This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.




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…

A Progress Report…

You know that part of a project when you’ve got about a billion different elements clanging about in your head demanding recognition and attention and to be top dog and you know all of them are probably important or essential but you can’t for the life of you sort out how to make anything other than goulash out of the whole mess–maybe a bit more paprika will help?  Well, it’s rather like that.

europe1815A break-through occurred on a day-trip with my rather ingenious and maths-minded daughter a bit ago, when I put forward my difficulty with all the research (no, I am not going to tell you how many tomes or how many languages…) and asked if she could see her way to organising it all for me.  She, being very whizzy at these sorts of problems, had three different solutions in about 30 seconds.  All of which were excellent.  (I hate that.  It’s so breathtakingly easy and she makes it all seem so obvious…)

So we spent several days together with me downloading the contents of my brain and the many books and journals into her magic notebook, which she then turned into a frighteningly efficient thing for cross-referencing as well as a series of maps and other such intellectual delights…we still have several volumes to go.

But it was at this point, when she looked at the pages and pages of notes she’d made, the outsize cast of historical personages (I hadn’t even mentioned the fictional additions…) that she observed, “No wonder you’ve had problems.  This is like a game of chess with twenty players!

“For heaven’s sake, you’ve got five separate armies on the move…”

And that pretty much sums it up.  (Okay, yah, there are a great many generals and staff officers with Russian and Prussian surnames, I admit that…)

But since then, since then–and even with the delicious manifold diversions offered by the Christmas season–progress has not only seemed possible, but has got underway.  Of course, no one is more astonished at this than self.  But there it is.

NPG 891,Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Lord Castlereagh),by Sir Thomas LawrenceA new opening chapter has presented itself which makes brilliant sense of all sorts of things and which just popped out of the too many notebooks of research notes and I find myself in the unusual position of being quite positive, hopeful and even feeling a bit of the old Bennetts wit returning to the page…

So that’s me.  Yes, a trifle overwhelmed by the too much that I know, but with help gaining some sense of control over it all…and you know what that means, don’t you?  That means a book will dribble itself out of my thoughts onto the page and into your hands eventually.

So thanks for all the support, cheer, and encouragement.  It’s meant more than you’ll ever know…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

[do follow me on Twitter: @mmbennetts ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was…

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

Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

Recently I read a book.  (I know, shocker!)  A work of historical fiction, it was.

stubbs bayAnd in this book which was set at a time when horses were the only means of transportation, we had our hero, who was meant to be a tall lanky fellow over 6′ tall, riding a little mare who, according to the author, was just over 14 hands.  And our hero was so entranced by her that he hoped the dragoons wouldn’t steal her for their own.


Well, when I stopped laughing, I mentioned this to another horsey friend of mine…and when she stopped laughing like a drain, she said, “Obviously the bloke was wearing roller skates so his feet could run smoothly alongside…”

It was an image, I will confess, I had not thought of myself.

So let’s talk hands, shall we?  Because that’s how one measures a horse’s height.

For a start, a horse’s height is measured at the withers–think the tallest bit of his shoulder.  A hand is the linear measurement of a horse’s height which is equal to four inches.

dragoon1812So according to our aforementioned novelist, his 6′ hero was riding a horse which stood 4’10” or so at the withers.  So in fact our hero was towering over this poor little pony is what he was actually doing.  And if you think that it would be good for a little ponio’s back to have a great lug of 6 foot on his back–no matter how lightly the chap rode–you should think again.

Now, yes, when one is talking about some of the  hardier breeds of pony–the New Forest ponies, here, or some of the Russian ponies that the Cossacks rode, for example…the Connemaras and those sure-footed little lads that go up and down the mountains in Spain, yes, they’re sturdy as all get out.   They’re hearty, they’re fast, they’re smart.  I love them to bits!  And I love riding them.  But I am NOT 6′ tall.  I’m nowhere near that.

