It’s all in the detail…

It appears, as happens to all of us, that I deeply offended someone recently by having a less than rose-tinted pair of glasses on when I wrote a new blog about Napoleon.   Why this should have been, I don’t rightly know.  It’s not like his atrocities are news or anything anymore.  But so it was.

And anything I said in support of my argument was, er, dismissed by this individual and then, going for the kill, she advised me that I needed to learn what a good historian does.  (Which as far as I was aware was something about taking all the information in–even the bits that don’t support one’s pet theory.  Or have I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ fine novel about the subject, Gaudy Night, too many times? And believed it.)

Favourite bootsHence, in my personal defense, I wish to say this.  Once upon a time there was a little boffin named MM Bennetts.  (No, the MM does not stand for Montmorency, whatever certain people may tell you…)  And this creature, Bennetts, was not perhaps cut out to be an historian.  No, the heart and soul of this child were in music–a pianist first and Beethoven the first and great love.  

But history was what our little boffin read, fascinated by the lives and hopes and losses of all those fabulous artists and poets and people who had lived before.  (And the novelist part is all Dorothy Dunnett’s fault–a great friend and mentor, as it happened.)

strathtyrumNor did Bennetts arrive at Napoleonic controversy by a straight path.  Indeed, for a long time, our boffin was immersed in the glories of the Italian Renaissance and specialised as a mediaevalist.  But, these twists and turns happen…and through Beethoven and the architecture of the brothers Adam and all sorts of other things, this Bennetts became immersed in this world of early 19th century Britain.  (To be fair, I would have liked to have been frivolous and write immensely successful somethings or other…but the research, you see, it always drew me in further and further.  Like down Alice’s rabbit hole.)

conciergerieI had been to a huge exhibition of Goya’s etchings of the atrocities of war, from the Peninsula, you see.  And then I was in Paris at the Conciergerie.  And if you’ve not been there, well, all I can tell you is that it’s one of those places where the cries of the innocent condemned still weep from the very stones.

Anyway.  At the end of the tour, I asked about atrocities against the population committed after the Reign of Terror.  And the tour guide–after assuring me I couldn’t be English, my French was too perfect–was emphatic that there had been no atrocities committed by the Napoleonic regime or any other regime after the Terror.

Obviously, the party line.

But I knew it wasn’t true.  I had seen the evidence.

And this was shortly before the French celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution–wherein curiously I noted that there were no mentions of the September Massacres, no mention of the  genocide against the aristocracy nor the clergy…it was all a great party.

napo-creepAnd as the years have gone by, and I have relied more and more on first hand accounts of events, more and more turned to other countries’ non-partisan views and accounts, as the accounts which for 100 years were kept from us by the Berlin Wall’s presence and no sharing, and now all the forensic examination of Napoleonic grave sites, I find I am in a world of quotidienne atrocity, about which I have become, with no little reservation, an expert.

In my defense, it’s not what I like.  I like cakey, horses, poetry and antique roses.   I adore P.G. Wodehouse, Shakespeare and Donne.  I still play the piano and fill my world with music–it’s what we’re here for.

But I cannot turn aside from the sufferings of others and pretend they didn’t happen because Napoleon had the best air-brushing artist and propagandists the world has ever known.  And if that’s what you’re wanting, well, look elsewhere I guess.

I don’t, I hope, court controversy.  But I’m not going to lie.



My Top Ten…No, that’s not right…

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.

napoleon mounted1Where 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.

sir sidney smithSo 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.

Napinwinter1812So, 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.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauSo though Napoleon allegedly detested the weakness of suicide, on the 13th April 1814 at Fontainbleau, 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…

Reflections on the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813)

Leipzig4I’ve just completed a brief segment for a television programme on the Battle of Leipzig…and I’ll be frank, I think I sounded a complete numpty. So I thought I’d jot down a few bits of what I should have said and would have said if I’d had my wits about me, rather than…er…whatever it was I did say.

So let me begin by saying that the Battle of Leipzig, or the Battle of the Nations as it’s often called, was the game-changer of the Napoleonic wars, and Napoleon’s loss there opened the door for the invasion of France in early 1814 and eventually his abdication in April of that year.

