Modern history


Zenith of Empire

In the summer of 1806 Europe was temporarily more or less at peace, or, at least, experiencing a period of ‘phoney war’. Technically speaking, both Britain and Russia remained at war with France, and there was some fighting in both Italy and the Balkans. At sea and in the wider world, too, operations went on unabated: the Royal Navy kept watch on Europe’s coasts; a British expeditionary force seized Buenos Aires; and French commerce raiders based in ports as widely spaced as Brest and Mauritius raided the sea lanes and on occasion achieved considerable success. Serious peace negotiations, however, were in place, and, although these soon broke down, it is difficult to see how anything comparable to the campaign of 1805 could have been revived. Neither the Talents nor any other British administration could possibly have committed themselves to major land operations on the Continent without the support of at least one of the great powers, and in the wake of Austerlitz this seemed a long way away. Austria was out of the fight; Prussia in the French camp; and Russia at best resolved on a defensive policy. Yet, in a development that was expected by nobody, and, least of all it seems, Napoleon, the autumn saw the Continent once more plunged into full-scale military operations and a resumption of coalition warfare. Pushed to the limit by the emperor, Prussia went to war against France and, like Austria before her, secured the active support of Russia. But the results were no better than in 1805. In a series of operations that took the grande armée to the very frontiers of Russia, the emperor broke one enemy army after another and truly made himself master of Europe. At no moment, indeed, was the power of the French imperium greater, and Napoleon’s sense of exaltation knew no bounds. As he proclaimed to his army on 22 June 1807:

Frenchmen! You have been worthy of yourselves and of me. You will return to France covered with laurels after having obtained a glorious peace which carries with it the guarantee of its duration. It is time our country should live at rest, secure from the malignant influence of England.1

As we shall see, these were hollow words. Even before the fresh round of fighting broke out, it could be argued that Napoleon had committed a cardinal error in reorganizing Germany in a manner hostile to the interests of Austria or Prussia. But far more damaging were the events that followed in the course of the next twelve months. Not content with the challenge he was already mounting to Russia in the Balkans, Napoleon established a Polish state and thereby struck at the very heart of Russia’s pretensions to be a great European power. And in the Continent as a whole the emperor conscripted each and every one of its inhabitants into a great self-denying ordinance that sought to close its ports to British trade and in the end bankrupt London into surrender. As Fouché observes, this was a man who was giddy with triumph: ‘The delirium caused by the wonderful results of the Prussian campaign completed the intoxication of France . . . Napoleon believed himself the son of destiny, called to break every sceptre. Peace . . . was no longer thought of . . . The idea of destroying the power of England, the sole obstacle to universal monarchy, became his fixed resolve.’2

The long-term consequences of these developments - in essence, a guarantee of further conflict and, more particularly, direct police action on the part of France - will be looked at in due course. What is of concern here is why Prussia should suddenly have opened hostilities on her own when a year earlier she could have done so in the company of a powerful coalition. In brief, Frederick William suddenly discovered the limits of Napoleon’s friendship. Trouble began with the very agreement that Haugwitz had signed with Napoleon after Austerlitz at Schönbrunn. In the first place, there was the issue of Prussia’s international obligations, for under the terms of the treaty of Basel of 1795 Prussia was actually a guarantor of Hanoverian independence. In the second there was Prussia’s neutrality, the latter’s restoration clearly being of the utmost importance. And in the third instance there was that of the future: if Hanover was to be taken over by Prussia, the British subsidies that might one day become necessary to Prussia would clearly not be forthcoming. Amidst much anger, then, Haugwitz was sent back to Napoleon to suggest a number of amendments to the treaty, one suggestion being that Hanover was not to be annexed but rather simply occupied and held as a bargaining counter that might be returned to its ruler in exchange for a variety of other territories at the end of the war. This, however, did no good at all. On the contrary, Haugwitz was confronted with terms that were even worse than before. Hanover would not only be Prussian, but Potsdam would now have to close her ports to Britain’s trade. Failure to accept these terms, it was hinted, would lead to war and, with Prussia in no condition to fight - for reasons of cost, the army had immediately been demobilized - on 9 March Frederick William ratified the new agreement and thereby, to all intents and purposes, declared war on Britain.

The consequences of this act were very serious. Hardly a shot was exchanged between the British and Prussians, but such was the loss of customs revenue that the state’s income fell by 25 per cent. As if this was not bad enough, Prussia also experienced a period of unparalleled humiliation. Thus, in July 1806 Napoleon organized his new Confederation of the Rhine without any reference to Prussia. To add insult to injury, the emperor suggested that Frederick William should form a confederation or even an empire of his own in northern Germany, while at the same time either inciting states that might have been involved in this scheme to reject the whole idea (Saxony and Hesse-Kassel) or making it clear that he would not evacuate them (Hamburg and Lübeck). Still worse, it then transpired that the abortive negotiations with the Talents had seen Napoleon offer to return Hanover to Britain. To the dismayed Frederick William, it really seemed that the end of Prussia was at hand, especially as there were persistent rumours of French troop movements to the south and west. As he wrote to Alexander I, ‘[Napoleon] intends to destroy me.’3 On 9 August, then, the Prussian army was mobilized, and on 1 October this step was followed by an ultimatum calling for France to agree to withdraw all her forces from Germany by 8 October or face war. Even then some question remained whether Frederick William was really in earnest, however. There were certainly voices in Prussia calling for war, but the king himself was almost certainly bluffing. Such at least was the opinion of Ferdinand von Funck, a cavalry officer who became a close adviser of the King of Saxony in the wake of the battle of Jena:

All circumstances point clearly to the fact that Frederick William III . . . always cherished the secret hope that Napoleon would shirk a struggle with the erstwhile military prestige of Prussia, and, as soon as he saw things looking serious, negotiate for the repurchase of Prussian friendship either by the restoration of the Franconian provinces ceded in exchange for Hanover, or perhaps of the territories of Westphalia sold at the peace of Lunéville, or by the free-will offering of part of Saxony. By this means Frederick William would have silenced the malcontents in his own country by the prestige of fresh and cheap aggrandizement.4

Also interesting here are the memoirs of General Muffling. Sent to join the staff of the Duke of Brunswick, Muffling discovered that the newly appointed Prussian commander-in-chief was anything but enthusiastic: ‘I found the duke, as generalissimo, uncertain about the political relations of Prussia with France and England, uncertain about the strength and position of the French corps d’armée in Germany, and without any fixed plan as to what should be done . . . He had accepted the command in order to prevent war.’5

At this point it might be asked what intentions Napoleon had with regard to Prussia. Such was the manner in which Potsdam was goaded that it would be logical to assume that the emperor wanted war and was intent on its instigation. A new land campaign was by far the easiest means of winning fresh laurels and such a venture was all the more tempting in view of the presence of the grande armée in southern Germany (following the Austerlitz campaign, it had gone into cantonments along the river Main). At the same time there was also the issue of Potsdam’s flirtation with the Third Coalition, and the two issues together have certainly led some historians to argue that there was a blueprint for a march on Prussia. This, however, is almost certainly not the case. Intent on establishing the Confederation of the Rhine, the French ruler - at least in the short term - had no desire to destabilize the situation in Germany. According to Talleyrand, he was, as Frederick William hoped, afraid of Prussia. ‘It was not without secret uneasiness that the emperor went for the first time to measure his strength against [Prussia’s],’ wrote Talleyrand. ‘The ancient glory of the Prussian army imposed upon him.’6 But this is most implausible. Much more to the point is the fact that he had other schemes on his mind - the conquest of Sicily; the dispatch of an army to Portugal to end British access to the vital port of Lisbon; and conceivably even a new attempt to invade England. As for Prussia, the reality seems rather to be that he regarded her not at all. There being no evidence whatsoever that Prussia would ever go to war, the emperor in consequence had no compunction about riding roughshod over her interests. To quote a letter the emperor wrote to Talleyrand on 12 September 1806, ‘The idea that Prussia could take me on single-handed is too absurd to merit discussion . . . She will go on acting as she has acted - arming today, disarming tomorrow, standing by, sword in hand, while the battle is fought, and then making terms with the victor.’7 What we see, then, is a typical mixture of contempt and over-confidence. Napoleon did not want a fresh war in 1806, but at the same time he simply did not know what was required to keep the peace. Truly it was a most revealing moment.

Whatever Napoleon’s motives, the result is not in dispute: at the end of the first week of September Prussia’s forces entered Saxony en route for the river Main. For Frederick William, this was an act of desperation that was embarked on in a spirit of the utmost fatalism. As his confidant, Lombard, wrote:

The king . . . was unfortunately not a born general. He had long known as well as anyone that he would have to draw his sword whether he liked it or no, but always he . . . had flattered himself that some catastrophe independent of his own decisions would solve the difficulty. At last . . . he yielded, but quite against his will, of that I can assure you.8

That said, there were many voices in Prussia clamouring for war. Eager to supplant Haugwitz, Hardenberg was in the forefront, as was Frederick William’s queen, Louise, a fiery young woman who had increasingly come to hate Napoleon. Bizarrely, a shaken Haugwitz had also privately joined the war party, although he hoped to postpone the breach long enough to get the army fully ready for action and secure assistance from Britain and Russia. And there were, too, many bellicose army officers. ‘France’, wrote General Blücher, ‘means honestly by no power, least of all by your Royal Majesty . . . Whoever represents France’s conduct to Your Royal Majesty in any other light, whoever advises Your Royal Majesty to continue making concessions and remain at peace with this nation is either very indolent [or] very shortsighted, or else has been bought with French gold . . . Each day gained in declaring war against France is of the greatest advantage to Your Royal Majesty . . . One successful battle and allies, money and supplies are ours from every corner of Europe.’9 So great was the pressure in the officer corps that the king, who had before him the example of the murdered Paul I of Russia, may genuinely have feared for his position. Some officers - Blücher is a good example - genuinely believed that the prestige of the Prussian army and state alike were at stake; others looked to war as an opportunity to justify arguments for reform; and still others were simply anxious for glory after eleven years of peace in an age of general warfare. Something of their frustration comes over from a letter written by the future military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz: ‘War is necessary for my country. Moreover, when all is said and done, it is war alone that can make me attain happiness.’10

Thanks to Napoleon, such vainglory could be dressed up in the garb of German patriotism: on 25 August a considerable stir was caused in Prussia and elsewhere by the execution of a Nuremberg bookseller named Palm who had made the mistake of printing and distributing an anonymous pamphlet lamenting Germany’s prostration. As for victory, it was assured. ‘When I draw a conclusion from all the observations that I have occasion to make,’ opined Clausewitz, ‘I always arrive at the probability that it is we who are going to win the next great battle.’11 ‘Unconscious of danger,’ wrote the Countess of Schwerin, ‘the army, in all the glory and order of a grand parade, went to meet its destruction. Unconscious, too, did the leaders seem, for the enemy circled us round about and no one had any news of him. In Naumberg, when already outflanked by the French, the court continued to live the careless life of Charlottenburg and Potsdam.’12 Another witness of the army’s over-confidence was the Baron de Marbot, a young cavalry officer sent to Berlin bearing dispatches for the French embassy: ‘The officers whom I knew ventured no longer to speak to me or salute me; many Frenchmen were insulted by the populace; the men-at-arms of the Noble Guard pushed their swagger to the point of whetting their sword blades on the stone steps of the French ambassador’s house.’13