Moreoever, dragoon regiments of the Napoleonic era all had height requirements.  Some of Napoleon’s were required to be no smaller than 6′ tall.  And they weren’t shrinky dinks on the British side either.  Not to mention the weight of their kit…which would mean they weren’t looking for neat little ponies–no matter how clever or quick–they were looking for the big lads of 16, 17 or even 18 hands.  (That’s 5’4″, 5’8″ or 6′ tall at the withers…)

And finally, whinnying.  A word of advice to those who haven’t met a horse–do not get your information from cowboy movies.  For in this very charming novel to which I referred earlier, every time the author mentioned horses, he had them whinnying.

dragoon2Now, whinnying is a bit of an individual thing with horses.  Some do.  Others almost never do.  But for the most part, they don’t do it much.  They’re actually very quiet animals.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for the benefit of prey animals by saying, “Hey Lion-face, here I am…aren’t you hungry?”

They may do it occasionally/rarely to say to another horse, “Oi!  Here I am, matey.  Boy, this grass looks good.  Pity you’re not here…”  And sometimes when their friends are missing–as in the other horses from their herd are off doing stuff and they’re left at home–they whinny.  But they’re not talkative toddlers.

As for whickering?  I’ve only heard it once in my entire life–and that was when a mare was in season and her boyfriend du jour was getting a little resty at not being as up close and personal as he would have liked (I was on his back, so this wasn’t possible…)  So don’t even use the phrase.  Please, oh, please, don’t use it.

They do snort.  A lot.  And I know a few horses who have this nifty little trick of wheezing heavily when they’re on the uphill, so that the novice on their back thinks they’re about to croak and doesn’t make them canter.  Clever, very clever.

Also, they do this shakey thing, rather like a Labrador just out of the river, shaking off the water–and when you’re on their back, this jiggles you something chronic.

But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…)


200 Years Ago ~ Armistice…

Now this is going to be a bit of a funny blog.  Not funny haha.  But funny because it’s not about battles–which obviously are my preferred method of communication–it’s about folly.  Or if you’d like to get literary, hubris.

(No, not mine.)

You’ll recall I was keeping you up to date on what the pesky little Corsican was getting up to in May 1813, a.k.a. getting the shock of his young life, when the Allied forces of Russians and Prussians didn’t submit to his planned walloping at the Battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, yes?  And how, after each of those encounters, the Russian light cavalry had engineered such a smooth withdrawal that the Frenchies were flummoxed?

(It was after Bautzen that Napoleon was heard to exclaim, “What, no results, no trophies, no prisoners after such a butchery!”)

Europe 1812Right.  Well, the thing was, as the above quote suggests, Napoleon was a bit flummoxed by this apparent change in his fortunes.  Yes, yes, of course, he was still blustering about being the legend in his own mind…but there were beginning to be doubts expressed by his most trusted advisors.

And something else was going on too.  The Austrians, guided by the oleaginous hand of Prince Metternich, were shimmying about, doing their best to insert themselves into the breach as potential peace-makers.  Because, you see, the Austrians were playing a double game.  Or Metternich was.  Take your pick.  (You can pick both.)

Austria had not wanted to commit to fighting Napoleon and the French Empire for a variety of reasons.

  • One–Napoleon was married to the Austrian Emperor’s daughter and Napoleon’s son was the Emperor’s grandson.
  • Two–they didn’t want to be on the losing side of a conflict with Napoleon, and hitherto, any side opposing Napoleon had been the losing side.
  •  Three–war costs lots of money and they didn’t have much.  Nor did they have much of an army, that having been stripped out under the terms of various treaties with Napoleon.
  • Four–Austria was very concerned about the growing influence of Russia, particularly in Poland and Prussia, and felt a strong France was needed to keep the Russian bear from gobbling up everything in sight.

But the Austrians were in a tough position because, following Bautzen, the Allied forces were retreating to take up quarters rather close to the Austrian border–the Russians were in disarray, they were disorganised, they were going hungry…and this was frankly worrying, because what would happen when they spilled into Austrian territory, hmn?

