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"Renewed efforts to suppress France
have led only to its expansion."
(Talleyrand to the English minister, Lord Lauderdale)
The Emperor was not slow to realize that with Lord Lauderdale, successor to the admirable Fox, the game had changed completely, and that the hopes of peace which he had briefly cherished belonged already to the past. Everything in Lauderdale’s instructions suggested that the government in London now had only one goal – complete rupture.
Napoleon, however, still had the discussions with Fox fresh in his mind and wanted to make a last effort of goodwill.
At a time when the streets of Berlin were already echoing to what later became known as the "tramp of boots," the concessions he proposed are ample evidence of his goodwill and desire to put an end to the war alert hatched by London. They included restoring Hanover to England, with compensation granted to Prussia; recognizing the island of Malta as an English possession; abandoning French trading posts at Pondicherry, Chandarnagar and Mahe in India and also Tobago in the West Indies, which had been captured from France in 1795 but returned in 1802 under the treaty of Amiens.
These proposals were practically the Emperor’s last cards in his play for peace, because he needed to know just where he stood before turning his attentions to Prussia.
Fully aware of the greed and power of the English merchants, and the arrogance and hypocrisy of the government in London, Napoleon should have suspected that, no matter how significant his concessions, the only thing that united the monarchs of the period (despite, obviously, their individual animosities) was protecting their system of "divine right of kings" against the intolerable spread of ideas of freedom and human rights that the wagons of the Emperor’s victorious armies trailed in their wake.
The King of Prussia seeks funds to move
against the "disturber of the world’s peace"
To prove the point and show the complicity of the monarchs and their financial provider, England, it is an appropriate moment to quote a letter written on September 6 by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, to Tsar Alexander:
"I took your advice. For that reason, I ended my disagreement with Sweden. Disputes over details at present would be the death of the alliance. What is important is to act, and for me to do that with all my force, it is especially urgent that England provide me immediate and adequate means, even if it involves a stricter accounting when our success gives us time [author’s emphasis]. Your minister could render an invaluable service by persuading the cabinet in London that it is their only means of obtaining further success [what other successes does this “further” presume?] against the disturber of the world’s peace."
A "disturber" who, at the time, was endeavoring by every means to preserve peace, even to the detriment of his own dignity and that of the country he ruled over, and who, as we saw in the previous chapter, had given explicit instructions to his lieutenants in Germany to do nothing likely to ruffle Prussian pride.
A comment is needed here: by a deceitful juggling act, England, the acknowledged leader of these monarchs, would manage to shift the entire blame for the torrents of blood that ran throughout Europe from 1805 to 1815 onto Napoleon alone.
It must be said, and repeated, again and again: this sinister ruse is still practiced today.
Indeed, ample and convincing evidence is available through reading school textbooks in which the abusive term "dictator" is regularly coupled with the name of the Emperor, or articles in various magazines and newspapers, or certain English pamphlets with historical pretensions, without regard to books produced by aggressive hacks who have raised insult to the level of a fine art with the sole, though unadmitted, aim of selling copies.
In response to France’s (too) generous concessions, the English plenipotentiary, Lord Lauderdale’s only reply was to request the return of his passports, the signal for a final rupture. Talleyrand enclosed a message among the documents, from which the following lines are taken:
"The future will reveal if a new coalition will stand in France’s way any more than the first three … The efforts to suppress France have led only to its expansion."
Tsar Alexander’s shameless lie
As for the Tsar, on August 15, he had just broken the treaty that his envoy, d'Oubril, the Minister of State, had signed with Napoleon on July 20 – and let us recall that, eight days earlier, the same Alexander had signed a treaty of offensive alliance with Prussia against France – under the (false) pretext that "this agreement was entirely contrary to the orders and instructions issued to the plenipotentiary."
This false pretext is very revealing about Alexander’s cheating, because, shortly before the arrival in Paris of his envoy from Saint Petersburg, the Russian High Chancellor had written to Talleyrand:
"It remains for me to ask you to give credence to everything that the Minister of State, d'Oubril, tells you in the name of His Imperial Majesty."
An imperial majesty, moreover, who had given his diplomat full powers to "enter into discussions with any party or parties properly authorized by the French government, and to conclude and sign a pact or agreement on a basis of consolidating the peace that will be restored between Russia and France"
He could scarcely have been more explicit.
