“This war was nothing less than
(Leopold von Ranke, German historian)
On the evening of December 2, 1805, when the cannons fell silent on the field of battle at Austerlitz, Russia and Austria had just suffered a crushing defeat, and Napoleon had just won an exemplary victory that commemorated, in a manner both tragic and magnificent, the first anniversary of the young French Empire.
Because we have used the term “tragic,” and because the responsibility for each war declared against Imperial France by the monarchies of Europe is systematically attributed to Napoleon, let us recall the facts. As we so often do in the International Napoleonic Society, we remind the reader that this Third Coalition like its predecessors had been instigated by Great Britain, which sought to dissipate the threat that had taken form on the coast of the English Channel in the form of an army. The so-called Army of the Ocean Coasts had been formed with the intention of embarking for the beaches of England: “Never had soldiers executed more difficult tasks with more alacrity,” wrote a young naval officer and future admiral, Jean Grivel. “For these men, devotion to the country, to French honor, and to the man who, for them, personified everything, existed without covetousness or egotism.”
To lead Austria and Russia to aid in its own salvation, Britain had, in its customary fashion, employed the “cavalry of Saint George;” two and a half million pounds disbursed in the middle of 1804 to incite Austria and Russia to declare war on France, and five more million spent at the end of that same year by the negotiators in London to finance the Coalition.
Austria could not resist such an inducement, being in a state of semi-bankruptcy, as indicated by the following extract from a letter that the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, sent on October 11, 1805, to his Emperor:
I have the honor to forward to Your Majesty two letters from M. de la Rochefoucauld [French Ambassador to Vienna] which are slightly out of date and contain little in the way of news, yet still have some points of interest. In general, they confirm what we already knew concerning the financial embarrassment and distress of the court of Vienna. It has asked its people for contributions, claiming that the treasury is no longer in a state to pay for its provisions . . .
What did it matter if a few thousand men were killed, wounded, and mutilated if Britain could breathe freely and the court of Vienna might retrieve its luster!
Yet, if two assailants, the Austrians and the Russians, were defeated, there remained a third which, although it was part of the Coalition, had suffered no damage at Austerlitz.
For the simple reason that it had not appeared on the battlefield. Why? This loser—whose conquest had been deferred—was Prussia.
Some background explanation is necessary at this point.
Prussia had been an official member of the Third Coalition since the Treaty of Potsdam, signed on November 3, 1805. It had been saved from disaster only by the month-long delay necessary to mobilize its army. The news of the surrender at Ulm, carried to Berlin by a brother of the Austrian Emperor, had done little to dampen the ardor manifested by King Frederick-William III.
Under these circumstances, the Austrian emperor has no other recourse than to rely upon the powerful resources that he finds in the hearts, in the prosperity, in the fidelity, and in the force of his peoples, and to rely on the still-intact power of his great friends and allies, the Tsar of Prussia and the King of Prussia, and to persevere in this close union.
Nothing could have been more obvious.
The Prussian First Minister, Count Christian von Haugwitz, attempted to put Napoleon “to sleep” with soothing proposals and great protestations of loyalty, such as “The convention of November 3 was a simple declaration, an offer of good offices and mediation . . .” Meanwhile Frederick-William hurriedly wrote to Tsar Alexander that “the majority of [his] troops will concentrate in Franconia,” and that with all possible speed “while awaiting the outcome of negotiations by Count von Haugwitz, who is paralyzing [the French] with nothings.”
The ruse was so perfectly presented that Talleyrand himself, although a grand master in the art of duplicity, allowed himself to be tricked: “The fact is,” he wrote to one of his diplomatic friends, “that I am well pleased with M. von Haugwitz. There was no Treaty at Potsdam on November 3, only an exchange of declarations. Prussia’s declaration was that she offered her good offices, her mediation to establish and guarantee the peace of the Continent; that is all.”
The negotiations had not yet been completed when, on December 2, Napoleon had inflicted his well-known punishment on the Austro-Russians.
Thus, when, three days later, he was informed by Foreign Minister Talleyrand that the victor wished to meet him, Haugwitz expected the worst.
In effect, Napoleon, having allowed the tsar to retreat without pursuing him, had met the Austrian Emperor Francis II after the battle, and thus Prussia no longer represented anyone. Neither the Emperor of Austria, nor that of the French, would continue to regard Haugwitz as a mediator. Upon the Austrian defeat, the supposed “convention of good offices” signed at Potsdam could no longer serve as an excuse for the Prussian, whose sole purpose had been to deceive Napoleon.
The emperor expressed his justifiable anger at such duplicity:
My Royal Brother, I received you at Brünn with all the ceremony due to the minister of a great sovereign, one who had previously assured me that I could count on his friendship. Yet today, I know the treaty that you have concluded with the enemies of France. I know that, according to your agreements with them, your eighty thousand men were to attack me if I refused the conditions that you had been charged to dictate to me. I also know that it did not suffice to declare yourself my enemy, but rather that, in your animosity against France, you would have dragged with you those states that depend on you and indeed all of Europe if you had been able to do so . . .
Napoleon could have immediately launched his victorious army, whose losses had been minor, against these 80,000 Prussians. That would have been in line with the image of the brutal warrior that his unconditional and (unfortunately) tireless detractors portray.
Before a fascinated Haugwitz, Napoleon dictated to Duroc the terms of a treaty that he proposed to Prussia.
What could the Prussian do? Its Austrian and Russian allies vanquished, was it prudent to expose his country to defeat, in a war whose outcome was beyond doubt, by a refusal? Yet, on the other hand, was it opportune to sign a treaty when all of Prussia was clamoring for war?
Prudence obliged Haugwitz on December 16, 1805, to sign the treaty proposed by Napoleon, leaving it to Frederick-William III to ratify the agreement or not. This was not that risky, because the emperor, seeking to avoid the appearance of being naïve with this adversary who had just deceived him, had allowed a delay of three weeks for ratification.
Monsieur my Brother: I have met the Count d’Haugwitz; I have extensively discussed my sentiments, my plans, and my views with him. He has looked into my naked soul. It is such an unusual situation for my heart to have to complain of Young Majesty that I have no means of concealing myself. I desire strongly that the Count d’Haugwitz will conceal nothing from Your Majesty of all that I have said to him. If Your Majesty has had cause to complain of something, I flatter myself that, had You been a mere political personal to me, my heart would not have been so affected. The Count d’Haugwitz is the bearer of a treaty by which Your Majesty may judge that nothing could make me forget our six years of friendship and above all the proof that You have given me of Your interest, having been the first to recognize my dynasty. I will not conceal from Your Majesty that my sentiments remain constant for You. If You could imagine Yourself in exactly my position and understand what I have done for You, You would be convinced of the truth of my sentiments. One of the greatest benefits that I wish to achieve from my success would be to know that success had placed me beyond ordinary prejudices so that I may consult only my heart and the friendship that I have long felt for You. It has pained me to think even for a moment that our common enemies have made You forget me, but I sense today that, regardless of the situation in which politics may placed us, it would not behoove me to abandon the sentiment that had constantly guided me in such important circumstances.
As one might have expected, and despite the words of peace written by Napoleon, the reception of this so-called Schonbrunn treaty by the entourage of Frederick William III was frosty.
Let us examine at this treaty in an attempt to discern what about it might provoke the Prussian ire.
If the treaty were ratified, Prussia would cede to Bavaria the area of Anspach and to France those of Cleves and Neuchatel. In compensation, Bavaria would give Prussia a territory of 20,000 inhabitants to round out the Margravate of Bayreuth, and France would give Prussia the coveted territory of Hanover. The future marshal Edouard Mortier had conquered this possession of the English crown in reprisal for Britain’s violation of the peace treaty of Amiens.
Let us look at the numbers: It is true that Prussia would lose about 30,000 inhabitants, but in return it would gain slightly more than 900,000 by annexing Hanover and it would, in addition, become a maritime power and mistress of the North Sea, because it would extend from the center of Germany to the North Sea, and from the low countries in the West to Saxony in the east.
