VOLUME II

CHAPTER 36

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“I ONLY MADE PEACE AT TILSIT

BECAUSE RUSSIA PLEDGED

TO WAGE WAR ON BRITAIN ”

(Napoleon to textile manufacturer, Louis Ternaux)

 

After having come to blows twice (much to the Tsar's misfortune) in not more than a year and a half, yesterday's enemies were about to shake hands.

For the pride of the defeated Russian Emperor who had, however, been the cause of all the trouble it was undoubtedly a severe blow.

Whereas for Napoleon, who had been generous enough to allow the Tsar to flee without even attempting to take him prisoner after his defeat on 2 December 1805 at Austerlitz, it was the beginning of a new project which was starting to take shape. An alliance with Russia which he was then firmly convinced would enable him to check the influence of France 's greatest rival, perfidious Britain who was constantly instigating the European monarchies to declare war upon France.

 

MEASURES TO AVOID HUMILIATING ALEXANDER

All that had to be decided now was the date, the place and the manner in which the two sovereigns were to meet.

As a magnanimous victor does not treat a haughty enemy whom he has just defeated, even if the latter's sentiments have since undergone a change of heart and he has apparently decided to become more civilized, without taking a minimum amount of precautions to avoid humiliating him, especially when he hopes to make a future ally out of him.

Napoleon's correspondence shows that he passionately wanted peace to be able to devote his time to the only task which he was genuinely concerned with: the administration of France.

All the efforts he had deployed, first with Austria and Russia before Austerlitz, then later with Prussia, whose attitude had been foolishly and deliberately insulting before Jena, clearly reveal this.

So what did it matter now if the Tsar had been rude in the past as long as their interview led to peace!

General de Lariboisière (1759-1812). He died of exhaustion at the end of the Russian campaign.


As it was important to treat the Tsar well, it was decided that the first contact should be established in a “neutral zone” - in the middle of the Niemen. For that way neither of the two Emperors would appear to submit to the other.

On the 24 June, General Lariboisière, Commander in Chief of the Artillery, had a raft built upon which a pavilion - as beautiful as the haste imposed by circumstances permitted - was erected for the meeting which was to take place the following day between the two great sovereigns.

 

“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SIGHT
A MAN WOULD EVER BEHOLD”

The next day, at 1p.m., Napoleon accompanied by Marshals Berthier, Murat and Bessières, the Grand Marshal of the Palace, Duroc, and the Master of the Horse, Caulaincourt, embarked upon the boat which was to take them to the raft.

While at the same time on the opposite bank, the Tsar also embarked accompanied by his brother, Grand Duke Constantine, General Bennigsen, Commander in Chief of the Russian troops, General Prince Lobanoff and an aide-de-camp, Count Liewen.

The “imperial” boats both arrived alongside the raft at the same time.

The following description was left by a witness, who was later to become well-known as Captain Coignet (the author of the famous memoirs), but who was still only a simple grenadier in the Imperial Guard:

The boat bringing Alexander aboard the raft.
“There we beheld the most beautiful sight that a man would ever behold on the Niemen. In the middle of the river floated a magnificent raft with beautiful, very ample curtains and to one side, on the left, stood a tent. On each bank there was a splendid boat richly decorated and manned by seamen of the Imperial Guard. The Emperor arrived at 1 p.m. and stepped aboard with his staff. The Emperors both left at the same time, they both had the same number of steps to climb and the same distance to cover, but ours was the first to step aboard the raft. We saw these two great men embrace like two brothers returning from exile. Ah! What cries of “Long live the Emperor!” there were from both sides.”

Upon stepping aboard the raft, the two Emperors embraced and, together, they entered into the pavilion.

Events would soon prove that the imperial embrace was only the kiss of Judas from the Tsar Alexander.

It has often been related, and this brief dialogue has been quoted more than once in the past, that upon meeting Napoleon, the Tsar said:

“I hate the English as much as you do.”

To which the Emperor was supposed to have replied:

“In that case, peace is made.”

