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…

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Why things aren’t always clear-cut…

There are a lot of armchair historians out there these days…which, don’t get me wrong, I think is a good thing.

For one thing, it may mean that the publishers who seem to have given up on publishing history in favour of celebrity drool-fests might rethink their strategy and go back to publishing works by the likes of Charles Esdaile, Dominic Lieven, Andrew Roberts, Michael Broers and all these other fabulous authors I admire.  And that wouldn’t just be a good thing, it would be a grand and noble and enriching thing.

(It would additionally mean I’d have to add another bookcase in the Growlery, but who’s counting…)

Yet it often also means another thing, and that is, everybody’s got an opinion on everything.  No matter how small, somebody’s going to give it to you when your views don’t match theirs.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s consider the introduction of the waltz into British society.  (A dangerous pastime, I know…)

You might think it’s of no import, and quite possibly, you’d be right.  Does it matter?  Did it lead to anyone’s death, to an epidemic of disease, to the cure of a disease, to war, to peace, to the emancipation of women or slaves?  And the answer is, of course, none of the above.  Nevertheless, a lot of folks get very miffy over it–insisting that it could not ever, ever, ever be mentioned in a book that was set earlier than 1815-1816.

May 1812And this is where the issue begins to impinge on self.  Because my works (thus far) are set in 1812 and 1813…and I do mention the waltz.  (And being a bit of a fiend for accuracy in my own work, this concerned me…)

So I was chatting about this dilemma to another historian, one whom I respect enormously as much for her knowledge as for her ability to approach problems from different angles.

And after recounting the adamant position of those who held that it was unknown here until the Lievens introduced it in the late autumn of 1812 (he was the Russian ambassador), and discussing with her the various historical references I had to hand, including engravings of waltzing couples published well before 1812, she said something quite interesting.

She said, “When was waltz music first published here?  Because if they’re waltzing to music, then somebody has to be playing it for them…And that will tell you when it started to become popular and socially acceptable.”

Is that a stroke of genius or what?  Of course, she’s right.

And it was at that point that things started to get very interesting.  Because the first publication of music for the waltz was in 1806.  A not-well-known-to-us English composer, Edward Jones, published A Selection of Original German Waltzes, and dedicated the volume of music to none other than the Princess Charlotte (who was only ten at the time).

And here’s another thing, publishing companies don’t just publish stuff for no reason–they have to believe there’s a market for their product and they’re going to sell the stock.  So, 1806 has to herald enough of a degree of popularity for the music and dance that the sheet music is going to fly off the shelves…

Anyway, this novel approach to searching out the music led me to a number of quite fascinating bijou fact-ettes about the waltz, all of which kind of overturn the idea that this ‘shocking’ dance erupted on the scene out of nowhere in about 1814-15.

In 1810, Gillray published his famous caricature of waltzing couples, entitled, Le bon Genre.

There’s Lord Byron’s poem about it, A Satire on Waltzing, which was written in the autumn of 1812 and published anonymously in the spring of 1813.  He disapproved, as unlikely as that seems, given his reputation:

Endearing Waltz! — to thy more melting tune
Bow Irish jig and ancient rigadoon.
Scotch reels, avaunt! and country-dance, forego
Your future claims to each fantastic toe!
Waltz — Waltz alone — both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet, and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight
Where ne’er before — but — pray “put out the light.”
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far — or I am much too near;
And true, though strange — Waltz whispers this remark,
“My slippery steps are safest in the dark!”

lawrence-caro-lambThere’s also the small matter of a letter from Lady Caroline Lamb, again written in 1812, which says:

“My cousin Hartington wanted to have waltzes and quadrilles; and at Devonshire House it could not be allowed, so we had them in the great drawing-room at Whitehall. All the ‘bon ton’ assembled there continually. There was nothing so fashionable.”

Equally, there is another private letter, this time by Byron, written in 1811, in which he complains about the immorality of the dance (yes, I know, rich coming from him!) and how all the nobility are indulging in it…

And finally, there’s this lovely bit of insight into Viscount Castlereagh’s personality–that’s the Foreign Secretary, in case you’d forgot, with the wife who’s allegedly a stodgy great stickler for manners and morals as well as a Patroness of Almack’s.

Lord-Castlereaghs-waltzNevertheless, by 1815, because he loved it so much, there was even a waltz dedicated to him, with the title, Lord Castlereagh’s Waltz.  And the most famous dancing master of the age, Thomas Wilson, supplied not one, but two versions of this dance in his immensely popular volume, Le Sylph, An Elegant Collection of Twenty Four Country Dances published in 1815.

And years later, writing about her uncle’s fondness for the dance, Castlereagh’s beloved niece, Emma, would say:

“He liked the society of young people, and far from checking their mirth and their nonsense, he enjoyed and encouraged it, with his own fun and cheerfulness…he was able to work serenely at the most important dispatches amidst the clamour of a family party, which he preferred to the isolation of his study.  If an air were played that pleased him, he would go to the pianoforte and sing it; if a waltz, he would say, ‘Emma, let us take a turn,’ and after waltzing for a few minutes, he would resume his writing.   His power of abstraction was indeed remarkable; our talking and laughter did not disturb him; once only do I recollect that he rose from his chair laughing, and saying, ‘You are too much.’”

All of which evidence suggests to me that the waltz–not the one we know (and I’ll get to that in a minute)–was well and truly a fixture on the dance floor long before it was allowed at Almack’s.

Though even that date has to be fixed no later than June 1814, because Tsar Alexander was here for a few weeks’ visit then, and we know he loved to waltz (whether it was that he loved the dance or he loved the opportunity to get handsy, I can’t tell you), but I just can’t see anyone saying “no” to him–not even at Almack’s, where he assuredly went.

Which led me to examine the issue even more closely…one reference I found to it in 1802, spoke of the waltz as but one of a medley of elements making up the series of country dances…so lots of people were learning it and dancing it, they just didn’t necessarily have a separate designation for it.

It was at this point then, that I began to wonder, ‘Exactly, what the heck were they doing back then, really…

Eventually, I fossicked out the answer on the website of a dance historian by the name of Walter Nelson, who paraphrasing the description from the aforementioned book by Thomas Wilson, writes:

1806waltz“It began with the ‘March’ which was a very brief side by side promenade. This turned quickly into the ‘Pirouette” or ‘Slow Waltz’.  The partners would take each other in one of several holds, one of the more popular of which had the partners facing in opposite directions, hip to hip, with one arm across the front of the partner’s body and the other hands holding in an arch above the body.  In this posture, they would rotate very slowly, with their gaze fixed on one another.  This was the part that probably made the blue stockings the most nervous.

