Volume II

Chapter 33


“Gentlemen and members of the
Counsel of State, war is no laughing matter.
All you know about it here, on your
benches, is what you read about it in
the bulletins or in reports relating our
triumphs; you know nothing of our
bivouacs, our forced marches, our
hardships of every sort, our sufferings
of every kind. I know them because
I see them and, sometimes, I share them.”

With characteristic impudence, Bennigsen, boasted that he was the victor of the bloody battle of Eylau. Just as he had previously bragged that he was the victor of the Battle of Pultusk, which had been won by Marshal Lannes on 26 December 1806.

Whereas, on the night of the battle, Napoleon had meditated upon and paid homage to the dead and wounded, whereas in several letters written to the Empress, he had expressed his disgust and emotion at the appalling sight of the battlefield, Bennigsen showed no compassion whatsoever for the Russian victims ‑ not to mention the French victims! – of the carnage which had taken place on the 8 February at Eylau. Which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read accounts of the wretched conditions described by many foreign observers in post in Russia at the time of the Russian soldiers who served in the ranks and who, once in uniform, were treated no better than serfs in civilian life during the time they spent in service ‑ twenty-five years without any leave!

Jean Roch Coignet, a grenadier in the Imperial Guard, wrote: “We arrived in a big village called Osterode. We found nothing to eat except some potatoes. The Emperor slept in a barn but we finally found him a decent lodging. And, always among us, he often lived off what his soldiers gave him. The poor officers, had it not been for the soldiers, would have died of hunger.”

Eylau could not be considered as more than a semi-victory by Napoleon ‑ and as such it had cost too much in human lives ‑ or as a semi-defeat which was a “luxury” he could not afford as the European monarchies were only waiting for a sign that he was weakening to close in on him.

As a result of the deceitful version of Bennigsen, who thanks to his disgraceful dupery had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian Army ‑ and also due to the fact that 58th Bulletin of the Grande Armée had not dissimulated the number of casualties (which proves that the Bulletins were not quite as “dishonest” as they were reputed to be) the peace proposals that General Bertrand conveyed to the King of Prussia who had fled to Memel, on the Baltic coast, were disdainfully rejected by the Prussian sovereign despite the crushing defeat his army had just sustained at Jena, on 14 October 1806.

In St. Petersburg enthusiasm spread like wildfire.

Count Rostopchine, the future arsonist of Moscow (in 1812) declared insultingly and loquaciously that:

“He [Napoleon] thought he was going to impress us with his Guard and [at Eylau] we only left him with a few specimens.”!!

 

RESTORING THE ARMY’S STRENGTH

What was Napoleon’s best course of action now?

After the drastic bleeding which had taken place on the 8 February it was impossible to immediately resume the campaign to defeat Bennigsen decisively.

His first task, therefore, was to see to it that the army fully recovered its strength and to achieve this, the men had to be well nourished. On March 12th, Napoleon wrote:

“The fate of Europe depends on subsistence.”

This was the task he set to, first from Osterode, where he had established his headquarters, a “wretched town which has already often been looted and looted again [sic]”, according to the description left by a military surgeon, Percy.

An obviously gloomy place according to the letter Napoleon sent to Josephine on March 2nd:

My Dear, I reproach myself for not having written to you for two or three days as I know how worried you are. I am in good health and everything is going well. I am in a ghastly village where I shall remain for some time yet…

I am glad for we are having mild, springlike weather, the snow is melting, the rivers are thawing…”

The mild springlike weather, however, soon transformed the country into a gigantic bog.

It is interesting to note in passing that

even when he was far away and absorbed in one of his most difficult campaigns, Napoleon still took the time to think of and concern himself with humble individuals. Thus, when he received a letter dated 5 March from the Empress informing him of the death of Dupuis, the ex-headmaster of the small military academy of Brienne ‑ where Napoleon had been a student ‑ before later becoming Napoleon’s personal librarian at Malmaison, he replied on the 17th of the same month “at 10 p.m.”:

“… Tell me about the death of our poor Dupuis and inform his brother that I wish to help him…”

The semi-victory – or semi-defeat – of Eylau was not enough to satisfy Napoleon who was accustomed to swift, decisive and brilliant victories like Austerlitz and Jena.

To rebuild the army’s strength, Daru, the Quartermaster-General of the GrandeArmée set to work and organised warehouses that were spaced out as far as Thorn (today Torun) and Warsaw, and from the Vistula to the river Elbe. For the soldiers were desperately in need of shoes, rifles, clothes, medicine…

 

 

FRESH TROOPS


Unfortunately, the transportation of goods bringing fresh supplies to the army left much to be desired. The employees of the private company called Breidt, who Napoleon had been keeping his eye on since the beginning of the Prussian campaign, were carrying out their mission so

In anticipation of the next attack by the Russians, Napoleon had to buy new mounts for the cavalry after Eylau. This print shows General Bourcier inspecting and purchasing horses.

badly that they were imprisoned and, on 6 March, Napoleon was obliged to create ten battalions of the train for military equipment organised into six companies of four squads each with thirty-two wagons drawn by four horses.

