Letters from the front. Napoleonic war research.

Credit to the Facebook page Napoleonic wars research forum and poster Jonas De Neef a great page to join if your interested in more research material.

Here we have three letters from the French officer Faré, captain adjutant-major in the grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. In the first letter, the author confides to his parents his destitution, but also his despair in front of the horrors he encountered and the exactions committed by hordes of Cossacks. He then felt anguish for his family.

In the third document, he speaks of the general appeal: peace and rest. Faré mentions, in his opinion, the task that the new government has to undertake if it wants to be appreciated by the people of France. The outcome is well known…

Reims, 16 March 1814.

My dear parents, I am taking advantage of a moment’s rest which we have finally been granted to share my tidings with you. In the midst of our forced marches and unremitting stay in bivouacs, it has been impossible for me to find a single opportunity to write to you. I have never found myself in such a situation.

I no longer have any boots or trousers. Never have we marched so much and had so little rest. We are fighting a fierce campaign and, if we finally succeed in driving the enemy out of our country, I believe that we will have deserved it well. How I express my relief that you have not yet had to receive these ferocious guests! It is said that in the interior, people do not want to believe the atrocity of their conduct. Certainly, I do not wish the unbelievers to be convinced by their own eyes.

I do not ‘publish newspapers’ and [thus] I report what I have seen. Twenty fold, tears of rage have flowed from my eyes at the sight and account of the horrors they have committed. The most shameless plunder is the least of their crimes. Arson, rape, death: these are the benefits that the liberators of France provide. It seems that sex and age, instead of being for them an object of respect, are an object of fury. Of course, it is in the countryside that the great horrors are committed. In the cities, where there is a sort of order, they show kindness.

They encounter a citizen in the street, they throw him to the ground and take his boots, his buckles, his shoes, his watch. They enter a house, and make hand over the utensils that the inhabitants have not had the time to stash away. It is especially common for them not to leave any curtains in the rooms where they sleep. The officers observe all this, and, far from objecting, proceed to do the same.

If misfortune were to threaten Touraine, hide all the money, linen, furniture, etc., that you can find, and take refuge in the city where it is always safer. But for goodness sake, don’t stay at Amandières!

The idea of seeing them ravage our beautiful regions makes me furious. Ah, why don’t all the Frenchmen have a better understanding of their interests? In less than a month, all these brigands would have crossed the Rhine again. Yet they have managed, by dint of their horrors, to stir the peasants of these regions, who are beginning to chase them [away] vigorously. When the season is less severe, I hope that everyone will rise up.


At the bivouac near Essonnes, 5 April 1814.

My dear parents, I am in good health, and that is a lot in these sad circumstances. Courage, health, that is what you want.


Egreville, 16 April 1814.

My dear and kind relatives, at last, after a great deal of pain and fatigue, I am enjoying a little peace and rest. When I wrote a few words to you at the bivouac on 5 April, we were still unaware of the events which had taken place in Paris [capitulation of the city on 30 March, and the entry of the Allied army the following day] and we were expecting to march on this city. It was the same day that Marshal Marmont’s defection took place, whereupon we were forced to return to Fontainebleau where we were informed of everything by the newspapers. What treachery! What cowardice! What ingratitude! In truth, men are both horrifying and pitiful. Who were the first to abandon the Emperor? Those whom he had showered with wealth and dignity. Who were those who remained faithful to him until the last moment, who almost unanimously asked to accompany him in his exile? We, the junior officers of the Guard, and even more so our soldiers, many of whom have deserted since we gave our support to the new government. What favours had we obtained, what special graces, that our services had not earned us under any government?

And our brave grenadiers, without pay for six months, many without shoes, without trousers, marching ceaselessly in the middle of the harshest season, rushing from one army to another, securing victory by their presence: was it interest that guided them? No: it was honour, shunning [men wearing] cords, plates and embroidery, who then took refuge in our ranks.

We submitted our adhesion on the 11th. We could do no more for the Emperor than he himself wanted. Here we are, then, subjects of a new government which, when once we have given our oath, will be able to rely more on our fidelity than on that crowd of cowards whose only motives are self-interest and fear, and who have so often brought down the idol which they worshipped the day before. Napoleon deserves a part of what happened to him. He committed great faults, everyone mentions them. One of those which I reproach him the most, is to have called to him or suffered people who were not worthy of this honour. He could and should have chosen better.

