“The Grand Conversation on Napoleon”


Consider Napoleon's imprisonment on St Helena. Better to have died at Waterloo than be condemned by England to this "the dreary spot." His defeat at Moscow and betrayal at Waterloo are recounted. We will speak again of him when again we face the foe.


Zimmermann p. 192 is a fragment; broadside Bodleian Harding B 11(254) is the basis for the description.

Easily missed in passing is a one-line reference to the benefit commerce has from war: "He caus'd the money to fly wherever he did go." This theme is expanded in "The Grand Conversation on Brave Nelson" and is the main theme of "The Grand Conversation Under the Rose."

The allusion to England is as reference to the "bunch of roses" (Zimmermann p. 192). An unspoken reference is to Ireland as the "we" in "may our shipping float again to face the daring foes ... we'll boldly mount the wooden walls."

The ballad is recorded on one of the CD's issued around the time of the bicentenial of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. See:

Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (on Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte," Hummingbird Records HBCD0027 (2001))

Harte speculates that the last line of each verse ("And the grand conversation on Napoleon arose") is a corruption of the last line of each verse of "The Grand Conversation Under the Rose" ("This grand conversation was under the rose"); that is to say, the conversation was sub rosa=secret. - BS

There seems to be a tendency in broadsides to blame Napoleon's failure at Waterloo on betrayal. "Napoleon Bonaparte (III)" blames Marshal Grouchy. This prefers to blame Marshal Ney (1769-1815).

There is some justification for this (as there is for blaming Grouchy, who didn't march to the sound of the guns at Waterloo). Ney's performance in the Waterloo campaign was utterly pitiful. Appointed to command the left wing less than a week before Waterloo, he muffed the Battle of Quatre Bras (June 16, 1815). If he had won, it would have chewed up Wellington's army before Waterloo, making the latter battle easier for the French.

And in muffing Quatre Bras, he also contradicted Napoleon's orders to I Corps commander Jean-Baptiste Drouet Comte d'Erlon. As a result, d'Erlon didn't fight at Quatre Bras -- and didn't fight with Napoleon at the simultaneous battle at Ligny. d'Erlon's presence at Ligny would probably have turned Ligny, which was a tactical win for the French, into a complete strategic victory. Instead, the Prussian losers were able to regroup and show up to support Wellington at Waterloo.

Ney's disastrous performance continued at Waterloo itself, where the Marshal had tactical control of the battlefield. (Napoleon was feeling unwell and played very little role.) Ney did little except put in frontal attack after frontal attack -- and no one understood defensive warfare better than Wellington. If Blucher hadn't shown up, it's possible that Ney's bull-in-a-stainless-steel-plateware-shop style might have worked -- but Blucher's arrival (with Grouchy, who was supposed to watch him, nowhere to be found) doomed Napoleon.

Still, the ultimate fault is Napoleon's. He knew that Ney had all the imagination of a pithed frog. Ney was "the bravest of the brave" -- but he was simply not fit for independent command. (If you want to get a picture of Ney, think George W. Bush: Charming, aggressive, and unable to adapt to new data.) And Napoleon knew it, and he had much better commanders (notably Davout, whom he had made War Minister) available. Napoleon chose the wrong officers, and didn't exercise close control over them, and paid the inevitable price.

As for the idea that Ney sold out Napoleon -- this is a pitiful joke. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Ney led the first substantial body of troops to oppose him. He could have stopped Napoleon on the spot -- but instead rallied to his standard. And, after Napoleon fell, Ney was tried for treason and shot in December 1815. By the time of Waterloo, his only hope was for Napoleon to win. Ney's only "betrayal" lay in accepting a command he wasn't fit to exercise. And that's a crime quite a few others, including many Presidents and Prime Ministers, have been guilty of. - RBW

Historical references

  • June 18, 1815 - Battle of Waterloo


  • Bodleian, Harding B 11(1389), "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon ("It was over that wild beaten track a friend of bold Buonapart")," J. Catnach (London), 1813-1838; also Harding B 19(107), 2806 c.15(104)[some words illegible], "Grand Conversation on the Remains of Napoleon"; also Firth b.34(196), Firth c.16(92), Harding B 11(4086), Firth c.16(91), Harding B 11(1508), Harding B 11(253), "[The] Grand Conversation on Napoleon"; also Harding B 11(1390), "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon Arose"; Harding B 11(254), "The Grand Conversation of Napoleon"


  • Tom Costello, "A Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (on Voice08)


  1. Zimmermann, p. 192, "The Grand Conversation of Napoleon" (1 fragment)
  2. Moylan 196, "The Grand Conversation on Napoleon" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #1189
  4. BI, BrdGCoNa


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1839 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 11(1389))
Found in: Ireland