Even if this dialogue is not totally devoid of interest nor pertinence, it was very probably invented, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why Napoleon, for whom these words were literally a godsend, would have failed to report them in the 87th Bulletin of the Grande Armée (the one on Tilsit) which was dated Königsberg, 12 July.

Their conference lasted until 2.30 p.m.

As we shall see in the following chapter, if we admit that the Tsar had indeed pronounced this phrase, then it was nothing more than a lie.

 

“A VERY HANDSOME, KIND YOUNG EMPEROR”

As soon as their interview was over, the members of the suites accompanying the two Emperors were allowed to enter into the pavilion and the Tsar poured praise upon the French generals, congratulating them upon their recent victories.

Napoleon, in the meantime, held a conversation with Grand Duke Constantin, the Tsar's brother, and with Bennigsen, whom he had defeated at Eylau, then at Friedland.

Then, in the same way as they had arrived, Napoleon and Alexander once more stepped aboard their embarkations and returned to their respective headquarters.

On the 25th, Napoleon sent Empress Josephine this letter from which we have already quoted a short extract in our previous chapter:

“To the Empress at [the Palace of] Saint Cloud.

Tilsit, 25 June 1807

My dear,

I have just seen the Emperor Alexander and am very pleased as a result of our interview. He is a handsome young man who possesses more brain-power than one might suppose. Tomorrow night he will come to pass the night in town in Tilsit.

Farewell, my dear, I very sincerely hope that you are well and happy. I am in the best of health.

Napoleon.”

 

THE TOWN OF TILSIT IS DECLARED NEUTRAL

Still anxious not to wound any susceptibilities and in the hope of establishing new “fraternal” relationships, on the night of 25th the decision was taken to declare the town of Tilsit (8,500 inhabitants at the time, with a commerce of corn, flax, wax and salt) would officially cease to be French headquarters and would, as from the following day, be neutralralized in order to receive the Russian and Prussian Courts together with their suites.

The following description was left by Jean-Baptiste Barrès, a vélite (young soldier) in the Imperial Guard, who was present:

“On 26 June, we took up arms at noon and formed into battle order in the beautiful and wide street where Napoleon was lodged: the infantry was on the right and the cavalry on the left. At the appointed time, Napoleon proceeded to the bank of the Niemen to greet Alexander and accompany him to his lodging.

Napoleon and the Tsar reviewing
Russian troops.
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Shortly after, the two great sovereigns appeared, preceded and followed by an immense and splendid staff and after exchanging their cordons, they held each other by the hand as if they were two good friends.”

The program of the day began with a second conference aboard the raft at 12.30 p.m., but this time there was a third participant, Frederick-William III of Prussia, whose presence was only due to the Tsar's suggestion that he should plead his country's cause himself. The following comment was noted by Coignet, already quoted above:

“Lord, how thin he was! What an ugly sovereign! He looked like a victim. The interview between the three sovereigns was brief and it was decided that our Emperor would be their host in town and would provide them with food and lodging.” And he added ironically, “For no hard feelings!”

 

REVIEW OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD BY THE TSAR

The following day, on 27 June at four thirty p.m., the same ceremonial took place and there was an “offensive” to charm yesterday's enemy. Napoleon visited the Tsar and then held a splendid review of the Infantry of the Imperial Guard which was followed by a demonstration of firing exercises in honour of the Russian sovereign.

Napoleon decorating the Russian grenadier Lazareff with the Cross of the Legion of Honour.
This was followed by large-scale manoeuvres which were held on the heights just outside Tilsit, as the Emperor, wrote one memorialist who was present, was eager to show that his Imperial Guard lived up to the top-ranking reputation it had acquired. At one stage, he [the Tsar] placed himself in our line of fire. Napoleon caught him by the hand, and lead him away saying, “Clumsiness might cause a great misfortune.” To which Alexander replied, “With men such as those, there is nothing to fear.”

Given this display of goodwill and courtesy, one might almost be inclined to consider that it would have been regrettable if the Tsar had not been defeated at Austerlitz and Jena !