So what happened to turn the Emperor of France and the Victor of Europe into the world’s biggest loser.  Well, let me put it to you this way, a lot of things just went hideously wrong on the day.  And when I say hideous, I mean inconceivably hideous.

napoleon1814For a start, there was the French army itself.  You may recall that when he lost those 450,000 men in Russia the previous year, well, when he’d got back to Paris on the 18 December, on the 19th at a levee, he’d announced that by spring he would need a new Grande Armee of 350,000 troops.  I can only guess at the boggling that went on behind his back.

The authorities did their best, but by October of 1813, the Nouveau Grande Armee was still an army comprised of raw recruits.  The seasoned veterans which had been the glue holding the whole together for over a decade were all gone–dead in the snows of Russia.  So too were thousands of the officers.  As for the French cavalry–they’d been pretty much wiped out by the Russian campaign, and they couldn’t be put back together again–France simply didn’t have the horses.  At all.

Another thing had happened in the meantime too, and that was, the three main armies of the Allied forces–the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians–had all instituted sweeping reforms to their military structures so that the combined armies of the Allies were not the same badly led badly trained troops that Napoleon had faced and walloped previously.

Moreover all of the Allied forces were now driven by a patriotic fervour to rid Europe of the enslaving French…

leipzig3Let me quote for you the order of the day which was read out to the troops from the Allied command on the morning of the 16th:  “Brave soldiers!  The most important epoch of this holy war is at hand.  The decisive hour is striking.  Prepare yourselves for battle!  The bond which unites mighty nations in one great enterprise will be drawn closer and tighter on the battlefield.  Russians!  Prussians!  Austrians!  You fight for a cause!  You fight for the independence of Europe, for the freedom of your sons, for the immortality of your name!  All for one!  One for all!  Victory is yours!”

On that first day of the battle, things were pretty evenly matched.  There were mistakes of course, and the fighting was fierce.

The Allied forces surrounded Leipzig from the north, south and east, but the west remained open and Napoleon, at the end of the day, had he had his wits about him, could have forseen that they’d fought each other to a draw and the wise move would have been to sue for peace and an orderly withdrawal…

But that’s what he didn’t do.  Because Napoleon was at heart an obsessive gambler and he was convinced as he always was that just one more throw of the dice at double or nothing stakes would deliver the victory he craved.

leipzig2On the 17th, there were minor skirmishes, but both sides were resting their troops.  But then on the 18th, all of those many mistakes caught up with the Emperor.  The weather was appalling and mired his troops in mud as they attempted to manoeuvre into place.  Due to his lack of cavalry and thus reconaissance, he didn’t have accurate reports on the Allied dispositions or troop numbers. Overnight, large reinforcements had arrived in the Allied camp, so that he and his 160,000 troops now faced an Allied army of 300,000 troops.  He was running low on supplies and ammunition.

All during the 18th, both sides fought like tigers.  By the late evening, it was clear that the Allies had won the day.  The Allies had over 60,000 casualties; French losses were in the region of 40,000…and by 2 a.m., Napoleon had given the order for retreat.

The battered French troops began streaming out of Leipzig over the western bridge even as the Allied troops rallied and threw themselves once more into the breach with a ferocity which stunned the French.  The narrow streets and lanes of Leipzig were crammed and locked with the wagonloads of wounded, guns, and soldiers…

Then, an even greater catastrophe occurred.  The chappie who’d been ordered to blow up the bridge after the French had fled the city got his timing or his charge wrong and blew the bridge while there were men on it and while many French were now trapped within the city walls.

Again, let me give you an eye-witness report, this from the French Marechal Macdonald:  “Our unhappy troops were crowded together on the river bank, whole platoons plunged into the water and were carried away; cries of despair rose from all sides.  The men perceived me.  Despite the noise and the tumult, I distinctly heard these words:  ‘Monsieur le Marechal, save your men!’ I could do nothing for them!  Overcome by rage, indignation, fury, I wept!”

leipzig6The French retreat was the antithesis of orderly; it was chaos–with many abandoning their field guns, deserting, and many more contracting typhus as they ran away.  The Allied troops swept into the city of Leipzig and in so doing brought the number of French prisoners to over 30,000.   To be honest, the French army never recovered.

