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.

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.  (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 the of 6.28”.

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.

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Retreat from Moscow

Righto.  So where were we? 

Ah yes.  That’s right.  About a month ago, after traipsing with his Grande Armee of some 500,000 plus men across Europe to Moscow–having lost more than half of them already to famine, dehydration, dysentery and just about anything else you can think of–he’d fought the Battle of Borodino and then, taken the capital of Russia, Moscow

Only that hadn’t worked out quite as planned.  Because the Governor of Moscow, one Count Rostopchin, had made plans to set the place alight if the Frenchies too it.  Which plans had been carried out.  And the place had burned to the ground over a period of four days. 


Right.  So here we are, back in burnt-out Moscow, Napoleon installed at the Kremlin (kinda suits him, don’t you think–he would have loved the KGB!), his remaining troops–some 90,000 of them–reduced to living in the burnt out shells of buildings, scrabbling for food, abusing the remaining Muscovites, stealing, fighting among themselves…and all of them waiting. 

For what?

Well, that’s unclear.  Sort of. 

Napoleon had sent a letter to the Tsar’s mother, burbling about how much he valued his friendship with the Tsar and how he believed that this little contretemps of him being forced to invade Russia was caused by the Tsar having bad advisors and how he really, really, really hadn’t meant for his men to act so savagely in Moscow–that was all Rostopchin’s fault…

So apparently, what he was waiting for was a peace envoy from the Tsar in St. Petersburg saying something along the lines of, “Oh!  Oh!  Changed my mind again.  I really do love you best, Nappy old thing, and I’ll do anything you want so we can be friends again…”

(Ya, like that was going to happen…)

But by the 3rd October, Napoleon was getting a little fractious.  So he insisted his sidekick, Caulaincourt, go on a peace mission to Alexander. 

Caulaincourt refused.  Point blank. 

Plan B was to send another chappie, Lauriston, to see the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, General Kutuzov, with a letter to be delivered to the Tsar…

Lauriston went.  Kutuzov played the wily old fox–as ever–and when Lauriston returned to Napoleon on the 6th October, he had good news–Kutuzov would see the Tsar got the letter.  Napoleon (sad, befuddled twit) was jubilant. 

(The letter has never been found…)

So, what sort of jolly larks and japes were the rump (did I say rump? I mean to say remnant…) of the Grande Armee getting up to while they awaited confirmation from the Tsar that they’d won and Russia had lost and they could all be friends again? 


They held a number of spectacular military reviews, with the lines of buffed and polished troops marching perfectly in the great piazza before the Kremlin:  the Infantry of the Old Guard, Roguet’s Division, Compan’s Division, the next day, Gerard’s…on and on and on. 

Napoleon visited the Kremlin churches…The Italian singer, Tarquinio, gave two concerts for the Emperor…there were piano recitals.  The Emperor spent his evenings rewriting the constitution of le Comedie Francaise–the state theatre of France–while on Wednesday, 7 October, the “French Theatre in Moscow” gave its first performance, opening their Moscow run with a three-act comedy called, Le Jeu de l’Amour et de l’Hasard…[the Game of Love and of Risk].

Yet meanwhile, winter threatened. 

(Napoleon believed that the climate of Moscow was like that of Paris.  [Do not say anything!])

By the second week of October, there were frequent snow flurries, though none settled in the street.  The common soldiers (and many of their officers) had lost all sense of discipline and been reduced to lives of savage desperation…stealing, fighting, whoring, raping, pillaging, always in want, always hungry, always cold…and nothing but ashes and rubble about them. 

Daily, detachments of cavalry were sent out of the city to forage for food, only to be harassed by bands of Cossacks and locals.  When (if) they returned late at night, often they would have found nothing for themselves or their horses.  (This according to one officer destroyed the cavalry and artillery horses…)

Eventually, Napoleon caught on though–the Tsar wasn’t playing.  And by the 13th, he was heard to say, “We must hurry.  In eight days we should be in winter quarters.” 

By the 14th, the evacuation of the wounded was being hurried along.  The rank and file still believed they were heading for India.  Reinforcements of cavalry and artillery were sent messages to halt at Smolensk.  Napoleon gave the orders that he would depart the city on Sunday, the 18th.

A flurry, a rage of pillage–pillage on an industrial scale–and at every level, began.  The soldiers stripped the city of anything and all they could find, with Napoleon leading from the front. 