What was the situation, exactly? A tsar who breaks a solemn undertaking; an English ambassador who requests his passports after having insisted unrelentingly on demands that were always granted; Prussians ready to leap into the saddle. How could Napoleon, without seriously endangering the country he led, escape his duty to prepare for a trial of arms?
The head of state becomes the commander in chief
On 18th September Napoleon was at the Palace of St Cloud when he learned of the Prussian occupation of Saxony and that Prussian troops had marched into Dresden. War was now inevitable and Napoleon started his war preparations. The following day he wrote to Berthier and dictated his mobilization plans for over two hours. “I do not have to tell you that mystery and secrecy must be preserved for these operations”, he wrote.
With his extraordinary intelligence and his incredible energy, the Emperor then put himself to work, and the over-conciliatory head of state gave way to the military commander with an adaptability that earned the justifiable admiration of his staff and allowed him to shift with disconcerting ease between subjects as varied and difficult as finance, state education, grand projects, diplomacy, and now, alas for him! war.
They were all carefully filed in the recesses of his brain as if they were in separate drawers.
"When I want to finish with an issue,” he said, “I close its drawer and I open another one. They do not get mixed up and they never bother or tire me. And when I want to sleep, I close all the drawers – and there I am, asleep."
The drawer that he was opening up now was particularly full, and he had to sort it out all the faster but still meticulously, given that he had allowed time to pass in the hope that his proposals would be listened to, if not with benevolence, at least with an honest pragmatism.
The Emperor, restricted and constrained, then turned again into an exceptional military organizer and quick-thinking, decisive commander, although this role was the one that suited him least of all. He had, however, to adapt to circumstances.
Everyone is very familiar with the expression "Napoleonic Wars," which is current everywhere and which is no more than a shameless semantic manipulation intended to deliberately deceive the general public into believing that the man whose name coined the adjective is also the one responsible, while leaving the true culprits conveniently in the shadows.
In this precise context – and there are and will be others – the dispatches he sent his Chief of Staff, Marshal Berthier, prove beyond a shadow of doubt that Napoleon was so uninterested in going to war with Prussia that at the beginning of September, and at a point when Frederick William had been arming his troops for over three weeks, he had not gathered any information on the countries where the Grande Armée would have to fight.
Marshal Berthier, imperial "computer"
From this point forward, the Emperor gave himself no rest. Nor did he allow any to his Chief of General Staff, Marshal Berthier.
This is an opportune time to sketch a profile of this cog in the imperial machine, often harried by his impatient commander. Berthier was a computer without the ability to command, but also without equal for filing the "data" that Napoleon fed him, data that was always precise but always very complex, since Napoleon both thought and decided very rapidly, and for arranging it in carefully classified "files" that were perfectly comprehensible to the most junior subordinate.
It was often said of Berthier, somewhat spitefully since his position close to Napoleon caused jealousy, that he was merely the voice of his master. But without that voice, the most complex Napoleonic strategies would never have translated into action.
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Louis Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) was made a marshal in 1804, and was Major-General of the Grand Army from 1805-1814. At Napoleon’s side in all the major campaigns as his chief of staff he was incredibly efficient and his talent lay in interpreting and transmitting the Emperor’s rapid directives into clear, precise orders even under the most difficult circumstances. He was tireless, hard-working, clear, precise, lucid, brave, and like the Emperor, capable of continuous hard work under pressure sometimes for days on end. Some historians have described Berthier as the greatest chief of staff in history. Napoleon paid tribute to him with these words on St Helena , “He was one of the most precious to me, for no one else could have replaced him”. On 1st June 1815 , just 18 days before the battle of Waterloo, he was to die under mysterious circumstances at Bamberg in Bavaria perhaps at a time when Napoleon needed him most.
He was born in Versailles, aristocratic city par excellence, and he always retained a certain gentility that clashed, sometimes awkwardly, with imperial toughness. Berthier was an engineer-geographer, a background that better fitted him to handle maps than sabers or bayonets. In 1806, he was fifty-three years old, already a venerable age at that time, and the Emperor was sixteen years younger.