Although the victor of Austerlitz had the right to take up arms against Prussia, that hypocritical virtually vanquished member of the Third Coalition, should have felt itself lucky to escape with such advantages. Yet, Prussia would have none of it. United around their sovereign, the ministers of Frederick-William III enterprisingly added “amendments” to the draft treaty conceived by Napoleon.
Two additional articles deserve emphasis:
- By ARTICLE 2, considering that “the acquisition of the Electorate of Hanover is for the peace and security of the Prussian monarchy, a prize that the king would feel more each day,” Frederick-William “accepts in consequence the cession that His Majesty the Emperor [Napoleon] intends to make to him. In the meantime, the king will take possession of the Electorate and be responsible to France for the tranquility of northern Germany.”
- As for ARTICLE 3, it stipulated that “as soon as the possession of Hanover shall have been finalized by the dispositions of peace between France and Britain, the king will immediately cede to Bavaria, to a prince of the Holy Roman Empire designated by His Majesty the Emperor Napoleon and to France itself the three objects stipulated in Articles III, IV, and V of this convention.”
In other words, the King of Prussia would have control over Hanover, install himself there, and collect all subsequent revenues, but without having to cede anything in return before a peace agreement, at that time still hypothetical, had been effected between France and Britain.
And, equipped with this surprising document, Haugwitz returned to Paris.
In Berlin, where Napoleon’s respectful devotion for Frederick the Great was well known, no one doubted that these changes would hoodwink the “usurper.” Haugwitz himself became confident before he arrived in Paris on February 1, 1806, to submit the modified treaty to Napoleon.
The disaster that would mark, for Prussia, the end of that year 1806 and would reduce that state to nothing for several years to come was so exemplary, so tragic—and at the same time so well deserved—that it is appropriate to consider for a moment those who were responsible.
First, let us regard or more precisely let us admire Queen Louise because, much to the detriment of her husband, it was she who really reigned over Prussia.
Born Louise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, this young woman—in 1806 she was thirty years old—also reigned over hearts, because her beauty was proverbial.
“One must see the Queen of Prussia,” had written Madame Vigée-Lebrun, the official portrait artist of Marie Antoinette, “to understand how, upon first meeting her, I became and remained bewitched.”
The great Goethe himself wrote even more beautifully that one day the queen passed before his eyes like “a celestial apparition whose impression never fades.”
Quite obviously, the king was equally under the influence of this young woman. As Napoleon described Frederick-William III, who was 36 in 1806, “King Frederick-William knew more than any tailor about how much fabric was needed for an outfit. If the French Army had been commanded by a tailor, Prussia would have certainly won the battle because of his superior knowledge on this subject.”
In a manner less imaginative but more cruel, at Tilsit in 1807 the Emperor would remark: “He is a very limited man, without character, without [intellectual] capacity, a true simpleton, a blockhead, a bore.”
The Prussian sovereign’s lack of character would soon display itself in tragic fashion.
Like all the sovereigns of that time, Queen Louise of Prussia hated this new France incarnated in “Bonaparte” and, because the true king was in fact the queen, the “resignation” of Frederick-William left the field free for her to preach an anti-French crusade.
To aggravate matters, the queen’s entourage was composed of a pack of young, turbulent, and arrogant officers. Every day, under the impulse of the queen, these men persuaded themselves that they, the heirs of Frederick the Great, who had vanquished the French at Rossbach on November 5, 1757, during the Seven Years’ War, could easily butcher the miserable French, who were nothing but the heirs of the revolutionary hullabaloo.
At their head, the direct nephew of Frederick the Great, Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia, aged 34, was a controversial character, courageous to the point of temerity or stupidity, a reputed swashbuckler and reveler.
Surrounded by the beautiful queen’s protection, these young men set out to excite Prussian public opinion against France. Worse, they succeeded in dragging the senior leaders of the Prussian Army, men whose rank should have protected them from such a masquerade.
Each one tried to outdo the other. The Prince von Hohenlohe claimed that, having defeated the French in more than “sixty engagements,” it would be easy for him to defeat Napoleon, provided that he had a “free hand” when he was at close quarters with the Emperor.
The French marshals and generals, who were supposedly “cobblers who became improvised generals during the Revolution,” would stand no chance against Prussian officers “who have learned war since their childhood.”
“In three months, and with only two-thirds the forces they would have, we will chase those lads across the Rhine with swift kicks; I swear it on my salvation,” claimed another.
Let us also mention the well-known anecdote in which student officers came, in a gesture of pure provocation, to sharpen the blades of their sabers on the steps of the residence of the French ambassador, M. de Laforest. Seeing them do this, their colonel reportedly remarked, “I regret that our brave Prussians are equipped with sabers and muskets; clubs would suffice to chase these French dogs.”
One might almost pity them were it not that their contempt was so overwhelming.
A word concerning Blücher, because that odious and vindictive character reappeared so often in the history of the First Empire, notably on the occasion of the repeated defeats inflicted on him by Napoleon—the last at Ligny, two days before Waterloo—and who only grew in his hatred of France and of its leader. The ambition of Blücher in 1806 was to prepare “the tomb of all the Frenchmen along the Rhine.”
These assertions, already offensive, reveal not only vanity but a stupidity that is surprising, considering that these “cobblers” and their “corporal” had just, on December 2 of the previous year, triumphed handsomely over two armies, the Russians and Austrians.
When Haugwitz arrived in Paris with Napoleon’s draft treaty as amended by the Prussians, he did not know that the French ambassador to Berlin had already transmitted a copy. The result was a stiff note from the Emperor, transmitted by Talleyrand:
The Minister of Foreign Relations has received specific instructions from His Majesty the Emperor to inform M. de Haugwitz as soon as possible that, because of the failure to ratify the treaty concluded at Vienna within the specified time, His Majesty can no longer regard that treaty as binding; that his Majesty does not recognize the right of any power, including Prussia, to modify the various articles of a treaty, because experience has shown that one must communicate clearly and without deviation; that it is not an exchange of ratifications when there are two different texts of the same treaty and that the irregularity appears even greater when one considers the three or four pages of memoranda added to the ratifications by Prussia . . .
When Napoleon finally granted an audience to Haugwitz on February 9, the emperor among other things indicated to him that, in order for the two countries to remain on good terms, the best solution would be to return to the situation as it had existed prior to the campaign of 1805—which obviously implied that French troops would continue to occupy Hanover.
Finally cornered and fearing that, in the face of continued delays, Napoleon would only make the terms of the draft treaty of Schonbrunn tougher for each day that he delayed, Haugwitz, with death in his heart, signed a treaty on February 15. Frederick-William ratified it on the 26 th of the same month.
When this news reached Berlin, a wave of hatred supported the war party, and the conflagration spread through the barracks of the entire state.
Even though he was the man most concerned, one person remained imperturbably serene in the midst of all this excitement: Napoleon himself, who felt no particular animosity in the confrontation with Prussia.
Thus, at the moment when he was involved in creating the Confederation of the Rhine, established on the preceding July 12, the emperor proposed that the King of Prussia should head an equivalent organization under his own authority: the Confederation of the North. The often-made allegation that the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine was the origin of the campaign of 1806 is worse than false; it is dishonest.
The King [of Prussia] formally declared today his complete support for the Confederation of the Rhine; that he would take all measures needed to support this, and that he accepts the proposal that the Emperor made whereby [Napoleon] acquiesced equally to similar actions that Prussia would take in the North [an identical confederation containing those states that had previously belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, which would cease to exist on August 6]. The natural modesty of His Prussian Majesty is such that he has not yet decided whether he will take advantage of this occasion to bring the imperial crown into the House of Brandenburg. His cabinet can only advise him to recognize the utility [of such an action] for the destiny of Prussia . . . The King regards himself not only as the ally of France but as the ally of the sovereign of the French Empire, and it was on that basis that he will support with a friendly zeal everything that would consolidate the imperial dynasty.
