“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!
“THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SIGHT
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:
Upon stepping aboard the raft, the two Emperors embraced and, together, they entered into the pavilion.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
As the Tsar admired Davout's soldiers, who “were all wearing white trousers” reported Coignet, the Tsar, fair play, exclaimed:
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.
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…