The army also needed fresh troops. Let us remember the fate that had befallen Marshal Augereau’s VII Corps, whose survivors had since been incorporated into the other corps d’armée by Napoleon.

The wounded, once healed, returned to their regiments and five infantry regiments arrived from France, four from Italy and the allies ‑ Bavarian, Saxon and Spanish (also allies, but not for much longer) were asked to send reinforcements.

After the hecatomb provoked by the spectacular cavalry charges which had been particularly deadly for the poor horses considered at the time as little more than expensive equipment, Napoleon gave orders for thirteen thousand new mounts to be bought.

At Mainz, in accordance with Napoleon’s orders, Marshal Kellerman organised four temporary cavalry regiments to convey the horses to the new regiments which had been formed and twenty other temporary infantry regiments were also in the process of being formed. In May eighteen of them were to join the army on campaign.

 

KING JOSEPH’S LAMENTATION


Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), portrayed here when he was
King of Spain

It was in this context and at this time that Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, wrote from his warm kingdom of Naples complaining of the hardships endured by his army. Napoleon’s reaction was immediate and sharp:

“Osterode, 1 March 1807

“…I refer you to what General César Berthier [Marshal Berthier’s youngerbrother] will say to you with regards to the comparison you make between the Army of Naples and the Grande Armée. Staff officers, colonels, officers have not undressed for the past two months, some of them for four months (I, myself, spent fifteen days without removing my boots). We are in the middle of snow and mud, with no wine, no brandy, no bread, with only potatoes and meat, and we have to make long marches daily back and forth without any form of comfort and fight by bayonet in the middle of grapeshot. Very often we are obliged to evacuate the wounded in sledges in the open air over a distance of 50 leagues.

It is beyond a joke to compare us to the Army of Naples which is fighting a war in the beautiful land of Naples where you have wine, oil, cloth, sheets, social life and even women at your disposal. After having destroyed the Prussian monarchy, we are fighting against what remains of the Prussian army, against the Russians, the Kalmucks, the Cossacks, peoples of the North who once invaded the Roman Empire. We are engaged in a war which requires every ounce of our energy and rigour...”

Napoleon’s letter to his brother enlightens us on the conditions under which the men – from the most illustrious down to the ordinary soldiers - lived and fought.

The miserable town of Osterorde, however, was hardly in keeping with the obligations of a sovereign whose duties included among others giving audience to foreign delegations. Thus, on Wednesday, 1 April, Napoleon left and established his headquarters at the castle of Finkenstein, which had been built by the count whose name it bore and who had been governor under Frederick II. In 1807 the castle belonged to Count Dohna who was the Grand Chamberlain of the King of Prussia.

Napoleon was to reside there until the 6 June.

“To the Empress, in Paris

Finkenstein, 2 April 1807

My dear, I am writing you a note. I have just transferred my headquarters to a beautiful castle which resembles the castle owned by Bessières where I have lots of chimneys which is very pleasant as I often get up at night and like to see a fire burning.

Two grenadiers of the Imperial Guard standing guard in front of the castle at Finkenstein

My health is perfect. The weather is beautiful, but still cold. The thermometer indicates 4 or 5 degrees.

Farewell, my dear,

Ever yours,

Napoleon.”

 

 

NAPOLEON’S INCREDIBLE SERENITY

Upon carefully considering Napoleon’s situation at the time, we are forced to come to the conclusion that it was far from enviable.

Almost isolated in a remote corner of Europe with the recent setback of Eylau which could only be described as a semi-victory and only assisted by a few secretaries, Napoleon was well aware that the powers he had recently vanquished – Austria, Prussia and, of course, Russia – were only waiting for the right moment to close in on him. He was also aware that public opinion in France – for he received news from the capital twice a week with the arrival of auditors of the Counsel of State who left almost immediately returning to Paris with laws and decrees ‑ had been alarmed by the 58th Bulletin of the Grande Armée relating the Battle of Eylau in which letters reporting on the carnage and mentioning the risks taken by the Emperor had also been printed. It was surprising in this context to see him serenely getting through so much work. Let us read the following extract of “Napoleon and Poland”, written by Hendelsmann:

“The time that the Emperor spent in this palace may be considered as the period when his genius was the most developed. The amount of energy he deployed was miraculous. He attended to everything himself; he governed France giving instructions for everything from the creation of a chair at the Collège de France to settling minor details for the Opera, while at the same time reorganising his army, sending orders to Dantzig and Warsaw and overseeing the supply of provisions, all the while making plans for his future diplomatic and military operations, thwarting the efforts made by Prussia and Russia at Vienna, giving audience to the Persian and Turkish ambassadors…”

While Napoleon was at Finkenstein, he gave audience to the Turkish and Persian ambassadors. In a letter he wrote on 28 February 1807, Talleyrand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, reported that they were both so anxious to arrive first that their escorts came to blows.

