Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle

Killing Holmes

Tired of making up clever puzzles for Sherlock Holmes to disentangle, at the end of the second dozen stories for the Strand magazine Conan Doyle introduced the completely new character of Professor  Moriarty. Hitherto unmentioned anywhere in the oeuvre, Moriarty was conjured out of thin air to provide Holmes with a worthy nemesis, with a fitting opponent who would drag him to his death over the Reichenbach Falls (in the The Adventure of the Final Problem, published December 1893). Moriarty is a pretext, a fictional function of fatigue.

Killing Holmes freed Conan Doyle to continue writing the wide range of other fiction he wanted to pursue, lots of other macabre, humorous, exotic short stories as well as a stream of short novels. For example, a lot of 1894 was taken up writing the stories of medical life which were collected in Round the Red Lamp (October 1894).

Enter the Brigadier

But one of Conan Doyle’s most enduring interests was history. He had already written novels set during the Monmouth rebellion of 1685 and the Hundred Years War. Now he set about fulfilling an ambition to write about the French Army during the time of Napoleon and the result was a series of stories about a completely different character from the supersober, hyper-rational Holmes – a bombastic old French soldier, a veteran of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, who we meet boozing in a Parisian café and who proceeds to tell a stream of farfetched yarns in which he is always the dashing hero.

Altogether Gerard appears in 17 short stories and one novel (Uncle Bernac).

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896)

The stories appeared monthly from December 1894 in Conan Doyle’s favourite and most profitable outlet, the Strand magazine, continuing throughout 1895 and were collected in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard in 1896.

  • How Brigadier Gerard Won his Medal (December 1894) Napoleon gives BG and a fellow officer a letter and instructions to ride through enemy lines. BG is too stupid to realise the intention is that they get captured and give the false info to the enemy. Instead he fights his way through with a series of hair-raising adventures. ‘You will see,’ said he, turning to the Duke of Tarentum, ‘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.’
  • How the Brigadier Held the King (April 1895) Gerard is wounded and recovers in a little Spanish village. He tries to rejoin his troop but his companion in a carriage turns out to be a Spanish brigand who betrays him to bandits. Their leader composes poetry between torturing prisoners – genuinely gruesome tortures worthy of Goya’s Disasters of War. He’s about to be split in two when some English troopers ride up and rescue him, after a brief fight. Later, one on one with the the English captain, Gerard suggests they play cards for his freedom, and they’re in mid-game when the Duke of Wellington comes upon them and reprimands the English officer.
  • How the King Held the Brigadier (May 1895) Gerard escapes from Dartmoor prison but not before knocking out one of his comrades who was peaching on him. Steals a cloak from a delayed coach, to the disgust of the lady in it. Blunders about the moor ending up where he began. Is run into by a boxer in training who promptly knocks him out. Overhears the boxer and trainer’s conversation before bursting out of the cottage only to run straight into the governor and soldiers. And, to cap it all, discovers he has had in the pocket of the stolen cloak all along a letter authorising his release!
  • How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio (June 1895) Napoleon himself requests a meeting and asks the Brigadier to accompany him the following night to a tree stump in the woods, but on no account speak to him or say anything. Gerard does as he’s told, rendezvous with the Emperor, and when they approach the stump is confronted with two evil-looking men. Quickly one makes a lunge and stabs the emperor before Gerard can strike him down; he chases the other and kills him, too. Returning to the Emperor, distraught, he finds the real Emperor! A servant impersonated him to meet two members of an old Corsican secret society to whom he owed allegiance. Ie the same ‘secret society tracks down former member’ which CD used liberally in his Holmes stories.
  • How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom (July 1895) At an inn in Poland Gerard meets dashing young Sub-Lieutenant Duroc who asks him to accompany him to the Castle of Gloom, home of Baron Straubenthal who was a revolutionary sansculotte responsible for the murder of Duroc’s father. As the revolution collapsed Straubenthal ravished a noblewoman and offered her her life if she agreed to marry him and give him her name. So here he is hidden in darkest Poland. Duroc and Gerard break into the castle where they are trapped into a locked room, but find a way out into the powder chamber where they set off a small explosion, win free and engage in a fierce sword fight with Straubenthal, before rescuing his pretty stepdaughter and fleeing the castle just as it blows up!
  • How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs (August 1895) Spain. Gerard is selected to lead half a cavalry squadron (50 men) against a freelance (English) brigand who has taken over a nearby Abbey. En route he falls in with a squadron of English hussars who have been tasked with the same mission and almost come to blows until he realises it is the same English captain who saved him from torture by bandits in How the Brigadier held the King. They agree the English squadron will pretend to be deserters, enter the castle, then open to doors to the French. Gerard catches some sleep at the inn but wakens to find the Abbot and innkeeper who told him all this are no other than the leader of the bandits, and have tied him up. One of his men, entering, frees him and they just about secure the fierce English bandit before taking him before the castle and threatening to hang him. The bandits release the English troops but refuse to surrender the Abbey and Gerard leaves, a failure.
  • How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil (September 1895) Near the end of Napoleon’s reign, in 1814, Gerard is called along with two other notables and tested by being asked to help turn the Emperor over to his enemies. He is indignant and so passes. Napoleon appears from behind curtains and wants the three of them to rendezvous with a lady in a carriage who is carrying the legal documents proving the right of his son, the King of Rome, to inherit. The three set off for the rendezvous but are appalled when the lady reveals she has already given them to three earlier soldiers! A cunning plan! They ride off in pursuit, the two others are killed by the two other soldiers, Gerard kills his man and recovers the letters, before the Emperor trots up and they bury the documents in a dovehouse in the forest and there they remain to this day!
  • How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom (December 1895) Another ‘secret society’ story! After the retreat from Moscow Gerard is given some leave and trots through the Polish/German forest, wondering why the letter T is carved into so many trees, until startled by a dying French soldier who confides him a letter given by the Emperor to be delivered to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, at his Castle of Hof. En route Gerard stops at an inn where a pretty girl kisses him and steals the letter! He rides on to the castle where he discovers a) the pretty girl is none other than the Princess of Saxe-Felstein b) she is leader of the Tugendbund, a secret society pledged to overthrow the French! Gerard pleads  his cause but fails to persuade the Prince to support Napoleon. Gerard had said Napoleon was like a star which they could all see through the window. But as he rides away disconsolate, he reflects on the waning of France’s power and the rise of Germany’s.

