‘The great proof of madness,’ Napoleon is once supposed to have said, ‘is the disproportion of one’s designs to one’s means.’ If so, then the emperor stands condemned from his own mouth. Between 1809 and 1812 the demands of the Continental Blockade, coupled with his own impatience, folie de grandeur and scorn for lesser men, drove the French ruler into a policy that was too demanding even for the resources of la grande nation. Hitherto content to rule most of his dominions through satellite rulers, Napoleon came more and more to look for solutions to his problems through the imposition of direct rule from Paris. Yet this did nothing to make the Blockade-a weapon he was in any case now backing away from - any more impermeable, for Napoleon simply did not have the administrative and military resources to supplant the local officials and gendarmes on whom he had previously relied. At the same time, in doing so he also destabilized his domination of Europe. Already angered by Napoleon’s betrayal of his interests in the Balkans, Alexander I began to recall his earlier championing of the rights of the smaller states of Europe. All thoughts of partnership with France disappeared and fears grew that Russia might herself be the victim of French attack. With the Blockade biting in Russia as much as anywhere, the tsar therefore broke with Napoleon, and even considered marching into Germany and precipitating the war he feared must come anyway. In the event this pre-emptive strike never came, but the ruler of France could not endure so blatant a challenge to his supremacy, particularly given the prolonged struggle in Spain and Portugal which was so sapping his prestige. Alexander had to be taught a lesson, and thus it was that the first months of 1812 saw immense forces of imperial troops massing on the frontiers of East Prussia in preparation for an invasion of Russia. The consequences of this decision will be looked at in the next chapter, but for the time being, suffice it to say that Napoleon had again misjudged the capacity of the resources available to him, and once more placed personal aggrandizement ahead of strategic calculation. It was to prove a fatal error, and one which would have dramatic effects.
At the heart of the period from 1809 to 1812 lies Napoleon’s precipitation of a breach in his relationship with St Petersburg. As late as the outbreak of war with Austria in May 1809, Alexander was prepared to cooperate with the emperor. Erfurt may have come as a terrible disappointment, but the tsar nevertheless promised to give Napoleon his support against Francis I should the latter go to war; and Rumiantsev continued to believe that the alliance with France remained very much in Russia’s best interests. In preparation for war,60,000 men were readied for action on the frontiers of the Austrian portion of Galicia under Prince Dmitri Golitsyn. That said, there was little enthusiasm in St Petersburg. Caught in an unfavourable position, Napoleon was desperate for Russian support and in the course of March sent no fewer than eight messages to Alexander begging him to intervene. Typically enough, however, the emperor was seemingly heedless of his partner’s interests. It was not enough for the Russians to threaten Austria’s eastern borders. On the contrary, troops were to be sent as far west as Dresden, a city not only hundreds of miles from the Russian frontier, but wide open to attack from Austria and Prussia alike, while some of the army that had been sent to the Danubian provinces was to be turned around and sent northwards into Transylvania. Awkward in terms of the military situation in the Balkans, this last request was also a blow to Russia’s diplomatic aspirations, for it reduced her ability to send aid to Serbia which was increasingly envisaged as a protectorate in the style of Poland prior to 1791. And on top of all this, everything was claimed to be the fault of Russia: ‘Monsieur Champagny: a courier must be sent to St Petersburg. You will inform M. Rumiantsev . . . that I remain convinced that, had a threatening tone been adopted at Erfurt, Austria would have disarmed, and an end been put to this question.’1
Mention of the Balkan front was particularly tactless. Although there had been sporadic outbreaks of fighting on the borders of Serbia, ever since the autumn of 1807 conflict there had been at a relatively low ebb (there had, however, been some campaigning in the east where the spring of 1808 saw a Russian force defeat 30,000 Ottoman troops near Kars). The armistice agreed at Slobosia had long since expired, but the Russians had achieved their initial objectives and were not prepared to advance any further south without first obtaining French support, while the Serbs were fully taken up with the task of building a new regular army and, under the influence of the Russian envoy, Rodofinikin, elaborating a new system of government. As for the Turks, they had become totally engrossed in their internal affairs. The coup that had brought down Selim III in July 1807 led to a prolonged period of political turmoil. The deposed sultan had been replaced by a cousin, who became Mustafa IV, but the revolt had dealt a body blow to the empire in that it had arisen out of the hatred of the traditional janissaries for the new-model Western-style army Selim had been building up and had been accompanied by the massacre of many of its members. Horrified by the implications of this disaster, a group of prominent officials and military leaders had come together to organize a counter-coup that would bring Selim back to the throne and set the empire on the path of reform. In July 1808 the crisis broke: the leading Ottoman general on the Danube, Bayrakdar Mustafa Pasha, marched on Constantinople with most of his troops. The result was further chaos. It had been hoped to rescue Selim, but bungling by conspirators ensured Mustafa IV was given sufficient time to have him murdered. This, however, did not save Mustafa. The conspirators had another candidate for the throne and immediately installed him as Mehmet II. But the janissaries were not finished, and fought back in a series of pitched battles which rocked Constantinople. Among the dead was Bayrakdar: trapped inside an armoury by a horde of janissaries, he blew himself up rather than let his enemies take him alive. Not until the winter did the situation finally quieten down, and even then the Ottomans did not resume active operations, preferring to try and secure a negotiated settlement with Russia, who they thought might be persuaded to give up Moldavia and Wallachia in return for political concessions. But there was no hope of this. On the contrary, Alexander was bent on both military victory and complete annexation of the Danubian provinces. Along the Danube the Russians were planning a series of offensives designed to take the long line of Turkish fortresses, while in Serbia Karadjordje was hoping to push back the Turks from his eastern and southern frontiers and liberate such towns as Niš. To be asked, then, literally to turn his back on the Balkans came as yet another proof that Alexander was never going to be treated by Napoleon as an equal partner.
This is not the place to give a detailed history of the military operations in the Balkans that now followed, but it is fair to say that they remained a running sore for Franco-Russian relations. Dreams of the partition of Turkey-in-Europe that might have resulted from the active support once promised by France were now replaced by the reality of a savage war in which casualties were high and progress limited. The offensive launched in April 1809 did not produce victory. The Russians allowed themselves to get bogged down in the investment of the Turkish fortresses that guarded the line of the Danube - most importantly Nicopolis, Giurgiu, Rustchuk, Silistria, Galatz, Braila and Izmail. Not until July was significant progress made with the capture of Braila, and by then the Serbs were in serious trouble, having been badly beaten at Niš. Over the course of the summer they suffered further losses, particularly at Deligrad, while matters were made still worse by the fact that the Russians could do little to help them. So incensed was Karadjordje, indeed, that he appealed to both Napoleon and Francis I for help. In the event the crisis passed: the Serbs checked the Ottoman offensive at the river Morava; the vigorous Prince Bagration broke out of the Russian bridgehead across the Danube at Braila and conquered the whole of the Dobrudja in a campaign that pulled many enemy troops away from Serbia; and the Serbs rejected an Austrian attempt at mediation that might not only have taken Serbia out of the war but ultimately led to her incorporation in the Habsburg Empire. Alexander, then, was spared serious embarrassment, but even so 1809 had not gone well. If the Russians had occupied the Dobrudja, the close of the year saw them forced to abandon an attempt to advance across the Danube on the central front. Nor was 1810 much better. There were now 100,000 Russian troops on the Danube, but hopes to bring the war to a close came to nothing. Aided by a small Russian expeditionary force, the Serbs were able to win back much of the ground they had lost the previous year, but it took the entire year just to capture the last Turkish fortress along the Danube. Not only were the Turks still in the fight, but along the way the Russians experienced a number of humiliating setbacks. A Russian column under Sabaniev lost half its strength at Razgrad, for example, while premature assaults on both Shumla and Rustchuk were beaten off with terrible losses. And to cap it all, with Karadjordje restive still more troops had to be committed to Serbia.
As yet, of course, much of this lay in the future, but the impact of the Balkan imbroglio can still be seen in the campaign of 1809. No troops were pulled back from the Danube, the Austrians were secretly informed that hostilities would be restricted to form alone, and it was not until 3 June that any troops entered Galicia. Nor did the Russians do very much even then, and the Poles got no help from the new arrivals who at first moved sluggishly and with great caution. At Sandomir, for example, on 15 June, two Russian divisions ignored all pleas for aid and stood idle a few miles from the city while the badly outnumbered Polish garrison fended off the assaults of 10,000 Austrians. In the end, what amounted to a non-aggression pact was negotiated with the Austrian forces in the region and Golitsyn agreed he would move no further forward than the line of the Vistula and its tributary, the Visloka. In the end this promise was broken, for, as we have seen, on 14 July a Russian force seized Cracow, but this was not the result of some sudden rush of blood to the head on the part of Golitsyn, but rather a defensive move designed to deal with the growing threat posed by Polish nationalism. In brief, no sooner had war begun than the Austrians had invaded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in the hope of neutralizing the Poles and increasing Vienna’s diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis the Prussians by seizing some of Potsdam’s old territories in Pomerania. At first all had gone well: the Austrians had defeated the Poles at Raszyn and taken Warsaw. However, reaching Thorn, the invaders were repulsed. Still more embarrassingly, rather than retreating after the loss of their capital, the Poles had gone on the offensive and invaded Galicia where they proceeded to whip up an insurrection against Austrian rule. In this their commander, General Poniatowski, had much success. ‘The zeal that animates the Galicians . . . has in no way diminished,’ wrote Poniatowski. ‘There are at this moment four infantry and four cavalry regiments forming, all uniformed and equipped at the expense of citizens who offered to form them . . . Several battalions are in a state to act in five days, and the total lack of weapons, which paralyses the efforts of the Galicians, is the only limit of the eagerness that they demonstrate for taking up the defence of the common cause.’2 With the major cities of Lemberg and Lublin soon in Polish hands, the only option seemed to be to establish a Russian presence much further forward than had been intended: hence the decision to seize Cracow, this being the only means the Russians could see of preventing things from getting completely out of hand. It was for this reason, too, that in those areas they occupied the authority of the Austrian administration was upheld and, where necessary, the representatives of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw chased out. Yet confrontation was no option either as it could only inflame Polish national sentiment, and it was therefore with great relief that the Russians greeted the armistice of Znaim, as this at least meant that Poniatowski would have no more opportunity to play the liberator.
Given what had occurred in the campaign of 1809, the territorial outcome is hardly surprising. Whereas the Russians had scarcely fired a shot, the Poles had established themselves as dependable allies of France. With the exception of its easternmost extremity - the district of Tarnopol - the Grand Duchy of Warsaw therefore obtained the prize of Western Galicia. But in so ruling Napoleon could not but offend Alexander. He had repeatedly told the tsar that he had no intention either of demanding any more land for the Poles in the future or of reviving the word ‘Poland’. And yet the territory of his Polish satellite had been raised from 35,000 square miles to around 50,000 and its population more than doubled: approximately 2 million strong in 1807, the number of inhabitants was now over 4.3 million. This was not yet the old Kingdom of Poland, but it was still very much a Polish state. The army flaunted the traditional Polish four-cornered cap and white-eagle badge, and on its banners proclaimed itself to be the ‘Wojsko Polskie’ (lit. ‘Polish army’); the Grand Duchy’s constitution made use of many terms drawn from Polish history and tradition; the administration conducted its business in Polish; and the capital was Warsaw. As for Poniatowski’s move to raise Galicia in revolt, it was quite clear that this had been sanctioned by Napoleon from the start. In the words of an order of the day issued by Poniatowski on 2 July 1809:
The commanding prince-in-chief has received orders provisionally to occupy Galicia in the name of His Majesty the Emperor and King, to replace the Austrian eagles with the French eagles, to give the order to all the tribunals to render justice in the name of the French emperor and to receive the oath of all authorities to this sovereign . . . In addition, he informs the army that His Majesty the Emperor has ordered that a Galician army should be organized on the same basis as the French troops.3
What had been objectionable enough in 1807 was now an intolerable sticking point. Seeing which way Napoleon’s decision in respect of Galicia was likely to go, Alexander had cleverly thrown all responsibility for the issue on him by opting out of the peace negotiations that followed the armistice of Znaim, and had thereby ensured that the French ruler was at least trapped into a move overtly hostile to Russia. However, that small success was little consolation, and so Alexander pressed the issue: France was to join with Austria, Prussia and Russia in guaranteeing the frontiers of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw by treaty (which would mean, of course, that there could be no further annexations), and further, agreeing that it should never be allowed to call itself a kingdom. Over the course of the winter such a convention was duly negotiated at St Petersburg by Caulaincourt, who was eager to keep the peace with Russia, but no sooner had it been referred to the French ruler than it was rejected out of hand. Some other state might one day restore a Kingdom of Poland, argued Napoleon, and in that case he might find himself committed to a war in which he had no part. This was true enough in itself, but the contingency that Napoleon envisaged was an unlikely one. The real reason was that the emperor objected to a potential option for further aggression in Eastern Europe being closed off to him (and that this was a real possibility was all too clear: in the course of 1810 the emperor commanded that large quantities of arms should be sent to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in case its already substantial army should suddenly need to be expanded).
Once again we return to the question of personal prestige: a Napoleon circumscribed was a Napoleon frustrated, indeed, a Napoleon diminished. What he was incapable of doing, however, was to appreciate that a Napoleon who knew no limits was a threat to the interests of every other state in Europe. In this respect the mere existence of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was a constant source of worry to Alexander. Just over the frontier were hundreds of thousands of Poles and Lithuanians. Many of them, of course, were ignorant peasants who lacked any concept of national feeling, but many of the gentry had been bitterly disappointed at Napoleon’s failure to liberate them in 1807 and were seething with discontent at the imposition of Russian rule. As a conversation that he had with the Polish nobleman Michal Oginski in June 1810 demonstrates, the whole subject was a matter of great sensitivity to Alexander:
As I was leaving the emperor’s office, he stopped me to show me a Paris newspaper which contained an article written by Prince Adam Czartoryski senior, about which he was very angry. In it he believed he had discovered Napoleon’s real intentions. Thus, by flattering the Poles with the hope of the re-establishment of their entire kingdom, he was seeking to deepen the divisions between them and Russia. Speaking with complete sincerity and much emotion, the emperor complained bitterly of the foolishness of his Polish subjects. They hated the Russians and were less than attached to him, but he had had no part in the partition of Poland, and in his heart he had always condemned it; as for the Russians of the current day, they were guiltless of the evils the Poles had experienced in those times. Taking advantage of his candour, I observed to him that he was forgetting that I was myself Polish [and] that I had fought for my fatherland in the insurrection of 1794. . . ‘I have not forgotten,’ he answered. ‘I know what you have done and I esteem you all the more for it . . . Napoleon needs to win over the Poles, and is therefore flattering them with bright hopes, whereas I, by contrast, have always respected your nation, and hope one day to prove it to you.’4
If Poland and the Balkans were Alexander’s immediate concerns, a number of other issues inclined to estrange him from Napoleon. One was the issue of the emperor’s second marriage. At Erfurt the idea had been very tentatively raised that he should marry Alexander’s second sister, the sixteen-year-old Grand Duchess Anna. The emperor had discovered that he had fathered a child by his Polish mistress, Maria Walewska (in other words, that his lack of an heir was the fault not of himself but of Josephine) and so on 22 November 1809 Caulaincourt was formally instructed to press the emperor’s suit at the Russian court. This, however, did not produce the desired result. Though Napoleon made a variety of gestures that were intended to smooth the way for his proposal - the most famous was a verbal promise to obliterate the very word ‘Poland’ from history - the response in St Petersburg was to prevaricate. Setting aside the tsar himself, who was not keen on the marriage, the dowager empress was clearly opposed to it, as were the many great magnates who felt that closer links with France had to be resisted at all costs. Faced with a demand for a definite answer in February , Alexander asked Napoleon to postpone the matter for two years on the grounds that Anna was still too young for marriage. This infuriated Napoleon: given the urgency of the case, Alexander’s action amounted to outright rejection.
