A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 24 September 2017

D'Hubert and Féraud - one more time

Ah yes, D'Hubert and Féraud - The Duellists. Further to my previous post, having become a little itchy on the subject, I decided I would finally make some sort of effort to find out a little more of the true story on which the film was based - just for my own amusement, you understand, and - since I get bored quickly - don't expect too much to come of this.

If you haven't seen Scott Ridley's movie then you should be ashamed of yourself - go and watch it immediately, and come back when you've done so...


The film is based on Joseph Conrad's short story, The Duel: A Military Story (published in the US as Point of Honor), which is reputedly based on fact - I started off by downloading the complete works of Conrad for my Kindle (for the princely sum of £0.88 for the lot - no-one can accuse me of stinting this project). I read The Duel yesterday (while listening on the radio to Liverpool FC hanging on to win at Leicester), and noted the differences between it and the movie screenplay - not much, really - just details - the sort of film-maker's licence you'd expect - in fact Scott seems to have been unusually faithful to the text, which is a testament to the quality of the original narrative.

Next stop was a quick squint at Georges Six's Dictionnaire Biographique, which has a lot on François Fournier-Sarlovèse (that's the madman Féraud in the movie), but it's all very businesslike; I also read the section on him in Robert Burnham's Charging Against Wellington - he seems to have been a throughly disreputable fellow - intriguer, thief, breaker of hearts, torturer of prisoners and - of course - legendary duellist. Burnham mentions only one known opponent, a General Poinsot - the references include Charles Parquin's biography, and Parquin was actually on his staff for a while.

Fournier-Sarlovèse, in his pyjamas
You don't need to spend very long online, of course, before you find that the story which is the basis for the legends, for Conrad's short story and the film is Fournier's long-lasting dispute with Pierre Dupont, which is variously reported as having consisted of between 13 and 30 separate duels, and to have spanned a period of some 16 years - the last duel being in 1813. Some of the stories I turned up are quite complex - none of them have much in the way of documented support though.

Unusually bad day at Baylen

One thing which I am rather embarrassed to have failed to realise previously was that it was that Pierre Dupont - Dupont de L'Etang - most famous as having had a conspicuously bad day at Baylen in 1808, when he became the first of Napoleon's generals to be defeated by the Spanish army. His career never recovered, really.

Headbangers?: Fournier and Dupont
Next I tried to form some kind of framework of dates of promotion, and of where the two alleged protagonists were stationed at various times - in other words, how feasible is it that they managed to get together frequently enough to keep this splendid effort going over a period of 16 years? I didn't follow this through fully - Fournier was born in 1773, Dupont in 1765; Dupont's career progressed rather more rapidly, so their ranks would have been out of step for a lot of the time, meaning that it would have been illegal and (more importantly) incorrect for them to have fought each other during these periods. Disappointingly, the last great duel (with pistols) is supposed to have taken place in 1813 (the film places it in 1816), but Dupont was imprisoned from 1812 to 1814, which might be a problem.

I decided, eventually, that I had quite enjoyed my reading but the actual evidence is mostly pretty flaky - these gentlemen, I'm sure, did fight one or more duels during the period, and the story has become very famous. Why risk spoiling a good yarn? - I'll happily settle for the popular version.

Dupont seems to have been a cultured man - he was Louis XVIII's Minister of War for a while, he was the author of a number of books, and wrote several volumes of poetry, including translations of the odes of Horace. Fournier seems to have been very brave, very bad-tempered, and to have received the benefit of a lot of doubt because General Lasalle thought highly of him as a leader of cavalry.

Unless I attempt any of the 1808 Andalusia campaign, Dupont is unlikely to appear on my tabletop in 20mm form; Fournier, however, was commander of a brigade of dragoons in Spain - the 15eme and the 25eme, which brigade is sitting in my cupboard as I type this. I understand that he was one of the generals Marshal Marmont sent packing when he took over in 1811, but there is still a good chance that he might get into one of my Peninsular War battles - especially if he promises to wear that very understated uniform...

Back to the movie - D'Hubert with General Treilliard, who is most definitely
in my Cupboard
It would be fascinating to know where Joseph Conrad picked up the story. If you happen to know, maybe you could mention it. If it turns out that it says where he read it, further down the same Wikipedia entry, please spare my blushes and move on. Dupont also produced an unpublished, unfinished autobiography, I understand - I don't suppose it's in Google Books?

* * * * * * Late Edit * * * * * *

All right, all right - under pressure from a supposed friend, I am prepared to add a little more of the story. This is taken from Andrew Steinmetz, The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries, vol. 2, published 1868. You may, like me, think that it has the authentic ring of Total Bollocks, but you may find that, as bollocks goes, this is not without some entertainment value. [I can cut and paste with the best of them - and some of the best of them, let's admit it, are damned good]:

A Duel lasting Nineteen Years.

This most curious duel was brought to a termination in 1813, after lasting nineteen years. It began at Strasbourg, and the cause of the protracted fighting was as follows : —A captain of hussars, named Fournier, who was a desperate duellist, and endowed, as the French say, ” with deplorable skill,” had challenged and killed, on a most frivolous pretence, a young man, named Blumm, the sole support of a family. At the event the entire town put forth a cry of lamentation — a cry of malediction on the murderer.

The young man’s funeral was attended by an immense multitude, and sympathy was felt for the bereaved family in every household. There was, however, as it happened, a ball at the quarters of General Moreau. The ball was expressly given to the citizens of Strasbourg, and the General, apprehensive that the presence of Fournier might be offensive to his guests of the evening, charged Captain Dupont, his aide-de-camp, to prevent him from entering the ball-room. He accordingly posted himself at the entrance, and when Fournier made his appearance, he exclaimed, ”Do you dare to show yourself here?”

“The deuce! what does this mean?” asked Fournier.

”It means,” replied Captain Dupont, ” that you ought to have understood that on the day of the funeral of poor Blumm, it would have been only decent to remain at home, or certainly not to appear at a reunion in which you are likely to meet with the friends of your victim.”

”You mean enemies; but I would have you to know that I fear nobody, and that I am in a mood to defy all the world,” said Fournier.

”Ah, bah! You shall not enjoy that fancy to-night; you must go to bed, by order of the General,” rejoined Dupont.

”You are mistaken, Dupont;” said Fournier, ”I cannot call the General to account for insulting me by closing his door upon me, but I look to you and to them, and I am resolved to pay you handsomely for your commission as door-keeper which you have accepted!”

”Oh, as for that, my dear fellow, I’ll fight you when you like. The fact is, your insolent and blustering behaviour has displeased me for a long time, and my hand itches to chastise you!”

”We shall see who is the chastiser,” said Fournier.

The duel came off, and Fournier was laid on the grass with a vigorous sword-thrust. “That’s the first touch,” he exclaimed as he sank. “Then you wish to have another bout, do you?” asked Dupont.

”Most assuredly, my brave fellow, and before long, I hope,” said Fournier.

In a month Fournier got well; they fought again; this time Dupont was grievously wounded, and in falling he exclaimed, ” That’s the second. As soon as possible again; and then for the finish.”

The two adversaries were about equal with the sword; but with the pistol the chances would have been very different. Fournier was a frightful crack shot. According to M. de Pontecoulant, often when the hussars of his regiment were galloping past smoking, he amused himself with smashing their short pipes between their lips!

I have seen some wonderful doings with the pistol. I have known a determination to hit a certain part of the adversary, and it was hit. I have seen hens held out by the hand of a negro, hit by a pistol bullet; but the feat of hitting a pipe in the mouth of a galloping horseman is beyond my comprehension. If Fournier could do that, then Dupont was perfectly justified in refusing to try him at that game, as he proposed. They fought again with swords, but the finish was not forthcoming; it was only a slight wound on both sides; but now they resolved to continue the contest until either of them should confess himself beaten or satisfied. They drew up formal terms of the warfare, as follows:

1   Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other, they will each approach half the distance to meet sword in hand.
2  Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by the duties of the service, he who is free must go the entire distance, so as to reconcile the duties of the service with the exigencies of the present treaty.
3   No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
4  The present being a bona fide treaty, cannot be altered from the conditions agreed upon by the consenting parties.

This contract was religiously executed in all its rigour. Moreover, the contracting parties found no difficulty in keeping their engagements; this state of war became to them a normal condition, a second nature. Their eagerness to meet was like that of two lovers. They never crossed swords without first shaking hands in the most boisterous manner.

Their correspondence during this periodic duel is the essence of burlesque. Take the following:

”I am invited to breakfast with the officers of the regiment of Chasseurs, at Suneville. I hope to be able to accept this pleasant invitation. As you are on leave in that town, we will take advantage of the opportunity, if you please, to get a thrust at each other.”

Here is another, less familiar, perhaps, but not less tender:

” My dear friend, — I shall be at Strasbourg on the 5th of November, proximo, about noon. Wait for me at the Hôtel des Postes. We shall have a thrust or two.”

Such was the style and such the tenor of the entire correspondence.

At intervals, the promotion of one of them provisionally interrupted the meeting; this was one of the cases anticipated by Article 3 of the treaty. As soon as they got on an equality of rank in the service, the party last promoted never failed to receive a letter couched in the following terms, written by Fournier.

”My dear Dupont, — I hear that the Emperor, doing justice to your merit, has just promoted you to the grade of Brigadier-General. Accept my sincere congratulations on a promotion, which by your future and your courage is made natural, a mere matter of course. I have two reasons for exultation in this nomination. First, the satisfaction of a fortunate circumstance for your advancement; and secondly, the facility now vouchsafed to us to have a thrust at each other on the first opportunity.

They afterwards became generals. Dupont was ordered to join the army in Switzerland. He arrived, unexpectedly, in a village occupied by the staff, and which had not a single inn or tavern in it. The night was dark. Not a light was seen excepting at the window of a small cottage. Dupont went to the door, entered, and found himself face to face with Fournier.
“What! You here?” exclaimed the latter rapturously. ” Now for a thrust !”
They set to at once, conversing as they fought.

”I thought you were promoted to some high administrative function?”

”You were wrong; I am still of the trade. The Minister has sent me to the Fourth Corps d’armee, and here I am.”

”And your first visit is to me ? It is very kind of you. Sacrebleu!”

Dupont drove his sword through Fournier’s neck, and held him spitted to the wall, saying, ”You will admit that you did not expect that thrust!”

Dupont still held him fast, and Fournier muttered, ”I’ll give you a thrust quite equal to this.”

”What thrust can you give?”
”Why, as soon as you lower your arm, and before you can parry, I shall lunge into your belly!”

”Thank you for the hint. Then we shall pass the night in this position.”

”That’s an agreeable prospect ! But, really, I am not very comfortable.”

”Drop your sword, and I set you free.”

”No, I must stick you in the belly.”

Meanwhile some officers, attracted by the noise they were making, rushed in and separated the two generals.

Thus the contest continued, the contract being faithfully fulfilled on both sides. At length, however, Dupont thought of marrying, and he set his wits to work to find out how to make an end of the engagement. He must either kill Fournier, or muzzle him effectually. He went to him one morning ; it was at Paris.

”Ah!” said the latter at seeing him, ”Glad to see you. Let’s have a brush together.”

“A word first, my dear fellow,” said Dupont. ”I am on the point of getting married. We must end this quarrel, which is becoming rather rancid. I now come to get rid of you. In order to secure a definitive result, I offer to substitute the pistol for the sword — there!”

”Why, man, you are stark mad!” exclaimed the dead-shot Fournier, astounded by the proposal.

”Oh, I know your skill with the pistol, mon ami . . . But, let me tell you, I have hit upon a plan which will equalize the conflict. Here it is. Near Neuilly there is an enclosure, with a little wood in it. It is at my disposal. My proposal is this. We shall enter the wood, each provided with a pair of horse- pistols, and then, having separated, and being out of sight of each other, we shall track each other as best we can, and fire at our convenience.”

”Capital ! Agreed !” exclaimed Fournier ; but let me give you, mon vieux, a little piece of advice.”

”If you please,” said Dupont.

”Well, don’t go too far with your marriage project. It will be time and trouble lost; for I warrant you’ll die a bachelor.”

”They who win may laugh,” said Dupont.

On the day appointed Fournier and Dupont set out in their hunt. Having separated, and got out of sight of each other, as agreed, they crept about or advanced like cautious wolves or foxes, striving to catch a glance at each other through the thicket, whenever the motion of the leaves showed their presence.

All at once, as though by a common movement, both came in sight together, standing behind two trees. They squatted down, and thus remained for a few minutes. The situation was delicate - critical. To stir was certain death, to one of them, at least. Dupont, however, was the first to make the attempt, or rather to pretend to do so. He raised the flap of his coat, and allowed one end to project out of cover. Bang! came the bullet in an instant, cutting through the cloth.

“That settles one shot,” ejaculated Dupont, with a sigh of thanksgiving. After a short interval, Dupont returned to the charge, but this time on the other side of the tree. Holding his pistol with his left hand, he presented the barrel, as though about to fire, and at the same instant he held out his hat with his right hand. Bang! came another bullet, driving the hat into the bushes.

“Now, my brave, it’s all up with you !” exclaimed Dupont, stalking out, with both pistols in hand and cocked ; and marching up to Fournier, he said: —
“Your life is at my disposal, but I will not take it.”

“Oh, just as you please about that!” muttered Fournier.

Dupont continued: “Only you must remember that I do not give up my right of property in it. Beware of ever crossing my path again, for if you do, I may probably put my two bullets into your brains, as I might this instant.”

Such was the termination of this long quarrel of nineteen years, ending with the marriage of one of the parties, who contrived at last to beat the unapproachable crack-shot at his own weapon.


  1. If its not a true narration of true events then it ought to be!

    1. Steinmetz's extract is certainly very richly presented, but the insight into the exact dialogue and how the participants felt is a sure sign of literary bollocks - good story-telling notwithstanding. Let's be quite clear here - I have a great fondness for story-telling, but I don't like it to get too closely confused with history. A recent best-selling publication about Waterloo is categorised under the heading of Entertaining Bollocks as soon as the author starts to tell us what Napoleon was thinking. Rule of thumb.

      The same friend who applied the pressure now suggests - not unreasonably - that since Conrad's story was first serialised in an English periodical in 1908, it is not unlikely that he had seen Steinmetz's earlier effort.

      Now we only need to know where Steinmetz got his stuff...

  2. This is a very entertaining read which I have thoroughly enjoyed about one of my favourite ever films.

    1. Thank you, Phil. I also thoroughly enjoyed poking about online - but because these are to all intents and purposes the characters in the movie, and a few of that cast live in my Toy Cupboard, I had a very strange feeling that I was veering into the twilight world of fanfiction - a very dangerous place!

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=363ZAmQEA84

  4. OK - you have shamed me into buying a copy of the Duellists. Even though I am a great, great fan of Sir Ridley's films, watched The Martian again just yesterday, over the years this film has eluded me. So - no excuses this time.

    1. It's a marvellous movie in a lot of ways - not least the photography - there are a number of sequences taken in low, evening sunlight which are breathtaking - every shot is like a watercolour painting - and the final scene makes me want to get a plane ticket to the Loire (or wherever) immediately.

      The film is from 1977 - the fact that everyone speaks English throughout is obviously just part of the scenery, but the fact that the two lead characters are obviously American is interesting. In fact the two actors do a marvellous job - Keitel's Féraud is an icon almost on the scale of Steiger's Napoleon - and the presence of two American voices is no problem at all, but I suspect that the people providing funding for the film at that time would have been very nervous about getting a return on their investment if the movie was not acceptable in the US. 1977 is longer ago than I tend to think it is - US audiences in those days might have accepted English voices from villains, or maybe sinister, demonic intellectuals, but never heroes. As I say, the whole matter is of no consequence at all, but I sometimes wonder whether the film, if made now for the first time, with the same (rejuvenated) cast would have had the American actors going for a more neutral, Anglified accent. In recent times, Johnny Depp and John Malkovich are examples of US actors who have adopted a different voice when necessary.

      Enjoy the movie!

    2. Oh - about Sir Ridley - I'm pretty much a devotee myself, but - if you haven't seen it - don't bother with his effort at Gettysburg. In my humble opinion, it sucks - History Channel presentation at it's worst.

  5. I've greatly enjoyed reading this, many thanks.