“The next was the ‘Sauteuse’.  At this point, the dance got a bit more energetic, with the music tempo increasing and the dancers working a little hop into the step.  The posture would be changed – one possible option would be the man holding both the lady’s hands behind her back.

The routine would finish with the ‘Jetté’ which was even more energetic and up tempo.”

And as Mr. Nelson also says of it:

“The Waltz we know today was not the Waltz of the Empire/Regency era. It was not the fast moving, twirling Viennese Waltz of the Victorians, and it was not the sedate but graceful box-step of the 20th Century.  It was a strikingly intimate and sensuous dance, which is a major departure from the group dances and stately minuets of earlier generations.  To a society that focused so much attention on harnessing teenage libido to the purpose of making a good marriage, this was rather disturbing.”

Wow!

So there you have it.  It wasn’t as I thought.  It wasn’t what anyone I’d spoken to previously thought.  It was a twisty, turning tale of some were, some weren’t, some knew, some didn’t, here a little, there not so much…just like all history, really.

Not at all clear-cut…In fact, messy as a pig’s breakfast.

Introducing the First Total War…

Where shall I start?

Possibly with a definition of total war, yes?

Total war, which is what WWII most definitely was, is warfare that does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but rather holds that whoever is not fighting alongside one is an enemy and therefore should be exterminated.  Hence just as Hitler was clear that he had to wipe out all resistance to his plans of conquest and rule wherever it might be found, so too 200 years ago, the French brought that level of savage conquest to every corner of Europe…

So, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

What happened in 1789 that changed the course of world history?  Yes, that’s right, Jane Austen had her fourteenth birthday–though what kind of cakey she had or if she had cakey, I can’t tell you.

However, there was something else, which involved a few more people and was possibly–I know it’s hard to credit–even more important than that.  It was the beginning of the French Revolution.

Now before I go any further, let me just say that the coming of the French Revolution was no surprise to observers of the age.  France had been bankrupt for some time, the political machine addicted to privilege, the various classes entrenched in their opposition to change, the general population impoverished, the crime rate staggering, the roads impassable, the harvests meagre, inflation was soaring and the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, alienated from everyone.

The question hadn’t been if there would be a seismic change, the questions were when and how and what?  But no one  in their wildest nightmares imagined what was to come.

Within a few months, the summer stand-off between king and people and various political factions had devolved into an elitest power struggle, the Third Estate (everyone besides the aristocracy and clergy) were in the ascendancy, and the country was fast sliding past civil disobedience into fierce sectarian violence.  By the summer of 1791, King Louis XVI was a prisoner and counter-revolution was sweeping the countryside, in its wake bloody suppression in which thousands were killed.

In Paris, the revolutionaries were relentless and mesmerising in their determination to take their ideology of republican fervour and a moral cleansing (as they saw it) of bloodshed to all the crowned heads in Europe.  On 20th April 1792, France declared war on Austria.

Prussia joined Austria on the battlefield against this new Republican France–and the pitiless wars that would consume the Continent began as France rolled out her vast conscript armies, which over the next 23 years would unleash a torrent of ruthless destruction, pillage, economic strangulation and savage invasion, reaching from the Atlantic shores of Portugal in the west to Egypt and the Acre in the south, and the heart of Russia in the east.

It was to become the first total war, invented by the French, by Robespierre and St Just and other French ideologues.  (Another word for that might be sociopaths…)

In Paris, where paranoia and mob-rule dominated, some 4000-6000 people fell victim over just four days to the vicious slaughter of the September Massacres.

The rest of Europe looked on in stunned and speechless horror.

Louis XVI was eventually tried and found guilty of treason.  He was executed by guillotine on 21st January 1793.  By late that spring, the vainglorious and perhaps pot-valiant rulers of France had declared war on virtually every country in Europe–however woefully unprepared for such a situation they were.

However, failing to succeed with fervour and without much else on the battlefield, with France itself in a state of roiling revolution, counter-revolution and economic disaster, the ‘war party’ of the Brissotins fell, leaving the Committee of Public Safety–a 12 man governing body which included the lawyer, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis de St. Just, and later the painter Jacques-Louis David–in charge of what would soon be known as the Reign of Terror.

Louis XVI’s wife, the hated Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, was beheaded on 16 October 1793.

But she and Louis were hardly alone.  Over the next two years, nearly 40,000 men, women and children would be executed in Paris and throughout France, their deaths ordered by this group of men who believed in the ‘complete destruction of everything that is opposed to the committee.’

Nor were they all or even mostly aristocrats who climbed the scaffold to the guillotine.  Only 17% of the victims of this genocide were of aristocratic birth.  The others were predominantly made up of the clergy–prayer had been outlawed as anti-revolutionary and subversive and the clergy turned out into the streets–and members of the Third Estate…

But these most fanatical leaders of the Revolution soon themselves fell foul of public mood which had begun to swing away from their devastating devotion to bloodshed.  On 28 July 1794, Robespierre himself, along with others of the committee, was guillotined.

Meanwhile, a young Corsican artillery officer had been dispatched to serve in the siege by the British of Toulon in September 1793.  He was energetic, determined, and even wildly fearless in the face of overwhelming odds.

His name was Napoleon Buonaparte, and for his part in the successful action in Toulon, he was made a brigadier, and France, longing for a victory after so many losses against the better equipped, better-fed, better-led armies ranged against her, rejoiced.

1794 saw the French armies getting walloped on all fronts.  1795 saw a new executive government for France, this time a Directory.  But not everyone was thrilled with the turn of events and on 3 October, Paris erupted (yet again) in a revolt which was soon put down by the Directory’s defenders near the Tuileries palace.

Among these defenders was Bonaparte, and whatever the true case of the situation, within days the conviction had spread that it was Napoleon Bonaparte who had stilled the insurrection with “a whiff of grapeshot”.  He was the hero of the hour, the darling of the Parisian salons.

On 9 March 1796, he married Rose de Beauharnais, whom he renamed Josephine.

Two days later, he departed for Italy to command the French so-called Army of Italy.  And it is really from this point forward that the fate of France, indeed the fate of Europe, merges with the personal fortunes of this opportunist, energetic, glory-seeking Corsican general.