These, Laforest reported, with the supposed sentiments of Prussia with regard to Napoleon. Yet, the proposals emanating from Frederick-William III can only be understood fully when one recognizes that they came from the same person who, only one month previously (July 12), had signed with Tsar Alexander another treaty whose sole purpose was the destruction of Imperial France. Consider Article VII of that treaty, which could not be plainer:
We will concern ourselves first with all necessary measures to place Our army on a strong footing with a detailed plan of operations, to be executed as soon as the opportunity presents itself, either for the common defense or to fulfill the guarantees which we undertook in Article III.
Article III reveals that the Tsar and the King of Prussia would take all measures to “coordinate arrangements that, when general peace returns, will help regulate and guarantee a stable and permanent state of affairs in Europe.”
Thus, based on the information transmitted by his ambassador, the Emperor had no thought of war. Moreover, we have written indications of his peaceful intentions. On August 17, 1806—less than two months before Prussia would declare war and by magisterially crushed—Napoleon wrote the following to Marshal Louis Berthier, chief of staff of the Grand Army, regarding the troops still occupying the Rhine valley after the victory of Austerlitz: “We must think seriously about the return of the Grand Army, because it appears to me that all concerns about Germany are resolved... You may announce that the army is about to begin its march, and that everyone will hold himself ready to return to France.”
It is difficult to imagine a Napoleon ready to lunge at Frederick-William III’s neck and, at the same time, announcing to his troops that he is preparing measures for their return to the home country, the best recompense of any soldier.
In the same spirit, by means of the Exposé of the Situation of the Empire, the French Legislative Corps had, since March 5, taken official notice not only to announce the forthcoming return of the Grand Army to its homes, but also the future plans of the Emperor:
After everything that the government has done for the glory and prosperity of France, the Emperor envisages even greater things that he has yet to accomplish; but these are not conquests that he projects. He has renounced military glory, and no longer aspires to bloody laurels that he has been forced to gather. [Instead, he seeks] to perfect his administration, making a source of durable happiness for his people and of an ever-increasing prosperity. Such is the glory he seeks, such is the recompense he expects for a life fully devoted to the most noble yet most difficult of functions.
This was exactly as he, as First Consul, had remarked in 1802 to the Marquis Girolamo Lucchesini, then Prussian ambassador to Paris. In a dispatch to his sovereign, Lucchesini had reported that Bonaparte appeared decided “to carefully avoid the subject of war, so as to turn the monetary resources absorbed by war to the profit of agriculture, industry, commerce, and the arts.”
The diplomat had continued, explaining that the First Consul had spoken to him “with conviction about canals to be dug and improved, roads to be constructed or repaired, of ports to excavate, of cities to improve, of churches and religious edifices to endow, of instruction and public education to be funded.”
As for the apprehensions of his ambassador to Berlin, M. de Laforest, better placed than anyone to take the increasingly-excited pulse of the Prussian nation, Napoleon considered those doubts unfounded, a belief demonstrated by this extract from a letter he sent to Talleyrand: “The letter that M. de Laforest sent me on August 12 appears foolish. Its excessive fearfulness is to be pitied. We must remain calm until we know positively what we must deal with.”
Where is the warmongering Napoleon described with such nauseating frequency by a crowd of historians, notably English but almost as numerous and equally harmfully French, this Napoleon ready to march against the first one who has the audacity not to bend to his will?
An event in Britain disturbed this semblance of harmonious relations. A fortuitous event, however—the death on January 23, 1806, of the British prime minister, William Pitt, victim of an inglorious attack . . . of gout.
Yet, in such a case, it would become impossible to cede to Prussia, as originally envisaged and promised, the coveted Hanover that was also the cradle of the ruling family of Britain.
By a dubious strategy too complicated to describe here, Berlin’s envoy to Napoleon, the marquis de Lucchesini, a Prussian of Italian origin (Lucques,) learned of the sudden shift in the Emperor’s policy. Yet, rather than request an audience to obtain clarifications about compensations—which Napoleon had anticipated—he immediately communicated the news to Berlin. The anti-French agitation there became a collective hysteria.
To put into concrete form the change that could be initiated in the relations between Britain and France, two hereditary enemies, Fox sent a letter to his French counterpart, Talleyrand, indicating that the Foreign Secretary had met with an individual of French nationality who promised to reveal “matters that would give him pleasure.” Here, described by Fox himself, were the “matters” in question:
I met with him alone in my office and, after several trifling matters, this scoundrel had the audacity to tell me that, to satisfy the monarchs, the leader of the French must be put to death and, for that purpose, he had rented a house in Passy where one could execute this detestable project with certainty and without risk . . .
To show how far matters had changed, one should note that the French police had seized a letter from London, dated December 23, 1805, mentioning the need for a “desirable assassination”—that of Napoleon, of course.
On instructions from the Emperor, Talleyrand thanked Fox in the following terms:
Monsieur, I have placed Your Excellency’s letter before his Majesty. His first words, having read it, were ‘I recognize here the principles of honor and virtue that have always animated M. Fox. Thank him for me and tell him that, if his sovereign’s policy does not demand a continuation of the war, [and] if this quarrel so useless to humanity can be resolved as our two nations desire, I will rejoice again at the character who, by this initiative, helped bring the war to an end, and who exemplifies what one may expect from a cabinet which, I hope, has principles in line with those of M. Fox, one of the men best suited to recognize what is good and truly grand in anything.’ I will not permit myself to add to the very proper expressions of His Imperial Majesty. Signed: Talleyrand
To this dispatch was joined a document designed to show Fox that Napoleon was always ready to undertake peace negotiations with London.
With such a vision—peace with Britain would mean peace throughout Europe—Napoleon either did not hear or chose not to hear the sounds of boots and spurs made by the swashbucklers in Berlin who were trying to outdo each other.
All that remained for the Emperor was to await the wind blowing from Britain that would bear the good news that the cabinet of Saint James had agreed to open peace negotiations. News did reach him, but it was distressing news: the death on September 13 of Charles Fox.
On that accursed rock of Saint Helena to which the English had deported him, the Emperor would remark, although he certainly did not think of it when he first heard the news of that death, “The death of M. Fox was one of the tragedies of my career. If he had continued to live, matters might have taken a very different turn; the interests of peoples might have been served and we might have established a new order in Europe.”
Along with Fox, the peace so desired by Napoleon was also entombed. In London, all the old demons reappeared, feverishly running up the national debt.
Now, Napoleon could not avoid hearing the exclamations coming from Berlin, where clubs were being prepared to “hunt these French dogs.” The Prussians were inflated by their pride and intoxicated by bragging, unwittingly moving towards a spectacular collective suicide. A police report noted: “In the army, they are champing at the bit, and heaven only knows what will happen if they do not go to war.”
The first act of this tragedy took the form of an ultimatum that Frederick-William III sent to Napoleon, demanding that “All French troops without exception must immediately re-cross the Rhine, beginning their march on a date specified by the king (!!!) and continuing without pause; for their instant and complete withdrawal is, at this point in affairs, the sole security bond that the king may accept.”
What Frederick-William III, this king whom no one had threatened but who demanded a security bond, did not know was that he was approaching the moment when he would accomplish—several years late—a prediction of Mirabeau: “If the King of Prussia joins the English party, in fifteen years he will be the margrave of Brandenburg.”
The Emperor wished to sound out the intentions of London one final time.
One had only to consider the concessions he proposed to make to appreciate his good will and his desire to make a final effort to end the incipient state of war with the cabinet in London. Restitution of Hanover to Britain, with compensation accorded to Prussia, recognition of British possession of the island of Malta (even though the Treaty of Amiens had given it to France), and abandonment to London of the trading posts of Pondicherry, Chandannagar, and Mahé, as well as Tobago in the Lesser Antilles, which last had been taken from France in 1795 and had been returned in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens.
That done, the Emperor had played practically his final cards for peace, because he had to know for certain what the British would do before he could turn his attention towards Prussia.
As for Frederick-William, sure of winning, he turned towards his habitual paymaster, Britain.