Meanwhile, those French prisoners of war fell victim to their own folly–before the battle, in fits of rage and destruction, they had pillaged widely, throwing on the fire whatever they could not consume.  Indeed, they ripped up hundreds of fruit trees from beyond the city walls and fed these to the fires as well.  Thus, as prisoners of war, there was literally nothing to feed them and they starved to death, or survived by eating the flesh of the dead horses, or even, according to some eye-witnesses their fallen comrades.

Over 600,000 men had taken part in this four-day battle.   But of the many losses, Napoleon’s were the worst, for he could not replace them–he’d already exhausted France of her young men for this New Grande Armee and there simply were no new recruits to be had.

Indeed, he had so impoverished France with his war-lust, that in the spring of 1814, when the Prussians–keen for revenge and lots of pillage–invaded France, their letters home tell of unspeakable poverty–they write that although they had meant to pillage and rob, there was nothing to take and the French peasants were so destitute, they made Prussian peasants look like wealthy burghers…

And finally, the Battle of the Nations taught the Allied leaders the one thing they’d always doubted:  they could win; they could defeat the military genius of Napoleon–he’d never been beaten before, but now victory could be theirs!

And it was…

(And it would take poor France another 75 years to recover…)

One man’s hero is another man’s…

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the historical PR that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century recently.  In particular, the carefully fostered impression that the US and the UK were centuries’ long allies with a ‘special relationship’ and all that–a mindset that was, of course, born out of the vicissitudes of two World Wars…

It’s a thing I think about a great deal, actually.  Because the research I’ve been doing over the last two to three years has taught me that 200 years ago, the opposite was true.

And this makes things–all kinds of things–a bit tricky, because whilst I write historical fiction and very much appreciate my American readership, I do try to mirror the attitudes and mores of those who lived in the Napoleonic period as closely as I can.  And a great many of those attitudes and mores are simply not what my contemporary readers might expect or even approve of…

Equally, I’m often struck too by sets of circumstances which in one country led to one thing whilst in another these same sorts of events were glossed over or whitewashed.

Permit me to explain.

boston 1770On 5 March 1770, at the corner of King Street in Boston, Massachusetts, there was a bijou fracas-ette in which a mob of locals formed around a British sentry, giving him lip–was he a youngish lad?  Frightened by being surrounded and harassed?  Who knows?  At any rate, this crowd of mouthie Bostonians were just getting warmed up with the verbal abuse and then they started lobbing things.  Stones?  Rotten tomatoes?  Handfuls of muck?

At some point during the escalating row, another eight British troops joined our sentry, eventually firing into the crowd.  Three people were killed outright; several others were wounded.  And two more people later died of their wounds.

And this incident, also known as the Boston Massacre, is one of those seminal events that led directly to the American Revolution, proving as it did how viciously unfit and anti-liberty those nasty-wasty tyrants the British were.  I mean, it was an absolute gift in the propaganda war promulgated by all sorts of fellows including Paul Revere and friends.  And don’t we all cheer.

(It should be mentioned here that one officer, eight soldiers and four civilians were arrested, then charged with murder. Defended by John Adams, the lawyer and future president, six of the soldiers were acquitted, two were convicted of  manslaughter and given the reduced sentence of being branded on their hand.  Strangely, this part of the story is usually omitted by the pro-rebel propagandists…)

blucherAnyway, here’s the thing.  I’ve been reading the biography of Field-Marshal Prince Blucher, the Prussian general who fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo, defeating Napoleon, as written by Blucher’s own Chief of Staff, General Gneisenau–so plenty of eye-witness accounting here.