But it was not long before Russia also had cause for anger. The Grand Duchess Anna was not the only eligible princess in Europe, and Austria possessed an alternative bride in the Archduchess Marie-Louise, who was eighteen and the eldest daughter of Francis I. Desperate to forge links with France, Metternich had suggested this possibility as early as August 1809 and the matter had been unofficially discussed with Vienna in the course of the winter. No sooner had Alexander’s definitive ‘no’ arrived in Paris, then, than Napoleon pounced. The very same post that carried the emperor’s letter to Alexander acknowledging the rejection of Anna therefore also carried another announcing his betrothal to Marie-Louise. For once there had been no duplicity on Napoleon’s part: to the very end it had been the Russian grand duchess who had been his favoured candidate. To save face, it was made out that the choice had been open and equal, and that ultimately it was Marie-Louise who suited France best. In St Petersburg, however, the betrothal was interpreted in a very different fashion. Napoleon, it was concluded, had been playing a double game designed to humiliate Russia. And even in Vienna, which had effectively been presented with a fait accompli, there was much dissatisfaction at the emperor’s failure to obey the rules of protocol, let alone display a modicum of courtesy. In his correspondence with Metternich, Francis was sullen and resentful:
My consent to the marriage would secure to the empire some years of political peace, which I can devote to the healing of its wounds. All my powers being devoted to the welfare of my people, I cannot, therefore, hesitate in my decision. Send a courier to Paris, and say that I accept the offer for the hand of my daughter, but with the express reservation that on neither side shall any condition be attached to it: there are sacrifices which must not be contaminated with anything approaching a bargain.5
There is little need to discuss the issue of the Austrian marriage any further. After hastily being married by proxy to Napoleon in Vienna on
11 March, Marie-Louise was brought to France amidst great splendour and celebration. Reaching the chateau specially prepared for her reception at Compiègne, she was welcomed quite literally with open arms by Napoleon, and formally married to him in Paris in a series of lavish ceremonies held on April. On a personal level, the marriage was a success: the couple quickly became completely infatuated with one another and it was not long before they had a healthy son who was christened Napoleon François Charles Joseph and immediately named King of Rome. Politically and diplomatically, however, the issue is of almost no significance. Inside France the decision to wed an Austrian archduchess is supposed to have damaged Napoleon’s prestige by breaking some of the last links that bound him to the Revolution. At the same time, Josephine, who was gifted with a public manner far more winning than that of her replacement, remained extremely popular in the army. There may, then, have been some grumbling - even real anger - but radicalism was scarcely a major force within the empire, and there is little reason to believe that the eventual downfall of the empire had much of an ideological explanation: what mattered far more was war-weariness and opposition to conscription, and in this context the marriage to Marie-Louise was of little account beside, say, the war in Spain.
Nor was the wedding of any real account on the international stage. Napoleon clearly hoped it would buy him acceptance amongst the monarchies of Europe, while the fact that many details of events in France mimicked the reception of Marie-Antoinette - Marie-Louise’s great-aunt - by Louis XVI in 1770 is yet one more example of Napoleon’s desire to assume the mantle of the Bourbons. And, needless to say, the marriage ceremony itself was one more opportunity to parade the power and grandeur of the Napoleonic empire: the new empress was accompanied to the altar by four queens, a vicereine and three grand duchesses, all of them drawn from the extended Bonaparte family. But whether any of this had the slightest impact in the courts and foreign ministries of Europe is doubtful. To take the more particular cases of Austria and Russia, meanwhile, all that the new marriage alliance did was to confirm existing trends: Russia’s relations with Napoleon were deteriorating well before February 1810, just as Austria had already embarked on the path of collaboration. Yet if Marie-Louise did not come as the harbinger of change, but rather, at best, its accelerant, it might be noted, though, that the precedents were not encouraging. Prior to the French Revolution, Austria had been France’s chief foreign partner, but she had given her little support and had ultimately proved a broken reed. Moreover, the power to which Napoleon had linked himself was not even the relatively proud Austria of 1789, but rather the defeated, bankrupt and much reduced Austria of . Compared to the partnership that might have been obtained from Russia, Vienna could offer little, even if it was true, as Talleyrand claimed, that the advent of Marie-Louise guaranteed that Vienna wished ‘to associate itself with the fortunes of the imperial dynasty that rules today in France, and that it has recognized the folly and iniquity of the contrary system which it has upheld for the last ten years, and that, having taken this resolution, Vienna would persist in it, leaving the Emperor Napoleon . . . to bequeath to his descendants all the advantages of the union that has today been agreed upon’.6
There were, however, a number of hidden problems here. Would the presence of Marie-Louise in France really be sufficient to deter Austria from going to war in all circumstances? Equally, what would occur should Napoleon not treat the Austrians with the courtesy and generosity with which Talleyrand, a long-term proponent of an alliance with Vienna, hoped he would respond? To these questions Talleyrand had no answers, but he did have an ingenious theory as to why Austria could be trusted more than Russia. In Vienna, foreign policy was the product of a system rather than an individual: when Francis died, his successors would in reality have little option but to carry on the affairs of the empire much as they had before. In St Petersburg, however, things were very different: ‘In Russia everything revolves around the will of one man: there is no policy but his own. In consequence, the length of a reign is the length of everything else: no sooner does a new ruler come to the throne, than everything takes on a new aspect. Let us suppose, then, that the Emperor Napoleon has married the Grand-Duchess [Anna], and that in a year’s time . . . the door should open and a courier be announced bearing the news that the Emperor Alexander has died. With his death, everything would be different: there would be no guarantee of an alliance with St Petersburg . . . and all the advantages of the marriage would disappear.’7 Yet there are many assumptions here too: in the end it could no more be assumed that Vienna was wedded to continuity than it could that St Petersburg was wedded to caprice. As yet nothing could be certain, but there was definite feeling that French policy had miscarried. As Marshal Murat stated:
A family alliance has never failed to have grievous consequences for France. She will be compelled to endure all the mistakes of that government, and to share its heaviest and most dangerous burdens. The position in which Austria finds herself can be the only reason for her decision to conclude an alliance which, with her proud outlook, she must secretly detest. Austria, more than any other nation, has made a political maxim of the idea that ‘sovereigns have no relatives’. France will be compelled at great cost to support her in her various policies, so often clumsy and treacherous, and in her campaigns, so poorly conducted, and when we need her as an ally we shall not find in her either energy or loyalty. An alliance with Russia is attended with none of these dangers.8
In short, Napoleon’s efforts to pretend he had been free to choose between Anna and Marie-Louise had in the end served only to spread doubt and dismay amongst his own followers. As the former Second Consul, Jean-Jacques de Cambacérès, remarked to Pasquier, ‘At heart, I am certain that within two years we will be at war with whichever of the two powers whose princess Napoleon does not wed. Well, a war with Austria does not cause me any worry, while I tremble at the idea of a war with Russia: the consequences are incalculable.’9
Before moving on to the many other issues that produced the war that Cambacérès so greatly feared, there are a few other matters that we ought to examine. We come here to the issue of Napoleon’s health and attitude to business. One problem that is frequently highlighted is the emperor’s failure to return to Spain in 1810, it being claimed that the arrival of Marie-Louise for a time drove all thoughts of campaigning from his head. However, this is a blind alley: there was no sense that Napoleon was needed in the Peninsula at this time, while the idea of a Napoleon living out a romantic idyll and neglecting all public business is wildly adrift. The French ruler remained firmly in touch with the march of affairs and, to prove the point, had hardly emerged from his wedding before he set off on a month-long tour of inspection of Belgium, Holland and northern France. This was scarcely a honeymoon - Marie-Louise, indeed, bitterly resented the experience - and something of the atmosphere that prevailed can be obtained from the memoirs of the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, who, as the wife of the Prefect of the Department of Dyle, entertained the royal couple when they arrived in Brussels. At dinner the Marquise was seated at the left of the emperor: ‘He talked to me all the time regarding the manufactures, the laces, the daily wages, the life of the lace-makers; then of the monuments, the antiquities, the establishments of charity, the manners of the people, the béguines. Fortunately, I was well posted regarding all these subjects. ’10 Nor was this so much idle table-talk. At the time, as we shall see, the empire was experiencing severe economic depression. With lace very much the staple of the local textile industry, Marie-Louise in consequence soon found herself ‘visiting manufacturing facilities . . . and purchasing a considerable amount of lace, which the emperor had suggested in order to bring new business to those factories that were encountering bad times’.11
That said, however, there does seem to have been a change in the emperor’s demeanour and habits of work. Hunts, balls, dinners, soirées and receptions began to take up much more time than before and on a number of occasions the emperor arrived late for meetings of the Councils of State. Once Marie-Louise’s child arrived on 20 March 1811, he also took time out to play the devoted family man. These developments should not be exaggerated - what one sees is a small degree of relaxation at a time when there was no great military crisis to engage the attentions of the emperor - but what of the vexed question of the emperor’s health? The Napoleon who greeted Marie-Louise in 1809 was, if not the slight young man who had conquered Italy, at worst a little plump, and on the whole perfectly healthy and notorious for the simplicity of his tastes. To quote his secretary, Baron Fain:
To describe Napoleon’s person, I go back to the period of his second marriage . . . His height was five feet two inches. He was small but well-made; however, his neck was a little short and he had perhaps already too much belly. His tissue was soft and the lymph thick . . . I never saw him take to his bed with illness . . . The only indisposition I knew him to have was a bladder problem that sometimes made him uncomfortable . . . He was temperate, he lived frugally and ate quickly . . . Moreover, nature had gifted him with an unusual benefit, that of not being able to overeat, even when he would have liked to. ‘If I go even slightly beyond my capacity,’ he would say, ‘my stomach renders up the excess.’12
This soon changed. A fleshy young woman who loved her food - some observers complained that she talked of little else - the new empress encouraged a similar liking in her husband. For the first time, Napoleon began to spend time at the table, to indulge in rich dishes of a sort that he had hitherto been inclined to shun, and, inevitably, to run to fat. The French writer Charles-Paul de Kock, who saw him in 1811, wrote, for example, that he appeared ‘yellow, obese [and] bloated, with his head too far down on his shoulders’.13By the time the French ruler went back to war in 1812 he was a changed man. ‘I follow the emperor when he goes out riding,’ wrote one of his aides. ‘We go the whole way at a walk. His Majesty rides much less quickly these days: he has put on a good deal of weight, and rides a horse with more difficulty than before. The Grand Equerry has to give him a hand in mounting. When the emperor travels, he does most of the journey by carriage.’14
And it was not just that Napoleon was fat. The day after Borodino, Philippe de Ségur had a disturbing conversation with Marshal Murat:
Murat . . . recalled having seen the emperor the day before . . . halt several times, dismount and, with his head resting upon a cannon, remain there some time in an attitude of suffering. He knew what a restless night he had passed and that a violent and incessant cough had shaken his weakened frame and at that current moment the action of his genius was in a sense chained down by his body, which had sunk under the triple load of fatigue, fever and a malady which, probably more than any other, drains the moral and physical strength of its victims.15
These words have a slightly sinister overtone, and it has certainly been suggested that the sudden onset of obesity was a symptom of a disorder known as Froehlich’s Syndrome, which is linked to problems with a particular gland in the brain. Some form of venereal disease, too, has been hinted at, and such ideas may explain certain oddities that began to be noted in the emperor’s behaviour, such as the apparent trance he slipped into during a court reception in 1811. Yet most Napoleonists appear to agree that, other than the bladder complaint mentioned by Fain (a problem known as dysuria, this was a type of cystitis) and a skin disorder that may have been psoriasis, the emperor as yet had no serious problems. What the period 1810-12 brought, then, was not so much a change in his medical condition, but rather a taste for soft living and the first advance of middle age. The punishing schedule of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns was now less easy to withstand, so that at key moments such as Borodino illness struck and left the one-time superman in the dire condition recorded by Ségur. And, in moments of candour, Napoleon himself noted the change:
Even as he was walking and talking, the emperor showed signs of fatigue: he stopped, and, leaning against the billiard table, pushed the balls about with his hand, and seemed to drop off to sleep. He saw that I noticed. ‘It’s curious’, he said, ‘how one’s constitution changes as one gets older without any decline in strength or deterioration of health. Our capacities change and our plans are bound to feel the effect. In other days I used to say to Montesquieu several times a day, “ ‘Montesquieu, bring me a glass of lemonade.” Now it’s a cup of coffee or a glass of Madeira I need and ask for. Believe me, M. Molé, after thirty one begins to be less fitted for campaigning. Alexander died before noticing any decline.’16
But if the first intimations of mortality were showing themselves, there is no evidence that they had any impact on Napoleon’s statecraft or diplomacy at this stage. If folie there was aplenty, it was simply folie de grandeur rather than a symptom of some medical condition. In the period 1809-11, Napoleon engaged in a series of actions within the boundaries of his imperium that could only suggest an aspiration to universal monarchy. Before looking at this, however, we must first examine the strange affair of Marshal Bernadotte. A sergeant-major in the Bourbon army who had distinguished himself in the Revolutionary wars and risen to the rank of general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was also the brother-in-law of Joseph Bonaparte. This family connection, however, did not prevent him from hating Napoleon, of whose fame and elevation to the Consulate he had been bitterly jealous. The Jacobinism that Bernadotte affected may be discounted here, all the evidence suggesting that it was never more than a convenient posture that suited his interest in the France of 1798-9 . Appointed to the marshalate when it was created 1804 in out of a mixture of family loyalty and realpolitik, Bernadotte had fought in the campaigns of Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau and Wagram, but had not performed well. It is possible, indeed, that he had set out to engineer the humiliation of various rivals and even to secure the downfall of Napoleon in the hope that he could then seize the throne himself. At all events, by the winter of 1809 he was completely out of favour with Napoleon and associating with some of the empire’s harshest critics. It is, then, ironic that circumstances turned him into what Alexander I perceived as a chosen agent of the emperor. In brief, the overthrow of Gustav IV had led to great confusion in Sweden. As a temporary measure the throne had been given to an aged uncle of the deposed monarch, but the new ruler - Charles XIII - was childless, and a search therefore began for a crown prince. Initially, the choice fell on Christian August of Augustenburg, who was connected to the Danish royal family. Within months, however, the new crown prince was dead of a heart attack and the search was on once again. Within the regime there had always been substantial elements who favoured a resumption of Sweden’s traditional diplomatic ties with France, and a variety of factors ensured that this time the French party triumphed. Napoleon’s growing differences with Russia prompted the hope that these might be exploited to regain Finland, which, along with the Åland Islands and a strip of territory in the far north, had been ceded to Russia in the treaty signed at Frederikshamn on 17 September 1809. Progressives hoped that a French ruler would favour the amendment of the highly aristocratic constitution that Sweden had acquired following the overthrow of Gustav IV. And, finally, many army officers were simply infatuated with the glories of French arms. First choice for the position was Eugène de Beauharnais, but he proved uninterested, whereupon attention switched to the highly improbable Bernadotte for no better reason than the decent treatment he had accorded some Swedish prisoners he had taken in the course of the campaign of 1806-7. With a delighted Bernadotte only too happy to accept the invitation, all was soon resolved, and in October 1810 he duly arrived in Stockholm as the future King Charles John.