On the evening of the 27 June, Napoleon was invited to dine with the Tsar who lived in a mansion which was in the same street as where Napoleon lived.

If, on account of the price that the Emperor attached to winning him over him as an ally Alexander could expect to be well treated and benefit from a certain amount of indulgence in the treaty which was about to be concluded, the King of Prussia, Frederick-William III, on the other hand could hardly expect the same indulgence on the part of Napoleon. “He was a vanquished king who came asking for a piece of his broken crown”, wrote a soldier of the Imperial Guard, who saw him that day.

Not surprisingly, the Emperor who had felt a lurking admiration for Prussia in the past out of respect for the memory of Frederick the Great had been offended and angered by the devious ways of the court of Berlin's politics, when in 1806, they had attempted to dissimulate that they had, in fact, taken part in the third coalition together with Austria and Russia. Thus Jena had been nothing more than the inevitable consequence of the battle of Austerlitz in which Prussia had not participated simply because she was not ready in time. (See Chapter 16).

Today, at Tilsit, Napoleon evinced nothing but scorn for this “nation which was cowardly, vain, lacked moral strength, yet was forever defeated and forever insolent.”

 

THE KING OF PRUSSIA'S BAD TEMPER

Napoleon welcoming the King of Prussia , Frederick-William III. He was to make such a disastrous impression diplomatically that the Prussian generals called Queen Louise to his rescue.

Not only did the King of Prussia cut a poor figure but he was, moreover, extremely dull-witted and, perhaps not surprisingly in the event after his exemplary defeat at Jena, he was also gloomy and ill-tempered. On the 27th the slow-witted king was to give a further demonstration of his brain power while attending a review of the Imperial Guard and Marshal Davout's III Corps, who were the heroes of the day of the 14 October 1806, which had been so disastrous for the Prussian monarchy.

As the Tsar admired Davout's soldiers, who “were all wearing white trousers” reported Coignet, the Tsar, fair play, exclaimed:

“Splendid troops!”

For Frederick-William, however, it was a humiliating reminder and mortified, he grumbled:

“Yes, good at killing officers!”

“Only the brave get killed, and you are blaming these soldiers for what is only due to the courage of your officers,” replied Napoleon quickly.

By his tactful reply, the Emperor had saved the day by avoiding a diplomatic incident.

In the days that followed, the negotiations continued and the meetings were followed by rides which enabled the two powerful sovereigns to rest from the contemplation of maps which they both examined together, but with different views and divergent interests in mind as they planned to reshape Europe.

Even during these moments of leisure Frederick-William made a disastrous impression. For it seems that the Prussian monarch was anything but an accomplished rider, which was rare at that time. Thus, when Napoleon and Alexander went horse-riding and Napoleon raced off at a very fast gallop as he was in the habit of doing, Alexander had no difficulty in keeping up with him, whereas Frederick-William was left behind. Completely abandoned!

The Prussian generals were so appalled by their master's pitiful performance that they were soon convinced that Prussia would inevitably be divided up, “Which was what we hoped with all our hearts”, wrote without the slightest indulgence but not without reason, a Polish patriotic aristocrat, Countess Potocka.

One of the Prussian generals, and there seems to be little doubt that it was Field-Marshal and Count von Kalkreuth, then had the idea of redeeming the situation by using a traditional (but under the circumstances, not very honourable) method - the always irresistible attraction of feminine charm and beauty.

Unlike Napoleon and the Tsar who
were skilled riders, the Prussian sovereign, Frederick-William III,
who was inexperienced, was
often left behind!

Thus, in the hope of improving relations it was decided that the presence of Queen Louise was essential as all were convinced that her legendary beauty would soon influence the Emperor and soften his intentions with regards to Prussia.

As we shall see upon reading the clauses of the Treaty in the following chapter, the effect of this manoeuvre of seduction was minimal and failed to achieve what the King of Prussia and his generals had hoped for.

 

 

To be continued…