To return to the Countess of Schwerin, her remarks are redolent of the hindsight that has often surrounded discussion of the Prussian decision to go to war in 1806. At the time the outcome did not seem so clear-cut on either side of the battle lines. What is true, though, is that Potsdam was in no way ready to take up arms against Napoleon. Prussia stood entirely alone. Despite her secret pact with Russia, no arrangements had been made for military cooperation, and the Russians were sceptical as to whether Prussia would actually do anything. With Britain there had been no contact whatsoever, and the emissary that Haugwitz dispatched to negotiate a treaty of subsidy as soon as war seemed likely could have hoped to achieve very little even had he been granted more time. Grenville mistrusted Prussia at the best of times and was convinced that in the current circumstances all she was out to do was to secure further ‘compensations’ in Germany, while he was disposed to do nothing at all for her unless he received a guarantee that Hanover’s independence would be restored, and saw clear proof that Prussia had exerted herself as far as her own resources would permit. According to Lady Holland, Grenville was none the less ‘very warlike’ - she implies, indeed, that he welcomed the Prussian declaration of war - but in general hostility to Prussia was rife in Britain.14 The Earl of Malmesbury, for example, wrote:

The six months I was with the Prussian army in 1794. . . fixed in my mind the opinion . . . that the military defence of Prussia was, like its geographical position, a rope of sand, which would fall to pieces when brought into action, or vigorously opposed. The two succeeding kings to Frederick [the Great] hastened the dissolution of this baseless fabric. Féderique Guillaume [i.e. Frederick William II] . . . was enervated by debauchery and . . . without any of those substantive virtues necessary to govern so helpless a kingdom such as that over which he reigned. He exhausted the public treasure, and . . . every act or measure of his went to . . . weaken the monarchy. His son, also Féderique Guillaume, began by shedding tears, not for the loss of his father, but from the labour and trouble a crown brings with it, and this, not from philosophy, but from an indolent, sleepy, selfish, torpid mind. He is wilful and obstinate, yet without a system or opinion.15

Nor were the states that might have supported Prussia in northern Germany any more forthcoming. It did not help that the Prussians opened the campaign by pouring into Saxony. Brunswick, Hesse-Kassel, Oldenburg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz all declared their neutrality, while the court of Dresden only joined Prussia because it was that or go to war with her (not that Saxony was especially impressive as an ally, her army numbering a mere 20,000 men). As for the Swedes, Gustav IV rightly suspected that Potsdam had designs on the territorial enclave that Stockholm still held on the coast of northern Germany and therefore remained aloof.

Everything, then, rested on the shoulders of Prussia’s own soldiers, but this was to ask too much of them. So precipitately did Prussia go to war that there was not time to call up all the reserves - in contrast to most of the armies of Europe, the bulk of Potsdam’s soldiers were reservists who were only mobilized in time of war - and Frederick William therefore took the field at the head of a field army of only 150,000 men, when the number might have been at least 200,000. By the same token there were neither magazines for the field army, nor adequate stocks of food in any of the country’s fortresses. As for the quality of the army, the ordinary soldiers were well drilled enough, but their efficacy was undermined - as with Austria in 1805- by a piecemeal series of military reforms that, though well meant, had made things worse rather than better. Thus the army had for the first time been organized into divisions in the French style, but they were, on the one hand, too big and, on the other, very poorly put together. The cavalry were mixed in with the infantry, as had been the case in the French army in the 1790s, and each division was also given too much artillery, the result being, first, formations that were difficult to manage and, second, a considerable dilution in the striking power of horsemen and cannon alike. Finally, in face-to-face conflict with the French, the infantry would certainly be at a disadvantage. There were a number of specialist light-infantry battalions - a few of them riflemen and the rest soldiers known as fusiliers armed with a lighter version of the standard musket - trained in skirmishing tactics, but there were never enough of these units and attempts to make good the want by using the third rank of each line battalion as skirmishers were no substitute as the men had no proper organizational structure. Though the basic tactical system remained sound - the linear formations in which the Prussian army was to fight in 1806 were exactly the same as those in which the British army triumphed at Waterloo - the army therefore went to war at a considerable disadvantage.

As if all this was not enough, Prussia moved on Napoleon at a moment of maximum British distraction. In September 1806 London’s attention rested not on Eastern Europe but on the Spanish empire in America. In 1805 Britain had dispatched an expeditionary force to the Dutch colony of the Cape. The local militia having been quickly worsted at Blauewberg, on 18 January 1806 the governor surrendered. At this point, however, matters took an unexpected turn. Thrusting, ambitious and greedy for prize-money, the commander of the squadron that had transported the British forces to the Cape, Sir Home Popham, suddenly sailed off to attack Buenos Aires, which at this time was the capital of the Virreinato de la Plata, an enormous territory incorporating present-day Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. Though Popham had with him only a very few troops - no more than 1,600 - on 25 June 1806 the ill-defended city duly fell. Exultant at this success, the victor now set his sights on even greater spoils. Eager to see himself established as pro-consul of a new colonial empire, he sent a grandiloquent report of the possibilities on offer in South America to London together with a consignment of something over £ million that had been looted from the treasury of the Spanish administration. Although the government had known of what was afoot since July, it was not until Popham’s victory dispatch arrived on 13 September that news reached the public. Coming ‘out of the blue’ as it did, the result was immense excitement, especially as Popham’s supporters staged a victory parade in which his loot was ceremonially dragged to the Bank of England in a train of wagons. Typical of the talk being bandied about in educated society, perhaps, was the remark heard one evening at a soirée held at the home of the artist, Joseph Farington: ‘[Crauford] Bruce thought the capture of Buenos Aires . . . a great acquisition to commerce. He said it would be attended with the good effect of disseminating our cultures into every corner of South America. That country, it was agreed, can never again be held by Spain.’16

With cheering crowds flooding the streets, the Talents would have been hard put not to respond in a positive fashion, all the more so as many manufacturers had been pressing for measures to give them more open access to the South American market. At the same time various factors made intervention an attractive prospect at the current moment. A substantial force of troops was available in the 10,000 men gathered for dispatch to Lisbon should the French invade Portugal. A well-known Venezuelan malcontent named Francisco de Miranda, who had been lobbying the British government for support ever since 1783 and was currently trying to stir up a revolt in his homeland, chose this moment to announce that the whole of South America was on the brink of flinging off its chains. And at least one member of the Cabinet - the egregious William Windham - had always been in favour of getting up a revolution in Spain’s dominions anyway. Intervention, then, was always likely, and on 9 October 3,000 men put to sea bound for Buenos Aires under General Auchmuty. Some way ahead of them, meanwhile, were another 2,000 soldiers who had been dispatched from the Cape of Good Hope by its conqueror, Sir David Baird.

In one sense, the British decision was understandable enough. Popham’s action had been that of a piratical adventurer, but Spain was still France’s chief ally and the Latin American market an important target for British trade; indeed, the Continental Blockade made it absolutely vital. Equally, access to South American bullion would have been most welcome. Turning to wider issues, meanwhile, ever since 1793 British strategy had revolved around a policy of exerting pressure on France in the West Indies and elsewhere whenever there was no chance of effecting anything in Europe. Even the idea of raising South America against the Spaniards, or at least striking at such cities as Buenos Aires, was not new. On the contrary, Miranda’s schemes had been given serious consideration by William Pitt, and the latter had actually gone so far as to ask Sir Arthur Wellesley to prepare a plan for an expedition to the river Orinoco. Equally, Popham ever afterwards argued that he had been given tacit permission to attack Buenos Aires before leaving London. Had a British army been sent to Stralsund or Danzig in February 1807 much might have been achieved, but the whole argument reeks of hindsight: in September 1806 Buenos Aires did not just seem a reasonable place at which to hit the enemy, but was one of the few places at which the enemy could be hit.

To a certain extent, then, it is possible to sympathize with the Talents, while Auchmuty’s little force was so small that its presence in England would have made little difference. What happened next, however, throws doubts on the credibility of the Grenville administration. There were serious questions over the financial probity of both Popham and Miranda. That they not only knew one another but had since October 1804 been working closely together to secure British intervention in South America should also have given the Cabinet pause for thought. More than that, it should have been obvious to all concerned that the two men were mere adventurers whose only object was the pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandizement. Initiating major plans of conquest in South America was hardly in Britain’s interest at this point, for it laid her wide open to the charge that she was interested solely in the expansion of British naval, economic and commercial dominance in the wider world. Yet caution was thrown to the winds. Working quite separately from one another, Windham and Grenville came up with two different plans for fresh operations in the Spanish empire. Windham had no hesitation in wanting General Robert Craufurd to take a force of 5,000 men, sail halfway round the world, establish a de facto protectorate over what is now Chile, and link hands with Popham in Buenos Aires. As for Grenville, what he wanted was to have present-day Mexico invaded by one force coming from Britain and another coming from India (in part composed of native sepoys, this last was also supposed to conquer the Philippines). Bewilderingly enough, the British commanders sent to South America were also told that they were on no account to stir up open revolt amongst the inhabitants. As Lord Holland shows, this contradiction was all too revealing:

Mr Windham, though he plumed himself on his disdain of all popular clamour, had greatly heated his imagination with the prospect of indemnifying ourselves in the New World for the disappointments which we had sustained in the Old. Lord Sidmouth, Lord Moira and others, not excepting entirely Lord Grenville himself, were anxious to court the commercial interest by opening new sources for their adventures, and they were not insensible to the censures lavished already on our defensive system of warfare which they foresaw would be much augmented and aggravated if Sir Home Popham’s expedition were to fail for want of further support from home. Yet the same persons, and Lord Grenville more especially, were averse to any measure which should pledge Great Britain to separate the colonies of Spain from the mother country. Such an undertaking would, they apprehended, be an insurmountable obstacle to peace, and, by involving us in an extensive project, would call for exertions that would yet further exhaust our diminished resources . . . No division . . . among us ensued, but the policy adopted did partake of the irresolute and discordant opinions of the council. We should either have abandoned all projects on Spanish America, or made the liberation of these colonies a main object of our war. We did neither. We sent succours to our army at Buenos Aires . . . The force was quite inadequate to a contest, and our language was not sufficiently explicit to induce the inhabitants to throw off the yoke of Spain. It is not surprising that such ill-concerted and irresolute policy met with no success.17

So absurd was the tone of what was planned that it is difficult to write of the South American scheme with patience. Setting aside the enormous distances and logistical difficulties involved, the dangers of attempting to make use of Indian troops outside the subcontinent were shown that same year by a serious mutiny at Vellore, while the Talents’ general lack of realism was underlined by that fact that on 12 August the first troops who had landed at Buenos Aires had been forced to surrender by a resurgent local militia. At least this had the effect of persuading the British to concentrate all their efforts on the vicinity of the Río de la Plata,irtself, to which end a fast ship was dispatched to stop Craufurd from heading off to Chile (Grenville’s plan for a pincer attack on Mexico had not yet come to fruition, and was now abandoned). Arriving off the Río de la Plata, the first 5,000 men who had been sent to help Popham seized Montevideo, where they were joined first by the 4,800 men actually brought from Britain by Craufurd and then another 1,600 men who had been dispatched direct from London. Alongside this last contingent came a new commander in Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke, an officer who had served creditably enough in the West Indies in the 1790s, but seems to have acquired his new position for no better reason than the excellent family connections he enjoyed in Whitehall.

