If the King of Prussia casts his lot with the English,
Mirabeau in 1786
There is no question that it was the good news from England (with which the last chapter concluded) that caused Napoleon to display an unshakeable calm in the face of the alarming news he received from de Laforest, his alarmist ambassador in Berlin.
What exactly was the news that maintained Napoleon’s serenity to the point of causing him, through an entirely honourable but excessive trust in the King of Prussia ’s word, to neglect even the most elementary precautionary measures?
Regrettably, to date his efforts had been in vain. For England , there was room for only one dominant great power – itself, of course. Such was Prime Minister Pitt’s policy, and he did not hesitate to stoop to the lowest means of achieving it.
Then, the news swept through the embassies that Pitt had died on January 23, 1806 . He had succumbed to an attack of gout, to which his taste for strong drink contributed greatly – a rather less glorious end than by a cannonball, but there was no risk of that in his case.
It was also said, and it would not be unpleasing to believe, that the defeat of Austerlitz finished him off, and that his dying words were:
“O my country, how I leave my country!”
Napoleon’s reaction when he learned of the death is not known, but in his Memoirs of St. Helena (in the entry dated November 6, 1816) we find the following words, which it would be a shame not to quote since they recount the sordid role played by England (*) at the time, and by its principal agent, William Pitt (known as “Pitt the Younger”), a role that is frequently and relentlessly attributed to Napoleon.
The following lines merit careful reading:
“Mr. Pitt was the master of European politics; in his hands, he held the moral destiny of nations; he ill used his power; he set the world ablaze and he will be remembered in history like Herostratus [a Greek from Ephesus who, in order to immortalize his name, set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World] amid the flames, the laments, the tears…
First, the initial sparks of our Revolution, then all the opposition to our national will and, finally, all the horrid crimes that resulted, are his doing. This universal conflagration for 25 years and the numerous coalitions that maintained it; the upheaval and devastation of the nations of Europe and the rivers of blood that resulted; the appalling debt of England which paid for it all; the foul system of loans that cripples our economies; the universal discontent of today; all of that was brought about by him. History will recognize him for the curse he truly was. This man, who was so exalted in his day, will one day be viewed as the incarnation of evil… But history will most reproach Mr. Pitt for the vile legacy he left after him: his unscrupulous Machiavellianism, his utter immorality, his cold, selfish nature, his contempt for justice and men’s fortunes.”
History, under the influence of subtle indoctrination by the ever-watchful English and their French Royalist debtors, has unfortunately erred as to the guilty party.
Napoleon's extraordinary calm...
The head of the Bavarian legation in Berlin , the Chevalier de Bray, informed his government in no uncertain terms of troop movements that had disturbed the Prussian capital on August 10.
“The city was full of alarming rumours, and everyone was talking about preparations for war and the orders for putting the army on alert. Already, on the night of the sixth, orders were sent to the Silesian patrols to march to the frontiers of Saxony . The garrison here and the one at Potsdam are to be ready to set out as soon as word is given. Artillery horses are being purchased; General Schmettau and Prince Louis Ferdinand have been summoned to conferences, and the King’s aides-de-camp have been extraordinarily active for the last two days.”
In the circumstances, the whole of Europe would have predicted the inevitability of imminent war.
There was, however, one person of some considerable importance for whom war seemed unlikely – the Emperor himself!
“Prussians ! It is not enough to vanquish. Remember that I want blood”. A French caricature of the period representing Queen Louise of Prussia who was the leader of the “War Party” in Berlin . The Queen who inspected troops and was present at military parades was acclaimed everywhere by enthusiastic Prussian soldiers. She thought the Tsar whom she called “The Knight of Europe” was noble and chivalrous and only referred to the French Emperor as “the Monster Napoleon”. For good measure she also had violently anti-French pamphlets printed in Berlin.
Napoleon deemed the fears of his ambassador to be so unfounded and excessive that he had written to Talleyrand about a diplomatic dispatch that had arrived:
“De Laforest’s letter of August 12 seems madness to me. His excessive fears are to be pitied. We must stay calm until we are more certain what is afoot.”
In the same spirit, he gave orders imposing moderation on various lieutenants, such as Murat, who had given the Prussians some (very slight) cause for disquiet in Düsseldorf, the capital of the Duchy of Berg that had just been awarded to him by his brother-in-law:
“The decision to use force to drive the Prussians from the territory they hold ( Hanover ) is sheer madness. You would be the one to insult the Prussians, and that is not my wish… If there are Prussian troops in the territory you must occupy, make certain to give no offence and offer no pretext. I am, let me say again, on good terms with Prussia . Your language should be reassuring. I cannot express how troubled I am to read your dispatches; you are in an appalling rush. Your role is to be conciliatory, very conciliatory, towards the Prussians and to do nothing that disturbs them. The first damage was done with the occupation of Verden [Hanoverian city some thirty kilometers south of Bremen ], which you should not have occupied. It was not your business to do so.”