His 1796 conquest of Italy left Europe agog.  Within a few brief months, the independent principalities of Piedmont, Tuscany, Modena and the Papal States had been forced to make peace with him.  His rag-tag army had overrun northern Italy and had defeated a series of Austrian armies.

Whilst Buonaparte was away from Paris, France sought to spearhead an invasion of Britain, starting with an invasion force of 40,000 men who were to land in Ireland, cause a Republican uprising, and then move on to overthrow the British government.  But fierce weather drove the French troop ships from the coast of Ireland–and the plan was abandoned.

Elsewhere in Europe, French defeats served only to highlight his brilliance on the battlefield, reinforcing his importance to the Directory.  And the Directory needed good news, for France itself had sunk into a vacuum of political corruption, economic privation and failure, indolence and lawlessness–even as in Italy, Napoleon had transformed the army into a propaganda machine and a power base and was trying his hand at state-making, turfing out the former rulers and creating the Cispadane and Transpadane Republics (which he would subsequently transform into the Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics).

Verona surrendered; Venice was seized.  By the end of the summer, Napoleon had made himself virtual king of northern Italy, and the French plunder of that land was on a scale unsurpassed either before or since, with Napoleon the chief beneficiary.

By December 1797, when he returned to Paris, Napoleon was the national hero.  And this made him dangerous.  Very dangerous indeed.  Hence, when he put forward his new bright idea to the Directory–still a cesspool of corruption and connivance–that he should take an army to Egypt, conquer it and set up a French colony there which could in turn threaten Great Britain’s trade with India, the Directory said, “What a great idea! Off you go then…”

But that didn’t turn out so well, for in the middle of his spate of victories over the ill-prepared, mediaevally-armed Mamelukes, Britain’s Lord Nelson led the Royal Navy to defeat and destroy the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on 1st-2nd August 1798, thus marooning the French army.

Eventually, his army crippled by disease and casualties sustained at the Battle of Acre, Napoleon abandoned them, fleeing back to France on 24th August 1799, where he proclaimed the whole to have been a rip-roaring success and victory for France.  (No kidding.)  But having got a taste for command and absolute power, his ambitions could not be contained.

With the help of his brother, Lucien, he orchestrated a coup d’etat against the financially incompetent Directory on 9th November, aka 17 Brumaire under the arcane Revolutionary calendar.

Within weeks, a new government, a Consulate of three with Napoleon as First Consul was established.   On 17th February 1800, he took possession of the Tuileries Palace.  He was, by right of the new Constitution, the supreme ruler of France.

What follows for the next fourteen years is an unending history of misery, of conquest, battle, pillage and destruction, as Napoleon and his armies swept aside all barriers that stood in the way of his absolute soon-to-be imperial power and greed.  During this period of the wars, Britain, ruling the waves, would diplomatically construct coalition after coalition of European powers to oppose the Napoleonic military machine–paying out millions in subsidies to Prussia, Russia, Austria, Portugal and Spain.  Yet for a decade, no one but the British–and that at sea–could defeat the seemingly indefatigable French.

And curiously, for the first couple of years of his reign the battlefields were quiet-ish, as Napoleon consolidated his power at home, reconstituting the judiciary, the ministries, the civil code, the education system, the law-book–all to suit himself.

Britain was feeling the pinch too and between 1802-1803, under the terms of a thing called the Peace of Amiens, Europe was at peace.

Sort of.

I say sort of, because Napoleon was merely using the time to refashion the state in his own image, to build and train a conscript army, the size and force of which had never been seen before.  And of course, to arrange for his self-crowning as Emperor.

Britain then remained Napoleonic France’s implacable foe.  Consequently, Napoleon began to amass troops for an invasion, situating this ginormous military camp at Boulogne (on a clear day, it could be seen from across the English Channel).  The Royal Navy kept up a constant patrol, bless them.

France, now allied with Spain, sent forth a fleet to draw them away from the Channel, thus to provide a 24-hour window, during which time, the thousands of troops might be transported across the Channel to being the invasion.

There were two catches to this great plan.  One, the “transportation” consisted of four-foot deep barges, which, in the choppy waters of the Channel capsized almost immediately weight was put on them–the horses swam back to shore, the non-swimming troops weren’t so fortunate.

And two, that pesky Lord Nelson again, who led the fleet to victory over the French and Spanish combined fleets on 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar.  France would never again challenge Britain at sea and subsequently, Napoleon’s insatiable lust for conquest would be confined to Continental Europe.

In response, he marched his army at breakneck pace across Europe, roughing up the German principalities through which he travelled, and smashing the allied Austro-Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December (combined casualties–upwards of 30,000 men).

As a result, the centuries-old Austrian Empire was dramatically reduced and Napoleon set up the Confederation of the Rhine at Austria’s expense in the early months of 1806.

Less than a year later, on 14th October 1806, Napoleon led his troops to victory over the Prussians and Saxons at Jena; at Auerstedt on the same day, another defeat for the Allies, this time the Prussians alone, with over 10,000 Prussian casualties.

The subsequent days became a roll-call of Battles and Allied losses, of French sieges and Allied capitulations, which only concluded at the Battle of Friedland on 14th June 1807 with a costly victory over the Russians.

And all the while, these massive armies were in the field, displacing whole villages, eating everything in sight, pillaging, ripping up fruit trees to feed their cooking fires, creating a veritable sea of refugees who sought safety in the nearest forests where they fell prey to the thousands and thousands of deserters and bandits…

The Treaty of Tilsit agreed between Tsar Alexander and Napoleon, on 25th June, temporarily put an end to hostilities, leaving Napoleon free to carve up Europe as he chose.  And he did.

But soon, again, he grew restless, and now greedy for the apparently rich prize of Spain, in September 1807, he sent an army corps to the Spanish border, where they were to demand that Spain allow them to cross their territory in order to subdue Portugal who were allied with Britain.

By the end of November, the Portuguese royal family were being bundled aboard British ships, to seek sanctuary in South America.  Displeased and still greedy, Napoleon launched a full-scale invasion of Spain itself, otherwise known as his first really big mistake.  Certainly it precipitated the most brutal and savage phase of France’s conquest over her European neighbours.

Britain eventually sent a small force to aid the Spaniards who were rebelling against the French invaders, first under the command of Sir John Moore and upon his death, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Wellesley’s subsequent series of small but significant victories over the French were a first sign that France might be defeated in the field.