In all then, by June 1807 almost 11,500 men had been concentrated in the Banda Oriental, as modern-day Uruguay was then called. What, however, was this force expected to achieve? Whitelocke’s orders called for him to capture Buenos Aires, and this ought in theory to have been within his powers: though possessed of an imposing citadel, the city lacked outer walls and was garrisoned only by local militiamen. Beyond this, the general’s aim was presumably simply to hold on to Buenos Aires and Montevideo as gateways for British trade with South America and bargaining counters at some future peace conference. But this was at best a difficult task. In the first place the militias the Spaniards could draw on were both very numerous and well trained. At the same time the overthrow of the first troops to land at Buenos Aires had done much to stimulate colonial self-confidence, and it was by no means clear that the British would be able to obtain the loyalty of the inhabitants. Merchants of the coastal littoral could hope to make great profits from the new links with London, Bristol and Liverpool, but considerable parts of the interior had economic systems that looked north and west to other parts of the Spanish empire as well as local elites that deeply distrusted the commercial oligarchy that dominated Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Inherent in the whole strategy, then, were serious problems, but in the event Whitelocke and his men proved unable to carry out even the first part of the plan. Having disembarked a substantial force of troops on the right bank of the Río de la Plata, on 5 July 1807 the British general marched his men into Buenos Aires from several different directions. At first there was no resistance and soon the redcoats were well inside the city. But they had walked into a trap. Hiding on the flat roofs typical of the city, the defenders opened fire and very soon the attackers were falling on all sides. Unable to fight back effectively, Whitelocke’s men were cornered and by the end of the day almost 3,000 men - half the total force involved in the attack - had been killed or wounded. Unable to extricate the survivors, the following day the British commander surrendered. The terms he negotiated were by no means harsh - in exchange for surrendering Montevideo and evacuating Buenos Aires, the British were simply allowed to sail away unmolested - but it had been a strategic failure of the first order and one that might well have brought down the Talents had they not already been brought down by the perennial issue of Catholic emancipation three months earlier. And the blow to Britain’s prestige and morale was substantial. As Lord Auckland wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Colchester:

The Buenos Aires catastrophe is most vexatious, and the more so as an old friend in the confidence and conduct of the government writes to me that nothing but the senseless absurdity of Whitelocke could have produced what has happened; that it is the more mortifying because at Montevideo our garrison was living on the best possible terms with Spaniards; that our trade was increasing rapidly; and [that], if we had chosen to play the game of independence, we could have placed all the Spanish provinces on their legs without bloodshed or revolutionary convulsions. My correspondent adds, ‘Many important and feasible projects which we were indulging are gone forever.’18

The impact of this prolonged escapade on the situation in Europe is obviously the next issue that needs to be taken into account, but, before we do so, we must first consider the effect that Whitelocke’s defeat had in Spain’s American empire. Prior to Britain’s intervention, the Virreinato de la Plata and its fellow colonies had hardly been a hotbed of revolt: Miranda’s every attempt to raise the standard of independence had collapsed in ignominious failure. That said, there were certainly many tensions in colonial society. The native-born population of European descent, the so-called criollos, were given few opportunities for advancement by the Spanish government, and yet considerable elements of it had long since become wealthy and powerful as planters, merchants and ranchers. Until the mid-eighteenth century, indeed, they had been the dominant forces in colonial life, but under King Charles III (1759-88) the so-called ‘second reconquest’ had imposed much tighter control on Spain’s American possessions. Control of the military and local government had passed to bureaucrats dispatched from Spain, while a determination to ensure that the empire did more to support the metropolis in financial and economic terms ensured that the criollos found themselves under great pressure on a number of different fronts. A further bone of contention was constituted by the Church: bishops were now Spaniards rather than criollos; the expulsion of the Jesuits from the domains of Charles III came as a heavy blow as the order had recruited very well in the American colonies; and, most recently, moves in the direction of disamortization (see below) had caused considerable economic disruption. Nor were they alone in this: a series of changes in the laws that governed trade between the empire, Spain and the rest of the world left local industries completely unprotected, undermined the position of many local merchant oligarchies and failed to satisfy the desire of planters and ranchers for wider access to the European market. Indeed, local manufactures were positively discouraged: on 17 June 1804Lady Holland, who was at this point living in Madrid, confided to her diary that ‘a cédula had lately been issued ordering all the cotton machines in Spanish America to be burned or destroyed’.19 Finally, all this was buttressed by racial prejudice: European Spaniards looked down on the criollos as a community that had been irremediably tainted by its environment and become genetically, sexually and morally corrupt.

By the early 1800s, then, there was much discontent with Spanish rule, fed by a degree of intellectual and ideological stimulation from the writings of the Enlightenment and the example of the American Revolution (the French example, by contrast, had little impact: from Buenos Aires to Mexico City it seems to have evoked universal horror). But discontent was one thing and revolution quite another. The criollos might have increasingly been conscious of themselves as Americans, but on neither a continental nor a proto-national level was there any semblance of political organization. For the most part, the modern states of Latin America existed in neither map nor imagination, while the native elites were divided by distance and economic interest. Though strained by the pitiful depths to which Spain had slid under the tutelage of Charles IV and Godoy, emotional ties with the metropolis often remained very strong. But, above all, there was the issue of race. The criollos might have outnumbered the peninsulares (i.e. European-born Spaniards) by almost ten to one, but they were themselves outnumbered by the Negroes, Indians and people of mixed race who constituted the vast majority of the population by at least five to one. And they were terrified of them. If Madrid persisted with the sort of policy that had enabled many pardos and mestizos to buy the status of pure whites, what would become of their social predominance? Yet social and economic superiority came at a terrible price: in 1781 a large part of the central Andes had been ravaged by the great Indian revolt of Tupac Amaru, while the fate of the European inhabitants of St Domingue at the hands of the followers of Toussaint L’Ouverture was an object-lesson in the consequences of political disunity. Discontented they might be, but at the moment when Sir Home Popham appeared off Buenos Aires revolt was unthinkable.

By the time of Whitelocke’s surrender, however, all this had changed. Britain’s intervention in the South Atlantic had completely upset the premises on which continued Spanish rule had been based: the criollo oligarchy had discovered that they could assume responsibility for their own fate without at the same time precipitating the end of the world as they knew it. If the British had been resisted, it had been no thanks to the Spanish viceroy: a model of procrastination, indecision and cowardice, he had been arrested and replaced by a substitute chosen from the ranks of such military talent as was available at Buenos Aires. Nor had resistance led to chaos: improvising an army on the basis of the cadres provided by the militias which had been the sole garrison of the Virreinato de la Plata, the criollos not only marched to victory, but found that pardos, mestizos and Negroes alike had all responded to their call. The masses, then, did not necessarily have to be fought, but could rather be co-opted, and the criollos further discovered that building an army was a wonderful means of cementing their social superiority: who else were the officers of the regiments that defeated the British if not the sons of the local elite? Even now revolt was not inevitable, but an important corner had been turned.

What of events in Europe? Here the campaign that followed Prussia’s decision to join the war was dramatic indeed. Left all but unsuccoured, the Prussians would have done best to mass their army behind the river Elbe, but, exactly like the Austrians a year earlier, they elected to move forward and marched south-westwards into Thuringia. Invading Saxony in his turn, Napoleon got around their eastern flank and threatened their communications with Berlin. Desperate to escape the trap, the Prussians fled north-eastwards, only to collide with the grande armée along the river Saale. While Napoleon himself surprised a Prussian flank-guard that had been detached to watch the Saale at Jena, the corps of Marshal Davout, which was far out on the French right, suddenly found itself confronted with the main Prussian column under the Duke of Brunswick near Auerstädt. Faced by overwhelming odds, Davout pulled off one of the most extraordinary feats of the Napoleonic Wars. Feeding his three tired divisions - they had been marching all night - into line as they arrived, the marshal first checked the Prussian advance, and then launched a ferocious counter-attack that caused the increasingly demoralized enemy to disintegrate altogether. At Jena, meanwhile, Napoleon had been having a much easier time of it. Increasingly outnumbering the Prussians as the day went on, he first pressed the enemy back and then crushed them altogether by means of a great turning movement that overran their left flank and laid them open to a massed cavalry charge. A last-ditch counter-attack by a fresh corps that had just come up from the west made little difference and by dusk on 14 October the entire Prussian army had been beaten. ‘The struggle was keen, the resistance desperate, above all in the villages and copses,’ wrote one officer, ‘but once all our cavalry had arrived at the front and was able to manoeuvre, there was nothing but disaster; the retreat became a flight, and the rout was general.’20 As at Austerlitz, the emperor seized the moment to endear himself to his troops and refurbish the legend that he was but one more soldier. During the night before the battle he spent much time personally supervising the construction of a rough track that would allow the French to get artillery up onto the summit of the plateau on which the battle was fought before grabbing a little sleep in the midst of the imperial guard. All this is recalled by a then private of the imperial guard named Jean-Roche Coignet: ‘The emperor was there, directing the engineers; he did not leave till the road was finished, and the first piece of cannon . . . had passed in front of him . . . The emperor placed himself in the middle of his square, and allowed [the soldiers] to kindle two or three fires for each company . . . Twenty from each company were sere sent off in search of provisions . . . We found everything we needed . . . Seeing us all so happy put the emperor in a good mood. He mounted his horse before day and went the rounds.’21

In view of the great debate that was precipitated by these events, it is worth pointing out that the Prussians were not defeated by either lack of enthusiasm among their soldiers or the supposed inferiority of their tactics. The defective system of military organization described above did not help as it ensured that no Prussian troops could compete with the French on equal terms. But what really lost Frederick William the Jena campaign was the chaotic situation that reigned in the high command. At best a mediocre leader, the commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick, was hampered by the presence of Frederick William III on the one hand, and the hostility and resentment with which he was regarded by many of his fellow generals on the other. On top of this, though the army had recently been given a general staff, this body had been divided into three parallel sections, whose heads - Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Karl von Phull and Christian von Massenbach - all hated one another. Nor had the general staff been permitted completely to supersede the army’s Oberkriegskollegium - the body responsible for the military’s internal administration - in the elaboration of plans of campaign. As a result the unfortunate Brunswick was deluged with an endless variety of different schemes. A weak individual, he then proceeded to compound his problems by eschewing personal responsibility in favour of a series of councils of war that brought together his leading generals and advisers. In some respects the decision to advance was understandable: it meant that the troops could be fed by someone other than Prussia and it was the best way of proving to Britain and Russia that Prussia was in earnest. But the best chance of success was a swift and smashing blow into the heart of the French positions on the river Main, designed to take advantage of the fact that Napoleon was not expecting Prussia to go to war, whereas Prussia’s movements were in reality slow and indecisive. Plans were only adopted after vitriolic meetings lasting many hours, such as the one that was held at Erfurt on 5 October, and these hardly boosted the high command’s cohesion. ‘Scharnhorst,’ recalled the staff officer, von Muffling, ‘thanked heaven when, about midnight, the conference came to an end, as no result could be expected from such a meeting. No one who was present at it could deceive himself as to the issue of the war.’22 And even then decisions were on a number of occasions modified or ignored, or communicated to the army in language so vague as to allow recalcitrant commanders to interpret them more or less as they thought fit.

The result could not have been more catastrophic: Brunswick’s forces did not reach a position from which they could strike at the grande armée until the first days of October, although they could have hit the French a full month earlier. By October it was too late, for Napoleon’s forces were now fully mobilized and on the move. Once the campaign had properly begun, moreover, the articulation of the Prussian forces broke down altogether. In the chaos, supplies dried up: ‘For three whole days before the battle of Jena the troops had . . . no bread,’ wrote Funck. ‘They had to fight on empty stomachs.’23 As for the battles, they broke every principle of the military art. At Jena Napoleon, who began the day with 46,000 men and ended it with some 50,000 more, was initially faced by a mere 38,000 men, and it was not until they had been shattered beyond repair that the 15,000 -strong corps of General Rüchel - a force that had begun the day only a few miles to the west at Weimar, but had taken many hours to march to the sound of the guns - flung itself on the French. And at Auerstädt, the Prussians did not bring up all their overwhelmingly superior forces - Brunswick had 50,000 men to Davout’s single corps of 26,000 - but rather launched a series of piecemeal assaults, the timid Frederick William proceeding to make matters far worse by insisting on keeping back a large reserve whose use might just have turned the balance in favour of the beleaguered Brunswick. Compare all this with the French camp. Napoleon resolved on war around 9 September, and had his men on the move on 8 October. From the start there was but one plan of operations - an offensive from the headwaters of the river Main north-eastwards towards the Saxon city of Leipzig and, ultimately, the key fortress of Magdeburg, that was designed to cut the Prussians off from Berlin - and within six days the grande armée had advanced a hundred miles or more. At this point Napoleon, it is true, completely misjudged the situation and came to the conclusion that the Prussians lay somewhere to the north of him when they were in fact on his left flank, but when the enemy’s situation was revealed by cavalry reconnaissance such was the disposition of the grande armée that a flurry of orders was sufficient for its corps to change face on the march and start moving west across the river Saale. Nor was diplomacy forgotten, the emperor dispatching a letter to Frederick William whose honeyed words served to deepen the confusion in the king’s tortured mind: ‘Why shed so much blood? To what end? I have been your friend these six years . . . Why let our subjects be slaughtered?’24

To return to the issue of Prussia, if Jena and Auerstädt were by no means a total disgrace, what followed was by any standards a catastrophe. No sooner had the guns fallen silent than the victorious French armies launched an invasion of Prussia that carried all before it. Broken into several fragments and reduced to a state of semi-starvation, most of what remained of the Prussian army was rounded up with hardly a fight, while many fortresses capitulated at the first summons (in fairness, it should be remarked that few of them were provided for a siege). Berlin fell without resistance on 24 October, and everywhere the populace remained quiet. As the governor proclaimed, ‘The king has lost a battle. The first duty of the citizens is to keep quiet.’25 Prussia was not yet out of the war - Frederick William had escaped to the east - while a little honour was salvaged by the gallant General Blücher, a fiery officer who had had a horse killed under him at Auerstädt and escaped capture only by dint of some desperate swordplay. Ordered to take command of another division and make for East Prussia, Blücher found the way blocked, yet unlike most of Prussia’s generals, he did not lose hope. Shelter might yet be found in the coastal regions north of the river Elbe and with it the possibility of linking up with the Swedish forces in Stralsund or even a British expeditionary force. Meanwhile, a force based in this area might at least win time for the king to reach East Prussia, rally such forces as he could and join up with Russians. But such hopes proved short-lived. Harried all the way by French cavalry and desperately short of food and ammunition, Blücher got his ever-diminishing band of fugitives to Lübeck. Here, however, he was finally cornered on 6 November by Marshal Bernadotte, and after a desperate battle forced to surrender. As even the French recognized, it had been a good effort, but it did nothing to alter the awe-inspiring nature of Napoleon’s triumph. For all that, Napoleon might have done well to note the reservations that were later expressed by one of the members of his council of state:

In France enthusiasm was at a peak: nothing could have appeared so incredible. However, in the middle of this most understandable atmosphere, one noted that a sentiment was gaining strength that thereafter never ceased to grow, a sentiment that the conqueror was far too much inclined to ignore and which yet would later do much to explain the misfortunes of the last days of his reign. France, beyond doubt, was proud of his victories, but she wanted to enjoy their fruits, and of these in her eyes the first ought to have been peace. Only moderation in victory could have achieved this result, and, generous as it is, the French character ensured that there was a general disposition to believe that that moderation existed. On all sides was to be found the belief that someone who had risen so high would not be found lacking in the only quality that could assure his conquests: with every battle that was won, with every town that was taken, the first assumption was that this new success offered the pledge of a peace that could not but be very close. Was that calculation reasonable? Above all, could it be accommodated with the character that might have been imputed to a man who for ten years had never ceased to risk the most redoubtable dangers, and had been followed by such rare good fortune? One might well have doubted it, but it must be said that the hope was understandable enough . . . It is so natural to believe in that which we desire!26

This desire for peace was not unknown to Napoleon, for it was hinted at by a delegation of the senate that travelled to Berlin to congratulate him upon his victories. Then, too, there was the Foreign Minister. As an acute German observer who had frequent dealings with French headquarters noted:

Talleyrand . . . desired some political rapprochement. He regarded it as a possibility for the first time after the collapse of Prussia. The new English ministry still seemed undecided in its policy; the nation wanted peace . . . It was only with reluctance, therefore, that Talleyrand had drafted the decree . . . that was designed to bar every coast to the English [see below] . . . Talleyrand continued to buoy himself up with . . . hopes of convincing the English Cabinet, or of inducing it to recognize by pressure of public opinion, that many of the advantages arising out of the war might, on conclusion of peace, be shared by England. But it was essential that Napoleon should cease going on giving the English Cabinet a pretext, by his speeches no less than his measures, for reconciling the nation to their policy by the bugbear of his name. The objective on which Talleyrand staked all his efforts and all his influence was to persuade the emperor, even against his own inclination, to adopt an attitude of moderation.27

This, to put it mildly, was the vainest of hopes. Ensconced in Berlin amid the adulation of his generals, he had, after all, vanquished the ghost of Frederick the Great, whose great victory at Rossbach was now avenged. With the grande armée at the very peak of its performance, all this was reflected in his disposition: ‘Having arrived in Berlin, Napoleon did not just speak and act as a victor moved by self-righteous anger, but affected the language and attitude of a sovereign who commands his subjects. Loyalty to the prince who had fled before him was treated as rebellion, and, angered by the defiance of certain nobles who had stayed in communication with that unfortunate monarch, in the palace of Frederick the Great himself he cried out, “I will bring these petty courtiers so low that they will be reduced to begging for their bread.” His proclamations and bulletins constantly mixed insult with menace, whilst misfortune . . . was not even respected when it came to the person of the Queen of Prussia.’28 Even before the fall of the Prussian capital, Napoleon had taken a hard line: a personal appeal for an armistice on the part of Frederick William was rejected out of hand, while the dispatch of a special envoy to the emperor’s headquarters in the person of the erstwhile ambassador to Paris, Lucchesini, succeeded only in eliciting peace terms that were grim in the extreme. These terms were more or less those that the Prussians were forced to accept the following year but with the added demand that they should go to war with Russia if the latter should attack the Ottoman Empire, something that was by now almost certain. After much agonizing, Frederick William and his advisers screwed themselves up to accept these terms, only to discover immediately that no terms at all were on offer any more. Once again the Prussians were just too late.

In the wake of Jena and Auerstädt, the emperor seems to have envisaged Prussia in the role of a satellite state that could seal his eastern frontier against Russia, whose attitude to a continuation of the war could not yet be predicted with any certainty. On November, however, a large Russian army crossed the frontier into Prussian Poland. Moved by the plight of Frederick William and Louise, for both of whom he had conceived a warm affection, and determined that Prussia should not make a separate peace with the French, Alexander had decided to reenter the war. Beyond the issue of Prussia, meanwhile, was that of Germany: the abortive D’Oubril treaty had made the cost of peace without victory very clear to the tsar, and he was in consequence determined to put an end to the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon could have peace, but the terms would in essence be those of Lunéville and Amiens. The Russian advance, of course, in turn raised the issue of Poland. Hitherto Napoleon had had little interest in the Polish question - indeed, it is clear that, had Russia recognized the gains that he had made since 1803, she could have had peace, for the emperor had no desire to wage a winter campaign in the depths of Poland. Continued war with Russia, however, transformed matters, for now Napoleon was free to lay claim to the mantle of hero and liberator. In the absence of any fear of provoking Russia, a Polish state could be restored and Poland’s manpower made available to the grande armée. As yet no concrete assurances were given, for there were serious worries that going too far might provoke Austria into re-entering the war, but even so Napoleon summoned a number of Polish exiles to his presence and hinted that a serious military effort against Russia might well buy Poland her freedom. So far as Prussia was concerned, this meant that the terms that had been on offer were now obsolete, for she could no longer be guaranteed her lands east of the Elbe. Instead of a treaty, then, all that Frederick William’s emissaries could obtain was a truce and even then one whose price would be the evacuation of Silesia and of Prussia’s gains from the second and third partitions of Poland. To accept this, however, meant the certainty of peace being made over the heads of the Hohenzollerns, and this even the badly shaken Frederick William III could not accept. On 21 November Napoleon’s terms were rejected, leaving Prussia’s agony to drag on. As for the emperor, he had no hesitation in picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Alexander: on 5 November the first French troops entered Poland (it is noticeable that a special mission was simultaneously dispatched to Vienna to secure a declaration of Austrian neutrality). For the grande armée the move was scarcely welcome. While cantoned in and around Berlin, the troops had lived a life of relative ease and plenty - many memoirs, indeed, comment on the seeming generosity with which they were treated by the local populace - but now things were very different:

It was . . . the beginning of a most terrible winter in a deserted country covered with woods and with roads heavy with sand. We found no inhabitants in the deserted villages . . . The weather was terrible: snow, rain and thaw. The sand gave way under our feet, and the water splashed up over the sinking sand. We sank down up to our knees. We were obliged to tie our shoes round our ankles with cord, and when we pulled our legs out of the soft sand, our shoes would stick in the wet mud. Sometimes we had to take hold of one leg, pull it out like a carrot, lift it forwards, and then go back for the other, take hold of it with both our hands, and make it take a step forwards also . . . The older men began to lose heart; some of them committed suicide rather than face such privations any longer.29

Once again, we see a hint of imperial overstretch. But to such problems Napoleon was blind. Convinced, as he put it, that ‘impossible’ was not a French word, his reaction was essentially one of irritation: ‘The emperor showed some ill-temper . . . At Posen I saw him . . . mount his horse in such a rage that he vaulted right over it, and give his groom a cut with his whip.’30 As for checking his course, in the autumn of 1806 there seemed no limit to Napoleon’s capacity for extending the scope of his operations. We come here to the issue of the Continental Blockade. Despite Austerlitz and Jena, Britain remained unbowed. Hence the famous ‘decree of Berlin’ of 21 November 1806. Supreme at sea, Britain was to be defeated by the power of the land: throughout the territories ruled by or allied to France, all commerce with Britain was to be ended and all British ships and their cargoes seized. Such would be the financial and economic chaos that would then ensue, it was argued, that Britain would sooner or later be forced to surrender. There was, however, one problem with this scenario. No state could hope for peace with France unless it followed the Blockade’s stipulations. Yet this was very hard. Many states might be prepared to accede to the decree for a time: the British had for years been interfering with the commercial freedoms of the Continent and their industry was advancing by such leaps and bounds that a measure of protectionism was welcome to many governments. But in the end there was no doubt that French soldiers would have to police the embargo, or at least force recalcitrants to accept its dictates. Not only had many goods supplied by Britain become staples of daily life - particularly colonial products such as sugar and tobacco - but the customs duties they brought were an important source of revenue. For many parts of Europe, too, Britain was an important market: from Spain and Portugal there came sherry, port and brandy, from Prussia wheat, and from Russia and Sweden naval supplies of all sorts. Yet the very concept of recalcitrance was an impossibility, for the policy’s only hope of success was the closure of the whole of Europe to Britain’s trade. Napoleon had committed himself to a course which had neither an end nor a point of return. Even worse was the fact that the blockade contained within it the seeds of a grand design of the most exploitative sort. British exports and re-exports were to be excluded from the Continent, certainly, but no attempt was ever made to exploit the situation for the benefit of the whole of Europe. On the contrary, the blockade was from the start an integral part of an economic policy designed to harness the rest of Europe to France’s economic needs. In particular, French industry was to be protected and the rest of the Continent literally transformed into a captive market. In short, what the decree of Berlin presaged was nothing less than a Europe cast as a vast ‘uncommon market’ - a colonial empire - and a Napoleon bent on universal mastery.

Before the full implications of the Continental Blockade could be revealed, however, Napoleon still had a war to win. Protected by the onset of winter, Frederick William had retired to Memel, gathered around him the 20,000 -strong garrison of East Prussia, and sanctioned a series of desperate efforts to remedy the defects of the Prussian army; meanwhile, in Pomerania and Silesia the dislocation brought by the passage of the grande armée and the desertion of many Prussian soldiers had given rise to a problem of public order so serious that it had almost become an extension of the Prussian war effort. As Funck remembers:

Prowling marauders infested the country from Breslau to Kolberg. The latter, it is true, as they were waging war on their own account, confined themselves to highway robbery, intercepting couriers and raiding moneys that small villages had collected to meet the French imposts . . . The inhabitants dreaded them more than the French themselves. But they might, if the Prussian government had given them a leader, have proved quite serviceable.31

In Stralsund 9,000 Swedish troops were ready to defend themselves against French attack, while Gustav IV himself remained defiant. As Lady Holland noted approvingly, ‘The King of Sweden, though very wrong-headed and ill-gifted with . . . common sense, has some notion of honour . . . Bernadotte, either at Altona or Hamburg, made some overtures to the Swedish minister . . . [He] talked of the old alliance between France and Sweden and threw out hints of Bonaparte’s willingness to give him Norway. The only notice the king . . . bestowed upon this was . . . to have the whole proceeding laid before the Danish government. ’32 And, last but not least, large numbers of Russians, perhaps 120,000 men, were in the process of marching to join the Prussians. With them was the British officer, Sir Robert Wilson, and according to him, officers and men alike were eager to avenge the defeat of Austerlitz. Referring to the subsequent decision of the Russian advance guard to fall back before Napoleon, he wrote, ‘When Bennigsen retired from Yankova on the approach of Bonaparte and sought to evade the enemy by forced marches . . . the Russian murmur at retreat was so imposingly audacious, the clamour for battle so loud and reiterated . . . that Bennigsen was obliged to . . . soothe their discontents by an assurance that he was marching to reach an appropriate theatre of combat.’33 Aided though he was by fresh German allies, most notably Saxony, which had changed sides, and Hesse-Kassel, which had hastily abandoned its initial neutrality, the emperor was none the less in a difficult position, particularly as it was by no means clear that Austria would not attack him in the rear. Nor could it be guaranteed that Britain would not send a force of troops to the Baltic. When the weary grande armée trudged into Warsaw on 28 November, its troops therefore had little hope of going quietly into winter quarters.

On one count at least, Napoleon need not have worried. If there was one direction from which no aid was to be expected, it was that of Great Britain. News of Jena and Auerstädt had caused little stir in political circles, there being a strong opinion that it was only to be expected. As Joseph Farington confided to his diary, ‘[James] Boaden I met while walking before dinner. We talked of the defeat of the Prussians. “What else”, said he, “could be expected? The weaker are overpowered by the stronger.” ’34 And amongst the Foxites, in particular, there reigned a mixture of glee and indifference. ‘Let these devils punish one another,’ wrote Sir Phillip Francis. ‘I have no pity for any of them. Bonaparte is an avenging demon sent on purpose to scourge these nations for submitting to be the slaves and instruments of mean, barbarous tyrants who differ from him in nothing, but that, with equal malignity, they have none of his magnanimity and not the smallest portion of his abilities.’35 Nor were such views confined to the radical wing of politics: himself a north German ruler, George III always had good reason to fear Prussia, and had been outraged by the loss of Hanover, while there was a general feeling among men like Grenville that Prussia simply could not be trusted. To these deep-seated prejudices there were now added reports of the most depressing kind. The first British envoy sent to Prussia, Lord Morpeth, had fled back to Britain in the wake of Jena and Auerstädt, and it was some time before a replacement reached Frederick William’s refuge in Memel in the person of Lord Hutchinson. What he found there did not make for much in the way of confidence. There were few troops and the regime was bankrupt and the court in great disarray: one German eyewitness speaks of seeing ‘the young and unfortunate Queen Louise, eyes reddened by tears, wandering through the muddy and badly paved streets of that little town with her children’.36 All that was forthcoming was some £200,000 in treasury bills. This is understandable enough: confined to the poorest and most remote corner of his dominions, Frederick William would not have been able to do very much even with the most substantial bankroll. Yet amazingly, Grenville being determined to keep down government expenditure, the British applied the same thinking to Russia. Desperate for assistance, Alexander appealed for 60,000 muskets; the guarantee of a £6 million loan on the London market, of which £ million was to be advanced straightaway in coin; and the dispatch of an expeditionary force to Western Europe. All he got was the muskets and £500,000 in silver, and £80,000 of that was confiscated by Sweden when the ship carrying it reached the agreed handover point of Göteborg, on the grounds that it was owed her for previous services. It was also made clear that this help was the product not of some new subsidy agreement but rather of the settlement of debts that were still outstanding from the deal of 1805. As for an expeditionary force, the dispatch of troops to South America had squandered Britain’s only serious disposable reserve. Some more men might have been found, but this would have entailed major reductions in the garrison of the home islands and this in turn was a risk that the Talents were not prepared to take; meanwhile, there was in any case a serious shortage of transports. But if troops were out of the question, more money should have been dispatched, especially as February 1807 saw the last batch of reinforcements being sent to Buenos Aires. Nor is it easy to understand why no assistance was promised to Austria should she enter the war (as Russia was, in fact, pressing her to do). With Britain’s credit badly damaged in Stockholm, Memel and St Petersburg alike, the episode was not one in which London could take much pride.

But this may be too sweeping a judgement. On the surface, coalition warfare had indeed revived in Eastern Europe, but observers in Britain had good reason to mistrust the Prussians and, quite possibly, the Russians as well. Napoleon had left one chink of light in his dealings with Frederick William III: if Prussia could prevail upon Britain and Russia to enter negotiations with Napoleon, then it was intimated that she might expect not only an armistice but favourable peace terms. Whether Napoleon was genuine in creating this impression is not relevant: implicit in the idea was the probability of a general international conference of the sort he so disliked, and it is probable that he just intended to sow confusion amongst his enemies and win time for French power to establish itself in Poland. Nor were the terms Napoleon intended to offer very promising, extending as they did to a recognition of the new order in Germany and Italy, the restoration of all the colonies taken by Britain to their original owners, freedom of the seas for all, the restoration of the status quo ante in Wallachia and Moldavia and a guarantee of the Ottoman Empire’s independence and territorial integrity. That said, however, the fugitive Prussian court was quite ready to seize on whatever it was offered. Desperate to escape the war and restore what he nostalgically viewed as his partnership with Napoleon, Frederick William therefore dispatched an emissary to St Petersburg in the faint hope that Alexander would agree to fresh peace talks and get Britain to do the same. With this envoy - an aide-de-camp of the king’s named Krüsemarck - went an impassioned appeal for Russia to see reason that painted Prussia’s position in the starkest terms and expressed great hopes for the planned congress. The initial response was disappointing, but finally, much disillusioned with the British, Alexander did agree to a meeting provided, first, that Napoleon clearly laid out his terms and, second, that it took place in some neutral location. But in the end all this came to nothing: by the time Alexander’s response reached Napoleon, January was already far advanced. With the grande armée now fully assembled in Poland, there was no need for further dissemblance. As Talleyrand wrote to Napoleon: ‘The dispositions of the Russians depend upon events, and events depend on Your Majesty.’37

Still, the gesture had been a useful one, for gaining an extra month or so had mattered to Napoleon. In marching east, he had had strong hopes of further reinforcement. Although he seems privately to have been contemptuous of such aspirations, there were many Poles who not only were desperate to restore Polish independence, but also regarded France as a potential saviour. By liberating Poland, then, the emperor might secure a further source of manpower. The grande armée having been stretched increasingly thin, no sooner had Napoleon entered Warsaw than a junta of notables was established to administer the territories occupied by the French. No specific promises were given about the future, but at first it seemed that there was little need to do so: ‘At Posen . . . the grandees of Poland came to do homage to the emperor in their oriental costumes.’38 Still smarting from the events of 1794, when a Russian army under Suvorov had stormed the eastern suburb of Praga and massacred a large part of the inhabitants, the Poles ‘received us with enthusiasm as brothers and liberators’.39 Chief among the collaborators was Prince Josef Poniatowski, a leading aristocrat who had been a hero of the war of 1794 but had latterly been courted by Frederick William III and appointed governor of Prussian-ruled Warsaw. But beyond that, Napoleon was disappointed: much of the aristocracy remained hostile and many Polish revolutionaries were convinced ‘Jacobins’. Indeed, the leader of the insurrection of 1794, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, refused every blandishment to become involved, for, as the nationalist nobleman Oginski remarks, ‘Whilst he respected Napoleon’s military talents, he saw in him a conqueror consumed by ambition and a despot.’40 Indeed, few of the elites were anything other than sceptical:

The friends of liberty asked themselves if one could expect the restoration of the republic of Poland from the hands of a man who had destroyed the liberty of his own country, and the wisest feared that Napoleon only saw the exaltation of the Poles as a means of obtaining men and subsidies for the execution of his ulterior projects.41

As for the common people, they were simply indifferent to the nationalist appeal (in this respect the famous legions that had fought for the French in the 1790s were but a flash in the pan, only about one fifth of the men involved actually being genuine Poles). As Marbot complained, ‘The emperor . . . had hoped that the whole population of the country would now rise as one man at the approach of the French armies. But no one stirred.’42 According to Marbot, this was because the French ruler would not openly declare the re-establishment of a Polish state, but the simple fact was that amongst the bulk of the population of Eastern Europe nationalism was nothing like a major force. Nor could Napoleon risk attempting to broaden the appeal of his regime by immediately decreeing, say, the abolition of feudalism, for to do so would have been to alienate the local nobility: if Poniatowski, for example, had rallied to the French, it was only because he wished to ensure that the control of affairs did not fall into the hands of radicals such as the commander of the Polish legions of the 1790s, General Dabrowski. In the event, sufficient men were found to raise three legions of 9,000 men apiece, but the whole affair has been much mythologized. Such recruitment as took place was in large part the fruit of poverty and despair, the fact being that the Polish ‘war of liberation’ of 1870 was to be no more a national war than its later German counterpart.

