The first rule of warfare, Field-Marshal Montgomery once said, is not to march on Moscow. When the grande armée poured across the river Niemen on 24 June 1812, however, there was no thought of marching so far into the depths of Russia: what was intended was a very different campaign that would have given Napoleon fresh allies in Eastern Europe and in effect blackmailed Alexander into submission. To the surprise of most observers, this scheme went wrong, and in the process an essentially eastern conflict was subsumed into the broader history of the Napoleonic Wars and ended up becoming a general onslaught on France of a sort not seen even in the great crisis of 1793 . In this development, the terrible human catastrophe that resulted from the march on Moscow was to play its part, but it should be remembered that in the end even defeat in Russia was not enough to bring about the general uprising against the Napoleonic imperium that was finally to bring it down. The retreat from Moscow did not shake the emperor’s hold on France, Italy or Germany, and even in the dark days of 1813 he could have escaped with much of his power intact. That Napoleon did not do so is related not so much to the intransigence of the ancien régime as to his own lack of realism and failure of perception, not to mention his tacit acceptance that he was either a successful warlord or he was nothing. As he said, ‘Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.’ The result being a refusal to compromise even in the face of the most desperate odds, the ranks of his foes grew so numerous that even Napoleon could not hold his own against them and, in trying to do so, strained the loyalties of France to such an extent that she turned her back on him.
Once again, then, the personal dimension was crucial. To the end Napoleon claimed he was fighting for France and that he could not accept a peace that was dishonourable for France. But if he truly believed this argument, the wholesale identification of his own interests with those of France is but one more example of the way in which the emperor deceived himself, if not those around him. Just as unhelpful was the way in which he constantly stressed, even after defeat in Russia, that there was no challenge that he and his armies could not surmount. The litany was a constant one: ‘Victory belongs to the most persevering’; ‘The moral is to the physical as three is to one’; ‘How many things apparently impossible have nevertheless been performed by resolute men who had no alternative but death?’; ‘Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools’, ‘Great men seldom fail in their most perilous enterprises’; ‘The word impossible is not in my dictionary.’ In short, just as Napoleon had not understood the realities of strength in victory, in defeat he did not understand the realities of weakness, all his bravura coming down to little more than a willingness to stake France’s all on a series of ever more improbable throws of the dice. In this, however, there lay but one hope - that somehow the coalition facing him would fall apart and thereby restore him to the position that he had been able to exploit so well prior to 1812. With every day that passed, however, Napoleon’s conduct made this prospect ever less likely, the end result being ultimately a coalition the like of which the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had never seen.
In 1812, however, all this was far away. Indeed, as he explained to Metternich at Dresden, his plan of campaign was relatively rational:
My enterprise is one of those of which the solution is to be found in patience . . . I shall open the campaign by crossing the Niemen. It will be concluded at Smolensk or Minsk. There I shall stop. I shall fortify these two points, and occupy myself at Vilna, where the chief headquarters will be during the next winter, with the organization of Lithuania, which burns with impatience to be delivered from the yoke of Russia. I shall wait and see which of us tires first: I of feeding my army at the expense of Russia, or Alexander at the expense of sustaining my army at the expense of his country.1
With Napoleon the great exponent of the concept of the decisive battle, it is a little odd to find him discussing the campaign in terms of the occupation of territory. But battle remained at the heart of the emperor’s intentions. If the Russians advanced, as he hoped, he would envelop them from the north and west somewhere in the region of the river Narew: ‘If the enemy takes the offensive on the right bank of the river Narew . . . he will present his flank to the Viceroy [i.e. Prince Eugène], who will fall upon his right. If he does so between the Narew and the Bug, V Corps and VIII Corps will be able to move via Ostrolenka and Pultusk and achieve the same effect.’2 Supposing they did not move, however, the day of reckoning would simply come elsewhere. While Napoleon crossed the Niemen at Kovno with the majority of his forces, and marched directly on Vilna, supported to his right rear by two corps under Eugène de Beauharnais, the four corps forming his right wing, which had been placed under the somewhat unlikely figure of Jerome Bonaparte, were to fix in place the Second West Army of General Bagration. Striking south towards the impassable Pripet marshes, Napoleon would then cut Bagration’s communications and smash his forces, together, it was hoped, with Barclay’s centre and left.
What all this assumed was that the Russians would fight for Vilna. As Napoleon acknowledged, even a limited advance into Russia posed many problems. That he clearly recognized this is suggested by a conversation he had with Pasquier on the eve of his departure from Paris, in which he referred to the forthcoming campaign as ‘the greatest and most difficult enterprise that I have ever attempted’.3 In consequence, everything possible had been done to ease the passage of the grande armée. In addition to the establishment of immense supply depots at Königsberg and other towns, the number of transport battalions was raised from fourteen to twenty-three, of which fifteen served in Russia, and the size of the individual units was greatly increased. Between the thousands of wagons in these battalions and the packs of the troops themselves, there were sufficient rations for twenty-four days, a far more generous allowance than in many previous campaigns. And more supplies could be brought up from the rear. If Kovno and Vilna were selected as the main point of penetration into Russia, it was in part because the river Niemen was navigable as far as the latter city. Yet within a very short time it became clear that even in the vicinity of the frontier the French faced immense problems. Even before the invasion began there were reports of trouble. On 20 June, for example, Poniatowski reported from Novogrodek that his men were going short: ‘Thanks to the country’s want of resources . . . the question of supply is becoming more difficult by the day, and it is only with the greatest efforts that it has been possible to issue the proper rations. Indeed, I have just been forced to order them to be reduced by half until such time as we have got in more in the way of subsistence.’4
Once the frontier had been crossed, things grew even worse. The forces led by Napoleon himself were immediately struck by violent thunderstorms and even freak blizzards, which caused havoc. Present with the Imperial Guard was Captain Coignet. ‘I was half-dead with the cold: not being able to stand it any longer, I opened one of my wagons and crept inside. Next morning a heart-rending sight met our gaze: in the cavalry camp nearby, the ground was covered with horses frozen to death.’5 Given the quagmires which the appalling roads quickly became, the wagon trains could not keep up with the troops. Yet the troops only had sufficient biscuit for four days. Present with the Württemberg contingent was a twenty-four-year-old infantryman named Jakob Walter:
We . . . believed that, once in Russia, we need do nothing but forage - which, however, proved to be an illusion. The town of Poniemon was already stripped before we could enter and so were all the villages. Here and there a hog ran around and then was beaten with clubs, chopped with sabres, and, often still living, it would be cut and torn to pieces. Several times I succeeded in cutting off something, but I had to chew it and eat it uncooked, since my hunger could not wait for a chance to boil the meat . . . Meanwhile, it rained ceaselessly for several days, and the rain was cold. It was all the more disagreeable because nothing could be dried . . . During the third night a halt was made in a field which was trampled into a swamp . . . You can imagine in what a half-numbed condition everyone stood here . . . There was nothing that we could do but stack the [muskets] in pyramids and keep moving in order not to freeze.6
Things were not much better in any other unit, and the roads, such as they were, were soon littered with the corpses of men and horses. Dysentery struck many units, and huge numbers of horses - 10,000 in the main army alone, according to Caulaincourt - literally dropped dead from overwork and undernourishment. Desperate to make progress, French commanders made extreme demands of their men all along the line. The vanguard of the main army, for example, covered the seventy miles from Kovno to Vilna in just two days. But this only made things worse, and by the time the Lithuanian capital was taken the number of dead and missing may already have amounted to 25,000 men. And, finally, for all the grande armée’s forced marches, both Barclay de Tolly and Bagration had successfully evaded the French spearheads and got away into the interior: indeed, hardly a shot had yet been fired.
It might be thought that such difficulties would have been sufficient to persuade Napoleon that a political settlement was essential, particularly as it was at Vilna that news reached him of Russia’s peace settlement with Turkey. Yet Alexander’s last-minute peace proposals were, as we have seen, simply scorned, and that despite the fact that a major pillar of Napoleon’s strategy was falling apart around the very doors of his headquarters. We come here to the question of the invaders’ relationship with the local populace. The war had been billed as one of liberation, and it was Napoleon’s intention at the very least to set up some form of political base for his operations in Lithuania. Winning over the populace was not very high on the agenda of the grande armée, however. Major Faber du Faur, an artillery officer, like Walter a member of the Württemberg division, wrote:
There has never been a campaign in which the troops have relied so much on living off the land, but it was the way in which it was done in Russia that caused such universal suffering - for the soldiers of the army as well as the inhabitants. Because of its rapid marches and its enormous size, the army faced a dearth of everything and it was impossible to procure the barest necessity. It was around the time that we reached Ewe that one can date the start of this fatal requisitioning and the destruction of the surrounding countryside, which, naturally, had devastating consequences. Everyday as we broke camp, we could see clouds of marauders . . . make off in all directions . . . to find the barest of all essentials. They would return to the camp in the evening laden with their booty. Inevitably, this kind of behaviour made an unfortunate impression on Lithuania, which had so long been under the yoke of Russia and, instead of any benefit from its new alliance, saw only the oppression wrought by its new allies.7
The impact of all this on the local populace was most severe. Among those who awaited the coming of the emperor was the young Sophie Tisenhaus, whose father was one of Vilna’s most ardent supporters of the restoration of Poland:
The French army, as they entered Vilna, had not taken bread for three days. All the bakers in the town were immediately employed in the service of the troops, and . . . want was cruelly felt by the inhabitants of Vilna . . . The country through which the Grand Army had passed had been ravaged and pillaged, and its corn had been cut green for the cavalry; it could not, therefore, supply the needs of the capital, and the people dared not expose their convoys on the roads, which were infested by marauders. Besides, the disorderly behaviour of the army was a consequence of the sentiments of its chief, for, having crossed the Niemen, Napoleon . . . declared to his troops that they were about to set foot on Russian territory . . . In consequence of this proclamation, Lithuania was treated as a hostile country, while its inhabitants, animated by patriotic enthusiasm, flew to welcome the French. They were soon to be despoiled and outraged by those whom they regarded as the instrument of the deliverance of their country, and compelled to abandon their homes and their property to pillage. Many took refuge in the depths of the forests . . . Each day brought the recital of new excesses committed by the French soldiers in the country . . . In the meantime, French arrogance . . . expected all obstacles to be removed, all difficulties to disappear . . . ‘There is no patriotism among you,’ said the French, ‘no energy, no vigour!’8
Nor was pillage the only public relations disaster suffered by the invaders. Thus, Napoleon not only made no announcement of Lithuania’s incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Warsaw but publicly made slighting remarks about the local nobility and bluntly informed a delegation that reached him from the Polish capital that he would do nothing to disturb his relations with the emperor of Austria - that Poland, in short, would never be restored to the totality of 1772. A provisional administration was established in Vilna, but enthusiasm was notably absent. ‘The inhabitants seemed little disposed to respond to the appeals made to their patriotism,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘The pillage and disorders of all kinds in which the army had indulged had put the whole countryside to flight. In the towns the more respectable people kept within doors. Whatever the zeal of those Poles who had come with the army, the emperor had to send for any of the responsible persons of Vilna whom he might require, for not a soul presented himself or offered his services.’9 With great effort, a Lithuanian army was eventually formed, but it never amounted to more than 10,000 men, was the product of hunger rather than enthusiasm and hardly saw action before disintegrating in the horrors of the retreat from Moscow. Indeed, even the nobility were slow to come forward: in June the whole district of Vilna ‘could not furnish more than twenty men for Napoleon’s guard of honour’.10
If Napoleon’s policy was bedevilled by contradictions in Vilna, the same was also true in Warsaw. Great hopes had been fostered among Polish nationalists in the run-up to war, and there was much excitement. ‘As soon as the news spread that war had broken out,’ wrote the Countess Potocka, ‘on all sides the young sprang to arms, and that before anyone had asked them to do so. Neither the menaces of Russia, nor the prudence . . . of their parents, could check their patriotic spirit . . . Children listened with feverish curiosity to the stories of their elders, and burned with ardour . . . Anyone without a uniform did not dare to show themselves in the streets for fear of being mocked by urchins.’11 But Napoleon, less enamoured of the Poles than his public position suggests, realized that pushing the Polish question too far was folly, for his attack on Russia needed the active cooperation of Prussia and Austria. To act upon his rhetoric of liberation was therefore impossible. As his aide-de-camp, Lejeune, wrote:
Deputations of Polish noblemen arrived in rapid succession, eager to persuade him to decree the restoration of the Kingdom of Poland, and promising him . . . the loyal cooperation of the whole Polish nation . . . There is little doubt that Napoleon would gladly have met their wishes immediately, for an independent Poland would have been a steadfast ally to France, and have protected us from an invasion from the north . . . It must, however, be remembered that the emperor was terribly hampered in any decision as to Poland by the fact that he would not only have to dispose of that portion of the dismembered kingdom still in the grasp of Russia, but also of the provinces . . . assigned by treaty to Prussia and Austria respectively. Now Prussian and Austrian battalions were marching in line with ours . . . but there was no doubt that at the slightest hint of the emperor’s intentions to take from their princes their [remaining] portion of the spoils of the old Kingdom of Poland, every Austrian and Prussian would have left our ranks to join those of the Russians. Napoleon . . . therefore . . . needed all his diplomatic skill . . . to evade destroying the hopes of the Poles or making any definite promise to them.12
To deal with the problem, a special diet of the Polish nobility was assembled at Warsaw under the presidency of no less a person than the father of Prince Adam Czartoryski, and allowed to proclaim itself to be a ‘general confederation of the Polish nation’. Opening the deliberations of this body, meanwhile, Napoleon’s ‘ambassador-extraordinary’, Dufour de Pradt, made vague promises of freedom, only to discover that the deputies voiced demands beyond anything his master was prepared to contemplate. After just three days, then, the Diet was dissolved and replaced by a small council of administration. Yet this was not the most politic of moves. At Tilsit the Poles had seen the emperor surrender the interests of Poland to his need for an alliance with Russia, and now, with 75,000 men under arms in the grande armée and her economy ruined by the Continental Blockade, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw was in a state of complete bankruptcy. On top of this, Poland, like East Prussia, had now been devastated by the concentration of thegrande armée. ‘The depredations of the army, and its agents,’ wrote Pradt, ‘had not ceased for an instant. I remember a little Jew whom I passed on the road to Warsaw and asked for news. “News?” he wryly replied. “There is not a thing to eat.” ’13 But, it now transpired, all this was for nothing, all that had changed being that the emperor was sacrificing Poland’s interests in favour of Austria and Prussia rather than Russia. The result, needless to say, was disillusionment in the army - so far as Napoleon was concerned, one cavalry officer concluded, ‘the Poles have never been anything but an instrument of convenience’14 - and apathy on the home front. ‘The grandees, some elements of the lesser nobility and the so-called liberal professions remained in a state of excitement . . . but the mass of the nation turned their backs on the movement . . . The Poles may have wanted the restoration of their fatherland, but they did not want to achieve this at the cost of devastation and absolute ruin.’15 And if Poland was apathetic, Prussia was downright hostile. Reduced to penury by the passage of the grande armée, its inhabitants were sullen and resentful. In charge of a depot of replacement horses for the artillery, Jean Noël complained, ‘All of them, especially those in authority, did everything they could to harm our army. Our dealings with them were most unpleasant.’16
As the campaign unfolded, for a short while it looked as though a reduced version of Napoleon’s master-plan might still be realizable. Barclay’s army had got away to the east and north-east, but the forces of Bagration, though themselves in retreat, were still within reach. From Vilna, Marshal Davout’s I Corps was hastily flung southwards and orders were dispatched to Jerome to abandon the defensive posture originally envisaged for him and press north-eastwards with all speed. Famously, however, the scheme went wrong: Jerome’s forces did not arrive in time, and Bagration escaped. For this failure the King of Westphalia has been widely blamed, an opinion shared by Napoleon, who sharply reproved his brother and placed him under the control of Davout (as Davout and Jerome were old enemies, the latter took umbrage and promptly went home to Kassel). However, the balance of opinion is now that Jerome was hard done by. As a commander he was undoubtedly mediocre, but the situation facing him was quite impossible. His men were deployed much further to the rear than the rest of the grande armée: at the onset of the campaign, indeed, they were anything up to 200 miles from the frontier. The fruit of Napoleon’s desire to keep back his right so as to lure the Russian centre and left into a trap, this could not easily be undone when the orders came for Jerome to move forward. To get to their first objective - the town of Grodno - the troops had to follow a track barely wide enough to take a single wagon that wound for mile after mile through impenetrable forests, while the rain came down in sheets. Not until 30 June did they reach Grodno, and by then the troops were so exhausted that Jerome gave them two day’s rest. Having already lost one sixth of his men, on
4 July he pushed on again in baking heat, but it was too late: he still had 100 miles to cover, and by the time he had reached his destination Bagration had long since gone.
