Chapter 30

“The sentiment of devotion to their country
and the wish for national independence
not only remains intact in the heart
of the [Polish] nation, but has been
welded by misfortune. Its first passion,
its first desire is to become an
independent nation again.”

(36th Bulletin of the Grande Armée,
dated Posen ( Poznan), 1 December 1806)


Prussia was vanquished. Totally annihilated. And deeply humiliated, for what could be worse for an aggressive nation than to be totally defeated after having insulted the head of the enemy State and the enemies they later encountered on the battlefield.

Logically Prussia should have been vanquished at the same time as Russia and Austria. At Austerlitz. In one of our previous chapters we saw how at the last minute Prussia had eluded the same disastrous fate – until destiny had finally decided otherwise on 14 October 1806, at Jena and Aüerstadt.

Austria had prudently, if reluctantly, made peace with the victorious Emperor.

Reduced to powerlessness and bitterly humiliated, the Prussians would have to bide their time to obtain their revenge for the vindictive are always provocative especially after defeat. And in 1806, it would have been difficult to find a nation which was more provocative, defeated and revengeful than the Prussians.



Now there was only Russia.

Neither the defeat of Austerlitz, with her ally Austria, nor the example of the memorable thrashing of the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt had discouraged Russia. Napoleon, the “heir” of the French Revolution, was more than ever the ennemy who must be vanquished and struck down. Such was the situation since the Consulate and so it would remain until the night of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825)

Only then would the pursuit cease and hostilities end.

Not for a moment had the Tsar Alexander considered putting an end to the hostilities between his own country and France, and he was even less inclined to do so now that two of the strongest monarchies in Europe had been vanquished and relied on him to check Napoleon’s growing dominance.

He was also aware that his country was furiously Gallophobic. Those who were known as the “Old Russians” were still violently opposed to any form of reconciliation with revolutionary France even if with Napoleon the impetus and ravages of the French Revolution were definitely a thing of the past, except with regards to what the monarchies of the time abhorred the most - the question of human rights. The Tsar’s immediate entourage, notably the Dowager Empress, widow of Tsar Paul I (who had been assassinated by order of London with the complicity of his own son…Alexander) and his sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine, hated Napoleon and consequently the country that he ruled, France.

Among the aristocracy and the rich merchants, any form of alliance with France was considered a heresy, not, as might logically be supposed, for “ethical” reasons but for purely mercantile considerations which was easily comprehensible as the majority of Russian trade was with England and an alliance with Napoleon would only lead to ruin and a high cost of living which would be hard to compensate.

Grand Duchess Catherine

The Dowager Empress of Russia

As for the peasant class, the moujiks, they were indoctrinated by the poison of a religion which by making them hope for a better existence in life hereafter made them forget their miserable condition as serfs and they felt nothing but loathing for France which had become “atheist” since the Revolution.

In this context it is ironical to note that it was Napoleon who bore the reputation of being a barbarian. Despite the fact that it was Bonaparte, then First Consul, who had re-established catholic religion in France!


The Tsar was preoccupied with the question of Poland.

Since 1795 when the country had been partitioned for the third and last time by Austria, Russia and Prussia, it no longer existed as a nation. But the Poles who were not resigned to seeing their country cease to exist as an independent nation had placed their hopes in the French Emperor who, in 1805, had vanquished two of the enemies who had shared their country out amongst themselves as spoils of war and had just crushed the third, Prussia.

A Polish aristocrat, Countess Potocka, wrote in her memoirs that as soon as the news of Napoleon’s grandiose victory at Jena and his entry into Berlin was known in Poland, “all minds were in a turmoil and people no longer hid their joy. Restaurants were filled with turbulent young people who sang patriotic songs to the sound of glasses as they loudly acclaimed the liberators and brothers.”

An allegory which illustrates the first Partition of Poland in 1772, when
at the instigation of Catherine the
Great of Russia, Frederick the Great
of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria,
divided the country amongst themselves.
A second partition between Prussia
and Russia took place in 1793, followed
by a third in 1795, which destroyed
Poland as a separate nation.

Poland had been dismembered, but its soul survived.

Nothing irritated the Tsar more than these outbreaks of patriotism or the expectations that the Polish nation had placed in the French Emperor who had just triumphed so brilliantly at Austerlitz and Jena. For Alexander was extremely well informed as in his entourage he had a Polish aristocrat from one of the oldest families who was totally devoted to Russia, Count Adam Czartoryski.