If the new government is cautious and firm at the same time, it will be easy for it to be adored. Peace. Rest is the general cry. He who grants it, this much desired peace, will be a god for France. Happy inhabitants of the banks of the Loire, you are still unaware of the evils of war, you know this only through hearsay. I congratulate you. My father did well to come and settle in our beautiful and peaceful Touraine!

We are quartered here some four leagues from Nemours, eight from Fontainebleau. Our village, Egreville, is quite nice. We are waiting first for peace to be concluded, then for what the new government wishes to do with us.

Your whole community must feel very triumphant, very pleased with what is happening. Well, I too will be happy if the well-being of France is the result. Faithful to honour, I have done all that my duty required of me, without animosity, without agony. May my country be content, and I will adore those who will make it so.

(Arthur CHUQUET, L’Année 1814. Lettres et Mémoires, Fontemoing et Cie Éditeurs, 1914, pp. 123-126).

The following letter was written by General Christiani and was intended for General Pelet. The document was published in the Carnet de la Sabretache in 1905, as an appendix to an article devoted to the Guard infantry at Waterloo. This letter bore the inscription: ‘Letter from General Christiani, commander in 1815 of the 2nd Grenadiers of the Guard, to Mr. Lieutenant-General Baron Pelet’.

Paris, 24 April 1835.

My general,

I can only answer rather imperfectly to the enquiries you made in your letter of 21 January. My memory, which is too ungrateful, and the time that has elapsed since 1815, are factors on which I can hardly rely. However, I will try to answer your questions as best I can. These answers will at least prove to you my willingness to comply with your wishes.

Question – What was the strength of the 2nd Regiment of Grenadiers on Foot of the Guard at the time of the start of the campaign? Answer – I believe it did not exceed 1,000 to 1,100 men. Q. – How many casualties did this corps suffer on the 16th June? A. – None. During the battle of the 16th, the whole corps of Grenadiers on Foot stayed in reserve, and only changed position twice. The second time, it passed through Fleurus, took position on the left of this village, at a distance of perhaps half a league from Ligny, which the enemy still occupied in part. The four regiments of Grenadiers received the order to clear it out. This movement was conducted without any resistance on the part of the enemy, but while we were being formed in squares by battalions by debouching on the other side of the village, we were surprised by a charge of Prussian lancers who passed through the intervals of the squares, without us being able to make use of our musketry, the squares not having had time to position themselves in echelons.

The enemy would have fared better if they had undertaken a second charge, but they did not return. We spent the night of the 16th to the 17th on the battlefield, that is to say on the height which crowns the village of Ligny. Q. – Where did you spend the night of the 17th and 18th? A. – The next day, the 17th, we left our position around eleven o’clock or noon. We marched all day. I followed the movement of the regiments which preceded me.

The weather was dreadful, and it was already late at night, when I saw a bivouac. It was the one belonging to the 4th or 3rd Grenadier Regiment. I found no one there to indicate to me the position which I was to occupy. The night was dark. In this state of affairs, the tired and soaked grenadiers put themselves together with their comrades of the regiment who were already in the bivouac. This bivouac was situated astride the main road, behind the imperial headquarters, near a hamlet or village whose name I do not remember.

Q. – What were the various positions you occupied during the day of the 18th, and particularly from five to six o’clock in the afternoon, from six to seven, and from seven to eight? A. – The next day, 18 June, a ray of sunlight appeared at about nine in the morning. We were ordered to get our weapons ready and engage the enemy. Subsequently, we took up positions behind the Emperor, who stood on a hill on the right of the Brussels road. Here I do not remember the movements of the other regiments of Grenadiers on Foot, but I do remember being ordered to go forward with the 2nd Regiment and take up a position on the right of the Brussels road.