Within a very few days, then, several factors had become clear. The physical problems of operating inside Russia were likely to be very great, if not insurmountable. The support of the local populace, non-Russian though it was, could not be counted upon. Horses and men alike were at serious risk of death by starvation and disease. The grande armée was so cumbersome and Russian distances so great it was going to prove almost impossible to set up the sort of battle of encirclement dreamed of by Napoleon. And, finally, the emperor could no longer exercise the sort of personal control that had been so important in earlier campaigns. At this point, in military terms, the best thing for Napoleon to have done would have been to abandon offensive operations, thin out his troops, consolidate the loyalty of the Poles and Lithuanians and wait for Alexander either to negotiate or to launch a counter-offensive. But this the emperor refused to do even though it fitted in perfectly with the general scheme of operations he had outlined to Metternich at Dresden. Such was the image he had created of himself that he was now its prisoner. ‘Napoleon did not hesitate,’ wrote Ségur. ‘He had not been able to stop at Paris; should he then retreat at Vilna? What would Europe think of him? What result could he offer to the French and Allied armies as a motive for so many fatigues, such vast movements, such enormous individual and national expenditure? It would be at once confessing himself beaten.’17 To quote another observer of the scene in Vilna, ‘The fatal genius of Napoleon pushed him forward, and it was thus that, from illusion to illusion, he rushed to his ruin, rejecting the truth as an apparition whose presence he could not endure.’18
On 9 July, Napoleon left Vilna in search of the victory that every day made more pressing. But, of course, it was not to be found. Evading another French envelopment at Vitebsk, the Russians succeeded in concentrating their forces at Smolensk, leaving the invaders to lumber slowly along in their wake. And as Napoleon advanced so his forces disintegrated. In the first place the soldiers had to trudge along in the most overpowering heat. In the second, the already chaotic logistical situation collapsed altogether, the troops outstripping their now much diminished supply trains and discovering that the poor and thinly populated borderlands were unable to meet their requirements, matters being made still worse by the fact that the countryside in their path had also, of course, been devastated by the retreating Russians. Food was extremely scarce and in places even water was almost unobtainable. As Walter wrote, ‘The men were growing weaker and weaker every day and the companies smaller and smaller . . . One man after another stretched himself half-dead upon the ground; most of them died a few hours later . . . The chief cause of this was thirst, for in most districts there was no water fit for drinking, so that the men had to drink out of ditches in which were lying dead horses and dead men. I often marched away from the columns for several hours in search of water, but seldom could I return with any . . . All the towns not only were completely stripped, but also half-burned.’19 As Caulaincourt admitted, the situation was catastrophic:
It had been hoped to obtain some supplies at Vitebsk, but the place was practically deserted. Moreover, the capital cities of these great Russian provinces were of less use than the smallest towns in Germany. Too much accustomed to relying upon the resources of the country, we had reckoned on being able to do the same in Russia . . . The lack of order, the indiscipline of the troops and even of the Guard, robbed us of the few means that remained at our disposal. Never was there a situation more deplorable . . . for those who could think and who had not been dazzled by the false glamour of glory and ambition . . . The innumerable wagons, the enormous quantity of supplies of all sorts that had been collected at such expense during the course of two years, had vanished through theft or loss, or through lack of means to bring them up. The rapidity of the forced marches, the shortage of harness and spare parts, the dearth of provisions, the want of care, had all helped to kill the horses . . . Disorder reigned everywhere: in the town as in the country around, everyone was in want.20
With tens of thousands of men and horses gone, much of what remained of his forces scattered all over the country in search of food, large numbers of troops detached to protect his line of communications, and the heat unendurable, even Napoleon seems to have considered giving up. ‘I have,’ he privately confessed, ‘marched too far.’21 Contributing to this dark mood was yet another missed battle: believing that Bagration was on the verge of joining him, on 26 July Barclay de Tolly turned at bay before Vitebsk and made ready to fight. Had Napoleon been able to attack immediately, he might well have struck the blow he so wanted, but his troops were not able to come up quickly enough and, hearing that Bagration had been delayed, Barclay was able to slip away again. On 28 July the French entered Vitebsk and with it took the easternmost city of pre-1772 Poland. All Lithuania, therefore, had been conquered. Also the rivers Dvina and Dnieper afforded the French a viable defensive line, especially as hopes were high that a flanking column that Marshal Macdonald had been leading towards the Baltic would soon take the fortress of Riga and thereby secure the grande armée’s left flank. ‘Here I stop!’ Napoleon exclaimed. ‘Here I must look around me, rally, refresh my army and organize Poland. The campaign of 1812 is finished.’22
But this resolution did not last for very long. After a few days the army’s stragglers started to come in and the troops became more rested and a little better fed. Meanwhile, Napoleon had been hoping the Russians would launch a counter-attack and afford him the chance of a knock-out blow that would force Alexander to make peace. No such offensive materialized, however, and very soon the emperor’s resolve began to waver:
When he found himself somewhat refreshed by repose, when no envoy from Alexander made his appearance and his first dispositions were completed, he was seized with impatience. He was observed to grow restless. Perhaps it was that inactivity annoyed him . . . and that he preferred danger to the weariness of expectation, or that he was agitated by that desire of acquisition which, with the majority of mankind, has greater influence than the pleasure of preserving or the fear of losing . . . He was seen to pace his apartments as if pursued by some dangerous temptation. Nothing could fix his attention. Every moment he began, quitted and resumed his occupation. He walked about without any purpose, enquired the hour and remarked the weather. Completely absorbed, he stopped, then hummed a tune with an absent air and again began pacing. In the midst of his perplexity he occasionally addressed the people he met with such phrases as ‘Well, what are we to do? Shall we stay where we are or advance? How is it possible to stop short in the midst of so glorious a career?’ He did not wait for their reply, but still kept wandering about as if he was looking for someone or something to end his indecision.23
Military logic dictated only one decision, and Napoleon’s headquarters was not short of those desperate for the emperor to recognize the realities of his situation. Caulaincourt, Marshal Berthier, who was, as usual, serving as Napoleon’s chief-of-staff, the emperor’s aides-de-camp, Narbonne, Lebrun and Mouton, and the intendant-general, Daru, all sought to persuade their master to remain on the defensive. But they were countered by Joachim Murat who, though glad enough of a temporary halt to rest his troops, was urging a fresh advance. At the same time, such a course was a tempting prospect. Among the French troops especially, morale had far from broken down: many were spoiling for a fight and, convinced Napoleon was the only man who could save them, cheered him whenever he appeared; To the east of Vitebsk the countryside was more fertile and densely cultivated than it was in the marshes and forests of the western borderlands; and, as the forces of Bagration and Barclay de Tolly had at last managed to concentrate at Smolensk, the main weight of Russia’s military power was little more than a hundred miles to the east. Though the Russian armies had succeeded in coming together, they still numbered no more than 120,000 men. In short, a heavy blow might still have been decisive, for with the bulk of the Russian field army gone, Alexander would at the very least have had to consider his options.
We come now to the question of popular Russian responses to the struggle. This is too complicated to be dealt with here at any length, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that the peasants remained hostile to serfdom and conscription alike. The famous ‘scorched earth’ policy that bedevilled the French was the work not of the people themselves, but of the forces of the state. If the region of Vitebsk was anything to go by, in fact, the serfs were on the brink of revolt. ‘The neighbouring peasants,’ wrote Berthier’s aide-de-camp, the Duc de Fézensac, ‘hearing of nothing but liberty and independence, conceived themselves justified in rising against their masters, and conducted themselves with the most unrestrained licence.’24 This feeling had not been deliberately whipped up by Napoleon - he had refused to countenance such a course and had the disturbances suppressed. But clearly, peasant unrest would make it much harder for Alexander to call up fresh troops, and the emperor was, by extension, given grounds for hope. This proved fatal: ‘The sight of his soldiers’ enthusiasm at the sight of him, the reviews and parades, and, above all, the frequently coloured reports of the King of Naples and other generals, went to his head . . . He was obsessed once more by his illusions and returned to his gigantic projects.’25 To justify his thinking, Napoleon used all sorts of specious arguments - one example was his claim that the French military machine was an instrument more suited to attack than defence - but those around him were not fooled. As Ségur wrote, ‘What would be thought if it were known that a third of his army . . . were no longer in the ranks? It was indispensable, therefore, to dazzle the world quickly with the brilliance of a great victory and hide so many sacrifices under a heap of laurels.’26
Closely connected with these thoughts was the idea that the grande armée might dictate peace to Alexander from Moscow. Napoleon had vaguely mentioned such a prospect at various times but it was only at Vitebsk that the idea of reaching that city became prominent in his conversation. The emperor was clearly excited by the idea but there was no clear decision to march on Moscow. When the 182,000 men who remained available to Napoleon in the vicinity of Vitebsk set off on
12 August, the objective of the grande armée remained the defeat of the Russian army. Striking south to the river Dnieper, Napoleon got his men across the river, and then turned east towards Smolensk. Once again, the aim was to trap Bagration and Barclay, whose troops were mostly scattered to the west and north-west of the city, but a gallant fight on the part of an isolated Russian division caught at Krasnoye held up the encirclement while Napoleon also wasted some time on a grand review held in honour of his birthday on 15 August. Not until 17 August did the grande armée mount a full-scale attack, and by then the two Russian generals had managed to concentrate all their troops around the city. Moreover, still more fumbling on the part of the French - and especially, Napoleon himself - allowed the Russians to escape yet again after two days’ fighting. With them there probably went the emperor’s last chance of victory. At all events, he was visibly angered: ‘At around five in the evening [of 19 August] we caught sight of the emperor riding along the Moscow road. He seemed much displeased and galloped past the soldiers without seeming to notice their acclamations.’27
Smolensk, it will be recalled, had been the furthest point Napoleon had considered advancing to at the start of the campaign, and even now the way was open to him to revert to the defensive strategy that had been considered at Vitebsk: so far as this was concerned, indeed, the capture of the fortified bastion Smolensk represented could be considered an important gain. The march on Smolensk, meanwhile, had been accompanied by the same difficulties as before. ‘At this time,’ wrote an officer, François, ‘the army was much diminished . . . by dysentery, by which many of the soldiers were attacked. This disease was caused by the scarcity of bread, which obliged the soldiers to live chiefly on meat . . . The stagnant marsh water we drank also contributed to spread the disease. Few of the men, or even of the generals were exempt from it. The hospitals were full of sick, who had but little medical aid, for the ambulances and medicines remained in the rear.’28 After a brief let-up in the wake of the departure from Vitebsk, the heat was again, as Napoleon himself put it, ‘frightful’.29 As for Smolensk, it had been a terrible fight, and the sights and sounds of the battlefield seem for a moment to have given even Napoleon pause. Nor did it help that the grande armée’s communications and foraging parties were beginning to be plagued by bands of desperate peasants who, if they were in fact motivated by nothing more than hunger and a visceral desire for revenge, none the less were a source of considerable concern. As Yermolev remembered, ‘We had previously passed through Lithuania where the nobility, keeping the hopes of restoring Poland alive, agitated the feeble minds of the peasants against us. In Byelorussia, too, the oppressive authority of the landlords forced the peasants to desire change. However, here, around Smolensk, people were ready to see us as their saviours. It was impossible to express more hatred towards the enemy, or a more fervent desire to assist us . . . The peasants came to me with a question; could they take up arms against the enemy themselves and not be held responsible for it by the state?’30 Faced by the uncertainty of catching the Russians, Napoleon therefore talked to Caulaincourt of halting the advance and even sent off a Russian officer who had been taken prisoner with an offer of peace terms. At the same time a crazy demand on the part of Poniatowski to be allowed to lead the bulk of the Polish forces in a march on Poland’s erstwhile territories in the Ukraine was quashed.
In the end, however, caution came to nothing. Excited by false reports that the Russians were making a stand on the river Ouja, Napoleon urged his men on again. It was from the start a desperate gamble, though, and it was soon clear the emperor’s luck had run out:
The army marched in three columns . . . It was impossible to come up with the enemy’s infantry. Our advanced guard had only to contend with their light cavalry, which defended themselves no longer than was necessary to allow time for the main body to pursue its retreat unmolested . . . The emperor, expecting each day that the Russians would stop their rearward movement and give battle, allowed himself to be thus drawn on towards Moscow without bestowing a thought on the fatigue which his troops underwent, and without considering that he was no longer in communication with the rest of his army.31
The march, in fact, was a nightmare:
The further we advanced the more desolate became the country. Every village had been burned, and there was no longer even the thatch from the cottages for the horses to eat: everything that could be destroyed was reduced to ashes. The men suffered no less than the animals: the heat was intense, and the sand rose in masses of white dust as our columns advanced, choking us and completing our exhaustion. Our misery was intensified by the want of water in these never-ending plains.32
But still there came no request for an armistice, no suggestion of peace talks. All that the grande armée could do, then, was stumble on for mile after mile. Yet every step reduced the striking power that was its only hope of victory. Twenty thousand men had been lost at Smolensk and 16,000 more detached to act as its garrison, and the road east was littered with thousands of corpses. Marching in the rear of the main spearheads was the Württemberg division: ‘From Dorogobuzh onward we met many, sometimes very many, soldiers who had dropped by the roadside from sheer exhaustion and had died where they lay for lack of help . . . The horses were in no better shape than the men . . . We found them lying by the roadside in droves.’33 By early September Napoleon had with him no more than 130,000 men, but then suddenly news arrived that the enemy really had turned at bay. With the grande armée less than eighty miles west of Moscow, at last the fortunes of war seemed to have changed. ‘On 5 September,’ wrote Chlapowski, ‘we . . . arrived before a . . . position fortified by entrenchments: the Russians were accepting battle.’34
What had happened? In brief, Alexander was facing a palace coup. Just as it is often assumed Napoleon was always bent on marching on Moscow, so it is taken for granted that Alexander was bent on drawing Napoleon into the depths of Russia and letting climate, geography and the Cossacks wreak havoc on him. Yet this is simply not true. Alexander had never intended to retreat further than Drissa, and the Russians had only retired as far as they had because the French had come on in such overwhelming numbers. Indeed, for weeks the only concrete objective had been to avoid disaster. But for Alexander as much as Napoleon, his credibility was at stake. To surrender all of Russia’s gains in Poland was bad enough, but to be driven from Smolensk - one of the Orthodox Church’s holiest sites - was to place at risk the estates of some of the greatest families of the Russian nobility. To complicate matters still further, frustrated and humiliated, the officer corps was rebellious and dissatisfied. ‘If we persist in the pattern of retreat chosen by Barclay de Tolly . . . Moscow will fall, peace will be signed there, and we shall all march off to India to fight for the French . . . If I have to die, let it rather be here!’ raged one cavalry officer.35 Just as irritated was Boris von Uxkull: We are running away like hares. Panic has seized everyone. Our courage is crushed; our march looks like a funeral procession. My heart is heavy. We are abandoning all our rich and fruitful land to the fury of an enemy who spares nothing in his cruelty, it is said . . . One hears that they are burning and desecrating the churches, that the weaker sex . . . are sacrificed to their brutality and the satisfaction of their infernal lusts. Children, greybeards - it is all the same to them - all perish beneath their blows.36
And, finally, having just triumphed over Speransky, whom the tsar had been persuaded to send into internal exile as a dangerous radical in May 1812, the ‘easterners’ in the Russian court and administration had since the start of the campaign been looking for a way to get rid of Barclay, who, though extremely competent, was seen as a foreigner. Aiding this were the conscious efforts of the regime to whip up a mood of militant ‘Great Russian’ nationalism. For weeks there were insinuations of cowardice and treason, and in the wake of the fall of Smolensk Alexander finally cracked. Having recently travelled to Moscow and promised, amidst scenes of great patriotic enthusiasm, that the city would never be taken by the French, he was faced with an increasingly dangerous situation:
The spirit of the army was affected by a sense of mortification, and all ranks loudly and boldly complained: discontent was general and discipline relaxing. The nobles, the merchants and the population at large were indignant at seeing city after city, government [i.e. province] after government, abandoned, till the enemy’s guns were almost heard at Moscow.37
On 20 July, the tsar took the only step possible and appointed the most prominent soldier in the Russian army of Russian ethnic stock as commander-in-chief, in the person of the hero of Rustchuk, Mikhail Kutuzov, Alexander also hinting that he would adopt a more aggressive posture.
