Leopold von Ranke, German historian
By now, the die was cast.
Caught up in their war fever, the Prussians looked forward to one thing only – bringing Napoleon to his knees, for he “wouldn’t even rank as corporal in the Prussian army” and his marshals were “common tradesmen.”
The Emperor now had to make up the vital time that his yearning for peace had cost him.
At this point, we have an opportunity to witness the always fascinating spectacle of Napoleon’s astounding brain and staggering intelligence working at full capacity.
The drawer labeled “Diplomacy” was most reluctantly closed. The next to be opened bore the soon-to-be-fatal title for Prussia : “Campaign of 1806.”
Fifteen thousand words in three days!
On September 10, Napoleon was at the château of Saint-Cloud, where he had been since almost the beginning of May.
He dictated innumerable dispatches, including one to his Chief Equerry, General Armand de Caulaincourt, to arrange for the departure of his military household in two stages, on the 11th (when he ordered that his horses and military equipment leave for Strasbourg) and on the 14th, and advised him to proceed “with the greatest secrecy.”
Still on the 10th, for two hours non-stop, he dictated his instructions for the movements of the army to Clarke.
The following is an extract from one of his directives.
It concerns the Imperial Guard and, better than any long exposition, these few lines display the vast range of the Emperor’s detailed knowledge of his army (among other fields), of the roads to take, of the stops, and the number of wagons needed for the movement of troops.
“The 1st Regiment of Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard are to leave tomorrow at ten o'clock in the morning, and will stop over in Claye. They will depart the following morning at dawn. The 2nd Grenadiers will leave at six o'clock in the morning and will sleep in Meaux. The chasseurs will sleep in Dammartin. There, and in Meaux, a hundred wagons will be ready, each harnessed up for a team of four and capable of carrying ten men. Those in Meaux will be in the square at ten o'clock in the morning; those in Dammartin at eight o’clock . Two war commissioners will leave tomorrow morning before two o’clock to organize the rendez-vous of the wagons with the sous-préfet of Meaux. They will then supervise the preparation of all the stops along the two routes, through Metz for the grenadiers and through Luxembourg for the chasseurs. The former will have fourteen stops from Meaux to Worms ; the latter, thirteen from Dammartin to Bingen… The rate per horse is five francs a day. The owners of the horses will provide their own fodder. The wagons will be paid for by the major of each regiment and the receipts will be given to the sous-préfet, who will send them to you directly… As the first stops are very short, I have had Marshal Bessières send a staff officer to meet the sous-préfet of Meaux before four o’clock in the morning, so that when the war commissioners arrive, the sous-préfet will have already made arrangements.”
In less than three days, and notwithstanding the diplomatic receptions and audiences which he could not avoid in a period of crisis, he was to dictate forty-five dispatches, each one as precise and clear as that concerning the movements of the Imperial Guard.
The total quantity of these forty-five orders was once calculated and came out at fifteen thousand words! And not just any words stuck down one after the other, or any muddled thinking. Not in the least! His words are considered and thoughtful, each with a precise meaning, because any one of them could contribute to either a favourable or a tragic outcome in just a few days.
He surveyed a vast chess-board, whose four corners were Amsterdam and Berlin at the top, with Naples and Bayonne at the bottom.
In the squares of this chess-board, which bore names like Utrecht, Montpellier, Le Havre, Stuttgart, Toulon, Bade, Grenoble, Munich, Genoa and Karlsruhe, he deployed battalions, squadrons, sometimes companies but usually regiments or brigades, or even just an officer or a general, and spread them around, without any apparent, specific purpose, along roads (on which all the stops for rest and provisions were already planned and arranged) that led to Wesel, Mainz, Frankfurt, Würzburg and Bamberg. Bamberg , in Bavaria , is where he chose to gather his army.
“It is with horror that I go to war”
The account of these preparations is fascinating, even more than that of the resulting battle, and, anyway, it is more relevant to the portrait of the Emperor, who is only too often depicted as merely a military genius, a role which, however, displeased him greatly.
Let us recall what he said in 1802 when he was still only First Consul Bonaparte:
“It is with horror that I go to war.”
As Emperor, he had not changed. He remained the man who, in the year 1802, had granted an audience to the Marquis de Lucchesini, the Prussian ambassador to Paris .
