“A charming woman, an angel!
(Napoleon on St Helena, evoking Marie Waleska)
The end of the year 1806 was to mark an important date in the life of Napoleon for on 31 December, five days after Marshal Lannes had defeated the Russians at the Battle of Pultusk (See Chapter 30), the Emperor heard that a young woman who was employed by his sister, Caroline Murat, as lady in waiting, Eleanor Denuelle de la Plaigne, with whom he had had a brief affair had just given birth to his child.
From that moment on, Josephine’s fate was sealed and it was certainly in this cold, muddy land that Napoleon who wanted an heir, first seriously thought of separating from his beloved Josephine. For the Empress was incapable of giving him a child.
The year 1807 was to begin with a chance meeting for Napoleon at a post house at Blonie, approximately thirty kilometres west of Warsaw, where on the 1 January, as he returned from Pultusk, he met a young Polish countess whom he was to see again often in the future.
The Emperor was to remain in Warsaw for almost a month, until the 29 January.
Apart from the cold weather, the sojourn in Warsaw made a pleasant change from the icy mud, and according to General Savary, who was generally austere:
“We found our sojourn in Warsaw enchanting and apart from the theatre we led the same life as in Paris: twice a week there was a concert followed by a reception given by the Emperor who held court where we made many acquaintances and valuable social connections. Many ladies of high rank could be admired for their dazzling beauty and their charming manners. One may say with good reason that Polish ladies would make gracious ladies in any other civilized country jealous. For most of them possessed a knowledge of the world and of the ways of high society combined with a degree of education which is not commonly found amongst French women and which surpasses that which is normally encountered in towns where prominent people meet together”.
Savary, added with a sense of decency and discretion which was characteristic of the time:
“The Emperor, like the officers, paid tribute to their beauty. He was unable to resist the charm of one of them; he loved her tenderly and was paid back nobly in return.”
Which was fortunate under the circumstances for the pretty metaphor hides what was initially nothing more than a political manoeuvre which consisted in putting a very young woman – married to the old (for the time) Count Waleski, who was seventy, Marie was only eighteen at the time– in Napoleon’s bed to help to persuade him to recreate the Kingdom of Poland.
“MY TASK IS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT…”
If it was undeniable that Napoleon had brief affairs, they never made him lose his head and he was in the habit of saying, “I do not want the court to be under the influence of women. They did a lot of harm to Henry IV and Louis XIV; my task is much more important than theirs and the French have become too serious to forgive their sovereigns for displaying their affairs and mistresses ostentatiously”.
One of Napoleon’s great and faithful admirers, the Saxon countess, Charlotte of Kielmansegge, evoked the beginning of Marie Waleska’s relationship with Napoleon as follows:
“One day, Prince Poniatowski told me how the Emperor and the countess had met. She lived near Warsaw, with her husband, who was much older than she was, in a little manor which was far from clean. One day the Prince of Neuchâtel [Marshal Berthier] moved in with his staff and the countess had to leave them her manor and move into a farm nearby. The courtyard between the manor and the farm was full of filth and muddy puddles. One day, as the countess was about to walk across, one of the aides de camps, Monsieur de Flahaut, rushed over upon seeing her and picked her up in his arms to carry her across. Shortly afterwards, the count and countess attended a ball given by the town in the Emperor’s honour. She was shy and felt lost surrounded by the gorgeous uniforms and beautiful dresses. The Emperor noticed her and without saying a word he danced with her. The next day and the days that followed, Marshal [of the Palace] Duroc, invited her to visit the Emperor. At the same time an order forbidding the Prince of Neuchâtel’s staff from visiting the countess was given.”
“AS GRACEFUL AS ANY WOMAN COULD BE…”
The physical description of the young countess left by Countess Potocka, is confirmed by a slightly more sober description written by Madame de Kielmannsegge:
“I had little contact with Madame Waleska, but nevertheless she gave me the impression of being a very kind-hearted person, but who had little influence. When I saw her for the first time, she did not strike me as exceptionally beautiful, yet the more I observed her the more she appeared to be as graceful as any woman could be. She was not precisely tall, but slender and elegant, with blonde hair, a light complexion, a full face, an extremely pleasant smile and the tone in her voice made her likeable as soon as she spoke; modest and unassuming, her bearing was reserved and she was always very simply dressed, she possessed everything a woman needs to please and be loved.”
If, as everything tends to indicate, it was Prince Poniatowski who was behind the political manoeuvre which consisted in bringing about the encounter between the young countess and Napoleon, he must have been extremely perspicacious psychologically to discern the Emperor’s taste for women who were, “kind, naïve and gentle”, as he had recently written to Josephine in a letter from Berlin, for Marie Waleska met with all these requirements.
There seems to be little doubt that at the beginning, Napoleon considered the relationship with the young countess as little more than a passing fancy and, rather tactlessly, he sent her notes which were unambiguous and which obviously offended her as, at first, she refused all the invitations he sent her.
FAITHFUL THROUGH ADVERSITY
It was at this stage that the sordid machination - in which Prince Poniatowski played no small part and which is hardly to his credit - started with the direct intervention of the leaders of Poland who were shameless enough to write the following lines to the young countess:
“In order to serve your homeland, there are sacrifices to which you must consent even if you find them difficult to make. Do you think that Esther, [young Jewess deported to Babylone, who according to the bible which bears her name (200 B.C.), became Queen of Persia and saved the Jews from being massacred] gave herself to Assuerus out of a sentiment of love? She sacrificed herself to save her nation and her glory consisted in saving it. May we say as much for your glory and our happiness.”