Here is proof to convince the skeptics—and heaven knows that they are numerous—that Napoleon was truly a man of peace; that is, if, out of respect for his memory, one wishes to demonstrate the truth, rather than concealing the truth which is so inconvenient for those who have maligned him. In a letter dated September 6, 2006, the King of Prussia wrote to Tsar Alexander:
I have followed your advice. I have settled my difference with Sweden, because to argue over details at this time would kill the [alliance] . . . It is essential to act, and to place myself in a state of readiness Britain must offer me prompt and sufficient [monetary] means, deferring details until success allows us more time. Your minister could render me an essential service by persuading the cabinet in London that this is the sole means by which it may yet obtain success against the disturber of the peace in the universe.
At that very moment, the “disturber” was attempting by all means, even to the detriment of his own dignity and that of the country he governed, to preserve the peace. In response to the (excessively) generous French concessions, the British plenipotentiary, Lord James Lauderdale, made no other response than to ask for his passports, which was the definitive sign of a rupture.
On August 15, the tsar had broken the treaty that his envoy, the Councilor of State Pierre d’Oubril, had signed with Napoleon on July 20. Let us recall that, eight days earlier, this same Alexander had signed with Prussia an offensive alliance against France. He now rejected the French treaty on the pretext that “this convention is entirely contrary to the orders and instructions with which the plenipotentiary was furnished.” This pretext was completely fallacious and much to Alexander’s discredit, considering that, shortly before the envoy of Saint Petersburg reached Paris, the Grand Chancellor of Russia had written to Talleyrand, “I pray you to put complete belief in all that the Councilor of State d’Oubril shall say to you in the name of His Imperial Majesty.”
An imperial majesty that had, incidentally, given full powers to his diplomat to “enter into discussions with anyone who is sufficiently authorized by the French government to conclude and sign with them an act or convention on the proper basis to ensure the peace that shall be reestablished between Russia and France.” It would have been difficult to be more explicit.
The situation was thus: A tsar who violated a solemn engagement; a British ambassador who asked for his passports after making an unending series of demands, all of which had been accepted; Prussians who bounded into their saddles. What else could Napoleon have done, without gravely endangering the country of which he was in charge, but submit to the need to prepare for a test of force?
Forced, against his wishes, to go to war, the Emperor then employed his prodigious intelligence and his equally-prodigious energy to prepare himself. The overly-conciliatory head of state gave way to the war leader, the sole talent that everyone willingly acknowledges in him. As one well-known Napoleonic historian remarked, Napoleon’s “concept of war owed more to poker than to checkers!”
The magisterial maneuver of Austerlitz demonstrated the accuracy of this observation.
In 1800, he had remarked that, “In war, nothing is achieved without calculation. Whatever is not carefully planned in all details will have no result.” The Prussians would soon learn to their cost the truth of that idea.
To these details must be added the preparations for the movement of armies, preparations even more complex because the troops were not all garrisoned in the same place. Some units were already in Germany, but others were in Maastricht, Ghent, Tournai, still others at Moulins, Saint Quentin, Boulogne, Saint-Brieuc, Grenoble, and still others in Italy at Turin or Alexandria. . .
Despite the distances, despite the differing rates of march—infantry, cavalry, artillery, and engineers all moved at different speeds—everything must at a given time be in the precise places he had chosen. This was why he had to know the state of roads, distances, means of river crossing, etc.
Regardless of what information might clarify a question, none of it could remain unknown to this uncommon intelligence—the expression is inadequate—capable of passing from the infinitely small to the infinitely great.
Nonetheless, while preparing for the war being forced upon him, in order to achieve the peace he desired Napoleon still had hopes that the French and Prussians might each remain at home.
It was with this in his heart that one must consider the two efforts Napoleon made on September 7 and 12, efforts that qualified as “the last chance” for the Prussians.
The first was in the form of an audience that he granted to the Prussian ambassador. The words of Napoleon on that day should be read and understood for what they really were: the words of a man sincerely—one is tempted to say furiously—attached to peace: “If I had not found it extremely repugnant to make war on Prussia, after Austerlitz I would have fallen on it like a bomb and I could have done a great deal of damage. Yet, I consider the death of a Prussian or a Frenchman as a senseless war, a political crime. . .”
Nonetheless, to clearly demonstrate that his desire for reconciliation was not weakness, he added: “I have ordered Marshal Berthier to have my Army of Germany resume all the positions that it had begun to vacate . . . If I am constrained to a war so contrary to my views and to the interests of our two peoples, I will take advantage of my positions. This is what obliges me to press your court for a cessation of its armaments . . .”
Another action, perhaps even more revealing, was a dialogue of sovereign to sovereign in the form of his personal letter to Frederick-William III. His second and last effort to avoid the conflict between two nations, this letter must be read with the greatest attention because, without wishing to go farther, Napoleon had been forced to the point of no return. In addition, this letter was full of nobility in both terms and sentiments, which rendered even more odious the bluster and insults made at his expense by the Prussian leaders at the court of Berlin:
If I am constrained to take up arms to defend myself, it will be with the greatest regret that I employ those arms against Your Majesty. I would consider such a conflict to be a civil war, because the interests of [our] two states are so clearly aligned. I wish nothing from Your Majesty. I have asked nothing of You. I have such respect for Your sense of justice that I apply to You to inquire who has erred in this circumstance, Prussia or France. All the news that has been given to You is false. I am openly either friend or enemy. I trust in Your Majesty’s heart, I rely on [that heart] to see reason. Nonetheless, I have just taken measures to place myself in position against Your troops that threaten to attack my Army of Germany. I have done so because I would be guilty towards my people if I did not take precautions against the formidable preparations so far advanced that Your troops have departed Your capital. I must tell Your Majesty that war will never be by my action, because if that happened I would consider myself to be a criminal; it is thus that I appeal to a sovereign who is making a fantastic war not justified by the interests of his state. . . If Your Majesty would reply that He has countermanded his dispositions, I will countermand mine.
Yet, when he received the ultimatum described above, Napoleon finally understood that the die, this time, was cast.
In Berlin, the war frenzy reached a crescendo. Dressed in a caricature of a dragoon uniform, Queen Louise of Prussia paraded in front of the troops, electrifying soldiers and officers alike by her presence.
By contrast, in the chateau of Saint-Cloud where he had resided since May, Napoleon worked calmly. He had to labor with even more energy to reclaim the time lost by his peace overtures and by the responses for which he had waited.
That prodigious intellectual machine was put to work. In less than three days, the Emperor dictated not less than 45 orders that were calculated as the equivalent of fifteen thousand words. And not just any words coming at random out of a confused mind. No, these words were measured, thought out, all having a precise meaning because each of them might, in a matter of days, have great consequences either beneficial or tragic.
Here is an eloquent example of the inconceivable minutia dealt with by the man who was now responsible for the organization of the coming campaign and the fate of tens of thousands of men who had no more desire than he to go on campaign. The subject is one of his directives for the movement of the Imperial Guard. These few lines show, without any commentary being required, the full scope of knowledge that the Emperor had concerning his army (among other domains), the routes to follow, the stages, and the number of vehicles necessary for the routing of the troops. Even this list is not exhaustive:
The 1 st Grenadier Regiment of my Guard will depart tomorrow at 10 a.m. and bivouac at Claye. It will depart from there the next morning at daybreak. The 2d Grenadiers will depart at 6 a.m. and overnight at Meaux. The chasseurs will overnight at Dammartin. There and at Meaux, there will by one hundred carts, each one connected to four animals, capable of transporting ten men. Those at Meaux will be ready at 10 a.m., those at Dammartin at 8. Two military commissioners will depart tomorrow morning before 2 a.m. to arrange with the sub-prefect of Meaux for the assembly of these vehicles. Thereafter, they will follow the preparation of all the relays along the two routes, one by way of Metz for the grenadiers, the other by Luxembourg for the chasseurs. The former will have fourteen relays from Meaux to Worms; the latter thirteen from Dammartin to Bingen . . . Each horse will be hired for five francs per day. The owners of these animals will be responsible for their forage. The major [administrative officer] of each regiment will pay for these vehicles, with the receipts being remitted to the sub-prefect who will forward them to you immediately. . . Because the time is very short for the first marches, I have had a general staff officer sent by way of Marshal Bessieres who will see the sub-prefect of Meaux before 4 a.m., so that when the military commissioners arrive the sub-prefect will already have prepared for the movement.
