Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those authors who will be remembered forever because of one creation (Holmes). The same could be said for P G Wodehouse (Jeeves) and John Mortimer (Rumpole) and I imagine that will be J K Rowling’s fate no matter what else she writes. Wanting to devote more time to his historical novels Conan Doyle famously killed off Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Final Problem,’ which appeared in print in 1893 but bowed to public demand and, eight years later, wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as a one-off to try an appease his fans before finally giving in two years later and resurrecting him properly.
After he’d thrown Holmes over Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle began work upon an unlikely replacement. Holmes can often be funny – any character that’s awkward in general society is open to gentle ridicule – but in the character of Brigadier Gerard, a swashbuckling French Hussar, we get to see Conan Doyle’s lighter side.
The hero of these seventeen stories, Etienne Gerard, served in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars. If he has one thing in common with Sherlock Holmes it is the fact that he has absolute confidence in his own abilities. This could be read as mere vanity but as you read through the stories it is clear that what we have here is the quintessential soldier, a gentleman of the first order for whom duty and honour are everything. And he doesn’t mind telling you:
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true that I have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take the facts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were to pretend that my career has been anything but a fine one. The incident which I will tell you tonight, however, is one which you will understand that only a modest man would describe. After all, when one has attained such a position as mine, one can afford to speak of what an ordinary man might be tempted to conceal. – ‘How The Brigadier Played For A Kingdom’
In his book Old Gods Falling, Malcolm Elwin voices the suspicion that “Dumas’ d’Artagnan was in his direct line of ancestry.” He is, of course, being facetious because if that had been true then Gerard would have been sure to make mention of it as many times as he sees fit to mention his medal. But there is a connection:
‘We say “Proud as a Scotsman”’ remarks the Duke of Buckingham in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to which the Gascon d’Artagnan replies ‘And we say “Proud as a Gascon”: the Gascons are the Scots of France.’ Etienne Gerard is of course a Gascon… – Owen Dudley Edwards, Introduction to The Complete Brigadier Gerard
And Conan Doyle is of course a Scot.
Gerard tells the stories from the point of view of a sixty-year-old man now living in retirement in Paris. The stories as they were published and as they appear in the two books that make up this collection, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard and The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, do not run chronologically however. The titles also add to the confusion in that they mostly begin with something along the lines of ‘How the Brigadier…’ but the fact is that in the majority of the stories Gerard isn’t actually a Brigadier. Some nice person had tidied up the facts and dates and posted them in Wikipedia:
We discover that he was born in Gascony in the early 1780s (he is 25 in ‘How the Brigadier Captured Saragossa’); in ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’ he attends a review of troops about to depart for the Crimea (1854-5), and this is the last identifiable date in his life, although ‘The Last Adventure’ has a still later setting, with Gerard about to return to his Gascon homeland. He first joins the 2nd Hussars – the Hussars of Chamberan – around 1799, serving as a Lieutenant and Junior Captain. He first sees action at Marengo in Italy in 1800. He transfers to the 3rd Hussars of Conflans in 1807 as a Senior Captain. He speaks somewhat idiosyncratic English, having learned it from an officer in the Irish Regiment of the French Army. By 1810 he is Colonel of the 2nd Hussars. He serves in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Russia. He is awarded the Grand-Cross of the Légion d'honneur by Napoleon in 1814. There are various discrepancies in the accounts of his life, not the least that in none of the stories except the last is he married.
We’re never in any doubt where we are when we begin a story though because they are all preceded by a short paragraph giving us the exact date on which the story that is to follow begins. The opening story, for example, is ‘The Medal of Brigadier Gerard’ which is set in:
Gerard’s tales of his valour do not vary much one from the other – he is generally sent on some mission (often at the behest of Napoleon himself) – gets into a pickle, gets out of said pickle and carries out his mission. By ‘pickle’ I mean that he usually winds up trussed up in a cellar or something with only his dignity for company. How he manages his escapes are often more a matter of chance than skill on his part. Brave he may well be, bright he is not. But he knows how to obey orders. Take for example the scenario in ‘The Medal of Brigadier Gerard’. Gerard is called before the emperor himself along with another soldier, Major Charpentier:
'I will be frank with you, gentlemen, as with two comrades. You have both been with me since Marengo, I believe?' He had a strangely pleasant smile, which used to light up his pale face with a kind of cold sunshine. 'Here at Rheims are our present headquarters on this the 14th of March. Very good. Here is Paris, distant by road a good twenty-five leagues. Blucher lies to the north, Schwarzenberg to the south.' He prodded at the map with the sword as he spoke.
