on 17 April 2015
There are a plethora of uniform collections throughout the world, both public and private. Many are highly reliable, some of these not the most artistic in nature, but cold, hard, and accurate representations of the men, and women, who have fought wars down through the ages. Not the least of these collections are those which depict the fighting men of many nations who followed the rolling drums and thundering guns through twenty-five years of unimaginable hardship, horror, and bloodshed that was the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
The Otto Manuscript, the Luneberg Manuscript, the Manuscripts of the Bourgeois of Hamburg, the Rivotti and Freiberg Manuscripts, were followed by the works of later researchers and artists as displayed in the Martinet Prints, the Vernet collection, the famous Bucquoy cards, the works of Lucien Rousselot and Eugene Leliepvre. These artists have brought these soldiers to life for the generations who have studied those who marched and fought across the length and breadth of Europe, the West Indies, Russia, and the Middle East from 1792 to 1815. Not the least of these collections is the work of Herbert Knötel (son of Richard Knötel, the noted uniform authority), an acknowledged authority on uniforms in his own right. Herbert Knötel was an expert on the way armies looked both in the field and on the parade ground.
The work of Herbert Knötel on the Grande Armée and its allies and enemies has now been presented to us in four magnificent volumes; assembled, annotated, and commented on by the noted authority on the Napoleonic Epoch and the Grande Armée, Colonel John R. Elting. Herbert Knötel's watercolor prints in these four volumes are 'all...products of [his] extensive, post World War II research that cleared away many errors common to earlier collections-including his father's famous Grosse Uniformkunde.' Herbert, carefully trained by his father, and a veteran cavalryman on the Eastern Front in World War I, 'worked almost exclusively from manuscript pictorial collections assembled by actual eyewitnesses during or shortly after the Napoleonic era, having an unequaled knowledge of such sources.'
Colonel Elting, while teaching at the United States Military Academy at West Point, was put in touch with Herbert Knötel in Germany, wishing to commission accurate renderings of Napoleonic soldiers to enhance his instruction to the cadets in the history of the military art. This developed into a long-term friendship and a definitive uniform collection, a collection that I would consider one of the best private collections in the world today. With Herbert Knötel's untimely death in 1963, the production of the watercolors came, sadly, to a halt. I have had the privilege of viewing some of the collection with Col. Elting, and it is truly impressive. Equally impressive is Col. Elting's knowledge and understanding of the period, as well as his personal expertise in the uniforms of the epoch.
The first two volumes of the series cover the Grande Armée, its antecedents, the foreign units who fought with it, and its worthless Bourbon successor. Volume I includes sections on the Royal Army, the Armies of the French Revolution, l'Armée d'Egypte, command and staff, line and light infantry, special infantry units, and the line cavalry, both heavy and light, and the dragoons. Volume II covers the foreign troops, the artillery, the Imperial Navy, engineers and the incomparable Imperial Guard. Both of these volumes were published in 1993.
Volumes III and IV of the set were published in April 2000. Volume III covers the Confederation of the Rhine, Denmark, the Republic and Kingdom of Italy, Naples, and Joseph's Kingdom of Spain. Volume IV covers the Republic and Kingdom of Holland, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, and the myriad allies who were the Grande Armée's enemies, including major sections on the Prussians, Austrians, Russians, and Great Britain.
There are a total of 1,461 watercolor plates, including those on the dust covers, in the four volumes: 920 in Volumes I and II, and 541 in Volumes III and IV. Cuirassiers, hussars, jagers zu pferd, lancers (or uhlans), irregulars, free corps, legions, chasseurs, both horse and foot, grenadiers, light infantrymen --be they légère, jagers, chasseurs, or riflemen-- carabiniers, and the various Guard contingents grace these pages and remind us that the Napoleonic period was truly 'the golden age of the military tailor.'
Here are the generals, officers and men who fought the Napoleonic Wars, and they leap out of the pages at you. The worn-out drummer of the 3e Etranger, formerly the Irish Legion, holding his musket at the ready just one more time, with his drum slung on his back. The artillery general in his full dress finery à la hussard, bellowing 'En Avant!' to his massed companies. The field officer of the Artillerie à Pied of the Imperial Guard having an argument with his horse. The Prussian hussar officer, his saber dangling elegantly by its sword knot from his wrist, speaking to his trumpeter. The infantry sapper with a '1000 yard stare.' The Würtemberger Garde du Corps trotting past on a magnificent black horse. Infantrymen of many nations trudging along God knows what roads to their next bivouac. Also depicted are the deadly specialists, the 'veteran marchers and killers,' such as the Corsicans of the Tirailleurs Corses or the infantry of the Old Guard. All these soldiers await us within these four volumes.
Errors in the prints are few, and Col. Elting points these out quite readily. If there is a doubt on the accuracy or probability of a print, the author rates it a 'probable'; when primary sources differ on a uniform, the alternate renderings are given in the captions; when a uniform item is missing, the details are filled in so the reader can be assured of accuracy. Instead of lessening the impact of the print in question, this raises the validity of the study as it tells us of Col. Elting's endless search for veracity and accuracy.
One thing that has been left out of the books, and is in Col. Elting's collection, are the group prints by Knötel which are breathtaking with all the color and sweep of the period. These have been left out because of the parameters of the book, which is understandable, yet it would have been ideal to have these reproduced in their own section. Having personally viewed these prints, oozing character and the gregariousness of military men, I can assure you that these are undoubtedly Knötel's best work.
The watercolors are painstakingly accurate, lively, and portray the combat soldier as few artists have done. The horses are particularly well done, and one can tell that Knötel was completely familiar, and at home with, the loyal, hardworking companions of the fighting man. Additionally, having Col. Elting's wry and witty insight into uniforms and personalities is definitely a bonus, each print having a caption by the author, and each section having an appropriate introduction.
With these two volumes, Col. Elting has completed his planned trilogy on the Napoleonic Wars and the Grande Armée. This has taken over 40 years of study, painstaking research, and writing. No other author I can think of, past or present, has had the expertise to contribute to the growing library of credible Napoleonic scholarship in three distinct areas: the operational study that is A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, the organizational history of the Grande Armée in Swords Around A Throne, and this four volume uniform study. We as students are extremely lucky to have him in our midst.
These four volumes are a must for any historian, uniformologist, collector, and painter of military miniatures of the Napoleonic period. Nowhere else can we find today a collection of uniform prints with the accuracy, detail, color, sang froid, and realism of combat soldiers as they are depicted within this collectio. These four volumes, and the work they contain, are simply masterpieces and belong on all of our bookshelves. They are worth the price asked. In fact they are a bargain for what you get, and have been definitely worth the wait. This is the definitive uniform study of the Napoleonic Wars.
Col Elting's collection of Herbert Knotel's work is now in the West Point Museum, except for the large group watercolors which are in private collections.