At that moment, his armies were spread on a vast checkerboard whose four corners were Amsterdam and Berlin in the north and Naples and Bayonne in the south.
Grenoble, Munich, Geneva, and Karlsruhe. He collected battalions, squadrons, sometimes even companies, but more often regiments or brigades, along with individual officers and generals. After that he disseminated them—seemingly without precise intentions—on the routes, routes on which everything had been planned and prepared in terms of distances and rations—leading to Wesel, Mainz, Frankfurt, Württemberg, and Bamberg. Bamberg, in Bavaria, was the site he had chosen to assemble the army.
At the end, as in an algebraic formula, these scattered elements would become a complex equation that would result in the concentration, at a point of his choosing, of the Grand Army.
Even though it is (in principle) well known, it is appropriate to recall here that Napoleon’s learned combinations, based on mathematical calculations, did not arise from chance. They were the fruit of investigations that he had assigned to his collaborators, and from which he translated information into precise parameters.
Can you conceive of the “calculating power,” as we say today with regard to computers, which he did with the means of the time—paper, ink, quills, aides de camp, and horses? The object was to harmonize the march of all the arms: infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery moved, as we have said above, at different rates of speed, came from different places, halted at different stages and different times, and depended on variable durations. Yet they found themselves, miraculously, on the specified day and at the designated locations.
The most amazing, if that superlative still has any meaning with regard to such a man, is that, in addition to his preparations for a campaign, he had done everything possible to prevent that campaign, in the vain hope of conserving the peace. Let us recall the remark he had made to the Russian ambassador in 1802: “It is with horror that I wage war,” a phrase that, quite obviously is never cited. Meanwhile he supervised what to anyone else would seem vulgar: shoes, overcoats, canteens, pots: “If the supply is insufficient, let them buy from the inhabitants, but above all permit no abuses and ensure that everyone is paid exactly.” Vegetables and flour: “Have you ensured that there is sufficient firewood to make the flour into bread?” All this he accomplished without neglecting to give government advice to his brother Joseph, King of Naples, and his step-son Eugene, Viceroy of Italy.
In addition to long letters addressed to his allies, the King of Württemberg and Bavaria and the Elector of Baden, to explain to them the causes of the war that was forced upon them, we discover, in the midst of this colossal pile of political, diplomatic, strategic, and logistical dispatches, that he took time to consider the case of a 102-year-old soldier named Vilcot who had been recommended to his benevolence. Received in an audience at Saint Cloud on September 20, this great veteran was accorded “2400 francs as a reimbursement for his travel and an annual pension of 600 francs.”
And what can one think of the sentiment that inspired a letter that he sent to Talleyrand, while he was still at Saint Cloud on September 22?
M. the Prince de Benevente: M. von Hohenzollern needs to form a company of 140 dragoons, all Germans. Because his efforts sometimes exceed his means, you will tell him in secret that I will give him the necessary subsidy. You will inform him that my motive is to provide the House of Hohenzollern the means representation to display itself in appropriate circumstances.
Son of a friend of Josephine who was her companion in prison during the Terror, the Princess Amelie von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had a son, Charles Antoine, the beneficiary of this largesse, who would become an orderly officer to the Emperor.
One might well ask what relationship exists between such “domestic” details and the preparations for war after his peace offers had been rejected? None, except the desire to show that this Napoleon, so criticized and insulted by the sovereigns of “divine right,” still maintained, despite all his worries, constraints, and irritating labors, a sense of humanity, notably with regard to the little people, including little princes.
On September 25, accompanied by the Empress Josephine, Napoleon departed Saint-Cloud for Mainz, where he arrived three days later. In three weeks, Prussia would cease to exist.
Some few Prussian commanders nonetheless judged that the presence of the queen was inappropriate for an army on the march, but the majority believed, not without reason, that the presence of this young and beautiful woman was indispensable, because she was the soul of the army, of the soldiers, and of her husband. A number of Prussian commanders knew quite well that, without that woman of whom the king was so enamored and who was his “motor,” this wan king of Prussia, although 36 years of age, would probably have remained in Berlin.
As the moment approached when the two adversaries prepared to engage, it is appropriate to consider those about to enter the lists.
At the head of the Prussian armies was Duke Charles of Brunswick, the man who gave his name to the Manifesto issued at Coblenz on July 25, 1792, in the name of the Coalition powers. This document had been drafted by a French emigrant, the Marquis de Limon, at the request of Queen Marie Antoinette but against the advice of the representative of Louis XVI. In it, the Coalition threatened to treat Paris to “a military occupation and total domination” if it committed “the least outrage” to the royal family. Known at Paris by August 1, this abusive decree increased the violence of the Parisians, already over-excited, antagonized the Legislative Assembly, and had the predictable effect of leading to the fall of the monarchy on August 10 and perhaps even the executions of the king and of Queen Marie Antoinette.
This failure did not tarnish Brunswick’s reputations, because it was to him that Frederick-William III awarded the high command of the army charged to chase the “French dogs.”
Let us note, because this detail is not without interest, that in 1806 Brunswick was 71 years old, a very old man by the standards of that epoch.
The rest of the Prussian high command followed suit. Field Marshal von Mollendorf: 82; Field Marshal Count von Kalkreuth: 69; Prince von Hohenlohe: 60; Generals Prittwitz, Arnim, and Holzendorff were respectively 71, 66, and 65, and the detestable Blücher was 64. In the midst of this arthritic assembly, Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia, at the age of 34, appeared to be an infant.
Let us now examine the French camp.
Let us turn to the troops.
The Prussian Army was magnificent. It maneuvered majestically yet slowly, and a march of ten or twenty kilometers was close to being an exploit, whereas in Napoleon’s army one could without batting an eye—if not without grumbling—easily march twice or even three times that distance if circumstances demanded it. While the imperial soldier spent the night under the open sky, his Prussian counterpart, at the end of a march, built a veritable city in canvas that he had to dismantle the next morning, like a circus.
As for the art of combat, it had markedly evolved, thanks, notably, to the emergence of these revolutionary armies that, at the start, had been forced to compensate for their lack of discipline and training by their enthusiasm, speed, and flexibility.
As for the effectives that would soon confront each other, Prussia had mobilized an estimated 240,000 men, of whom the active army represented 154,000 of all arms, with the remainder being in garrisons or militia.
These forces were divided into three groups:
-The Army of Hanover (34,000 men), commanded by General von Rüchel, on the frontiers of Hesse;
-The Principal Army or “Army of the King” (70,000 men), under the command of the Duke of Brunswick with the aid of Field Marshals Mollendorf and von Kalkreuth, behind the Elbe in the vicinity of Magdeburg;
-The Saxon-Prussian Army or Army of Silesia: 50,000 men including 20,000 Saxons under General Hohenlohe, with the advance guard commanded by that hothead Louis-Ferdinand.
The first contact with the enemy was a skirmish along the Schleiz, about forty kilometers south of Jena, between on one side, Bernadotte’s corps, followed by two reserve divisions and preceded by a light cavalry brigade under General Charles Lassalle, and on the other a division, composed of 6,000 Prussians and 3,000 Saxons, charged with protecting the flank of the enemy army at this point. This force was easily pushed aside.
To Marshal Lannes, commanding the V Corps, fell the first and equally most symbolic major fight of the campaign. The Emperor had ordered Lannes, whose corps formed the head of the army’s left wing, to attack the enemy at Saalfeld if the forces there did not exceed 18,000 men. If the enemy proved to be stronger, he was to await the arrival of Marshal Augereau and his VII Corps.
For his part, on October 9, Hohenlohe had ordered Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia not to engage in any action against the French before he had joined with the army’s advance guard, commanded by Blücher. If he were attacked, the prince was to fall back on Orlamünde (about 19 kilometers from Jena to the South and the same distance from Saalfeld to the northeast) under the protection of General Grawert.
Yet, that same day, Louis-Ferdinand learned that the French, who had pushed in his outposts, would clearly reach Saalfeld before the next day. This was sufficient for him to transgress his formal orders.
