Grand Conversation on Napoleon, The
DESCRIPTION: Consider Napoleon's imprisonment on St Helena. Better to have died at Waterloo than be condemned by England to this "the dreary spot." His defeat at Moscow and betrayal at Waterloo are recounted. We will speak again of him when again we face the foe.
EARLIEST DATE: before 1839 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 11(1389))
KEYWORDS: battle exile betrayal death commerce France memorial political prisoner Napoleon
June 18, 1815 - Battle of Waterloo
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Zimmermann, p. 192, "The Grand Conversation of Napoleon" (1 fragment)
Moylan 196, "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (1 text, 1 tune)
OCroinin-Cronin 162, "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (2 texts (1 Irish Gaelic), 1 tune)
Tom Costello, "A Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (on Voice08)
Bodleian, Harding B 11(1389), "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon ("It was over that wild beaten track a friend of bold Buonapart")," J. Catnach (London), 1813-1838; also Harding B 19(107), 2806 c.15(104)[some words illegible], "Grand Conversation on the Remains of Napoleon"; also Firth b.34(196), Firth c.16(92), Harding B 11(4086), Firth c.16(91), Harding B 11(1508), Harding B 11(253), "[The] Grand Conversation on Napoleon"; also Harding B 11(1390), "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon Arose"; Harding B 11(254), "The Grand Conversation of Napoleon"
NOTES: Zimmermann p. 192 is a fragment; broadside Bodleian Harding B 11(254) is the basis for the description.
Easily missed in passing is a one-line reference to the benefit commerce has from war: "He caus'd the money to fly wherever he did go." This theme is expanded in "The Grand Conversation on Brave Nelson" and is the main theme of "The Grand Conversation Under the Rose."
The allusion to England is as reference to the "bunch of roses" (Zimmermann p. 192). An unspoken reference is to Ireland as the "we" in "may our shipping float again to face the daring foes ... we'll boldly mount the wooden walls."
The ballad is recorded on one of the CD's issued around the time of the bicentenial of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. See:
Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (on Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte," Hummingbird Records HBCD0027 (2001))
Harte speculates that the last line of each verse ("And the grand conversation on Napoleon arose") is a corruption of the last line of each verse of "The Grand Conversation Under the Rose" ("This grand conversation was under the rose"); that is to say, the conversation was sub rosa=secret. - BS
There seems to be a tendency in broadsides to blame Napoleon's failure at Waterloo on betrayal. "Napoleon Bonaparte (III)" blames Marshal Grouchy. This song prefers to blame Marshal Ney (1769-1815).
There is some justification for this (as there is for blaming Grouchy, who didn't march to the sound of the guns at Waterloo). Ney's performance in the Waterloo campaign was utterly pitiful.
Napoleon should have known better. Ney had performed brilliantly in the 1813 retreat from Moscow; his rearguard action had saved all that could be saved (Glover, p. 181). Napoleon had long before called him "the bravest of the brave" (Chandler, p. 830) But he was not the smartest of the smart. He had hardly any education at all, and "never made much pretense at being able to express himself in a very civil manner, or even of pssessing the thinnest veneer of culture" (Schom, p. 31). Napoleon himself had said that it would be dangerous to give Ney a significant independent command.
But when Napoleon returned from France to Elba, Ney led a body of troops against him -- and then changed his mind and joined his old commander (Schom, p. 32). Maybe Napoleon felt he owed him something. Or maybe Napoleon really had lost it. Whatever the explanation, it was a major mistake.
Once Europe became aware that Napoleon was back, they hastened to gather their armies -- but it took time for many of the forces, which could move no faster than a marching man, to reach the front (Chandler/Beckett, p. 154). The first to reach the French border were the Anglo-Dutch under Wellington and the Prussians under Blucher. Napoleon had only about 200,000 men to guard all of France (Keegan, p. 121), while the Prussians alone were bringing 100,000, and the Anglo-Dutch about 70,000 (Keegan, p. 123, although many of these were unreliable), and Austria and Russia would eventually bring at least 300,000 more. If he let them all gather, Napoleon would be swamped.
