I know, I know, where have I been recently and why have I not been blogging and administering my fortnightly dose of historical hilarity? Er, a lot on my plate and no clear head space in which to organise amusing historical jaunts and japes for you?
Okay, it’s lame, but it’s the best I’ve got.
So recently, I was describing the deep black ooze that covered the streets of Paris to my children–and no, I’m not going to describe it for you, this is a sanitary blog–when they arrived at what they felt would be the brilliant subject of my next blog: The Top Ten Most Disgusting Historical Things I Know.
It may surprise you to know that I did not leap upon this as blog-manna. Rather, I point-blank refused to discuss the Top Ten or even the Top Fifty. As I pointed out, I don’t want to think about the Most Disgusting Things I know. I don’t want that in my head. Not now. Not tomorrow…Yes, they truly are that heinous.
So instead of grossing out my audience for the next decade, I thought I’d write about something I was asked to write about recently: Napoleon’s various dabblings with poison. (No, honestly! Someone did request I write about this!)
The first headline-hitter of this topic comes to us from the snirpy little Corsican’s Egyptian jaunt in 1798. You may or may not remember that he was bored and the French government, the Directory, of the time thought it would be a super idea to get him out of Paris where he was more popular than they were, so when he put forward this jolly prospect of taking over Egypt and turning it into a French outpost from which they could interrupt British trade, the Directory said, “Quelle bonne idee! Swell idea! There now, off you go…though you’ll have to finance it yourself…”
So he got himself a bijou army-ette (composed mainly of those who had served in the Vendee) and sailed first for Malta, which he took over, re-organised to suit himself and raided the treasury, then skipped off to Egypt.
Where he invaded, marched on Cairo, slaughtered the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids–they hadn’t a hope, they’d got sabres and no organised cavalry and he had French infantry squares. And he had his savants begin raiding tombs and homes for historical artifacts and knickknacks they could pilfer.
He marched his soldiers all around the place, declared he intended to found a new religion with himself as chief priest, combining the best of Christianity and Islam in a religion that would suit everyone (I kid you not) and have chucked out the Egyptian rulers, set the place up to suit himself, with him as Lord High Executioner, Koko or Pooh-Bah, if you prefer.
Strangely, not all the Egyptians thought this was fun. And with his underlings acting like arrogant conquerors, tempers grew a tad frayed. All of which bubbled to the surface in an area of Cairo surrounding the Al-Azhar mosque in October, where the leaders decided to take on the invading infidels and took the Frenchies by surprise.
Napoleon reacted, er, shall we say badly, to this assault on his authority and ordered a full-out assault on the community with artillery, howitzers, and everything else. I will not repeat the atrocities committed by French troops here–suffice it to say that women were murdering their children and then themselves rather than submit.
So, now the Egyptians having been reduced to awe and trembling, the magnanimous Corsican upstart–yes, he did believe he was an image of magnanimity; others might have spelt it more like megalomania–decided to have a go at pushing up along the coast toward Turkey, but first he meant to take on Ali Pasha at Acre in Syria.
There was some resistance to his plan at Jaffa–where they had plague–and after defeating the troops there, he ordered his men to gun down the 4000 prisoners of war on the beach, so that the tide would wash them away. His troops initially refused, but a Napoleonic tantrum or nine convinced them that they’d best get on with it. But not before plague was spreading through his men.
So off he marches them up to Acre, where he plans to besiege the citadel. Unfortunately, as arrives, he finds that Sir Sidney Smith (three cheers!) has arrived in the harbour to bolster Ali Pasha’s supplies and to provide military support and intelligence. However, due to Smith’s wiliness, his intelligence, his superb organisation skills, the French did not take Acre as planned. It did not topple to their late-arriving siege engines, they just lost a lot of men to dysentery, dehydration, starvation and…plague.
And it was this last which annoyed our French general the most. He’d realised belatedly that things weren’t going exactly to plan and that he needed to get back to Egypt rather promptly because things weren’t going to plan there either. They hadn’t made him a god or something or carved his face on a statue at Luxor maybe.
The problem was all these troops sick as proverbial dogs in the field hospitals with plague. So our inventive general had a plan–let’s call it Plan B. He decided to have their drinking water poisoned, so they’d all die and he wouldn’t have the faff of dragging them back to Egypt in litters and carts.
Curiously, the doctors in charge had the temerity to refuse to follow these orders. Can you believe it? And it appears none of his previously successful attempts at intimidation, bullying, threats of courts-martial, worked. What were they thinking?
Hence, the half-pint conquering hero (not) was forced to transport his ailing and dying troops back to Egypt, where before long he abandoned them to high-tail it back to France, proclaiming the entire venture a rip-roaring success. His remaining troops were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy and transported home by them–though they refused to allow the French to keep the ancient texts and treasures they had pillaged and stolen; these they took home to Britain for the British Museum…
But I digress. We’re talking about poison here. Ehem.
So, skipping ahead to the next risky venture–the invasion of Russia in 1812. Another little Napoleonic conquest that didn’t go according to plan. Hence, when Napoleon abandoned Moscow in October, and then his troops on their march home in December of 1812, he kept a vial of poison about his neck to be swallowed in case he was captured by Cossacks, whom he had reason to believe would not treat him, er, kindly, in the event of his capture. And knowing what they did to those French troops they did capture, I fancy his suspicions were not far off the mark.
He was not captured. (I know, I know, you wanted a disgustoid story here…sorry.) So he kept the vial in a handy place. Just in case, you know.
And when at last in the early days of April 1814, Paris had fallen to the Allies (Prussia, Russia, Austria) and his generals had come to insist he abdicated, he did what any self-respecting tyrant would do, he administered the dose of fatal poison which he had been keeping just for such a moment.
Only one problem. The sub-zero Russian temperatures which had frozen his retreating troops in their boots and turned the tin buttons which held up their breeks to powder so their trousies wouldn’t stay up had also deteriorated the poisons in the vial.
So though Napoleon allegedly detested the weakness of suicide, on the 13th April 1814 at Fontainebleau, after signing the abdication papers and finding his former friends and allies deserting him in droves, he swallowed the contents of the aforementioned vial. And was vilely ill.
But no funeral.
And there you have it..
Now, it’s urban legend or according to Hercule Poirot or something that poison is a woman’s or a eunuch’s weapon. Thus, in the light of that and of all the above, was Napoleon was telling us something, do you think? And to think we missed it all these years…