Thus, when French troops emerged from all points along the right bank of the river on the 10th, Louis-Ferdinand moved towards Saalfeld on the left bank of the Saale to await the Frenchmen for whom he had such contempt at a position that was far from strategic. Before him was a wooded mountain, and behind him a river with high banks, the Saale, a tributary of the Elbe that was 427 kilometers long. In case of a problem, this arrogant person, so poorly informed about the realities of war, would have a battlefield consisting of the bottom of a ravine bounded by two streams: the Saale and the Schwarza.
Listening only to his hatred and contempt, he assaulted the heads of columns of Marshal Lannes’ entire army corps. The inevitable resulted; towards one in the afternoon, the Prussian troops, who fought on either side of Saalfeld itself, were quickly broken and all their battalions dispersed.
In the midst of this chaos, the Prince, who was attempting to rally the fugitives, realized that his decorations and high plume had attracted the attention of the French cavaliers. Covering his medals and his hat, he attempted to extract himself from the melee by jumping a hedge, but the legs of his horse were not up to this task.
It was at this moment that he was trapped by a sergeant of the 10 th Hussars, Jean-Baptiste Guindey, who struck him with a saber blow to the head. He called upon the prince several times to surrender, but without realizing with whom he was dealing. Louis-Ferdinand’s only response was to strike back, obliging Guindey to give him a final, mortal blow to the chest, knocking him off his horse. (Guindey, named to the horse grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, died at Hanau in 1813. At that time, he was a captain and officer of the Legion of Honor.)
Marshal Lannes had the body of Louis-Ferdinand taken up and gave orders that military honors should be rendered to the prince.
When he learned of the death of Prince Louis-Ferdinand, Napoleon had Berthier send the following message to the enemy: “Sire, the Emperor Napoleon has charged me to have the honor to inform Your Majesty of his sympathy for the pain you must feel at the death of Prince Louis.” Napoleon also had the following mention inserted into the 2d Bulletin of the Grand Army: “The death of Prince Louis-Ferdinand was glorious and worthy of respect; he died in a manner desired by all good soldiers.”
Thus, one might be unqualified for the modest rank of corporal in the Prussian Army and yet possess a knowledge of how to act!
This death of one of the most ardent advocates of the war constituted a very bad precedent for the rest of the campaign.
As we have already said, and will repeat as often as possible on the site of the International Napoleonic Society, Napoleon was not the bloody warmonger, the neurotic conqueror so often—if not universally—depicted by his distracters, whose bad faith was not their least fault.
We have also written above that in a certain “historical” pamphlet, the author accused Napoleon of having “attacked Prussia.”
Here then is what this “aggressor” wrote to King Frederick-William on October 12, two days after the death in single combat of Louis-Ferdinand (to be read attentively):
Why spill so much blood? To what end? I will offer to Your Majesty the same language that I offered to the Emperor Alexander two days before the Battle of Austerlitz . . . Sire, I have been your friend for six years. I do not wish to profit by this evil spirit that animates your councils and which has made you commit political errors which still astonish Europe and military mistakes whose enormity Europe will not be slow to recognize. If You had asked reasonable things in Your note I would have accorded them; Your note [instead] demanded my dishonor, which made my response certain. This war has begun between us, and the alliance is completely broken. Yet, why cut the throats of our subjects? I have no desire for a victory that will be purchased by the blood of a good number of my children. If I were at the start of my military career and if I feared the hazards of combat, this language would be completely misplaced. Sire, Your Majesty will be defeated! You have disturbed the calm of your days without the shadow of a pretext. Today you are still intact and able to deal with me in a manner befitting your rank, but in less than a month you will be in a very different situation. You have told me that you have frequently rendered services to me. Well, I will show that I remember [those services]. You have the ability to spare your subjects from the ravages of war. Having just begun the war, you can easily halt it and make something that Europe will know is better. Sire, I have nothing to gain against Your Majesty. I want nothing and have never wanted anything from You. The current war is an impolitic war. I pray Your Majesty to see in this letter only my desire to save the blood of men and to help a nation, which geographically could never be a threat to mine, from having to repent of having listened too much to the ephemeral emotions that rise and fall so easily among peoples.
Because some people are always looking for hidden meanings and sordid intentions behind each of his proposals, here is an extract from another letter of Napoleon, very personal because the addressee was none other than the Empress Josephine who, at that moment, was at Mainz:
Gera [30 kilometers west of Jena], two a.m.
I am at Gera, My dear:
My affairs go very well and are all that I could hope for. With God’s help, I believe that in a few days matters will assume a terrible aspect for the poor King of Prussia, whom I personally pity because he is a good man. The queen is at Erfurt with the king; if she wishes to see a battle, she will have that cruel pleasure . . .
With greater frankness and brevity, this letter only confirms the terms of the previous one sent to Frederick-William III.
These documents are never quoted, undoubtedly because they don’t “fit” with the image ordinarily portrayed of Napoleon.
If the affair of Saalfeld had cost the Prussians “only” about three thousand men killed, wounded, or missing, it had a great effect in Berlin, spreading consternation where previously that had been nothing but arrogance and contempt.
Among the Prussian commanders, there was at least one who demonstrated lucidity of thought—Field Marshal Count von Kalkreuth (1735-1818).
The procrastination of his peers did not escape the notice of the Emperor, who wrote to Marshal Lannes on October 12 that “All the letters we have intercepted indicate that the enemy has lost their heads. They confer night and day without knowing what course to follow . . . Up until now, they have clearly shown their ignorance of the art of war.”
At the same time, Kalkreuth foresaw events: “The fatal hour is advancing rapidly; short of a miracle, we are marching towards disaster.”
Napoleon had given to one of his orderly officers, Montesquiou, the responsibility of carrying the handsome letter described above to the Prussian headquarters.
The destiny of nations often hangs on little things. In this case, it depended on the narrow-minded attitude of a Prussian officer who refused to treat Montesquiou as a parliamentary because he had not been preceded by the regulation bugler.
Only on the following day, October 13, was Napoleon’s envoy able to give to Hohenlohe the letter addressed to his sovereign. Recognizing immediately the importance and implications of this last chance document, Hohenlohe did everything possible to transmit this document without further delay to Frederick-William. But, by the time it reached its destination, the battle had not only begun but been virtually lost for the Prussians.
In the introduction, we wrote that this brochure would discuss the actual battle only very briefly, in order to allow pride of place to the efforts—vain, unfortunately for Prussia—of Napoleon to prevent it. In effect, we believe that this is the best option to vindicate the Emperor’s memory, blamed for all the evil effects of Europe at that time. We shall also see how his soldiers, so often described, like their leader, as blood-thirsty Huns, comported themselves when Prussia was on its knees. Here, therefore, is a brief summary of the battle that produced the unthinkable (especially for it) destruction of the Prussian Army on October 14, 1806.
The advance of the French troops was so rapid that, by 12 October, the Prussian Armty was already almost cut off from Berlin.
Concentrated around Weimar, the Prussians were split into two great masses placed, respectively, under the command of the Prince von Hohenlohe—he who had wanted so much to fight Napoleon provided that he had a free hand —to the southeast, and by the Duke of Brunswick to the Northeast. Alongside the duke were Frederick-William and Queen Louise.
On October 13, Hohenlohe learned that he was opposed not by detached elements of the French Army but definitely by Napoleon himself with the majority of his troops, approximately 155,000 men. This did not disturb him, however, because between Napoleon at Jena and Hohenlohe before Weimar loomed a major natural obstacle: the plateau of Landgrafenberg. With a height of 400 meters, it had a reputation of being impassable. “Its slopes,” recounted the famous Captain Jean-Roche Coignet, who spent that memorable night there, “were as steep as the roof of a house.” This fact made Hohenlohe unconcerned, because he believed it unthinkable that an army, especially one accompanied by artillery, could scale these slopes. That was undoubtedly true of the Prussian army of automatons, but not the Grand Army motivated by its leader in person.
Marshal Lannes, commander of the V Corps, informed Napoleon of the existence of a difficult but practicable footpath giving access to the plateau, having already personally posted an advance guard there. The emperor moved the 22,000 men of V Corps, with their artillery and the infantry of the Guard, up this path. Let us recall the well-known anecdote of Napoleon personally using a lantern to light the way for the soldiers widening the path at night to permit the movement of cannon.