Oddly enough, Kutuzov, whom Alexander had never forgiven for Austerlitz, was never given any formal order to fight the French. But in the circumstances he had little option, and therefore deployed his army across the Moscow highroad at Borodino in a solid defensive position. By the time the French reached him, Napoleon’s army amounted to no more than 130,000 men. Yet the Russians, who had 121,000 men, were still outnumbered, and for a moment a crushing victory seemed to be in the emperor’s grasp: Kutuzov had not only deployed his army in such a position that it was in grave danger of being outflanked and trapped, but also arranged its command in a manner that can only be described as bizarre. Fortunately for him, when the main battle began on 7 September, Napoleon’s generalship was even worse. For no very good reason the emperor rejected the idea of envelopment, and instead settled upon a series of massive frontal assaults that could not but lead to heavy casualties. With such a battle plan, the only hope of victory was that the Russian army would break in panic, but in fact the French were confronted with the most obstinate resistance. Gradually, however, the Russians were overborne, and by late afternoon it was clear that Napoleon had only to throw in the 18,000 men of the Imperial Guard, who constituted his last reserve, to win the day. But the emperor was tired and ill, and perhaps because of this failed to act. All the fighting achieved, therefore, was to prostrate both sides more or less equally, and allow the Russians to slip away yet again. It had been a terrible day. As Caulaincourt remembered:
Never had a battle cost so many generals and officers . . . There were very few prisoners. The Russians showed the utmost tenacity: their fieldworks and the ground they were forced to yield were given up without disorder. Their ranks did not break; pounded by the artillery, sabred by the cavalry, forced back at bayonet-point by our infantry, their somewhat immobile masses met death bravely, and only gave way slowly before the fury of our attacks. Never had ground been attacked with more fury and skill or more stubbornly defended.38
In all, casualties of the battle of 7 September 1812 amounted to 30,000 French and 44,000 Russians. Gone, too, was the last chance of French victory. Though the French now entered Moscow without a fight, Napoleon could do no more. ‘Peace lies in Moscow,’ the emperor had claimed after Borodino. ‘When the great nobles of Russia see us masters of the capital, they will think twice about fighting on. If I liberated the serfs it would smash all those great fortunes. The battle will open the eyes of my brother, Alexander, and the capture of Moscow will open the eyes of his nobles . . . Swords have been crossed, honour is satisfied in the eyes of the world, and the Russians have suffered so much harm that there is no other satisfaction I can ask of them. They will be no more anxious for me to pay them a second visit than I shall be to return to Borodino.’39 But from St Petersburg there was silence. Though physically ill and under great stress, Alexander would not respond to Napoleon’s increasingly desperate communications. Borodino, after all, had been reported as a Russian victory and the tsar had come under such criticism from his sister the Grand Duchess Catherine - an influential figure in the court, and one much associated with Russian traditionalism - for losing Moscow that it was not hard to imagine his fate should he compound the disgrace by surrender. Yet with less than 100,000 troops, the emperor could not compel obedience to his will. With Moscow set alight by Russian agents, partisan activity increasing, supplies desperately short, Kutuzov’s army a mere seventy-five miles to the south, large numbers of fresh conscripts pouring into Russia’s recruiting depots, substantial regular forces closing in on his thinly protected lines of communication and the discipline and morale of thegrande armée at breaking point, the position was clearly desperate. Once it became clear that Alexander would not make peace, retreat therefore became inevitable. For Napoleon it was beyond doubt one of the hardest decisions of his career:
Overcome in this struggle of obstinacy, [Napoleon] deferred from day to day the declaration of his defeat. Amid the dreadful storm of men and elements which was gathering around him, his ministers and aides saw him pass whole days in discussing the merits of some new verses he had received . . . He would then pass whole hours, half reclined, as if lifeless . . . On beholding this obstinate and inflexible character struggling with impossibility, his officers would then observe to one another that, having arrived at the summit of his glory, he no doubt foresaw that from his first retrograde step would date its downfall, [and] that for this reason he continued immovable, clinging to and lingering a few moments longer on this peak.40
Beginning on 19 October 1812, there followed the retreat from Moscow. Much time having been wasted by a pointless battle at Maloyaroslavets, the grande armée was soon assailed by heavy snow and bitter cold. Meanwhile, Kutuzov repeatedly cut the French column in two, thereby involving it in a series of desperate battles that delayed its march still further. With the army encumbered by immense caravans of baggage and non-combatants, food, clothing and footwear in short supply, and the soldiers exhausted by the endless retreat, formation after formation lost all cohesion as their men died by the hundreds or fell away to join the ever-growing crowd of stragglers. Barely escaping complete destruction when they were attacked from all sides at the river Berezina, the survivors staggered on under the command of Marshal Ney (Napoleon himself fled by sleigh on 5 December), but they were forced to leave behind almost all the remaining guns and baggage and were eventually reduced to barely 20,000 men. Behind them the road was strewn with sights that moved even the oncoming Russians to pity. ‘I cannot leave out a description of the scene on the Berezina . . . The bridges had collapsed in places and guns and various heavy transports had fallen into the river. Crowds of people, many of them women with infants and children, had come down to the ice-covered banks. Nobody had escaped the severity of the frost . . . Fate, our avenger, presented us with scenes of all kinds of desperation and death. The river was covered with ice transparent as glass: there were numerous corpses visible underneath it for its entire width.’41 It was an experience that imprinted itself indelibly upon the memories of all those involved. One such was Franz Roeder, an officer in the Lifeguard of the Grand Duke of Hesse, who made it all the way from Moscow to Vilna before finally being taken prisoner by the Russians:
There is confusion in my brain as though everything were tumbled together . . . I am at present in a state which I find incomprehensible, inexplicable . . . God! What appalling misery . . . What a multitude have perished in this retreat . . . My temples throb to bursting, my head swims and the tears pour from my eyes when I try to recall the scenes through which I have passed . . . Dull and unfeeling, caring for myself alone, I [have] walked over living men, over brothers, who perhaps might have been saved with a little help, with one mouthful of food, with a hand to help them from the slippery ground where they had fallen . . . How I myself must have suffered to be reduced to that! Am I also destined to endure as they did before I leave this earth?42
French losses amounted to perhaps half a million men. Nor were the disasters of 1812 limited to the horrors that had occurred in the east. In Spain, as we have seen, the Russian war had also led to catastrophe: having captured Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, shattered the French at Salamanca and forced them to evacuate Andalucía, Wellington enjoyed the strategic initiative on the Portuguese frontier, while, particularly in Navarre and Aragón, much of the territory that was theoretically under French control had been overrun by the guerrillas. While the allied triumph was marred by disputes between the British and the Spaniards, it was clear that the days of French success were over. In diplomatic terms, too, the situation was now very different. A conference between Alexander and Bernadotte at Åbo in Finland in August had not persuaded Sweden to join the fighting: with his country almost bankrupt, the Crown Prince was still insisting on remaining neutral until Russia had sent troops to help him conquer Norway. However, heavy hints from Alexander that Bernadotte might be given the throne of France should Napoleon be overthrown had made the prospect much more likely. Moreover, the eastern and western struggles against Napoleon had in July 1812 been linked. No sooner had the French invaded Russia, than first Sweden and then Russia signed peace treaties with Britain. As yet there were no formal alliances between the three - the only power actually to make a pact with Russia was Spain - nor still less any agreement on subsidies, but the Royal Navy provided such assistance in the Baltic as it could, while 100,000 muskets were sent to Russia and 20,000 more to Sweden, the latter also receiving £200,000 as an advance on what she might get in the future.
In all this, the French had only one piece of good news. At precisely the moment when it would have been most useful to have a substantial expeditionary force for service on the shores of the Baltic or the North Sea, Britain’s attention was once again distracted by events on the far side of the Atlantic. The clash between Britain and the United States, known as the ‘War of 1812’, had been in the offing for some time. By 1800 the United States had emerged as a major trading power, and she had been caused considerable inconvenience by both the Continental Blockade and the British response to it. Between 1808 and 1812 American exports fell by some 40 per cent and with them the prices fetched by cotton and tobacco (and, by extension, land). In 1798 French privateering had caused such outrage in Washington it had produced a state of undeclared war with France, and under Napoleon’s rule similar tensions had re-emerged. It was with Britain, however, that trouble was worst. Unlike their opponents, the British had the ability to impose their will on the high seas. The French could impound the relatively small numbers of American ships that reached their ports and were found to be in breach of the treaties of Berlin and Milan. Equally, they could seize a few American prizes in the Atlantic or the Caribbean. But as the Royal Navy had de facto control of all the major sea lanes, American ships were far more likely to be stopped by the British than they were by the French. There was also the added problem of impressment. Constantly in need of men for the Royal Navy, the British argued they had the right to take them wherever they could find them, and American ships were a prime target. Not only did they provide an obvious haven for men who had fled the Royal Navy, but at this time the British government refused to recognize the nationality of anyone born in the United Kingdom as anything other than British. Even men who had been taken to the United States as young boys theoretically remained British subjects and, if sailors, liable to the so-called maritime press. Various estimates have been given of the number of men taken in this fashion over the years, but it may have reached 9,000 . In the short term, there was little the American government could do other than protest, but there was no doubt that the issue was of considerable concern to public opinion (a force of genuine weight in the United States). Indeed, in June 1807 an ill-advised decision on the part of HMS Leopard to stop the American frigate Chesapeake in order to search for British nationals led to widespread anger and even demands for war. This the administration of Thomas Jefferson was not prepared to contemplate, but the issue of the restrictions that had been placed on American shipping was another matter. In an attempt to place pressure on both sides (but especially the British), in April 1806 a law was introduced banning the importation of a number of specified goods and articles which the government considered the United States could either do without or produce for herself, and on 17 December 1807 this measure was supplemented by a much more radical measure that prohibited the export of any goods from American ports.
The trade embargo, however, did not succeed. At this very moment, the British were acquiring new markets and sources of raw material in Latin America. With the economy sliding into ever deeper trouble, pressure began to mount for the use of force. Taking on the British at sea was impossible as the tiny American navy included nothing bigger than a frigate. An obvious target, though, was Canada, whose immense territory was garrisoned by less than 5,000 men. Such a course was doubly attractive. Ever since the War of Independence, settlers had been pushing westwards into the territory that today comprises Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, and these men and women inevitably impinged on the ancestral lands of a variety of Indian tribes. Well aware of the value of an alliance with the Indians, British agents had for years been encouraging them to resist the American advance. And at just this time they found a powerful ally in the great Indian leader, Tecumseh. Of mixed Shawnee and Creek backgrounds, Tecumseh hated white America and believed the Indians faced a choice of either fighting or being overwhelmed: in a variety of chiefs had been forced to sign away most of the state 1795 of Ohio after their defeat in the Miami War, and in 1809 another group were manipulated into giving up yet more land in Indiana. From the
1780s Tecumseh had been arguing that the only way forward was to form a great native confederacy and, aided by his brother, the shaman Tenskwatawa - better known as The Prophet - he now began to travel the frontier, preaching confederation. In this he was almost entirely unsuccessful, but in his home territory (present-day Indiana and Ohio) his message of rejecting the ways of the white man, cleaving to native traditions and living a life of self-purification won many converts. Less pressing, meanwhile, but in its way just as serious, was the issue of Spanish-ruled Florida, which at this time took in not just its current territory but also what was then known as ‘West Florida’, the southern half of present-day Alabama and Mississippi. Not averse to causing trouble, the Spaniards had, like the British, been giving help and succour to the local Indians, and many escaped slaves had found refuge in their lands. Well aware of the area’s importance, the government had been trying to gain control of at the very least West Florida, but diplomacy had proved unsuccessful and, as with Canada, it seemed likely that only a war could solve the problem. With Spain currently an ally of Britain, the opportunity seemed too good to miss. In the south as much as the north-west, then, pressure began to grow for a war of aggression, the appetite of the so-called ‘war-hawks’ being whetted still further when in
1810 American settlers who had penetrated West Florida revolted against Spain and requested annexation (a development that led to Spain conceding all land west of the Pearl river).
It should not be assumed that the United States as a whole was bent on war with Britain. Jefferson may have been an ardent proponent of clearing away the Indians and of westward expansion, but he knew all too well that his army, thanks to cuts he had imposed in 1802, had just 3,000 men in 1807. To the end of his term of office, then, he hoped that economic means would be sufficient to force the British to give way. Equally, while the shipowners and merchants of New England hated British control of the seas, they preferred to take their chances of making a profit under the Orders-in-Council rather than lose their income completely under the embargo. Yet the pressure for action remained constant. Indeed, if anything it increased. Under great pressure from commercial interests, in March 1809 Jefferson replaced the embargo with a new Non-Intercourse Act that in effect permitted trade with Britain and France through third parties. With Britain continuing to act high-handedly, as such hawks as Henry Clay of Kentucky were delighted to point out, it looked as if the United States had been beaten. When a new Congress met in 1811 it therefore contained a strong party of men eager for war, the general excitement being heightened both by the suppression of a further American rebellion in Florida and a major clash with Tecumseh’s followers at Tippecanoe, where a militia column marching to destroy his headquarters was subjected to a surprise attack by Indians armed with British muskets.
From this moment onwards, war with Britain was very likely. Men like Clay kept trumpeting the evils of British control of the seas and boasting of the ease with which the Americans could conquer Canada. The new president, James Madison, added to the flames by authorizing a three-fold increase in the size of the army and claiming that British agents had been conspiring to secure the secession of New England. The distraction afforded by the United States having serious issues not just with Britain but also with France was resolved in a deal engineered by Madison whereby Napoleon promised that all American ships could come and go as they pleased in exchange for the United States reimposing the embargo on Britain. In practice, the situation remained much less rosy than Napoleon claimed it would be - American ships continued to be harassed - but the concession was enough to remove the French from the agenda, and speed up preparations for war with Britain. On
11 January 1812 the formation of thirteen new regiments was sanctioned together with the construction of twelve ships-of-the-line and twenty-four frigates. The next month the individual states were authorized to raise 50,000 volunteers and finally in April they were also directed to call out 100,000 militia. Finance was provided by a variety of increases in taxation (though it was agreed these should not be implemented until the actual outbreak of war), plans were drawn up for the invasion of Canada, and all shipping was confined to port. And, finally, despite the fact that the United States was far from ready for conflict - there were still, for example, only 7,000 men in the regular army - on June Madison approached Congress with a declaration of war.
The struggle that followed has often been portrayed as the result of British foolishness and intransigence. This, however, is unfair. It is true that until 1811 Britain had been unbending in her response to American protests over maritime policies, and further that, although serious protest at home had led to a concerted parliamentary campaign against the Orders-in-Council that led to their abolition on 23 June 1812, the move came too late to placate Washington. But all the evidence suggests that many Americans were bent on war come what may - that the war, in fact, was rooted not in the Atlantic but the Great Lakes. In the successive votes that got the war through Congress, the representatives of New England - the region with most reason to object to British control of the seas - either abstained or voted against, while those of the South - the region next most affected - were divided, and those of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee unanimously in favour. The War of 1812 was, then, above all a war of American expansion, and it is no coincidence either that volunteering for the war was at its most enthusiastic on the western frontier, or that the first American attacks came in the vicinity not of Quebec and Montreal, but Niagara and Detroit.
The story that follows need not detain us here, except to say that, despite efforts to bring it to an end - backed up by the disappearance of the Orders-in-Council, the British offered peace talks as early as July 1812, while in September Russia put herself forward as a mediator - the war was still dragging on when Napoleon abdicated in April 1814: indeed, the very last shots were not fired until the embarrassing British defeat at New Orleans on 8 January 1815. What matters is that, whoever’s fault it was, many British troops and, above all, much British shipping, were tied up in a difficult war the other side of the Atlantic. Thanks to the employment of local auxiliaries, not many troops were sent prior to 1814- the total, apart from drafts of new recruits for units already in theatre, seems to have come to eleven infantry battalions, a battery of artillery and a regiment of cavalry. Yet the impact was still quite substantial: without the war with the United States, it might have been possible to send a much stronger expeditionary force to Germany in 1813 and thereby considerably enhance Britain’s diplomatic standing. The war was hardly a triumph for the United States: her forces won few battles against the British, Washington had been occupied and the White House burned, and the navy had been unable to prevent a close British blockade. Yet it was a major landmark in her history. In the course of the fighting the chief bastions of Indian resistance east of the Mississippi had been broken: Tecumseh had been killed at the battle of the Thames on 5 October 1813 and on 27 March 1814 Andrew Jackson smashed the powerful Creek confederation at Horseshoe Bend. And at the very end of the war the tide also turned in the fighting against the British. Even before New Orleans, an invasion of New York State from Canada and an attack on Baltimore had both been frustrated, and the British in consequence offered the Americans generous peace terms. To all intents and purposes, the British abandoned any attempt to penetrate south and west of the Great Lakes. No more, then, could Indian leaders such as Tecumseh look for outside help. With the confidence of the United States greatly boosted, all America from Indiana to the Pacific was Washington’s for the taking.
Before concluding this section it is worth saying something about the effect of the War of 1812 on Canada. For the time being her independence was safe enough, but she also emerged from the conflict as at least an embryonic nation. In 1812, well over half the population of Canada were of French origin, and Napoleon had dispatched a number of agents to whip up discontent at British rule. Yet, despite obvious sources of tension - the parliamentary institutions created in Canada in 1791, for example, did not accord thequébécois the weight that their numbers suggested - these efforts at subversion came to nothing. The local Catholic hierarchy had been fierce in its denunciation of the French Revolution, and this, together with the policy of conciliation pursued by the British governor, ensured that the French population stayed loyal. Even among the population of Upper Canada, which was in large part drawn from American settlers, there was little trouble, and once war broke out the militia that constituted the bulk of the defence forces reported for duty with little resistance. Threatened from outside, in short, all sections of the populace came together, even if in doing so they were still defining themselves more as what they were not than as what they were.
What, though, of Europe? Here the chief effect of the outbreak of war between Britain and the United States had been to give Napoleon renewed hope. This was much needed. By the end of 1812 the emperor’s military prestige had taken a terrible battering. Setting aside the destruction of the grande armée and Wellington’s successes in Spain, in France the ability of the regime to maintain its authority had been called into question by the extraordinary Malet affair, which had seen an unknown officer of Jacobin sympathies, named Claude-François Malet, almost bring down the emperor by announcing that Napoleon had been killed in Russia. Not surprisingly, the result was stirrings of a sort that a few months before would have been quite unthinkable. Even less surprisingly, meanwhile, the rot began in Prussia. Of all the states that Napoleon had overcome, Prussia was the one that had come off worst. Stripped of much of her army, territory and population, and subjected not only to a heavy indemnity but also to the Continental Blockade and semi-permanent French occupation, Prussia had had to pay a heavy price for her earlier opportunism, while she had, as we have seen, played host since 1807 to a reform movement that many of its progenitors saw as a launch pad for a war of revenge and even a great pan-German uprising. And, finally, the concentration of the grande armée in East Prussia in the first six months of 1812 had been an experience that was even more traumatic than the campaigns of 1806-7 . In the latter, the Prussian experience of fighting had been relatively brief: the campaign of Jena and Auerstädt had been over in a matter of weeks and then the bulk of the French forces had moved on into territory that had until 1795 been Polish. Both Eylau and Friedland had taken place in East Prussia, but again the incursions involved had been relatively short-lived. In 1812, however, it had been very different. With the countryside completely swamped, we are told that, even before it had crossed the frontier, the grande armée ‘left a swathe of pillage and destruction in its wake’.43 Now a divisional commander, Dedem de Gelder later wrote with great candour of what had occurred: ‘We had crossed Prussia, not as an allied country, but rather as a conquered one. Ninety thousand horses had been seized from our last billets on the illusory condition that they would later be sent back. As for the order of the day laying down that we should gather in ten days’ worth of supplies, this had not been anything other than an authorization of pillage and violence.’44
When the survivors of the grande armée staggered back across the Niemen into East Prussia, they were therefore confronted by general antagonism. ‘The attitude of the inhabitants left me in no doubt as to their hostility to us,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Noël of the artillery. ‘I was certain we should have been attacked if they had known that we were not being followed by more troops. On our arrival in a village where we were to shelter, I sent for the burgomaster and told him that . . . at the slightest threat . . . the village would be burned down . . . To defy us, the inhabitants sang rude songs about us. The refrain of one of them was explained to us, “Five French to pay for one Prussian: it’s not too much.” ’45 None of this was enough to trigger a popular insurrection in the winter of 1812-13 . But, particularly in the army, many officers remained genuinely concerned at the extent to which Prussia had been humiliated, and a number had resigned their commands, defected to the Russians and tried to organize a ‘Russo-German legion’ from German deserters and prisoners of war. In the wake of the French retreat this feeling boiled over. Frederick William had no intention of reneging on his alliance with Napoleon, but on 30 December 1812 General Yorck von Wartenburg, the commander of the Prussian forces sent into Russia, signed a separate convention with the Russians at Tauroggen and led his troops back into East Prussia. What would have happened next had the Russians remained on the frontier is unclear, but in the event they kept coming and the remnants of the grande armée were left with no option but to flee for the safety of first the Vistula and then the Oder (garrisons, however, were left in Danzig and a number of other places). There were plenty of fresh troops and ample magazines in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and East Prussia, but the titular commander of the French forces, Marshal Murat, was exhausted and demoralized and he knew his forces were not to be relied on. ‘The Cossack hurrah,’ he later said, ‘was ringing in every ear, and . . . half would have deserted the first night at the thought of bivouacs where no fires could be lighted from fear of their serving as conductors to that horrid screech.’46
The Russian decision to advance was beyond doubt one of the key moments in the international history of the Napoleonic Wars, and yet in many respects it was a very surprising development. The invasion of Russia had not expunged years of Russian anti-British sentiment. Peace had been signed with Britain in July but it was not until September that the prohibition on trade between the two states was lifted, and even then British imports continued to have to pay heavy tariffs. Nor was any formal treaty of alliance signed between the two powers. Many Russians, including Alexander, Rumiantsev and Kutuzov, remained suspicious of the British and there was a strong feeling among the ‘easterners’ that Russia had no need to involve herself in the travails of central and Western Europe, but should concentrate on her traditional foreign policy objectives. Russia could, for example, take a further piece of Poland as the price of peace - the Vistula was mentioned as a possible new frontier - but her troops should march no further. In taking such a line, the ‘easterners’ were reinforced by a variety of practical considerations: the very heavy levies occasioned by the war had imposed great strain in the countryside and in some places had given rise to worrying disturbances, Russia was in serious financial difficulties; and in the summer of 1812 the Ukraine had been struck by a severe outbreak of plague, this ‘not only ruining the commerce of [Odessa], but reducing all the members of its numerous labouring and manufacturing population to a state of despair’.47Himself an easterner, Kutuzov was also able to put forward cogent military arguments. The army under his command had suffered very badly in the course of its pursuit of the French. Some 110,000 strong when it left its camp at Tarutino in October, it was now down to less than 28,000 men, and caution alone dictated that it should be given a little time to be rested, brought up to strength and resupplied.