And when discussing the independent city-state of Hamburg, known before 1810 (when Napoleon decided to annex it) as the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburgh, Gneisenau writes:

“Enormous were the exactions which Napoleon imposed and levied; cruel and relentless the robberies and spoliations that were committed and justified by his Satraps so as utterly to destroy and undermine for a series of years, the opulence and prosperity of this venerable head of the House league…

“On the 24th February 1813, when the French authorities, both civil and military, made evident preparations to evacuate the place, and leave it to its fate, the populace were not backward in expressing their sentiments of freedom and detestation of their tyrants, both vehemently and loudly.  The arms of Napoleon were torn down, and treated with every mark of contempt, the custom-house offices sacked and demolished, and several other acts of popular fury were committed.  

“Six persons were, in consequence, arrested by order of General Carra St. Cyr, and dragged before a military tribunal; their trial was of the most summary kind, no witnesses were confronted, no counsel allowed, and, after a short hour of examination, they were sentenced to be shot as traitors, in having aided an insurrection…they were inhumanly hurried to the place of execution, and into eternity…Never were liberty, justice and the natural rights of mankind more flagrantly violated, than in this instance.

Hamburg 1812“Such are some of the infamous deeds of a few of those flagitious miscreants and followers of Napoleon, who have wantonly stained with innocent blood every city, and every river, from the Scheldt to the Elbe, and from the Rhine to the Danube; evincing in all their actions a marked disdain and mockery of religion, and an avowed opposition to every thing sacred in the laws, customs, and governments of other countries.”

Gneisenau also writes of Hamburgh:  “An official and moderate estimate states the total amount of the losses caused to this city and its environs by d’Avoust [whom Gneisenau calls one of Napoleon’s Satraps] at thirteen millions sterling.  

“The population was reduced from 120,000 to 40,000 souls; more than 1500 houses were either burnt or demolished; and by d’Avoust’s unnatural, stubborn, and vindictive cruelty, more than 1600 families were stripped of their bedding, furniture, and cattle, turned out to live under the canopy of heaven, in the midst of a severe winter, and, in short, became beggars on the high roads.”

I can also tell you that during this period the independent wealth and hard-earned prosperity of Hamburg was leveled to an unending prospect of lack, poverty and wretched unemployment:  At the beginning of the Napoleonic wars Hamburg had over 400 sugar factories.  By 1812, only 3 were left, the rest victims of the pernicious Continental System which prevented the importation of raw materials from outside Europe into any port under French control.

But, besides me and probably a handful of German historians, who knows of the wretched history of this wealthy vibrant city, the loss of their liberty and their lives, by acts such as this?

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauIs it a cause celebre universally recognised as fuelling the fight for German liberation against Napoleonic despotism?  Is there any recognition that atrocities and tyranny were the legacy of Napoleonic occupation across Europe, rather than being an aberration suffered only by the Spanish?

I don’t think so.  Quite the opposite even.  And curiously, at the time that these events were unfolding 200 years ago, those sons of liberty in the fledgling United States (which had just fought with such ferocity against the tyranny of George III, under the banners of “No Taxation without Representation” and “Don’t Tread on Me”) were allies of Napoleonic France–that nation referred to by Gneisenau as “a brotherhood of butchers”.

Nor that one would know any of this if one were to visit Paris–a city I love, don’t get me wrong–for there, one encounters the PR-perfect image of Napoleon the just, Napoleon the liberator, Napoleon the airbrushed uber-hero with all his jolly, merry, urbane marshals and men.  Quite the little imperial Robin Hood’s band, weren’t they?

Which therefore for me is a problem.  Because that’s not what he was, that’s not who he was, and that’s not how his contemporaries saw him.  At all.

And this was brought home to me rather forcefully in this letter, written by Horatio, Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and Trafalgar, which recently went under the hammer…

HoratioNelsonNelson wrote: “I hate rebels, I hate traitors, I hate tyranny come from where it will. I have seen much of the world, and I have learnt from experience to hate and detest republics.

“There is nothing but tyranny & oppression, I have never known a good act done by a Republican, it is contrary to his character under the mask of Liberty.  He is a tyrant, a many headed monster that devours your happiness and property. Nothing is free from this monster’s grasp.  A republic has no affection for its subjects.