When the sun tore away the fog on the morning of October 14, Hohenlohe still believed that it was impossible to install any significant portion of the Imperial Army on the plateau. He was quickly disillusioned.
After initiating an intense artillery preparation, Napoleon launched a general offensive. The plateau of Landgrafenberg, which the Prussians had believed to be impassable and inaccessible to an army, now poured out upon them infantry, cavalry, horse artillery, all electrified by the presence of Napoleon, who designated their objectives from the summit of the plateau.
About 2 p.m., the predictable catastrophe occurred despite the arrival of a fresh army corps under Lieutenant General von Rüchel. A wasted effort. In less than one hour, his 23,000 men, the majority of whom were rendered out of action, swelled the flood of fugitives who slipped away in all directions.
In judging the Grand Army incapable of taking position on the Landgrafenberg, Hohenlohe had made a grave error of interpretation.
Napoleon had also been misled in his first estimation: he had thought that he had the entire Prussian Army opposite him, but when the affair was concluded, he recalculated, determining that he had faced about 60,000 men. The rest could not be far away, and thus he anticipated renewed combat on the next day. He had no qualms about this, because he would face an army inferior both in numbers and in morale, as a result of the serious reverse of the 14 th.
As he returned to Jena after having entered Weimar, he was only surprised to have no news of Marshal Davout, who must be located about 15 kilometers to the north.
At the moment when Napoleon crushed Hohenlohe—whose arms had apparently not been left free as he had asked—Marshal Davout was gaining fame tragically and in a manner more exemplary than Napoleon at Jena.
During the night of 13-14 October, Davout had received instructions from the Emperor directing him to “advance on Apolda so as to fall on the rear of the [Prussian] army.”
Davout had with him only 29,000 men of his III Corps, including 1,600 horsemen and 44 cannon. Opposite him, Brunswick, still accompanied by the king and queen, had 60,000 soldiers, of whom 10,000 were cavalry with 115 guns.
Queen Louise’s “social amusements” had proved to be extremely costly.
The army, now commanded by King Frederick-William after the wounding of Brunswick (whose son naturally held the French responsible for the death of his father, and was himself killed at Waterloo) was withdrawing in relative order in the direction of Weimar when it encountered the fugitives of Jena. The retreat then turned into a total debacle. From Auerstedt to Erfurt, the route was littered with the debris of an army whose disgraceful defeat was equaled only by its shameful presumption.
In recompense for this uncommon victory, considering the disproportion of forces engaged, Napoleon gave Marshal Davout the honor of being the first to enter Berlin and created him Duke of Auerstedt. This gives the lie to the insinuations of those who suggest that the Emperor, jealous of his marshal’s success, had minimized the victory of Auerstedt in comparison to that of Jena. It is sufficient to read his correspondence on the subject, as well as the 5 th Bulletin of the Grand Army, to see how inane this allegation is, and above all the lamentable but not unexpected shabbiness of it.
The King of Prussia, unlike the Emperor, was not above duplicity. Thus at Halle on October 19, a member of the king’s entourage, the Count von Donhoff, presented Frederick-William’s tardy response to the letter sent by the Emperor two days before the combat at Saalfeld.
At Headquarters, October 15, 1806
My Royal Brother: Not until yesterday morning, at the moment when our troops were already engaged, did I receive the letter which Your Imperial and Royal Majesty did me the honor of addressing to me on the 12 th of this month, and I hastened to respond as soon as I dismounted my horse. The sentiments that You manifested, despite the differences (!) between us, rendered [this letter] precious to me, and I recognized the elevated character of Your Imperial Majesty whose intent was to prefer happiness to the bloodshed of so many thousand men . . .
The King of Prussia did not think it wise to identify the person responsible for shedding the blood of “so many thousand men.” Frederick-William concluded by asking for an armistice “while we occupy ourselves with establishing the solid happiness of our subjects.”
This letter was very touching. Why, therefore, did not Napoleon cancel the pursuit order given to his army corps? The explanation appears in the response that he immediately sent to his correspondent:
Imperial Camp of Halle, October 19, 1806
My Royal Brother, I have received Your Majesty’s letter. I greatly regret that the letter that I sent to you by the hand of one of my orderly officers, who arrived at your camp on the 13 th, did not prevent the battle of the 14 th. [However,] no matter how great my desire to avoid evil and protect the victims, any ceasefire that would allow time for the Russian armies to arrive before winter would be so contrary to my interests that I cannot agree to it . . .
Recognizing this danger, the Emperor had no choice but to allow his marshals to pursue the fleeing Prussians.
Thereafter, fortified places capitulated one after the other, the majority without offering any resistance. The same was true of the army corps whose leaders, only a short while before, had nothing but insults for the “corporal” and his “cobblers,” thereby saving neither their honor, nor their names, nor their arms.
One month was sufficient to reduce the Prussian Army to nothing. Besides the dead and wounded, 110,000 prisoners and 250 flags bore witness to the monarchs of Europe of this dishonorable collapse, unprecedented in history.
Normally, we would end this pamphlet at this point, but there remains one more duty to discharge with regard to the memory of Napoleon and his Grand Army.
We must therefore examine what happened from the moment that the Emperor entered the capital of Prussia on October 27, 1806, until the day he left it on November 24.
To the same degree that military leaders and the entourage of Frederick-William had shown themselves arrogant and hurtful, the Berliners now showed themselves conciliatory, amiable, and in general cringing before he who had reduced their army to nothing.
One of Napoleon’s first gestures was to pardon the Prince von Hatzfeld, governor of Berlin, convicted of flagrant espionage: Napoleon held a letter in which Hatzfeld informed Hohenlohe (who had not yet laid down his arms) of the location where Marshal Davout intended to block his route. His fate was beyond question: the firing squad.
Brought to see Napoleon by the combined intervention of Duroc, Grand Marshal of the Palace, de Segur and de Rapp, orderly officers, the Princess von Hatzfeld easily obtained mercy for her husband. On this theme, there exists an abundant and rather tearful imagery.
Frederick Augustus, who had been forced into war that led to the Prussian failure at Jena, would pay dearly for his loyalty to Napoleon. After the latter’s defeat at Leipzig (October 19, 1813), Frederick-Augustus I would become a prisoner of the allies, his country administered first by a Russian governor and later by a governor from the detested Prussia.
We have written above that the Berliners showed themselves to be cringing before the conquerors. The worst offenders were the great names of the Prussian aristocracy who came, separately, to submit to him.
Let us cite the example of the Prince von Isenbourg, who raised a regiment composed of deserters and offered its service to Napoleon. To encourage his men to serve in such an unusual unit, he issued a declaration to them that must be read to understand its spineless subservience:
Messieurs the officers who became prisoners of war and who wish to leave that painful situation so as to exercise their military talents may enter into the service of our invincible Emperor, joining this regiment in the same rank that they had held in the army of the King of Prussia. This honorable employment assures to all who aspire to it the protection of the adored hero who loses his soldiers like his children. Come valliant warriors, assemble under the flags of Napoleon the Great. Advance with him to victory and immortal glory. [original emphasis]
Berlin, November 16, 1806
Charles, Prince von Isenbourg
The aunt of the King of Prussia was no different. She wrote to the Emperor that he was “the greatest of sovereigns,” and blessed “forever [His] Imperial Majesty, whose goodness softens misfortunes.” This lamentable love letter, of course, was accompanied by a request for favor.
Another, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, instructed his chamberlain to “place at the feet of His Imperial and Royal Majesty my very humble congratulations on the success of his arms.” And, as of course was to be expected, he begged for an audience at which he would render “with an eagerness equal to life [his] gratitude for the marks of Napoleon’s generous protection.”