It is not clear whether Napoleon acted for strategic reasons in sanctioning the departure of Bernadotte for Sweden. He knew well enough that the marshal was not to be trusted and, as we shall see, was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the notion of satellite monarchy. But as far as Alexander was concerned, Bernadotte had been sent to the Baltic as a powerful agent of France. Certainly there was plenty of evidence that Sweden was preparing for war and sliding ever deeper into the French orbit. Immediate steps were taken to reform the Swedish army and introduce the French system of conscription, and Sweden also finally acceded to the Continental Blockade and in November 1810 formally declared war on Britain. To Napoleon, however, Russia’s concerns were of no account. From Erfurt onwards in fact, there was hardly an action that the emperor took that did not in some way or other offend St Petersburg. At the heart of the matter, as usual, was Napoleon’s belief that he should be allowed to do whatever he liked without regard to the feelings, interest or self-esteem of other rulers. To take matters in chronological order, the tsar had always fancied himself as the protector of the smaller states of Europe and had established a particularly warm relationship with Frederick William III of Prussia. At Erfurt, indeed, Alexander had spoken up for Prussia and obtained a verbal promise that most of France’s troops would be withdrawn from her territory. Hardly had he returned home, however, than these misty notions of paternalism were challenged head-on by the overthrow of the Prussian chief minister, Stein. That the emperor should have desired to get rid of Stein is wholly understandable - he was, after all, an inveterate opponent of French domination - but even so the message was quite clear: Russian patronage notwithstanding, Frederick William III was not to be master even in what little was left of his own house. Angry and frustrated, all that Alexander could do was to make a very public statement of his disapproval by receiving Frederick William and Louise in great splendour at St Petersburg when they visited the city in January 1809. ‘On this occasion,’ wrote Sophie Tisenhaus, ‘he displayed a grandeur, magnificence and generous hospitality like that shown by Louis XIV in receiving the unfortunate James II and his family when banished from England. Sumptuous equipages and furs of great price were prepared for their Majesties . . . and awaited them on the frontier of the country. The king and queen made their entry into St Petersburg in a state carriage. Notwithstanding the intense cold the troops were under arms before five o’clock in the morning. All the most illustrious and distinguished personages of St Petersburg awaited the royal travellers at court.’17
If Alexander was affronted by Napoleon’s treatment of Prussia, he was also worried about Italy. At Tilsit Alexander believed that, in exchange for recognizing Joseph Bonaparte as King of Naples and quietly jettisoning his earlier demands for compensation for the King of Piedmont, he had secured an end to French expansion and, by extension, an unstated promise that the Pope was to be left unmolested as ruler of the Papal States. In 1808 Napoleon had put some strain on this by occupying Rome, but Pius VII remained on the throne of St Peter and as such a figment of propriety was maintained. However, the reality was that the papal administration had been left with little power: many leading officials were arrested or driven from their positions; the military was disarmed; the government press taken over; the curia purged of most of its members; and Consalvi’s successors as Secretary of State repeatedly dismissed. Ensconced in the Quirinal palace, however, the Pope remained defiant. Every demand that he should accede to the Continental Blockade and in effect become an ally of France was rejected, while the French governor, General Miollis, found himself harassed at every turn by a variety of more or less subtle acts of passive resistance. With tension increasing by the day, a crisis could not long be avoided and on 6 September 1808 it finally came: when officers were sent to arrest the current Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacca, Pius ordered Miollis’s emissaries to depart and in effect dared the governor to take him as well. The response was brutal: May 1808 had already seen the Papal States’ Adriatic provinces go the way of the so-called ‘legations’ - Bologna and Ferrara - by being annexed to the Kingdom of Italy, and on 17 May 1809 Napoleon announced the annexation of the last surviving fragment of papal territory - including the city of Rome itself - to France. Faced by the complete loss of his territorial power, Pius responded by immediately excommunicating Napoleon, and at the same time ordering people and clergy alike to refuse to obey the orders of the new administration. The result was the final indignity: on the night of 5/6 July, a party of troops broke into the Quirinal palace and arrested both Pius and Pacca. Whether Napoleon meant this to happen is not quite clear (the commander of the raid had orders to take only Pacca) but, whatever the truth, the emperor did not back down. After a considerable odyssey, Pius was imprisoned in the episcopal palace at Savona. In this exile he was treated with respect and courtesy, but nothing could change the facts of the situation, especially as Pius made it doubly obvious by refusing to cooperate with his jailers’ attempts to press upon him the trappings of a court.
There is no need to chart the long struggle between pope and emperor that followed (in brief, Pius was eventually stripped of his powers and transported to Fontainebleau where he remained a prisoner until January 1814 ). Romantic and sentimental as he was, Alexander was in all probability moved by the steadfast dignity and courage exhibited by Pius VII, but this was not the first time that popes had been ill-used by temporal rulers. More to the point was the violence to international agreements to which the tsar had been a party. Indeed, between 1808 and 1810 much of the territorial and political structure to which Alexander had agreed at Tilsit was in one way or another cast aside. First was the influence of the Continental Blockade. Despite the emergence in a few areas of new centres of industry, in most of Europe the effect of the Blockade was disastrous. Whereas wholesale smuggling and the alliance with Spain and Portugal had allowed the British to escape its worst consequences, for everyone else there was no escape. As state after state was forced to join the Blockade, so the depression that had characterized the coasts of France ever since the outbreak of war with Britain in 1793 gradually spread along the shores of the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Not surprisingly, one state hit particularly badly was maritime-leaning Holland, but economic decline was not the only result of incorporation in the French imperium. As was the case with all his satellites, Napoleon expected Holland to provide him with substantial armed forces. In one letter, he spoke of 50,000 men and twenty ships-of-the-line. The men concerned were not, as we shall see, raised by conscription, but their recruitment and equipment cost vast sums of money -5 million florins in the second half of 1806 alone out of a national budget for the same period of only 14 million. Appearances being almost as important as armed strength, Louis Bonaparte’s court was another burden: in 1806 its costs were estimated at 1.5 million florins. Further money was drained away by the relief of poverty, by the constant battle to keep Holland’s dykes proof against the sea, the need to service Holland’s spiralling national debt, the very real interest of Louis Bonaparte and his chief advisers in social reform, and, finally, accidents and natural disasters: on 12 January 1807 a powder barge caught fire in the centre of Leiden and blew up with the loss of at least 500 houses, and in January 1808 and then again in January 1809 there were serious floods on the coast and along the river Rhine. Under Louis Bonaparte, then, although a series of reforms ensured that the burden was spread far more fairly than before, the Dutch experience was one of steadily rising taxation. Small wonder that, with the economy in tatters, the Dutch responded in the only way they could: aided by Holland’s proximity to England and numerous estuaries, rivers and other waterways, smuggling became widespread.
As king of Holland Louis Bonaparte was being expected to produce concrete results in an extremely unfavourable situation. But produce results he had to, come what may. Further, Louis was also expected to remould Holland in the approved Napoleonic fashion and introduce French systems of law and administration. As Napoleon wrote, ‘The Romans gave their laws to their allies: why cannot France have hers adopted in Holland? It is also necessary that you adopt the French monetary system . . . Having the same civil laws and coinage tightens the bonds of nations.’18 At this point, however, we come to a serious flaw in Napoleon’s calculations. The French ruler had installed his brothers and sisters on their thrones primarily as agents of imperial policy and control. As he had told Louis to his face, ‘Don’t forget that you are first and foremost a French prince. I put you on the throne of Holland solely to serve the interests of France and help me in all I am doing for her.’19 But from the very moment Louis and the rest entered their new palaces, they acquired an interest that was in many instances distinct from that of their master. The Bonapartes’ fondness for wealth and power being quite insatiable, beyond all else they wanted to survive, and this meant that the need to obey Napoleon became balanced by an equally strong need to come to some form of modus vivendi with their new subjects. Add to this the fact that many of them were bitterly jealous of the emperor, and it becomes apparent that their relationship with Paris was never likely to be a happy one.
So much for the general picture, but in Louis’s case it was augmented by other issues. Never the most cheerful or outgoing member of the Bonaparte clan, in 1802 he had been married against his will to Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais. It was a disastrous match, and Louis therefore went to Holland with a considerable animus against Napoleon. According to his unhappy queen, the only reason he accepted the post was that he could thereby bully her more freely and put an end to the tyranny of living under the emperor’s thumb: ‘He was clearly revelling in the pleasure of becoming his own master . . . No longer would a concern for appearances stand in the way of the enforcement of his rights in my respect. Once independent of his brother, meanwhile, he need no longer have any fear for his own position.’20 Desperate to gain acceptance by his new subjects and weighed down by personal misfortune - in addition to his unhappy marriage, he also suffered from syphilis and acute rheumatoid arthritis - he also had more of a conscience than most of the Bonaparte clan. And finally, had not the Batavian Republic’s representatives in Paris begged for him to be made king? As far as he was concerned, then, he was a Dutch ruler who should genuinely try to do the best for his people. Quick to learn Dutch, he filled his court with prominent local notables, created two new orders of nobility and took the constitution seriously. The Dutch national assembly met regularly and was allowed a considerable degree of independence, and Louis showed great zeal in informing himself of the state of the kingdom. Not surprisingly, he was soon attempting to shield Holland from Napoleon’s insatiable demands for men, money and the imposition of the Civil Code. If Holland was to be kept in line, he reasoned, a real effort must be made to respect its traditions and sense of identity.
If anything gives the lie to the image of a Napoleon concerned for the welfare of the peoples of Europe, it is his response to Louis Bonaparte. If Louis needed money, for example, it was Holland that should provide it, though Napoleon’s only positive suggestion here - other than to increase taxation - was that Louis take the politically impossible step of repudiating the ever-rising national debt. As for the Dutch, they should be treated with exactly the same iron fist as everyone else. By 1807 Napoleon was demanding the imposition of conscription even though Holland was guaranteed exemption from this burden by the treaty that had brought Louis to power. As the emperor told Louis, ‘You attach too high a price to popularity in Holland. Before being kind you must be master.’21Similar thinking applied to the Civil Code. What mattered here was absolute uniformity: ‘If you amend the Code Napoléon, it will no longer be the Code Napoléon.’22 The harder Napoleon pressed on these issues, the more Louis dragged his feet. Conscription was never imposed and the national debt left unrepudiated, while it was not until the spring of 1809 that the Civil Code was introduced, and even then it appeared in a form that was much amended. Had trouble been restricted to matters of this sort, Louis would probably have survived on the throne: Napoleon still had sufficient trust in him to make him his first choice as king of Spain. But Holland was not performing efficiently as an ally: the navy remained moribund; the army distinguished itself neither in 1806 nor 1809; and finally, Holland was one of the weakest links in the Continental Blockade. As Napoleon made very clear, this was completely unacceptable to him:
All my hopes have been deceived. The moment Your Majesty ascended the throne of Holland, you forgot that you were a Frenchman; ever since, you have . . . stretched your reason to breaking point in the endeavour to persuade yourself that you are a Dutchman . . . You have broken all the treaties you made with me. You have disarmed your fleets, dismissed your sailors, and disorganized your armies, so that Holland finds herself without armed forces on land or sea . . . Your Majesty will find in me a brother, if I find in you a Frenchman. But, if you forget the feelings that attach us both to our fatherland, you must not take it ill of me if I also forget those by which nature has attached us to one another.23
Confronted with Napoleon’s anger, Louis had no alternative but to take action, but there were limits to what he could do, and by the end of the 1809 emperor was determined to take matters into his own hands. Thus, Walcheren and a number of neighbouring islands were annexed to France, and the French troops sent to Holland to help repel the British were reinforced and ordered to occupy a number of towns in the south of the country. As for Louis, he was told the complete annexation of Holland would follow unless he agreed to obey Paris’s orders to the letter, and in general treated in a fashion that was as intimidating as it was humiliating. Realizing the only way out was to offer massive concessions, the king sought frantically to save at least something from the wreck, and on 16 March 1810 signed a convention that handed all of the country south of the river Waal to France and agreed that French troops should now be responsible for policing the Blockade. Yet even this was not enough, for by now Napoleon had almost certainly determined on the overthrow of his brother. A little time was bought by Louis offering to broker a peace with Britain: in brief, a Dutch banker with family connections in London was sent to warn the Perceval administration that Holland was on the brink of annexation in the hope that this would elicit an offer of negotiations. Yet Dutch independence was now such a meaningless concept that Perceval and his colleagues remained unmoved and, with their rejection of the Dutch mission, Napoleon finally fell on Louis with a vengeance. Hitherto Amsterdam had remained unoccupied, but after a minor affray in which the coachman of the French ambassador was set upon in the street, on 29 June French troops appeared outside the city demanding entry. Pushed to the limit, Louis wanted to fight, but his generals and ministers were more realistic: the capital, they argued, could not be defended even if the Dutch army had been in a better condition than was actually the case. There being only one other way out, on 2 July Louis abdicated and fled into exile in Bohemia, leaving his adoptive country to be annexed in its entirety.