“A King may be ill advised and act wrong, a Republic never acts right, for a knot of villains support each other, and together they do what no single person dare attempt.  

“I pray God this war was over and a monarch placed on the throne of France, not that I like any Frenchman be he royalist or be he republican, but the French republicans have shown themselves such villains.  I form not my opinion, My Dear Lord, from others, no it is from what I have seen.  They are thieves, murderers, oppressors and infidels, therefore what faith can we hold with these people.”

He is considered the consummate Englishman of the period, the hero for all time…

And that, and those views as expressed by him and by his Prussian and Russian contemporaries, those are what they really thought.  No PR, no whitewash, no political correctness…

How will my modern readers cope?

200 Years Ago ~ Armistice…

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!”)

Europe 1812Right.  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.

Painting : Napoleon at FontainbleauBut then Napoleon surprised them all.  He proposed a truce, which was meant to last from 4 June until 20 July and which became the Armistice of Plaswitz…

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…

barclayOf 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.

Portrait-of-Klemens-Lothar-Wenzel-von-MetternichOf 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.)

200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Bautzen…

So where were we?

Ah yes, Saxony…retreating eastward from Lutzen with the Russian and Prussian armies.  Followed–not very swiftly because they had very few horses–by the French led by Napoleon.

marshal neyBut Napoleon did something else, too.  Because–despite what had happened in Russia the year previously–he still clung to the belief that if one took the enemy’s capital they would be forced to negotiate terms, etc.  So with that in mind, he ordered Marshal Ney to march down the Elbe, with an army of 45,000 troops, to raise the Prussian sieges at Wittenberg and Torgau, and to scare the breeches off the right flank of the united Allied army…And then, he ordered Ney to take back Berlin–the Prussian capital.

It seemed a clever enough plan.  (That’s when you should start to worry…)  And he also hoped that threatening the Prussian capital, besides being a morale-breaker, would have the added advantage of splitting the Allied army and allow him to deliver a coup de grace to the remaining Allied troops he was pursuing in the direction of Dresden.

So what happened?  And did it work out the way the upstart Corsican mushroom (I prefer the Shakespearean term, mushrump, myself…) had planned?

Er, no.

Up in Berlin, they were equally nervous about a Napoleonic approach, and they had–obviously with as much bureaucracy as the early 19th century could manage–appointed General Friedrich von Bulow to be in charge of the defense of the capital.  He had set to work with a will.

Under his direction, the troops of the newly formed Landwehr (since 17 March, service in the Landwehr was compulsory for all middle-class males and landed peasants between the ages of 17 and 40) and Landsturm were receiving enormous amounts of training, and he had as much of the rest of the populace as he could muster, digging waterways and ditches and a series of obstacles and earthworks all across the area west of the city, rendering it virtually unreachable for a marching army…Very cool.

bautzenI’ll tell you now that the peasants he drafted in to do the heavy digging complained bitterly about missing the cabbage and sugar beet harvest…And the bureaucrats not in the field with him did everything they could to make his life…er…interesting.  So interesting that often he had to ignore them.

Meanwhile, to the south in Saxony, the Allies had retreated in an orderly, almost leisurely fashion, recrossing the Elbe and eventually reaching Bautzen on the 12th May.  And all the while, they were negotiating their socks off with Austria, attempting to coax her back into the fray, while the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Metternich, played for time and power…

(Just to add to the confusion, and just as at Lutzen, the Napoleonic battle is not the only battle fought at Bautzen–there was another, this time on the 21-22 April 1945…Just thought you’d like to know that.)

Also, as a result of the outcome of the Battle of Lutzen, the king of Saxony, a fence-sitter if ever there was one, decided to jump back into Napoleon’s field (a very stupid decision…) and he ordered the fortress of Torgau to welcome the Frenchies back in.

However, with the prospect of Austria shaking off her timorous torpor, the Allies decided to have another crack at battle with the French forces.  After all, they’d had a week’s rest, while (due to his crying want of horses) Napoleon had dragged his army across the land to meet up with them.