 But amid all the thoughts there came back to me always the proud, beautiful face of the German woman, and the voice of the soldier-poet as he sang from the chair. And I understood then that there was something terrible in this strong, patient Germany—this mother root of nations— and I saw that such a land, so old and so beloved, never could be conquered. And as I rode I saw that the dawn was breaking, and that the great star at which I had pointed through the palace window was dim and pale in the western sky.

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

The Adventure of Gerard (1903)

There was a hiatus (as with Holmes) while Conan Doyle pursued other fictions (and went to the Boer War), and then a further suite of stories in 1902-3 which were collected in The Adventures of Gerard.

  • The Crime of the Brigadier (January 1900) [aka titled How the Brigadier Slew the Fox] Commissioned to go study the layout of Wellington’s defences, BG’s horse is wounded and died, and he hides in a hayloft. Turns out to be the headquarters of a general, and he sneaks down and steals the best horse, only to discover there is an imported fox hunt starting. His horse is wild to get involved so her dies to the front of the chase and then horrifies the English by chopping the fox in half with his sword, before riding back the French lines chased by outraged Englishmen the whole way.
  • How Brigadier Gerard Lost his Ear (August 1902) Doyle gives a persuasive account of how hated the French were in Venice, particularly after they stole the four horse statues above St Mark’s. A secret tribunal of Venetians kidnaps, tries and executes French soldiers, among them Gerard. He is charged with loving a local noblewoman who is herself sentenced to have half her ear removed for fraternising. In the dark of the cell BG wraps in her cloak and the ruffians cut off the top of his ear. Moments later the French soldiers burst in, arresting the tribunal.
  • How the Brigadier saved the Army (November 1902) BG is the third officer chosen to ride through country infested with Portuguese guerrillas to light a beacon atop a mountain which will alert the other French army in the region to retreat alongside them. BG is captured by the bandits but, luckily on of them is disaffected and helps replace BG’s body with one of the other murdered French officers atop the pyre, while he and a handful of bandits escape the murderous ‘Smiler’.
  • How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk (December 1902) On the retreat from Moscow Marshal Ney orders BG to take a squadron to seize corn at Minsk. He stops at a village, captures a Russian officer, is taken in by a scrawny priest and pretty daughter who translates the officer’s meesage as Minks is undefended. On his men and BG ride only to be ambushed and slaughtered in Minsk. Because he was kind to the Russ officer, the pretty girl helps BG escape.
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Forest Inn (January 1903) On he fateful day of Waterloo Gerard is ordered to ride across the battlefield to the army of Grouchy which is seen coming over a distant hill. He is almost passing an inn, when the keeper grabs him and tells him it’s not French reinforcements, it’s the Prussians. BG hides in the hayloft and overhears the Prussian General telling a squadron of the fastest cavalrymen to ignore the battle and capture the fleeing Napoleon. Now he must warn the Emperor!
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Nine Prussian Horseman (February 1903) Gerard rides like the wind to find the Emperor, guarded by a handful of valets and servants just as the Prussian squadron arrive and, on impulse, grabs Napoleon’s hat and coat and makes off on Violette, hunched down like the squat Bonaparte. The nine chase him. It is a genuinely thrilling ride across country, across a river, through a maze of farm buildings and finally, as is horse is dropping from exhaustion, into the village square where his very own regiment is recuperating and, so, to safety!
  • The Brigadier in England (March 1903) [aka How the Brigadier Triumphed in England] During his enforced stay in England BG is the guest of a noble family and a) is ludicrously bad at all sports, thinking cricket is about throwing the ball at the batsman, that boxing includes kicking and biting b) gets caught up because of his ludicrous French gallantry in a dispute between his host’s and his brother-in-law who has behaved like a cad to his sister, and is involved in an impromptu duel.
  • How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans (April 1903) He is transferred from Berlin where the war has stopped to Spain where it is still hot, specifically to the siege of Saragossa. At the first officers’ mess he is led on to tell vainglorious stories about himself until they ridicule him and his anger BG insists on a duel. At which point the colonel enters and asks a volunteer for a dangerous mission: it is to smuggle into Saragossa, rendezvous with a spy who should have blown up the defences. BG disguises himself as a monk, volunteers, climbs up over the wall, discovers the spy has been exposed and nailed to the wall (!) but inveigles himself into the convent/city wall where he blows up the gunpowder so distracting the guard that the French win the siege. Congratulated by the general he insists on absenting himself from the victory breakfast to keep his appointment for the duel where – all the Hussars of Conflans salute him. He has been accepted.
  • How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master (May 1903) A very satisfying conclusion to the series which has hopped about in time and space but concludes with Gerard joining a ship of French old-timers which abandons its voyage to Africa, and heads to St Helena to rescue Napoleon. Gerard is smuggled ashore in a rowing boat and creeps up to the window of the little house only to see – Napoleon dead and laid out on his bed. He salutes and returns to the rowing boat but it has been wrecked in a storm, indeed the ship he came in never reappears, and he surrenders himself to the British who (of course) treat him with every courtesy.
Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