The story of ‘Lodewijk the Good’, as he became known, reveals the futility of hoping that Napoleon would ever be anything other than a warlord or conqueror. Louis had made genuine efforts to get Holland to accept her place in the French imperium by persuading her that she had a place in the French imperium - that French control did not mean the complete loss of her independence or the complete neglect of her interests. The emperor, however, responded with a mixture of incomprehension and hostility, and, by the end, was openly accusing Louis of treason: according to Napoleon, Holland had become nothing more than an English colony. The fact was that Louis had been naïve and foolish in proceeding as he did. Nobody was more aware of this than his unfortunate queen, Hortense:
I could never understand . . . how the king could figure that he could rule as an independent sovereign and act in accordance with what he understood to be the good of the people he had been called to govern . . . It was assuredly a noble sentiment . . . but how could he set himself apart when all the sovereigns of Europe . . . had been forced to adopt the system of the conqueror? I said one day to one of his ministers who had come to me to complain of the severity of the emperor that . . . I was persuaded that my husband was ill-advised. Had he possessed a force that was capable of resisting the emperor, he could perhaps have separated the interests of Holland from those of France if he thought that was the right thing to do, but otherwise there was no option but to march shoulder to shoulder with her. In this fashion Holland, albeit at the price of a few more sacrifices, would one day find herself enjoying the benefits brought by territorial aggrandizement and the constant support of a powerful ally, whereas the contrary policy would simply irritate the emperor and lead him to annex a country that had not been following his orders.24
This sums up the dilemma of Napoleon’s siblings and the other satellite rulers to perfection. They could either choose the path of resistance or acquiesce in the emperor’s authority and surrender all pretence of representing the interests of their subjects. To put it another way, the emperor’s power recognized no limits.
That this was the case continued to be demonstrated as 1810 wore on. In part, this was the result of a growing crisis in not just the Continental Blockade, but the entire European economy. Prior to the imposition of the Blockade, large areas of central and Eastern Europe had been heavily dependent on the export of raw materials and agricultural products to Britain. This trade, however, was now cut off. Meanwhile France was at the same time unable to import bulk goods easily and self-sufficient in many of the products involved, so that agricultural prices, and with them purchasing power, began to fall, the latter also having been hit very hard by soaring taxation (in France alone indirect taxation rose fourfold between 1806 and 1812). However, thanks to the technical deficiencies of French industry and France’s enforced reliance on land transport, French imports were disproportionately expensive. As French production rose (as it naturally did), so a crisis of over-production came ever closer. This was finally sparked off by new developments in the imposition of the Blockade. By 1810 it was clear to Napoleon that he could not close the coasts to British goods, and further, that the expansion of French industry was constantly dogged by the high price of colonial raw materials. Just as clearly the commerce raiding by which the French had since 1803 been attempting to cut Britain’s trade routes was increasingly ineffective as the British had by now captured most of France’s foreign bases. In response, the emperor decided the only solution was to open up direct links with Britain, issuing a series of decrees - those of the Trianon and Fontainebleau - that on the one hand authorized the import of colonial goods and on the other restricted this trade to France alone. This was coupled with a severe clamp-down on the huge stocks of contraband that existed in many German, Dutch and Italian cities.
In promulgating the decrees of 1810, Napoleon had, of course, disregarded the interests of Europe as a whole, but even in France his actions had a negative effect. Speculation in colonial imports having become rife, the result was general ruin, with French merchants undercut by the new imports, and foreign ones stripped of their stocks. Inside and outside France there was a wave of bankruptcies and a squeeze on credit, the latter spreading the crisis to industry and inducing a severe economic depression. As if all this was not enough, the period 1809-11 was marked by abnormally severe weather and as a result the price of food and industrial crops soared by as much as 100 per cent. In terms of international relations the results were most severe. Even before the decrees of Fontainebleau, the Continental Blockade had been hard enough to enforce beyond the borders of France. As we have just seen, this factor played a major role in the demise of Louis Bonaparte, but it had also been visible in the destruction of the Kingdom of Etruria and the Papal States. With the new terms of the Blockade, the pressure for fresh advances was redoubled. Prior to October 1810 the situation had been bad enough, but at least the money made from getting around the Blockade had gone into the pockets of enterprising local merchants and entrepreneurs. Now, however, those profits were to be siphoned off to France and, still worse, to a France protected by extortionate tariff barriers that seemed designed to de-industrialize the whole of the rest of Europe. In these circumstances the Blockade was likely to become even more porous than before, and thus it was that very shortly afterwards there was yet another extension in the frontiers of la grande nation. On 10 December 1810 the annexation was declared of the free cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck - all of them important ports or centres of trade - and the independent Duchy of Oldenburg, giving France control of the whole coast of the North Sea from Holland to Denmark (indeed, with Lübeck in French hands, Napoleon’s frontiers reached almost to the shores of the Baltic).
As gaps still remained in the Blockade, the emperor at various times threatened to go even further, with both Swedish Pomerania and Naples being at one time or another mentioned as possibilities for annexation. But it was not just the Continental Blockade that was fuelling French expansionism. Also on view was a growing sense on the part of Napoleon that, even where they did not absolutely turn renegade, the Bonapartes were at best poor agents of the Napoleonic empire. Nowhere was this more true than in Spain and Westphalia, both of which witnessed major territorial changes at this time. To begin with Spain, since 1808 Joseph Bonaparte had, of course, been waging a long war to impose his authority and defeat the forces of resistance. In this he had made some progress, but victory was still far away and by 1810 Napoleon was increasingly sceptical about his competence. The problem was not so much Joseph’s military abilities, limited though these were. The conduct of the war itself hardly involved Joseph and was entirely in the hands of the various army commanders. Rather at issue was Joseph’s perceived weakness. Like Louis in Holland, el rey intruso was filled with vague notions of doing good, while he also believed his best hope of winning the war was to convince the Spanish people of the benevolent character of his rule and that a similar policy had worked when he was king of Naples. Great energy, then, was invested in a policy of conciliation and clemency. The court and administration were filled with grandees who had previously served the Bourbon regime, and Spanish prisoners were recruited en masse into Joseph’s own armed forces. All too clearly this policy failed to deliver. On the contrary, resistance continued. In Joseph’s eyes this was the fault of the immense brutality and heavy requisitioning that characterized the French occupation. According to the emperor, however, the fault was Joseph’s. Already distrustful of his older brother - he had, in fact, been bitterly critical of his handling of affairs in Naples - the French ruler was encouraged in his dissatisfaction by the complaints that were reaching him from Spain. Typical were the views of Pierre de Lagarde, a senior official in the General Ministry of Police who was sent to Spain in 1809: ‘Almost everything is hidden from the king . . . The most unbridled licence is never punished. To every rigorous measure, there is opposed the constitution, as if we were living in a time of profound peace. Your Majesty will perceive from the official gazette . . . this system of base conciliation, of impolitic concessions made to men who only become more insolent.’25 Nor was Lagarde reassured when Joseph invaded Andalucía in January :1810
The spirit of the expedition, it appears, is less military than conciliatory. Despite all the errors that have been made in this respect . . . the king’s entourage has persuaded him that he has only to show himself for everyone to fall at his feet, and that the people, in spite of the fury of their leaders, are ready to repent . . . Yet it is this very mania . . . that has ever since your departure . . . led to every efficacious measure being discarded, and made it so hard to suppress the ferocious habits of disobedience, brigandage and murder favoured by . . . [Spain’s] mountains and poor communications . . . It seems to me that, instead of continuing with concessions and sweet words that only serve to embolden the rebels, it would be better to accompany our resumption of offensive operations with the sort of code of conquest that would show every town and village what they had to expect . . . I dare to affirm, even . . . that any other system than that of military government and just severity will perpetuate Spain’s troubles instead of curing them. In so far as this is concerned, there is no way forward other than Your Majesty . . . proclaiming it yourself: around the king there is no one, Frenchman or Spaniard, who will give him energetic counsel.26
Napoleon, of course, did not need informers to poison him against his brother. From the very beginning he had insisted Joseph should take a harsh line: ‘It is necessary to be severe with the Spaniards. I arrested fifteen of the most turbulent here [i.e. Valladolid] and had them shot. Have thirty or so arrested in Madrid . . . When one treats rabble of this sort with kindness, they think they are invulnerable, but when some of them are hanged, they tire of the game and become properly submissive and humble.’27 Equally: ‘Above all, do not let yourself go short of money. If necessary demand some loans from the towns, corporations and provinces. There is plenty of money in Spain: it was found soon enough when she wanted to revolt!’28 In December 1808, indeed, having reconquered Madrid on behalf of his brother, Napoleon had literally taken the law into his own hands and, without even informing Joseph, issued a series of decrees that abolished feudalism, dissolved the Inquisition and made way for the dissolution of many religious orders. Now he went even further. On 8 February 1810, Catalonia, Aragón, the Basque provinces and Navarre were taken out of Joseph’s hands and placed under the authority of military governors answerable only to Paris. Two months later two more such units were created out of Burgos and Valladolid. And then on 14 July Napoleon gave the whole of Andalucía to Marshal Soult as a viceroyalty; ‘King Nicholas’, as he was known, was also handed the command of almost all the troops that had taken part in its conquest. In effect Spain had been dismembered. Joseph, of course, was horrified. Even before news of the decree arrived he had been protesting that the emperor could not genuinely wish to see him ‘humiliated every instant by the orders that come to him from generals who impose contributions, issue proclamations, promulgate laws and make me ridiculous in the eyes of my new subjects’.29 As he clearly saw, however, the creation of the military governments made his position impossible. To quote a letter he wrote to his wife, who had remained in Paris:
It matters a great deal to me that I know what the true intentions of the emperor are towards me . . . What does he want of me and of Spain? If only he would announce his will: then I would not be caught between what I have the appearance of being and what I really am: king of a country where conquered provinces are given over to the discretion of generals who impose whatever taxes they feel like and have orders not to pay any attention to me.30
Trapped in an impossible situation, Joseph considered abdicating, but, avaricious and easy-going, el rey intruso was no Louis. Instead of making good his repeated threats, he sought rather to negotiate with Napoleon, sending special emissaries to Paris and eventually travelling to the capital himself. Thinking that he had secured a few concessions, he stayed on the throne, only to be humiliated yet again when Napoleon announced that Catalonia would be added to France at the end of the war. But for all that, Joseph would not go and so he was still on the throne when Wellington finally caught the French at Vitoria in June 1813, his last service to his brother as king of Spain therefore being to provide him with a convenient scapegoat for defeat.
In Spain the problem was one of political, military and financial failure. This was also the case with Westphalia, but at least Joseph Bonaparte was conscientious and devoid of neither talent nor good intentions. In Jerome Bonaparte, by contrast, Westphalia had a king who lacked even these qualifications. Jerome was a singularly feckless figure; the youngest of the Bonaparte brothers - when he became king of Westphalia in he 1807 was only twenty-three - he had consistently been shown much kindness by Napoleon who had indulged his every whim. Extravagant, spendthrift and showy, he did not cut an impressive figure. ‘Monsieur Coussens . . . dined with us,’ wrote Lady Holland, for example. ‘He is lately arrived from Philadelphia . . . At Philadelphia he saw Jerome Bonaparte, who was amusing himself with the luxury, state and profusion of a young prince; he describes him as rather clever with a decided dislike to the profession his brother has chosen for him, and only fond of horses, equipages, etc.’31 Another observer was the German officer, Ferdinand von Funck:
As Napoleon’s youngest brother he had had no share in his early fortunes beyond his sudden promotion from the status of a private individual to the rank of an imperial prince. He was good-natured, but frivolous and irresponsible . . . [and] had neither the firm fair-dealing of his brother Louis nor Joseph’s scholarship, least of all the gifts of Lucien and Napoleon. His rapid rise in rank had fostered all the self-confidence of one born in the purple with the hotheadedness of an undisciplined, wealthy youngster. Because he had grown up to be the brother of the most powerful monarch in the world, he regarded nothing as impossible: everything had, in his opinion, to give way to his mere wishes . . . and even every naughtiness whereby he meant no harm had to be permitted him. He was therefore capable of committing acts of great harshness and injustice, not of any evil intent, but from sheer irresponsibility. Human beings did not count at all in his eyes. They were only there to submit to every whim of the Bonaparte family, called by destiny to rule over them.32
This, then, was the ruler that Napoleon placed in charge of the populous, strategically important and potentially quite wealthy state of Westphalia, a state, moreover, the emperor intended as a showcase for the benefits of incorporation within the French imperium. As he wrote to Jerome: ‘It is necessary that your people should enjoy a liberty . . . unheard of amongst the inhabitants of Germany . . . Such a style of government will be a stronger barrier against Prussia than . . . even the protection of France. What people would wish to return to the arbitrary administration of Prussia when it could enjoy the benefits of a wise and liberal government?’33 As might have been expected, it did not turn out to be a happy arrangement. From the beginning the Westphalian court was vulgar even by the standards of the Bonapartes. Setting aside the immense sums of money lavished on the royal residences of Napoleonshöhe and Catharinenthal and the extravagantly uniformed royal guard, typical enough was the opening of the Westphalian legislature on 2 July 1808, Jerome appearing at this event in a suit of white silk, a purple cloak and a plumed turban decorated with diamonds. Meanwhile, the life of the court was a constant round of entertainment on the grandest of scales in which Jerome took a vigorous part while at the same indulging his considerable libido with a parade of mistresses. This, of course, was not an atmosphere likely to attract men of the highest calibre, and while Jerome did obtain a number of loyal and effective servants, several of the leading figures in the court were disreputable adventurers. To quote the Dutch ambassador:
The Countess of Truchsee, who was born a princess of Hohenzollern, became the pre-eminent figure in the court, and acquired a considerable ascendancy over [Jerome] . . . Factious, self-centred and full of ambitions, she managed to captivate the young monarch and pass herself off in his eyes as a person of honesty and good will . . . General Morio, the first Minister of War, was a man of few talents who understood neither administration nor organization . . . A dispute between the young Count of Westphalia and equerry of the king . . . deprived the kingdom of the services of one of the most well-born and richest of its inhabitants, but the fact that he had once been Prussia’s Secretary of State did not stop Count Schulenburg from . . . dishonouring himself by coming to pay homage to Jerome and intrigue his way into employment.34
Perhaps this is to go too far. Strenuous efforts have been made to defend Jerome, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that his administration struggled hard to meet the demands that Napoleon made of it. Nor was Jerome himself entirely without merit: though never much of a general, he did at least show courage and energy when faced by internal revolt in 1809. Unlike Louis, he also made strenuous attempts to enforce the Blockade in his dominions, which, landlocked though they were, controlled several of the main routes through which British goods were smuggled into the interior of the Continent. And even if Jerome did create a distinctly overblown royal guard, the Westphalian army was by no means a disaster. Conscription was enforced without too much difficulty, and by 1812 it had evolved as a reasonably effective fighting force. However, there is no doubt that the excesses of the court greatly increased the financial burden faced by Westphalia, which was required by treaty to maintain an army of 12,500 men, pay for the upkeep of 12,500 French troops, assume responsibility for both the debts of the old rulers of the region and the costs of French occupation in 1806-7 , pay over a ‘war contribution’ of 26 million francs, and surrender half the estates of the Elector of Hesse and his fellows to Napoleon as donations. Despite considerable increases in taxation, by the end of 1809 the state was therefore all but bankrupt - the 47-million-franc national debt of 1808 had risen in a single year to 93 million francs - and it was with considerable relief that Jerome learned that Napoleon had decided to incorporate Hanover, which since 1807 had been under French occupation, into Westphalia. As a further boon, the emperor also slashed the 26 million francs owed by Westphalia to a mere 16 million. Nevertheless the outlook for Jerome was bleak. Over the past two years, Napoleon had become increasingly irritated with the reports he was receiving from Kassel, and by the summer of 1808 his tone was distinctly frosty.