To return to the war with Russia, Napoleon did not follow up the occupation of Warsaw as rapidly as might have been expected, much time being needed to rest and re-equip the grande armée and gather the magazines needed for a winter campaign in an area of Europe that was particularly poor. Despite the fact that the Russian army was now concentrated only fifty miles to the north of Warsaw, it was not until 22 December that the French moved forward again, the plan being to envelop the Russian army in its positions between the rivers Ukra and Narew. However, the advance was slowed by atrocious weather, while the Russians bought time with a number of fierce delaying actions. Within a few days, indeed, it was clear that the Russians had got clean away and a frustrated emperor had no option but to order his exhausted and hungry troops to break off the pursuit and return to Warsaw. Sadly for the exhausted grande armée, the respite proved short-lived. Following the so-called ‘manoeuvre on the Narew’, the Russian army had acquired a new and much more aggressive commander in General Levin August von Bennigsen, and after less than a month he launched a sudden counter-offensive against the French left. Frantically concentrating his scattered forces, the emperor responded by striking northwards into East Prussia. Once again, however, the Russians escaped, and by early February the grande armée had been reduced simply to following up their retreat as they fell back northwards towards Königsberg. Initially, Bennigsen had hoped to get away without a fight, but on 7 February Napoleon caught up with him at Eylau, the result being perhaps the most dreadful battle of the entire French Wars. Always ferocious fighters who made lavish use of artillery, the Russians were not only ensconced in a strong defensive position, but could also expect help from a Prussian force that was marching to their aid, the total numbers of those engaged on each side probably being about equal. Attacking amidst howling blizzards, the French therefore ran into serious trouble. ‘Several times during the day snow fell for an hour at a time in such quantities that we could not see two paces before us, and bodies of troops in movement lost their bearings . . . Marshal Augereau was wounded and his corps, left without a leader, suffered horribly: his infantry, drawn up in squares, was positively annihilated where it stood.’43 With their initial assaults thrown back, it was not until late afternoon that the French could make any progress, and even then their advance was checked by the timely arrival of the Prussians, who on this occasion fought very well. Had he held on through the night, it is possible that Bennigsen might have scored a notable defensive victory, but in the last resort his nerve failed him and he fell back on Königsberg. On the field of battle, meanwhile, there lay some 40,000 casualties, of whom 25,000 were French. It was a terrible scene. In the words of a French infantryman:

The countryside was covered with a dense layer of snow, pierced here and there by the dead, the wounded and debris of every kind; in all directions the snow was soiled by wide stains of blood, turned yellow by the trampling of men and horses. The spots where cavalry charges had taken place, and the bayonet attacks, and the battery emplacements [had stood] were covered with dead men and dead horses. The wounded of both nations were being removed with the aid of Russian prisoners, which lent a little life to this scene of carnage. Long lines of weapons, of corpses, of wounded men, showed the emplacement of each battalion. In short, no matter where one looked one saw nothing but corpses and . . . men dragging themselves over the ground; one heard nothing but heartrending cries. I came away horror-struck. 44

For Napoleon, Eylau was beyond doubt a sobering experience. Unusually, he was visibly shocked at the carnage, and made no attempt to pursue Bennigsen. Imperial propaganda did its best to call the struggle a victory, but even this claim was not beyond doubt. Ever since, indeed, there have been those who have argued that the battle of 7-8 February was in fact a defeat; after all, perhaps one third of the French troops who were engaged had fallen. And, but for certain errors on the part of Bennigsen, who at a number of crucial moments failed to exploit the tactical opportunities that he was offered, it certainly would have been a defeat. It is true that the myth of the emperor’s invincibility was not quite shattered: the failure to secure outright victory could with some justice be blamed on the weather, the want of good roads and the mistakes and failures that marred the performance of some of his marshals. But the grande armée had clearly been shown to have its limits. Still worse, the troops were desperately short of food, while beneath the surface grumbling had risen to unheard-of heights. The war in Poland had never been popular - one song going the rounds had it that the grande armée had only crossed the Vistula to secure a throne for Jerome Bonaparte - and to make matters worse the emperor appeared to have lost his common touch. The sort of anecdotes that litter accounts of Austerlitz and Jena are largely absent from the story of Eylau. Therefore the morning after the battle resounded to cries of ‘Long live peace!’ and ‘Peace and bread!’, while the army remained in a sullen mood for months afterwards:

‘His Majesty is coming’, said our colonel at the moment of a review. ‘I hope he will not be received as he was last time, and that the soldiers will cry “Vive l’empereur!”. Look to it gentlemen: I shall hold you responsible if every man does not shout lustily.’ We returned to our companies, paraphrasing the colonel’s harangue, and the following were among the murmurs that we heard in the ranks. ‘Let him give me my discharge and I’ll shout as loud as they please . . . We have no bread: I can’t shout on an empty stomach . . . We are owed six months’ pay: why don’t we get it?’ The emperor arrived: the colonel and some of the officers shouted as though they would split their throats; the rest were silent.45

In private Napoleon was well aware of the desperate straits to which the grande armée had been reduced. As he wrote to Joseph Bonaparte:

Staff officers, regimental commanders, subalterns, nobody has had the clothes off their backs for the past two months, and some of them for the past four (I myself went for fifteen days without taking off my boots), and all this in the midst of snow and mud. There has been no bread, no wine and no brandy, and we have lived off potatoes and meat alone. Making long marches and countermarches without the slightest luxury, we have frequently had to fight at the point of a bayonet under a hail of canister, while the wounded have had to be evacuated in open carts over distances of up to fifty leagues . . . We have had to wage war with all its force and all its vigour.46

After spending some days making ostentatious efforts to succour the wounded, Napoleon pulled his men back and allowed them to take shelter in the towns and villages of a swathe of territory stretching as far back as the river Vistula, his own headquarters being established at the town of Finkenstein. Not surprisingly, there also followed talk of peace. Even before Eylau, the rigours of winter campaigning in the wastes of East Prussia and Poland had shaken the emperor’s self-confidence sufficiently to attempt to isolate Russia to persuade her to make peace. On 29 January Frederick William had been offered peace in exchange for an alliance and, in particular, a Prussian guarantee of the Ottoman Empire. However, this overture was ignored - Frederick William could stomach the fresh war against Russia that it implied even less than the continued struggle with France - and in the wake of Eylau General Bertrand was therefore dispatched to the Prussian court with the offer of an immediate peace settlement. To secure this goal, Napoleon was prepared to drop the idea of a Franco-Prussian alliance, but, convinced by Hardenberg and others that the peace offer was almost certain to prove a trap, Frederick William stood firm, and the most that Bertrand could obtain was a promise to inform the Russians of Napoleon’s desire for peace. Behind the scenes Frederick William did his utmost to persuade Alexander to take the French ruler at his word, while he also sent an emissary to Finkenstein in the person of General von Kleist on the pretext of arranging an exchange of prisoners. Such was Napoleon’s despondency and state of nervous exhaustion - in his discussions with von Kleist he displayed considerable agitation and constant mood swings - that he even resurrected the notion of a general peace conference. The price of such a conference, however, would be an armistice, and this alone was sufficient for Alexander to veto the idea when the plan reached him, for it was quite clear this would benefit the French more than the Russians. Beyond this, however, there was still no sign of any moderation on the part of Napoleon: Prussia, it seemed, was only to be restored in exchange for the surrender of Britain’s colonial conquests. With the Russian forces still strong, it seemed preferable to fight on, leaving the wretched Frederick William no option but to tag along. As for Napoleon, another Eylau was not a pleasant prospect, but as in 1803 he could at least adopt a cloak of outraged innocence. In the words of the seventy-eighth bulletin of the Polish campaign: ‘There is no pacific overture to which the emperor would not have listened; there is no proposition to which he would not have responded.’47

Eylau beyond doubt constitutes an interesting moment in Napoleon’s development. A distinct shock to his system, it was countered by a vigorous propaganda offensive and even more vigorous search for a scapegoat. For various reasons, this turned out to be Marshal Bernadotte, who supposedly failed to act on orders that would have added his detached corps to the French battleline and given Napoleon the edge that he was so desperately lacking. There was nothing very new about this except in one particular: in a letter directed to Fouché in the aftermath of the conflict, the emperor told him to spread a series of false reports to the effect that the Russians had been beaten to their knees, and then in the very same breath informed the Minister of Police that they were ‘true’. Even though Bernadotte and other generals might have made mistakes, to make that the excuse for Eylau was to beg the question of whether manoeuvres such as those of Ulm and Jena could ever really be replicated outside the very favourable logistical circumstances afforded by such areas as western and central Germany. To this incipient tendency for Napoleon to believe his own propaganda was added a growing want of balance. Whether it was in his interviews with foreign emissaries or his relations with the beautiful Polish countess, Maria Walewska, who was ‘planted’ on the emperor by a clique of noblemen eager to advance the cause of Polish independence, there were frequent outbreaks of rage and frustration. And, with all this, of course, went a commitment to wiping away the memory of failure: when Fouché wrote to him from Paris begging him to make peace at the earliest possible opportunity, his response was that he needed ‘one more victory’.48

As the weeks passed, the grande armée began to recover its strength, and active operations began once more. Stralsund had been under siege since the end of January, and it was now joined by the Prussian strongholds of Danzig and Kolberg. And there was still no help to be had from Britain, whose leaders were now not only hamstrung by the pernicious effect of the expedition to Buenos Aires but also in receipt of the gloomiest possible account of the campaign from their representatives in the field. Thus, the British ambassador to Prussia, Lord Hutchinson, kept up a consistent tale of woe even when it was clear that Napoleon was in considerable difficulties, while his counterpart in St Petersburg, Lord Douglas, was a Foxite convinced that resistance to France was futile. To make matters worse, both men lacked personal charm and offended or otherwise alienated many of those with whom they came into contact. Not favoured with much in the way of news or confidences, they slipped ever deeper into diplomatic paranoia and saw treason on all sides. Some effort was made to persuade Austria to fight, but even then subsidies were only offered in the event of Vienna actually entering the war. As Lord Holland rather disingenuously put it, ‘We studiously disclaimed . . . all disposition to induce the latter power to declare war by subsidies. Our policy was to succour those states who would voluntarily resist the power of France, but not to bribe them to engage in the contest . . . The quarrel, we said, must be her own, the cause must be her own, and, if she were not, from a sense of her own wrongs and dangers, prepared to make a national war against France, it was neither our interest nor our wish to engage her in hostilities.’49 With nothing on offer from Britain, the result was a foregone conclusion: the substantial party in the Austrian court that was opposed to any resumption of hostilities was easily able to maintain the upper hand. This is not to say that Vienna remained completely aloof. On the contrary, Austria clearly had a strong vested interest in clipping the wings of the Napoleonic eagle. Mobilizing an army of 80,000 men in Bohemia to give weight to her stance, her new chancellor, Philipp von Stadion, pressed Napoleon to accept Austrian mediation and even elicited a hint to the effect that an international peace congress would not be opposed by him. Yet this meant nothing: all that the emperor wanted to do was to keep Austria quiet while there was little prospect of him accepting any peace proposals that did not translate into complete victory for France.

In the main theatre of operations, then, Britain’s influence was negligible. Only in the Mediterranean were things any different. Here there were both ships and troops aplenty and the opportunity to make use of them in a manner that was both safe and effective. What is more, the Talents even had a strategy. By means of the application of British seapower, they would compel the Turks to make peace with Russia and thereby free General Ivan Mikhelson’s army for operations in Poland. As early as November 1806 a British squadron had been dispatched to the Bosporus under Admiral Duckworth. But fighting was not deemed a likely possibility: British men o’war, it was cheerfully assumed, would simply have to appear in the Sea of Marmara for the Turks to cave in. Yet nothing of the sort occurred. An advanced guard of three ships-of-the-line, a frigate and a sloop penetrated the Dardanelles without resistance and anchored off Constantinople, but the Porte showed no signs of giving way: on the contrary, they massed large numbers of guns to fire on Duckworth’s ships. In an attempt to exert greater pressure and to rescue the first group of ships, on 19 February 1807 Duckworth entered the Sea of Marmara. There was some resistance but nothing of any importance, and talks were soon under way. Almost immediately, however, it became clear that the Turks were merely playing for time. There being nothing for it but to cut and run, on 28 February Duckworth set sail for the Dardanelles. Much reinforced, the Turkish gunners stationed there cannonaded his ships as they passed through and inflicted a certain amount of damage as well as some 300 casualties. If Duckworth’s retreat was embarrassing, what followed was even worse. To put further pressure on the Turks, the garrison of Sicily had been ordered to send an expedition to Egypt. Very soon, then, 6,000 men had been disembarked near Alexandria, where they were soon joined by Duckworth and his ships. Again there had been a strong belief that there would be no resistance, but this proved a false hope. With large Turkish forces gathering on all sides, an attempt was made to secure the vital agricultural resources of the Nile delta, but two attempts to take the coastal port of Rosetta were beaten off with heavy losses. For some months the British clung on to Alexandria, but by late August they were under siege, the city eventually being evacuated on 14 September. In fairness, it has to be said that the absence of the troops involved made little practical difference to the course of the war, for another Maida-style descent on Italy would not have done much to affect the situation in Poland, other than perhaps deprive Napoleon of a few reinforcements. But the diplomatic consequences were bad enough. Allowed to land on the mainland unsuccoured, a Neapolitan attempt to invade Calabria was crushed at Mileto on 28 May and the French were enabled to claim that the British had once again placed selfish imperial objects above the interest of their allies.