This is far from the traditional image of Napoleon as warmonger, ready to leap at the throat of anyone not willing to pander to his every whim.
Let it be clearly stated: it was Prussia , bribed by England and encouraged by Russia , that wanted war. It did not wait for long before satisfying its thirst, and its punishment was to be commensurate with the insulting stream of invective from its Queen and generals, and the duplicity of its King, Frederick William III.
… and the equally unbelievable treachery of the King of Prussia
Napoleon was so well disposed towards Prussia that he had even formally planned to place its monarch at the head of the new Confederation of the Rhine, instituted in Paris on July 12 (we shall shortly describe this institution). Napoleon had taken under his protection some sixteen (minor) princes that had deserted the moribund Holy Roman Empire. This confederation of states, in proportion to their respective strengths, provided a force of some 53,000 men that Napoleon could call upon. He, in return, guaranteed the territorial integrity of the states that were members of the confederation.
The Berlin court was flattered and responded favourably, so that Laforest was able to write to Napoleon:
“The King [of Prussia] formally announced today that he would lend his full support to the Confederation of the Rhine, that he would follow the decisions of the Confederation, and that he accepts the Emperor’s proposal agreeing to similar provisions that Prussia will adopt in the north [an identical confederation made up of states belonging to the German Holy Roman Empire, which would cease to exist after August 6]. The natural modesty of his Prussian Majesty makes it uncertain as yet if he will take advantage of the opportunity to link the imperial crown to the House of Brandenburg. His ministers will surely advise it, considering its value for the fate of Prussia… The King not only considers himself the ally of France but also the ally of the Emperor of France, and by reason of his friendship, willingly aids everything that consolidates the imperial dynasty.”
Such were the supposed sentiments of Prussia towards Napoleon as reported by de Laforest. But Frederick William’s statements can only be fully appreciated with the knowledge that the same king, just a month previously, on July 12, had signed a treaty with Tsar Alexander whose intent was none other than the destruction of Imperial France. The following quotation drawn from clause VII of the treaty could not be more explicit.
“We shall first take the necessary steps to put our army on full alert, with detailed plans for a possible campaign to be conducted as soon as the time comes for action, either in our mutual defence, or to uphold the undertakings we gave in clause III.”
Clause III reveals that the Tsar and the King of Prussia would do everything to “contribute to arrangements whereby, when peace is established, we may finally settle and guarantee a stable and permanent state of affairs in Europe.”
It is not hard to guess the meaning that lay behind this convoluted language: once and for all to reduce to second rank the nation of France, which Napoleon, the “ogre”, the parvenu among the monarchs of the day, strove to place ahead of all others.
Charles James Fox – a fresh hope
When the Emperor learned that the new government, headed by Lord Greville who was of a type with Pitt himself, would also include Charles James Fox as Foreign Minister, he saw a glimmer of hope.
Fox, at 57 years of age, had come to Paris after the signing of the Peace of Amiens, theoretically to conduct research for a history of Mary Stuart. The two men met on several occasions, and having made each other’s acquaintance, they had a high mutual regard.
Might this be the route to an ultimate peace?
In the face of Prussia’s shameless treachery, lies and deceit, Napoleon, who until then had deserved much credit for his reluctance to be too hard on Prussia,
began to shift his position. When he spied an opportunity to come to terms with his sworn enemy, he could not run the risk of offending the British crown by ceding to Prussia the territory of Hanover, the cradle of the English Royal Family.
“In my opinion,” he wrote Talleyrand on February 14, “if Mr. Fox is truly the Foreign Minister, we cannot cede Hanover to Prussia…”
In the context of the British Crown, the issue of Hanover, a German state, seems somewhat strange.
In terms of lineage, the dynasty of Anglo-Hanoverian monarchs went back to George I (grandfather of the reigning king, George III), who was Elector of Hanover and great-grandson of King James I (James VI of Scotland), whose daughter, Elizabeth I, had married a German prince.
Because the family was Protestant, the Act of Settlement of 1701 had decreed that after the death of Queen Anne, the British throne would pass to the rulers of Hanover rather than fall into the hands of the Catholic Stuarts.
This Hanoverian dynasty stills reigns in Great Britain today.
George III (1738-1820). Hanover became a possession of the British crown in 1714 when George III’s great-grandfather, George Louis, Elector of Hanover, succeeded to the British throne and became George I. In 1806 in the course of secret peace negotiations with Charles James Fox, Napoleon hoped to end the struggle between Britain and France and in a gesture of good will he offered to return French-occupied Hanover to the British Crown.
Following a disreputable scheme that is too long to go into, the Prussian envoy to Paris, Lucchesini, got wind of this shift in Napoleon’s policy. But, instead of requesting an audience for clarification, particularly as to compensation (which had been anticipated), he sent the news straight to Berlin, where the war frenzy had turned into anti-French hysteria.