And there was also the problem of the officers of the Austrian army who were getting a little resty at the thought that everyone else was getting a crack at the hated Corsican upstart, and they were having to sit at home.

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

He thought this was a brilliant coup.  (He would.)  His own troops were exhausted, they were hungry, many of them were untrained novices, the cavalry required building up and training and he needed the six or seven weeks to whip the entire lot of them into some sort of shape so that come autumn he could annihilate those annoying Allies and be king of the world once more.

I have to tell you, when he was in exile on St. Helena, even he admitted this was one of his biggest mistakes.

Precisely because it allowed the Russians and Prussians (and their horses) to get organised and fed and rested and nursed back to health, (the Prussians didn’t even have enough food in their stores to feed their own army and required assistance from Russia…) and this was essential!  It allowed the Russians to move vast amounts of fodder and supplies to the front from their bases in Russia, and this would facilitate the autumn campaign. It allowed Britain to work on Austria, promising boatloads of money and uniforms and weapons if they would enter the war on the side of the Allies, and it allowed the Austrians to get their army in order a bit and play chief negotiator with everyone.

(And it allowed for a certain character in my next novel to nip across to London from Berlin and do a bit of housebreaking…very thoughtful of NB, don’t you think?  Probably that’s why he did it…)

So you see, quite, quite dumb of our little Corsican mushrump–but you know, I don’t believe that he could conceive of the idea that even one of his adversaries had more than a caraway seed where their brains should have been, so I don’t think any of this occurred to him…

barclayOf course, the Russian command could not believe their luck!  When General Langeron heard of the deal, he “went to Barclay’s [Barclay de Tolly, the Russian commander-in-chief] headquarters and he received me with a great burst of laughter: this explosion of happiness was by no means normal with Barclay.  He was always cold, serious and severe in spirit and in his manner.  The two of us laughed together at Napoleon’s expense.  Barclay, all the generals and our monarchs were drunk with joy and they were right to be so.”

As I say, initially the armistice was meant to last until the 20th July, but at Austria’s insistence, the whole thing was extended until 10 August.

Because you see, the Austrians (or Metternich) had come up with an ingenious scheme, you could have stuck a tail on it and called it a fox:  They would broker peace negotiations with Napoleon on behalf of the Allies during this period of time.  And this would have the brilliant effect of allowing the Allied troops further breathing room, giving Russia time to bring even more troops, provisions and horses (lots and lots) up to the western front; it would allow the Austrians more time to haggle for an even more whopping subsidy from Britain, and to get their own army in the field and work out a plan of campaign (in which obviously they planned to hold the whip hand.)

…and possibly, just possibly, Napoleon would realise he couldn’t win this one and would choose to make peace, thus keeping the Russians in their box, and again, as peacebrokers, Austria would hold the whip hand.  It was win-win from their point of view.

Portrait-of-Klemens-Lothar-Wenzel-von-MetternichOf course Metternich wasn’t playing a straight wicket.  (When was he ever?)  He was as oozy as salted slug and even before the proposed peace conference got underway, he’d already done a deal with the Allies that said that if Napoleon wouldn’t agree to the Austrian’s four bottom-line conditions  for peace, they would enter the war on the side of the Allies.  And then just to ensure that Napoleon would of course reject the conditions, he insisted on conditions to which Napoleon would never ever agree.  Mwahahaha.

And so there you have it.  The Armistice of Plaswitz.  Which undoubtedly led to the fall of Napoleon…a brief spell of summer during which all of Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief…before the complete storm of the autumn of 1813 and the Battle of Leipzig.

(Yes, you’re right…the dear little Emperor of the French wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed by this point, was he?  Sadly for him, he failed to realise it at the time.  Tant pis.)

200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Bautzen…

So where were we?

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

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

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

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

Er, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the fly in this bowl of soup was Ney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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