‘A little Britain-beyond-the-seas’: The British prisoners of war at Verdun... French Empire (1803-1814) In 1803, Napoleon’s unforeseen order to arrest...

‘A little Britain-beyond-the-seas’: The British prisoners of war at Verdun under the First
French Empire (1803-1814) In 1803, Napoleon’s unforeseen order to arrest every British
civilian present on the French soil led to a remarkable and yet unknown detention. Almost
one thousand wealthy British, mostly aristocratic tourists were sent to Verdun, a remote
town in North-East France, as prisoners of war. Yet, far from the orthodox image of the
military hostage, these British captives enjoyed a remarkable amount of freedom.
Considered as prisoners on parole by the French authorities, they were permitted to live
among the inhabitants, which enabled them to recreate a British way of life. Horse races,
whist clubs, Shakespearean amateur theatre and other festivities were organised by this
fashionable society of detainees, transforming the sleepy town into an exotic British enclave,
where, as a contemporary argued, ‘upon the whole, the prisoners lived happily together’
until their release in 1814. Despite its unique colourfulness, this detention has long
remained neglected by historians. Mentioned in dated military or maritime studies (Lewis,
1962), or else by certain early twentieth-century writers (Monvel, 1911; Fraser, 1914; Elton,
1945), this peculiar and truly fascinating captivity deserves greater attention. By providing a
first synthesis on this unprecedented detention at Verdun, my doctoral research, facilitated
by my fluency in both French and English, will hence bridge a gap in our knowledge of the
Napoleonic wars and the broader issue of the relations between France and Britain in the
aftermath of the French Revolution. My project is to illuminate the process by which the
presence of civilians alters the experience of military captivity. First focusing on the
emergence of an organised community establishing schools and Anglican churches and
raising funds through a financial network between Verdun and the Lloyds Patriotic Fund in
London, I will analyse the experience of forced exile in an alien country as an opportunity to
discover the ‘Other’. The analysis of the cultural, social and economic relations between the
French inhabitants and their ‘guests of honour’ will lead me to consider the depot as an
interface between two cultures, two nations supposedly enemies. The abundant
narratives of captivity written by the British provide an insight into the prisoners’ everyday
life, but they also raise key issues on the construction of memory and oblivion, and
‘methodological individualism’ (Popper, 1956). Inspired by Benedict Anderson’s thesis, my
intention is to reflect on the broader epistemological question of the use of these literary
documents as a source for the historian, and study them as an essential component of an
‘imagined community’ that emerged among former prisoners. In this project, Professor
Carolyn Steedman’s expertise in the literature of the self will provide invaluable supervision.
Having begun the study of this subject for my MA in France, I am already familiar with the
material available in the French national and local archives on the question. I am to present
my first discoveries at the forthcoming ‘Making War, Making Peace’ CTHS Conference in
Perpignan in May 2011. Furthermore, I have already consulted a great number of letters and
memoirs during my current Erasmus year at Warwick. The rest of my sources being located
in Birmingham City Archives, Warwickshire County Record Office and the National Archives
in London, Warwick will be the ideal place to undertake a PhD on this transnational subject.