In England, slightly earlier – on December 23, 1805 – there had been discussion of the “desirability of assassination” as shown in a letter from London seized by the French police.
Now, there seemed to be a genuine return to more decent values, as evidenced by a letter from Fox to Talleyrand. It informed him that an individual, whose identity was uncertain but of French nationality, had landed in England and requested an audience with Fox to discuss “matters that would please him…”
These “matters” are recounted by Fox himself:
“I spoke with him alone in my office, where after some preliminaries of no consequence, the scoundrel had the audacity to tell me that the French leader had to die in order to support the monarchies, and that a house had been rented in Poissy for this purpose, from which to perpetrate the detestable deed without risk…”
Fox had added that since English law did not permit his arrest, before sending him back, he wanted to warn the French government to take precautions against a possible assassination attempt by the individual in question.
Napoleon at the Palais desTuileries in 1806 with (far left) the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), during the protracted peace negotiations with Britain and Prussia.
When we consider that, ordinarily, London encouraged and promoted, even initiated and financed, similar plots – let us merely recall the bloody royalist attack on the First Consul in St. Nicaise Street on December 24, 1800, which left at least twenty dead and fifty wounded in the explosion – one can better appreciate the distance traveled since the appointment to the British government of the worthy Charles James Fox.
The Emperor immediately grasped the significance of such a gesture and hastened to send a letter through Talleyrand which radiates a concern, not to say thirst, for peace from the man whom the King of Prussia had described in a letter to Tsar Alexander as “the subverter of peace in our world.”
“Sir, I gave Your Excellency’s letter to His Majesty to read. His first words after he had read it through were, “I recognize in this the principles of virtue and honour that have always inspired Mr. Fox. Thank him on my behalf and say to him that whether the policies of his king continue to embroil us in war, or whether this quarrel that is so futile for humanity soon ends, as the two nations must surely desire, I am gratified at the new turn the war has already taken as a result of this event. It is a sign of what we may expect from a government in which I am pleased to recognize the principles of Mr. Fox, a man who is singularly equipped to know in all things what is good, what is truly great.” I do not presume, Sir, to add to His Majesty’s own words. Signed: Talleyrand.
To this message, almost one of friendship, a document was attached that intimated to the recipient that Napoleon was still disposed to open peace talks with England on the basis of the Treaty of Amiens.
And Peace itself went to its grave…
The braggarts in Berlin could well make the streets of the capital resound to the clamour of their boots, spurs and sabers, but Napoleon did not lend his ears. He was waiting for one thing only: that the winds in the English Channel finally bring the good news – agreement from the Court of St. James to open peace talks.
The winds ultimately delivered only the sad news of the death of Charles James Fox on September 13.
The Emperor declared on St. Helena, and he must have thought it the very moment he heard the news, that it was “one of the calamities of my career. With a man such as he, there was always some possibility of understanding; we would soon have reached an agreement. Not only would we have been at peace with a nation that is fundamentally very decent, but he and I together would have achieved great success.”
International peace itself went to its grave alongside Fox.
The government in London was in the grip of its old demons once again, and got ready to pour pounds and guineas into continental coffers.
The Emperor could no longer close his ears to the outcry from Berlin, where there was no let up in preparing cudgels to chase out “those French dogs.”
The “war party” carried the day. A police report recorded:
“The army is hopping up and down with impatience and God knows what will happen if there’s no fighting.”
This Prussian cavalryman of a Hussar Regiment with his sword drawn ready to slash illustrates theapoleon and the French. On 7 August 1806 Prussian secretly decided on hatred the Prussians felt for N war against France and on the 10th Prussian mobilization began.
On September 25, Napoleon received an ultimatum requiring that “French troops shortly cross back over the Rhine, without exception, and march out on a day fixed by the King [!!] and march without halt, since their immediate and total retreat is in the present circumstances the only guarantee of security that the King can accept.”
Frederick William III, a king who was not under threat but who insisted on guarantees of security, was unaware of one fact; he was not far distant from the moment when he would live the fate, a few years later than predicted, that Mirabeau had prophesied in the epigraph to this chapter:
“If the King of Prussia casts his lot with the English, in fifteen years he will be Marquis of Brandenburg.”
To be continued…
(*) England had two agents inside the sinister Jacobin Club. These two individuals were named Clarkson and Oswald. A Russian diplomat said of them, and his words were aimed directly at England , “The English agents Clarkson and Oswald joined the Jacobin Club… It would have been more honourable to declare war on France , and to destroy Cherbourg or capture its colonies, than to foment the disturbances and massacres that were committed in France , to the general shame of humanity…”
Similarly, Baron Grimm, of the Russian Council of State, wrote to Empress Catherine the Great in 1791, “The Jacobin Club was spurred on by scoundrels claiming to be patriots, who sold out their nation’s interests to foreigners, and by English and Prussian envoys who worked underground to subvert this wretched country…”