In the subsequent dispatch that the diplomat sent to his sovereign, he recounted that the Emperor had appeared to him “determined to put aside any talk of war and to devote the financial resources absorbed and wasted by war to fostering agriculture, industry, trade, and the arts.”
“In Amiens ,” he said, “I believed in good faith that the fate of France and my own were bound together. I pledged to devote myself purely to the government of France and I believe that I would have produced wonders.” (The author hesitates to quote this admission made by Napoleon after his deportation to Saint Helena, since, as one well known Napoleonic historian contends, the Emperor’s most striking characteristic was his talent for propaganda! Let us pass on.)
England , however, which did not wish to see a strong France , together with the foreign monarchs in its pay, who wished to see the Bourbons re-ascend the throne, decided different. They imposed on the Emperor what are known today under the heading of the “Napoleonic Wars,” a specious but persistent semantic distortion which we have exposed several times on this site.
Thus, as a result of a shameful conspiracy, still active today and recklessly promoted by the same royalist faction which during the Revolution preferred to escape rather than to defend their king, the name of Napoleon became synonymous with some sort of sabre-rattler, thirsty for blood and conquest.
The digression is perhaps a little lengthy, but none the less essential.
There are no insignificant details in great projects
This concern for detail, recounted above, is perfectly symbolized by the following letter he sent to General Dejean, former inspector general of fortifications and chief inspector of engineers and, at the time, minister for war administration.
This document, dated September 20, 1806 , at Saint-Cloud, in the middle of preparations for the Prussian campaign, may seem severe and even rude, but it gives the full flavour of the meticulous attention the Emperor applied to everything he did.
“Monsieur Dejean, here is the form I want for the report you are to send me every six months, on February 1 and August 1, on the state of the engineers and artillery on January 1 and July 1:
“A page for each fortified position classified by artillery command.
“The position has how many bastions?
“The citadel (if existent) has how many bastions?
“Monies needed for repairs: how much?
“Garrison: how many troops?
“Food rations: how much?
“Infantry barracks: how many?
“Cavalry barracks: how many?
“Report on general conditions: satisfactory or not?
“Existing palisades: how many?
“ Palisades needed: how many ?
“Tools, sandbags, existing wheelbarrows: how many?
“Tools needed: how many ?
“Artillery named in the decree or order of which date?
“Existing guns: how many?
“Shortages: how much?
“Include reports informing me which artillery is in good or bad state.
“Campaign equipment in storage at the northern supplies dump: how much?
“Do likewise for gun carriages and supplies of every sort, and distinguish what is already in position from what is only in stores.
“Include in the report all the towns in Holland that defend the border and mark out the Dutch border.
“Similarly for the Italian border, with the same distinguishing marks. “This single report book is to contain all the information needed for these calculations together with complete information on all the artillery equipment.
“End with a summary that sets out:
“Existing quantities in France of tools and other equipment for the engineers;
“Quantity of rifles and infantry weapons of any gauge, powder, guns of all types, cast iron, etc.
“Note all changes since the previous half-yearly report.”
In the middle of preparations for a decisive campaign,
Napoleon shows his solicitude for an old soldier
When he achieved supreme power, the Emperor did not start relying on his advisors like some “idle king”, but continued to cast his eye over everything, just as he had done during the Consulate.
And Chaptal wrote:
“I was utterly amazed that, among the thousands of pieces of artillery positioned along the coastline in fixed and mobile batteries, his memory could still recall two four-pounders.”
There was, no question, good reason for his astonishment.
The most astounding, if the superlative still retains some meaning with a man such as Napoleon, is that, in addition to preparing for a campaign whose eventuality he had done everything to delay, and as well as supervising details that to anyone else would seem very petty – shoes, greatcoats, mess tins, pots (“If there are not enough, buy some from the inhabitants, but let there be no misconduct, they are to be paid for fairly”), vegetables, flour (“Has the wood needed to make bread from the flour been taken into account?”); in addition to providing advice on affairs of government to his brother Joseph, King of Naples and his son-in-law Eugene, Viceroy of Italy; in addition to long letters to his allies, the kings of Württemburg and Bavaria and the Elector of Baden, explaining the causes of a war that had been forced on him; in the middle of this colossal flurry of dispatches concerning politics, diplomacy, strategy and military logistics, we find Napoleon’s decision about an old soldier of a hundred and two years of age named Vilcot, who was seeking charity:
“Saint-Cloud, September 20, 1806
“Let him be presented to me on Sunday. He shall receive 2,400 francs as a travel allowance, and an annual pension of 600 francs.”