I stood close to a very deep ravine on my right. I remained in this position all day. I observed the return of the remnants of four regiments of the Guard on foot which had been sent forward under the orders of General Friant to capture the position occupied by the English, a position which was defended by a very deep ravine and numerous artillery which were entrenched. You know as well as I do the sad result of this attack. Between five and six o’clock, perhaps later, I received the order to send forward a battalion of the regiment to a village situated to the right and to the rear of the position which I occupied, to drive out the Prussians, it was stated, who had just seized it [it concerns Plancenoit, where the French Young Guard and the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Chasseurs with Pelet were already present]. It was Mr. Golzio, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the regiment, whom I charged with this mission.

I did not see him again until the evening when we retired. I do not remember if he lost many men, but only that he told me that he had done much harm to the enemy.

Finally, towards seven or eight o’clock in the evening, I believe, I departed with the 1st Battalion, which remained to me, to go and join the Emperor who was on the left of the road, at a short distance from the position which I had just left. He was alone, on foot, and General Drouot was with him. I ordered my battalion to form square. The Emperor remained some time to observe, I think, the retrograde movement which the artillery of the army made on the plain on the left of the road, and he then mounted his horse to withdraw. At about this time the enemy commenced a cavalry charge on the main road, and found themselves entangled with our cavalry and infantry who were withdrawing in disorder.

The English skirmishers also appeared, and began the fusillade. Then I began my retreat alongside my battalion [still formed up] in square. A few bullets hit us and caused confusion in the ranks. The voices of the officers were disregarded, and arriving at the height that the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers was occupying, my soldiers disbanded and, then, it was impossible to rally them. I joined the road in front of Génappe; General Roguet also arrived there. There we attempted to rally as many men as possible to wait for the night, but we were abandoned.

Nevertheless, General Roguet and I did not retire until we heard the enemy advancing on the road at the sound of their fifers. Compelled then to withdraw, I lost sight of General Roguet in the commotion, and I followed a path to the left of Génappe with the intention of reaching Charleroi, when I encountered you and General Petit.

Please accept, General, the assurance of the most sincere affection of your

Most devoted servant.

Signed: CHRISTIANI, maréchal de camp.

Training of conscripts during the Boulogne camp 1805

“Dear Father and Mother  I am writing these lines to find out how you are, hoping that like me you are well for the time being.

We have drill twice a day. I have arrived in Boulogne, and as for the victuals it’s very dear The English come and say hello every day, they’ve done for six of our men but they’ve lost two ships.”  

This letter, dated November 28th, 1805, from Private Joseph Goupil of the 46th Infantry Regiment to his parents, neatly sums up what everyday life was like for the men stationed in the coastal camps. From the summer of 1803 to 1805, the temporary camps were transformed into permanent military installations which acted as army training and instruction centres.

Three intakes of conscripts from Years IX, X and XI were trained there, representing 30,000 men a year, plus 60,000 in Year XII. The camps also gave men who had served longer an opportunity to improve their skills.

Not many soldiers have left a detailed account of the experience of their first months of army life. Although some memoirs talk of the induction period,  they pass quickly over the time spent in training.

When they do so, it is often to say that conditions seemed “a bit harsh” to begin with, “among old soldiers who stank”.   But the descriptions are often mixed with fond nostalgia, as with the story of Marbot and his moustache.  

Many recruits mention intensive training, but within a few weeks they had learnt the drills and how to handle a musket.  

The discovery of soldiering, and the instruction that came with it, was not always easy for conscripts, especially as their army life was often involuntary rather than chosen.

The training of recruits started the day after their arrival at the regiment, once they had been issued their kit.

Instruction

Napoleon believed that simply bringing men together was not enough to “turn them into soldiers; only drill, instruction and skill truly do that.”  So conscripts joining a regiment did not become soldiers until they had been given strict instruction and rigorous training.

For the Emperor and his contemporaries, it took three months for an infantryman to become effective in battle,  and rather longer for a cavalryman: the minimum instruction time for them was four to five months.  

At Boulogne they had two years to perfect their skills. The formal framework for instruction during the Empire was established under the Consulate.

The overhaul of the existing system was based on the decree of 1 Vendémiaire Year XII (September 24th, 1803), which reorganised the regiments and the general framework of the army. It instituted the regimental depot as the headquarters of the regiment and the place where soldiers were trained, under the command of a major.  