Why, then, did the war continue? For answer, we must turn to the figure of Alexander I, who had again come west to Vilna. The invasion had had an impact upon him that can only be described as tremendous. Under great pressure, he had turned for comfort to the Bible and discovered in its pages both help and inspiration. The Lord would sustain him and send him his justice and by the same token deliver Russia. As for Alexander, the servant of the Lord, he would strike down the Napoleonic anti-Christ, and bring peace and freedom to the whole of Europe. To stop at the frontier, then, was to frustrate God’s plan, but, even if this had not been the case, to Alexander it simply seemed folly not to go on. As he told his personal entourage, ‘After so disastrous a campaign in Russia, and the great reverses which France has just met with in Spain, she must be entirely drained of men and of money . . . We have had the precaution . . . to have printed intelligence thrown in on all sides of France, and in all the ports, to deliver that country from the blindness in which she is plunged, and in which every effort is made to keep her. We know, moreover, that Malet’s conspiracy is far from being suppressed, and that there are many malcontents in France. We must hope that all these events will unite in promoting the result desired - a solid peace in Europe.’48 With plenty of fresh troops coming up, it was therefore very unlikely that the tsar would have held back, and all the more so as his entourage included a number of figures who were just as belligerent. One such was the erstwhile Prussian chief minister, Heinrich vom Stein, who had been invited to Russia to act as an unofficial adviser to Alexander and had since the day of his arrival been pressing for the liberation of Germany. Another was Rumiantsev’s de facto deputy at the Foreign Ministry, Karl von Nesselrode. An experienced diplomat with close ties with the courts of both Prussia and Austria, by 1812 Nesselrode had in effect taken the aged Rumiantsev’s place, for all that the latter continued to be the titular head of department. A thoroughly Western statesman - his father was German and his mother English - he had no time for either Russian traditionalism or Russian isolationism, and believed that it was in Russia’s interest to be a European power rather than an Asiatic one. More immediately, it was also very much in her interest to help restore order to Europe by defeating Napoleon and working towards a general peace settlement, something which in his mind was tied up very closely with the principle of legitimacy. But in the end what mattered was not Stein or Nesselrode but the tsar, and, what is more, a tsar possessed by over-confidence, ambition and vainglory, not to mention a determination to avenge himself on Napoleon and take his place as the greatest hero of the age.
Alexander’s view of himself as servant of God and liberator of Europe should not, of course, be taken wholly at face value. As far as Germany was concerned, for example, he wanted to ensure that freedom did not interfere with the interests of his numerous princely relatives, as witness the way in which he infuriated Stein by insisting that the Duke of Oldenburg and his two sons be included in the so-called ‘German committee’ - the body set up in St Petersburg in June 1812 to oversee German affairs and, so Stein hoped, organize a rising against Napoleon. More immediately of interest, however, was the issue of Poland. Thanks to Czartoryski, this had once more come to the fore. For Czartoryski, the involvement of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in a war against Alexander I was a personal tragedy, and he had sat out the fighting in unhappy exile in Austrian Galicia. But with the Russians on the offensive, a way out of his dilemma offered itself, and in December he therefore wrote to the tsar begging him to adopt his old scheme of a restored Poland ruled by a Russian monarch (though no longer Alexander: Czartoryski now wanted the throne to go to the tsar’s younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael. Nor was Czartoryski the only Pole to indulge in such dreams. The government of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, for example, had been deeply alienated by the incessant demands of war, and the complete ruin faced by the nobles. ‘Of the 600,000 livres in rents that I had in Lithuania, ’ complained one countess, ‘nothing is left but the earth and the sky: all the rest has perished. For the next twenty years I can expect nothing from my erstwhile fortune.’49 In Warsaw, then, Alexander knew that he would find plenty of more or less willing collaborators, and this again drew him on, especially as the acquisition of the whole of the old kingdom of Poland did not clash with his liberationist rhetoric. But if the Russians were coming, they were doing so on their own terms. As Alexander wrote to Czartoryski on 13 January 1813:
The successes with which Providence has decided to bless my efforts and my perseverance have in no way changed either my sentiments or my intentions in respect of Poland. Your compatriots, then, need have no fear: vengeance is a sentiment that is unknown to me and my greatest pleasure is to pay back bad with good . . . Let me speak with complete frankness: in order to realize my favourite ideas on the subject of Poland, I am first going to have to overcome certain difficulties . . . First of all, there is the question of opinion in Russia, the manner in which the Polish army conducted itself, the sack of Smolensk and Moscow, and the devastation of the entire country having reawakened old hatreds. Secondly, at the present moment to publicize my intentions in respect of Poland would be to throw Austria straight into the arms of France . . . With sagacity and prudence, these difficulties will be overcome. However, it is necessary that you yourselves must help me accustom the Russian people to my plans and justify the predilection that everyone knows that I have for the Poles . . . I must advise you, however, that the idea of my brother Michael [becoming king] cannot be entertained. Do not forget that Lithuania, Podolia and Volhynia are all regarded here as Russian provinces and that no logic in the world will ever be able to persuade Russia to allow them to be ruled by any monarch other than the one that sits on her own throne.50
This message was hardly reassuring for the Poles, but their fate was now sealed. On 12 January 1813 the Russian forces crossed the Niemen and marched into Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. And what of Napoleon? Far from putting out the peace feelers that the circumstances suggested, he responded with defiance. Passing through Warsaw en route for Paris in the wake of his abandonment of the grande armée, he treated Dufour de Pradt to a tirade that is all too suggestive of his state of mind:
Raise 10,000 Polish Cossacks - all that is needed is a lance and a horse per man - and the Russians will be stopped . . . The army is superb: I have 120,000 men. And I have always beaten the Russians. They will not dare to do anything. They are no longer the soldiers of Friedland and Eylau. They will hang around at Vilna, while I go off and raise 300,000 men. Then success will render them audacious, but I will defeat them in two or three battles on the Oder, and in six months I will once again be on the Niemen . . . All that has taken place is nothing: it is a mere setback, the result of the climate. The enemy is nothing: I beat them everywhere. They tried to cut me off at the Berezina, but I made that imbecile admiral [i.e. Chichagov] look a fool . . . I had good troops and good cannon, while my position, which was protected by a river and a marsh 1,500 fathoms across, was superb . . . At Marengo I was beaten at six o’clock in the evening, but the next morning I was master of Italy . . . As for Russia, I could not help that it froze . . . Our Norman horses are weaker than the Russian ones: they cannot withstand nine degrees of frost. The same goes for our men. Look at the Bavarians: there is not a single one left!51
Almost equally self-deluding are the remarks he made to Caulaincourt in the midst of the retreat. ‘The war against Russia,’ he said, ‘is a war which is wholly in the interests . . . of the older Europe and of civilization. The Austrian emperor and M. de Metternich realize this so well that they often said as much to me at Dresden . . . The Viennese government understands perfectly that, apart from her contact with Austria over a long frontier, and all the divergent interests arising from such a situation, the designs of Russia upon Turkey make her doubly dangerous. The reverses France has just suffered will put an end to all jealousies and quiet all the anxieties that may have sprung from her power and influence. Europe should think only of one enemy. And that enemy is the colossus of Russia.’52 Confined with Napoleon in first sleigh and then carriage for hour after hour as the emperor sped homewards, Caulaincourt was subjected to a constant torrent of words that painted a wholly imaginary picture of events. The Poles’ lack of enthusiasm had been the result of Dufour de Pradt’s incompetence. The grande armée had collapsed after his departure on account of the incompetence of Marshal Murat. The rulers and peoples of Europe would see that he was fighting not just against the Russian menace but also the selfishness and commercial domination of Great Britain, and rally to his stand. Wellington would be driven into the sea in the Peninsula and an end made of Spanish resistance. The Spanish guerrillas were mere bandits. The British were on the verge of bankruptcy and unlikely to be able to fund a further coalition against his empire; tied up in the Peninsula, meanwhile, their army would not be able to intervene elsewhere on the Continent. The United States would triumph in her war with Britain and emerge not only much stronger but as a firm French ally. Public confidence in his rule had not been shaken. France had never been more prosperous or well governed, still needed him, and would rally to his support as soon as he had returned to Paris. The French navy was acquiring many new ships and would soon be able to challenge the British at sea once more. The commander of the Austrian army corps, Schwarzenberg, was a man of honour and would not betray him. Alexander was hopelessly irresolute and too democratic in his tastes to be able to govern Russia effectively or even last long on the throne. The war, then, would continue and Napoleon would in - indeed, must win. ‘God has given me the strength and the zest to undertake great things,’ he said. ‘I must not leave them imperfectly accomplished.’53
How far Napoleon’s optimism was convincing in the wake of the retreat from Moscow can legitimately be questioned. Announced in the famous ‘Twenty-Ninth Bulletin’, which appeared on the morning of the very day that Napoleon reached Paris, the news from Russia spread sorrow and despair on all sides. ‘The whole of France had been in Russia,’ wrote Hortense de Beauharnais. ‘Our desires, our fears, our hopes, everything had been there . . . And now that empire . . . was sending her back nothing but the débris of her shipwreck . . . Nothing equalled our disasters except our sorrow in bewailing them. Everything was shrouded in mourning.’54 Yet the emperor was not to be discouraged. As Molé remembered of this time, he displayed ‘a furious activity which perhaps surpassed everything he had revealed hitherto’.55 By a variety of means a new grande armée was created. In September 1812, ,men had been called up from the class of 1813, and many of these men were now ready to go into action. To supplement them, meanwhile, January 1813 saw the conscription of 150,000 men of the class of 1814 and 100,000 men who had previously been passed over from the classes of 1809,1810,1811 and 1812, as well as the mobilization of 100,000 men of the National Guard (though these men were initially promised that they would only have to fight in France). From Spain there came 15,000 men; from Italy, three French divisions and one drawn from the Army of Eugène de Beauharnais; and from the navy and the gendarmerieimprovized gunners and cavalrymen. All this was backed by a massive propaganda effort:
Seconded by his intimate councillors, Napoleon employed every artifice calculated to palliate our disasters and conceal from us their inevitable consequences. He assembled the whole phalanx of his flatterers, now become the organs of his will . . . and all, with one voice, attributed the loss of our army . . . solely to the rigour of the elements. By the aid of deception of every kind, they succeeded in making it be believed that all might be repaired if the nation did but show itself great and generous, that fresh sacrifices could not cost her anything when weighed against the preservation of its independence and glory.56
With the administration of conscription still intact, the men came in well enough, while France’s arsenals and workshops were able to supply plenty of muskets and cannon, as well as at least a semblance of uniform. Still loyal at this stage, the Confederation of the Rhine also produced considerable numbers of fresh troops. By these means, then, within four months of Napoleon’s arrival in Paris, 170,000 men had been assembled on the river Main in south-central Germany. With his new grande armée, the emperor was confirmed in his determination not to bow down before Russia. The sheer mass of men he commanded, however, blinded him to serious problems. Far too many of his soldiers were raw recruits who lacked experience and were not physically strong enough to cope with the rigours of campaign life. Experienced officers and non-commissioned officers were lacking, and the cavalry could not easily be re-equipped with decent horses. And back in France the call-up of 250,000 men on top of the 150,000 men taken in September 1812 and the 120,000 men taken in December 1811 had placed a huge strain on the willingness of the population to cooperate. To push this further would invite disaster. Among the poorer classes, wrote Marbot, ‘there was some grumbling, especially in the south and west, but so great was the habit of obedience that nearly all the contingent went on duty’. The real trouble, however, came from groups with more resources:
After having made men serve whom the ballot had exempted, they compelled those who had quite lawfully obtained substitutes to shoulder their muskets all the same. Many families had embarrassed and even ruined themselves to keep their sons at home, for a substitute cost from 12,000 to 20,000 francs at that time, and this had to be paid down. There were some young men who had obtained substitutes three times over, and were none the less compelled to go; cases even occurred in which they had to serve in the same company with the man whom they had paid to take their place.57
Commitment, then, was limited. As Fouché says, ‘the reason why France willingly made the greatest sacrifices to support a man whose only success had been to tread the ashes of Moscow’ was that the populace thought that ‘their chief, chastened by misfortune, was ready to seize the first favourable opportunity of bringing back peace’.58
The stakes were therefore very high: whether any further levy on the lines of that of January 1813 could be made to take effect was open to serious doubt, especially as the security forces that had been the real mainstay of the whole system had themselves been stripped to reinforce the new grande armée. The fact was that the whole campaign was a desperate gamble and, still worse, one in which the odds against Napoleon were worsened by his own pride and over-confidence. Even as his forces evacuated East Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, they were directed to drop off garrisons in all the region’s fortresses. In the end, some ,50 000men were tied up in such places, and, occupy though they did plenty of enemy troops, they could perhaps have been put to better use fighting on the battlefields of Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden and Leipzig. To have evacuated Danzig, Thorn and the rest, however, would have been to acknowledge a shrinkage of the empire, and this the emperor would not do. Rather he would beat the enemy in Saxony or Silesia, and then claim back the eastern territories. The garrisons would then have come into their own, creating problems for any attempt to check the French counter-offensive. But, with its attenuated cavalry, could the grande armée really secure the sort of decisive victory that Napoleon’s strategy required? To this question the emperor had but one answer: ‘He enumerated with complaisance all the means that he would have at his disposal in three months’ time, calculating that he would be able to reckon on 800,000 under arms . . . The rest being left to his genius, he was really convinced that he would recapture the empire of the world.’59
When it came to judging the situation, it did not help, perhaps, that Napoleon was in Paris. In France there was, despite everything, still a degree of support and even enthusiasm for the emperor. But it was not just France that had to be taken into consideration. In 1812 Napoleon had invaded Russia at the head of a force of which only half came from territories that were even notionally French. If the empire was to survive, what happened in Milan and Kassel was therefore just as important as what happened in Marseilles and Clermont Ferrand. And here all the evidence was that Napoleon was in severe trouble. All the satellite and allied states had suffered catastrophic losses in Russia, and they too now had to make strenuous efforts to gather in fresh troops. In the Kingdom of Italy, although Napoleon had sent back the two divisions from that state serving in Spain, the regular annual contingent of 15,000 men had to be supplemented by an additional levy of 9,000. Conscription had never achieved the same degree of acceptance in the domains of Eugène de Beauharnais as it had in France, and there was much resistance right from the start: draft-dodging grew more common; many villages saw the ballot disrupted by riots; and hundreds of men deserted and turned to brigandage. Nor was it just a matter of numbers. There was the same shortage of officers and non-commissioned officers as in France; there were only 1,500 horses for the artillery and cavalry; and there were insufficient muskets, uniforms, shakos and other necessaries. Elsewhere the situation was even worse. In the Kingdom of Italy, money was not lacking, the treasury having been exceptionally well managed by the Finance Minister Giuseppe Prina (although the efficiency of his fiscal machinery was hardly calculated to stimulate public enthusiasm). In Westphalia, however, by early 1813 the regime of Jerome Bonaparte was in a state of collapse. Of the 16,000 men who had fought in Russia only 2,000 had come back; the national debt now stood at some 200 million francs; the economy was in ruins; and the land tax was now pitched so high that in large parts of the country smallholdings and great estates alike were being taken out of cultivation. Active resistance was still rare - Westphalia was devoid of the mountain ranges that ringed the Kingdom of Italy - and a new army was somehow scraped together, but it was clear that popular support for the regime was almost non-existent. Indeed, Jerome lived in daily fear of insurrection, the story being that he constantly kept a coach and four ready to whisk him to safety at the first sign of trouble.
