The imperial adversaries prepared for the combat with diplomatic moves, military accumulations, and mass movements of men. Each tried to persuade the other that he was a devotee of peace. Napoleon chose as his ambassador Armand de Caulaincourt, a man of more than merely genealogical nobility. Arrived in St. Petersburg (November, 1807), Caulaincourt was impressed by the development of Alexander from the diffident young ruler whom he had seen there in 1801; the Czar had become a paragon of good looks, graceful manners, and friendly speech. Alexander professed himself a lover of Napoleon, still dedicated to the agreements made at Tilsit—given some slight adjustments which the brilliant Emperor of the French would find reasonable.

Poland divided them. Napoleon had established the grand duchy of Warsaw (1807) under a French protectorate; Alexander countered by wooing Polish nobles with an offer to restore all pre-partition Poland as a kingdom internally autonomous but recognizing the czar of Russia as its king and master of its external relations. Letters containing this offer fell into Napoleon’s hands, and infuriated him.8 He recalled Caulaincourt (February, 1811), and replaced him, as French ambassador to Russia, with Jacques Law, the future Marquis de Lauriston.

In this month Alexander urged Austria to join him in an attack upon Napoleon’s forces in Poland, offering her, as incidental profit, half of Moldavia and all of Wallachia;9 Austria refused. Napoleon at St. Helena shed some light on his Polish policy: “I would never have waged war with Russia simply to serve the interests of the Polish nobility”; and as for freeing the serfs, “I could never forget that when I spoke to the Polish serfs about liberty, they answered, ‘Certainly we should like to have it very much; but who will feed, clothe, and house us?’”10—i.e., they would have floundered helplessly in any sudden change.

Caulaincourt, loaded with gifts from the Czar, reached Paris on June 5, 1811. He tried at great length to convince Napoleon of Alexander’s pacific intentions, and warned him that a French invasion of Russia would be doomed to defeat by climate and space. Napoleon concluded that Caulaincourt, violating correct diplomatic procedure, had fallen in love with the Czar.11 Abandoning hope of a peaceful solution, and suspecting Russian attempts at seducing Prussia and Austria,12 Napoleon massed troops in or near Prussia, and frightened Frederick William III into signing an alliance with France (March 5, 1812); this committed Prussia to provide twenty thousand troops for the French invasion of Russia, and to feed the French army when it passed through Prussia; the cost of the food was to be subtracted from the indemnity still owed by Prussia to France.13 On March 14 Austria entered into a similar forced alliance with France. In April Napoleon proposed to the Sultan an alliance by which Turkey would expand her conflict with Russia into a holy war, and cooperate with France in a simultaneous march upon Moscow; in case of success the Porte was to regain the Danubian principalities, and secure full control of the Crimea and the Black Sea. Remembering that Napoleon had fought the Turks in Egypt and Syria, and had, at Tilsit, offered Alexander a free hand against Turkey, the Sultan rejected the proposal, and signed peace with Russia (May 28, 1812). On April 5 Alexander signed a pact of mutual aid with Sweden; on April 18 he offered peace and alliance with Great Britain. On May 29 he declared all Russian ports open to ships of all nations. In effect this was to withdraw from the Continental Blockade, and to declare war upon France.

Along with this diplomatic duel went one of the most massive military preparations in history. Here Alexander’s task was narrower and simpler than Napoleon’s; he had only one country to mobilize in force and sentiment. The sentiment almost took care of itself: Mother Russia rose spontaneously against the hordes of barbarians that were being organized against her by a savage infidel. The patriotic fervor that had condemned the Peace of Tilsit was transformed into religious support of the Czar. Wherever he went simple men and women crowded around him, kissing his horse or his boots. So strengthened, he enlarged his armies, ordered them to prepare for war, and stationed 200,000 men along the Dvina and the Dnieper, the great rivers that divided Russian Russia from the Lithuanian and Polish provinces taken in the partitions.14

Napoleon’s mobilization was more complex. He faced the initial difficulty that 300,000 French troops, and a dozen French generals, were tied down in Spain, and that even more might be needed to keep Wellington from marching through the Peninsula and over the Pyrenees into France. He had hoped to return to Spain and repeat his victories of 1809; now he had to choose between losing Spain, Portugal, and the blockade and losing the Russian alliance and the blockade. “I knew better than anyone that Spain was a gnawing cancer that had to be healed before we could enter upon such a terrible war, in which the first battle would be fought fifteen hundred miles from my frontier.”15

He had begun his military preparations in 1810 by quietly strengthening the French garrison in Danzig, and adding, as imperceptibly as he could, to the French contingents policing Prussia. In January, 1811, he called to the colors the year’s conscripts, and distributed them along the German coast from the Elbe to the Oder, to guard against a Russian flank attack by sea. In the spring he ordered the princes of the Rhineland Confederation to prepare their pledged quotas of troops for active service. In August he began a painstaking study of the Russian terrain, and fixed upon June as the best month for an invasion.16 In December he prepared a network of spies to work in or around Russia.17

By February, 1812, both sides had completed their mobilization. The French conscription had revealed a sharp decline in the popularity of the army: of 300,000 men called to the colors 80,000 failed to appear, and thousands of these were hunted down as outlaws.18 Many of the recruits deserted, or made unwilling soldiers, and proved dangerously unreliable in a crisis. In former campaigns the newcomers would have received proud example and avuncular encouragement from the veterans of the Imperial Guard; but now most members of that brotherhood of battle were dead, or in Spain, or too old to be heroes except in reminiscences. Nor had the recruits the inspiration of a united and enthusiastic nation behind them. Napoleon appealed to them, and to his subjects, to see the enterprise as a holy war of Western civilization against the swelling wave of Slavic barbarism;19 but the skeptical French had heard such stories before, and in any case Russia was too far away to frighten them. He tried to arouse his generals, but almost to a man, out of his hearing, they were against the new war as an invitation to tragedy. Many of them had grown rich by his largesse, and wished he had let them enjoy it in peace.

Some of his aides were brave enough to voice their doubts to his face. Caulaincourt, though always loyal to him, and serving him till 1814 as his grand equerry, or master of the horse, warned him that war with Russia would be disastrous, and even dared to tell him that he had gone to all this trouble “to satisfy his fondest passion,” war.20 Fouché, supposedly banished from the imperial presence because of his incurable plotting, but recalled to keep him in sight or on leash, told Napoleon (if Fouché can ever be believed) that it was climatically impossible to defeat Russia, and that he was being misled by the dream of universal dominion.21 Napoleon explained that his dream was only to found a United States of Europe, to give the Continent one modern legal code, one coinage, one system of weights and measures, one court of appeals—all under one three-cornered hat. And this immense, unprecedented army, which he had so toiled to assemble and equip —how could he send it home now, and walk through the rest of his life with his tail between his legs?

It was verily an immense army, 680,000 men, including 100,000 cavalry, not counting political officials, servants, and attendant women. Of the total, less than half were French; the rest were contingents requisitioned from Italy, Illyria, Austria, Germany, and Poland. There were half a hundred generals—Lefebvre, Davout, Oudinot, Ney, Murat, Victor, Augereau, Eugène de Beauharnais, and Prince Józef Antoni Poniatowski, nephew of Poland’s last and knightly King. All these forces were gathered into separate armies, at various points en route to Russia, each general with specific instructions when and where to lead his host.

The task of equipping and provisioning such a multitude had probably required more genius, patience, and money than to assemble it. Indeed, both the early and later stages of the enterprise were vitally affected by logistic conditions; the campaign could not open until the soil had grown enough grass to feed the horses; its ruin was almost completed by the Russian capture of the provisions that the returning, famished French had expected to find at Smolensk. Napoleon tried to foresee everything but disaster. He arranged to have stores of matériel, mechanical parts and repairs, food, clothing, medicines, at Wesel, Cologne, Bonn, Coblenz, Mainz, and other points on the routes of his converging armies; and similar supplies were to follow, in hundreds of transport vehicles, the advance of the invaders in Russia. Napoleon knew where to buy and what to pay; he knew the wiles of contractors, and was ready to hand over to a firing squad a merchant who knowingly overcharged his armies, or sold them shoddy goods.

How did he pay for all these supplies, and for their transport and storage, and for the men who used them? He taxed, he levied loans, he borrowed from the Banque de France and private banks; he took millions from his private horde of 380 million francs in gold in the cellars of the Tuileries. He checked extravagance wherever he could; he scolded his divorced beloved Josephine for spending like an empress, and praised Empress Marie Louise for her economies.22 All in all, he said later, “the Russian campaign… was the best, the most skillful, the most cleverly led, and the most methodical of all the campaigns that I have commanded.”23

Was he fit to command it? Probably better than any of his contemporaries, but less fit than the enterprise required. At forty-three he was already too old for camp life and battle duties. We may presume that he was suffering from the ailments that were to hamper him at Borodino and Waterloo: stomach pains, frequency and difficulty of urination, and piles. Though still, in private, a man of kindness and justice, a good husband to Marie Louise and a fond father to their son, he had become, after eight years of imperial power, impatient, dictatorial, easily angered, and given to overestimating his mental and political power. There were many exceptions: he bore Caulaincourt’s criticism with good humor, and forgave many costly mistakes in his brothers and generals. He had moments of realism about himself. “In the midst of his meditations,” his secretary tells us, “I often heard Napoleon characterize his position with this expression: ‘The bow is overstretched.’ “24 But he had been too seldom defeated to have reached perspective and self-limitation. “After all,” he told Narbonne, “this long road [to Moscow] is the road to India.”25

So, on May 9, 1812, he left St.-Cloud, bound at least for Moscow. Everything in his life had been a gamble, and this was the greatest of them all.

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