The Battle of Austerlitz -- with 6 100 tin soldiers

A Danish historian who has been fascinated by Napoleon since he was a young boy is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz by recreating the scene with 6 100 tin soldiers, 1 000 horses and 34 cannons.

In his small 19th-century farmhouse on the island of Zealand, 63-year-old J Hansen has devoted the past 30 years to his “insatiable passion”: recreating the emperor’s wars.

Hansen refuses to let his full name or address be published, fearful that robbers will steal his precious collection—his home is nestled away at the end of a long country road, far from the curious eyes of strangers.

A heavyset man with glasses that keep slipping to the tip of his nose, Hansen’s face lights up as he talks about his hero, “a great strategist and in particular a modern man and visionary”.

He proudly shows off the glass cabinets decorating his living room, which display 9 500 tin soldiers, 1 750 horses and artillery pieces from Napoleon’s army as well as those of Russia, Austria, Britain, Prussia, The Netherlands, Denmark and Spain.

A retired history professor, Hansen spent two years preparing the Battle of Austerlitz scene “because I had to buy and hand-paint more than 1 000 extra Russian soldiers since I didn’t have enough”.

On December 2 1805, Napoleon’s 75 000-strong army defeated the numerically superior Austro-Russian force opposing him.

In six hours of battle, Napoleon crushed his opponents and redrew the map of Europe in the punitive peace that followed.

After “20 hours of painstaking place-setting”, Hansen’s display, long kept hush-hush, was shown exclusively to members of the Danish Society of Military Historians.

“A friend who also collects tin soldiers put on a display in his own name three years ago at a Copenhagen museum and a few days later his entire collection was stolen from his home by robbers,” Hansen recalls with horror.

Hansen estimates that his collection is worth 1,5-million kroner (€200 000), and says that to his knowledge, only the National Army Museum in London has more tin soldiers than he does.

Next to a window with a view over the countryside, bathed in the sun of a December haze, Hansen sits at his worktable. Little pots of paint in all colours are neatly organised on the table, as well as miniature brushes and several books on the Napoleonic wars.

He says his wife, Inger, “sometimes thinks she lives in a battlefield”, but compares his work to that of a silversmith.

“Each little figure measures only 25mm to 35mm and you have to paint them in different colours, exactly as in the history books, for example with gold buttons on the grenadiers’ tiny boots,” he explains.

“I spend about 45 minutes painting an infantry soldier and more than an hour and 45 minutes for a trooper, so do the math ... that makes about 10 000 hours over the past 30 years,” he says.

“You have to be consumed by this passion, passionate about Napoleon to do this,” he explains.

Gently picking up a tin soldier representing Napoleon on horseback, Hansen recalls how his interest in the emperor was born: he was 12 years old when he borrowed a book from the library about him.

“I was immediately fascinated by his life, and it is because of him that I undertook my studies in history,” he admits.
Napoleon, he says, “was a man ahead of his time, despite some mistakes”.

“If he had won against the English, Europe would have turned out differently because he gave everybody a chance. For example, he let a peasant become a general on his merits,” he said.

Hansen said he is now preparing, “with a bit of a heavy heart”, the Battle of Waterloo. He is, he says, “like the Danes at the time, the emperor’s last ally”.—AFP

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