“An armistice exists, it’s true, but
you should never rely upon it when you are in
the capital of your enemies”
The arrival of the messenger (which marked the end of our previous chapter) was anything but premature as the Niemen was the last obstacle before Napoleon – and the laws of war entitled him to do so – invaded the territory of Alexander. As he was the one who had declared war.
Everything spoke in favour of an advance: a brilliant victory won at a relatively reasonable cost in human lives and the arrival of the summer months.
Also, with the splendid victory behind them, French troops were revigorated and full of ardour and self-confidence both in themselves and in their chiefs, and of course, in their supreme commander – Napoleon ‑ and they would not have hesitated even a second at having to cross the symbolical obstacle of a river.
Whereas in the other camp, the Russian Army was completely demoralized after the crushing defeat and the heavy losses it had just sustained at Friedland. As we have already seen in our previous chapter, despite Bennigsen’s boastful declarations claiming that his troops were retreating in good order, the conditions under which they were operating their retreat were in fact no better than those under which the Prussians had retreated only a year before after the dual battle of Jena and Auerstadt, on the 14 October.
Had Napoleon then decided to react as the inveterate warrior and conqueror he is generally made out to be by leading his army into Russia, there is little doubt that his enterprise would have been successful and he would probably not have had to invade Russia five years later when his campaign ended in a complete military disaster.
ALEXANDER COMPELLED TO ALTER HIS TONE
For the Tsar Alexander, it was a severe blow.
At Austerlitz, when Napoleon had sent him one of his aides-de-camp, General Savary, before the onset of the battle, asking to meet him, the Tsar had refused and replied in a particularly humiliating manner by addressing his answer “to the head of the French Government”:
“Here is my reply; the address does not bear the distinction which your master has recently adopted. I consider such matters are of little importance [!] but it is a rule of etiquette and I will change it with the greatest of pleasure as soon as he gives me reason to do so.” (See Chapter 12, The Premises of Austrelitz - 2)
Today, to avoid the inevitable catastrophe which threatened him, Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, and sovereign by divine right was going to have to swallow his pride and beg “the head of the French Government” for peace. The victor he had up to now despised.
THE PROJECT OF AN ARMISTICE IS SIGNED
On the evening of the 18 June, General Prince Lobanoff crossed the Niemen to meet Marshal Berthier, chief of staff of the Grande Armée, for a conference.
The two plenipotentiaries reached an agreement and, on the 21st, they signed the following project for an armistice:
“Art. I. There will be an armistice between the French and the Russian Army, so that, during this interval, a peace treaty may be negotiated, concluded and signed to put an end to the effusion of blood which is so harmful to humanity.
There was also an article 4, which determined the positions of the French and Russian Armies during the armistice, and other articles relating to the exchange of prisoners and the final negotiation of peace.
That night, Napoleon ratified the text of the armistice which the Grand Chamberlain of the Palace, Duroc, bore off to the Tsar Alexander, and which he exchanged for another copy which had been ratified by the Russian sovereign.
THE TSAR’S INMOST MOTIVATIONS
On the 23rd, General Prince Lebanoff asked to see Napoleon, who granted him an audience and in the course of which the Russian envoy informed the Emperor of the instructions that the Tsar had given him. These lines must retain our attention:
“The alliance between France and Russia has always been my desire, and I am convinced that this alone will guarantee the happiness and peace of the universe. I have no doubt that we will understand each other and come to an agreement with the Emperor Napoleon on condition that we are to negotiate directly without any other intermediary”.
The second time was at Friedland. And for him, this defeat had potentially graver consequences, for if Napoleon decided to cross the Niemen with his victorious soldiers, then all of Russia and with it the Romanov dynasty, would be humiliated.
Moreover, if he considered his past alliances, the Tsar could not help feeling anything but bitterness and disappointment towards the other sovereigns who had promised him help and assistance. In particular, Austria and Britain.
The first had abandoned him after Eylau, and as for the second, by refusing among other things to guarantee the Russian loan, she had revealed her real motivations more clearly than by openly divulging her intentions: she intended to let the others “pull the chestnuts out of the fire” solely for her own benefit and was concerned with advancing only her own interests.