In spite of his rather domesticated air, Berthier’s record was nothing to be ashamed of. He was a veteran of the American War of Independence, from which he returned with a relatively modest decoration, the simple cross of a Chevalier of the Order of Cincinnatus, of which he was nevertheless immensely proud. Since 1796, he had served a master whom he would leave only at the time of the first abdication. Berthier was to die tragically on June 1, 1815 in circumstances that have never been completely explained.
To put it broadly, Berthier could be described as an exceptionally gifted synthesizer of the Emperor’s thoughts. To those of his aides-de-camp who sometimes mocked the Chief of General Staff for his fussiness, Napoleon would answer:
"I only wish, gentlemen, that you could be like him for twenty-four hours."
The Emperor was not the only one to recognize Berthier’s qualities. It was the same at the lower levels. A young Polish officer serving as interpreter with the Imperial General Staff voiced his admiration in the following terms:
"It was astonishing to see how clearly orders were given and times precisely calculated, with never any delay."
This brief sketch gives the essence of the man on whom Napoleon would rely to cope with the emergency of a war with Prussia that he did not expect and had even refused to consider.
Know everything, understand everything, be ready for everything
In short, therefore, on September 3, the Emperor learned that Russia had unilaterally broken the treaty signed with France.
Two days later, he sent Berthier a note inquiring what state the Grande Armée was in.
Then, he pored over his maps, compass in hand, to calculate the routes for choosing the ground where he would mass his army. In this case, it was to be Bamberg, approximately 160 kilometers to the east and slightly to the south of Frankfurt. Another calculation revealed that Bamberg was only ten days’ march from Berlin.
Questions arose; inquiries were sent.
To Berthier, there were questions about the lay of the land, the roads, the obstacles the enemy could put up. And the rivers, the Saale, the Luppe… where could they be crossed?
"… What is this river flowing for 30 to 35 leagues down from the borders of Bohemia? What bridges cross it? …"
"You are to collect the best maps you can find in Munich and Dresden. Send scouts to Dresden and Berlin. They are to stop all along the way for food and sleep. They are not to travel by night and are to study the region closely. Get me details on the River Spree also. I need not say that the greatest caution should be exercised in obtaining this information."
This exceptional man had an eye for every detail. He watched over everything. He knew everything.
For example, the supply of military equipment was granted to a private company, the Breidt company, but he still knew in detail what was going on.
"I notice that, in the inventories, Barbier, the assistant inspector of reviews, has two horses belonging to the company, and that Marshal Davout has eight. You know my orders are that no general or officer should have company horses. I shall hold you responsible if, twenty-four hours after reception of this order, there are horses or wagons in personal use."
Again to Berthier, more questions about the ambulance service, because he considered that "the wagons of the Breidt company are not suitable for service. Every regiment must have its own ambulance."
Other dispatches were sent ordering that the "three keys to the Empire [ Strasbourg, Mainz, and Wesel] be provided with wheat, flour, and the means of making bread"
He showed the same concern for details on the cavalry.
The following is from a letter to Marshal Bessières, commanding the cavalry of the Imperial Guard:
"Have horseshoes made, and not just for the immediate needs of the cavalry, but enough for a good reserve supply. Give me a clear account and let me know which can set out in four or five days. Make sure to quench any weapons that need it; prepare pins, worms and canisters. Let me know how many tools each wagon carries, including the ambulances… "
He even knew the output of the ovens and that a good one "can bake bread for three thousand men!"
Napoleon, although wishing for peace, is forced to prepare for war
At a moment when we are at the point of soon describing the Battle of Jena, as perfect a battle as Austerlitz was, discussion of all these points of detail and appearance may seem ridiculous.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In war, every tiny detail counts, and a seemingly insignificant oversight beforehand, may turn out to be catastrophic during an engagement.
In 1806 Prussia was one of the great military powers in Europe with an army of 200,000 men and a military potential of 300,000 in wartime. Yet the kingdom of Prussia only existed since 1701 and it was only in the second half of the 18th century under Frederick the Great (1712-1786) that Prussia became one of the most feared nations in Europe. He succeeded to the throne in 1740, aged twenty-eight, and ruled as Frederick II. During his reign he made Prussia into a strong military state and extended his possessions considerably first in 1742, ordering his troops to march in and invade the rich province of Silesia which then belonged to Austria. In 1772, he extended his dominions still further by taking a share of Poland when Russia, Austria and Prussia divided the country among themselves. When he died aged seventy-four in 1786 Prussia counted a population of almost ten million subjects. He was succeeded by his great-nephew Frederick-William II, father of Frederick-William III.
