Best Defense

Rebecca’s WDotW: Napoleon’s Poignant Reflection of a Dog He Encountered During War

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and news sites have been flush with pieces about the polarizing figure at the center of this historic event, Napoleon Bonaparte who, two centuries later, still provokes controversy and heated debates.

circa 1811:  Emperor Napoleon I of France (1769 - 1821), known as Bonaparte. Original Artwork: Painting by Edouard Detaille  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1811: Emperor Napoleon I of France (1769 - 1821), known as Bonaparte. Original Artwork: Painting by Edouard Detaille (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and news sites have been flush with pieces about the polarizing figure at the center of this historic event, Napoleon Bonaparte who, two centuries later, still provokes controversy and heated debates.

However none of these articles — and there have been a lot of them — appear to mention dogs or what Napoleon thought about dogs. Which is too bad. Because in all my time reporting and researching the topic of dogs in war, one of the most singularly moving passages I came across was written by Napoleon.

In ruminating on the memory of one dog — a memory that haunted him for the rest of his life — Napoleon captures something elemental about the emotional core of what transpires between soldiers and dogs in war — indeed, in life. It may be surprising that the man who said things like “bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine,” could compose something so tender and poignant. Yet the passage still brings tears to my eyes each time I read it, even though I’ve read it dozens of times over (and why I agonized over its position in my book).

Napoleon was in exile when he finally wrote about this stirring experience. He had been surveying the carnage after a battle, the men lying dead in a field, when the dog of a fallen soldier approached him. Having gotten Napoleon’s attention, the dog ran back to the body of the soldier and licked his hand, and then ran back to Napoleon. The dog, clearly distraught, was beseeching him for help.

Here is that passage:

Perhaps it was the spirit of the time and the place that affected me. But I assure you no occurrence of any of my other battlefields impressed me so keenly. I halted on my tour to gaze on the spectacle, and to reflect on its meaning.

This soldier, I realized, must have had friends at home and in his regiment; yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog. . . . I had looked on, unmoved, at battles which decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders which brought death to thousands.

Yet, here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog. I am certain that at that instant I felt more ready than at any other time to show mercy toward a suppliant foe-man. I could understand just then the tinge of mercy which led Achilles to yield the corpse of his enemy, Hector, to the weeping Priam.

Painting by Edouard Detaille, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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