'Now,' said he, 'the further into the country these people march, the more completely I shall crush them. They are about to advance upon Paris. Very good. Let them do so. My brother, the King of Spain, will be there with a hundred thousand men. It is to him that I send you. You will hand him this letter, a copy of which I confide to each of you. It is to tell him that I am coming at once, in two days' time, with every man and horse and gun to his relief. I must give them forty-eight hours to recover. Then straight to Paris! You understand me, gentlemen?'
Ah, if I could tell you the glow of pride which it gave me to be taken into the great man's confidence in this way. As he handed our letters to us I clicked my spurs and threw out my chest, smiling and nodding to let him know that I saw what he would be after. He smiled also, and rested his hand for a moment upon the cape of my dolman. I would have given half my arrears of pay if my mother could have seen me at that instant.
'I will show you your route,' said he, turning back to the map. 'Your orders are to ride together as far as Bazoches. You will then separate, the one making for Paris by Oulchy and Neuilly, and the other to the north by Braine, Soissons, and Senlis. Have you anything to say, Brigadier Gerard?'
I am a rough soldier, but I have words and ideas. I had begun to speak about glory and the peril of France when he cut me short.
'And you, Major Charpentier?'
'If we find our route unsafe, are we at liberty to choose another?' said he.
'Soldiers do not choose, they obey.'
This is an important point because the route that Gerard ends up with, he learns from an old friend, Bouvet, will take him straight through the heart of enemy territory:
'The enemy is there,' said he. 'You cannot go.'
'I prefer to go where the enemy is,' I answered.
'But why not go straight to Paris with your despatch? Why should you choose to pass through the one place where you are almost sure to be taken or killed?'
'A soldier does not choose—he obeys,' said I, just as I had heard Napoleon say it.
Long story, short – Gerard follows his orders blindly, ends up being captured, escapes, runs the gauntlet, survives, delivers his message and returns to Napoleon anticipating a medal for his outstanding bravery:
When I came to the headquarters I was shown straight into the Emperor's room. He was drinking coffee at a writing-table, with a big plan drawn out on paper in front of him. Berthier and Macdonald were leaning, one over each shoulder, and he was talking so quickly that I don't believe that either of them could catch a half of what he was saying. But when his eyes fell upon me he dropped the pen on to the chart, and he sprang up with a look in his pale face which struck me cold.
'What the deuce are you doing here?' he shouted. When he was angry he had a voice like a peacock.
'I have the honour to report to you, sire,' said I, 'that I have delivered your despatch safely to the King of Spain.'
'What!' he yelled, and his two eyes transfixed me like bayonets. Oh, those dreadful eyes, shifting from grey to blue, like steel in the sunshine. I can see them now when I have a bad dream.
'What has become of Charpentier?' he asked.
'He is captured,' said Macdonald.
The thing that Napoleon had failed to convey to Gerard is that there were two different messages and that he had been entrusted with false intel to misdirect their enemies. Charpentier, who allowed himself to be so easily captured, had the true message. Gerard is devastated:
'Sire,' said I, and the tears would trickle down my cheeks whilst I spoke, 'when you are dealing with a man like me you would find it wiser to deal openly. Had I known that you had wished the despatch to fall into the hands of the enemy, I would have seen that it came there. As I believed that I was to guard it, I was prepared to sacrifice my life for it. I do not believe, sire, that any man in the world ever met with more toils and perils than I have done in trying to carry out what I thought was your will.'
Things turn out well in the end, for him at least. Napoleon acknowledges his bravery and instructs the Duke of Tarentum to see…
'…that Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.'
