“Thirteen thousand four hundred leagues
Pierre Émile Levasseur (1828-1911),
On 27 July 1807, upon returning from Tilsit and after passing through Konigsberg, Posen, Glogau, Bautzen, Dresde, Leipzig, Weimar and Frankfurt, the Emperor was back in France at the Chateau of Saint Cloud.
He had been absent for ten months. Never before had he been away so long.
But what months they had been! Months marked by suffering and bloody combats. But there had also been the victories and the greatest victory of all had undoubtedly been the diplomatic success which he had achieved at Tilsit and which now enabled him to return to France triumphantly and, better still, as the man who had secured peace.
And later, when he was asked which part of his reign had been the happiest for him, Napoleon replied, not without reason,
“Perhaps it was at Tilsit.”
PUBLIC OPINION REASSURED
The fear provoked by the carnage of Eylau had been swept aside by the triumph of Friedland and by the treaty which then seemed to be eternal which he had signed with the Tsar Alexander.
Thus, French public opinion was satisfied. Reassured. Further proof, if necessary, was the fact that the Bourse, the French stock exchange, now quoted 93,40 francs. In comparison, eight years earlier, at the end of the Directory, government stock bonds were quoted at 11 francs. These figures are eloquent and reflect the nation's confidence in the man who presided over the destiny of the country.
And this confidence was reinforced by the sight of the work sites all over Paris and the rest of France.
A PURELY PACIFIC COMBAT
Victory), which would later become known as the church of the Madeleine, and the Arc de l'Etoile, better known by tourists today as the Arc de Triomphe, which stands at the head of the Champs Elysées.
A pacific combat animated the streets of Paris and its generals were the prominent architects of the day, Percier, Fontaine, Vignon and Brongniart. And Napoleon's vision of the future was perfectly summed up in the following words:
“The Emperor is not contemplating conquests, for he has already consumed military glory. Perfecting the administration so as to turn it into a lasting source of happiness and growing prosperity for his people and, by his acts, setting the example of noble and moral virtue. That is the glory he aspires to.”
“Thirteen thousand four hundred leagues of roads were constructed or repaired, eighteen waterways were made navigable, mountains were crossed, bridges were built, canals were cut, Paris was embellished and it was only the prelude to what the Emperor had in mind.”
We have already listed and described the immense construction works under way in Chapter 4, “At work with the Emperor”.
Under the circumstances, who could possibly have guessed that the apparently serene context of 1807 would not last?
And yet, unperceivable clouds were beginning to gather casting a shadow over the French Empire, a shadow which would very soon deepen and obscure the sky.
Where did these clouds come from exactly?
First – even if it may seem absurd - from the Minister of External Affairs, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. For Talleyrand was mortified not to have been created “archi” something or other like Cambacérès, for example, whom Napoleon had created Archichancelier (Grand Chancellor) of the French Empire.
It was one of Napoleon's principles however that none of his ministers should serve in high office – however honorific the position might be – while at the same time holding a minister's portfolio as this situation would inevitably have placed him in a position of superiority with regards to his colleagues who would hardly have approved of his privileged position or distinction.
PORTUGAL, A BRITISH COLONY
On the other side of the Channel resentment was starting to grow.
The reason? The Continental Blockade, which in theory at least, had closed all the European ports on the Continent to British trade.
We must bear in mind that Britain, whose tradition of maritime piracy was one of the characteristics of the period, considered that she alone had the right to impose a blockade and that the Continental Blockade decreed by Napoleon in Berlin in 1806, was nothing more than his reply to a decree which had previously been pronounced by the British Cabinet in May of that same year instituting a blockade of all the ports on the Continent as well as the coastline, from Brest to the mouth of the River Elba.
Now only one door remained open to English merchants - Portugal .
For a simple reason. Under the reign of the Bragance dynasty, Portugal had long since ceased to be a sovereign country and was at the time little more than a sort of English colony which had come to depend entirely on Albion, both financially and politically. The country was literally overrun by the British who were present in large numbers and who under the convenient cover of merchants, were in fact anti-French agitators.
Thus he considered sending an army into Portugal which was under English domination. This expedition would ultimately lead to what is commonly and appropriately known as “the Spanish ulcer”, and would later become a mortal wound in the flank of the French Empire.
Not only was the idea of the Blockade perfectly justified, it was also defendable as an indefinite trade embargo was the only way of ruining British wealth at its source and thus reducing the country to powerlessness. The panic it provoked on the other side of the Channel was proof of its pertinence. But the Continental System carried its weakness from within: Napoleon would be obliged to propose – and sometimes to impose – more and more alliances in order to guarantee its efficiency.