You owe the sinking fund 2 million, and have let your various notes go unpaid: this is not the action of a man of honour. I will not suffer anyone to let me down in any respect. Sell your diamonds . . . and give up the foolish waste that is making you the laughing stock of Europe and will end up by exciting the indignation of your people. Sell your furniture, your horses, and your jewels, and pay your debts: honour comes before all. Not to do so demonstrates the worst possible grace when it is contrasted with the presents that you give out and the unheard of luxury that characterizes your court . . . I recommend three things to you: respect for, recognition of and attachment to both myself and the French people, to whom you owe everything; the most severe economy . . . and finally the employment of your time in learning the things that you do not understand.35
Even more striking is the furious letter written to Jerome in the wake of the battle of Wagram, after Napoleon learned that his brother had bungled the task of expelling the minor Austrian force that had invaded Saxony at the start of the campaign of 1809:
I have seen an order of the day of yours that will make you the laughing stock of Germany, Austria and France alike. Have you not got some friend in your entourage who is capable of telling you a few home truths? You are a king and a brother of the emperor, but these facts count for nothing in war. One must be a soldier, a soldier and nothing but a soldier; do without cabinet ministers, diplomatic corps and court; bivouac with the advanced guard every night; be on horseback day and night . . . You make war like a satrap . . . You have a lot of ambition, but such spirit and good qualities as you have are undermined by your fatuous behaviour and extreme presumption, not to mention the fact that you have no knowledge of affairs.36
In view of these comments, it is hard to see why Napoleon should have decided to hand over Hanover to Westphalia in 1809. Setting aside Jerome’s own misdeeds, the Westphalian army had not distinguished itself in any way on its first real outing in the field: many of the soldiers had deserted or given themselves over to plundering the countryside, while the court favourites who had been given command had proved to have little talent. At all events attempts were almost immediately being made to claw back the gift. Hidden in the terms of the preliminary agreement signed on 14 January 1810 were a series of clauses that served substantially to reduce the financial value of the new territory, while it was a further three months before the final terms of the transfer of power were negotiated, and even then Napoleon refused to ratify the so-called ‘Act of Cession’ that resulted. Sent into Hanover anyway, Jerome’s officials found their every action undermined by the French civil and military authorities and the electorate’s revenues seized from under their noses. Before the end of the year the situation had grown still worse. Oldenburg and the Hanseatic states did not in themselves constitute a contiguous block of territory, so when Napoleon seized them in December 1810 he rounded them out by taking the northern half of Hanover too. For Jerome it was a catastrophic blow - the territory involved included some of the richest in the entire kingdom - and one that could not but suggest that the whole of Westphalia might go the way of Holland. Nor was this the end of it: irritated by Bavaria’s inability to suppress the Tyrolean, revolt of 1809, Napoleon handed the Trentino over to the Kingdom of Italy, while the Swiss frontier district of the Valais (since the emperor’s settlement of Switzerland an independent republic) was annexed by France on strategic grounds.
To return to Alexander I, angered though he may have been by Napoleon’s constant flexing of his muscles, the travails of the various Bonaparte brothers were in the end of little account (it might, though, be observed that the annexation of Holland could not but raise eyebrows in St Petersburg: in his eyes, Tilsit had been meant to bring Britain to the negotiating table, whereas by annexing Holland Napoleon was in effect provoking her into greater intransigence). This was not the case, however, with those of the Grand Duke Peter of Oldenburg. Small and hitherto insignificant, Oldenburg was situated on the coast of the North Sea west of Hamburg. As such, it was a prime target for French annexation, but by treating it in this fashion Napoleon was again behaving as if he were ruling in a vacuum. For reasons that are of little consequence here, the ruling Holstein-Eutens had had connections with the Romanov dynasty for many years - Grand Duke Peter, in fact, was Alexander’s uncle - and in the 1809 tsar’s favourite sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine, had married the current Grand Duke’s heir. For Alexander therefore, Oldenburg was very much a Russian dependency. As he had negotiated a specific guarantee of the grand duchy’s independence at Tilsit, it was therefore with great anger that he received Napoleon’s decision to snap it up. With the tsar already upset by the sudden death in July 1810 of Queen Louise of Prussia - which he attributed to the strain imposed on her by a fresh crisis in Franco-Prussian relations that saw the emperor demand the immediate payment of all Prussia’s debts to France and suggest that this should be financed either by reducing the army to a brigade-sized royal guard or surrendering Silesia - his response was predictably violent. Though diplomatic relations were not absolutely broken off, a sharp protest was dispatched to Paris. All this achieved, however, was to add insult to injury, as the only compensation that was offered Grand Duke Peter was a minuscule territory centred on Erfurt that bore no comparison even with tiny Oldenburg.
More important even than Oldenburg was the state of feeling in the Russian court. As Alexander could never forget, Paul I and his grandfather, Peter III, had pushed the bounds of absolute rule too far and been murdered in palace revolutions. This fate now seemingly threatened him too: from 1807 onwards, indeed, there had been stories of plots against his rule, while there were certainly plenty of pretexts for conspiracy. In the Balkans, Russia’s claims to be the protector of the region’s Christians were losing credibility. As the senior Russian commander, Admiral Chichagov, wrote:
The inhabitants of the right bank [of the Danube] - all of them Christians - experienced all the horrors imaginable . . . Wherever the army passed, all their towns and villages were reduced to ashes. Meanwhile, whether by force or by persuasion, thousands of the inhabitants were made to cross over to the left bank; although they were promised food and shelter, the majority died of want and misery. In this fashion the hope of a people that had before looked to our armies for liberation from the evils stemming from the intestinal strife . . . that had assailed Rumelia for over twenty years was dissipated. As for the administration of the country that we occupied, it had fallen into such a state of disorder that famine broke out in Wallachia, which is surely the most fertile province in the whole of Europe. There followed the onset of contagious disease, and very soon the rate of mortality had become extreme. According to official figures which I was able to consult, between 1 May 1809 and 1 May 1810 more than 100,000 people were admitted to our hospitals . . . In the course of my journey through Moldavia and Wallachia to Bucharest, I noted that many houses had been abandoned, and I later learned that the householders had fled the country to avoid the endless requisitioning of the authorities and the perpetual vexations of the soldiery, and . . . were living a vagabond existence in the forests. In fact, discipline had declined to such an extent that pillage had become the order of the day.37
Setting the sufferings of the Balkan Christians aside, with victory still far away, Russia could not count on compensation on the Danube, still less a victorious march on Constantinople. Her only solid territorial gains to date were Georgia, Bialystok, Finland and Tarnopol, and this seemed less than impressive compared with the conquests made under Catherine the Great.
Abroad, then, Russia’s prestige was slipping. Nor were things much better at home. In the first place, the tsar’s employment of the low-born Mikhail Speransky as chief minister caused unrest in the administration and the nobility. Some of Speransky’s plans - most notably, the introduction of a constitution - were quite attractive in the wake of the caprice of Paul I, but in other respects they were very threatening. For example, Speransky was known to favour the emancipation of the serfs, among whom vague ideas that Napoleon was the anti-Christ had sparked a mood of millennial excitement. Equally, with his emphasis on quasi-Napoleonic models, the chief minister was self-evidently a ‘westernizer’ and therefore very much open to charges that he was betraying the soul of Mother Russia and in the process turning his back on her greatest strengths. And it was not just Speransky that raised hackles. In the army there was the tsar’s insistence on employing the hated Alexei Arakcheev in a series of important positions, for Arakcheev had been one of Paul I’s chief collaborators and in his pursuit of efficiency was inclined to use methods that were a throwback to the worst days of that monarch, while in the Orthodox Church there was great dislike of the idea of Russia allying herself with a ruler that it saw as an enemy of all religion.
But most troubling of all was the impact of the Continental Blockade. Between 1806 and 1812 exports dropped by approximately two fifths; customs revenue fell 9 from million roubles in 1805 o less than 3 million in 1808; the value of the paper currency that had become increasingly standard fell by a factor of about one half between 1808 and 1811; and the price of such colonial goods as sugar and coffee may have as much as quintupled between 1802 and 1811. As for trade with France, by 1811 the ratio of exports to imports had in terms of value arrived at the extraordinary figure of 1:170; to make matters even worse, meanwhile, the raw cotton that was what Russia most needed was being squeezed by items of high value and low bulk such as perfume. Here and there a few brighter notes were to be encountered - between 1804 and 1811 the number of Russians employed in factories and workshops rose from 95,000 to nearly 138,000, for example - yet the overall situation was terrible, particularly as Alexander had always put great value on increasing Russia’s trading links with the outside world. At the same time he was also beginning to doubt the Blockade’s chances of success. ‘It was . . . impossible for Alexander to close his eyes any longer to the sad condition to which the absolute cessation of commerce had reduced the empire,’ wrote the Lithuanian countess, Sophie Tisenhaus. ‘What limit, moreover, could anyone assign to this system, even more oppressive for those who had undertaken it than for those against whom it was directed. Had not England her colonies, her ships, all her seas at her disposition?’38 As Alexander’s problems mounted up, so opposition to his rule became ever more open, those involved including such members of his own family as the dowager empress and the Grand Duchess Catherine; prominent members of the armed forces like Admiral Alexei Shishkov and Paul I’s sometime Foreign Minister, Nicolai Rostopchin; the leading writer Basil Karamzin; and the Minister of Justice, Georgi Derzhavin. In December 1810, then, Alexander decided to act. As a first step, the ban on neutral vessels had already been relaxed, but by imperial decree it was announced that tariffs on imports that arrived in Russia by land would be massively increased in relation to those payable on goods that came in by sea. Neither Britain nor France were mentioned directly, but in the circumstances nothing could be clearer: the former’s colonial goods were to be allowed in while the latter’s wines and manufactures were to be kept out. As such, Russia did not withdraw from the Continental Blockade - British ships continued to be seized in considerable numbers up until 1812- but it was all too obvious that Alexander could no longer be counted upon to enforce it, and still more so that Napoleon’s attempt to transform the whole of continental Europe into a captive market was not to be allowed to extend any further east than Warsaw.
As a shot across Napoleon’s bows, the ukase of December 1810 was very pointed, and he would therefore have been well advised to take it very seriously. Yet the emperor’s attitude towards the growing crisis is revealed only too well by the interview he accorded his ambassador Caulaincourt when the latter was recalled to France in the early summer of 1810. Arriving in Paris on June, Caulaincourt immediately presented himself at court:
His Majesty received me coldly, and at once began heatedly to enumerate his . . . grievances against the Tsar Alexander . . . He spoke of the ukase prohibiting foreign imports, and of the admission of neutral . . . ships into Russian ports, which, he said, was an infringement of the Continental System. He went on to say that the tsar was treacherous, that he was arming to make war on France, that troops from Moldavia were on their way to the Dvina.39
Faced by this tirade, Caulaincourt stood his ground. The Russians, he said, had legitimate economic grievances, and Napoleon could not be surprised if they in effect followed the precedent established by the decrees of Trianon and Fontainebleau: that Alexander had never acted in anything other than good faith; that the reported troop movements were defensive measures that were entirely understandable in the circumstances; and that almost every action taken by Napoleon since the summer of 1809 had in some respect been detrimental to Russia’s interests. Alexander, Caulaincourt insisted, did not want war, and all would be resolved if only Napoleon would give him the assurances he sought over the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and pull all his troops out of Prussia. ‘Finally, I told the emperor frankly that, if he wanted a war, his government was doing everything it could to bring one about; it was even crying its purpose from the house-tops, and if he regarded the Russian alliance as worth maintaining, I was unable to understand what purpose all these pin-pricks could possibly serve.’40
As might have been expected, Napoleon’s response was frosty. ‘The emperor was extremely annoyed with me, and told me that I had been duped by . . . the Russians, that I did not understand what was going on.’41 This angry outburst was followed by a series of specious attempts to paint the emperor as the injured innocent. His conduct towards Russia had been fair and moderate; he did not want war with Alexander; he wanted only for Russia to fulfil her treaty obligations and to behave as a friend and ally; he could not pull his garrison out of Prussia without enduring public humiliation. Yet still Caulaincourt would not give up. Going to war with Russia, he contended, would be difficult and dangerous: what would happen, for example, if the Russians evaded battle and retired into the interior? Napoleon, however, was no less stubborn. The Russians would be thrashed - ‘one good battle’, he said, ‘would knock the bottom out of . . . Alexander’s fine resolutions’42 - and, with that subject dealt with, he returned to insisting that Russia wanted war, denouncing any attempt to make him compromise, and alleging that the Lithuanians were deluging him with appeals for their liberation. After five hours’ argument, the interview concluded, leaving a weary Caulaincourt with no other hope of maintaining the peace than that the war in Spain would keep Napoleon from turning east.
Before leaving Russia, Caulaincourt had repeatedly been told by Alexander that he did not want war. But this was disingenuous. In the first half of 1811 the tsar was certainly considering a very different policy. Following the peace treaty signed with Sweden in 1809 , Finland, it will be recalled, had been annexed by Russia. However, she was not simply absorbed into the Russian empire, but rather given the status of a Grand Duchy, even though its Grand Duke would forever be the tsar of Russia. Not only this, but Finland was also granted a constitution, albeit one that reflected the patterns of an earlier age: the Finnish assembly, for example, sat not as a single chamber but as four different estates. In this way, a figment of self-government was maintained without threatening Russian control: always virtually powerless, the assembly met for a single session in 1809 and thereafter did not come together again until 1863 . The importance of these events here is that they offered a solution to the Polish problem, and, in particular, restoring the control of Poland which Russia had enjoyed in the eighteenth century. Much favoured by Czartoryski, this was hardly a new idea, but the new Grand Duchy of Finland gave it a credibility it might previously have lacked. And, convinced that Russian domination was the best means of protecting their privileges, many Polish nobles were very interested in such a scheme. In the course of the campaign of 1809, indeed, a deputation of Polish nobles had visited Golitsyn’s headquarters and promised him the support of all Poles if only Alexander would reconstitute the old Polish state with himself as its ruler. Why not, then, turn the situation around by offering the Poles a Finnish-style settlement of their own that would bring together both the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the vast swathes of Polish territory already possessed by the Russians?
