“JOSEPH WAS ALWAYS INFERIOR
TO THE EVENTS IN WHICH HE
FOUND HIMSELF PLACED”
As we saw in our last chapter upon receiving the news of the capitulation of Baylen, Joseph had literally fled from Madrid.
Here are a few details concerning these events.
The official confirmation – after the private letters which had already arrived in the Spanish capital spreading news of the disaster – had been brought to him in Madrid on July 29, by Captain Villoutreys, one of the French officers who had been taken prisoner and who arrived escorted by Spanish dragoons, which was the height of humiliation under the circumstances.
To say that Joseph had a premonition of the disaster would definitely be going too far, but we must at least give him credit for his surprising lucidity in the turmoil of events he was caught up in as these extracts taken from three letters he addressed to his brother at the time show:
On July 24, 1808:
We are almost destitute [!]. Philip V [Versailles 1683-Madrid 1746, King of Spain 1700-1746] only had one rival to fight, whereas my enemy is a nation of twelve million courageous, highly exasperated inhabitants. Neither the honest people, nor the scoundrels are on our side. No, Sire, you are mistaken – your glory will come to nothing in Spain.”
On July 26:
“The entire nation is against us. You saw 89 and 93. Here, there is no less enthusiasm, no less rage.”
And on July 28, the day before the messenger arrived bringing him the bad news:
“We do not have a single partisan – the entire nation is exasperated.”
ABANDONED BY ALL
An old French maxim says, “It is not the cowl that makes the monk”. Nothing could be truer concerning Joseph who only possessed the fine outer appearance of a king.
Joseph only had to look around him to nourish and confirm his pessimism. His ministers turned their backs on him, the minor officials fled because they were afraid of the sinister fate that awaited them as “collaborators” of the French occupying force while the Spanish officers who were part of his retinue deserted their post, which was hardly surprising when they saw their newly crowned King packing up and leaving. On July 30, as if they too had only been waiting for confirmation of the news of the catastrophe, the 2,000 attendants who worked in the royal stables disappeared overnight leaving Joseph without so much as a stable lad to harness his horses to his carriages.
And yet he had to leave! And leave fast.
Everything then happened so quickly that the puppet sovereign abandoning his throne even forgot to inform the French ambassador, Monsieur de La Forest, of his departure. The diplomat was only informed of Joseph’s departure later by General Belliard, then serving as military governor of Madrid.
La Forest who was not as alarmist as Joseph had the presence of mind to have the large portrait of Napoleon quickly wrapped up and thrown unceremoniously into one of the wagons together with all the Embassy papers. It was Joseph’s behavior under the present circumstances and under other circumstances of the same kind that made Chancellor Pasquier remark severely:
“Joseph was always inferior to the events in which he found himself placed.”
FLIGHT OR EXODUS
The worst thing that could possibly have happened for the prestige and honour of the French army was undoubtedly this undignified way of running away under the mocking eyes of the inhabitants of Madrid, who soon quipped wittily for all to hear:
“Joseph has pocketed the crown he was unable to wear on his head.”
In fact, it was more of an exodus than a flight as with the King some two thousand French citizens – most of whom were either sick or wounded – fled also, but they at least had an excuse as staying behind would inevitably have been exposing themselves to the knives of the rabble and the monks. One witness left us his impressions and described their departure in the following terms:
“It was a heterogeneous, multiform, heteroclite, heterodox procession of fugitives of every age, sex, custom and condition: milliners with bold and appealing eyes, dismal looking merchants, poor shabby workmen, civilians wearing tight-fitting clothes covered with powder, servants who sought to conceal their condition, Israelites who bought and sold second-hand goods looking for business…”
ONE LAST (LITTLE) MASSACRE…
In Madrid, the announcement of Joseph’s departure brought the town out en fête. Masses were said and there were processions, illuminations, balls, serenades on street corners and of course the inevitable cruel bloody bullfights. Spain was delirious. For hadn’t she just defeated the victors of Europe?
For good measure all the property and possessions which belonged to the French were confiscated and royal seals were affixed to the houses they had occupied.
An officer in the Grand Army left us his opinion
on the subject of bullfights in these terms:
“The passion that the Spanish have for this
form of entertainment is proof of the barbarity
and ferocity of this backward nation.”
The Madrilènes took to the streets, once again taking possession of their capital which they said – and not without reason but not enough however to excuse or even justify the atrocious acts they committed – they had been deprived of.
And so as not to lose their hand before all the French had left, the inhabitants took one last revenge which may have been spectacular but which had in fact little real impact on two poor French servants who had taken refuge in the Russian Embassy.
This painting by Goya depicts a scene of public flagellation right in the middle of a religious procession. It gives a clear indication that people who took part in demonstrations of this kind –which can only be qualified as hysterical – were capable of anything. Their acts of appalling cruelty and barbarity towards Napoleon’s soldiers inevitably led to reprisals.
Regardless of diplomatic immunity, the crowd broke down the doors of the residence, seized hold of the two poor devils, choked them to death and then burned their bodies. The ambassador was so shocked by their barbarity that he left Madrid.