A description, even in summary form, of these "details" allows one to appreciate Napoleon’s incredible “intellectual spectrum" that enabled him to pass without batting an eyelid from an inventory of the contents of a cartridge pouch to the strategic design of parameters for a victorious outcome to the forthcoming struggle of arms. And it is quite as fascinating as the battle itself, which is, after all, only the result of all the preparations beforehand.
Apart from these "details," there were preparations for troop movements that were all the more complex because the armies were not camped in the same place. Some were already in Germany, others in Maastricht, Ghent, Tournai, still others in Moulins, Saint-Quentin, Boulogne, Saint-Brieuc, Grenoble, and yet more in Italy at Turin or Alexandria…
And despite distances and different marching speeds, they must all, at a precise moment, be at the exact place planned. That is why he needed to know the state of the roads, distances, crossing points, etc.
He displayed a similar thoroughness with his personal staff supervised by his Equerry, Armand de Caulaincourt.
He was to make his telescopes ready, and to send sixty horses "including eight for me to ride," and mules and canteens "provided with all requirements," not forgetting the small trunks he used in the last campaign. He asked for a wagon to transport a tent with heavy carpets and an iron bed, but a sturdy tent, not an "opera tent"…
While he was making preparations for war, Napoleon still cherished, if not illusions, at least the hopes, meager as they were, that all was not lost.
These hopes were not due to any fear of clashing with the Prussian armies, for, as he wrote to his brother Joseph, "I am so well prepared and confident that, if I must still strike, Europe will only learn of my departure from Paris through the total devastation of my enemies."
The two last-ditch attempts he made on September 7 and 12 must be seen in this light.
First, a discussion with the Prussian ambassador, in which we find the following words, which are truly those of a man of peace:
“If I had not felt an extreme loathing for making war on Prussia after Austerlitz , I could have fallen on it like a bomb and done much damage. But I considered the death of a Prussian or a Frenchman in such a foolish war to be a political crime…"
However, to prove his desire for conciliation was not from weakness, he had added:
"I ordered Marshal Berthier to retake all the positions that my army in Germany had started to withdraw from… If I am forced into a war that is so contrary to my plans and to the interests of our two nations, I must use every advantage that my positions place me in. For this reason, I must urge your Court to decide to suspend arming its troops… "
Napoleon extends his hand to the King of Prussia one last time
Next, came his personal letter to the King of Prussia, in which, besides his keen desire for peace, he did not hide the fact that circumstances forced him to prepare for war. Every word of the following letter is worth attention:
"… If I am forced to take up arms to defend myself, it will be with the greatest regret that I employ them against the troops of Your Majesty. I consider this war to be a civil war, so closely are the interests of our States linked. I want nothing of Your Majesty. I have asked for nothing. I have such esteem for Your Majesty’s justice that I appeal to it to decide who is wrong in this affair, Prussia or France . All the information Your Majesty has received is false. I am open in my friendship or my hostility. Your Majesty is dear not only to my affections, but also to my reason. Nevertheless, I have just made provisions to be ready for Your Majesty’s troops which threaten to attack my army in Germany . I did so because I would have betrayed my people had I not guarded against the extensive preparations that Your Majesty made, preparations which are so advanced that troops have left the capital. I must say to Your Majesty, never will the war be of my doing, because, were that so, I would consider myself a criminal; this is what I call a sovereign who makes war on a whim and without any justification of reasons of state… Let Your Majesty reply that these orders are suspended, and I shall suspend mine. "
May we suggest that these words of Napoleon be contrasted to the bragging and the insults heaped upon him by Prussian soldiers of all ranks!
As Napoleon endeavoured to conclude a peace treaty between Prussia and France, Queen Louise who headed the “War Party” in Berlin spent her time attending splendid military reviews and inspecting Prussian troops to impress and galvanise the army.
In Berlin, meanwhile, war fever reached a climax when Queen Louise, strapped into her comic opera dragon uniform, reviewed her troops and launched Prussia on the path of its destruction.
It was only when he received the ultimatum mentioned at the close of the preceding chapter requiring that "French troops immediately cross back over the Rhine," that Napoleon finally understood that, henceforth, the die was cast.
To be continued