? The battles? the dead? The anger, the fear or the pride? Monuments, graves, songs? But these two men will go further than facts and stones. Dimi and Karsten, respective

ly from Belgium and the Netherlands, will be looking for food, shelter and warmth in a strange environment, walking about 1000 kilometres in cold and dark times. They will walk in the footsteps of the great French emperor, his ‘Grand army’ and the courageous Russian army that followed and attacked them.

This march is to take place from 16th of October 2012. It will take 52 days to accomplish it, lasting until the 7th of December 2012.

Want more information? cheramiski@gmail.com

World's smallest Grande Armée is supported by
- National Museum of Lithuania
- Rijksarchief Bruges, Belgium
- Davidsfonds editions, Belgium
- Sylvester Productions, Belgium
- ... by you?

(photographs Tine Van de Vel)