Napoleon now opted for economic warfare against Britain by launching the Continental System which was designed to deprive Britain of her worldwide export market by closing all European ports to her shipping and goods.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t control the seas–he had no navy–so Britain continued to trade and continued to subsidise European resistance to French rule.  European businesses and ports, however, went bankrupt in their thousands, and privation and shortages of every kind of commodity became commonplace.  (Smuggling boomed though…)

By January 1811, Napoleon (having turned his back on the ‘Spanish Ulcer’) had decided to invade Russia.  For the next year, he concentrated troops in Prussia (now a vassal state to France) until he had a combined Grande Armee of at least 480,000 men.  By the end of June, having ravished Poland, they were crossing the Niemen into Russian territory.

On 7th September they defeated-ish the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino–which was the most costly battle in terms of human life ever fought at that time.  Though they took Moscow, the French were soon forced to retreat amidst terrible winter conditions which destroyed the remnants of this once great army.

On 4th December, Napoleon abandoned his troops as he had once before.  He reached Paris on 19th December.  (Only some 30,000 of his men were all that was left to struggle home in his wake.)

(Equally, while he had been otherwise occupied on the Eastern front, Wellesley–now Lord Wellington–had been busily driving the French out of Spain…)

Within a day, he had summoned his ministers, calling for a new levy of conscripts…and he was ready to take to the field again by April.  By April too, Prussia and Russia were once again allied against him with Britain as paymaster.  His defeat of the Allies, first at Lutzen and then at Bautzen (Germany), caused some to fear.  But Austria negotiated a truce for the summer months, during which time, Russia and Prussia called up further troops and organised their supply lines.

Austria tried to press Napoleon for peace, but he–as ever the Corsican strongman–refused to negotiate and blew them off.

The Allied powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria took the field against Napoleon’s new Grande Armee and inflicted staggering casualties upon the French forces at the three-day Battle of Leipzig, 16th-18th October 1813.

The disorganised French fled westward, and for the next several months, Napoleon attempted to stave off the advancing Allied invasion of France, but with his supplies, his finances, and his wasted troops exhausted, he ultimately failed.

Thus after the Battle of Paris on 30th March 1814, Tsar Alexander entered the city in triumph.  On 6th April, Napoleon was forced by his generals to abdicate power.

From the southwest, Wellington was invading France as well.

Let joy reign supreme… Napoleon–at the behest of Tsar Alexander–was dispatched to the island of Elba.  Which he didn’t much care for.

A Congress was convened in Vienna  in September of that year, with the brief to rebalance and redistribute power to the various countries.  They were dancing and discussing and negotiating the final settlements when it was announced that Napoleon had escaped from his island prison and was making his way through France, raising a new army…

The Allies, now led by the Duke of Wellington, met Napoleon’s army on 16th-18th June 1815, at a series of battles which we refer to as Waterloo.  Napoleon was defeated.  At a cost of at least 95,000 casualties, drawn from all corners of Europe.

This time, there were to be no mistakes.  Napoleon was sent, aboard a British ship, to the island of St. Helena…where he would die in 1821.  Possibly of stomach cancer.  Possibly he was poisoned…

The Allies resumed their negotiations in Paris and Vienna, though this time they were in no mood to conciliate French demands for anything.  The treasures Napoleon and his troops had looted from the farthest ends of Europe were removed from the Louvre and sent home.  France was restored to its pre-Revolutionary borders.  Italian and German nationalism had been ignited which would eventually lead to the uprisings of the 1840s and 50s.

Over the course of the wars, Britain had paid out between £55 and £65 million in subsidies to her Continental Allies.  (That’s somewhere between £3.5 billion and £4.6 billion in today’s money.)

More than six million people had lost their lives, hundreds of thousands more were displaced refugees, and it would take until 1890 for the populations of Europe to regain their pre-Revolutionary numbers.

The number of those who lost their lives stands at somewhere between five and six million…but that’s probably not counting those who died as a result of starvation due to the French armies eating up every speck of food in a country including next year’s grain so there would be no harvest, those who lost their lives fleeing the violence, or those who were infected with any of the many diseases the French army spread (like syphilis) which killed its victims within five or so years of contraction.

Likewise we have only the vaguest idea of how many Russian civilians died courtesy of the French invasion in 1812 and its ghastly aftermath.

And thus, until 1917 or thereabouts, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were known simply as the Great War.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.

Gaining a sense of proportion…

Statistics.  A lot of people don’t like them.  A lot of people start to squirm when you bring them up.

Mostly, I think, because stats have his unseemly way of disproving our most favourite and cherished theories about our past.

But I do like statistics.  I like the fact that they don’t have feelings.  They’re not telling us stuff to make us look stupid or to be superior.  Statistics just are.

We’re the ones who put the negative or positive spin on things and therefore either accept that maybe we’d got it a little bit wrong or else, as is more often is the case, someone stomps off in a hissy fit…Indeed, statistics are a prime illustration of Shakespeare’s statement, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Anyway, ever since I read Andrew Lambert’s fine examination of the War of 1812 in The Challenge, I’ve been weighing up the statistical evidence about that conflict and its relative importance to the rest of the world circa 1812.

(I mean, I’ve heard it called the Second War of American Independence–and this alongside of claims that the Americans won it.  Ehem.)

And  it seems to me that at least part of the problem with understanding the Anglo-American conflict of 1812-1814 or even properly evaluating it, or indeed appreciating why it merits so little attention on the world stage, derives from a failure to appreciate the size and scale of the thing or a lack of context, if you will.

And the only way I know how to clear up this confusion is through a study of the stats.

napo-creepAnd this is where my liking of stats turns to love.  Because, you see, they tell me all sorts of things I want to know.  Scale, for example.  For in this examination of the stats or facts, scale is most important.

Because if one weighs the colonial cousins’ claims of battles won, or casualties, or costs against what else was happening at the same time..well, there’s only one way to describe the situation…they’re utterly dwarfed by the Napoleonic conflict which was raging on the Continent and to which the contretemps with America was only a side-show.  And a tiny one at that.

But I don’t want you to take my word for it.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

Napoleon fought many great battles:  Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, Borodino, Leipzig, Waterloo.  To name but a handful of the hundreds…(that’s right, hundreds…)

At Austerlitz on 2 December 1806, he and his 50,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry took on the combined Russian and Austrian armies consisting of some 69,460 infantry and 16,565 cavalry.

Despite the odds against him, he won the day, losing in the neighbourhood of 10,000 troops to the Allies’ 16,000 dead and wounded and 20,000 captured.  (Though some believe the numbers of Russian dead to have been in excess of 21,000.)