Or, perhaps even more surprising, this note he sent to Dominique Vivant Denon, Director of Museums:
“Ask Monsieur Denon if it is true that entry to the Museum was delayed yesterday and that the public were made to wait. Nothing could be more contrary to my wishes.”
And what does one make of the sentiments that inspired the letter he sent to Talleyrand, on September 22, still from Saint-Cloud?
“To Monsieur, the Prince de Bénévent: it is necessary that Monsieur de Hohenzollern form a company of 140 dragoons, all German.
“Since what it will cost him is beyond his means, you will tell him that I will give him in secret the subsidy needed.
“Inform him that, in the circumstances, my purpose is to provide the House of Hohenzollern the means of making its appearance.”
The recipient of this generosity, who was to become the Emperor’s aide-de-camp, was Prince Charles Antoine, the son of Josephine’s friend and companion in prison during the Terror, Princess Amélie de Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen.
Such was the generous (and discrete) spirit of the “Ogre”, as the odious traditional description has him, a man spurned and insulted by the monarchs “by divine right”, who would scarcely have thought of such a gesture.
Like Chaptal before us, do we not have cause enough to be astonished?
Thirty-four orders to the armies in less than three days
On September 22, a note to Berthier, Major General of the Grande Armée, informed him that the Emperor would leave Paris on the 25th for Mainz, where he planned to arrive on the 28th or 29th.
It was 4:30 in the morning when the Emperor, accompanied by the Empress Josephine, left Saint-Cloud.
After passing successively through Châlons-sur-Marne, Verdun , Metz , Saint-Avold, Saarbrucken and Kaiserlautern, he arrived in Mainz on the date planned, September 28, during the morning.
His forced labour continued there, day and night: no less than thirty-four orders signed at two o’clock in the morning, at three o’clock in the afternoon or at midnight , between his arrival in Mainz and his departure on the evening of October 1!
His next stops were Frankfurt , then Würzburg, and finally, Bamberg , in Bavaria (twenty thousand inhabitants at the time), where he arrived on October 6 in the early afternoon.
He continued to oversee everything, trusting no-one but himself to make certain that, while the “main characters” were ready to make their entrance on stage, they were not lacking any props and accessories, however trivial they might seem.
“A challenge to our honour has been issued for the 8th.
Never has a Frenchman failed to present himself”
There was no question of relying on the good intentions of the marshals, and they had to send “an officer to headquarters to deliver the report of this inspection.”
Obviously, to a sovereign “by divine right” like Frederick William III, such a concern for detail would seem quite vulgar, and the idea of carrying out the same checks would not occur to him. Did he even know that soldiers need boots and mess tins?
For Napoleon, these were not trivialities. He had to see and know everything, in order to understand and plan everything to the last detail. When he sent aides-de-camp on reconnaissance, the details and schedule of the missions were very precisely defined. And, because two heads are better than one, he usually sent two officers.
So it was when he dispatched Anatole de Montesquiou from Würzburg, where he was on October 5:
“You are to spend the entire day of the 6th in Würzburg. You will leave on the 7th at four in the afternoon. At noon on the 7th, you will proceed to the citadel. Note the number of pieces of artillery. Count the number of wagons there are for companies of artillery and sappers. Arrange to arrive on the 8th in Bamberg , and take note of everything you see along the way.”
The second officer, Custine, received an identical mission to “visit the citadel of Würzburg on the 8th where he will count the pieces of artillery, personally count the wagons of the detachments, and report the state of all the corps and detachments; he is to leave Würzburg [70 kilometers south-west of Bamberg] on the 8th at eight o’clock at night, so as to arrive at headquarters in Bamberg on the 9th, where he will give me an exact report on all the items included in this order.”
When Napoleon learned of the Prussian ultimatum in Bamberg , consisting of no less than twenty pages of recriminations that left no doubt about Berlin ’s intentions, he turned to Berthier and said:
“I received an ultimatum from Prussia in which a challenge to our honour is issued for the 8th. Never has a Frenchman failed to present himself. And, since we are told that there is a beautiful queen who wants to be a witness to the duel, let us show her courtesy and march on to Saxony without pausing for sleep.”
The Emperor, fortunately, was not to extend his “courtesy” to the point of allowing the troops of the “beautiful queen” of Prussia defeat his Grande Armée.
To be continued …