Of all this, Napoleon would take no account, while he also made little attempt to forestall the coming clash by diplomatic means. It was again hinted that he would accept a Bragança-ruled Portugal and a Bourbon-ruled Sicily, while a fresh Concordat, which on the surface included many concessions, was negotiated with the Pope in the hope that this would satisfy Catholic opinion at home and abroad. Yet the far more important question presented by Austria elicited far less flexibility. Despite growing evidence that Vienna was restive, such as the fact that the corps of General Schwarzenberg had been hastily pulled back from Galicia without making the slightest attempt to put up a fight, Napoleon remained convinced that Austria would fight alongside him. Still worse, through a variety of means - including, not least, the letters of Marie-Louise to her father - Vienna was constantly reminded of the strength of France’s armies and the great length of her reach. Eventually, the family chit-chat was backed up by the dispatch of a special emissary to Vienna in the person of the Comte de Narbonne. Very much a figure of the ancien régime, Narbonne was a clever choice, and, indeed, even a conciliatory one, but his instructions made the reality clear enough:
British gold buys all those in whom hatred or fear are not enough to determine their course . . . Play upon the family connection. The emperor, my father-in-law, is intelligent, moderate and sensible: he has felt the full weight of a French invasion, and I have no doubt that today he wishes to continue faithfully to adhere to me. However, the intrigues of the court, the vanities of the salon, the bellicose fantasies of certain great ladies, are all working away in their usual base fashion . . . The clear-sighted know that such scenes must stop. It should not be difficult for you to show the emperor Francis the need to stay loyal to an alliance that is both more natural and safer for him than the alternative even if it is one that is at the same time superficially somewhat weaker. 60
As if hinting at violent retribution was not enough, there were also moments of sharp recrimination. Summoned to Paris to see Napoleon, for example, Schwarzenberg was upbraided by Maret who ‘provoked him beyond endurance in the course of a private conversation by representing Austria as faithless and even dishonoured’.61 But to see Austria as a power flirting with war, or, at the very least, one obsessed with curbing France’s power, that simply had to be cowed into submission, was a mistake. Francis I remained as pacific as ever; the army was badly equipped and understrength; even the limited intervention in the Russian campaign had exacerbated the effects of the massive devaluation that had been decreed in 1811 of the paper money on which Austria had relied since the 1780s; and relations with Hungary were very tense. As for Metternich, he wanted to check Russian expansion and isolate Britain, the obvious means of doing both being to engineer a peace settlement between France and her continental opponents. That Napoleon would have had to make concessions in Germany and other areas is true enough, but the Austrian chancellor was neither out to overthrow Napoleon, nor bent on getting back all of Austria’s lost territories. In his memoirs Metternich speaks of striking ‘a decisive blow’ against Napoleon when the time was ripe so as to establish ‘a real peace, not a mere truce in disguise like all former treaties of peace with the French Republic and with Napoleon’, this being something that could ‘only be done by restricting the power of France within such limits as . . . establish a balance of power among the chief states’.62 This sums up Metternich’s policy well enough, but there is nothing to suggest that he believed that such a goal could only be attained by military means, and that despite the fact that by the spring of 1813 the army was being readied for battle. Mobilization was essential to back up Austrian diplomacy but the aim was still mediation rather than war, still a compromise peace rather than total victory. Indeed, armed conflict remained both deeply undesirable and lacking in support:
The decided feeling of the different populations of the Austrian imperial states was for the preservation of peace. Austria had borne the burden of all the former wars except that of 1806, which had ended so unfortunately for Prussia; the inner strength of the empire seemed to be exhausted, and the people to have lost all hope of regaining by the force of arms what they had lost. In Austria . . . the expression ‘German feeling’ had no more meaning than a myth . . . A class not numerous but important from the position of the individuals composing it raised the banner of war in our country . . . [but] their voices died away in space, and their efforts would never have had any effect on the mind of the Emperor Francis, or on the voice of my political conscience. The monarch would not suffer a repetition of those trials which the empire had gone through after the campaigns of 1805 and 1809, and, had he been willing, I should not have been ready to join him.63
At the same time, to reiterate a point made in passing above, Metternich was genuinely anxious not to overthrow Napoleon. What he wanted was not just a peace based on a territorial settlement that would keep France in check, but rather an end to all war in Europe. This, he believed, required an arrangement in which the two central facts of European diplomatic life - a powerful France and a powerful Russia - were kept physically apart by a neutral bloc capable of staving off the threats of East and West alike. But if France and Russia were to be kept apart, they also had to be strong, for, if one or the other was ever allowed to think that her alter ego could not keep her in check, then she might well launch such a push for hegemony that nothing could stop it. In the aftermath of 1812, Russian power was clearly enormous, and this therefore required France to be an impressive force as well, and, by extension, one ruled by Napoleon.
Even now, Austria was no enemy, and there is no doubt that, given some constructive diplomacy, Napoleon could still have rescued a great deal from the Russian disaster. And at all events he would have been wise to have striven to keep relations with Vienna on a friendly basis, for within weeks of his forces crossing the frontier Alexander had been joined by Frederick William of Prussia. The Prussian monarch had been placed in an impossible situation. Napoleon’s defeat in Russia notwithstanding, his first instinct had been to remain loyal to the alliance of 1812, and he had therefore ordered Yorck’s arrest and court martial. Yet Prussia’s easternmost territories were now in a state of revolt. Following Tauroggen, Yorck had declared his forces neutral and in effect set up a liberated area around Königsberg. Here, meanwhile, he was joined by Stein, who had been appointed by Alexander I as his commissioner in occupied Prussia, the latter immediately persuading the local estates to decree the formation of a popular militia orLandwehr. Terrified of Napoleon, suspicious of Russia, and deeply hostile to the radical military reform now underway in East Prussia, even Frederick William sought to remain on good terms with the French while yet decreeing general mobilization and accepting such measures as the formation of volunteer units from amongst the well-to-do and the abolition of all exemptions from conscription. However, Napoleon’s defeat having caused great excitement among the educated classes, the reformers were able to deluge the king with warnings of imminent revolution, while it was also clear that failure to break with France might well be punished by the Russians. Assailed on all sides, and with many of his doubts assuaged by a Russian guarantee that Prussia would be restored to a size equivalent to that of 1806, Frederick William therefore finally agreed to an alliance.
With the French forces, other than a few garrisons, now out of the way across the Elbe, on 16 March 1813 Prussia declared war. With his forces consisting of a mere 65,000 men - the war with Russia had persuaded Napoleon to allow him to recruit 20,000 extra troops - Frederick William now had no option but to adopt the full programme of the reformers. To the accompaniment of a grandiloquent call to arms, on 18 March it was decreed that a Landwehr should be formed from all those men aged between seventeen and forty who were not required by the army, and on 21 April that the remainder of Prussia’s manpower should serve in the Landsturm, an emergency homeguard charged with guerrilla resistance in territories occupied by the French. To say that all this has given rise to a great deal of nonsense in the historiography of the Napoleonic Wars is an understatement. Within three months, the number of Prussians under arms had risen to some 27,000 men, while such enthusiasts for German nationalism as could be found - a very small number - had soon worked themselves up into a frenzy of patriotic enthusiasm. That said, the fact was that few Germans were actually willing to take up arms against the French - volunteers were thin on the ground, conscription unpopular and desertion rife - and the allied rulers were reluctant to raise them in revolt, the most they were prepared to do being to make use of flying columns of volunteers, regulars and Cossacks to harass the French. In a particularly spectacular blow, one such raiding force penetrated as far as Hamburg in the middle of March and in effect left the local authorities with no option but to declare against Napoleon and organize a rebel militia. This, however, was an isolated incident, and one that was in any case of little consequence: retaken by Marshal Davout without difficulty in May, the city was then garrisoned by him until the end of the war in the face of a long siege.
Despite the lack of a popular uprising in Germany, the defection of Prussia (and, with her, little Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which the French had evacuated at the same time) nevertheless gave rise to an entirely new situation. Napoleon was now opposed by not one but two coalitions. At one end of Europe, there stood Russia, Prussia, Sweden and Mecklenburg, and at the other Britain, Spain, Portugal and Sicily. In between the two stood France, Holland, Denmark (whose government had not forgotten the destruction of Copenhagen), the bulk of the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdom of Italy, and Naples. Austria, of course, was now neutral and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw had succumbed to Russian occupation, although its army had retreated westwards and was still fighting on with the grande armée. Astonishingly enough, it was not until June that the two anti-Napoleonic leagues were fully brought together. In March, Britain signed an alliance with Sweden - a decision that at last brought a Swedish expeditionary force across the Baltic - but only at the cost of considerable wrangling: Britain now agreed that Sweden could have Norway, but Bernadotte was not content with the £1 million he was offered for the rest of the year, and it had eventually to be agreed he would be paid £ million for the period up to 1 October, after which a new agreement would have to be negotiated. As for the number of men Sweden had to provide in Germany, this was a mere 30,000.
Coming to an agreement with Prussia and Russia was no easier. Although diplomatic relations with Prussia were resumed as soon as the latter declared war on Napoleon, it was not until late April that a new ambassador - Lord Castlereagh’s younger brother, Sir Charles Stewart - reached the Prussian government, which was then assembled at allied headquarters in Dresden. In the interim, serious negotiations had been under way with the Russians for some time via the good offices of the British ambassador, Lord Cathcart, but progress had been very slow, and it soon transpired that the talks that now opened with the Prussians would prove no better. Both the eastern powers wanted any subsidy to be paid in appropriate coinage in Europe, whereas the British wanted to issue their payments in London. At stake, of course, were the costs of exchange, and it was only with great difficulty that the British got their way. Also at issue was the size of the contingents maintained in the field: Castlereagh wanted there to be 20,000 Russians, but Alexander maintained that he could only bring forward 150,000 while the Prussians, who were understandably anxious to have as big an impact as possible, wanted Britain to fund 100,000 men, whereas Castlereagh, suspicious of bringing to battle mere mobs of half-armed levies, would only pay for 80,000. And, finally, the initial figure named by Alexander for 1813 was £4 million whereas the British only offered half that sum. In the end all was settled amicably enough - Britain got 240,000 men (160,000 Russians and 80,000 Prussians) rather than 280,000 but in exchange was asked for no more than the £ million that had initially been on offer - but the final treaties, which in both cases incorporated a promise not to make a separate peace, were not signed until 14 and 15 June. Thereafter British aid was extensive: counting aid in kind as well as money, as well as payments made under the so-called ‘federative paper’ scheme agreed in the autumn, by 1814 Prussia had received £2,008,682, Austria £1,639,523, Russia £3,366,334 and Sweden £2,334,992 while a small British expeditionary force was also soon being readied for service in northern Germany. Yet there was still no Sixth Coalition as such. Britain was linked to Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal by separate treaties, while Russia had agreements with both Prussia and Spain.
Given the problems that the Allies were to face in defeating Napoleon, British aid was vital. Backed by his new grande armée, Napoleon was easily able to hold his own against the roughly similar number of Prussians and Russians available for service at this time. Striking east into Saxony (whose monarch had fled into exile in Prague rather than declare for the Allies in the style of Prussia), the emperor overshot the Russians and Prussians, who were advancing westwards on a roughly parallel course in accordance with plans developed by the Prussian chief of staff, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, for a march on the Rhine designed to bring the German people out in revolt and force the princes to change sides. Discovering that there were French troops in their vicinity, the leading allied forces turned on them at Lützen only to find not only that far more of the enemy were in their vicinity than they expected, but also that Napoleon’s main body was perfectly poised to fall on their flank. By the end of the day there were 12,000 allied casualties, including Scharnhorst, who was mortally wounded, while the Russians and Prussians had been badly enveloped. Yet Lützen was not the decisive victory for which Napoleon was looking. Want of cavalry ensured that the grande armée was not able to deliver the hammer blows of the past, and so its badly shaken opponents were able to retire in good order. Still worse, French losses came to some 20,000 men, the fact being that training and experience were so lacking amongst the new troops that they had no option but to operate in the most clumsy and unsophisticated of styles and, in consequence, suffered casualties that were far worse than should have been the case.
Nor did matters improve as the campaign went on. After the battle of Lützen the Allies abandoned their offensive and fell back to a strong defensive position at Bautzen. Here they were attacked by Napoleon on 20 May. Well protected though their troops were - the front line ran along a line of hills and was studded with entrenchments and redoubts - they were vulnerable to attack from the north as their right flank was open to envelopment. Only a few miles south, meanwhile, lay the Austrian frontier and deliberately so: the allied advance westwards had hugged the northern limits of Moravia so as to ensure that Napoleon could not interpose himself between the Prussians and Russians on the one hand and the Austrians on the other, and thereby deter the latter from joining the war. Napoleon was therefore able to formulate a plan that might well have caused his men to triumph. After Lützen, the grande armée had moved east in two columns. Led by the emperor himself, the southernmost column headed straight for Bautzen and struck the enemy more or less head on. The second column, which was commanded by Marshal Ney, had advanced on a more northerly axis, however, and this was now ordered to swing south and take the Allies in the flank and rear. The only line of retreat left to the latter being towards the Austrian frontier, they would face a straight choice of surrender, or violating Austrian neutrality, thereby - or so it was hoped - forcing Vienna to come out in support of Napoleon. Again, however, things went wrong. Arriving on the battlefield on the second day of the battle, Ney misunderstood his orders and sent his troops into action in the wrong direction with the result that the Allies, who had again fought with great determination, got away, the French cavalry being quite unable to break their ranks or make any significant impact upon their retreat. And as at Lützen there were some 20,000 French casualties, although on this occasion they did at least inflict roughly the same number of losses on the Allies.
Following the battle of Bautzen, the Prusso-Russian array continued to fall back, but they were again, for much the same reasons as before, careful to follow the line of the Austrian frontier. To have engineered a retreat north-eastwards in the direction of Breslau, and beyond that central Poland, would have suited the French much better, for the Allies would have been separated from Austria. Driven from their home territory, the Prussians might even have been forced to give up the fight. However, although Alexander and Frederick William were pushed to the point of collapse, the grande armée proved incapable of following up its success: without a decent force of cavalry, it could not impose its will on the Allies, while the raw conscripts who had been called up to fill the ranks were unable to endure the forced marching that would have been required of them. One last battle might yet have done the trick. King and tsar alike had been badly shaken by the resilience displayed by Napoleon; Prussia’s levies were deserting in droves; and the Russian army was in so bad a state that its new commander-in-chief, Barclay de Tolly (struck down by pneumonia, Kutuzov had died on 28 April) was arguing vehemently for a retreat to Poland. In Silesia, indeed, there were now less than 80,000 Prussians and Russians. The Napoleon of 1805 might yet have kept going and thereby won the war, but, for all his bravado, this was not the Napoleon of 1805. The campaign, it seems, had exhausted him physically, and the euphoria he had displayed in the wake of Lützen, which had been hailed as a great victory, had been replaced by a mood of deep depression. The day after the battle of Bautzen one of his closest confidants, General Duroc, had been mortally wounded observing the retreating Prussians. Much distressed, Napoleon had called a halt to the pursuit:
The emperor ordered the Guard to halt. The tents of the imperial headquarters were set up in a field on the right side of the road. Napoleon . . . spent the rest of the evening seated on a stool in front of his tent, his hands clasped and his head bent down . . . No one dared go near him: we all stood around with bowed heads.64
In this mood even Napoleon was capable of recognizing that all was not well with his army. Aside from the 40,000 battle casualties, 90,000 men had fallen sick or otherwise gone missing, and the men still in the ranks were weary and low in morale. Nor were even senior officers much more encouraging. ‘We had done enough to retrieve the honour of our arms after the terrible misfortunes of the preceding campaign,’ wrote Marshal Macdonald. ‘France and the army earnestly longed for peace.’65 Only days after Bautzen was fought, an emissary was sent to allied headquarters asking for a ceasefire. This approach was rejected - opinion in the Prussian army was deeply hostile - but on 2 June a message arrived at the headquarters of both armies from Vienna proposing a truce under whose cover Austria could offer her services as mediator. To quote Metternich, ‘The emperor left it to me to fix the moment which I thought most suitable to announce to the belligerent powers that Austria had given up her neutrality, and to invite them to recognize her armed mediation . . . Napoleon’s victories at Lützen and Bautzen were the signs which told me the hour had come . . . If Austria showed that she was not inclined to take part in the war against Napoleon, this would give the Russian monarch the excuse to . . . conclude the war.’66
With both sides now anxious for a break in the fighting, there followed the temporary suspension of hostilities known as the armistice of Pläswitz (4 June-13 August 1813). This was the turning point of the campaign. For obvious reasons the key player was Austria. In fighting the campaign of Lützen and Bautzen, Napoleon had hoped to produce a change in Vienna’s attitude. ‘He thought’, as Caulaincourt said, ‘that a victory would range Austria on his side.’67 Despite having broken with Napoleon, the Austrian chancellor, Metternich, was desperate to maintain a balance between France and Russia, believing that outright victory for either would spell disaster for the Habsburgs. For war, meanwhile, he had no enthusiasm at all, greatly fearing the nationalistic effervescence Stein and his adherents were attempting to provoke across the whole of central Europe: in March, indeed, he had ordered the arrest of a group of conspirators who had been attempting to organize a fresh insurrection in the Tyrol. To achieve his aims, Metternich would have liked to have arranged a general peace conference, but in the event he was forced to settle for face-to-face discussions with first Alexander and then Napoleon.