Bautzen1813From his point of view too, he wanted nothing more than a big set battle piece, the kind like Austerlitz or Friedland, where he could wallop the enemy with sheer staggering force of numbers, and have done with it.  And again, he had a groovy plan:  on the 20th, a series of feints and skirmishing attacks would staple the Allies along a long defensive line.  They’d continue this on the 21st too.

Then, in a nifty little manoeuvre, Marshal Ney would swoop down from the North upon Barclay de Tolly and his Russian forces and instigate a headlong muddle of a retreat into the south towards Austria.  Cool or what?  (What.)

And the fly in this bowl of soup was Ney.

So, on the 20th, with Napoleon in charge at Bautzen, things went well for the French.  According to plan.  And they gave the Russians and Prussians quite a hammering–it was really pretty devastating.  The Allied leadership again and again put themselves into gravest danger, encouraging their men to stay steady and to fight on…

Then on the 21st, you might say things went pear-shaped.

Wanting to gain his share of the action, or something, Ney ordered his men not to do what Napoleon had ordered, but instead to throw their all into a struggle to the southwest, where General Blucher was holding on in a fierce attack by Marshal Soult.  And not only that, but Ney ordered another French general, Lauriston, to support him in this.

blucherFaced with these overwhelming numbers, Old Papa Blucher stopped haranguing his men as he always did with “Vorwarts mein Kinder, Vorwarts!” and began an orderly retreat, protected by Barclay de Tolly’s rather fine troops of Russian Guards and heavy cavalry…

And when I say it was orderly, I mean it was orderly.  As Langeron wrote of it:  “it was nevertheless achieved in the greatest order and without suffering the slightest loss, just like all the other retreats that this admirable Russian army made during the war, thanks to its perfect discipline, its obedience and to the innate courage of the Russian officers and soldiers…”  (He may have been a little biased, but still…)

So, the whole thing turned into another kind of damp squib for Napoleon, though of course he called it a victory because at the end of the day, the French were left in possession of the field.  Yet gone were his changes of the blistering victory he craved; without cavalry, he couldn’t succeed in cutting off any part of the Allied army and defeating that, or even of capturing their artillery.

Moreover, of the total 167,000 men he’d brought to battle, he had lost some 25,000 of them, as against 10,850 lost by the Allies out of their total of some 97,000 troops.  Not only that, but the French losses were irreplaceable–Napoleon had already called up all the reserves France could muster for this new army and the territory from which she could restock her military machine was rapidly shrinking too…

BautzenRussiansAnd finally, again, just as a Lutzen, the Russians cleared the fields of battle of everything–again denying the French any share of plunder.  And that just completely unnerved them, poor dears.

Then, to make matters worse, the day after Bautzen, on the 22nd May, the French van caught up with that pesky Russian rearguard as it became stuck in a traffic jam of horses, gun carriages, troops and fleeing civilians on the streets of Reichenbach.  It was the moment the French been waiting for!

(You’d think by now they’d know better…)

The Russians did not panic or give in to over-excitement though.  Their commanders, Miloradovich and Eugen of Wurttemberg took their position atop a hill as the road leads out of town and held it against the French while the remainder of the Allied forces retreated.  Then they took up position on another height between Reichenbach and Markersdorf and held that, stopping the French in their tracks.

BautzenandBlucher1813And funnily enough–this was what was known as Eugen’s ‘retreat in echelon’ which turned the whole thing into a process roughly resembling a slug travelling through treacle.  Which, this won’t surprise you, made Napoleon so cross he took command of the vanguard himself.  Ha ha ha!  And led them on, into another situation just like the last two, in  Markersdorf…during which the first shot from the Russian artillery fatally wounded his closest friend and Marshal of the Court, Geraud Duroc.

And that’s kind of it.  For the time being, Napoleon and his troops had had enough.  (There’s a first time for everything.)

So tune in next time, kids, to see what sort of a rabbit Prince Metternich pulled out of his hat…

200 Years Ago ~ the Theatre of War was in Saxony…

I feel as though I’ve abandoned my many faithful readers, recently.  Treating you all to silence where there should have been erudition and wisdom or all sorts of exciting knowledge.  Or something.