And unfortunately for her, Marie Waleski was patriotic.
She finally accepted the disgraceful arrangement and today we all know the how the story ended. Marie Waleska became sincerely attached to Napoleon, gave him a son and ended up by loving him. For the duration until the end of the Empire, she followed him to Paris where she lived discreetly only to reappear again later when the Emperor’s fortune changed and he was abandoned and betrayed by everyone.
In I814 she went to visit him on the island of Elba, and the following year she even went to see him at Malmaison after the disaster of Waterloo.
As for Napoleon, he loved Marie Waleska who was faithful and disinterested just as tenderly in return and he called her his “kind Marie”.
GENERAL BENNIGSEN’S ZEAL
Napoleon was well aware that Russia refused to hear of peace and only the disastrous weather conditions had, by force of circumstance, brought about a sort of truce. Everything seemed to indicate that before the spring the Russians would not attempt anything.
Informed of the movement of Russian troops, the Emperor had every reason to be satisfied for if the Hanoverian managed to cross the river his troops would not only be cut off, they would be completed encircled. All he had to do was to let him advance and pretend to give way before him.
The result was that upon reading the documents which had been seized, Bennigsen realized he was falling into a mortal trap and immediately stopped his march giving orders for his troops to fall back and, on 2 February, he directed his heavy artillery which threatened to slow down his progress towards Eylau.
Situated in the middle of a natural amphitheatre of small hills and woods, some forty kilometres to the south of Königsberg, the small market town in eastern Prussia was about to become tragically famous.
During this lapse of time, Napoleon had not remained inactive. A heavy enemy rearguard had been routed and he had launched attacks on all the enemy troops he encountered on his way. Thus, two small towns; Guttstadt and Heilsberg, situated approximately fifty kilometres to the south of Konigsberg, were already occupied by French troops and they now threatened Landsberg, barely a few kilometres south of Eylau, where Bennigsen had sent his artillery and had just established his headquarters.
Afraid that his retreat might turn into a rout, Bennigsen decided to confront the enemy.
A FALSE LEGEND DESTROYED:
We will shortly relate the battle which has the founded reputation of being a carnage.
In our previous chapters we explained that Napoleon had never wanted this campaign any more than he had wanted the previous campaigns but after the Prussian defeat, Russia was determined to check the growing power of the “Usurper”.
Yet ever since, Napoleon’s detractors have held him responsible for the atrocious battle insisting on the fact that – and this was written only recently by a foreign press agency about the battle of Eylau – Napoleon was cynical and unconcerned about the life of his soldiers.
Thus, here are the instructions given by Napoleon while he was still in Poland for the organisation of the military hospitals in anticipation of the conflict which now seemed inevitable after the sudden incursion of the Russians in the direction of Thorn (now Torun) and Dantzig which had forced him to abandon his winter quarters and resume the campaign.
And as always when it comes to setting facts right and re-establishing the truth – which is the mission we have set ourselves on this website – it is important to quote at least part of his instructions in extenso:
“Six thousand mattresses must be made up in Berlin without the slightest delay; to this effect the hundred and twenty thousand pounds of wool which are stored in warehouses and the sixteen thousand ells of canvas and ticking which are in Berlin and Spandau will be used. [In passing, let us admire Napoleon’s perfect grasp of minor details]
“Twelve thousand tents will immediately be used for the manufacture of nine thousand pairs of sheets and another twelve thousand tents will be used for the confection of forty thousand shirts and forty thousand trousers which are to be allotted to the hospitals. As soon as five thousand of each of these articles are made up, they are to be sent to Posen ( Poznan) by the fastest route so that they may be allocated to the hospitals in Poland…
“A catholic priest will be assigned to each hospital in Poland as chaplain; he will be appointed by the Quartermaster General. The priest in question will be in charge of supervising the medical orderlies, a task for which he will be allotted the sum of 100 francs per month, which will be paid to him on the 30th of every month.
The medical orderlies will be paid every day by the chaplain the sum of twenty sous per day, in addition of their daily ration. The director of the hospital will pay the orderlies in the presence of the chaplain, out of the funds put at his disposal as it is said hereafter.
“The Quartermaster General will, out of the funds put at his disposal by the Minister of War, take measures to ensure that the director of each hospital will always have at his disposal, and in advance, a fund equal to the sum of 12 francs for every patient that the hospitalcontains for its organisation. This fund will be used to pay the medical orderlies, and to provide for petty expenses, such as eggs, milk, etc.
“As this order is to be generally applied to all the army hospitals, His Majesty orders that twenty-four hours after the competent authorities have been informed of the present arrangements, each hospital dispensary must be well-stocked with provisions for two months, and for the number of patients that the hospital must contain, and that the medicine which is to be purchased from local apothecaries will be paid for in cash.
“Measures must be taken to have good bread baked with flour made of wheat for the provision of hospitals. The Quartermaster General will, whenever he possibly can, have wine from Stettin, which is the best available, distributed.”
This short extract (from a long written order) illustrates the Emperor’s genuine concern for the victims of war, and his determination and preoccupation that the civilian purveyors should be paid without delay.
But the extensive precautionary measures taken by Napoleon were to prove unintentionally inadequate for the massacre which was about to take place at Eylau, on 8 February 1807.
To be continued…