What is particularly interesting about the structure of this story is that it inverts the Holmes formula. The whole point of a Holmes mystery is to find out whodunit and how (and ideally to apprehend them) whereas in this first adventure Gerard is not in possession of all the facts but proceeds on the premise that he knows all he needs to know.
This is typical of the kind of escapade that befalls Gerard throughout his distinguished career. Another good example can be found in ‘How the King Held the Brigadier’ in which Gerard, still only a Colonel at the time, mounts a daring escape from Dartmoor Prison, rescues a damsel in distress and borrows a coat to cover his French uniform in which he discovers a letter addressed to the Governor of Dartmoor Prison:
The letter caused me [some] perplexity, for the Governor had always shown me every courtesy, and it offended my sense of honour that I should interfere with his correspondence. I had almost made up my mind to leave it under a stone upon the roadway within musket-shot of the gate. This would guide them in their search for me, however, and so, on the whole, I saw no better way than just to carry the letter with me in the hope that I might find some means of sending it back to him. Meanwhile I packed it safely away in my inner-most pocket.
As circumstances would have it his escape does not go according to plan. He decides to travel northward and so heads into the wind only to find in the night the wind has shifted to a southerly direction and he ends up right back at the prison:
I soon perceived that accident had done for me as much as the most profound cunning. My guards naturally commenced their search from the place where I had taken Sir Charles Meredith's coat, and from my hiding-place I could see them hurrying along the road to that point. Not one of them ever dreamed that I could have doubled back from there, and I lay quite undisturbed in the little bush-covered cup at the summit of my knoll.
In the end, after further misadventures and an unfortunate encounter with a very civilised pugilist Gerard finds himself face to face with the governor and is able to hand over the letter which read:
'On receipt of this you are directed to release Colonel Etienne Gerard, of the 3rd Hussars, who has been exchanged against Colonel Mason, of the Horse Artillery, now in Verdun.'
I could go through the whole book like this but I think I’ve made my point well enough with these two examples. Conan Doyle relishes his job here and although I first thought of Gerard as a bit of a buffoon – the kind of character that Bob Hope or Danny Kaye would end up playing in a period drama – there’s a bit more to him, though not a lot. That said Steve Carell is looking to tackle the role sometime in the foreseeable future so maybe I’m not too far off the mark when I picture him looking like Danny Kaye sporting a handlebar moustache. (Think The Inspector General.)
The stories were originally published in The Strand magazine between December 1894 and September 1903 and Canongate’s new edition prints the stories in the order they appeared there with the addition of a late 1910 story, ‘The Marriage Of The Brigadier’ that did not appear in the original editions. Also included is the November 1894 story, ‘A Foreign Office Romance’, which, although it doesn’t actually include Gerard, clearly prefigures the series in structure, character and theme and so it makes sense to see it in its proper place at the head of this collection.
A superficial reading of these stories is the easy option. They’re light, don’t get me wrong, and carry no deep messages but what they also are – remember this is the writer who did Sherlock Holmes’ thinking for him – filled with small details and insights, the kind of thing that it’s easy to skip over. Unlike Holmes, however, Gerard is willing to see the good in everyone, even an emperor who was quite happy for him to lay down his life simply to confuse his enemies.
The problem is that we think we’ve seen this kind of OTT hero done before. What came to my mind when I first started reading this collection was the heroic test pilot ‘Ace’ Rimmer in Red Dwarf. On the surface it’s easy to think about George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman too but there’s a difference in that Flashman is fundamentally a coward but still want the plaudits. Gerard is happy to go through hell to win his plaudits but once he has been through hell he fully expects his plaudits to be sitting waiting on him on his return.
In his lengthy and informative introduction to the new Canongate printing, Owen Dudley Edwards feels it logical that the collected Brigadier Gerard stories are a prime candidate for “the greatest historical short story series.” I can’t honestly imagine there being much competition although I could well we wrong.
The Complete Brigadier Gerard was published on 5th August and you can pick up a copy on Amazon for under a fiver.
Complete texts online: