200 years ago this week v. modern life…

I’ve been slacking recently and not covering the bicentenaries as they’ve occurred.  And for that I apologise. 

But though some of that is down to mea culpa–I’ve been battling an advanced case of writers’ block, aka Writers’ Himalayas–another part is just modern technology being, er, modern technology. 

That is to say, when it works, great; when it doesn’t, not so good. 

All last weekend, the broadband connections went in and out of service.  By Tuesday it had opted for a complete demonstration of moody teenager passive resistance “Don’t want to.”  And it didn’t.  Quite successfully for nearly 24 hours. 

So, what bicentenaries have occurred in the past week? 

Well, chiefly, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, which officially commenced on 24 June 1812.

(And yes, it turned out to be one of the dumbest, most hen-witted, most inconceivable self-inflicted human disasters in the history of mankind.  He was good at setting new standards though, was Napoleon.)

So what happened, you ask? 

Well, it’s like this. 

Napoleon got the brilliant idea that he wanted to be big cheese of all of Europe.  And one of the methods by which he planned to achieve this big cheesiness was total French domination of trade on the Continent.  (Which is a simplistic view of the Continental Blockade, I know.) 

But he reckoned it was a good idea.

Sadly, the rest of the Continent didn’t find it so much fun to be without the means to trade their goods with nations such as Britain, and this brought about a great deal of unemployment, poverty, destitution, did I mention poverty, destruction of industry, food shortages, etc.  

Anyway, by 1811, Russia had decided the Continental Blockade just wasn’t, er, in their best interests economically speaking…so they’d re-opened their ports to British shipping and trade.  And this, as you will imagine, made the little Corsican despot hopping mad.  So he set about planning the demise of Russia.

(Stop laughing.  This boy thought big.)

Meanwhile, it transpires that Lord Wellington, the British Commander in Chief of the operations in the Peninsula against French troops, wasn’t the only one who’d been studying Napoleon’s “form”.  A number of Russian generals and advisors to the Tsar had as well.  And what they reckoned was that he would eventually not be able to stand the idea of anyone disobeying his will (by opening up trade with Britain once more) and would invade.  But, as I say, they’d been looking hard at how he’d won all those impressive victories at Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram…and they’d seen that what he liked best was to mass his huge army against his enemy and fight a battle of total annihilation.  And when he was directing that process, there was none better. 

But what would happen if Napoleon and his men were deprived of that “big” battle?  What would happen if they had to be on the march for months on end without ever gaining a decisive victory?  He knew (and they knew) that politically he couldn’t afford to be away from Paris for more than a year.  How would he cope with an elusive enemy who wouldn’t stand and give battle?

And this, the advisors and tacticians reckoned, was the way to destroy him.  (And they did want to destroy him.  Never doubt that.  He was hated throughout Europe and many Prussians and Russians and Italians openly referred to him as the anti-Christ.)

So, throughout the year of 1811 and during the first months of 1812, Napoleon built the greatest army Europe had ever seen.  The Grande Armee.  Numbering on paper some 590,687 troops, over 157,878 horses, he had among other things special extra-sturdy carts for transporting guns and goods all those extra miles into Russia.  And during the early months of 1812, he had all these troops massed all along the Russian border–in Prussia and Poland and Silesia.  Not only that, but the actual number of French and allied troops in the theatre of operations was more like 678,000.

(The Russian diplomat/spies working in Paris–Count Karl von Nesselrode and Prince Aleksandr Chernyshev–kept the Tsar fully informed.) 

(If you’ll remember that in 1800, the population of London stood at 1 million–that may give you some sense of scale.  His army was larger than half the population of Europe’s largest city.) 

By June, Napoleon and his troops had taken over Poland.  Thrown out the previous government and set it up along lines which suited himself and his requirements–not the wishes of the disappointed Poles who’d been hoodwinked into believing that he meant to free them and bring them liberty, fraternity and all that good stuff.  He wasn’t about that–he just wanted their able-bodied men in his army, most particularly their Polish lancers.  (French occupation of Poland in 1812 is one of the country’s darkest hours.) 

And then, with a certain degree of sabre-rattling–allegedly he was hoping that the Tsar wouldn’t tolerate the invasion of his sacred country, but would see this huge army massed on its borders and come out and beg for peace–he got ready to cross the River Niemen into Russia proper. 

On the night of the 23rd June, he worked up the rousing speech which would be read out to his soldiers on the following day, and had the presses of his propaganda unit all ready to print and distribute the thing.  And this is what he wrote:

Soldiers!  The Second Polish War has begun.  The first ended at Friedland and Tilsit: at Tilsit Russia swore an eternal alliance with France and war on England.  She is now violating her promises.  She refuses to give an explanation of her strange behaviour unless the French eagles retire beyond the Rhine, thereby leaving our allies at her mercy.  Russia is tempting fate!  And she will meet her destiny.  Does she think we have become degenerate?  Are we not longer the soldiers of Austerlitz?  She has forced us into a choice between dishonour and war.  There can be no question as to which we choose, so let us advance!  Let us cross the Niemen!  Let us take the war onto her territory.  The Second Polish War will be glorious for French arms, as was the first; but the peace will conclude will be a lasting one, and will put an end to that arrogant influence which Russia has been exerting on the affairs of Europe over the past fifty years.

Russian sources suggest that a truer number of forces crossing the Niemen on the 24th June would be 450,000.  Plus, probably some 50,000 civilians who followed in the wake of the army.  Not least because although Napoleon had intended that there should be ample provisions for his men in Prussia and Poland before they crossed into Russian territory–the reality was somewhat different.

A bad winter and a late spring thaw had meant that the poor farmlands of Prussia and Poland were sown even later than usual, thus the harvest, upon which Napoleon expected his soldiers to live, hadn’t happened. 

The grain was still green.  The horses ate it and got colic.  The men ate it and died of dysentery.  And it’s probable that between a third and a half of French forces died before the crossing of the Niemen. 

Still across the River Niemen they would go.  At ten o’clock on the evening of the 24th, three companies of the 13th Light Infantry crossed the Niemen silently in boats.  Shortly thereafter three pontoon bridges were put in place by General Jean-Baptiste Eble and his men. 

The invasion had begun. 

A year later, there would be less than 30,000 survivors.  (Some put the number as low as 7,000.)  

Of the 32,700 Bavarians who crossed with Napoleon, by 1 January 1813, only 4000 were still alive–that’s 12% of the total.  Of the 52,000 troops belonging to the Army of Italy which crossed into Russia in June, only 2844 men reassembled in January–just over 5%. 

As I said, one of the greatest self-induced human disasters of all time.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

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3 comments on “200 years ago this week v. modern life…

  1. And Hitler did follow his great example— who said history didn’t repeat itself? Great blog.

  2. […] payments (someone had to pay for that massive French army!), membership in the club of the Continental System and no more trading with those pesky English, lots of artwork to be taken off to the […]

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