I also feel I should be writing.  Seriously writing.  But I’ve not been doing that either.

All I can offer in my defense is fine weather–the likes of which we’ve not experienced for a year.  Hence I’ve been in the garden, removing the jungle of weeds from the flowerbeds…and after all the rain and foul weather, finding numerous gaps where charming perennials used to flourish.  I think it’s safe to say they drowned, bless ’em.  Ay, me.

So, what I shall I tell you about now?  Hmn.

Well, it’s something I should have perhaps mentioned last week, which marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lutzen.

Where, you say?  Lutzen.

It’s in what would now be southern Germany.  But 200 years ago, it was in the kingdom of Saxony.

Also, it wasn’t the first time that Lutzen had been the site of a great battle either.  The first time for that was 1632…but let’s focus on the events of 200 years ago, shall we?

Let me start by bringing you up to date with the action in central Europe.

Europe 1812You’ll recall that following his calamitous invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon, having lost some 90% of his army of 500,000 plus men, and all their accoutrements, had scarpered home ahead of the few desperate survivors, and had said, when he reached Paris on December 18th, “I know!  Let’s build a new Grande Armee of 350,000 men!  Isn’t that a clever idea?  It’ll be just the ticket!”

(I’m paraphrasing…)

Napoleon also demanded that the lost equine element of his Grande Armee be replaced, and thus ordered some 175,000 horses be found for it.  However, even with the requisitioning of private horses and farm animals, only 29,000 horses could be found–and this lack would cost the French dear.

But what of the Russians, whose lands he and his armies had defiled?

Well, they had lost a raft of men at Borodino, make no mistake about that.  But they did have the benefit of a home court advantage, so they had withdrawn beyond Moscow and to the south and there, had spent the time recuperating, rebuilding, restoring…

alexander 1814Meanwhile, the Tsar, rather than accept–as Napoleon expected him to–that he had lost (because Napoleon said so, it must be true…), mobilised more forces, used the time for military training, and requisitioning vast quantities of fodder, of wheat, bought muskets and uniforms from Britain, etc.

And, keeping the French rearguard perpetually busy and in a state of some terror as they retreated, the Cossack bands harassed and plagued them across the plains of Russia as they staggered home, across Poland, and into Prussia.

Also, initially behind the Kaiser’s back, the Prussians had broken with France and entered into an alliance with Russia, and had begun to re-arm and on the 17th March, the Prussians declared war on France.  By late April of 1813, the Prussians had an army (not all of the them the greatest thing ever, but what they lacked in military science, they more than made up for in fervour) of some 110,000 men under the command of the fierce General Blucher.

Meanwhile, the Cossacks had kept up their drive to push the French back and back.  And it was they, under the leadership of General Prince Chernyshev, who had pushed the Frogs back across the Oder and then out of the Prussian capital, Berlin, (they were also chucked out of Hamburg) abandoning territory and fortresses like mad and they fled west and south across the Elbe, eventually holing up in and round the city of Magdeburg.

Nor was the main body of  the Russian army idle.  By April 1813, the Tsar had called up even more troops, and had mobilised the army (and their many, many horses) to move west across Lithuania and Poland in order to meet up with their Prussian allies.  Initially, they were still under the command of the veteran Field Marshall Kutuzov, but he died in Bunzlau on the 28th April.  Alexander appointed General Wittgenstein to take his place.

Moreover, the Russians and Prussians were engaged in secret negotiations with the Austrians, urging them to join abandon Napoleon and join them in a new coalition against him.

As the end of April approached, Napoleon was advancing from Erfurt toward Leipzig… (Saxony had been avoided in the past by his armies, therefore to an army which fed off the land, Saxony was an ideal place to be stationed–it was rich and the girls were buxom and pretty…)

Now, you’ll recall what I said about the French army’s lack of horses?  Yes, well, this is where that paucity began to show as it meant that among other things, Napoleon’s forces didn’t have enough mounted men to send them out to either forage or to bring back intelligence about enemy’s troop numbers or positions.  (Awkward, very awkward.)

napo-creepOn the evening of the 1st May, then, Napoleon instructed Marechal Ney to move in and take Lutzen and the villages to the south…his plan was that Ney and his troops would provide cover for the full French advance.  Obviously, he ordered Ney to send out patrols and check out the lay of the land.  Ehem.  Well, that just didn’t happen.