Do you see what I mean about the scale of the conflict?  And that’s just one battle, one day’s action.

But let’s look at the year of 1812 itself.

When Napoleon crossed the River Niemen to invade Russia at the end of June 1812, he had some 550,000 troops (perhaps more), over 150,000 horses, and his private baggage train alone contained more than 100 vehicles with all the accoutrements of emperorship he thought he might need–silver, wines, books, posh outfits and uniforms, furniture, cooks with their saucepans, servants, china and crystal…

borodino4At the Battle of Borodino on the 7 September, between the Grand Armee and the Russian forces which faced them, there were some 200,000 men on the field that day.

By evening, the French casualties stood somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000, and the Russians had lost between 38,500 to 58,000 casualties.  (A year later, the corpses of 35, 478 horses were found and buried…)

So many lost and all on one day!  And yes, those numbers are shocking!  Horrifying even.

AlbrechtAdam20Sept1812When he scurried back over the border in December 1812, Napoleon had lost all but some 30,000 survivors, plus all the booty he’d tried to pillage, plus that rather splendid baggage train full of imperial geegaws and only 500 horses or so made it back–and they, bless ’em, were as you will imagine no longer fit for service.

And despite his casual, criminal loss of so many of the finest troops and horses the world had ever seen–some half a million men–despite that, upon his return to Paris in December 1812, he set about raising a new Grand Armee of 350,000 troops.

The number, honestly, beggars belief!  Can you imagine that many troops being marched all over the relatively small area of eastern France on their way to the front which would open up in Saxony in the spring of 1813?

sabres2Now remind me, how many troops did the Americans send up to take Canada during the conflict of 1812?  After an artillery bombardment, General Hull surrendered his 2500 American troops to the British General Brock and his 1300 Anglo-Canadian troops…

I hate to put it this way, but in terms of numbers, those stats put this in the realm of what in the European conflict of the day would be called ‘a skirmish’.  Nothing more.

(Wellington lost 4500 men at the Siege of Badajoz in April 1812, in a space of just over 200 yards and in less than two hours fighting…)

Likewise, the naval battles of this 1812 sideshow (because that’s what it was) tell a similar story.

We think of the great battles of the age:  the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen, the Battle of Trafalgar and what do we see?  Fleets of ships fighting it out, blowing each other to smithereens for the supremacy of the seas.

aboukirbay2The Battle of the Nile saw 13 British ships of the line plus 2 other smaller vessels take on 13 French ships of the line, plus 4 frigates of which, by the battle’s end, only 2 ships of the line and 2 others escaped.

The Battle of Copenhagen saw the British fleet of 12 ships of the line plus six others take on a combined fleet of 24 ships of the line, plus over 11 others.

And the greatest victory, the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s signature battle, saw 33 British ships (27 ships of the line plus 6 others) facing and defeating the combined French and Spanish fleets comprised of 41 vessels.

These are victories.  Victories in what was an existential struggle against Napoleonic terror and despotism.

And against the kind of stakes for which the British and their allies were fighting against this Napoleonic military empire, a one-off battle between ill-matched opponents, such as the USS Hornet against the smaller British sloop Peacock just doesn’t merit a look-in.

And if you doubt me, just look at those numbers again.  In all, some 5 to 6 million souls died in Napoleon’s wars of conquest and loss–and that’s not counting the refugee crisis, nor the overall loss of life due to starvation or disease which the presence of such vast armies living off the land caused.  (Frankly, it’s impossible to know how many thousands and thousands of peasants died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, for example…)

And that’s nearly the entire American population in 1812…

leipzig2So before anyone comes after me to insist on the awesomeness of the firewall at New Orleans, or the brilliance of American ship-building at the time (the French were also building very sea-worthy vessels at the time…) remember I’m going to cite the torching of Smolensk, the bombardment of Vienna, the sieges of Acre, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, the conflagration of Moscow, the three-day battle of Leipzig…and all those friendly stats that I love so much.

Getting it wrong…

Funnily enough, I was just reading a blog by multi-novel historical fiction author, Allan Massie, about strong opinions and how too often they’re based on knowing or understanding less than we might before we blast our mouths off.

Ehem.

So anyway…recently I’ve been dipping into the research on the build-up to the War of 1812 again–reading the speeches given by those early presidential icons, Jefferson and Madison, for example, reading histories of the period written both by American and British historians, as well as various eye-witness accounts, plus the American press coverage of events and comparing those to the British reports…

…and spending quality time with the percentages of British sailors employed aboard American merchant ships at the time…and analysing other data, such as tax receipts…

(I know, I know…the wild and crazy world of an historian!  Where do I get the energy?)

And in the midst of all this, I have been forced to conclude that I have got something (many things) completely and utterly wrong.

And when I say wrong, I mean wrong.

assassination3You see, I had always, always, always believed and been wholly convinced in my mind that had the Americans in Congress known at the time of Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination on 11 May 1812 (which of course they didn’t due to the length of time it took for news to travel), they would never, ever, ever have launched into war so precipitately in June.

They would have respected our loss, respected the gravity of the situation, appreciated that we were in the midst of an existential struggle against the most powerful military dictator the world had ever known, and stepped back from the brink, or at least out of deference to the grieving nation, postponed their decision…and maybe sent flowers to the grieving widow.

Or something.

Well, I’m here to say today, I got that wrong.

And not just a little nibbling about the edges wrong.  We’re talking very wrong.

Because you see, I–like probably most people–had completely and utterly swallowed all the Anglo-American political PR that grew up during the 20th century, during two world wars, in which we were the firmest of friends, the most devoted of allies, that we had a special relationship…

Yet I have to tell you–what I have found is precisely the opposite.  And it has shocked the socks off me.

There were a great many reasons why I got it so wrong.

One, of course, was that I failed to realise the depth of Jefferson’s hatred of the British. And the same goes for Madison.

I failed to comprehend Jefferson’s absolute conviction that British commerce was corrupting the morals of the New England merchants and that he saw the moral purpose of the US to be in building an agrarian republican superstate, wholly independent of the sordid aspects of commerce and trade, ruled by those who agreed with him.  (No, I am not making this up.  If only…)

Equally, initially, I failed to read far back enough, and to note that the War Hawks in the Republican party had been making a vehement case for war against the British at least as early as autumn session of Congress which commenced in November 1811.

freetradequiltI also failed to understand just what a nonsense the whole “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” slogan was.

I thought–in my quaint little Japanese fashion, said Yum Yum–that the concept of stopping ships for deserters was some nasty-wasty thing the Brits had devised to annoy the Americans and that the Yankees were rightfully protesting.