Second-in-command of the regiment, this officer was responsible for keeping the depot in good military, administrative and financial order, and for training recruits. He appointed the instructing officer (a battalion or squadron commander or captain), who in turn commanded NCOs (sergeants and corporals) and private-instructors. Commanding officers were responsible for deciding soldiers’ timetables, which led to considerable differences between regiments.

Instructors had a whole set of official ordinances to help them organise their training of recruits. Inherited from the 18th century, these regulations were the last links in a long chain going back to the Enlightenment.  

They marked the triumph of the Prussian spirit in the French army: precise manoeuvres and automatic movements ensured that soldiers in battle would not have to think.

For many officers who had emerged during the Revolution or early Consulate, Boulogne was an opportunity to get to grips with the Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of the Infantry of August 1st, 1791, and to brush up their soldiering skills. From the Revolutionary Wars onward, the 1791 were subject to critical review and adapted to the realities of warfare.  

Much thought was given to their suitability during the Boulogne Camp, not least by General Meunier, who started to revise them. The resumption of hostilities put an end to these endeavours, however, and the 1791remained in effect throughout the Empire period.

At Boulogne, marshals’ instructions emphasized the importance of these manoeuvres and insisted on strict compliance with the rules and regulations.  The manuals for both infantry and cavalry approached their subject matter in the same way. Recruits were initially trained individually in the School of the Soldier.

For infantry, this meant marching drill, arms drill and basic movements. For cavalry, it covered seat on the horse, work on the longe, work mounted, singly and by squadron, and at the gallop. These drills were then performed in increasingly large groups. In the School of the Platoon, the same material was applied to basic groups while introducing formations and “manual exercises”, or musket drill.

The School of the Battalion or Squadron focused on formations and their manoeuvres. The final stage consisted of full regimental manoeuvres (in columns and lines, plus the transition to battle order), and brigade movements.

During initial instruction, new recruits were drilled three or four times a day. One reason was to fill their time in order to prevent morale-sapping boredom. In the absence of gymnastics, forced marches of 30 to 40 kilometres in full battle order were also designed to harden up recruits as quickly as possible and prepare them for the rigours and hardship of military life on campaign.

After a few days’ instruction, the most able or the quickest to grasp the drills were sorted from the rest.

The former became first-class recruits, the latter second class, or even third class for the least able. The first-class recruits would drill only once or twice a day, while those in the second and third class would continue to have three intensive sessions. To encourage third-class recruits to make progress, they were deprived of “the honour of doing service”. They were assigned to all the chores, “without the same preventing them from attending drill”, until they were sufficiently well-drilled to move up to second class.  

Instruction was based entirely on the endless and systematic repetition of simple movements that every soldier could learn. Combat in the 19th century was structured to the extreme: soldiers were merely a fragment of space, a piece in the line. They had to unlearn their individuality and their own movements in order to take their place in the column and rank.

That is why position was the first thing conscripts were taught. They learnt how to stand in rank without moving for 15 minutes, then how to march in step in order to perform basic manoeuvres.

In 1806 General Duhesme drew a number of conclusions about infantry rules and regulations from his experience at Boulogne. In particular, he criticised the over-mechanical approach of the Prussian school, adopted to excess in France.

“Recruits were tormented for six months”, he wrote, “their chests often damaged in order to teach them the first position, how to march in step and how to bear arms; every morning the poor devils were kept motionless or in awkward positions for two or three hours at a time, enough to put off even those keenest on the military life.”  

It is not hard to imagine the suffering of conscripts that lies behind that observation. They had to repeat the drills over and over again in order to achieve the perfect movements or ideal positions prescribed in the manual. Jean-Baptiste Boisson, writing in 1809, recounts how “horrific training” began the day after his arrival at 

2nd Light Infantry Regiment. “The NCOs allowed us hardly any respite. We had to repeat the ‘Attention’ and ‘At ease’ positions a hundred times.” He goes on: “We had to learn the march step, two feet in length from one heel to the other, seventy-six paces per minute; that’s what the sergeant kept yelling at us. We were also initiated into the mysteries of the oblique step”.  

The instruction concerned not only positions but also movements, first singly, then in increasingly large groups. Soldiers had to move together precisely and quickly, and so had to relearn how to march the army way. “The men are told a thousand times to stretch the calf, to skim the ground with the foot. They have to learn the balancing step, which makes them clumsier than before.