It was evident that Alexander could not allow a Polish uprising without reacting and he decided to send troops into Poland where he felt he was as much at home as the Russians and Prussians.

Commanded by General Bennigsen, a Hanoverian in the service of Russia and one of the leaders of the conspiracy against the Tsar Paul I which had led to his assassination, an army of 120,000 men entered into Poland and occupied Warsaw, which since the last Partition of Poland was a possession of the King of Prussia.

But the Allies who were united for the common “cause” had no intention of quibbling amongst themselves for so little.

For now that his army had been crushed only revenge mattered and Frederick-William had only Russia left to count on.

But in the face of the Poles’ hostility, the Russian troops soon thought it more prudent to withdraw.

As for the Prussians who were informed of the advance of Napoleon, they too took the wise decision of abandoning Warsaw and left “escorted by the jeering and booing of the children”, later wrote one inhabitant of Warsaw who witnessed the scene, and they joined up with the Russian troops who had withdrawn on the opposite bank of the Vistula.


Could Napoleon just stand by and watch without reacting?

Could he allow the army encamped on the other side of the Vistula to slowly build up and approach the frontiers of France’s new allies without reacting?

Therefore, to counter the threat which was latent, but nevertheless real, the Emperor had no choice but to send troops into Poland:

General Bennigsen (1745-1826)

80,000 men, including 7,500 cavalrymen from the three corps commanded by Lannes, Davout and Augereau, under the formal command of Murat, in his capacity of Grand Duke of Berg, and whose mission it was to deter the threat.


It was also his task to sound out opinions and sympathies to enable the Emperor to discern what he could expect and hope to find in the valorous but hapless country before entering into Poland himself.

For entering the country immediately would inevitably have been taken as a sign of encouragement by the Polish nation which had already set all its hopes on him.

Murat, therefore arrived in Warsaw on 22 November (or the 28th according to other sources), but he was hardly cut out for a mission which required perspicacity and the power of observation and analysis.

For what promised to be a memorable occasion he chose his outfit with the utmost care and decided to wear a costume which was of Polish inspiration. A red schapska lined with marten and trimmed with feathers, a long green velvet tunic fastened around the waist worn under a long mantle lined in otter and a Sobieski style sword attached to a golden belt.

Countess Potocka (1776-1867)

This, together with the reputation he had owing to his legendary feats of arms makes it easy to understand the phrase, quoted below, written by Countess Potocka, which describes the enthusiasm which hailed the arrival of the French:

“The Poles, charmed by so much valour, would willingly have placed a crown on his wreath of laurels.”

The Emperor who knew his brother-in-law’s shortcomings only too well, however, gave him the following instructions:

“Announce that I shall arrive in Warsaw in the near future”, he wrote to him from Posen (Poznan) where he resided since the 30 November, after having left Berlin - the city he had treated so well - five days earlier.

But in order to calm the zeal of the dashing cavalier who he knew hankered after the Polish throne, he added:

“Make it clear that I shall not come begging for a throne for one of my own, for I do not lack thrones for my family.”



Marshal Davout (left) was the first to feel the pulse of Poland and French soldiers received an enthusiastic welcome upon their arrival in the province of Poznan. For the Poles were already convinced that they were about to regain their dignity.

Davout received instructions from the Emperor to be cordial, but above all not to commit himself and to transmit his impressions as the Poles’ demonstrations of goodwill seemed to indicate that much could be expected of them.

For it would take a good deal more to convince the Emperor – who still had the problem of Russia to solve - to embark on a new venture without first giving it serious thought and to make it clear that he was not prepared to commit himself despite his justified sympathy for the Polish cause, he again wrote to Murat for he distrusted his whimsical reactions and thoughtless conduct.

“I will only proclaim the independence of Poland when I recognize that they are really determined to support it, when I see 30 or 40,000 men under arms, organized, and the aristocracy mounted and willing to pay the price in person.”

He made the same declaration to the delegation which came to greet him at Posen on 19 November.

“ France has never acknowledged the Partition of Poland; this partition was never in the interest of France. The existence of Poland is in the interest of Europe, in the interest of France. I wish to sound the opinion of the entire nation. Unite together, let the inner factions cease and let the past which has made victims of you and of which there are so many examples in your history serve as a lesson to you. Only then will you become an independent nation again. Your fate is between your hands.”

