Now this is going to be a bit of a funny blog. Not funny haha. But funny because it’s not about battles–which obviously are my preferred method of communication–it’s about folly. Or if you’d like to get literary, hubris.
(No, not mine.)
You’ll recall I was keeping you up to date on what the pesky little Corsican was getting up to in May 1813, a.k.a. getting the shock of his young life, when the Allied forces of Russians and Prussians didn’t submit to his planned walloping at the Battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, yes? And how, after each of those encounters, the Russian light cavalry had engineered such a smooth withdrawal that the Frenchies were flummoxed?
(It was after Bautzen that Napoleon was heard to exclaim, “What, no results, no trophies, no prisoners after such a butchery!”)
Right. Well, the thing was, as the above quote suggests, Napoleon was a bit flummoxed by this apparent change in his fortunes. Yes, yes, of course, he was still blustering about being the legend in his own mind…but there were beginning to be doubts expressed by his most trusted advisors.
And something else was going on too. The Austrians, guided by the oleaginous hand of Prince Metternich, were shimmying about, doing their best to insert themselves into the breach as potential peace-makers. Because, you see, the Austrians were playing a double game. Or Metternich was. Take your pick. (You can pick both.)
Austria had not wanted to commit to fighting Napoleon and the French Empire for a variety of reasons.
- One–Napoleon was married to the Austrian Emperor’s daughter and Napoleon’s son was the Emperor’s grandson.
- Two–they didn’t want to be on the losing side of a conflict with Napoleon, and hitherto, any side opposing Napoleon had been the losing side.
- Three–war costs lots of money and they didn’t have much. Nor did they have much of an army, that having been stripped out under the terms of various treaties with Napoleon.
- Four–Austria was very concerned about the growing influence of Russia, particularly in Poland and Prussia, and felt a strong France was needed to keep the Russian bear from gobbling up everything in sight.
But the Austrians were in a tough position because, following Bautzen, the Allied forces were retreating to take up quarters rather close to the Austrian border–the Russians were in disarray, they were disorganised, they were going hungry…and this was frankly worrying, because what would happen when they spilled into Austrian territory, hmn?
And there was also the problem of the officers of the Austrian army who were getting a little resty at the thought that everyone else was getting a crack at the hated Corsican upstart, and they were having to sit at home.
He thought this was a brilliant coup. (He would.) His own troops were exhausted, they were hungry, many of them were untrained novices, the cavalry required building up and training and he needed the six or seven weeks to whip the entire lot of them into some sort of shape so that come autumn he could annihilate those annoying Allies and be king of the world once more.
I have to tell you, when he was in exile on St. Helena, even he admitted this was one of his biggest mistakes.
Precisely because it allowed the Russians and Prussians (and their horses) to get organised and fed and rested and nursed back to health, (the Prussians didn’t even have enough food in their stores to feed their own army and required assistance from Russia…) and this was essential! It allowed the Russians to move vast amounts of fodder and supplies to the front from their bases in Russia, and this would facilitate the autumn campaign. It allowed Britain to work on Austria, promising boatloads of money and uniforms and weapons if they would enter the war on the side of the Allies, and it allowed the Austrians to get their army in order a bit and play chief negotiator with everyone.
(And it allowed for a certain character in my next novel to nip across to London from Berlin and do a bit of housebreaking…very thoughtful of NB, don’t you think? Probably that’s why he did it…)
So you see, quite, quite dumb of our little Corsican mushrump–but you know, I don’t believe that he could conceive of the idea that even one of his adversaries had more than a caraway seed where their brains should have been, so I don’t think any of this occurred to him…
Of course, the Russian command could not believe their luck! When General Langeron heard of the deal, he “went to Barclay’s [Barclay de Tolly, the Russian commander-in-chief] headquarters and he received me with a great burst of laughter: this explosion of happiness was by no means normal with Barclay. He was always cold, serious and severe in spirit and in his manner. The two of us laughed together at Napoleon’s expense. Barclay, all the generals and our monarchs were drunk with joy and they were right to be so.”
As I say, initially the armistice was meant to last until the 20th July, but at Austria’s insistence, the whole thing was extended until 10 August.
Because you see, the Austrians (or Metternich) had come up with an ingenious scheme, you could have stuck a tail on it and called it a fox: They would broker peace negotiations with Napoleon on behalf of the Allies during this period of time. And this would have the brilliant effect of allowing the Allied troops further breathing room, giving Russia time to bring even more troops, provisions and horses (lots and lots) up to the western front; it would allow the Austrians more time to haggle for an even more whopping subsidy from Britain, and to get their own army in the field and work out a plan of campaign (in which obviously they planned to hold the whip hand.)
…and possibly, just possibly, Napoleon would realise he couldn’t win this one and would choose to make peace, thus keeping the Russians in their box, and again, as peacebrokers, Austria would hold the whip hand. It was win-win from their point of view.
Of course Metternich wasn’t playing a straight wicket. (When was he ever?) He was as oozy as salted slug and even before the proposed peace conference got underway, he’d already done a deal with the Allies that said that if Napoleon wouldn’t agree to the Austrian’s four bottom-line conditions for peace, they would enter the war on the side of the Allies. And then just to ensure that Napoleon would of course reject the conditions, he insisted on conditions to which Napoleon would never ever agree. Mwahahaha.
And so there you have it. The Armistice of Plaswitz. Which undoubtedly led to the fall of Napoleon…a brief spell of summer during which all of Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief…before the complete storm of the autumn of 1813 and the Battle of Leipzig.
(Yes, you’re right…the dear little Emperor of the French wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed by this point, was he? Sadly for him, he failed to realise it at the time. Tant pis.)