Ratified in the convention of Reichenbach of 27 June, the result of his discussions with the Allies was a scheme that would have satisfied most of his objectives. In brief, unless Napoleon agreed to surrender the Illyrian provinces to Austria, recognize the independence of the states of the Confederation of the Rhine, evacuate Germany and Italy, give up the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and leave the Allies to organize the post-war settlement as they chose, Austria would enter the war. As for the future, it was specified that the Papal States, Piedmont and the German possessions of the house of Orange were all to be given back to their previous owners; Hesse-Kassel, Hanover, Hamburg and Lübeck restored as independent states; and Prussia returned to its 1806 frontiers. Confronted with this scheme at Dresden, Napoleon brushed aside Metternich’s attempts to present it in a favourable light and swore that he would fight on. Their conversations make up one of the most famous tableaux in the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars. ‘Peace and war,’ said Metternich, ‘lie in Your Majesty’s hands . . . Today you can yet conclude peace. Tomorrow it may be too late.’68 This challenge was met by a torrent of abuse which concluded with the emperor flinging his hat into a corner of the room:
So you, too, want war; well, you shall have it. I have annihilated the Prussian army at Lützen; I have beaten the Russians at Bautzen; now you wish your turn to come. Be it so: the rendezvous shall be in Vienna. Men are incorrigible: experience is lost upon them. Three times have I replaced the Emperor Francis on his throne . . . At the time I said to myself, ‘You are perpetrating a folly.’ But it was done, and today I repent of it . . . Do they want me to degrade myself? Never! I shall know how to die, but I shall not yield one handsbreadth of soil. Your sovereigns born to the throne may be beaten twenty times and still go back to their palaces; that cannot I - the child of fortune: my reign will not outlast the day when I have ceased to be strong, and therefore to be feared . . . You think to conquer me by a coalition . . . But how many of you Allies are there - four, five, six, twenty? The more you are, so much the better for me. I take up the challenge. I can assure you that . . . next October we shall meet in Vienna; then will it be seen what has become of your good friends, the Russians and the Prussians. Do you count on Germany? See what it did in 1809! To hold the people there in check, my soldiers are sufficient, and, for the faith of the princes, my security is the fear they have of you.69
To all this was added a string of observations reminiscent of those that had been lavished on Caulaincourt during the long journey home he had shared with Napoleon in December. The invasion of Russia had only been defeated by ‘General Winter’; Francis I would never make war on his own daughter and grandson; the French people were entirely loyal to his rule; the Austrians could not get more than 75,000 men into the field; the common soldiers of the grande armée remained devoted to him. Napoleon, then, remained defiant. In the face of this attitude a disappointed Metternich could only state the obvious:
In all that Your Majesty has just said to me I see a fresh proof that Europe and Your Majesty cannot come to an understanding. Your peace is never more than truce. Misfortune, like success, hurries you to war. The moment has arrived when you and Europe both throw down the gauntlet; you will take it up - you and Europe - and it will not be Europe that will be defeated ... You are lost, Sire. I had the presentiment of it when I came; now, in going, I have the certainty.70
Metternich’s first efforts to negotiate a settlement, then, had failed. It is, however, extremely unlikely that he would ever have attained his aims. In the eyes of all those who observed him, there were serious doubts that the emperor had ever had any intention of giving way. As the artillery officer Noël wrote:
Everyone wanted peace, but did the emperor desire it? One would have thought so. How, otherwise, could he have agreed to an armistice when, having been victorious in two major battles, he had forced the enemy back across the Oder and now found himself at the gates of . . . the richest province in Prussia? Nevertheless, as the negotiations dragged on and the emperor, so eager when he wanted something, was busy only with preparations for a new campaign, one began to have doubts. Defensive works covered the left bank of the Elbe from Bohemia to the sea. The ramparts of Dresden were restored . . . and the fortifications of Torgau were finished . . . Big hospitals were established at Dresden, Torgau and Magdeburg, huge warehouses were filled with supplies of every sort . . . The emperor watched and supervised everything . . . Whole corps arrived to join us at this time . . . made up of young soldiers full of enthusiasm and goodwill . . . There could only be one goal for these preparations and deployment of forces; it was to impress the enemy and so obtain the best possible terms for the peace, or, if war became essential, to deal such a blow that the struggle would be ended at once. Yet we knew the emperor well enough to know that, once he found himself at the head of such a large army, it would indeed be difficult to extract the least concession from him. Busy as I was . . . I could not be entirely deaf to the widespread recriminations and complaints that I heard all around me on the inflexibility of Napoleon’s character.71
In the circumstances it is difficult to believe that the truce was ever anything more to Napoleon than an attempt to win time to rest and recruit his forces. Nevertheless, the emperor did agree to take part in a conference at Prague and even informally agreed to the principle of Austrian mediation. But none of this came to anything. Even though Metternich offered to waive Austria’s claim to the Illyrian provinces, which would presumably have been left as an independent principality, it soon became clear that Napoleon had no intention of giving way. To the end, he refused point-blank to believe that the Austrians had mobilized in the numbers that were being reported. Caulaincourt was sent to Prague to represent Napoleon in the peace talks, but he was not given the necessary credentials by his master and in consequence, much flattered by the election of Schwarzenberg as allied commander-in-chief, on 12 August Austria finally entered the war. On that very day, the missing papers finally turned up, but Metternich saw clearly that this was simply another of Napoleon’s attempts to throw the blame for hostilities on his opponents. He showed Caulaincourt and Narbonne the door: ‘I told [him] it would no longer be possible to make use of [the] letters: the die was cast and the fate of Europe was once more left to the decision of arms.’72 Still he had not completely given up hope that Napoleon could be persuaded to accept a peace settlement. The junior official sent to Metternich to settle the arrangements for the departure of the French delegation from Prague was therefore subjected to an hour-long exposition of the Austrian position which, if a thoroughly implausible piece of diplomatic theatre, was none the less almost pleading in its intensity:
It would be incorrect to say that we talked together, for he was almost exclusively the only one to speak. His eyes were moist, his hands worked nervously, and his forehead was covered with perspiration. He explained to me in detail the designs he had formed, and the efforts he had made since the day of our disasters to preserve peace, to maintain the alliance between Austria and France, and to reconcile the interests of his own country, and the legitimate independence of Germany, with the pride and the real interests of France. He called to mind the attacks to which he had been subjected, the reproaches he had endured, and the efforts he had made, making me, in a measure, a witness of the extremities to which he was now reduced. He then enumerated to me in full the whole military force which was arrayed against us . . . the preparations which had been made for the evacuation of Vienna, and the dispositions which had been taken to continue the struggle even though it were after another Austerlitz . . . It was the effusion of a soul, full of patriotic and personal anguish, which poured out its innermost feelings even to overflowing without being able to restrain them.73
For admirers of Napoleon, the peace terms offered him at Dresden have frequently been regarded as intolerable. Yet in reality they were by no means so bad. With nothing said about Switzerland, the Kingdom of Italy, Naples, Holland, Belgium and Spain, Napoleon would have continued at the head of a France that was only marginally less grande than before, and at least potentially backed by a number of clients and satellites. Inherent in the agreement too was a serious diplomatic defeat for London. Britain’s envoys were excluded from the negotiations at Reichenbach, and the peace terms left almost all her immediate war aims unresolved. All that the British could do was to go along with the proposals in the hope that Napoleon would reject them, or that Prussia and Russia - who were under no obligation to bring the war to a close even if the emperor accepted the deal - could be persuaded to keep fighting. There was no attempt to renege on the treaties that had been signed so recently with the eastern powers, but Britain’s partners were left in no doubt that Reichenbach was not acceptable to London. On 5 July, Lord Castlereagh wrote a long dispatch to Cathcart and Stewart in which he informed them that Spain and Sicily would never be abandoned, that Holland was to be given up by France, and, finally, or at least so it was implied, that the Kingdom of Italy should be restored to its old masters. As for the sort of Europe that Britain wanted the Allies to fight for, this was encapsulated by the plan that had been drawn up in 1805 by William Pitt and was now sent to Russia by Castlereagh: France was to be contained by a much reinforced Holland and a reconstituted Piedmont, backed by Prussia on the one hand and Austria on the other. In taking this stance, Castlereagh’s hand was strengthened by the arrival at allied headquarters of news of Wellington’s great victory at Vitoria, this allowing the British both to point out that the restoration of Ferdinand VII was no longer even potentially a matter of dispute and to hold out the hope of an invasion of France in Napoleon’s rear.
With British subsidies now pouring into the treasuries of the eastern powers, Britain’s influence was clearly on the increase. But even with this assistance there was no guarantee that they would be able to attain their objectives. Alexander, in particular, remained hostile to Britain. In September 1812 he had given ample proof of this by offering Russian mediation as a means of ending the conflict between Britain and the United States, and there was therefore little likelihood of him showing much verve in respect of stripping France of Holland and Belgium. And, if some of Prussia’s generals were eager for war, Frederick William and Hardenberg were far less enthusiastic. As a British diplomat on Stewart’s staff complained:
One point yielded by Bonaparte to Austria would have turned the scale against us, for throughout the duration of the armistice, considerable political manoeuvring has been carried on for the purpose of furthering the efforts of Austria to prevent a renewal of the war. Hardenberg is not in the best of health, and is quite overwhelmed with the amount of business he has now to transact. He . . . at times, I know, considers us rather as a thorn in his side, and an obstacle to a peaceful settlement of affairs amongst the three powers, than as an ally making the greatest efforts and sacrifices to aid in restoring permanent tranquillity to Europe. The King [i.e. Frederick William III] is as reserved as he has ever been, and not much less apathetic; he is as fond of retirement, varied with a little quiet recreation, as formerly . . . as well as his moody fits when things are not going on smoothly. At times he is indignant at Bonaparte’s high-handed ways, and warms up into sharing a little . . . the feeling of his people towards their oppressor. But these are short-lived emotions, for the King has no confidence in himself and the right spirit has rarely strength to assert itself long enough for action to follow its promptings. His Majesty, therefore, cools down rapidly, and sinks back into the same amiable nonentity he has ever been - ruled by those around him, more especially if their influence is exerted in a manner to leave him in the unruffled enjoyment of serenity of mind and the calm, peaceful mode of life he delights in.74
One should not push this British view too far. There is no evidence that either Alexander or Frederick William seriously considered peace at this time, and they were, in fact, much irritated when Metternich extended the armistice rather than going to war immediately after Napoleon rejected the peace terms offered at Dresden. So much did the tsar distrust Metternich indeed, that he even sent his sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine, to employ a mixture of bribery and guile to win him over to the allied cause, while at the same time trying to have himself put forward as allied commander-in-chief in place of the Austrian Schwarzenberg. But fighting on until Napoleon was defeated was not the same as insisting on his removal. The series of bipartisan agreements signed at Teplitz on 9 September between Austria, Prussia and Russia to cement the grand alliance said nothing at all about France’s political future. Instead they committed the Allies to re-establishing Austria and Prussia on the frontiers of 1805, maintaining field armies of 150,000 men apiece, ensuring the independence of the states of Germany and settling the fate of Poland among themselves after the war had come to an end. As for the idea of getting rid of Napoleon altogether, of all the allied leaders, in fact, only Bernadotte was now overtly hawkish, and he was driven by nothing more than personal ambition. ‘Bonaparte is a rogue,’ he told one Russian envoy. ‘He must be killed. As long as he is still alive, he will be the scourge of the world. France should not have an emperor. The title is not a French one. What France needs is a king, but he must be a soldier-king. The whole Bourbon race is rotten through and through, and should never be permitted to resume the throne.’ That he was the right man for the job, he was certain - ‘What man would suit the French more than me?’ - but underlying the bluster was also caution: ‘A great deal of prudence is required in my position. It is so delicate, so difficult! Setting aside the natural repugnance that I feel in respect of shedding French blood, I have a great reputation to uphold. In this I am under no illusions. My fate hangs on a single battle. If I lose it, I could ask six francs of Europe, and not a single person would give me anything.’75 With even Britain prepared to sign up to a peace settlement that kept Napoleon in power, all that the French ruler had to do was to stretch out his hand. A solution that preserved his dynasty and left France with significant gains was still available. According to apologists for the emperor, accepting the reduction in his power outlined by Metternich’s proposals would not have been borne by the French people. But this is simply nonsense - peace would have seemed cheap at the price. Nor was there much risk of a military coup: surrender might mean many commanders contemplating the loss of prosperous estates in Germany, Italy and Poland, but to fight on was to risk much more. Peace with honour was there for the taking.
Why, then, did the war continue? The answer is devastatingly simple. Rather than accept a compromise peace, Napoleon had elected to gamble on military victory. However, before we look at the campaigns that followed, we must first consider some loose ends elsewhere. At the very time that the guns had fallen silent in Silesia, matters had come to a head in two other theatres of war, namely the Balkans and the Trans-Caucasus. In the Balkans, Russia’s disengagement from her war with Turkey had left the Serbs hopelessly vulnerable to an Ottoman counter-attack, while Karadjordje’s attempt to set up a centralized state had alienated many key Serbian chieftains. Still worse, the populace were desperately war-weary. In the treaty of Bucharest the Ottomans had been forced to concede both a general amnesty and a guarantee of autonomy if the Serbs would in turn make peace and recognize the suzerainty of Constantinople. But the details of what was meant by autonomy had been left very vague and the Serbs had in effect been left to secure such terms as they could get. These, needless to say, proved to be most unfavourable. Fearing the worst, Karadjordje sought desperately to buy time while secretly appealing to Russia for help. This aid was not forthcoming and Constantinople became more and more impatient. After all, if the matter was still unresolved when the Russians concluded peace with Napoleon, there was an obvious danger of a fresh Russian attack. In late July, then, three Ottoman armies poured into Serbia. Only in a few places was there much resistance, and by early October it was all over, the only bright spot amid the scenes of carnage that followed being that Karadjordje himself managed to reach safety in Hungary.
In the Trans-Caucasus, meanwhile, though fighting had ceased between the Russians and the Ottomans, leaving the former in control of a small amount of additional territory, there was still conflict with the Persians. As will be remembered, Russia had been engaged in a spasmodic war with Persia over the suzerainty of Georgia ever since 1804. A combination of distance and terrain enabled the outmatched Persians to keep up the fight for a considerable time, but in October 1812 they were decisively defeated at Aslanduz on the Araks river, while a second defeat at Lenkoran two months later persuaded them to sue for peace. The result was the treaty of Golestan. Signed on 12 October 1813, this not only confirmed Russian ownership of Georgia, but also handed her what is today Azerbaijan, as well as exclusive rights to navigation on the Caspian Sea.
In terms of Russian expansion in central Asia, the treaty of Golestan was of immense importance, opening the way as it did to the independent khanates of present-day Kazakhstan. In some ways, then, it may be said to have had greater long-term geopolitical effects than anything that happened in Western Europe. In 1813, however, it appeared a sideshow. To return to Napoleon - confronted by the odds that he now faced, even the emperor would have been hard put to survive. Counting the troops of his remaining allies, he could only muster some 335,000 men, despite the fact that the King of Saxony had returned to the fold and mobilized his army. Facing him were a minimum of 515,000 allied troops. Predictably enough, Alexander and Frederick William had derived greater benefit from the truce than Napoleon in terms of getting reinforcements from their home bases, while there also now came forward 40,000 Swedes and 127,000 Austrians. Dividing his forces so that he could strike out in several directions at once, Napoleon succeeded for a while in staving off disaster. Yet France’s generals were so used to the emperor’s guiding hand that few of them were capable of independent command and several were heavily defeated. Where Napoleon himself was in charge, things were better, but the allied generals had agreed to refuse battle whenever he was present, the result being that all his offensives achieved was to exhaust his own troops. All the time, meanwhile, the supply convoys and communications of the grande armée were being constantly harassed by parties of light cavalry and Cossacks. Desperately hungry, the troops were also in severe need of new footwear and clothing, all this being made still worse by the coming of an autumn marked by torrential rains. Confidence in the French camp had been lacking to start with: ‘The emperor’s fête fell on 15 August ... This was the last time that the French army celebrated its emperor’s birthday. There was little enthusiasm, for even the least foreseeing of the officers realized that we were on the eve of great changes, and their forebodings were reflected in the minds of the subalterns . . . Our allies of the Confederation of the Rhine were wavering and the Saxon General Thielmann with his brigade had already gone over to the Prussians. So there was much uneasiness and little confidence among our troops.’76 As can be imagined, hope was now running out fast.