Yet sending troops to mainland Europe did present many problems. So long as they remained fairly close to the coast, relatively small forces of British troops could operate with relative ease, although in northern Europe, at least, they could only hope to survive if they were acting in conjunction with field armies belonging to one or more of the great powers. For a substantial field army, however, the situation was very different. What it required, like any similar force, was a secure strategic base - an area in which it could establish permanent hospitals and magazines and rely on supplies of all sorts, not to mention baggage animals and transport (unlike the French army, the British did not maintain a permanent baggage or artillery train, and instead relied on hiring the necessary animals and wagons locally). If such a base could be established on enemy territory, all well and good, but in 1807,except perhaps in the extreme south of Italy, this was simply unthinkable. All that was left, then, was the territory of friendly states - Sicily or, just possibly, Portugal - but this required a considerable sacrifice of sovereignty on the part of the state involved, and an equally considerable degree of harmony between the two powers. In Sicily this was not forthcoming. The king and queen and their leading courtiers uniformly blamed the British for the loss of the mainland in ,1806and had only to look to Gibraltar, Menorca, Corsica and, most recently, Malta to see examples of the way in which British presences in the Mediterranean had a way of becoming permanent. Particular fury, meanwhile, had been caused by Sir John Stuart’s refusal to march on Naples after the battle of Maida. To quote the commander of the Neapolitan army, Roger de Damas:

The political and military character of the English . . . makes them unique as a nation . . . It was in their power to conquer Naples - it is so still. They overcame all the obstacles that might have made it impossible, and deliberately retraced their steps as soon as those obstacles were safely passed. Their inexplicable conduct cannot fail to give them a reputation for being very dangerous allies. Not one of their calculations is ever influenced by higher considerations. Their whole policy is a rule of mercantile algebra, and we have not yet seen an English general whom self-respect or honour or enthusiasm can move to go beyond his orders . . . General Stuart, it seems, came to Calabria with the sole object of erecting scaffolds and preparing tortures, to which from that fatal moment the unfortunate and too credulous Calabrians were abandoned . . . Sicily occupied by the English is merely a kind of maintenance-allowance granted to a Nabob . . . The English are . . . shameless in their exactions . . . and every moment some fresh bitterness is added to the discomfort of the unfortunate sovereigns.50

British complaints of Neapolitan hostility were legion, and relations were not helped by the perception that the Sicilian administration was not just obstructive, but also incompetent and corrupt. Here Lord Holland is typical: ‘In Sicily the misgovernment of the court was daily endangering our interests. The queen, as she advanced in years, grew more ungovernable in her revenge and not more moderate in the indulgence of other passions.’51 Then there are the views of Sir John Moore, for whom the queen was ‘violent, led by her passions, and seldom influenced by reason’; King Ferdinand, ‘an indolent man, hating business’; and the chief minister, Circello, ‘quite an old goose’.52 This is not to say that the British did not have a point. The attitude of the court towards its Sicilian domains was disdainful in the extreme; Maria Carolina was wildly extravagant and inclined to favour a variety of dubious favourites; the court and administration were dominated by emigrés from the mainland; recruitment to the army was at a complete standstill; and, to cap it all, the queen was suspected of maintaining secret contacts with the French. All this was an unacceptable threat to the garrison’s security and the response of the Talents was to tighten the screw: the British ambassador was authorized to stop the subsidy received by the regime of Ferdinand and Maria Carolina as well as to demand the removal of certain figures from the court or even the exile of the queen herself. Thus the scene was set for a long conflict that was to last for most of the war.

How this dilemma was resolved is something that must be left for another chapter. For the time being, what matters is simply that no British army landed on the Continent. Battered and bleeding though he was, Napoleon was allowed to recover the initiative. Despite an attempt to relieve Danzig from the sea, by the end of May 1807 it had fallen to the French, while at Stralsund a truce negotiated in April effectively put an end to fighting there as well. In consequence, all that was left to the Allies on the Baltic coast anywhere west of Königsberg was Kolberg, where, in a desperate stand that was later much mythologized, Gneisenau continued to hold out until the end of hostilities in July. From the beginning of the year onwards depressing news had also been coming in from Silesia, where a series of Prussian garrisons, of which the most notable was Breslau, had been blockaded by the French since the beginning of the year and were gradually being mopped up. At the same time, the arrival of substantial French reinforcements meant that the Allies were heavily outnumbered: in comparison with 220,000 imperial troops, the Russians had only some 115,000 men in the field, while almost no Prussian forces remained other than a few garrison and second-line units. Yet Bennigsen would still not give up and the beginning of June brought a fresh Russian offensive. Before we examine this, however, we must first spare a few words for the peace negotiations that marked the relative lull in operations that had followed Eylau. Yet again there was a disposition to come to some arrangement with Napoleon that ill accords with the idea of a general crusade against his rule. On 21 April, Frederick William wrote a letter to Napoleon on behalf of Prussia, Russia and Britain, proposing that a congress should be held in neutral Copenhagen to negotiate a peace settlement that would be not only stable but also honourable to all parties. No specific terms were laid down for this settlement, but evidence of the Allies’ moderation may be found in a specific promise to respect the integrity of the Ottoman Empire and a hint that Britain might be made to surrender her colonial gains. To this Napoleon replied that the Ottomans, who had deliberately been excluded from the proposed conference, must also be admitted. This demand was accepted by the Allies, but the fact that Napoleon had made it kindled deep-rooted concerns about his good faith. Let us here quote Frederick William:

It cannot be disguised that . . . it will only be by the most vigorous pursuit of the war . . . that we can succeed. The consequences which Napoleon will perhaps draw from the proposed basis may be such as, far from facilitating the general peace, only make it more and more distant, especially if he regards himself as master of the part of . . . Europe he now occupies and thinks to establish a system of compensation upon this state of occupation . . . But to refuse the opening of the congress would be to play into the hands of Napoleon . . . We must therefore . . . hasten it as much as possible . . . But . . . this determination of the powers at war with France ought not to excuse any of them from vigorously pursuing operations against the common enemy.53

If a lasting peace was to be achieved, it could only be obtained on the battlefield - hence the advance of Bennigsen’s army. There followed nearly two weeks of complicated manoeuvring. Caught off balance, Napoleon redeemed the situation by spreading false intelligence implying that a large force of French troops had outflanked the Russians and was about to fall on their rear. Having initially plunged many miles southwards from his starting point south of Königsberg, Bennigsen obligingly lost his nerve and hastily retraced his steps, thereby giving the emperor time to pull his forces together and send them into action. Spooked though he may have been, the Russian commander was still full of fight and inflicted a bloody nose on the French at Heilsberg on 10 June. Thus encouraged, he then launched a major counter-attack at the town of Friedland. Thus far he had conducted quite a skilful campaign, but this move proved a serious mistake. Bennigsen believed that the French troops facing him constituted little more than a division, but he soon found himself embroiled with the entire grande armée, and the battle that followed shattered the Fourth Coalition beyond repair. To attack the French, Bennigsen had had to move his entire army across the river Alle, of which the only crossings available were the single bridge at Friedland, three pontoon bridges and a minor ford. Still worse, his positions were overlooked by higher ground, and divided by a sizeable stream that ran down to the river just north of the town, while his army was badly outnumbered. No sooner had the French attacked, then, than the Russians were forced steadily back. As might have been expected after Eylau and Heilsberg, the action was no walkover. Lejeune paid tribute to the defenders’ ‘superhuman efforts’; Coignet wrote, ‘The Russians fought like lions: they preferred to be drowned rather than surrender’; while, for Sir Robert Wilson, ‘Never was resolution more heroic or patience more exemplary than that now displayed by the Russians.’54 But by nightfall it was all over: having suffered at least 20,000 casualties and been reduced to a state of the utmost confusion, Bennigsen’s army was in no fit state to fight on, while Alexander was driven to abandon Königsberg and forced to ask for an armistice. As for Napoleon, he was exultant. ‘Friedland,’ he proclaimed to an aide-de-camp, ‘is worth Austerlitz, Jena and Marengo, the anniversary of which I celebrate today!’55

If Friedland had been a shattering blow to Alexander, it was not the only reason why he decided to make peace. He suspected that the British had designs on Egypt, resented their failure to force the Dardanelles, and could not but feel that they had set far more store on Britain’s interests in the wider world than they had on the struggle in Europe. Such suspicions were not helped by the fact that in the spring of 1807 London was besieging Alexander with demands that Russia should renew an exceedingly favourable commercial agreement that had been negotiated between the two powers some years before and was now about to expire. On 26 March, true, the more vigorous Portland administration (headed, as its name suggests, by Lord Portland) had supplanted the Talents amidst much talk of both a substantial increase in subsidies and a British expeditionary force, but this was a question of too little, too late while there was in any case no way that troops could be got to the Baltic in the short term. Less important but just as irritating, meanwhile, were the actions of the Swedes, who, as well as seizing the £ 80,000 referred to above, had failed to provide Kolberg and Danzig with all the naval support that might have been expected. Sent to Alexander’s headquarters with assurances of aid, the British envoy, Leveson-Gower, was subjected to a veritable tirade:

I was interrupted by the emperor, who . . . said he was persuaded of the good intentions of the English government . . . but that he had to complain of the whole burden of the war having fallen upon his armies . . . that hopes had been held out that a British force would be sent to . . . Germany - month after month, however, had passed, and no troops were even embarked - that the Russian army had by its bravery hitherto maintained the contest and in every battle which had been fought had gained an advantage . . . but that it ought not to be forgotten that the chances of war were uncertain, and that this was the last act of the great drama which had occupied the attention of the world for the last fifteen years.56

If Alexander was thoroughly disillusioned by the summer of 1807, irritation was not the only motive for his conduct. Much of the Russian court and nobility were pressing for peace - an ominous development given the fate of Paul I. In addition, the mobilization of large numbers of men both for the regular army and for a new militia known as the opolcheniye had given rise to a shortage of manpower in the countryside. Tramping across Russia en route for a depot at Kaluga, one prisoner of war noted, ‘All the soldiers were away with the army after vast levies had been raised in this enormous empire for the campaign of . Often because of the lack of soldiers, we had women as our escorts and these were usually as old as possible . . . At this time of year every . . . man, woman and child old enough to work was busy in the fields.’57 And in the Balkans the spring of 1807 had produced, if not a series of Russian reversals, then at least a period of fierce fighting that suggested a long and difficult war. Narrowly defined in terms of immediate dynastic interest, Russia’s foreign-policy aims did not even in themselves require a war with France. The establishment of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe presupposed the partition of Poland and the Ottoman Empire, but did not stand in the way of French control of Belgium, the Rhineland, Germany or northern Italy, or, for that matter, a French presence in the Balkans. Given that France and Russia had a common interest in combating Britain’s pretensions on the high seas, peace with France might even be turned to profit. As for the alternative policy - that of building a coalition against Napoleon and striving for some general settlement - this had, it was felt, been given a fair trial and proved wanting. In a convention signed with Prussia at Bartenstein on 26 April in which the signatories had pledged not to make a separate peace, Alexander had set forth peace terms which he regarded as a model of moderation and forbearance. Russia herself would obtain no territory from the war; Prussia would be restored minus Hanover but with frontiers that were more secure in other respects; Germany would be confederated in a new body headed conjointly by Austria and Prussia; Austria would get back the Tyrol and her gains in Venetia; and the Ottoman Empire would receive a guarantee of her frontiers and the restoration of her authority in Moldavia and Wallachia. The Bonapartes, by contrast, would keep Naples, Piedmont and Holland, but only if compensation was found for their erstwhile rulers. But neither Austria, whom it was hoped might thereby have been attracted to join the Fourth Coalition, nor Britain showed the slightest interest in these terms: both of them saw the new Germany envisaged by the convention of 26 April as little more than a cloak for Prussian aggrandizement (and rightly so, this part of the agreement having very much been the work of the Prussian chancellor, Hardenberg). The consequence was profound disillusionment in the mind of the tsar (who seems to have been completely blind to the manner in which he had been manipulated by the Prussians) and with it a conviction that he should concern himself with Russia and Russia alone.