And, added the same author, “even if he wrote love letters to Josephine and spent his time with Marie Waleska, he never lost sight of his main objective: to win a decisive victory over the Russians as soon as spring arrived and conclude a separate peace treaty with Prussia.”

It would be difficult to sum up more concisely.

 

NAPOLEON’S PRODIGIOUS CORRESPONDENCE

Between the 1 April and 7 May he wrote no less than three hundred and ten letters, among which we find instructions for the supplying of Paris at the onset of the Continental Blockade, for the embellishment of the capital and for street lighting – “The contractors in charge of lighting the streets of Paris are scoundrels…”(letter to Fouché, dated 23 May) – for gratifications to be given to the soldiers and officers wounded during the first part of the Polish Campaign (letter to Talleyrand dated 22 March), for the number of surgeons that were to be appointed together with their assignments, for the progress of public works, for the number of canon balls that were to be fired at the siege of Dantzig (letter to General Songis dated 12 April), to a curate at Noyon who had expressed seditious ideas in his sermon on the subject of conscription, on the law for the budget of 1806 and on the state of finance, on the minting of coins in the Kingdom of Naples, on the manufacturers’ collateral, on the plans for the construction of the future temple of the Grande Armée (now the church of the Madeleine in Paris), for a loan of a hundred thousand francs to be consented to the scientist Berthollet, for the organisation of a new establishment for the education of young ladies at Ecouen (letter dated 15 May). One letter, dated 27 May, even mentions a corporal named Bernaudat in the 13th Foot Regiment, “who has been awarded the Cross [of the Legion of Honour] because he is a brave man” and it must not be “taken away from him because he is a fond of a little wine”…, etc., etc.

Reading Napoleon’s correspondence is literally astounding!

 

SAD NEWS

On the 5 May 1807, the sad news of the death of Charles-Napoleon, the elder of the two sons of his step-daughter, Hortense, who had married his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, arrived at Finkenstein. The little boy had died under horrible circumstances at The Hague, aged only five, after catching the croup (diphtheritic laryngitis) which often killed young children by suffocation at the time.

The Emperor, who received the news on 14 May, wrote to Hortense on the 20th:

Napoleon at Saint-Cloud with his nephew and nieces in 1806. On his left and right, Joseph’s daughters, Zénaïde and Charlotte. Young Charles-Napoleon, then aged four, is standing in front of him.

“My daughter, according to all the news I receive from The Hague it seems that you are not being reasonable. However justified your sorrow may be, it must have its limits. Do not ruin your health, divert yourself and remember that life is so full of pitfalls and may be the cause of so much misfortune, that death is not the greatest misfortune of all.

Your affectionate father,

Napoleon.”

Some may perhaps find the terms of his letter excessively severe, but in her capacity as Queen of Holland, Hortense could not indulge in “ordinary” grief. What is worthy of mention, however, is that in spite of his overwhelming activity – the review of eighteen thousand cavalrymen at Elbing, the inspection of the temporary infantry regiments at Finkenstein, granting audiences to the Turkish and Persian ambassadors, passing other military reviews at Dantzig, not to mention his massive correspondence already mentioned above – Napoleon who had not forgotten the death of the little boy, wrote to Champagny, the Minister of the Interior, on the 4 June.

“Over the past twenty years many children in northern Europe have died of an illness called the croup. It is our desire that a prize of 12,000 francs should be granted to the doctor who writes the best memoir on this illness and on the way in which it should be treated.”

 

A FAKE VICTOR ABOUT TO BE VANQUISHED

It was almost spring.

“The weather is beautiful, wrote Napoleon to Empress Josephine on 6 June.

The arrival of good news concerning his military operations would soon enable Napoleon to resume the campaign and finally triumph after the undecided victory of the 8 February at Eylau.

Two days later, Berthier informed Marshal Soult:

“The army is assembling and eager to get to grips with the enemy who is making every error we could possibly hope for.”

Well-rested, well-nourished, well-dressed and shod and supplied with ammunition, the troops were fresh and ready for a new confrontation.

Marshal Lannes, who had been seriously ill since Pultusk, resumed his command at the head of his V Corps with which he would accomplish miracles a few days later.

As for Bennigsen, who had falsely proclaimed himself the victor of Pultusk and Eylau, he would not have to wait long to be decisively and overwhelmingly defeated at Friedland.

 

To be continued…