But only the Anglo-Dutch and the Prussians were in place in June 1815. Napoleon's plan was to interpose between them and defeat them in detail (Keegan, p. 122). To do this, he divided the army into three wings of roughly two corps each. Grouchy commanded the right, Napoleon the central reserve (which could reinforce either wing). The left was eventually assigned to Ney.
Appointed to command the left wing less than a week before Waterloo (Chandler, p. 1029), Ney's first task was to defeat a British rearguard while Napoleon and Grouchy fought the Prussians at Ligny. But Ney, given the chance to gobble up a few British brigades, instead stopped moving and muffed the Battle of Quatre Bras (June 16, 1815; Schom, pp. 258-259, 267-268). If he had won, it would have chewed up Wellington's army before Waterloo, making the latter battle easier for the French.
And in muffing Quatre Bras, he also contradicted Napoleon's orders to I Corps commander Jean-Baptiste Drouet Comte d'Erlon. As a result, d'Erlon didn't fight at Quatre Bras -- and didn't fight with Napoleon at the simultaneous battle at Ligny (Chandler, pp. 1034-1057, especially pp. 1051-1053; also Schom, pp. 271-272, detailing how d'Erlon was bounced around the countryside by Napoleon and Ney. At one point, he was on the brink of attacking at Ligny -- and actually turned around and marched away!). D'Erlon's presence at Ligny would probably have turned Ligny, which was a tactical win for the French despite dreadful weather, into a complete strategic victory (Chandler/Beckett, pp. 155-156). Instead, the Prussian losers -- whom Napoleon expected to retreat toward Prussia (Glover, p. 213) -- were able to regroup and show up to support Wellington at Waterloo.
Ney's disastrous performance continued at Waterloo itself, where the Marshal had tactical control of the battlefield. (Keegan, p. 126. Napoleon was feeling unwell and played very little role; Glover, p. 216.) Ney started late (see map on pp. 124-125 of Keegan), and did little except put in frontal attack after frontal attack (Glover, p. 216) -- and no one understood defensive warfare better than Wellington. If Blucher hadn't shown up, it's possible that Ney's bull-in-a-stainless-steel-plateware-shop style might have worked -- but Blucher's arrival (with Grouchy, who was supposed to watch him with 30,000 men -- Chandler, pp. 1060-1062 -- nowhere to be found; Chandler, p. 1069) doomed Napoleon.
Still, the ultimate fault is Napoleon's. He knew that Ney had all the imagination of a pithed frog; the man was simply not fit for independent command. (If you want to get a picture of Ney, think George W. Bush: Charming, aggressive, and unable to adapt to new data.) And Napoleon knew it, and he had much better commanders (notably Davout, whom he had made War Minister) available. Napoleon chose the wrong officers, and didn't exercise close control over them, and paid the inevitable price.
As for the idea that Ney sold out Napoleon -- this is a pitiful joke. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Ney led the first substantial body of troops to oppose him. He could have stopped Napoleon on the spot -- but instead rallied to his standard. And, after Napoleon fell, Ney was tried for treason and shot in December 1815 (Schom, p. 318, who notes that he actually commanded the firing squad himself). By the time of Waterloo, his only hope was for Napoleon to win. Ney's only "betrayal" lay in accepting a command he wasn't fit to exercise. And that's a crime quite a few others, including many Presidents and Prime Ministers, have been guilty of. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Chandler: David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon, Macmillan, 1966
- Chandler/Beckett: David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition)
- Glover: Michael Glover: The Napoleonic Wars: an illustrated history 1792-1815, Hippocreme, 1978
- Keegan: John Keegan, The Face of Battle, 1976 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Schom: Alan Schom, One Hundred Days: Napoleon's Road to Waterloo, Atheneum, 1992
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