Therefore on the 2nd May, the Allies observed said detachment of French troops under Marechal Ney approaching Lutzen–just north of where the allied line was deployed–and this, to the allies, seemed an ideal opportunity for an ambush and a quick victory over the French.

It would prove a harder fought battle than either side anticipated.  Initially, the strength lay with the allies, who mightily outnumbered the French troops:  the combined Allied forces were some 57,000 troops facing Ney’s 8ooo and the remainder of Ney’s III’d corps.

battle of lutzen2

So…by midmorning, the Russian-Prussian command had those 57,000 troops led by Blucher in place.  And at 11.30:  “Surprise!”

By 12.30, Blucher was ordering the guns to begin pounding the French positions.  The sound of the guns carried to old Ney, who had the shock of his life, one understands.  Napoleon (who was some way off) also heard the guns roaring…

At perhaps half past two, Napoleon therefore arrived on the battlefield with the Young Guard, amidst many shouted “Vivat’s!”  And it was his presence which steadied Ney’s somewhat wobbley III’d division.

His presence does something else too, it shakes Wittgenstein’s nerve–so he doesn’t press home the advantages he has.

Anyway.  It’s a day long hard slog, with French troops fighting the determined Prussians to take, to fall back, to storm and retake and to re-lose the various villages around the place–Klein Gorschen, Rahna, Kaja and Gross Gorschen–in fierce hand to hand fighting, over the stone garden walls…until the bodies were stacked against them.

By four in the afternoon, the main Allied Army complete with the Russian Guard led by Tsar Alexander had arrived on the scene.   But Napoleon was throwing his troops into the fray like mad…

blucherField Marshall Blucher was wounded in the back and had to be removed from the field–he was bleeding so heavily he thought he was dying.  General Scharnhorst also was wounded–fatally as it turned out.  Hence local command fell to Yorck…

By 6.00 in the early evening, Napoleon had got some 80 guns into place to fire at close range into the Allied line, and once that was underway, he himself led the final attack of the Young Guard, giving the order, “La Garde au Feu!”  And at that point, the entire Allied line dissolved and fell back in great disorder.

Now we get to the tricksy part though.  The French had 20,000 casualties.  The Allies, 18,000.  Or according to a separate source, the French lost 19,655, while the Prussians lost some 8500 and the Russians 3500.  But, because the Allies left the field at the end of the day, leaving the French in possession of it, the French claimed Lutzen as a victory–even though they had a greater number of casualties.

Then something else happened, which really shook the French up.  They were, let us say, unprepared for the efficiency and orderliness of the Russian army’s method of retreat.  So, in the morning of the 3rd, when they rose to go pick over the field, foraging for uniforms, teeth from fallen soldiers, saddles on dead horses, boots, muskets, valuables, jewelry…they found nothing.

There were no Allied corpses, no abandoned guns, no forgotten flags, no lost rucksacks full of rations, nothing.  The Russian rearguard had collected everything and had withdrawn with it in perfect order.  And it completely and totally freaked out the French soldiers.  I mean, it gave them the full-on heebie-jeebies.  They didn’t know what to make of it–and in a way, more effectively than anything else that might have happened, it threw them off their stride.  For let’s face it, these guys lived for plunder!

The Allies withdrew further east, to a place called Bautzen, and regrouped.

100_1536Old Papa Blucher didn’t die, but he was kept off a horse for several weeks and made to ride in a carriage, which he didn’t much like.  And even then, he kept, to his surgeon’s dismay, breaking open his wound because he wouldn’t stay still…

And all the while, more Russian troops kept arriving from the east…and more Prussian troops–especially those of the Landwehr–kept at their military training and were sent to the front…

He didn’t know it, still less would he admit it, but it was the beginning of the end for Napoleon…