A recruit who has often journeyed several hundred leagues to join his regiment may be supposed to have some idea of how to march.”  The principle was that as the infantry rarely became involved in bayonet fighting, the line had to hold. So everyone had to march together in order to create a mass effect that would sap the enemy’s morale and break them.  

These constant drills, not very different from dance steps, transformed the body, developing the musculature and giving soldiers an erect posture, unlike any other, that would remain with them for life.  But when evening came, as Jean-Baptiste Boisson admitted, “we were done in”.

The second stage of instruction was learning how to use the 1777-pattern musket. This involved bending the future combatant’s will to the weapon that would become his constant companion and the guarantor of his conduct on the battlefield.

The principal purpose of these drills was to automate movements. There was no time to think in the heat of battle: soldiers had to load and fire their weapons automatically.

The first drills – marching and mounting guard – were conducted with the weapon unloaded. It was heavy on the arms for young men unused to handling a musket nearly five-foot-long (over six with the bayonet) and weighing nearly ten pounds. Montesquiou-Fezensac, who joined the 59th Line Regiment in 1804, recounts that once he had settled into his barracks at the camp in Montreuil, he started to “learn the drill”, which he found “rather hard, the musket seeming heavy for lack of practice”.

 The barrack-room was where the recruits learnt how to take care of their weapon (along with much else, like ranks, and how to behave, and chores, and how to maintain their uniform). They had to learn how to assemble and disassemble it, and the name of each part. This drill, which had to be performed within a reasonable time, was of paramount importance for the soldier. He was responsible for his weapon, and especially for ensuring that it worked properly in all weathers.

Only when the soldier had mastered his musket, including during foot drills, did he learn how to shoot. Loading was performed on 12 commands and with 18 movements.

The solider had to be able to load as quickly as possible, and also be familiar with the faster reloading procedures used in battle. For the instructors, constant repetition of these movements was needed in order to perfectly assimilate them.

Napoleon, like many army instructors, insisted on the absolute need for soldiers to know how to shoot, even if not always in harmony with their comrades. Shooting drills were frequent in the coastal camps, both at targets and in more or less large-scale formation.  Although many conscripts were familiar with firearms, some confessed to being shaken, on their first drill, by the noise of so many detonations.  

A painful process

One might think, reading the authors of memoirs, that induction into the regiment was an educational experience, and that it made French soldiers superior to their opponents. However, the image conveyed by legend did not tell the whole story.

During those first few weeks in the regiment, everything combined to make the new recruits lose their bearings and their identity. In addition, the instructors responsible for knocking the conscripts into shape were often veterans with better martial than educational skills, and an already well-developed esprit de corps.

The following extract is taken from the book, “Waterloo, The French perspective”, by Andrew W. Field:

Corporal Canler was only seventeen years old when he fought at Waterloo, though he had volunteered for the army four years before. He was in the 28th de ligne, the second regiment in Bourgeois brigade. He also gives us an exciting account of the attack:

“Soon there was a terrible duet executed by these two batteries that were composed of nearly two hundred guns; the balls, bombs and shells, passed whistling over our heads. After a half hour wait, Marshal Ney gave the order to attack and to take by assault the English battery; three beats on the drum sufficed to get the corps ready to march; we were formed up in colonne-serrée par bataillon; I remembered that adjutant-major Hubant, charged with forming the divisions, an old soldier who had taken part in all the campaigns of the Empire, was preoccupied and very pale. Finally, the columns were formed. Général Drouet d’Erlon took position in the middle of his army corps, and with a strong and clear voice pronounced these few words: ‘Today it is necessary to vanquish or die!’

The cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” left all our mouths in reply to this short speech, and, with ‘forme au bras’ [ordered arms], to the sound of drums beating the charge, the columns moved off and directed themselves towards the English guns without firing a single musket shot.”

As they advanced the Grand Battery continued to fire over their heads at the few, obscure targets that were available. Although the columns were in dead ground to some of the allied guns for part of their advance, the amount and accuracy of the enemy’s fire inevitably increased as they slowly climbed the gradual slope, and casualties began to fall more frequently.