FEAR OF REVIVAL OF POLISH PATRIOTISM
Moreover, there was the risk that the Poles who knew that Napoleon was on the other side of the Niemen should start to quiver with a strong desire for independence again. For the resurrection of the Kingdom of Poland which had ceased to exist after the country had been invaded and divided between the three great predators of the day, who were generally prone to giving lessons of morality to others: Austria, Prussia and Russia.
Napoleon had already thought a great deal about and was still thinking of what might be done for Poland, but if he had some thirty thousand Poles who were armed by the aristocracy serving with distinction and honour in the GrandeArmée, he had also observed upon entering the country that the masses of the Polish nation seemed inert and almost indifferent, as if they expected everything from the French Emperor.
Bearing this factor in mind, did the Polish cause – however engaging it might be‑ justify unfavourably disposing Alexander whom he hoped would become his powerful ally against Britain?
Apart from this consideration of political moderation, but of which he had no knowledge, for the Tsar, the situation was desperate.
As it was, he had no option but to negotiate with the victor and to take pains to pretend that a solid friendship was about to spring up after the effusion of blood and the conflicts of yesterday.
Did this mean that the Tsar, whom Napoleon had been courteous enough to allow to escape after his defeat at Austerlitz and who he was about to meet, had suddenly undergone a change of heart and was animated by feelings of sincerity.
It is time here to recall the description of Alexander made by French historian Albert Sorel, who described him as follows:
“…Thus, he made his debut playing the part which was to make him the most dazzlingly skilful political artist of his time. He was a refined actor, who invented his role with exaltation, created it in his imagination and took delight in playing: the conceit of enthusiasm, the vanity of fascinating, the pride in deceiving, and the superior grace of leading others by charming them.”
Alexander – and all the contemporary descriptions of him coincide upon this point – was a great charmer. Sent as ambassador to Russia, the Master of the Horse, Caulaincourt, much to his master’s displeasure, was soon fooled by his seemingly amiable and flattering manner.
Elegant and refined, good-looking in the Russian style, courteous and affable, young (in 1807, the Russian sovereign was only thirty, thus eight years younger than Napoleon), Alexander would succeed in duping Napoleon himself.
“He is a handsome young man who possesses more brain-power than one might suppose”, wrote the Emperor, whose judgment appeared rather brief for once.
THE TSAR: A LIBERAL IN THEORY
Tsar Paul I because he was guilty of consolidating relations with France, had failed to tarnish and no one seemed surprise to see the assassins of Paul – Bennigsen and Pahlen among others – rise to power in the entourage of the new Tsar of all the Russias.
Yet, in spite of the liberal ideas he had been taught by Laharpe, in 1807, Alexander was and would always remain an out-and-out autocrat who never took the slightest measure to reform or abolish the vile feudal system of bondage which bound at least nine tenths of the Russian people to serfdom during his reign.
Alexander never went beyond the stage of toying with liberal ideas, and in Russia, which has sometimes been referred to as “the land of sudden deaths”, it would have been unwise to anger the powerful noblemen who were the owners of this gigantic workforce which they were free to use and exploit mercilessly.
NAPOLEON WANTS PEACE TO BE
Alexander only came to Tilsit out of necessity. To neutralize the enemy who with his mentality of “divine right” he still only considered as “Buonaparte”, the Corsican upstart he was going to have to flatter to be able to deceive him, and to obtain from his defeat what he might not have obtained from a victory.
As for Napoleon, if he was not entirely duped – for how could he really believe in the sudden change of heart and the goodwill of someone who not only despised him but who had tried to crush him by taking up arms against him – he wanted the meeting to take place because he wanted peace.
Between 2 December 1805 and the 14 June 1807, he had been forced to fight no less than four great battles (counting only the major engagements): Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau and Friedland.
Let us remember the following words, which we have already quoted:
“I am distresses at this way of life that drags me away to army camps and diverts my attentions from the concern that is closest to my heart – a good and sound organisation of banks, factories and businesses.”
A simple statement which speaks volumes on Napoleon as a sovereign and as a man.
To be continued…