Ehem.

And those stats I was telling you about?  Yes, well, it transpires, according to those stats, that some 50% of the seafaring workforce on American ships in the early years of the 19th century were in fact British.  And the American shippers were fully aware that they couldn’t function properly without British manpower.

hmsleopardMoreover, the law allowing the vessels of the Royal Navy to stop foreign ships in time of war and search for British sailors who by rights (I’m sure we’d all agree, if we think of it in terms of WW2, say) should be serving their country…that law dates back to the Seven Years’ War in the 1750’s.

It wasn’t something the British government hastily cooked up to vex their colonial cousins.

Furthermore, the American shippers and captains knew very well that Britain was at war with the French Empire and that it was a near run thing.  They may have lived on the other side of the world, but they weren’t stupid.

There’s another tricksy bit to this and that’s the matter of nationality.  Until the fledgling US introduced the idea, nationality and citizenship rested entirely on where one was born.  Full stop.  It was a non-topic.  If you were born in France, you were French.  If you were born in Britain, you were British.

However, the Americans introduced the idea of taking citizenship and made it possible for those coming from other parts of the world to take up American citizenship.  Fine, okay…

But this, unsurprisingly, gave rise to a nifty little scam in forged documents, which were cheap and easy to come by for sailors who’d prefer to work for better wages on American merchant ships, rather than be subject to the discipline, etc. of life in the Royal Navy. And come by them they did.  In droves.

So, when the Royal Navy stopped and searched ships looking for deserters (it was a time of war, no doubt about that), and these (often known to the Navy by name and description) tars then protested that they were Americans and here were the dodgy papers to prove it…well, I think you can see, it wasn’t really something one would go to war over.  Was it?  And everybody knew it.

Also, the number of genuine Americans (if I may designate them as such), taken from American ships in this way–well numbers indicate that not more than 10% of those taken were actually the people they said they were…

nap meissonierWhat I also failed to realise was just how chummy the American statesmen were with France and Napoleon.

I kept assuming–wrongly as I now know–that they were being naive, that Bonaparte was hoodwinking them as he had everyone else.  That they didn’t realise that Bonaparte would say one thing and do another and that he didn’t give a bean about anyone but himself.  Yup, got that wrong too.

Jefferson was a confirmed Francophile.  But so was Joel Barlow, who was sent as Ambassador to Paris in 1811.

And the fellow that the French sent over to be Ambassador in Washington, D.C., Serurier, well he was as honey-tongued a manipulator as ever there was and he smooth-talked anyone who would listen–a carefully regulated steady dripfeed of anti-British venom, plus suppression or denial of what the French were really up to, all wrapped up in a cherry-flavoured sugar coating of French endearments and protestations of eternal love and admiration.

Bonaparte pulled the strings and they all danced.

From 1808, he was telling the Americans that they must ‘defend their flag’ as he urged them to make war on the British.

He and his minions were constantly ragging the Americans–Jefferson, Monroe and Madison–to take on the British for their many anti-free market activities, whilst at the very same time he was ordering American ships and their cargoes seized, held, and confiscated, even as Barlow pressed for indemnity payments and Napoleon’s ministers hemmed and hawed.

shannonAnd every time Barlow was convinced he was reaching some sort of agreement for compensation payments and hammering out a trade agreement that would open up the European market to American trade, the French apparatchiks would dither, and Bonaparte would order stricter adherence to the Continental System particularly as regards the Americans.

Even the emollient language of American historian, P.P. Hill, cannot disguise the fact that the American policy was to turn a blind eye, no matter how egregious the French behaviour.  Even when in February 1812, French privateers burnt at sea the American ships laden with wheat and bound for Spain to feed Wellington’s troops there…

Here’s the recap written by Captain Philip Broke, who got his info from the American newspapers at the time:  “The war party are certainly a wicked and perverse set of men and acting in downright enmity to the welfare of all free nations as well as their natural allies–the mass of the party are sordid, grovelling men who would involve their country in a war for a shilling percent more profit on their particular trade and are perfectly indifferent whether they league themselves with honor or oppression–provided they get their mammon.  Some of their leaders wish for a war only to get places and commands…”

John Randolph wrote:  “Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war…a war of rapine, privateering, a scuffle and scramble for plunder.”

And even in April 1812, when the French produced what the Americans knew was a fraud–the so-called St Cloud Decree–in which Napoleon claimed to have ended the trade embargoes against America a year earlier.  (He cunningly had it backdated, by hand…but one gathers the ink was barely dry on the page…)

Even then, when they knew they were being had, when Napoleon’s contempt for American compensation claims and their anger against extortionate French tariffs were at an all-time high, even then, they did not turn from their course.  Indeed, the Republican politicians suppressed all talk of the fraud and various other French cons.

napo-creepBecause, you see, the outcome had already been decided.  The Americans knew that Bonaparte planned to invade Russia; they expected him to triumph there, and then, they anticipated that he would turn the full might of his military Empire upon Britain.

And they wanted to be on the winning side, the side that would give them Canada, no questions asked, the side that would overlook their land-grab in Spanish Florida…And that side, they believed, was with Napoleon and his Empire.

Added to which, they firmly believed that with the troops tied up in Spain, Britain would lack the troops to send to defend the Canadian border, and they meant to enjoy that freedom by strolling up there and taking the place over.  (Just like they’d done in the Spanish territories of Florida…)

The British government, for their part, couldn’t believe it when Congress declared war. They were convinced–despite the tide of vitriolic abuse which had been pouring out of American newspapers for the past two-three years–that the American people did not want war, they wanted fair trade.

They also believed–knowing as they did just how costly a war actually was–that no one in their right mind would go to war over a principle such as “Free trade and Sailors’ Rights”.

So…I got it wrong.  The American Congress of 1812 wouldn’t have halted their determined march to war had they learned of Prime Minister Perceval’s death.  Indeed, it saddens me greatly to say, I think they may have held a party…

Le Grand Chiffre…or am I talking in code?

Sorry, sorry, sorry…yes, that headline is me laughing at my own jokes.  Sorry.  It was too good to pass up.

Anyway…codes.  Secret codes.

FrenchiesplantingminesleavingMoscowWell…The reason I’m on about this at the minute is that last Sunday, as announced in this news feature, a page of a letter written by Napoleon in code was going under the hammer at some auction or other.  And this particular letter was of great interest because it detailed what the French army were to do–blow stuff up–upon their retreat from Moscow in October 1812.  So, of great interest to historians and particularly Russian historians.