Lieutenant Martin :
“Death crept up on us from every side; entire ranks disappeared under the caseshot, but nothing was able to stop our march; it continued with the same order as before, with the same précision. The dead were immediately replaced by those who followed; the ranks, although becoming fewer, remained in good order.”

Despite the increasing casualties as more allied guns came into play, the French soldiers marched on.

The skills acquired after two years of drill truly came into their. The pace of instruction accelerated from 1806. By the end of the Empire, with the machinery of conscription running full tilt, recruits did not always have time to get properly acclimatized to the business of soldiering. Some were thrown into battle without uniform, hardly knowing how to manoeuvre or handle their musket. Nevertheless, the esprit de corps forged in the camp at Boulogne lasted throughout the Empire and beyond, deep into the 19th century, enshrined in memoirs which helped to create and perpetuate the imperial myth.

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ROUSTAM RAZA. NAPOLEON’S BODYGUARD.

Roustam served Napoleon for fifteen years. Also known as Roustan or Rustam and was Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous Mamluk bodyguard.

born in Tbilisi, Georgia to Armenian parents. At thirteen Roustam was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Cairo.

The Turks gave him the name Idzhahia. The sheikh of Cairo presented him to General Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 where he became
the great emperor’s famous bodyguard, and soon accompanied Napoleon in peace and wars.

Every morning Roustam, together with Louis Constant Wairy, the Emperor’s personal valet, helped Napoleon bathe and get dressed. During the day, Roustam was constantly at Napoleon’s side, regardless of whether the emperor was on the battlefield.

At night, he slept in an entrance to the emperor’s bedroom, where a small bed was laid for him. If there existed a suspicion of a conspiracy against Napoleon, then he slept right in front of the door, blocking it.

Roustam can be seen in many paintings close to Napoleon at all times.

He accompanied the emperor in the first/second wars of Austria, Prussia, Poland, Spain, Moscow, Dresden, Italy, Venice, France, Dutch and was wounded several times. He is said to have had an influence and played a role on some of the most sensitive decisions made by Napoleon.

Roustan served as a bodyguard of Napoleon until 1814.

In 1814, the end of the French Campaign also put an end to the Emperor and Mamluk’s long relationship. When Napoleon tried to commit suicide at the Château de Fontainebleau and asked Roustam for his pistols, He knew he would be inevitably accused of his masters murder. If he disobeyed the emperor’s order he would be branded a traitor so took fright and ran off to Paris to join his wife,

Napoleon wad exiled to island Elba. In March of 1815, Napoleon returned from his exile and got his title of the Emperor back, but refused to accept Roustan back or even read his letters asking for forgiveness.

Roustan settled in Durdan, where he wrote the book titled as “Life of Roustam Raza till 1814.” Roustam Raza died on December 7, 1845, and was buried in Durdan.

                       Who was the Military Adviser on that?

In this most recent blog I have decided to touch on the tricky subject of all things regarding military authenticity in the movie and TV industry. Surprisingly, despite the production team having a military technical advisor on board, “things will not be 100% authentically correct every time. “Penny wise and pound foolish” Bear this phrase in mind when reading the rest of my blog but also remember its a drama and not a documentary so sit back and chill.

“Filmmakers are under more pressure than ever to make sure military tactics and equipment are depicted realistically on-screen, and experienced advisers can make the difference” wrote Nick Goundry for KFTV.com last year

What we do

Production will often hire a technical advisor to ensure that a complicated area is portrayed as accurately as possible in the production. Similarly, a period movie may include one or more historians of the period, or eyewitnesses if possible, for the same purpose.

Technical advisers typically answer to the director and Line Producers. Their expertise adds realism both to the acting and to the setting of a movie. Some advisors for military movies have been known to run miniature boot camps to give actors a first-hand experience of a military setting. Boot camps additionally help provide the basics so when the camera rolls only a quick remind and revise is required. So less takes, less time and as we all know. Time is money!

To be a technical adviser you do not have to know every aspect of warfare, military history or have taken out several enemy bunkers armed with just a wooden spoon. What you do need is the ability to research your subject thoroughly, honestly and have that all important art of diplomacy. There is more to it than that, but I will reserve that explanation for another time.