He had robbed Venice and Rome and Malta of their treasures.  Now, he arranged for the great iron cross that graced the tower of the church of Ivan Veliki in the Kremlin to be removed–he planned to carry it back to Paris and mount it atop the dome of Les Invalides where he thought it would look just spiffing…

However…when the cables were fastened to the cross and the engineers began to lower it down, the cable snapped, the scaffolding collapsed, the Sappers fled, and the cross fell–breaking into three pieces as it hit the ground. 

Still…Napoleon had the bits packed up along with all the other holy relics he’d filched and added to his baggage train.

He ordered the remaining buildings–those like the Kremlin and the Arsenal which were still standing and might prove useful to the Russians upon their return–to be mined. 

(What he did not include in those orders was a provision for the horses to be shod with spiked winter-shoes, which would allow them to safely travel uphill and down in snow, sludge and sleet.  His neglect in this is one of the single-greatest contributions to the cataclysm which would overcome his army over the next months.)

Though everything was ostensibly ready for departure on the 18th, Napoleon decided to defer his departure for one more day, determined to spend one more night in the Kremlin.

Finally, on the morning on the 19th October 1812, the vast stream of human beings began to pour out of the city gates in a procession of carriages, carts, pedestrians, horsemen, waggons…hordes of refugees, camp followers…all of them flowing out of the city onto the roads to Kaluga, weighed down by packs stuffed with booty, dragging sledges piled high with pillage, wearing layers and layers of clothing they had stolen from the Muscovite houses or stripped from off the Muscovites themselves… 

It was a bright day, and clear.  And by noon, the Emperor of the French has crossed the Moskva river… 

As Eugene Labaume wrote:  “Those who did not witness the departure of the French army from Moscow, can form but a faint idea of what the Greek and Roman armies, were, when they abandoned the ruins of Troy or of Carthage…The long files of carriages, in three or four ranks, extended for several leagues, loaded with the immense booty, which the soldiers had snatched from the flames, and the Moscovite peasants who were now become our servants resembled the slaves which the ancients dragged in their train.  Others carrying with them their wives and children, or the prostitutes whom they had found at Moscow, represented the warriors amongst the captives had been divided. 

“Afterwards came numerous wagons filled with trophies, among which were Turkish or Persian standards, torn from the vaulted roofs of the palaces of the czars, and, last of all, the celebrated cross of Saint Iwan gloriously closed the rear…

Out of Moscow via the savage scorched-earth Russian landscape and into the brutal jaws of cruellest winter…

Can anyone say Pyrrhic victory?

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Surrender and the Taking of Moscow…

Following their defeat at the hands of Napoleon and the Grande Armee at the Battle of Borodino, the Russians fell back to tend to their wounded and work out what to do next. 

Although the Commander-in-Chief, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, had given his word to the Tsar that he would never allow the French to take the capital, Moscow, it increasingly looked as though the Russians had no alternative.  

If they fought the French at the gates of the city, in the state they were, the Russian army would undoubtedly be destroyed.  Which would mean both capital and the army would be lost.  Continue reading

200 Years Ago Today ~ The Battle of Borodino…

Two hundred years ago today…there on the vast plains of Russia…about three days’ march from Moscow, the Battle of Borodino was fought.  Fought between the pan-European troops that made up Napoleon’s Grande Armee and the Russians under the leadership of the one-eyed, aging Prince Mikhail Kutuzov.

For weeks, under the glaring, baking sun of the Russian summer, the Grande Armee had been advancing deeper and deeper into the heart of Russia.  The troops were exhausted, debilitated by dysentery and hunger.  

Yet despite their manifold hardships, Napoleon pressed on–he was determined to bring the Russian army to battle.  He needed the Russian army to stand and face him, so that he could deliver his favourite thing in all the world–an all-out battle of his massed troops and obliterating artillery which would shatter the enemy in a day-long blitz of annihilation.

But the Russians hadn’t played the game as he intended them to.  Instead, in good order, they’d withdrawn and withdrawn and withdrawn, leaving behind nothing but scorched earth…As a Russian cavalry officer wrote of the situation: 

“We are moving by quick marches into the heart of Russia, with an enemy on our heels who believes in all simplicity that we are running to escape him…The French are making every effort to overtake us and fight, and we are making efforts just as great to get away without fighting…The French are a foe worthy of us…but evil fate in the guise of Napoleon is leading them into Russia.  Here they will lay down their heads, and their bones will be scattered…” 

Yet by early September, the Russians had resolved to stand and fight, and began taking up positions near the village of Borodino. 

