Righto. So where were we?
Ah yes. That’s right. About a month ago, after traipsing with his Grande Armee of some 500,000 plus men across Europe to Moscow–having lost more than half of them already to famine, dehydration, dysentery and just about anything else you can think of–he’d fought the Battle of Borodino and then, taken the capital of Russia, Moscow.
Only that hadn’t worked out quite as planned. Because the Governor of Moscow, one Count Rostopchin, had made plans to set the place alight if the Frenchies too it. Which plans had been carried out. And the place had burned to the ground over a period of four days.
Right. So here we are, back in burnt-out Moscow, Napoleon installed at the Kremlin (kinda suits him, don’t you think–he would have loved the KGB!), his remaining troops–some 90,000 of them–reduced to living in the burnt out shells of buildings, scrabbling for food, abusing the remaining Muscovites, stealing, fighting among themselves…and all of them waiting.
Well, that’s unclear. Sort of.
Napoleon had sent a letter to the Tsar’s mother, burbling about how much he valued his friendship with the Tsar and how he believed that this little contretemps of him being forced to invade Russia was caused by the Tsar having bad advisors and how he really, really, really hadn’t meant for his men to act so savagely in Moscow–that was all Rostopchin’s fault…
So apparently, what he was waiting for was a peace envoy from the Tsar in St. Petersburg saying something along the lines of, “Oh! Oh! Changed my mind again. I really do love you best, Nappy old thing, and I’ll do anything you want so we can be friends again…”
(Ya, like that was going to happen…)
But by the 3rd October, Napoleon was getting a little fractious. So he insisted his sidekick, Caulaincourt, go on a peace mission to Alexander.
Caulaincourt refused. Point blank.
Plan B was to send another chappie, Lauriston, to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Kutuzov, with a letter to be delivered to the Tsar…
Lauriston went. Kutuzov played the wily old fox–as ever–and when Lauriston returned to Napoleon on the 6th October, he had good news–Kutuzov would see the Tsar got the letter. Napoleon (sad, befuddled twit) was jubilant.
(The letter has never been found…)
So, what sort of jolly larks and japes were the rump (did I say rump? I mean to say remnant…) of the Grande Armee getting up to while they awaited confirmation from the Tsar that they’d won and Russia had lost and they could all be friends again?
They held a number of spectacular military reviews, with the lines of buffed and polished troops marching perfectly in the great piazza before the Kremlin: the Infantry of the Old Guard, Roguet’s Division, Compan’s Division, the next day, Gerard’s…on and on and on.
Napoleon visited the Kremlin churches…The Italian singer, Tarquinio, gave two concerts for the Emperor…there were piano recitals. The Emperor spent his evenings rewriting the constitution of le Comedie Francaise–the state theatre of France–while on Wednesday, 7 October, the “French Theatre in Moscow” gave its first performance, opening their Moscow run with a three-act comedy called, Le Jeu de l’Amour et de l’Hasard…[the Game of Love and of Risk].
Yet meanwhile, winter threatened.
(Napoleon believed that the climate of Moscow was like that of Paris. [Do not say anything!])
By the second week of October, there were frequent snow flurries, though none settled in the street. The common soldiers (and many of their officers) had lost all sense of discipline and been reduced to lives of savage desperation…stealing, fighting, whoring, raping, pillaging, always in want, always hungry, always cold…and nothing but ashes and rubble about them.
Daily, detachments of cavalry were sent out of the city to forage for food, only to be harassed by bands of Cossacks and locals. When (if) they returned late at night, often they would have found nothing for themselves or their horses. (This according to one officer destroyed the cavalry and artillery horses…)
Eventually, Napoleon caught on though–the Tsar wasn’t playing. And by the 13th, he was heard to say, “We must hurry. In eight days we should be in winter quarters.”
By the 14th, the evacuation of the wounded was being hurried along. The rank and file still believed they were heading for India. Reinforcements of cavalry and artillery were sent messages to halt at Smolensk. Napoleon gave the orders that he would depart the city on Sunday, the 18th.
A flurry, a rage of pillage–pillage on an industrial scale–and at every level, began. The soldiers stripped the city of anything and all they could find, with Napoleon leading from the front.
He had robbed Venice and Rome and Malta of their treasures. Now, he arranged for the great iron cross that graced the tower of the church of Ivan Veliki in the Kremlin to be removed–he planned to carry it back to Paris and mount it atop the dome of Les Invalides where he thought it would look just spiffing…
However…when the cables were fastened to the cross and the engineers began to lower it down, the cable snapped, the scaffolding collapsed, the Sappers fled, and the cross fell–breaking into three pieces as it hit the ground.
Still…Napoleon had the bits packed up along with all the other holy relics he’d filched and added to his baggage train.
(What he did not include in those orders was a provision for the horses to be shod with spiked winter-shoes, which would allow them to safely travel uphill and down in snow, sludge and sleet. His neglect in this is one of the single-greatest contributions to the cataclysm which would overcome his army over the next months.)
Though everything was ostensibly ready for departure on the 18th, Napoleon decided to defer his departure for one more day, determined to spend one more night in the Kremlin.
Finally, on the morning on the 19th October 1812, the vast stream of human beings began to pour out of the city gates in a procession of carriages, carts, pedestrians, horsemen, waggons…hordes of refugees, camp followers…all of them flowing out of the city onto the roads to Kaluga, weighed down by packs stuffed with booty, dragging sledges piled high with pillage, wearing layers and layers of clothing they had stolen from the Muscovite houses or stripped from off the Muscovites themselves…
It was a bright day, and clear. And by noon, the Emperor of the French has crossed the Moskva river…
As Eugene Labaume wrote: “Those who did not witness the departure of the French army from Moscow, can form but a faint idea of what the Greek and Roman armies, were, when they abandoned the ruins of Troy or of Carthage…The long files of carriages, in three or four ranks, extended for several leagues, loaded with the immense booty, which the soldiers had snatched from the flames, and the Moscovite peasants who were now become our servants resembled the slaves which the ancients dragged in their train. Others carrying with them their wives and children, or the prostitutes whom they had found at Moscow, represented the warriors amongst the captives had been divided.
“Afterwards came numerous wagons filled with trophies, among which were Turkish or Persian standards, torn from the vaulted roofs of the palaces of the czars, and, last of all, the celebrated cross of Saint Iwan gloriously closed the rear…
Out of Moscow via the savage scorched-earth Russian landscape and into the brutal jaws of cruellest winter…
Can anyone say Pyrrhic victory?