I have made no secret during media interviews that advising in any capacity is 60% research and 40% your experience articulated to the Director, actor, stunt coordinator and supporting actors.

You can only offer advice; you cannot demand it’s taken. The Director will have the last call and he may have a set look or visual dramatic effect he wants to portray and its known as ‘artistic license‘ and artistic license will always win over realism if the story arc dictates it. Get a thick skin or get out of the advising business if you cant handle it as you wont change it.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/war-peace-military-advisor-says-7272759

The Seven Ps during the early stages.

Movie or TV production preparations can take anything from six months to a year before the camera starts rolling. In most cases costume, art and prop departments are approached long before a technical advisor and although other departments are very experienced in their field, not all are subject matter experts (SME’S) on military jargon and Google image takes a pounding in the search for the right look, but without really knowing what they are looking for.

In an ideal world a Military Adviser (MA) should be brought in as early into pre-production as possible. An MA’s knowledge (tactfully delivered so not to offend) can save departments a lot of time and money from the offset, bringing the desired look as close to reality as possible from the very start, with communication at the very beginning and at all levels to avoid embarrassing mistakes that film critics and tabloids crave to exploit for headlines.

The wrong flags or medal, a beret worn like a helicopter landing pad on an actor’s head or even a WW2 fighter aircraft painted in the wrong markings for the year might seem trivial, but can make all the difference with the end product and can avoid fuelling critics looking for page space.

Don’t Shoot the MA.

”Who was the Military Adviser on that?” is one line commonly trotted out on social media and blogs when mistakes are highlighted but don’t be so quick to shoot the adviser.

Contrary to popular belief, and from my experience so far, Military Technical Advisers are not always approached by production during the early preparation stage of a film or TV program as much as you would think. Unfortunately it’s an all too common mistake and only identified once it’s too late and the budget on props and costumes have already been spent.

Most people with a service background or those who regularly attend historical re-enactment events are quick to critique any production with Military content and no Film or TV program are exempt and unfortunately it’s the MA who gets it in the neck most the time from those less experienced in the industry.

Before I started in the film industry I was the very same, pointing out inaccuracies until I had my first real taste as a full time Military Adviser on War and Peace for the BBC.

I was brought in with only a few days to learn Napoleonic warfare and put together a structured safe training program fit for purpose, before jetting off to Lithuania.

Once I landed in Lithuania I had a day for my own prep then straight into a seven day intensive Boot camp for 200 extras for the winter scenes. When time permitted I attempted to liaise with all the various departments, but it was obvious all the preparation work and fittings had already been done months in advance with very little I could do or add to change things.

Thankfully the team on War and Peace were mostly on their game and they had consulted a Historical adviser for all the costumes and medals, but that’s not always been the case. Once I was brought in the day before a scene was due to be filmed and it was the first time I had met the director or been able to train the actors with the supporting cast on set, just minutes before the cameras rolled!

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wJqUYqGgPN8

These are not the droids you are looking for.
Set etiquette, diplomacy, and respect for the work and effort of each department is a skill in itself which must be mastered if you are to survive as a Military Technical Adviser. The ability to muster the force with the director comes in handy too!

Stepping on other department’s toes, strutting on set with a big ego, a reenactment head or a Regimental Sergeant Majors approach to every situation, while shouting and screaming from the roof tops will not get you far and you will have a short lived career.

You have to remember most people within the relevant departments have no service history and will not respond or tolerate it.

A few Classic Examples.

On one production scene I spent most of the 12 hour shoot correcting berets which had obviously been taken straight out of the hire company laundry bag and just pulled over the heads of cast in the changing room, with no attempt at shaping them a few days before. When I asked why this had happened I was simply told the hire company wanted them returned in the same state.

All I could do was to keep re-dressing the actor’s berets whilst teaching them what actions were required only to have to repeat the process minutes after. It was a very frustrating and repetitive day.

It’s not the costume departments fault of course as most of them would not know how or why there is a need to shape military headdress. However, on rare occasions I have had time with the costume department in advance and managed to convince them to allow me to take the berets out for a few days before a shoot and shape them to the respective heads during a boot camp.