THE DESTRUCTION OF COPENHAGEN
England was more than ever determined to show that in spite of the Blockade her malicious intentions and hostility remained intact. And she was to give proof of this the same year, in her usual manner, a brutal and cowardly demonstration of force which consisted in bombarding Copenhagen without any warning or declaration of war. As she had already done in 1801. She suspected Denmark of concluding an alliance with Napoleon, which for her justified everything.
On 3 and 4 August 1807, thirty-five warships, twelve frigates and an important convoy of troop-ships carrying 26,000 men set sail from various ports in Britain and headed for Copenhagen. It should be observed in passing that the total strength of the Danish army was of some 5,000 men.
On the 8th, the English legation called on the Crown Prince of Denmark to “propose” an alliance which was to be both defensive and offensive in the name of the British sovereign, George III, and which in clear terms meant that the Danes were immediately forced to … surrender all their battle-fleet together with the fortress guarding the entrance of their capital not to mention the city of Copenhagen itself to English troops. Nothing less! As, not surprisingly these conditions were refused, on the 1st September the town was bombarded by twenty heavy artillery guns and forty-eight mortars and howitzers while their fire was supported by all the naval guns of the fleet. The first bombardment lasted for eleven hours, before starting again with the same violence on the 3rd.
On the 7 September, in order to save Copenhagen which was in flames from total destruction, the Governor resigned himself to submitting to the arbitrary demands of the British aggressors by signing a convention by which he surrendered the citadel, the arsenal with all the shipyards as well as all the warships together with their equipment.
This act of piracy which was without equal in the code of military honour of the time had also killed several hundred people and all the victims were civilians.
It was obvious that England no intention whatsoever of effecting a reconciliation with Napoleon.
THE GREAT ILLUSION OF TILSIT
Another cloud also loomed up on the horizon, which Napoleon who was supremely happy after Tilsit, was unable to see. A cloud which was forming in the sky of Russia.
For if the Tsar was anxious to preserve all the advantages he had acquired in signing the treaty by well and truly observing its terms to the letter, his ministers were in a different frame of mind. The Russian ambassador in London, for example, Woronzov, declared unambiguously that he felt “debased” by the conditions his country had agreed upon at Tilsit.
This was a godsend for the English ministers who on the basis of this simple word would soon seek an opportunity to test the real strength and stability of the Franco-Russian alliance!
To sum up Tilsit in one sentence, one could say that it was an alliance between two sovereigns which did not necessarily entail the reconciliation of two nations. If the Tsar pretended to be on friendly terms and to think highly of the victorious French Emperor, the members of his entourage were of a very different opinion. All Russia, from the top to the bottom of the social scale was furiously hostile towards Napoleon. The court, the people, the merchants whose trade was exclusively with the English and who were afraid that their interests would suffer after Tilsit and, of course, the priests who were masters in the art of besotting simple minds. They chanted prayers which were full of hate against the “Antichrist”, Napoleon - as Spanish priests would soon do in Spain following their example.
Yet wasn't the so-called Antichrist the man who had restored religious peace in France and had brought the faithful back inside the churches?
In 1812, we shall see the result of their venomous sermons as Napoleon's troops retreated from Russia.
The following document reveals the impression that the treaty signed at Tilsit made upon the Russians. It is a letter which was written to Alexander by his Minister of the Police, Balachov.
“The treaty of Tilsit cannot be considered as anything more than an armistice, which may be more or less prolonged depending on Napoleon's ambitious views. He has offended [!] the Russian nation; he knows it; everything indicates that he has the intention of humiliating it still further: such is the trend of his policy, the result of his gigantic projects. He has found excuses for himself; he will soon find an excuse for provoking a violation and attacking Your Majesty again. Your Majesty must, from this moment on, be prepared for this event and take the greatest care to prepare his defence without respite.”
Thus, if we follow Balachov's reasoning, in 1805 it was Napoleon who attacked peaceable Russia whose armies happened to be on the battlefield of Austerlitz quite by chance, just as quite by chance in 1807, those same armies happened to be on the battlefield of Friedland where they fell under the blows of the French “aggressor”.
But for Napoleon, who was blissfully happy after Tilsit which he hoped would finally lead to peace by ruining the wealth of the arrogant and perfidious neighbour across the Channel, the sky was clear and he failed to see that clouds were starting to gather in the clear sky of 1807.
To be continued…