Curiously enough, developments in the French camp were at this very moment paving the way for such a move. Now that Friedland had wiped away the memory of Eylau, Napoleon was anxious to make peace: not only did the morale of his forces continue to show evidence of strain, but East Prussia was no place to subsist the grande armée, as well as being a long way from the heartlands of the empire should, say, Austria decide to go to war. Beyond this, meanwhile, there is the question of his attitude towards Russia. According to the nineteenth-century French historian Albert Vandal,1807 saw the French emperor come to the conclusion that the only means of securing peace in Europe - by which both he and Vandal meant overthrowing Britain and securing the French imperium on the Continent - was to secure a lasting alliance with Russia. The only one of the continental powers with whom France had no real quarrels, Russia was also the only one of them that she could not beat outright. As experience had shown that neither Prussia nor Austria could be trusted in such a role, the only possibility was a deal with Alexander I. Indeed, it seems that Napoleon had been thinking of this for some months. As he had written to Talleyrand on 14 March, ‘I am of the opinion that an alliance with Russia would be very advantageous.’58

At the time that he penned these remarks, Napoleon had deemed such an alliance unlikely, and he had therefore continued to spin his web against Russia: one of the actions he took at his headquarters of Finkenstein was to sign a treaty of alliance with the emissary that had been sent to him from Persia, Mirza Muhamed Riza Qazvini. But in the wake of Friedland everything changed. The events that followed are well known. On 25 June Napoleon and Alexander met on a specially constructed raft moored in the centre of the river Niemen at Tilsit. As remembered by one Russian participant, it was a splendid scene and yet at the same time a very tense one:

Almost everyone was in parade uniform. [Alexander] was wearing the Preobrazhensky regiment’s uniform . . . He had on white pantaloons and short boots. His . . . hair was powdered white. He wore a high hat with cockade and a black plume. A sword at his side, a sash tied around his waist and the blue ribbon of the Order of Saint Andrew completed Alexander’s dress . . . My eyes did not leave [him]. I felt that he was concealing, with an artificial calm and a relaxed attitude, the true feelings that lay beneath the surface of his open and benevolent features. He was about to greet the greatest man of the time - military leader, politician, lawgiver and administrator - a man with a dazzling aura as a result of his astounding, almost legendary career. This was also the man who had conquered the whole of Europe in the last two years and defeated our army twice, and who now stood on the very borders of Russia. He was coming face to face with a man renowned for captivating people, endowed with an extraordinary ability to size up and take measure of his opponents. It was more than just an interview; through this meeting Alexander had to charm the charmer, seduce the seducer and outwit an acknowledged genius . . . Barely half an hour had elapsed when someone came into the room and announced, ‘He is coming, Your Majesty.’ An electric spark of curiosity coursed through us all. The emperor rose nonchalantly and . . . went outside with a calm face and measured step. We burst pell-mell from the room and dashed down to the shore to see Napoleon galloping at full speed between two ranks of his Old Guard. His escort and suite consisted of at least 400 men on horseback. The roar of enthusiastic greetings . . . was deafening even on the opposite bank of the Niemen.59

Though the French ruler stole a psychological march on Alexander by ensuring that he got to the raft first and in consequence assumed the role of host, friendly relations were soon established: Napoleon, in particular, appears to have made the greatest possible effort to charm the impressionable Alexander. Aided perhaps by the intimacy of their first meeting, which took the form of a private conversation in a pavilion that had been pitched on the raft, there seems to have developed a genuine personal empathy based in the case of Alexander on hero worship, and in the case of Napoleon on something that seems to have come close to physical attraction. Alexander was beyond doubt flattered outrageously by Napoleon, not least in being allowed to adopt the role of saviour of Prussia (Frederick William and Louise, by contrast, were openly cold-shouldered by him even when the latter turned on the full force of her considerable charm and beauty).

For all the courtly gestures, however, the realities of power were very clear. Whether it was in the glittering array that rode down to the Niemen with Napoleon, the soldiers of the Guard - a force that had hardly fired a shot in the campaign and was in consequence in the most beautiful order - that lined the road to the river, or the constant parades, field days and reviews, Alexander was left in no doubt of the power of the French war machine. Yet in a sense the show of force was unnecessary. The tsar knew he had no option but to take what terms he could get, and found that on the surface at least they were not too unfavourable. Unlike most of Napoleon’s victims, Russia was required to surrender neither money nor territory - indeed, she actually obtained a sizeable slice of Prussian Poland - but she did grant Napoleon a free hand in Europe, recognize the Napoleonic settlement in Italy, Germany, the Low Countries and Poland, agree to French occupation of the Ionian islands and Cattaro and effectively commit herself not only to joining the Continental Blockade and going to war with Britain, but also forcing Sweden, Denmark and Austria to do the same. Concealed here was French acquiescence in a descent on Swedish Finland, while Russian hegemonism was also flattered by an agreement to dispatch a large army against Persia as a first step in a march on India. As for the Russo-Turkish War, Napoleon would mediate a settlement, and then go to war with Constantinople should it prove obdurate (to get around the problem of France’s alliance with Turkey, it was claimed that this had been the fruit of a personal accord between Napoleon and Selim III, the point here being that the latter had been toppled in a palace coup on May). Beyond this there is no record of what was decided, but it is generally assumed that there was a common understanding that France’s intervention would be followed by the partition of the whole of the Balkans. Whether Russia would get out of all this the peace and security that Alexander hoped for was a moot point, but for Britain it was a bitter blow. To quote a private letter penned by the new British Foreign Secretary, George Canning, to the British ambassador to Constantinople, ‘The peace with France is as little so as we could wish . . . If after all France is peremptory, and Bonaparte retains at [St] Petersburg . . . all the influence which he acquired over the emperor’s mind at Tilsit, we must be prepared for the worst . . . Make our peace with Turkey as soon as you can.’60

Setting Britain’s difficulties aside, on the surface at least, Russia did quite well out of Tilsit and Alexander came away believing that Napoleon was both friend and partner. In the first place, it was not just Turkey that had been betrayed but also distant Persia. As we have seen, contacts had been steadily improving between Napoleon and the Shah, and on 4 May 1807 a treaty signed at Finkenstein had duly committed France to guaranteeing the integrity of the Persian empire, recognizing Georgia as a possession of Persia and forcing the Russians to withdraw to their original frontiers. All this, however, had been ignored at Tilsit, and the French mission to Tehran was thereafter in effect abandoned to its own devices. Though instructed to maintain friendly relations with the Persians in the hope of keeping the way open for a future invasion of India, its head, General Gardanne, was given no support other than a tardy letter to the Shah full of empty promises. In February 1808 he was authorized to mediate between the Persian government and its Russian assailants, and in April an armistice was signed that temporarily brought hostilities to an end. Realizing the fragility of their position, the Persians made the most of the few cards they had and explicitly warned the French that the consequence of abandoning them would be a growth in British influence. This, however, availed them nothing at all: at Erfurt (see below) the subject of Persia was again avoided, while the Russians were allowed to resume hostilities. As for the Gardanne mission, in February 1809 it left Persia for home, an angry Shah being left to sign a treaty of friendship with Britain whereby he committed himself to resist any attempt to send troops across his territory towards India in exchange for British support against Russia (consisting of nothing very substantial, this could not change the fact of Russian military superiority, though it was not until 1813 that the Persians finally gave up the struggle and surrendered all claim to Georgia). Much of this lay in the future, but even so Alexander had good reason to hope that Persia would be left to him to settle as he wished. Nor was this an end to the advantages offered him by Tilsit. The negotiations with Napoleon also promised victory in the Balkans. At Tilsit the Russians had agreed to sign an armistice with the Turks, and on 24 August such an agreement had duly been negotiated at Slobosia. Apparently misled by the account of the Tilsit agreement given him by the Turkish plenipotentiary, Galib Efendi, into believing that the Danubian provinces were to be given back to the Porte, General Mikhelson had initially accepted that Wallachia and Moldavia should be evacuated, but when news reached Alexander he had refused to ratify the peace terms and ordered his troops to remain put until such time as a formal treaty had been negotiated. The Turkish forces having all withdrawn in accordance with what had been agreed at Slobosia, the Russians could therefore look on Moldavia and Wallachia as safely in their sphere of influence.

No such satisfaction could be felt in Prussia. She was forced to pay a heavy indemnity, maintain a large French garrison, recognize the Confederation of the Rhine, now expanded to include the whole of Germany apart from herself and Austria, accede to the Continental Blockade, and accept the loss of half her territory. Her western territories (except, in the first instance, Hanover) were used to create Westphalia, a new state centred on Kassel that went to Napoleon’s brother, Jerome, and to augment Berg and Holland, both of which got small frontier districts. As for the bulk of Prussian Poland, this was used to create a reborn Polish state known as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, that was placed under the rule of the King of Saxony (as noted above, a district in the east centred on Bialystok went to Russia). Until the indemnity was paid, the rump of Prussia - a territory that was all but entirely indefensible and for the most part very poor - was to be occupied by French troops. The actual size of the indemnity was not stipulated, however, and thus it was that Napoleon was left free to set it at so high a price that Frederick William would never be able to rid himself of the grande armée. As for Prussian influence in Germany, it was reduced to nothing. This was rammed home in the treatment meted out to the few states that had to the end remained under Potsdam’s sway. Oldenburg, the two Mecklenburgs and Saxony were given their independence, but only at the price of joining the Confederation of the Rhine, while Hesse-Kassel and Brunswick were swallowed up by Westphalia. In short, the entire edifice of Hohenzollern power was at an end. Well might a shattered Blücher write, ‘My heart sobs over the disaster which has fallen on the state and upon my master.’61 As for Frederick William, he could only fume impotently, describing Napoleon as ‘that monster choked out of hell, formed by Beelzebub to be the scourge of the earth’.62

Tilsit, then, found the Napoleonic empire at what proved to be its zenith. Napoleon himself was the unchallenged ruler of a much enlarged France; French potentates had been placed on the thrones of Holland, Berg, Westphalia, Naples and the Kingdom of Italy; Germany and Switzerland were entirely under French control; and Spain had become a humble ally, albeit a somewhat fractious one. Britain could still count on Sweden, but her supremacy at sea had availed her very little. Not only had she failed to make any impact at all in the campaigns of October 1806 to June 1807, but her various expeditionary forces had come to a bad end. As for her vigorous response to the Continental Blockade, the Orders in Council which resulted would plunge Britain into fresh complications over the tight controls they imposed on neutral shipping. With Napoleon in control of much of the European coastline, the future was distinctly uncertain. What would occur next was, of course, impossible to say. But such was Britain’s predicament it is entirely possible that she would have been forced to give in. Fortunately for the Portland administration, however, their opponent was not a rational European statesman, but Napoleon. If he had only allowed Russia to believe that she was a French partner rather than a French vassal, the emperor might have won the war, but, exactly as had been the case in 1803, he could not let matters be. If England stood all but alone, it was therefore fairly clear that she would not do so for very long. As the British ambassador to Vienna remarked most prophetically to Stadion, ‘these fresh successes [will] lead probably to fresh pretensions on the part of France’, and persuade Napoleon, ‘to whom no project [seems] preposterous or impossible’, to ‘adopt that of carrying his army into the heart of Russia and attempt to dictate the law even at Saint Petersburg’.63

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