Perhaps at that moment he had in mind the report written by the commander of one of the two other corps d’armée, those of Marshals Lannes and Augereau, who with their corps had followed different routes, more to the north, passing between Pomerania and Poznan, by the Lower Vistula. They had received a friendly but more indifferent welcome and Marshal Lannes had sent him the following dispatch.

Jean Lannes, who had served as French ambassador in Portugal between 1801 and 1804 had acquired more judgement and had learned much by experience, and he sent Napoleon a message from Thorn (now Torun) which was a factual yet vivid description.

“Judging by all I see and the information that I receive, Poland is made up of two classes of inhabitants: the first is very rich and cannot separate its interests from Prussia; the latter, by far the more numerous, is made up of beings that are half-way between man and brute for they are totally lacking in any sort of energy. I beg Your Majesty to believe and trust the information that I send him on this nation. I am convinced that if we encourage a rising, we will encounter more hostility than support. I am annoyed, Sire, that the Poles’ mentality is judged only by the Poles who live in the big towns, for we must also take into account the extreme poverty and debasement in the country.”



After leaving Posen on 16 December, Napoleon entered into Warsaw on Friday, 19 December 1806.

The Emperor’s entry into the capital could hardly be described as a triumphant event worthy of a roman emperor and was certainly very different from Murat’s flamboyant arrival, for the Emperor arrived by night, at 4 a.m., “riding on a bad horse which had been given to him at the last post house.” His only escort was his mameluke Roustan. Under this incognito he was obliged to go and wake up the sentry who was on guard duty at the castle himself so that he could go to bed without even having seen the illuminations and the triumphal arches that the officials of Warsaw had prepared for him.

Here is a rapid description of Warsaw in 1806, just before it became the capital of the Grand Duchy bearing the same name: 100,000 inhabitants (including the suburbs), cloth, canvas, soap, carpet, hosiery, and hat manufactories and a great many breweries.

Some recent sources have attempted to ascertain that from that moment on the Emperor lived a sort of dolce vita which was an uninterrupted series of balls and receptions.

But upon consulting “l’Itinéaire de Napoleon Bonaparte” (“The Itinerary of Napoleon Bonaparte”), which was meticulously researched and drawn up by Louis Garros (1947 Edition), we discover that on the 19th he spent his day giving orders and meeting the local officials. One witness reported that, “He uttered not a word which might have been interpreted as a promise.” The following day, he visited the defensive works at Praga, a suburb of Warsaw which had been burnt down and its population massacred in 1794 by the Russian troops commanded by Souvarov. On the 21st, he worked with Daru, the Quarter-Master General of the Grande Armée, whom he informed that, “Within two or three days there would be a big battle.” And on Monday 22nd, he gave orders to set the III Corps off in the direction of Okunin, some thirty kilometres to the north.

We are therefore forced to come to the conclusion that at this precise moment at least with the Russian Army close by and in arms, Napoleon had little time to take part in social events or to indulge in a relationship of a sentimental type as some authors have written.



Finally, at 1 a.m. on the 23 December, Napoleon left Warsaw.

His objective: the Russians in position on the Bug (a river which is 800 kilometres long and flows into the River Vistula between Plock and Warsaw).

Three days later, at Pultusk, some sixty kilometres north-east of Warsaw in an ocean of mud which engulfed men, horses and canon, for it had rained non-stop, one of Napoleon’s lieutenants, Marshal Lannes with his V Corps of 15,000 exhausted and starving men managed to repulse and defeat a Russian corps which outnumbered the French four to one, while approximately 15 kilometres to the north, at Golymin, Ney, Augereau and Soult were engaged in another battle.

On 26 December 1806, with only 15,000 exhausted men of his V Corps, Marshal Lannes (1769-1809) won a brilliant
but difficult victory at Pultusk
against the Russians who
outnumbered the French four to one.

Napoleon had roughed out his plan for a manoeuvre that was to make Pultusk the decisive battle which was to enable him to defeat the Russian army, but the Polish campaign which had barely started was about to come to an abrupt end.

“I consider the campaign is over, wrote Napoleon to Cambacérès. The enemy has retired beyond the marshes and deserts. I am going to take up my winter quarters.”

And he left Putusk to return to Warsaw.

The following episode: “the cemetery at Eylau”.


To be continued…