In the six weeks [Napoleon] spent in and around Dresden, he lost a lot of men. This was as much the result of the want of supplies and the desertion and sickness that began to make themselves felt as of battle. The hospitals were overwhelmed. Our soldiers were lying dead on the roads, having collapsed from hunger, cold and misery . . . After the unfortunate affair on the river Bober, a violent scene took place between Marshal Macdonald and the emperor. Going straight into the marshal’s camp, the emperor shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Monsieur le Maréchal, what have you done with the army I gave you?’ At this, Macdonald indignantly replied, ‘You no longer have an army: there is nothing left but a few unfortunates dying of starvation. Go and have a look in the mountains: you will find plenty of soldiers there all right, but they are all dead of misery. You have lost everything: your only hope is peace.’77
Such was the mystique of Napoleon and his army that the emperor’s French soldiers continued to show extraordinary levels of devotion, but the subject nationalities began to melt away in large numbers, while in the grande armée as a whole morale was clearly very fragile. When Ney was defeated at Dennewitz on 6 September, for example, the day ended in a panic-stricken rout that swept away even formations that were still intact. In addition, there were stirrings behind the lines. After months of procrastination, on 8 October Bavaria, menaced by Austrian invasion, signed a treaty of alliance with Vienna that committed her to uniting her forces with the Allies. With the allied armies closing in, the only solution was either negotiations in good faith or a retreat to the Rhine, but neither of these options was acceptable to Napoleon:
The emperor one morning sent one of his orderly officers to me to ask my opinion of the situation, and what we had better do. We were now in October [and] without rations, except such as could be collected by main force . . . I told the officer plainly that, unless the emperor immediately took the offensive - that is, if he saw any chance of success, which, in my opinion was improbable as we had hitherto failed to force our entrance into Bohemia - he exposed us to serious catastrophes: the army was daily growing weaker by sickness and the ordinary losses of war; that an unsuccessful battle would weaken us still further, and use up . . . ammunition which we could not replace; that the magazines were empty [and] the country ruined; [and] that the prudent course would be to retire . . . and to evacuate those places on the Oder with which we could still communicate, and above all, those on the Elbe . . . He departed, but scarcely had he left me when another orderly officer came to bring me an order not to commence the preliminary execution of my plan, but to advance at once. My reconnaissances and forage parties were already out, and I was consequently very weakened. I told the officer to point out to the emperor that I could not start until they returned . . . It was not long before he returned, saying that the emperor desired me to set out immediately with what troops I had.78
Instead of retreating, the emperor adopted a defensive position around Leipzig. The battle that followed was the largest, bloodiest and most dramatic of the Napoleonic Wars, with the 177,000 -strong grande armée facing an initial total of over 250,000 allied troops. On
16 October Schwarzenberg and Blücher launched simultaneous attacks from north and south, but were successfully repulsed. At this point Napoleon might yet have got away to the west, but he was expecting 14,000 fresh troops to arrive the following day. Why he thought this would make a difference is unclear: setting aside the negligible numbers of men involved, two-thirds of them were potentially unreliable Saxons. But, whatever the reason, he decided to stay put in the expectation that he could secure a genuine victory, while at the same time sending peace terms of his own to the Allies: there would first be an armistice in which France would be allowed to evacuate all her beleaguered eastern garrisons in return for a promise to withdraw to the line of the river Saale, and then a peace settlement whose chief features would be the re-establishment of Spain, Holland, Hanover, Hamburg and Lübeck as independent states in exchange for allied recognition of the Kingdom of Italy and the Confederation of the Rhine. However, to expect that the Allies would accept such terms stretched belief to its very limits. As anyone could see, the result would be to allow Napoleon to regroup his forces and save the thousands of men that even he had now to recognize would otherwise be given up for lost, while reserving the right to fight on at a later date. Among his men there was a much more realistic appreciation of the situation. The artillery officer Noël was now serving at Napoleon’s headquarters:
On 17 October we remained in the positions we had occupied on the previous evening. It was a wretched day: the sky hung low and grey and the weather was cold and wet. The battlefield was a terrible sight . . . Our own thoughts were at one with the weather and the scene that met our eyes. Illusions were shattered as everyone began to understand the situation. We saw before us a numerous, courageous enemy determined, at any cost, to regain his independence. We had to start again and in the worst of circumstances . . . Yesterday we had fought two against three; tomorrow we should fight one against two.79
To the relief of the French,17 October proved quiet as the Allies were waiting for the 140,000 reinforcements coming up under Bennigsen and Bernadotte. The fighting was therefore not resumed until the next day when 300,000 men were launched against the French from virtually every point of the compass. Thanks in part to allied bungling and irresolution, at first the grande armée held its ground, but then the tide turned. In the very midst of the fighting, the two Saxon divisions which had arrived the previous day changed sides, and in consequence Napoleon ordered a withdrawal. With the only way out of the trap a long and narrow causeway across a marshy river valley, this was an extremely dangerous manoeuvre, and it was not long before complete chaos set in. Among the troops trying to get across the causeway was Marshal Marmont:
My chief of staff and his deputy had been struck down at my side; four of my aides-de-camp were killed, wounded or missing, along with another seven of the officers attached to my staff. As for myself, I had been wounded by a musket ball in the hand and badly bruised on the left arm, while a ball had gone through my hat and another through my coat, on top of which four horses had been killed beneath me . . . Disorder reigned on all sides. The blockages caused by wagons in every street and the congestion of the fugitives prevented the maintenance of anything in the way of a formation and impeded the transmission of orders. Terror had taken hold of everyone, and the effects of this may be judged if I tell you that the town is encompassed by a circular boulevard that separates it from its suburbs, and that columns of troops were therefore converging on the Lindenau road - the only way out - from three different directions. So dense was the crowd that, having made my retreat by keeping to the fringes of the boulevard, I found that I could not get into the main stream without assistance. In the end two officers of the Eighty-Sixth opened the way for me. While one of them flung himself into the throng and opened a small space for me with his sabre, the other seized the bridle of the little Arab I was riding and dragged it into the middle of the road. So great was the press that it was lifted off its feet and for some moments literally carried along.80
For all the disorder, at first all went well enough. Disorganized and exhausted themselves, the Allies did not react until the retreat had been under way for many hours, and even then they were held at bay by the French rearguard. Many of Napoleon’s troops therefore escaped, and even more would doubtless have done so but for the causeway being mistakenly blown up. As a result of this, defeat was converted into catastrophe: at least 30,000 French troops who might have got away were now either killed or captured. Added to the 38,000 casualties the French had suffered over the previous three days, not to mention the many thousands who had been lost earlier in the campaign, this was a blow from which recovery was simply impossible. On the battlefield lay the wreckage not just of an army, but of an empire. On 21 October, Sir George Jackson rode into Leipzig in company with Metternich:
Part of our way lay over the field of battle, and a more revolting and sickening spectacle I never beheld. Scarcely could we move forward a step without passing over the dead body of some poor fellow, gashed with wounds and clotted in the blood that had weltered from them; another, perhaps, without an arm or a leg; here and there a headless trunk, or it might be a head only, which caused our horses to stumble or start aside, or it might be one of their own species lying across our path, his entrails hanging out, or some part of his body blown away. It made one’s blood run cold to glance only, as we passed along, upon the upturned faces of the dead, agony on some, a placid smile on others . . . We got over this ‘field of glory’ as quickly as we could, and perhaps some of us affected to be less impressed by this terrible scene than we really were. But I know there was many an involuntary shudder, and that many of the glibbest tongues were for the time quite silenced.81
Allied casualties had also been very high - at least 50,000 men - but the victory was to prove cheap at the cost, with Napoleonic control of central and northern Europe now evaporating overnight. With the grande armée fleeing for the Rhine, Napoleon’s German satellites either hastened to come over to the Allies or collapsed. Also lost at this time was Holland, which the French evacuated in the first week of November, leaving a group of influential notables to establish a provisional government. East of the Rhine, all that was left was Denmark, which, though fiercely loyal, had only a small army and was menaced by a Bernadotte determined to conquer Norway. On other fronts things were not much better. In the Pyrenees, Wellington’s army had crossed the Spanish frontier, broken through the defensive lines the French had established and advanced to the outskirts of Bayonne. In the Illyrian provinces, the French had been driven out by a combination of a large Austrian army, a rising among the Croats of the old ‘military frontier’, and a small British naval squadron that took the ports of Trieste and Fiume. And in the Kingdom of Italy, the staunchly loyal Eugène de Beauharnais had rejected an attempt on the part of his father-in-law, King Maximilian of Bavaria, to get him to change sides, but had none the less been forced to retreat to the Piave river, thereby abandoning large expanses of territory and with them much manpower and revenue. And finally in Naples Murat was supposedly mobilizing his army to assist Eugène, but he was known to be extremely pessimistic and stories were circulating that he was trying to negotiate a deal with the Allies.
The situation, then, was very bleak, but as evidence of Metternich’s desire to keep Napoleon on the throne of France, in the wake of the battle of Leipzig there arrived one more peace offer. We come here to the so-called Frankfurt memorandum. Not surprisingly, the triumph of the Allies was viewed with little enthusiasm by the Austrian chancellor. Those in the allied camp who wished to see the overthrow of Napoleon had naturally been encouraged by the results of Leipzig, while Metternich feared that it would whip up support for German nationalism, and all the more so as Stein had come west from Königsberg in the hope of promoting revolution. To deal with this situation, Metternich negotiated a series of bilateral agreements with states such as Baden and Württemberg that safeguarded their independence in exchange for their accession to the allied cause, and at the same time pressurized Alexander into demoting Stein’s putative German government to a mere control commission whose authority was restricted to those areas like Saxony (whose monarch paid the price of not going over to the Allies in April) that had no legitimate government. But the crucial issue was to put an end to the war, and this was also the only means of saving Napoleon. What was needed was a new peace offer - and one that was very generous. France, Metternich now suggested, should be offered the frontiers of 1797 complete with Belgium and the Rhineland. In this he was supported by a Nesselrode as alarmed by Stein’s ‘Jacobinism’ as he was, and this in turn produced the agreement of Alexander I. There was a degree of calculation here - the tsar seems to have believed that Napoleon would again reject a deal and thereby legitimize the continuation of the war. Much more surprising was the behaviour of the British ambassador to Austria, Lord Aberdeen. Young and inexperienced, he had been severely shaken by what he had seen at Leipzig and, without consulting any of his fellow envoys, therefore gave his assent to the new terms as well, even though they left several important British goals completely unredeemed.
Whether the proposed settlement would ever actually have been ratified is impossible to say. But in the circumstances it was the best that Napoleon could hope for. Instead of the prompt agreement that was the most realistic response, however, there came mere temporizing. According to the envoy who brought him the terms, the emperor wanted peace and was prepared to abandon Spain and recognize the collapse of the Confederation of the Rhine on condition of a guarantee of Dutch neutrality and the preservation of the Kingdom of Italy in its present form. However, his written response was much less forthcoming. Napoleon refused to comment on the terms at all, and merely proposed fresh peace talks. This was not enough. The Frankfurt memorandum had caused fury in the British camp - ‘Metternich . . . I consider one of our greatest enemies,’ wrote Sir George Jackson82 - and Cathcart and Stewart therefore pressed hard for the terms to be withdrawn or at least for their discussion to be postponed until a special plenipotentiary of real stature could be sent out from London. In practice, then, the proposals lapsed. Such a plenipotentiary was duly sent out in the person of no less a figure than Lord Castlereagh, but by then the allied armies had pushed on to the Rhine, and with every step they advanced the Frankfurt frontiers became more and more unrealistic. But even now by no means all the allied leaders were committed to the overthrow of Napoleon. Frederick William of Prussia, for example, was particularly hesitant:
The king had hoped that peace might be brought about, and he first learned in Frankfurt that, so far from this, the passage of the Rhine had been fixed for the st of 1st January. Thrown into the worst possible humour by this news, he sent for Gneisenau and myself to express his dissatisfaction . . . and to reproach us for not having advised against so hazardous an enterprise. We instantly confessed that we had recommended the measure most urgently as Napoleon had rejected the conditions for peace by demanding the most ridiculous conditions. We explained to the king at full length . . . that, of the three great powers, Prussia herself had the greatest interest in seeing this war-loving Napoleon . . . annihilated, if possible by dethroning him, or, if this could not be effected, by driving . . . France back within her old boundaries . . . The king listened to us attentively. Nevertheless, he was not convinced by our reasoning, and persisted in his apprehension that the expedition to Paris would end badly.83
The war, then, continued. Back in France Napoleon proceeded to try to rebuild his fortunes. Already a fiction, the French kingdom of Spain was now abandoned: Joseph Bonaparte had already been brusquely sacked in the wake of Vitoria, and, deciding that the moment was ripe to cut his losses, Napoleon now sent a message to Madrid offering to release the imprisoned Ferdinand VII on the understanding that he would make peace with France and expel the Anglo-Portuguese. When these terms were firmly rejected, he decided to release Ferdinand anyway, but while chaos ensued - the result was a military coup that restored absolutism - it was much too late to make any difference. What was left of France’s Peninsular army was therefore going to have to keep fighting in the south-west. Nor was it of the slightest account that the emperor also released the Pope and directed him to make his way to Rome. Without the resources of the grande empire, the regime’s demands soared. Taxes shot up dramatically: land tax rose by 95 per cent and property tax by 100 per cent. As for manpower, in addition to the 350,000 men called up between January and April 1813, and another 30,000 men called up in August, October saw a demand for 120,000 men from the classes of 1809 to 1814 and 160,000 men from the class of 1815, this being followed a month later by a second demand for 300,000 from the classes of 1803 to 1814. And, as if this was not enough, another 180,000 men were mobilized for service as members of the National Guard. This was alevée en massesuch as France had not seen since 1793. Alongside it, indeed, the 500,000 men raised under the Terror paled into insignificance.
The impact of all this was catastrophic. The war had already been unpopular in France, but the atmosphere produced by the news of Leipzig was one of growing panic. As Pasquier wrote:
There was no longer any hope in anything: every illusion had been destroyed. There were certainly long columns in Le Moniteur full of patriotic addresses and expressions of devotion on the part of every corporation, every town council, but this official language had the appearance of a practical joke. It would have been much better by far for the government to have maintained a dignified silence.84
If confirmation was needed of the state to which France was reduced, it was the sights that accompanied the arrival of the survivors of the German campaign. ‘The army returned in the most dreadful condition,’ wrote Lavallette. ‘The number of sick and wounded was immense; the hospitals and private houses were not enough to contain them, and that most deadly malady, typhus fever, attacked not only the army, but every village and town through which it passed.’85 As for fresh recruits, there were scarcely any to be had, still less any will to send them.
France had long since been exhausted, not so much of money . . . but of men. This last scarcity . . . threw whole families into despair and want. They really were bled to the uttermost. The poor man had to give his last son and in him lost his support, and in the fields it was often the women and girls who led the plough . . . And the same disasters occurred in the towns. Numbers of families condemned themselves perpetually to cripple their fortunes in order to save the young man whom other measures ended by reaching . . . The crepe with which the Russian and Leipzig campaigns had covered France had not yet disappeared; bitter tears were still being shed.86
Despair, then, was widespread, and to this was added political disaffection. In few parts of the country was royalism much of a force. According to Rochechouart, ‘With the exception of the nobility, the clergy and a few wealthy members of the old bourgeoisie, the majority of the populace did not even know the name of Louis XVIII.’87 But anger at the increased demands of the state inflamed old political antagonisms. Following the Leipzig campaign, for example, Marbot had ended up at Mons in the former Austrian Netherlands. As he wrote, ‘I found the spirit of the population changed. There was a regret for the old paternal government of Austria, and a keen desire for separation from France, and the perpetual wars which were ruining commerce and industry. In short, Belgium was only awaiting the opportunity to revolt . . . From my hotel I could see every day 3,000 or 4,000 peasants and artisans assembling in the square and listening to the talk of certain retired Austrian officers . . . All French officials left the department to take refuge at Valenciennes and Cambrai.’88 At Mons serious trouble was averted by vigorous action on the part of the garrison, but at nearby Hazebrouck there was serious rioting. And even where there was no overt resistance, draft evasion once again became a serious problem, and with it a renewal of brigandage. Almost everywhere there was a mood of barely suppressed fury. ‘Observant minds saw plainly that the emperor had already lost his head, and that he would soon lose his crown. Consequently public opinion was violently opposed to him. His military and financial operations were loudly blamed. No longer dreaded, he became the butt of diatribes, satirical songs, lampoons, and all the other offensive weapons employed by French public opinion.’89 Even attempts to play on fears of invasion had no effect: ‘I was at the Vaudeville,’ wrote the Duc de Broglie. ‘The police had given orders for the performance there of an appropriate play, in which Cossacks plundered a village, pursued young girls, and set fire to the barns: the piece was outrageously hissed from the very beginning, interrupted by the noise from the pit, and could not be terminated.’90
Needless to say, the consequent social instability undermined the loyalty even of the regime’s own personnel, who as notables inevitably had much to lose, as well as no desire to return to the days of Jacobinism and the levée en masse which a desperate emperor now seemed to be trying to revive. Not only was the rhetoric of the regime increasingly echoing that of 1793 , but Napoleon sent out extraordinary commissioners in the style of the old députés en mission, introduced a number of measures intended to redistribute land to the peasantry, and decreed the formation of a volunteer militia drawn from unemployed workers in Paris and other towns of northern France. With a royalist restoration no longer a serious threat in social and economic terms - on 1 February 1813 Louis XVIII had issued a well-publicized declaration in which he promised generally to respect the status quo - the political establishment saw no reason to support a fight to the finish. Already in December 1813 the corps législatif had effectively demanded that Napoleon make peace immediately. Further signs of disaffection now appeared in the administration and the propertied classes. The prefects and their deputies began to refuse to carry out their orders, to connive at draft evasion and the non-payment of taxes, and even to abscond altogether, while the bond issue of 200 million francs the regime had authorized to finance the war effort at the beginning of the year proved a disaster. Typical enough was the attitude of the former governor of the Grand Duchy of Berg, Count Beugnot, who in the winter of 1813 was appointed to the prefecture of the department of the Nord: ‘I gave up trying to levy conscripts. More than that, I sent home the young men from the leading families of the department who had been swept into the Gardes d’Honneur, and put an end to the persecution that had been directed against their parents . . . And, finally, loudly proclaiming that, in the situation that the department might find itself at any moment, all its people together would not be enough to defend it, I promised that no one who was called up would be expected to serve outside its limits.’91
The new armies, then, were not forthcoming. Asked to provide 5,000 men, for example, Seine Inférieure managed only 1,457, and the country as a whole raised only 63,000 . Even had more men appeared, there were few arms. Many of the National Guard, for example, were armed with no more than pikes and fowling pieces. Faced with disaster, the emperor displayed immense energy - ‘He goes to bed at eleven o’clock,’ his secretary, Baron Fain, told a concerned Lavallette, ‘but he gets up at three in the morning and until evening there is not a moment when he is not working.’92 But no quantity of orders could change matters, and Fain admitted that his master was ‘utterly tired out’.93 Yet there was still no mention of peace. ‘Peace! Peace! It’s easy enough to say the word,’ Napoleon shouted at Beugnot, ‘Am I to give up all that I possess in Germany? I have 100,000 men in the fortresses along the Elbe, in Hamburg and in Danzig. If the enemy are foolish enough to cross the Rhine, I will march to meet them . . . and have my garrisons fall on their rear, and then you will see the meaning of the word débâcle.’94 However, in reality, Napoleon’s power was on its last legs. In northern Italy, it is true, Eugène de Beauharnais was still holding the line of the Adige, but, having first led his army northwards on the pretext of reinforcing the defenders, Murat suddenly declared against the emperor in a desperate bid to save his throne. In the meantime Bentinck was preparing to set sail for the north from Sicily with an Anglo-Sicilian expeditionary force. Of the Polish strongholds, all had fallen, and in Germany only Hamburg, Wittenberg and Torgau still held out. Still worse, the erstwhile members of the Confederation of the Rhine were all mobilizing large numbers of conscripts, some of them enrolled in popular militias of the same sort as those seen in Prussia. In Denmark and Norway, Danish resistance was being crushed by Swedish troops. Yet another British expeditionary force was being readied for service in Holland. And in France there were only 85,000 men to defend the eastern frontier against an initial total of at least 350,000 Allies, while another 40,000 Frenchmen were facing 90,000 British, Portuguese and Spaniards in the south-west. With reinforcements almost non-existent, it was hardly surprising that many of the emperor’s closest confidants were begging him to make peace on whatever terms he could get: ‘With a blunt frankness only pardonable for its sincerity, I told him that France was worn out, that the country could not bear much longer the intolerable burden under which it was crushed, and that the people would throw off the yoke in order to surrender themselves, in accordance with their unfortunate habit, to some novelty . . . Particularly I spoke a good deal to him concerning the Bourbons, who would end by inheriting the spoils of his monarchy if ill-luck should overthrow him.’95
For the emperor, however, cheer was still to be found in the continued devotion shown by some soldiers. In Paris, one last parade saw Napoleon entrust Marie-Louise and the King of Rome to the garrison prior to his departure for the front: ‘The enthusiasm generated by the emperor when he took the young king in his arms . . . can never be forgotten by its witnesses. Frenetic and prolonged cries of “Vive l’empereur!” moved from the Hall of Marshals to the national guard assembled in the Carrousel . . . These demonstrations of so true a love for his son moved the emperor: he kissed the young prince with a warmth that escaped none in the audience.’96 Instead of listening to the calls for peace with which he was bombarded, Napoleon therefore chose to fight on in the hope of improving his bargaining position, striking hard and fast at a succession of allied commanders as they invaded eastern France. At first it seemed he might succeed. Suffering five major defeats in three weeks, the shaken Allies offered peace on the basis of the frontiers of 1792. But once again Napoleon had been too successful for his own good, electing to fight on in the hope of forcing the resurrection of the Frankfurt proposals. It was his last mistake. Though his improvised armies had performed prodigies of valour, little more could be expected from them, while, recovering their nerve, the Allies now pressed for the frontiers of 1791.