  • The Marriage of the Brigadier (September 1910) [Uncollected story] BG is a star-struck 20 year old garrisoned in sleepy Normandy where he falls in love with the local beauty Marie, but her parents are keen for him to clarify the situation. One night he takes a short cut across the field to Marie’s house where the English bull is. It looks at him moodily from a distance but doesn’t approach. At Marie’s house her father despatches her to her room and insists that on his next visit Gerard must either propose or end the relationship. Pondering this Gerard sets off across the field back to town – and comes face to face with the bull! Slowly he turns and tiptoes away but the bull charges so Gerard runs full tilt back to the house and just as he reaches it the bull tosses him clean through the upstairs window into Marie’s bedroom. There is only one thing a gentleman can do and so Gerard proposes and Marie tearfully accepts, admiring the way he is panting with passion and only true love could have made him make such a leap!

And the point is….

Funny The Gerard stories are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. It is not literature but it’s a good read, every story has at least one genuinely funny moment. But they also include the kind of macabre and grim scenes which we’re familiar with from the Holmes stories – especially in Spain where the Spanish guerillas’ torture and the crucifixion of the French spy are gruesome. And there are some vivid descriptions of times and places like the snows of Russia or the watery canals of Venice. And there are no end of thrilling chases, whether the comic chase after the fox or the genuinely thrilling escape from the nine Prussian hussars.

Boo to France But a core function of the stories is to satirise the bombast and braggadochio of the French; time after time ‘gallant’ and ‘debonair’ are cover words for chatting up every woman in sight, for a waggishly amoral playing with ladies’ affections which wouldn’t be permissible in a British hero. Another central plank of the satire is Gerard’s repeated failure to understand games or sport – in his English sojourn he gets cricket, fox hunting, shooting and boxing all completely wrong.

Hooray for Britain and, time and again, Doyle puts into Gerard’s  mouth grudging compliments about the British. Gerard is made to credit the British with all the right virtues. A the climax at Waterloo, the French may have the gallantry, the spirit and the romance – but the British are as solid as old beef!

‘So high was the spirit of France at that time that every other spirit would have quailed before it; but these people, these English, had neither spirit nor soul, but only solid, immovable beef, against which we broke ourselves in vain. That was it, my friends! On the one side, poetry, gallantry, self-sacrifice—all that is beautiful and heroic. On the other side, beef. Our hopes, our ideals, our dreams— all were shattered on that terrible beef of Old England.’

The success of the stories, in fact their sheer existence, demonstrate just how much barefaced flattery an English reader in the 1890s could take – and then happily have a few trowels more thrown on top!

Brigadier Gerard on film

To my surprise there are some dramatisations of Gerard.

1. A black and white TV version, as stagey and cheesy as the original story.

2. A 1970 colour movie starring Peter McEnery and Claudia Cardinale (!)

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle | Books & Boots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: