On Something/A Norfolk Man

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
A Norfolk Man

Among the delights of historical study which makes it so curiously similar to travel, and therefore so fatally attractive to men who cannot afford it, is the element of discovery and surprise: notably in little details.

When in travel one goes along a way one has never been before one often comes upon something odd, which one could not dream was there: for instance, once I was in a room in a little house in the south and thought there must be machinery somewhere from the noise I heard, until a man in the house quietly lifted up a trapdoor in the floor, and there, running under and through the house a long way below, was a river: the River Garonne.

It is the same way in historical study. You come upon the most extraordinary things: little things, but things whose unexpectedness is enormous. I had an example of this the other day, as I was looking up some last details to make certain of the affair of Valmy.

Most people have heard of the French Revolution, and many people have heard of the battle of Valmy, which decided the first fate of that movement, when it was first threatened by war. But very few people have read about Valmy, so it is necessary to give some idea of the action to understand the astonishing little thing attaching to it which I am about to describe.

The cannonade of Valmy was exchanged between a French Army with its back to a range of hills and a Prussian Army about a mile away over against them. It was as though the French Army had stretched from Leatherhead to Epsom and had engaged in a cannonade with a Prussian Army lying over against them in a position astraddle of the road to Kingston.

Through this range of hills at the back of the French Army lay a gap, just as there is a gap through the hills behind Leatherhead. Not only was that gap easily passable by an army - easily, at least, compared with the hill country on either side - but it had running through it the great road from Metz to Paris, so that advance along it was rapid and practicable.

It so happened that another force of the enemy besides that which was cannonading the French in front was advancing through this gap from behind, and it is evident that if this second force of the enemy had been able to get through the gap it would have been all up with the French. Dumouriez, who commanded the French, saw this well enough; he had ordered the gap to be strongly fortified and well gunned and a camp to be formed there, largely made up of Volunteers and Irregulars. On the proper conduct of that post depended everything: and here comes the fun. The commander of the post was not what you might expect, a Frenchman of any one of the French types with which the Revolution has made us familiar: contrariwise, he was an elderly private gentleman from the county of Norfolk.

His name was Money. The little that is known about him is entertaining to a degree. His own words prove him to be like the person in the song, "a very honest man," and luckily for us he has left in a book a record of the day (and subsequent actions) stamped vividly with his own character. John Money: called by his neighbours General John Money, not, as you might expect. General Money: a man devoted to the noble profession of arms and also eaten up with a passion for ballooning.

I find it difficult to believe that he was first in action at the age of nine years or that he held King George's commission as a Cornet at the age of ten. He does not tell us so himself nor do any of his friends. The surmise is that of our Universities, and it is worthy of them. Clap on ten years and you are nearer the mark. At any rate he was under fire in 1761, and he was a Cornet in 1762; a Cornet in the Inniskilling Dragoons with a commission dated on the 11th of March of that year. Then he transformed himself into a Linesman, got his company in the 9th Foot eight years later, and eight years later again, at the outbreak of the American War, he was a major. He was quarter-master-general under Burgoyne, he was taken prisoner - I think at Saratoga, but anyhow during that disastrous advance upon the Hudson Valley. He got his lieutenant-colonelcy towards the end of the war. He retired from the Army and never saw active service again. When the Low Countries revolted against Austria he offered his services to the insurgents and was accepted, but the truly entertaining chapter of his adventures begins when he suggested himself to the French Government as a very proper and likely man to command a brigade on the outbreak of the great war with the Empire and with Prussia.

Very beautifully does he tell us in his preface what moved him to that act. "Colonel Money," he says, in the quiet third person of a self-respecting Norfolk gentleman, "does not mean to assign any other reason for serving the armies of France than that he loves his profession and went there merely to improve himself in it." Spoken like Othello!

He dedicates the book, by the way, to the Marquis Townshend, and carefully adds that he has not got permission to dedicate it to that exalted nobleman, nay, that he fears that he would not get permission if he asked for it. But Lord Townshend is such a rattling good soldier that Colonel Money is quite sure he will want to hear all about the war. On which account he has this book so dedicated and printed by E. Harlow, bookseller to Her Majesty, in Pall Mall.

Before beginning his narrative the excellent fellow pathetically says, that as there was no war a little time before, nor apparently any likelihood of one, "Colonel Money once intended to serve the Turks"; from this horrid fate a Christian Providence delivered him, and sent him to the defence of Gaul.

His commission was dated on the 19th of July, 1792; Marshal of the Camps, that is, virtually, brigadier-general. He is very proud of it, and he gives it in full. It ends up "Given in the year of Grace 1792 of our Reign the 19th and Liberty the 4th. Louis." The phrase, in accompaniment with the signature and the date, is not without irony.

Colonel Money could never stomach certain traits in the French people.

Before he left Paris for his command on the frontier he was witness to the fighting when the Palace was stormed by the populace, and he is our authority for the fact that the 5th Battalion of Paris Volunteers stationed in the Champs Elysées helped to massacre the Swiss Guard.

"The lieutenant-colonel of this battalion," writes honest John Money, "who was under my command during part of the campaign, related to me the circumstances of this murder, and apparently with pleasure. He said: 'That the unhappy men implored mercy, but,' added he, 'we did not regard this. We put them all to death, and our men cut off most of their heads and fixed them on their bayonets.'"

Colonel or, as he then was, General Money disapproves of this.

He also disapproves of the officer in command of the Marseillese, and says he was a "Tyger." It seems that the "Tyger" was dining with Théroigne de Méricourt and three English gentlemen in the very hotel where Money was stopping, and it occurs to him that they might have broken in from their drunken revels next door and treated him unfriendly.

Then he goes to the frontier, and after a good deal of complaint that he has not been given his proper command he finds himself at the head of that very important post which was the saving of the Army of Valmy.

Dumouriez, who always talked to him in English (for English was more widely known abroad then than it is now, at least among gentlemen), had a very great opinion of Money; but he deplores the fact that Money's address to his soldiery was couched "in a jargon which they could not even begin to understand." Money does not tell us that in his account of the fighting, but he does tell us some very interesting things, which reveal him as a man at once energetic and exceedingly simple. He left the guns to Galbaud, remarking that no one but a gunner could attend to that sort of thing, which was sound sense; but the Volunteers, the Line, and the Cavalry he looked after himself, and when the first attack was made he gave the order to fire from the batteries. Just as they were blazing away Dillon, who was far off but his superior, sent word to the batteries to cease firing. Why, nobody knows. At any rate the orderly galloped up and told Money that those were Dillon's orders. On which Money very charmingly writes:

"I told him to go back and tell General Dillon that I commanded there, and that whilst the enemy fired shot and shell on me I should continue to fire back on them." A sentence that warms the heart. Having thus delivered himself to the orderly, he began pacing up and down the parapet "to let my men see that there was not much to be apprehended from a cannonade."

You may if you will make a little picture of this to yourselves. A great herd of volunteers, some of whom had never been under fire, the rest of whom had bolted miserably at Verdun a few days before, men not yet soldiers and almost without discipline: the batteries banging away in the wood behind them, in front of them a long earthwork at which the enemy were lobbing great round lumps of iron and exploding shells, and along the edge of this earthwork an elderly gentleman from Norfolk, in England, walking up and down undisturbed, occasionally giving orders to his army, and teaching his command a proper contempt for fire.

He adds as another reason why he did not cease fire when he was ordered that "without doubt the troops would have thought there was treason in it, and I had probably been cut in pieces."

He did not understand what had happened at Valmy, though he was so useful in securing the success of that day. All he noted was that after the cannonade Kellermann had fallen back. He rode into St. Ménehould, where Dumouriez's head-quarters were, ran up to the top of the steeple and surveyed the country around the enemy's camp with an enormous telescope, laid a bet at dinner of five to one that the enemy would attack again (they did not do so, and so he lost his bet, but he says nothing about paying it), and then heard that France had been decreed a Republic. His comment on this piece of news is strong but cryptical. "It was surprising," he says, "to see what an effect this news had on the Army."

Every sentence betrays the personality: the keen, eccentric character which took to balloons just after the Montgolfiers, and fell with his balloon into the North Sea, wrote his Treatise on the use of such instruments in War, and was never happy unless he was seeing or doing something - preferably under arms. And in every sentence also there is that curious directness of statement which is of such advantage to vivacity in any memoir. Thus of Gobert, who served under him, he has a little footnote: "This unfortunate young man lost his head at the same time General Dillon suffered, and a very amiable young man he was, and an excellent officer."

He ends his book in a phrase from which I think not a word could be taken nor to which a word could be added without spoiling it. I will quote it in full.

"The reader, I trust, will excuse my having so often departed from the line of my profession in giving my opinion on subjects that are not military" (for instance, his objections to the head-cutting business), "but having had occasion to know the people of France I freely venture to submit my judgments to the public and have the satisfaction to find that they coincide with the opinion of those who know that extraordinary nation still better than myself."