But of course, as so often happens, the, er, author of this bijou article-ette didn’t quite get his facts right with his comments about Napoleon’s Secret Coded Letter…chiefly because, he writes as though this was the only one.  A one-off.  And how spooky, secret-agenty was that?

Er, not exactly.

Since the days of Louis XIV, back in the late 17th century, the French Foreign Ministry had excelled in code-work.  And let’s face it, in those days of shifting loyalties and French expansionism, they probably needed to.

Anyway, over the hundred or so years, they had developed several examples of petits chiffres (little ciphers) of some 600 characters.

And the way this thing worked was they had the numbers 1-600 written down on their deciphering sheet, and corresponding to these numbers were words, so that when the secretary wrote down his message, he would substitute the numbers for the words in the sentences, which resulted in a pretty confusing or inconclusive reading of the information for anyone without the code book.

By 1750 or so, this enciphering table had been expanded to 1200 numbers, rendering the encrypted messages even more difficult to interpret.  And of course, there were more esoteric codes employing hieroglyphs too.

Copies of these ciphering tables had remained untouched during the years of Revolution in the French foreign ministry drawers, just waiting to be rediscovered and re-used and expanded upon.  But at first Napoleon didn’t have need of them.

In the early Napoleonic campaigns, they had used letters written in a petit chiffre–which were normally composed of number substitutions for about 50 words, but these were quite easy to crack–and if that message fell into the wrong hands, it would only be a matter of a few hours before the contents were decoded.

However, when Napoleonic troops invaded Spain and Portugal in 1808, they found themselves in exceedingly hostile territory, among exceedingly hostile natives…and with the two main armies being separated by hundreds of miles across exceedingly hostile terrain where anything might happen…well…to put it mildly, communication just got a whole lot more difficult.

Yes, in France and across much of the conquered German lands to the east, telegraphs had been erected to aid in the speedy transmission of information from Paris to the other parts of the Napoleonic Empire, but this wasn’t going to work in Spain.  The Pyrenees Mountains were in the way, for a start…

So, it’s at this point, that they go back to the idea of enciphering their letters.  That way, if the Spanish guerrillas captured the courier (as so often happened) even if that happened, neither he, nor, after 1809, his British counterparts and allies could read the thing.  Brilliant, yes?  And by 1811, the need was acute.

marmont1And it’s at this point that Marshal Marmont, assuming command of the Army of Portugal as they called these French divisions, ordered the creation of a new cipher–bigger than the old–comprised of some 1200 numeric substitutions.  And a great many of those numerals would have been used to indicate locations.  Genius!

The next step came from Napoleon himself who ordered the creation of a new cipher, a grand chiffre, for his brother Joseph, nominally King of Spain, (he’s a bit of a feckless loser, to be honest) and to be used to shore up Joseph’s waning authority–and he starts sending the letters to Spain written in this.  But the problem was that not everyone, including Joseph, had the new encryption tables…So, the King resorts to writing things out–writing en clair, as it’s known.

The British too, at this point, are coming into possession of more and more of these coded letters and they’ve got their own code-breakers beavering away at cracking the codes.

The codes vary in difficulty.

Some break words into syllables or even letters and combine separate numbers to form words phonetically or to partially spell them out–as say, if one were to break the word etait (was or were) into four:  et-a-i-t, then it might look something like this when enciphered.  20.14.59.29.  (As if in fact it did when found in a letter from one French officer…)

By the winter of 1811, amidst the confusion of too many code tables and who knew what and when, Napoleon had his chief fixer in Paris, Hugues Maret, compose a new cipher which was to be sent out to all the Marshals in Spain and Portugal and to King Joseph too.  The table had 1200 code numbers, which was expanded to include another 200 numbers which mainly described Spanish places or terms.

GreatParisCipherThe new more complex code, le Grand Chiffre, or the Great Paris Cipher as it was now called, allowed for the same words to be broken up and encrypted in several different ways–making it nearly impossible for a British code-breaker to crack the thing.

Thus the sentence (this is from an actual letter), “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he was the cause of the capture of [Ciudad] Rodrigo” looked like this when encrypted, “Ah my friend, he could not disguise that he 20.14.59.29 the 36.49.1.12.63.14.17 of 6.28 27.30.31.21.17.41.40.30.49.10.41.39.31.43.10”.

You can imagine the rolling of eyes in the British camp when they came across this stuff…But, as the guerrillas were picking off French couriers with the same ease as shooting fish in a barrel, any and all French messages between Napoleon and his cohorts were written using this code–so you might say, there were nothing but coded letters.

lettersdecodedbyScovellAnyway, despite the challenge or perhaps because of it, a rather canny and quite tenacious fellow by the name of George Scovell didn’t roll his eyes and give up, he cracked the Frenchie blighter!

It didn’t happen all at once and he wasn’t alone in working at it.  Copies of the encoded messages captured by guerrillas were sent on by Wellington to the Foreign Office, the War Office and Horse Guards in London, and their home-grown boffins were hard at work on it too.

[A word about the decrypting process:  the code-breaker’s eye naturally seeks out the repetitive sequences or particular numbers.  For example, the letter e is the most commonly used letter in English.  It also occurs quite frequently in French and Spanish, as does u.  So, the genius of the Great Paris Code is that they didn’t just use numbers for single letters, they also used bigrams and/or whole word codes.  Which makes it almost impossible for the code-breaker to develop a rule.

By having the endings of French plural verbs encoded–that’s ons, ez and ent–again, they’re making it more difficult to establish the rules as the cryptographer might spell the letters out using numbers for each letter, or they might vary that with numbers to represent the verb endings.  So a code-breaker can never be sure where the words begin or end–it’s just this fiendish stream of numbers across the page.

And the big break didn’t come until the French in the field began to get sloppy and write enough of their letters en clair that Scovell and the others could deduce the encoded words from the context within the sentence.]

But Scovell, because he had greater access to all the incoming captured communications, and because of his hard work, fine brain and excellent French, was the man to crack the thing wide open–and this without the help of Alan Turing or a prototype Enigma computer…

But it was that huge.