This allowed the costume department to concentrate on other matters and I could correct how the actors would react to a given situation as well as answer all the other departments’ questions being fired at me during the day.

However. For all those beret shaping ranters out there would you tell these gentlemen their berets are not shaped or worn correctly?

Possibly they had better things to be worried about! Food for thought.

Some battles I have won and just this one example of adopting a diplomatic approach during prep, saved time, energy and the ongoing berets saga. Much like the SLR v SA80 debaters. Other such battles I have lost and could only suck it up and grit my teeth. A very thick skin helps as it can be like banging your head against a brick wall at times.

Other examples, such as the configuration of soldier’s equipment, can also be an issue overlooked by departments not fully in the know.

On one production I had been required to step in at the last minute and change all the 58 pattern webbing belts to depict the units realistically for how they would wear them. For example the difference in equipment from an SAS soldier to a line infantry unit where an SAS soldier’s equipment and weapons would be more personalised and not standardised as a line unit.

The Props department were being led by a Google image they had been sent by a ‘Historian’ thinking the men in the picture were SAS troopers. Until I pointed out the unit was a light infantry regiment. Turned out the Historian had never served in the military so had no idea on how servicemen adapt issued equipment.

Current in-service unit insignia, badges, medals and flags are another gray area and sometime due to copy write laws productions are not always permitted to use these in films due to restrictions imposed by the MOD or DOD, so close alternatives have to be designed and made from scratch. I expect that more than half of you reading this never knew that!

There are also situations when heads of departments looking at savings feel they only need a technical adviser to train actors for a few hours then are no longer required during filming so to save money. This has proved to be counter productive as there is no one to correct obvious mistakes on set.

The actors and background are just that, actors. They are not soldiers and would not remember a few days training. So an experienced adviser should always be on set to remind, revise and be on hand for any questions.

From experience most Directors and Assistant Directors (AD) will not know the rank order of saluting or the difference from a Major to a corporal or unit trades when placing supporting actors in the background to act their respective roles.

I have been on set during filming with up to 500 supporting cast and I can find myself running from one group to the other correcting the obvious mistakes AD’s have made which would never have be noticed had I not been on set.

Again it’s not an AD’s fault, they are not to know and I only have two pair of eyes so something’s will be missed. It’s inevitable. However, Here are just a few howlers I have managed to correct on time.

1. A Russian private soldier shouting orders at a KGB Officer and giving the Private a British Army Salute.

2. A US Airforce Major General on guard and saluting an Airman First class as the Major General raises the barrier for him. .

3. A French prisoner of war given a sword and musket to walk past the camera with his captors when he’s supposed to be a prisoner.

4. A Royal Marine SGT who’s supposed to be part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) walking about with just a fire extinguisher and no weapon or webbing during an incident in a hostile situation.

5. Fingers on triggers and missing magazines ( that old chest nut)

6. A US soldier from the 80’s sporting a UK issued diamond Jubilee medal.

7. Soldiers about to run in front of a firing friendly heavy machine gun during a big firefight scene. (Not only dangerous but would have been a very costly re-set)

8. Everyone trying to hold their issued weapon like they have been on lone Survivor ( but it’s a musket you plonker)

The edit stage in post production is one great example where an adviser is not consulted. Taken from Rambo 2 where the hero fires a 66 LAW from inside a helicopter. The first we see a 66 as he arms it to fire.

The close up shot its changed to the hand and triggergrip of an RPG

In the final shot after firing its back to a 66

Had an adviser been consulted he could have pointed it out, plus the fact the poor guys in the back are going to get a face full of backblast.

These are just the belt and braces mistakes and I could expand further, but by now I’m sure you get the picture. An adviser on set is a one man ‘Billy No Mates’ department who supports all departments and cannot be everywhere all of the time, but when they are there they will do their best to get as much right as possible within the constraints mentioned above.

Military Technical Advisers brought in early are a good spend and pay dividend when the cameras roll and on the cutting room floor. There is work still to be done to ensure that military advisers are brought onto productions from the beginning as a standard procedure and to do away with the penny wise and pound foolish attitude towards MA’s.

If you do see me on set don’t forget to give me a hug. Unless your from 3 Para Morters!

Feel free to share this blog and add your howlers on the comments box.

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