PROCLAIMED KING BUT…ABSENT
On August 16, one young woman wrote:
“We are wild with joy: we took down the shrine of Saint Isidore and of Santa Maria de la Cabesa which had not been moved for the past twenty-one years. Everyone in Madrid is enlisting and learning to drill: husbands, boys, widowers, monks and priests, they all want to go and leave us on our own.”
On the 24th, a grand ceremony which was more symbolical than of any real use was held: Ferdinand VII was solemnly proclaimed King of Spain.
Logically, on the same occasion the Council of Castile declared invalid the renunciation of Charles IV and the Infants to the Spanish crown, and invalid also the Constitution of Bayonne together with the transfer to Napoleon and Joseph. These acts were declared nul and void.
A little known portrait of
Ferdinand VII, by Goya
Finally, at the stroke of a pen, the transcription of the deliberations of the government considered as intruders by the Spanish disappeared from the registers.
All that was missing for the celebrations to be complete was the presence of the one who was directly concerned: Ferdinand.
Joseph was now only surrounded by a few Spanish noblemen and by three secretaries of State, one of whom did not even take the trouble to stand on ceremony to advise him to abdicate: “This effort, Sire, is not beyond your noble soul.” But their presence at his side was not merely due to loyalty or to any form of gratitude for the acts of generosity that had undoubtedly been lavished upon them but more probably due to the fact that they were guilty of collaborating with the French and risked being massacred by their compatriots. It was only fear that maintained their sham allegiance.
Most of the representatives of the foreign monarchies chose to remain in Madrid. To the great joy of the Spanish who interpreted their conduct, which was unusual in diplomatic relationships, as a disavowal of the presence of the French.
Thus Joseph, who was “King of Spain and the Indies”, for such was his title among others, found himself – and he must have been a unique case in history – without a single representative of any other power at his side.
Joseph therefore fled on the dusty roads of his hostile kingdom, closely followed by his army that had left Madrid on August 1. Apart from the fact that they were numerous the troops were hardly more representative than he was.
In defense of the army, it is only fair to mention here that Joseph had given no instructions whatsoever concerning supplies.
JOSEPHS’ LACK OF FORESIGHT…THE TROOPS MARAUD
Under the circumstances, the army inevitably took to marauding as they followed in the tracks of their fleeing King. And soon exasperated by the casualties they sustained in ambuscades and the acts of cruelty that they witnessed and suffered (without prejudice to the reprisals exerted), together with the shame they felt at being compelled to flee, their marauding rapidly turned into useless plundering. The lack of discipline and confusion that ensued was such that Monsieur de La Forest wrote to Champagny, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs:
attacked before taking up position and being reorganized on the other side of the Ebro, the lack of harmony which exists between the generals, the general dissatisfaction, the insubordination would all bring about a deplorable outcome.”
the French Minister of
Foreign Affairs. He later negotiated the Napoleon’s marriage with Marie-Louise.
No one had even taken the trouble to save appearances and the wording of the official explanation for their disastrous departure from Madrid only made it seem even more ludicrous and grotesque:
“The King has left Madrid and the entire army has gone into refreshing quarters.”!
It was very probably after reading this pompous and pitiable document that the Emperor wrote this sarcastic note to his older brother:
“To know that you are up against events you are unable to cope with and which are too much for your natural character, my brother, grieves me… Tell me that you are in high spirits and getting used to leading a soldier’s life as this is a fine opportunity to learn.”
THE EMPEROR’S FURY
Yet as his bantering tone clearly reveals, at that moment, Napoleon was still unaware that Joseph had fled.
His reaction was entirely different when General Mathieu Dumas brought him the news.
Seizing the hapless general by the lapels of his tunic, the Emperor who was in a towering rage, shouted:
“Are you trying to tell me that the King of Spain was unable to secure a safe position behind the Ebro? Was he pressed so hard that he was unable to stop on the Douro? Retreating across both rivers, is evacuating Spain…”
And still angry, he added:
“Very well! I see that everyone has lost their head since the infamous capitulation of Baylen.”
In effect, Joseph had reached Burgos as if he had the Devil in person hot on his heels, then still not convinced that his position was secure, he left for Vitoria, now the capital of the province of Alava. It was an unfortunate choice as it was here that barely five years later Joseph, flanked by his chief-of-staff, Marshal Jourdan, was to be defeated by the Anglo-Portuguese army commanded by Wellington.
Napoleon had concluded his stormy interview with Mathieu Dumas with these words:
“I can see that I shall have to go myself to wind up the machine.”
He was perfectly right.
But as soon as they saw that once Napoleon was present things were off to a fresh start and that he soon made up for lost ground in the Peninsular, the English decided to resort to their favorite tactic: the use of “Saint George’s Cavalry”.
Here, Napoleon seems to be looking at Madrid
where he would soon have to return to, “Wind
up the machine”, as he said himself.
Unfortunately, in spite of all his efforts,
it would never be possible to “recondition”
the machine in Spain.
Thus, pounds and guineas in gold were going to be poured into the coffers of the Austrian Treasury and without a twinge of remorse the Austrian Emperor would to send his soldiers to be killed at Essling and Wagram to enable England to resume operations in Spain and Portugal for her own benefit.
To be continued...