For decrypting the Grand Chiffre enabled Wellington and the British troops to outflank and outmanoeuvre the French, even as Napoleon was withdrawing 30,000 of the best of them for his campaign against Russia…

I don’t know how long it took–but the French didn’t learn for the longest time that the Grand Chiffre had been virtually decoded and that the British knew in advance what they were likely to be up to and were responding accordingly.  Possibly by the time they worked that out, it was too late–Joseph was abandoning Madrid, Wellington had the French on the run…And this is about at the same time as Napoleon is invading Russia–so just prior to writing the abovementioned letter in code, which as you’ve seen, was hardly a singular event… (punk)

May 1812Okay.  So how cool is that?

(And yes, the reason I learned all this stuff, including how to crack these coded messages, was so that I could put it in my novel, May 1812…right at the beginning.  And yes, there on the cover of the book is a page from Scovell’s decryption table, now found in the National Archive.)

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Temperature Plummeted and…

Righto…where were we? 

Ah yes. 

With Napoleon and his French troops–the remaining French troops I should have said–leaving Moscow on the 19th October.   Weighed down with all sorts of goodies–there were carts and waggons filled with essentials like brandy and rum, coffee and tea, sugar accompanying each regiment.  And every officer who could manage it had his own little private store of trophies of war in his own little private cart–gold and silver objects, books, furs, holy icons, iron bedsteads…

The trouble was, of course, that within miles of the city gates, the cart wheels and the horses pulling them began to sink into the soft soil of the steppes…and hence were abandoned.  It’s said that the road–dirt tracks–that lead from Borowsk to Mozhaik was covered with discarded treasures, with icons, books, candlesticks, trinkets…

The inventory kept by one NCO, Sergeant Bourgogne provides a rather vivid picture.  In his knapsack he had “several pounds of sugar; half a bottle of liqueur; a woman’s Chinese silk dress; a woman’s riding cloak; several gold and silver ornaments; some lockets; two silver-mounted crosses; a Russian prince’s spittoon; a piece of the cross of Ivan the Great…”  And he was wearing “a yellow waistcoat of padded silk and a cape lined with ermine, beneath which he worse a pouch into which he had stuffed more stuff includinga crucifix in gold and silver and a little Chinese porcelein vase…” 

So this cavalcade of slow carts laden with booty and trudging men slowly made its way from Moscow to Troitskoe and onto Forminskoie and from there to Maloyaroslavets…(no, you don’t have to try to pronounce that–there is no pop quiz on the schedule…)

And it was at Maloyaroslavets, on 24 October, that the Russian army–having marched all the previous couple of days in the pissing rain (which washed out the roads such as they were and flooded the streams, making crossing with artillery hazardous to say the least)–fought the French to a stand-off…The town itself, of 10,000 souls, was destroyed and held by the French under Napoleon’s step-son, Eugene Beauharnais.  The Russians, as they had before, retreated. 

And Napoleon–because of so many reasons–decided to continue his retreat west, initially by retracing the army’s steps back up to  Borowsk and from thence, westward to Mozhaisk…

(In Maloyaroslavets, when it was subsequently rebuilt, they added a small plaque which reads:  “End of offensive, beginning of rout and ruin of the enemy”.)

By the 30 October, the Russians were once again in full pursuit.  Moreover, there were raiding bands of Cossacks and partisans, eager to avenge themselves on the French invaders, ready to harass the retreating troops at every opportunity, frequently capturing foraging parties or stragglers and either killing them on the spot, or bringing the home to their hamlets to be tortured to death…

Both the French and Russian sources cite this, so there can be little doubt that it happened and is not just anti-Russian propaganda.

Napoleon headed for Viasma, where he stayed for more than a day…(possibly not the wisest decision…)  The weather was growing steadily colder, there were ice floes beginning to form in the rivers… And following Napoleon’s departure, the Russians launched an attack on the French rearguard on 3 November…

It should have gone in the French troops’ favour…but by the end of the day, the French fearing that a new troop of infantry was about to mount another attack and the entire French army broke rank and panicked, running for the bridges and for anything that might afford them safety…

Snow flurries threatened…

The night of the 4th November saw the temperature dropping sharply, probably down to minus 10 C (14F), yet the remnants of this once great army were dressed in what we would today consider a summer uniform. 

(Winter uniforms didn’t exist at that time–troops didn’t fight in winter, so the need had never before arisen…)

On 6 November, Napoleon finally reached the Dnieper at Mikhailewska, with his remaining troops straggling out like a string of over-boiled spaghetti across the wintry plains–those plains which had been stripped of all food and fodder by the Russians earlier in the year. 

That night, as the temperature plummeted, the snow truly began to fall.  By morning, there would be two feet of it covering the ground in every direction…

Various accounts write of this period of the retreat thusly:  “I have just seen the most appalling sight of my life…Our men are there, sitting around their campfires just as we left them last night, but they are all dead and frozen.”

“When we got up in order to move out, many would remain seated; we would shake them to wake them up, thinking they were asleep; they were dead.” 

“It is from that point that our misery began [the cold and snow of the 6th November], and that misery was to grow and to last for another six weeks…”

Within hours, the snow was compacted into a slippery, rock-hard surface by the footfalls of the thousands of men passing over it.  The horses, without winter horseshoes, had no hope of pulling the carts and waggons…

A brief thaw on 8 November turned the road into a bog, and the following day there was a hard frost, which turned the whole plain into a sheet of ice…

Tens of thousands of the remaining horses–those which had survived the months of malnourishment and exhaustion–died over those three days.  One corps of cavalry lost 1200 horses in two days.  Some cavalry officers now took out their remaining two bullets–the first for their horse and the second for themselves–and used them. 

Equally, the loss of the draught-horses severely reduced the army’s best hope of survival.  Waggons with supplies were abandoned in their hundreds…

Writing of the terrible events that began on the 6th, one survivor recorded: 

“The sun, enveloped by the thickest mists, disappeared from sight, and the snow falling in large flakes, in an instant obscured the day, and confounded the earth with the sky.  The wind, furiously blowing, howled dreadfully through the forests and overwhelmed the firs, already bent down with the ice; while the country around, as far as the eye could reach, presented, unbroken, one white and savage appearance.

“The soldiers, vainly struggling with the snow and the wind, which rushed upon them with the violence of a whirlwind, could no longer distinguish the road; and falling into the ditches which bordered it, there found a grave.  Others pressed on towards the end of the journey, scarcely able to drag themselves along, badly mounted, badly clothed, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, shivering with the cold, and groaning with pain…

“How many unfortunate beings, on that dreadful day, dying of cold and famine, struggled hard with the agonies of death…Stretched on the road, we could distinguish only the heaps of snow which covered them, and which, at almost every step formed little undulations, like so many graves…”

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.