Further encouraged by the way such a policy would enable him to live out his dream of playing the liberator, in January 1811 Alexander therefore committed himself to restoring the Kingdom of Poland on the basis of the frontiers she had enjoyed prior to the first partition 1772 in (included in these, of course, were not just the territories taken by Russia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, but Austrian Galicia and Prussian Pomerania). As for the political basis of the new state, this would be the radical constitution of 1791 which had greatly reduced the power of the nobility and created a strong central government. In all probability Alexander would have preferred the much weaker constitution that had governed Poland earlier in the eighteenth century, but in the end he was persuaded by Czartoryski - still his chief agent in respect of Poland - that there was no other option if the new state was to be a credible entity. In proof of Alexander’s good intentions, meanwhile, there was also much discussion of a constitution for Lithuania - in effect the northern half of the territories seized from Poland in the partitions of 1772 .
Implicit in the idea of a Russian Poland was, of course, a war against Napoleon. Nor was this surprising. As challenge succeeded challenge, and slight succeeded slight, so Alexander became increasingly certain that the emperor was planning an attack upon him. ‘Napoleon will never turn fool,’ he told Czartoryski. ‘It is something which is inconceivable, and those who believe it do not know him at all. He is someone who in the midst of the greatest turmoil always has a cool head. All his outbursts of anger are but put on for those around him . . . He does nothing without having first thought everything through and worked everything out. The most violent and audacious of his actions are coldly calculated.’43 And if Napoleon was bent on war, the only thing to do was to choose the moment at which Russia should fight and to do so in the best conditions possible. So far as Alexander was concerned, moreover, the moment for action had come. Napoleon was still deeply embroiled in the Peninsula, but such were the successes being won by his armies that this distraction could not be guaranteed to last for very much longer. The Poles, in fact, were not only being offered their historic kingdom, but also being summoned to rise in revolt. Nor were they to be Alexander’s only allies. On 13 February 1811 Alexander wrote to Francis I asking for Austrian support and promising Moldavia and Wallachia if he would in turn cede Galicia to a restored Kingdom of Poland, while the idea of a war was also floated with Prussia and Sweden. All this was backed up by Russian troop movements and other preparations for war: the production of arms was stepped up, and a force of 200,000 men, including, significantly, five divisions taken from the Balkan front, was built up in White Russia, along with a network of magazines and entrenched camps.
Yet within a matter of weeks the whole enterprise had collapsed, not the least of Alexander’s problems being that the Poles would not cooperate. In the first place war was likely to bring total devastation as the main fighting could not but take place on Polish soil. And, in the second, if there were some nobles who feared the social reforms initiated by the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, there were plenty of others who were prepared to set such fears aside, and simply saw Napoleon as a better bet. To quote Oginski:
Almost everything that happened at that time encouraged our hopes. Napoleon freely acknowledged the valour of the Poles, and seemed to take pleasure in securing their allegiance. He had increased the strength of the old [Polish] legions, as well as forming others that had distinguished themselves in the campaign of 1809. He had organized a unit of Polish lancers for which he evinced particular affection, and made it a part of his guard. And, if he had only given the title of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to that part of Poland which he had seized from the King of Prussia, the new state had an army . . . a fiscal system, a senate, ministries for every branch of the administration and a legislature that resembled that of the old kingdom. As all this was on a scale that far outstripped the limits of its population and borders, one was led to suppose that the emperor . . . was hiding in his bosom projects that were still vaster and even more advantageous to the interests of the Poles.44
Czartoryski, then, was not only unable to deliver the support for which Alexander hoped but turned his back on the idea of war altogether, calling instead for the tsar to settle both the issue of Poland and his quarrels with Napoleon by negotiation.
While very useful, Polish support was not the most essential factor in the situation, however: with Austria, Prussia and Sweden on his side, Alexander might well have gone to war anyway. Yet there was no hope to be had here either. In Austria the Russian attempt to secure a rapprochement, let alone a military alliance, was shattered by Metternich, who abandoned his self-appointed mission in Paris and hastened back to Vienna to keep Francis on the path of peace and friendship with France:
Everything seems to indicate that the Emperor Napoleon is at present still far from desiring war with Russia. But it is not less true that the Emperor Alexander has given himself over, nolens volens, to the war party, and that he will bring about war because the time is fast approaching when he will no longer be able to resist the reaction of the party in the internal affairs of his empire or the temper of his army . . . Russia attempted long ago to engage us to take an active part on her side . . . It appeared to me necessary that, to answer these demands of Russia, sometimes apparent, sometimes concealed, a verbal declaration should be made . . . that Your Majesty is ready to exert yourself to the utmost for the maintenance of peace; that, in the event of war actually breaking out, Your Majesty would assume a neutral and independent position . . . [and] that, as Russia itself must see, any active cooperation on our part in her favour is quite impossible at a time when friendly relations subsist between Your Majesty and the French government, there being no grounds for any complaint against that power.45
In Prussia things were a little more encouraging in that much of the reform party in the army were avid for war. Led by Gneisenau, they argued vociferously for a mass revolt against the French. This move, they claimed, was the only way of restoring Prussia’s honour and soul alike, but few except the most bloodthirsty of the officers concerned would move without Russia, and Frederick William remained as evasive as ever. In the end scared, perhaps, that even absolute submission to the French would not save his remaining dominions, the king gave way and in the summer the chief of the newly formed general staff, General Scharnhorst, was sent to St Petersburg to negotiate a deal. A military convention was duly concluded, but by then it was much too late: at the time that it had mattered, the Prussians would not march. And in Sweden, Bernadotte would only go to war in exchange for a promise of Danish-ruled Norway, but in 1810 Alexander had not yet reached the point when he might have been happy to sacrifice Denmark to please Sweden, and so here too there was no deal to be had.
All this being most discouraging, Alexander backed away from conflict. Indeed, the idea of a pre-emptive strike was abandoned altogether, the fact being that Caulaincourt was speaking no more than the truth when he reported in June that Russia would not fire the first shot in a war against France. Everything, then, came back to Napoleon. What happened next can be discussed on two levels. First there are the facts. In brief, the emperor resolved on a policy of confrontation. Of this there is plenty of evidence. Caulaincourt was replaced by the more pliable Lauriston, a general who had a long history as one of Napoleon’s more reliable lackeys, and the lacklustre Foreign Minister Champagny by the thoroughly dependable editor of Le Moniteur, Hugues Maret. Prussia, Sweden, Turkey and Austria were all contacted in respect of an alliance. Albeit for purposes that were ostensibly ‘defensive’, troops began to be concentrated in Poland. And, as usual when hostilities were impending, a formal court reception was used to telegraph the imperial intent. At the levee held to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday on 15 August 1811, the Russian ambassador Kurakin was subjected to a half-hour public tirade in which Alexander was accused of bad faith and warmongering. ‘I am not so stupid as to think that it is Oldenburg that troubles you,’ raged the emperor. ‘I see that Poland is the real question. You believe I have designs on Poland. However, I begin to think you wish to seize it for yourselves. No! If your army were encamped in the very heights of Montmartre itself, I would not cede an inch of Warsaw, not a village, not a windmill. You’re counting on allies? Where are they? You look to me like hares who are shot in the head and gape all around, not knowing where to scurry!’46 To emphasize the point still further, Warsaw’s ambassador, Count Dzialynski, was then treated to an equally public interview in which Napoleon plied him with questions, ‘talking in a loud voice so that everyone would know how much importance he placed upon the interests of . . . the Grand Duchy’.47
As yet no rupture came: Kurakin remained in Paris, and he was even joined by two special envoys, Chernichev and the future Foreign Minister, Karl von Nesselrode. Equally, Napoleon neither issued an ultimatum to Alexander nor announced the object of the great mobilization that began to grip the empire. But the emperor was bent on breaking Russia once and for all. At all events every attempt to avert Napoleon’s anger was rebuffed. The Dutch general, Dedem de Gelder, for example, was taken aside by Nesselrode, and told that Alexander genuinely wanted to live in peace with Napoleon, and that his only quarrel was with the Continental System. ‘Neither we nor you need a new war,’ said Nesselrode. ‘If you have your cancer in Spain, we have ours in Turkey: the war that we are waging there is just as impolitic and disastrous as the one that you are waging in the Peninsula.’48 This conversation Dedem felt duty bound to report to Maret, but the latter’s response was crushing: ‘Russia has but one choice: she must follow our system in its entirety, and for us to make certain, allow us to place French customs officials even in Reval and Kronstädt.’49
Among soldiers, statesmen and civilians alike, there was now but one assumption: war with Russia was coming. The prospect, however, was not popular: ‘Napoleon’s popularity now began to wane,’ wrote one medical student. ‘Troops were being raised without interruption for the Russian campaign although already every family was mourning a husband or son; further bloodshed was dreaded by all. The emperor superintended every detail of the preparations in person. Most of the regiments which were to take part were concentrated in Paris and reviewed minutely by him. The troops were full of eagerness. The very sight of Napoleon electrified them. But, alas, smooth chins were more numerous among them than beards. The war in Spain . . . had robbed us of the majority of our seasoned soldiers . . . The pressing need for men had lowered the standard age from twenty to nineteen and again to eighteen. They were mere children, and many of them were totally incapable of bearing up under the hardships of a campaign.’50 To all this, however, Napoleon had but one answer. In the words of Hortense de Beauharnais, ‘Unable to understand why it was necessary, the whole of France complained of a war that it did not want. The emperor persisted in regarding it as the last effort that would put an end to her labours. He believed that anything was possible to French valour, and would let nothing stop him.’51
To establish the facts is one thing, but to establish a motive for Napoleon’s actions is quite another. In the face of every argument to the contrary - and to the bitter end Caulaincourt sought desperately to persuade him that Alexander still wanted peace, and that war with Russia would lead to disaster - he insisted that he himself wanted only peace, that Alexander was bent on war and that he was therefore conducting a defensive campaign. Mixed in with this was the claim that he was fighting a war for the liberation of Poland, and even that his aim was the defence of Western civilization from the menace of the east. As he told Caulaincourt (who was forced to accompany the emperor’s headquarters as a most unwilling diplomatic adviser) when the grande armée reached Vilna:
I have come to finish off, once and for all, the colossus of the barbarians of the north. The sword is drawn. They must be thrust back into their snow and ice so that for a quarter of a century at least they will not be able to interfere with civilized Europe. Even in the days of Catherine the Russians counted for little or nothing in the politics of Europe. It was the partition of Poland which gave them contact with civilization. The time has come when Poland, in her turn, must force them back . . . We must seize this chance and teach the Russians an unpleasant lesson about their say in what happens in Germany . . . Since Erfurt Alexander has become too haughty. The acquisition of Poland has turned his head. If he must have victories, let him defeat the Persians, but don’t let him meddle in the affairs of Europe.52
But too much should not be made of these claims. The idea of a crusade in favour of Western civilization had hitherto been notably absent from Napoleon’s discourse, while Poland’s real place in his thoughts is suggested by a conversation recorded by Oginski, who was told by the Grand Master of the Palace, General Duroc - always a close confidant of the emperor - that ‘the re-establishment of an independent Poland could not be regarded as anything other than a chimerical project and was a dream that would never come true; that Poland had never truly been independent in any case; that she had existed in a state of anarchy for many years; that the freedom of which so much was made consisted of no more than the vehement speeches that the nobles had the right to pronounce in the meetings of the diet; that the servitude of the peasants had always been an obstacle to the establishment of good government; and, finally, that the Poles were too disunited in their opinions, and the nobility too jealous of its rights, for Poland ever to rejoin the ranks of the powers of Europe.’53 Inside the regime, then, there were few illusions. ‘The idea has been lodged in his head for more than a year,’ one member of the council of state told an old friend who had come to Paris on official business in the autumn of 1811. ‘The affairs of the Peninsula torment him from morning till night: the conflict is like a maggot gnawing away at him. He wants to deliver a great blow that will put the North [i.e. Russia] on its knees, and has persuaded himself that this will by extension settle the fate of Britain, and allow him to finish not only with her, but also with Spain and Portugal. Such at least I have gleaned . . . from the measures that he has one after another implemented . . . On top of this I will tell you what my reason alone has suggested to me. I could be mistaken, but is it not the case that we are again seeing the mania of heaping conquest upon conquest, and as much in times of peace as times of war? Is it not the case that, even though she now stretches all the way from Rome to Hamburg, France still seems too small to him?’54
If this was the opinion of men who were still loyal to Napoleon, it was pointless to look for anything better from those who had come to oppose him. One such was the former Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché, who blamed everything on ‘the extravagant ambition of the chief of state’. Anxious to press the case for peace, Fouché waited on the emperor armed with a long report in which he warned of the dangers of war, only to come up against the same sort of stonewalling encountered by Caulaincourt:
There is no crisis: the present is a war purely political. You cannot judge of my position, nor of the general aspect of Europe. Since my marriage the lion has been thought to sleep: we shall see whether he does or not. Spain will fall as soon as I have annihilated the English influence at St Petersburg. I wanted 800,000 men and I have them. All Europe follows in my train, and Europe is a rotten old whore with whom I may do as I please . . . Did you not formerly tell me that you thought genius consisted in finding nothing impossible? Well, in six or eight months you shall see what things upon a vast scale can effect when united to a power that can execute them. I am guided by the opinion of the army and the people, rather than by yours, gentlemen who are too rich and who only tremble for me because you apprehend a fall. Make yourselves easy: regard the Russian war as dictated by good sense, and by a just view of the interests, the repose and the tranquillity of all. Besides, how can I help it if an excess of power leads me to assume the dictatorship of the world? Have not you contributed to it, you and so many others who blame me now, and would make a king débonnaire of me. My destiny is not yet accomplished: I must finish that which is but as yet sketched. We must have a European code, a European court of appeal, the same coins, the same weights and measures, the same laws: I must amalgamate all the people of Europe into one, and Paris must be the capital of the world. Such . . . is the only termination which suits my ideas.55
Fouché is hardly the most reliable of sources, but there seems no doubt that, even if these boasts of universal monarchy are an invention, Napoleon was in an exultant mood in the months leading up to war. Not only was the whirl of court life particularly brilliant at this time - ‘Never were the entertainments of the court, the receptions, the banquets and the balls more numerous than they were in that winter of 1811- 1812’56 - but the emperor himself was in the finest of fettles. ‘The . . . anxious looks of the courtiers appeared to me to form a strong contrast with the confidence of the emperor. He had never enjoyed such perfect health. Never had I seen his features . . . lighted up with a greater glow of mental vigour, of greater confidence in himself, founded on a deep conviction of his prodigious power.’57 The fact was that, encouraged by placemen such as Maret, Napoleon was certain that he could win a great victory in Russia, and therefore saw no reason to draw back from confrontation with Alexander. The Russian army, he was sure, would be caught and beaten, leaving him free to impose his will on his opponent. As for the difficulties of a war in the depths of Russia, at this stage he was not even thinking of taking the offensive. ‘Napoleon was convinced that the Russian army would open the campaign by crossing the boundaries of their own country,’ wrote Metternich. ‘The conviction expressed by me that the Emperor Alexander would await the attack of the French army and baffle it by a retreat, Napoleon opposed both on strategical grounds, and from Alexander’s manner of thought and action, with which he imagined himself to be perfectly acquainted.’58
The campaign of 1812, then, was not quite as ill-judged as might be suggested by hindsight. Yet precisely what imposing the emperor’s will on Russia meant seems not to have been considered. There would, doubtless, have been a greater Poland, while Russia would have been forced to accede once more to the Continental System and pay a heavy indemnity. But that still left the issue of how a wounded and embittered St Petersburg would be integrated within the Napoleonic imperium, let alone persuaded to accept the French customs officers talked of by Maret. Was Russia, like Prussia, to be forced to accept a permanent French garrison? To ask such questions is, of course, to assume that Napoleon was a rational being. According to some of his biographers, so irrational was the decision to go to war that it can only be explained by a ‘mid-life crisis’ in which an emperor beset by the coming of middle age responded to the disappointments of the war in Spain by indulging in a desperate bid for supreme glory and mastery. Such claims are naturally impossible to substantiate, but the somewhat less daring argument that Napoleon needed a fresh war to burnish his prestige does not seem unreasonable. And, even if this is not so, the charge that the emperor was simply gripped by overconfidence and vainglory remains. As Molé wrote:
It is a curious thing that Napoleon . . . never discovered the point at which the impossible begins. The more I saw of him, the greater was my conviction that he . . . thought only of satisfying his own desires and adding incessantly to his own glory and greatness. The slightest obstacle enraged him: he would sacrifice everything to overcome it, and, in his satisfaction at discovering that, whenever a collision occurred, nothing could withstand his power or his will, when it came to choosing between the present and the future he preferred the present as the more certain and subject to his will. In a word, he thought less of leaving . . . a dynasty behind him than a name which should have no rival and a glory which could never be excelled. Even more extravagant than fantastic in his ideas, his treatment of Spain and the head of the Catholic world had shown that unmoral action or abuse of power was nothing to him so long as he attained his object. But more than all it was his expedition to Russia and scheme for a continental blockade which made it plain to everyone . . . that death alone could set a limit to his plans and put a curb on his ambition.59
What makes the ‘glory’ thesis still more credible is that at this very time there resurfaced the so-called ‘oriental mirage’, the idea that Napoleon could establish an eastern empire on the lines of that of Alexander the Great while at the same time dealing the British a smashing blow by expelling them from India. This project was such a subject of palace gossip that it was soon being assumed it lay at the heart of the coming war. As one general asked Anna Potocka, a Polish noblewoman who had travelled to Paris in the suite of Marie-Louise, ‘What do you want me to bring you back from India?’60 Setting aside such exchanges, another factor that we must consider here is the place of Persia in the emperor’s plans. The collapse of the Gardanne mission had not quite seen an end to Napoleon’s ambitions in respect of that state, repeated attempts having been made to restore a French presence in Tehran. Are we, then, to take the remarks that Napoleon is supposed to have made to his aide-de-camp, Narbonne, at face value?