Whether Napoleon could still have achieved anything on the battlefield remains a moot point among historians, but in fact the question is irrelevant. The French state was falling apart. Even the most enthusiastic Jacobins were not fooled by the regime’s attempts to evoke the spirit of 1793, while the bulk of the population was furiously hostile to the demands of the regime for yet more men, and angry at the depredations of the half-starved French army. ‘Everywhere Napoleon was execrated,’ wrote the former member of the Committee of Public Safety, Bertrand Barère. ‘A general wish prevailed that the foreigners might be defeated and driven from France, and yet the victories of the emperor were dreaded because they were likely to encourage him in his despotism.’97 In those areas penetrated by the Austrians, Prussians and Russians, there was much brutality on the part of the invaders, and this produced a few instances of popular resistance, but where the Allies behaved well, as was almost invariably the case in the areas occupied by Wellington, the enemy troops had a friendly welcome. As one of Wellington’s officers remembered, ‘The English army became popular in time. All the supplies were paid in gold by us, while their own army did not respect property. It was said at the time that Marshal Soult remarked, “I may expect to find by-and-by that the inhabitants will take up arms against us.” ’98 In the confusion there were frequent disturbances by the population. ‘The peasants in the district of Gourdon . . . endured the execrable and ruinous yoke of the customs dues with impatience. They flocked together to Gourdon on market-day to the number of 4,000, piled up the books and registers of the custom-house in the middle of the public square and set fire to them after expelling all the officials.’99The elites were no more enamoured of the regime than the people, and expressions of support for the Bourbons began to multiply dramatically. And, last but not least, Napoleon’s intransigence had driven the Allies closer together, an agreement reached on 1 March committing all of the powers to total victory over the emperor. ‘People realized,’ wrote the Duchess of Reggio, ‘that, by yielding a certain number of his conquests in preceding years, the emperor might have saved France this invasion; that a little later, the line of the Rhine would at least have been left to him; that, even at the time we had reached, if he would only give the Duke of Vicenza (his representative at the congress of Châtillon) the latitude which that zealous functionary demanded, he would still obtain supportable conditions of peace. Peace! The cry was in every heart, for of glory, the everyday food of the country, France had had a sufficient share.’100
As to Napoleon’s state of mind as this veritable twilight of the gods unfolded, we have no better guide than the memoirs of Caulaincourt, who had at the last minute been restored as Foreign Minister and sent to represent France at the abortive peace talks that opened at Châtillon:
The break-up of the congress was inevitable. I had long anticipated this, and had foretold it to the emperor, who, deceiving himself with his habitual and unhappy illusions, was doubtless unwilling to believe it. He kept flattering himself that a military success would drive the enemy away from the capital, that after the enemy had had the slightest reverse, the exasperation and courage of the citizens would force a withdrawal from France. He wrote to the Emperor of Austria, and he had the Prince of Neuchâtel write to Prince Schwarzenberg, as though the negotiations were being held 150 leagues from Paris, as though there were some hope of disuniting powers that had been brought together by a common peril, regardless of any concern other than to escape from the supremacy and sway of the cabinet of the Tuileries . . . For the time being there was but one aim: to subdue France - to chain up Napoleon’s power and reach a state of rest . . . But the emperor . . . did not submit to sacrificing for his personal safety the departments which the arms of the Republic had won . . . As I have said already, he gauged everyone’s zeal by his own . . . Hoping for a piece of luck, he wished to make time for it to happen, and, instead of answering my dispatches, he sent me nothing but bulletins of victories, so-called . . . as if . . . the winning of a fight against a single corps could change the basis of affairs . . . Dangers crowded upon him, encompassed him, oppressed him, from every side, but he thought to escape from them, and even to hide them from others, by misrepresenting them to himself.101
This analysis was confirmed by the reception Caulaincourt received on his return to Napoleon’s headquarters. As reported by the unfortunate envoy, the emperor’s talk had become even more rambling and incoherent than it had been in the wake of the retreat from Moscow:
To humble us - that is what our enemies wish, but death is better. I am too old a campaigner to hang on to life: I will never sign away France’s honour . . . All the high officials are frightened, even the ministers . . . The peasants of Burgundy and the Champagne have more spirit than all the men on my council: you all have the shivers. The word runs that the counter-revolution is complete because the mayor of Bordeaux has turned traitor. No one understands the French but me: indignation will follow on the heels of dejection. You will see what is going to happen before a week is out. The whole population will be under arms; we shall have to come to the enemy’s rescue to stop the violence; they will slaughter everything that has a foreign look to it. We will make a fight of it, Caulaincourt. If the nation supports me, the enemy is nearer ruin than I am for anger is running high. I cut the allied communications: they have numbers, but no support. I rally some of my garrisons, wipe out one of their corps, and the slightest reverse can drive them away. They know what their last retreat has already cost them: another move like that and not one of them escapes. If I am beaten, it is better to fall gloriously than subscribe to terms such as the Directory would not have accepted after their Italian reverses. If I have support, I can regain everything. If fortune deserts me, the country will not be able to reproach me with the breaking of my coronation oath.102
The reality, though, was one of misery and horror. The populace of eastern France was not, as Napoleon kept insisting, turning on the invaders, but rather trying desperately to survive. Among them was the writer Charles de Pougens and his niece, Louise de Saint-Léon. Caught in Soissons by the invasion, they first experienced the terrors of siege and assault:
Taking refuge . . . in a ground-level room whose firmly sealed shutters kept us plunged in complete darkness, we listened with many shudders to the explosion of the bombs that rained around us; one shell fell with a terrifying crash in the garden barely a hundred paces from where we were, and reduced a very large tree to dust. Soon afterwards . . . Soissons was taken by assault . . . and the Russians hurled themselves on the ramparts emitting cries, or rather screams, that made us tremble. I won’t go into any detail on the terrible events that followed: all that I will say is that the massacre of our poor soldiers and the pillage of the town lasted for a full hour.103
Soissons was liberated soon after, but Pougens and his family chose to flee to Louise’s home in the nearby village of Vauxbuin. This, however, proved an unfortunate choice. On 2 March, 6,000 Cossacks descended on the village. Pougens managed at first to keep the group safe by persuading the commander that he had been a correspondent of the wife of Paul I, but no sooner had the Cossacks departed than a large group of stragglers appeared and sacked Louise’s house. Utterly terrified, left almost without food and constantly threatened by further bands of marauders, Pougens and his family then made their way on foot to Nanteuil, where they managed to board a stagecoach bound for Paris. But in the capital things were little better. Working on the staff of one of the city’s main hospitals was the young surgeon, Poumiès de la Siboutie:
Fighting was going on at the gates of Paris. The wounded were brought in in hundreds. We were soon overcrowded. Every available inch of space was filled: the ordinary sick had to be sent to their homes; the pensioners . . . and the incurables were turned out of their wards and herded together in dark corners and attics. Before long even that was not enough, and two patients were assigned to every bed. Each day fresh means had to be devised to house the steadily increasing tide of sick and wounded. The unfortunate fellows dragged themselves to Paris, animated by a feverish desire to obtain shelter and succour. Some fell exhausted on the very steps of the hospital and expired as they reached the haven of a bed. Many had sores and wounds which had not been dressed for days, if ever. Every morning the hospital hearses bore thirty or forty corpses to their long rest. It was the same in all the other asylums and hospitals.104
Meanwhile, as even some of Napoleon’s most loyal subordinates admitted, the propaganda of the regime had little effect, and was, indeed, counter-productive:
The Moniteur was filled with all the complaints, with all the lamentations, of the wretched inhabitants of Montmirail, of Montereau and of Nangis . . . All the towns which had been afflicted with the scourge of war sent deputies to Paris to describe their misery and demand vengeance . . . The great examples of antiquity were invoked; France was reminded of her achievements in 1792 . . . But, it must be confessed, these measures produced at Paris and in all the great towns an effect quite contrary to that which was expected from them. The inhabitants were too civilized to adopt the decisive conduct of the Russians and the Spaniards. The imagination of the citizens was shocked at the violence of the measures suggested to them . . . and peace was loudly demanded as the period of so many horrors.105
With matters in such a state, the end came quickly. Though Napoleon continued to fight and manoeuvre relentlessly, he could achieve little. On 9 March Bentinck had landed at Livorno from where, having issued a call for a national revolt against the French that met with no response whatsoever, he marched on Genoa. On 12 March Bordeaux had proclaimed Louis XVIII, its authorities having first made sure that they would be immediately relieved by the Anglo-Portuguese army. As in 1870 and 1940, refugees were streaming west, adding to the confusion. Among those who fled Paris as the enemy closed in was the wife of Marshal Oudinot:
The Versailles road was free . . . We let the empress, her suite and her escort set out, and at about four o’clock in the afternoon we ourselves departed . . . It was almost dark when we arrived. We took possession of two adjacent rooms in an already crowded house in the Rue de l’Orangerie. During the whole night an incessant and confused noise told us of the passage of a large number of men, horses and carriages, and soon the daylight revealed the most astonishing sight that human eyes perhaps have ever looked upon. We stood motionless at our windows. What we saw passing . . . was the empire, the empire . . . with all its pomp and splendour, the ministers . . . the entire council of state, the archives, the crown diamonds, the administrations. And instalments of power and magnificence were mingled on the road with humble households who had heaped up on a barrow all they had been able to carry away from the houses which they were abandoning.106
At this point, the army finally broke as well: with the soldiers deserting in droves, at Lyons Augereau simply abandoned his headquarters and in Paris Marmont first surrendered the city, and then led his troops over to the enemy.
It was a climactic moment. With Alexander I and Frederick William III both in the capital, the initiative was now seized by Talleyrand, who had been living there in semi-retirement and now set about persuading the allied monarchs that Napoleon had to go. A rather doubtful Alexander had to be persuaded by some hastily organized demonstrations of support for Louis XVIII, but on1 April the allied monarchs issued a declaration that they would no longer treat with Napoleon or any of his family, and that France’s future government would be decided by the wishes of the French people as expressed by an immediate meeting of the Senate. Stage-managed by Talleyrand, this event could have had but one end. On 2 April the Senate proclaimed Napoleon to be deposed and formally invited Louis XVIII to return to France. Meanwhile, Napoleon was at Fontainebleau with 60,000 men. Though the emperor was still ready to fight on, his remaining commanders could take no more and on 4 April Napoleon was bluntly informed that he must abdicate. The war was not quite over: if only because news of the armistice reached him too late, Wellington fought one last battle at Toulouse on 10 April, while various isolated garrisons also held on for a few more days. But this was a mere detail. Forced to yield to force majeure, on 28 April the emperor sailed for the Elban exile decreed by a treaty negotiated with him at Fontainebleau. The peace of Europe had been restored.
So what finally brought down Napoleon? Certainly not some mythical ‘people’s war’, nor even a general decision to employ the weapons of the French Revolution against him. The answer, of course, is in part to be found in Napoleon himself. Tired, far from healthy, and increasingly living in a world of fantasy, he threw away his only hope of victory in Russia, and then proceeded repeatedly to reject peace offers that would have left him ruler of a country larger than it had been when war began in 1792. In the words of a song popular in the British army of the period, ‘Boney was a warrior’ and, as such, there could be no peace except one based on the complete subordination of his opponents - that did not, in short, represent the very apotheosis of military glory. Even as late as 1812, this was not a problem in political terms, for Napoleon possessed the resources of an imperium that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Pripet. But pursued in the very different circumstances of 1813 and, still more so,1814, it was another matter entirely. Forced to make demands of France of a sort which domination of ever greater areas of the Continent had shielded her from ever since 1799, if not 1793, the emperor shattered the acquiescence - often grudging - with which his rule had hitherto been accepted, while at the same time betraying the interests of the propertied elements that were the real bedrock of his regime. Just as damaging, meanwhile, was the impact on the loyalty of Napoleon’s satellites: in June 1813, for example, every interest of the ‘Third Germany’ encapsulated by the Confederation of the Rhine lay in a compromise peace that would have seen a Grand Duchy of Warsaw that the emperor could not protect restored to Austria and Prussia, but compared with the emperor’s personal prestige, the interests of Maximilian of Bavaria and the rest were as nothing. Preferring to ‘go for broke’, he jeopardized every gain they had made in the last ten years and in the process thought nothing of throwing open their peaceful domains to the horrors of war. With their loyalties tested beyond endurance, the princes were therefore thrown willy-nilly into the arms of Metternich, and this, of course, intensified the pressure on France still further.
To a certain extent the emperor’s reputation has been shielded from the impact of the complete lack of realism he displayed in the last year of his reign by the extraordinary last-ditch defence which he mounted in the face of the Allies’ invasion of France. Even now, in fact, admirers of the emperor still solemnly dream of what might have happened if only Marmont had not surrendered Paris, or the French people had not betrayed their great saviour. Nothing, however, could be more misleading. In the campaign of 1814- generally agreed to have been one of the most masterly of his entire career - Napoleon certainly achieved much local success, but this was simply the reflection of a situation in which the grande armée was no longer grande. Able to manoeuvre his army with something of his old celerity, Napoleon was also able to make himself physically visible to far more of his troops than had been the case in either 1812 or 1813 : at Arcis-sur-Aube, he even fought sword in hand at the head of his escort and was almost killed when a shell burst directly under his horse. Once again, then, his extraordinary personal magnetism was able to inspire the teenage boys who formed the mainstay of his last army and the result was feats of heroism as great as anything seen in the Napoleonic Wars. Of these perhaps the greatest example was the battle of La Fère-Champenoise (25 February 1814) in which two National Guard divisions fought a desperate rearguard action and in the process lost all but 500 of their 4,000 men. There were therefore advantages to be found in weakness, but in 1814 they were no longer enough to turn the scales in the same way as they had in Italy in 1796, and, if Napoleon thought they could, it is but one more reason to doubt his grasp of the realities of his position.
By contrast, in the allied high command there gradually emerged a structure of authority that succeeded in both containing and channelling the many strains and tensions that beset the Sixth Coalition. One by one the allied rulers, or at least powerful representatives thereof, appeared at a common headquarters; joint strategies were evolved for dealing with the successive stages in the campaign; and, at key moments, major decisions involving all the coalition armies were taken that allowed the Allies to respond effectively to changing circumstances. On 24 March 1814, for example, it was decided to march straight down the river Marne towards Paris irrespective of anything that Napoleon might do to attack the allied rear. Almost to the end there was no unity in terms of war aims - the treaty of Chaumont committed the Allies to fighting on until Napoleon was defeated, but it did not insist on his removal from the throne, still less a Bourbon restoration - but methods were also elaborated that from the start militated against any of the powers reneging on the alliance altogether. From March 1813 onwards none of the powers fighting on the German front ever sent its forces into action in isolation: in the Leipzig campaign, for example, Bernadotte’s Army of the North was a mixture of Swedes and Prussians, Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia a mixture of Austrians, Russians and Prussians and Blücher’s Army of Silesia a mixture of Prussians and Russians. And when quarrels did erupt in the allied camp, as for example, when Schwarzenberg, for strategic reasons, ordered allied forces to enter Switzerland after Alexander had promised to respect her neutrality, they were at no time allowed to become so bitter as to endanger the future of the war against Napoleon. Time and again, indeed, difficult situations were saved by renewed bouts of negotiation. For all the Allies there was a recognition that in the end the problem of Napoleon could only be resolved through maintaining allied unity. Against hegemony was pitted compromise, and in the end it was compromise that proved the stronger.