The nearby villages were evacuated and those they burned lest the French find any succor there.  There had been regular skirmishes between the advance parties of the French and those of the Russians for several days…

A bitter wind had been whipping across the plains from the north, whistling through the trees, chilling the troops of both armies that they did little but shiver.  The French had no firewood and hence no fires near which to warm themselves.  Neither had they had any rations for two or three days.   

By the 6th September, the Russians had taken up their positions on the rising ground and in redoubts and the early stages of battle seemed to be commencing, with cannon and artillery fire.  But this ceased as darkness fell.

“Scarcely had we ceased firing, when the Russians, encamped as it were on an amphitheatre, lighted innumerable fires.  The whole of their camp was on uninterrupted blaze of light…a striking contrast with our bivouac, where the soldiers, deprived of wood, reposed in utter darkness, and heard no sound but the groans of the wounded.”

Before daybreak on the 7th, [the 26th August, if you’re using the Russian calendar] the drums, beating to war, were heard and the officers called to arms.  At six o’clock, the French guns opened up, signalling the beginning of the day of battle.  The Russian guns answered back. 

What was to follow was the greatest massacre in European history, with casualty numbers which would not be surpassed until the first day’s fighting of the Somme. 

The fighting was ferocious, beyond savage. Everywhere, the bodies piled up six and eight deep high, the wounded drowning in the blood of their comrades, buried under a tangles of lost limbs, while the horses and men of the French cavalry were forced to stand under the bombardment of the heavy guns and the musket fire that fell upon them like hailstones. 

Of particular note is the storming of the Raevsky redoubt which occurred after two o’clock in the afternoon.  The French massed and fought their way over the walls:  “Inside the redoubt, horsemen and footsoldiers, gripped by a frenzy of slaughter, were butchering each other without any semblance of order…” 

The beloved Russian general, Prince Piotr Bagratian, was killed…

(I should, no doubt, give you a fuller picture of the day’s unfolding action.  But I cannot bear to.  The dozens of eye-witness accounts are all of them so horrific, so terrible, that I cannot commit their words to the page.  I simply cannot. )

By half-past three, the French had taken the redoubt and their cavalry were sweeping into the area behind, only to find that they were facing a second line of defence…

Throughout the day, Napoleon barely moved from his seat behind French lines, from where the watched the unfolding events through his telescope, though in all the smoke and dust, he was unable to see what was happening on the ground.  He did not, as he always had before, ride out to take a look.  He listened as reports were given by exhausted, battle-drawn officers, and without a word dismissed each one…

“There are no words to describe the bitter despair with which our soldiers threw themselves into the fray…It was a fight between ferocious tigers, not men, and once both sides had determined to win or die where they stood, they did not stop fighting when their muskets broke, but carried on, using butts and swords in terrible hand-to-and combat, and the killing went on…” wrote a Russian officer.

Of the over 200,000 troops which were ranged against each other, by the end of the day, over a third were either killed or wounded.  French losses are recorded at somewhere between 28,000 and 35,000 casualties. 

Russian sources vary too–some say they lost no more than 38,500.  Others insist the number is more like 58,000. 

Again, due to varying sources, we know that the French artillery fired off between 60,000 and 90,000 rounds during the course of the day. 

Less well-known is the destruction of the French cavalry.  In the spring of 1813, Russian authorities would find and bury the corpses of some 35,478  horses on that battlefield. 

The French, of course, regarded Borodino as a great victory.  And Napoleon wrote home to say so, though he called it the Battle of Moscow.  He also claimed his “health had never been better.” 

(These claims of course should be regarded with a pinch of salt–Napoleon also claimed Trafalgar had been a great French victory…)

The Russians, led by General Kutuzov, also claimed it as a victory.  And in at least one way they were very right. 

 The French were now thousands of miles from their supply lines, from home, their forces so weakened by disease, hunger, and exhaustion–many of them had marched into battle barefoot–that they had no hope of recovery, even if they survived the battle.  Those who were wounded begged and screamed to be put out of their misery.  There was no hope of a field hospital for them.

The Russians retreated to Moscow in good order.  And then a few days later, abandoned the capital–leaving to be invaded by the French and set alight…

Still, when I look at those numbers of casualties, I cannot but mourn.  So many lives lost to serve one man’s insatiable lust for power.

And most French and allied families never did learn what had become of their sons and husbands on that date…

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.