This long road is the road to India. Alexander left from as far away as Moscow to reach the Ganges. But for the English pirate and the French emigré who together directed the fire of the Turks, and, together with the plague, forced me to abandon the siege, after St Jean d’Acre I would have conquered half Asia and taken Europe in the rear in my bid to secure the thrones of France and Italy. Well, today I shall be marching from the extremities of Europe to take Asia in the rear so as to attack Britain. You know about . . . the missions of Gardanne and Jaubert to Persia. Nothing much has come of them, but I know enough of the geography and the condition of the population to get to . . . India by way of Erivan and Tiflis . . . Imagine Moscow taken, Russia overthrown, [and] the tsar reconciled or murdered by a palace plot . . . and tell me that it is impossible for a large army of Frenchmen and auxiliaries starting from Tiflis to reach the Ganges, where the mere touch of a French sword would be sufficient to bring down the framework of [Britain’s] mercantile grandeur throughout India.61
Here one returns to the idea of the Russian war as a necessary step in the war with England, but to use this idea to justify Napoleon’s actions at this point seems counter-productive. Given that the breach Russia represented in the Continental Blockade was insignificant, would closing it achieve the ends that were supposed? Was a march on India, even with the cooperation of the Russians, ever really a practical possibility? And would even conquering India be sufficient to knock Britain out of the war? As Narbonne said afterwards, ‘What a man! What ideas! What dreams! Where is the keeper of this genius? It is hardly credible. One doesn’t know whether one is in Bedlam or the Pantheon.’62
Whatever the reasons for Napoleon’s actions, Europe was plunged into frenzied diplomatic activity. Realizing the convention Scharnhorst had signed with Russia offered little hope - rather than the Russians sending troops into Prussia, the Prussians were expected to abandon their homeland and march to join the Russians in Poland - in November Frederick William III buckled to French pressure and agreed to an alliance. Signed the following February, the resultant treaty not only provided Napoleon with an auxiliary force of 20,000 men, but also guaranteed the grande armée all the food it required. In Vienna the following month Metternich followed suit: Austria, it was agreed, would send 30,000 troops to join Napoleon and in addition surrender her remaining territories in Galicia to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the hope being that this would produce the restoration of the Illyrian provinces, the Tyrol and possibly even Silesia (until the 1740s an Austrian possession) and a French guarantee of the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire. In both Prussia and Austria secret efforts were made to reassure Alexander that the alliances with France had been signed for form’s sake alone, but this was so much window-dressing: unless Napoleon suffered a catastrophic defeat, both powers were firmly in the French camp. Superficially, France could also claim the moral high ground. In April 1812 fresh peace proposals were dispatched to London. Spain would be restored to her 1808 frontiers and, along with Portugal, guaranteed by France and Britain alike; Naples would be left to Murat and Sicily to Ferdinand IV and Maria Carolina. As a further concession, Napoleon would permit the return of the Braganças to Lisbon, but Joseph was to remain as King of Spain, although he was to accept the constitution that had just been promulgated by the national assembly convened in Cádiz in 1810, while Britain was also to withdraw all her forces from the Continent. This approach, however, was rejected out of hand: as in 1803, Napoleon could claim that responsibility for conflict lay with London.
Yet the diplomatic war was by no means one-sided. In both the Balkans and the Baltic the emperor was taken unawares and deprived of alliances he had taken for granted. In the Balkans the Russians had once again started to win battles. The year 1811 had begun with them on the defensive and searching for a peace settlement, but Constantinople had rejected every advance, and in the summer began a major counter-offensive on the central sector of the Danube front. The chief target was the Russian outpost of Rustchuk. After withstanding a major assault on 4 July, the town was evacuated and in September the Turks set to work on the laborious task of getting their army across the Danube. Progress was slow and the beginning of October found them with their forces still split in two by the river. Commanding the Russians now was the immensely able and experienced General Kutuzov. Aided by the recall of some of the troops who had earlier in the year been marched off towards Poland, on 13 October he launched a daring manoeuvre that took a large part of his army across the river well to the west of the Turkish bridgehead. The next day the Turks found themselves attacked on both banks of the river simultaneously. Too strong to be routed and protected by massive defence works, the 36,000 men on the north bank managed to hold out, but across the river their comrades were soon driven off. Completely surrounded, lacking in food, shelter and firewood, deprived of all hope of relief and subjected to heavy bombardment, the troops in the bridgehead refused to surrender and, with great courage, held out until 8 December, by which time only12,000 were left.
In a war thus far characterized chiefly by frustration, it was a great success. On the eastern front the Russian position was further improved by the capture of the fortress of Akhalkali in southern Georgia. Bolstered by hopes that the coming war between Russia and France would save them, the Turks stood firm in peace talks that Kutuzov opened in Bucharest - the Russians were at this point still demanding the surrender of Moldavia and Wallachia. In the face of this the Russians gave serious consideration to an amphibious landing in Bulgaria, followed by an assault on Constantinople. In the event, however, wiser counsels prevailed. Governed by the need to reach an immediate settlement, it was instead decided to offer the Turks generous terms. The Russians would keep the frontier province of Bessarabia, but otherwise restore to Constantinople all the territory they had occupied in exchange for a guarantee of autonomy for the Danubian provinces. Eager to gain an alliance with Turkey, the French ambassador, Latour-Maubourg, was full of cheap promises of the restoration of the Black Sea coast and the Crimea. In this instance, however, Napoleon paid the price for earlier faithlessness. In 1807 the Turks had been betrayed by Napoleon at Tilsit, and they now decided to settle with the Russians while they had the chance. On 28 May 1812 peace was finally signed, leaving an astonished Napoleon completely outflanked. As for the 50,000 Russians still on the Danube, now commanded by Admiral Chichagov, they were soon marching with all speed for White Russia. Indeed, had things gone as Chichagov planned, Russia would have gained still more from the situation. Why not, he argued, get the Turks to ally themselves with Russia and invade the Illyrian provinces while at the same time attacking the Austrians in the rear? Or, alternatively, in the absence of Turkish agreement to this plan, why not send Russian troops into Bosnia so as to whip up a great national insurrection amongst the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes of the Austrian empire and the Illyrian provinces? Though both schemes were very attractive to Alexander, nothing came of any of this: the Turks were not interested in fighting an offensive war, while the South Slav war of liberation was abandoned after a worried Metternich in effect promised to keep Austrian participation in the campaign to a minimum. There was, then, to be no Balkan front in the coming war, but even so the end of Russia’s Turkish imbroglio was a major blow to Napoleon, as witness the fury with which he reacted to the news of peace.
In the Baltic, Napoleon also met with disappointment. As far as Sweden was concerned, he seems simply to have assumed that Berna dotte would join forces with him. Yet why he should have done so is unclear. The Continental Blockade had wrought much the same havoc in Sweden as it had done in Russia, and, like Alexander, Bernadotte knew that there were forces in the court and army that might very easily have him deposed or even murdered should he not satisfy their wishes. Meanwhile, the new crown prince still hated Napoleon, and had been much irritated by the fact that a scornful emperor showed no interest in giving Sweden Norway and had made it quite clear that if she wanted territorial gains she would have to fight for them in Finland, a region that Bernadotte was convinced had become untenable. Britain, by contrast, had proven much more proactive: in October 1811 the former British ambassador had paid a secret visit to Stockholm and promised Bernadotte he would be well rewarded should he ever go to war with Napoleon. Sweden was thus very much in the balance when the emperor committed an act of amazing folly. Moved by the purely military consideration that Swedish Pomerania might be the scene of a British amphibious landing, he ordered its occupation by French troops. The risk was in itself real enough, but since 1799 Britain’s record in such operations had been mixed, and it is hard to see why the capture of Stralsund should have cost Napoleon much concern. However, in January 1812 French troops entered the Swedish enclave. There was no resistance, but Bernadotte was furious and immediately approached both London and St Petersburg in search of assistance. From the former came offers of arms, supplies (though not yet money) and an island in the West Indies, while from the latter came the promise of military and diplomatic support over the annexation of Norway. At the last moment Napoleon realized his error and hastily proffered Bernadotte some bribes of his own, but it was too late: on 5 April 1812 the Swedish government signed a treaty of alliance with Russia. About the only consolation was that Sweden’s agreement with Russia was not much of a threat: desperate to win over Bernadotte, an increasingly worried Alexander accepted that no Swedish troops need land in Germany until Norway had been occupied, and even promised Bernadotte the help of 15,000 troops to secure this objective.
As both sides scrambled for allies and sought to free themselves from embarrassments elsewhere, they also prepared for war. On the French side, a stream of orders directed the creation of immense magazines of supplies in various eastern cities - one letter speaks of amassing sufficient biscuit, rice and forage at Danzig to sustain an army of 400,000 men and 50,000 horses for fifty days - the requisition of thousands of carts, wagons, horses and draught animals; the collection of up-to-date maps and topographical information; the establishment of new army corps; and the settlement of a thousand petty details of military organization. Also needed, of course, were fresh supplies of men: on 20 December 1811 a levy of 120,000 fresh conscripts was decreed in France, and the rulers of the surviving satellite states, the princes of the Confederation of the Rhine and France’s assorted governors and viceroys were instructed to complete the recruitment of their forces and mobilize them for action. Typical was the letter dispatched to Marshal Davout, who was serving as Governor-General of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw: ‘I see . . . that the Fifth, Tenth and Eleventh Regiments of Infantry, which should all muster 3,500 men, have all got only 2,500 or 2,600 . . . I see that the Ninth Regiment of Cavalry is only 400 -strong: what is stopping it from fielding 1,000 riders? Make certain that all the units are up to strength. Men should not be lacking as the Duchy has 4 million inhabitants, which means that it should be able to provide 70,000 men . . . The Poles are only maintaining 42,000 men - only10,000 men for every million inhabitants . . . Write to Prince Poniatowski and let him know how ridiculous this is.’63
There was still no open statement of intent - indeed, much of the correspondence is couched in terms of defending the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the Confederation of the Rhine from attack - but there was no denying the urgency of Napoleon’s language. On 27 January 1812, for example, Jerome Bonaparte received the following communication: ‘The contingent of Your Majesty will be assembled and ready to march by 15 February. I request that you will let me have its strength in terms of generals, staff officers, infantry, cavalry and artillery, together with an account of its caissons and transport.’64 And, last but not least, 27,000 men - two divisions of the Young Guard, some Guard cavalry and artillery and a Polish volunteer force known as the Legion of the Vistula - were withdrawn from Spain where several regions of the country were left dangerously undermanned. All this force was, in February 1812, set in motion for the east. In March the new grande armée began to stream into Prussia, and on 9 May Napoleon himself left Paris amidst much public display. But before he went to war one more task remained. First stop, though, was not the headquarters of the grande armée, but rather a great conference of all the German princes at Dresden. A dramatic act of political theatre, this was designed to emphasize the certainty of success and overawe any ruler foolish enough to think there might be any alternative to full cooperation. If one is to believe Napoleon’s apologists, there was also the hope that in the face of this very public statement of support Alexander would even now back down. At all events the gathering, which was marked by balls, parades, receptions, banquets, reviews and firework displays, was a splendid affair. To quote Dominique Dufour de Pradt, a member of the Catholic hierarchy who had been appointed as ‘ambassador extraordinary’ to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw:
Anyone who wishes to give themselves a true idea of the commanding power which Napoleon exercised in Europe . . . should transport themselves in imagination to Dresden so as to behold him at the period of his greatest glory . . . His levee was, as usual, at nine o’clock, and only by being there could one possibly imagine the cringing submission with which a crowd of princes, confounded with the courtiers, who for the most part paid them but the slightest heed, awaited the moment of his appearance . . . In effect, Napoleon was the God of Dresden, the ruler of all those rulers who appeared before him, the king of kings. It was on him that all eyes were turned; it was . . . around him that the august hosts that filled the palace of the King of Saxony gathered. The sheer numbers of foreigners, military men and courtiers alike; the way in which couriers were constantly coming and going in all directions; the manner in which a crowd rushed to the palace on the least movement of the emperor, dogging his footsteps and gazing at him in a style that suggested a mixture of admiration and wonder; the expectation painted on every face . . . offered the . . . most imposing monument that was ever raised to the power of Napoleon. It was, without doubt, the highest point of his glory: while he might sustain it, to surpass it seemed impossible.65
Well might Napoleon celebrate his power. Assembling in Poland and East Prussia was the largest army ever seen in recorded history. In the front line were massed 490,000 men, while another 121,000 were following on behind them. Only 200,000 of these troops were ethnically French, however, the remainder - not counting the Prussian and Austrian contingents - being Germans, Poles, Italians, Belgians, Dutch, Croats, Swiss, Spaniards and Portuguese. Whether these men would fight effectively was unclear, while too many of them were mere boys of eighteen. Nor was morale high: there was much pessimism about the coming campaign. Yet when the full panoply of Napoleon’s armed strength was finally revealed on the Russian frontier, it was a dazzling spectacle. Present with the emperor’s headquarters was the painter Lejeune:
All the handsomest men of the day, in their most gorgeous martial costumes, mounted on the finest horses to be obtained in Europe, all alike richly caparisoned, were gathered about the central group of which we formed part. The sunbeams gleamed upon the bronze cannon ready to belch forth an all-destroying fire, and glinted back from the . . . gilded, silvered and burnished steel helmets, breastplates, weapons and decorations of the soldiers and officers. The glittering bayonets of the masses of battalions covering the plain resembled from a distance the quivering scintillations in the sunshine of the waters of some lake . . . when ruffled by a passing breeze. The crash of thousands of trumpets and drums mingled with the enthusiastic shouts of the vast multitude as the emperor came in sight, and the spectacle of all this devotion . . . impressed us all with a sense of the invincibility of a force of elements so mixed, united in obedience to a single chief. Our confidence in that chief became yet more assured than ever . . . and, when we looked round upon all the forces his mighty will had gathered together, our hearts beat high with joy and with exultant pride.66
In Russia too, of course, preparations for war had been going on for months. Under the direction of the extremely capable Minister of War, Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, a series of reforms had been enacted in the army in the hope of increasing its administrative efficiency, augmenting its operational flexibility and improving its training, while the Russian embassy in Paris had been exploited for all it was worth as a source of intelligence. Police surveillance of anyone suspected of political unreliability was intensified and since 1810 the populace had been subjected to three successive levies of conscripts that should in theory have produced 350,000 new recruits (in 1805, by contrast, the number of fresh troops raised to fight in the War of the Third Coalition had amounted to only 110,000 men). In all, the army now amounted to 490,000 men, and this total was augmented by a militia that had been organized in 1807, made up of serfs who in peacetime lived on the estates of their owners (whether this last force was of any value is another matter, however, one observer describing them as ‘crowds of men . . . collected regardless of age, poorly clothed and virtually unarmed’).67 During the course of 1811 and the first months of 1812, 220,000 men were sent to Lithuania and White Russia, where they were deployed in three separate armies, commanded by Barclay de Tolly, Bagration and Tormasov, of whom the first two were probably the very best of all Russia’s generals. And on 21 April 1812 Alexander set out for Vilna to place himself at the head of his troops and secure the loyalty of the local gentry. There he found a region that could already bear witness to the rigour that was to characterize the Russian war effort. To quote one inhabitant of Vilna, ‘I was struck with the misery of the country people, whom privation of the absolute necessities of life by the interruption of trade, the bad harvest of the preceding year, and the continual passage of troops and transports had entirely ruined . . . The evil, as is always the case, weighed most heavily on the poor. The peasants lost their horses and even their cattle.’68 History does not record how the populace felt about their sufferings. But among the soldiers, or at least their officers, there was much resolution. As one nobleman of Estonian stock, named Boris von Uxkull, wrote in his diary, ‘What a sight, as novel as it is impressive, to see so many soldiers assembled, carrying out the decision of one person, governed by discipline, and inspired by the same unanimous courage and by the same feeling. The bearing of . . . the infantry, especially, is magnificent. Very soon, perhaps, a battle will decide our destinies . . . May the Almighty grant us the victory, for the right is on our side!’69
That Alexander was in earnest there is no doubt. But good intentions were not enough; also needed was a workable plan of campaign and a degree of unity at headquarters - and there was not much evidence of either. Though physically brave enough, Alexander himself was no general, and he also had a strong propensity to distrust native Russians in favour of men who were the products of Western civilization. Among the many foreigners who had fled to the Russian court was the Prussian staff officer Ernst von Pfuhl, a man who had singularly failed to distinguish himself in the Jena campaign but had succeeded in cultivating the air of a great military genius. Much impressed, Alexander allowed himself to be persuaded that Pfuhl had the secret of defeating Napoleon. As the German officer correctly divined, Alexander’s instinct was to fight a defensive campaign that would exploit the difficulties that the grande armée would encounter in Russia to the full. ‘If the Emperor Napoleon makes war on me,’ Alexander told Caulaincourt, ‘it is possible, even probable, that we shall be defeated, assuming that we fight. But that will not mean that he can dictate a peace . . . We shall take no risks. We have plenty of room . . . Our climate, our winter, will fight on our side.’70 Sensing that these were the tsar’s views, Pfuhl came up with a scheme that was neatly tailored to appeal not just to these ideas but to his vanity. In brief, a great fortified camp was to be constructed at Drissa on the river Dvina. Deep inside Russian territory - Drissa lies some 200 miles from the frontier - this was intended to fulfil the function that the Lines of Torres Vedras had played in Portugal and was to be garrisoned by the forces of Barclay de Tolly. While Cossacks devastated the countryside and deprived the French of food and shelter, Bagration would manoeuvre against their lines of communication and cut them off from the frontier.
Yet, as many of Alexander’s Russian generals pointed out, this plan was little better than rank madness: Drissa was no Torres Vedras, while to have Barclay de Tolly and Bagration fight independently of one another was to hand Napoleon all the advantages of occupying the central position and risk defeat in detail, especially as everyone knew that the two commanders hated one another. Nor did it help that the ramparts and redoubts that had been thrown up on the Dvina proved to have been badly planned and constructed. ‘Having observed the camp,’ wrote General Yermolev, ‘the commander-in-chief found it had been built for larger forces than those now deployed there . . . and noted that many fortifications had unsatisfactory communications between each other which weakened their common defence, while the enemy had favourable approaches to some of them . . . Even these flaws could not describe all the errors of this camp, deficiencies that were obvious to anyone proficient in military matters.’71 Pfuhl, then, was scorned, but many of his Russian rivals were no better, fondly imagining that Alexander’s forces could invade Poland and defeat Napoleon, when this was not only most unlikely, but also certain to play straight into the emperor’s hands. Yet Alexander was not strong enough to hold his course and till the last moment wavered in his resolution. While retreating made sense, he could not forget the fate of his father and was unwilling to abandon the western frontier without a fight. Refuge was found in procrastination: no general council of war was held, while life in Vilna was characterized by endless balls and receptions. In the end, indeed, only once the French had actually crossed the frontier were orders given to implement the Drissa plan, and even then this was, in the words of Sir Robert Wilson, who was present at the tsar’s headquarters, ‘an announcement of great mortification to Alexander’.72
To return to the diplomatic situation, even now there had been no formal breach in Franco-Russian relations: both emperors gave out that they were merely embarking on extended tours of inspection. But the tension was extreme and matters soon came to a head. Prior to Napoleon’s departure for the east, Kurakin presented him with Russia’s definitive terms: Napoleon must withdraw completely from Prussia, evacuate Swedish Pomerania and accept Russia’s right to establish the same system of trade licences Napoleon had permitted in metropolitan France, the quid pro quo being that Alexander promised to uphold the remaining provisions of the Continental Blockade. Needless to say, this note was ignored, and Kurakin announced that he was returning to Russia. This, however, did not suit Napoleon at all - to have let the Russians have the last say in the diplomatic exchanges that preceded the outbreak of hostilities would have been to risk being portrayed as the aggressor. Kurakin was therefore detained in Paris on the pretext that the emperor wished to make one last attempt to contact Alexander and the claim was assiduously spread that Napoleon wanted a peaceful settlement. To carry the fiction still further, one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp, the Comte de Narbonne, was dispatched to Vilna to seek an audience with the tsar. There was, however, no budging Alexander:
I shall not be the first to draw the sword. I have no wish to be saddled in the eyes of Europe with the responsibility of the blood that will be shed in this war. For eighteen months I have been threatened. The French army is 300 leagues from its own country and actually on my frontiers, whereas I am on my own territory . . . The Emperor Napoleon . . . is raising Austria, Germany, Prussia, all Europe, in arms against Russia . . . I am under no illusions. I render too much justice to his military talents not to have calculated all the risks that an appeal to arms may involve for us, but, having done all that I could to . . . uphold a political system which might lead to universal peace, I will do nothing to besmirch the honour of the nation over which I rule . . . All the bayonets . . . waiting at my frontiers will not make me speak otherwise . . . Can the Emperor Napoleon, in all good faith, demand explanations when, in a time of total peace, he invades the north of Germany, when he fails to observe the engagements of the alliance and carry out the principles of his Continental System? Is it not he who should explain his motives?73
From this moment the die was cast. On 16 June Kurakin was finally allowed to leave Paris, and eight days later the first French troops crossed the river Niemen. At the prompting of Rumiantsev, who had to the end opposed war, some days into the campaign Alexander sent a special emissary to Napoleon asking him to withdraw immediately in exchange for a promise of negotiations on the basis of the conditions Kurakin had communicated to him in April. Encountering Napoleon at Vilna, the envoy was treated in the most scornful fashion, however - ‘Alexander is laughing at me. Does he imagine that I have come to Vilna to negotiate trade treaties?’74 - and thus it was that the wars of Napoleon entered their last and most momentous phase.
In the east, all was set for a fresh conflict. As yet, however, it was limited to Eastern Europe. Other than the informal promises she had made to Bernadotte, Britain had played no part in events, and still had almost no contact with St Petersburg. Indeed, right up until the outbreak of hostilities she was still formally at war with both Russia and Sweden. Keen to emphasize his liberationist credentials, meanwhile, Napoleon even called the struggle ‘the second Polish war’ (the first one was the campaign of 1807), and in this he was supported by the enthusiastic response of nationalistic elements in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. An officer of the Legion of the Vistula has left us this picture of the reception that Napoleon received when he passed through Posen, for example:
[The emperor] arrived at nine in the evening, escorted by a detachment of French and Polish Guards. He was met by a welcome as enthusiastic as the one in 1806. There were triumphal arches, illuminations and fireworks everywhere, marking the hopes of a people confident in the future . . . A huge crowd choked the streets, which were as light as in any daylight. The population of the surrounding countryside had gathered to take part in the celebrations and were camping in all of the town’s squares.75
Though Napoleon’s attempts to place a favourable gloss upon his actions should be viewed sceptically, the specifically eastern aspect of the conflict should not be forgotten. If Poland was ever to be restored, if the Ottoman Empire was ever to regain the territory she had lost to Russia in the course of the eighteenth century, if Sweden was to be restored to a position of predominance in the Baltic, if the steady expansion of Russian rule towards the west and south was ever to be checked, this was the moment at which it had to be achieved. Embedded in the war of 1812, in short, were several important themes in the history of European international relations that both predated and transcended the history of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Attempts to find a structural explanation for the war of 1812 should not be pushed too far, however. If the issues of Poland, Turkish control of the Ukraine and Swedish control of the Baltic had all been reopened, it was solely because of the influence of Napoleon, while the attack on Russia was intimately bound up with the war with Britain. To accept this, however, is not the same as accepting that Napoleon was somehow forced into war on account of Britain’s continued resistance. Alexander and his advisers remained deeply anti-British and even in 1812 were willing seconds of the French on that front. As for the idea of a march on India, if Napoleon ever took this seriously - and there is little real evidence that he did - then questions really must be asked about his sanity. Nor is self-defence any use as an explanation: whatever the emperor may have claimed, there was no evidence that Alexander was still planning an offensive war. One is left, then, with one explanation, and one explanation alone: frustrated by the long war in Spain and Portugal, and the failure of the Continental Blockade to bring the British to heel, Napoleon was simply bent on flexing his military muscle and winning fresh glory. Here is the verdict of one of the many soldiers about to experience the horrors of the Russian campaign:
The treaty of [Schönbrunn] . . . crowned the prosperity of the fortunate Napoleon . . . since it secured forever the dynasty of a man, who [had] risen from the humblest rank of society . . . That period ought to have been esteemed the happiest of Napoleon’s life. What more could the wildest ambition desire? From a private individual he saw himself raised to the first throne of the world; his reign had been one continued series of victories; and to complete his happiness, a son, the object of his most ardent wishes, was born to succeed him. The people, though oppressed under his government, became accustomed to it, and seemed desirous to secure the crown to his family. All the foreign princes who were subjected to his power were his vassals . . . Nothing was wanting to make him happy! Nothing - if he could be happy who possessed not a love of justice. To that sentiment Napoleon had ever been a stranger and consequently knew not enjoyment or repose. Agitated by a reckless spirit and tormented by ungovernable ambition, the very excess of his fortune was his ruin . . . Continually tormented by spleen and melancholy, the least contradiction irritated him . . . and poisoned the happiest moments of his glory . . . Despot over his people . . . and a slave to his ungovernable passions, he . . . adopted a false line of politics, and converted . . . the most useful and powerful of his allies into a dangerous enemy.76