One final citation—there are many others available—will put an end to this indecent display of obsequious proposals and revolting baseness. Consider the princess regent of the principality of Lippe who, like her peers, wished to enter the newly-constituted Confederation of the Rhine, whence her hypocritical advances:
In this time when more than ever the happiness and survival of peoples reposes in the strong and generous hands of the greatest of heroes, the princess regent of Lippe dares to solicit the advantage long desired [this is not made up!] of being received into the Confederation of which the greatest monarch is the illustrious protector. She dares to hope that he will permit her to aspire to this happiness, by reason of the unlimited confidence and inviolable attachment of hich her heart has always made confession for the immortal Napoleon. The brilliant, almost miraculous successes of the Imperial armies have fulfilled the expectations of the princess.
Small wonder that a German history of this period has written: “The population of Berlin exhibited such a debasement that one day Napoleon said, while shaking his head, that he didn’t k now whether to rejoice or feel shame for the Berliners.”
Having been attacked and insulted, Napoleon might well have shown himself vindictive in victory. Instead, what did he do?
Let us omit the French accounts, of which one might suspect that they were guilty of partiality, and instead look at those who were the interested principals: the Berliners themselves and the Prussians in general.
The archives of the day reported that Napoleon became sincerely concerned for the poor of the city, causing the issue of groschen, small coins that were virtually non-existent, and without which the rich were unlikely to give charity to the poor. Without such small coins, the poorest would have great difficulty in buying their daily bread. Finally, all the functionaries, pensioners, and invalids were paid the arrears that were due to them.
To minimize as much as possible the burden placed on the inhabitants by being forced to house his officers, Napoleon directed that those officers be installed in the homes belonging to members of the court who were “absent” from Berlin.
To ensure harmony and discipline, Napoleon found a precious auxiliary in the person of General Pierre Hulin. Let us recall the anecdote concerning the Berliner woman who complained to Hulin that the officer lodged with her demanded, at meals, champagne and burgundy which she was incapable of providing. Hulin gave her a card that told this officer that, if he desired champagne, “he was to ask for it at the general’s quarters.” Ordinary table wine would henceforth have to satisfy the tastes of this Epicurean officer.
Shortly thereafter, Hulin published an order prescribing that “each soldier or functionary quartered on an inhabitant is required to partake of the ordinary mean that [the inhabitant] is able to furnish, according to his financial state; other food may not be demanded under any pretext.”
There were some incidents, yet, to disappoint the habitual detractors of Napoleon, these were not the fault of the French soldiers of the Grand Army. The guilty parties were notably the Bavarian and Württemberger soldiers whose common language should theoretically have caused them to show greater consideration for their Prussian neighbors. Yet the rest of Germany and notably (as we have seen) the Saxons hated the Prussians.
On this subject, herewith the report of the commander of Württemberg’s troops to his sovereign:
However much I would wish to render praises to Your Majesty concerning Your army, I cannot conceal that a spirit of savagery is spreading, principally among the cavalry which is often left to its own devices. I have seen examples of an unlimited greediness that has led to deplorable excesses and bad treatment committed against the unfortunate and defenseless peasants.
Yet one must ask, with perfect hindsight, where are the proofs of the good conduct of the French occupation troops? Among others, they are in the journals of the time, such as the Berlin Nachrichten, which published the following article on March 12, 1807:
M. Roussel, a grenadier officer of the 14 th Line [Infantry] Regiment and military commandant of the city of Brandenburg an der Havel, has been recalled by his sovereign. He takes with him the regrets of the magistrates and of all the inhabitants of that city, because he has, by his wisdom, friendship, integrity and justice so reconciled the interests of his sovereign with those of the inhabitants that they will never forget the good works of this brave officers, honored as much for his conduct as for his impartiality. May this brave man be as fortunate in his career as he deserves. The inhabitants of Brandenburg will always be glad to hear of any good news that befalls him.
Because these testimonials are important to erase the sordid image that “they” attribute to Napoleon’s soldiers, let us note General de Gastine, whom the authorities of the city of Landsberg saluted in this manner:
Landsberg an der Warthe, May 10, 1807
More than fifty thousand French soldiers of the Grand Army have passed through this town. We lodged most of them within the walls of our city. Our most prominent citizens and all the inhabitants consented to every sacrifice in their power to accommodate these troops as best they could. And we must in justice acknowledge that [the soldiers] have so far behaved themselves like generous enemies and we have only had to bear the inevitable inconvenience of the passing and quartering of troops, but have had no complaints to make regarding disorders of any sort or of any act of violence.
Amongst those who remained the longest within our walls, we must especially mention in the most honorable and laudable terms, General de Gastine, who commanded the city by order of His Majesty the Emperor and King. General Gastine not only occupied this post with zeal, efficiency and honesty, he also treated all the inhabitants of this city, without exemption, from the humblest to the highest, with a delicacy of tact that is characteristic of someone who has received a high degree of culture and education. He has won the affection, the trust and the veneration of the entire city. We cannot fail to mention General de Gastinne’s remarkable unselfishness and his generosity in feeding more than a hundred wives of Prussian soldiers and their children. . . . Our most ardent good wishes accompany him. May Providence protect him and preserve him from the dangers of war…
Signed: The Municipality and the Corps of Burghers
General Clark has just been named Minister of War and will reportedly be replaced by General Victor. General Hulin has been promoted to general of division [major general] and he will be appointed military governor of Paris. He will be replaced by General Saint-Hilaire. The governor and the military governor leave their posts with the respect and gratitude of the inhabitants of the country and of the capital in particular. The moderation they showed in executing the severe orders necessary in wartime, the perfect peace that they maintained, [and] the impartiality they showed under all circumstances justify these sentiments.
Reports of this nature abounded. If one must deplore the brutality of a Württemberger officer arrested for striking the owner of his lodgings with the flat of his sword, one may also read in the Memoires of that time that “the French soldiers conducted themselves much better in regard to the Berliners than did the South Germans.”
What should be added in conclusion?
Napoleon, even though provoked, did everything possible to ensure that this war did not occur—“The Emperor truly desires that not one musket ball should be fired against Prussia; he would regard such an event as a misfortune,” wrote Talleyrand to the French Ambassador in Berlin. After the affair of Saalfeld he again took it upon himself, which he was under no obligation to do, to write to Frederick-William to beg him one last time to end hostilities while there was still time. We have seen the results.
We have also examined how Napoleon treated the vanquished with moderation and humanity despite the discovery in the Charlottenburg palace of compromising documents hastily abandoned by Queen Louise. Among others, this included instructions to the Prussian ambassador (whose country was at the time theoretically on good terms with France) to Madrid to incite Spain to enter the Coalition.
Why are these actions by Napoleon—noble in the strictest meaning of the term—never mentioned? Why, without pause, is his name dragged in the mud, especially in France, which owes him so much? Where are those in France who are in fact assigned this mission, and generously compensated for so doing?
Why give so much “publicity” to those who spit on his memory because he committed some errors? Who, entrusted with such gigantic responsibilities in the midst of such adversity, would not have made some mistakes? I have already written this phrase on the web site of the International Napoleonic Society.
Yet the (evil) cause has been understood for a long time: Napoleon allegedly plunged Europe into fire and blood to quench his inexhaustible thirst for ambition and conquest.
Thus, in an article published in French last August 3 on the web site of a foreign press agency, the author described the Emperor as “the butcher of Europe;” in one of those pamphlets with pretensions to being historical (in this case, Osprey publications, naturally enough written in English), the author wrote, as mentioned previously, that Napoleon “attacked Prussia,” and in another that “the Gestapo had nothing to teach his [Napoleon’s] agents.” The implication is that Napoleon and his Grand Army were the models for the Nazi regime. What can we expect from pamphlets written by Englishmen concerning the inevitably “Napoleonic” wars?
These insults are an easy, effective (and without risk, because no one objects) means for the British to help people forget that it was they who invented the sinister prison hulk son board which they crammed thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers as prisoners, to the point of causing death. More recently, not the Emperor but Lord Kitchener created horrible concentration camps. This happened in South Africa, at the start of the 20 th Century, during the Boer War.
Upon reading the Emperor’s correspondence that we have reproduced above, to support this false view one would have to be motivated by the visceral bad faith of the French royalists, those men bypassed by glory who preferred to chatter in the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and thrill to the “exploits” of the Count d’Artois, the future Charles X, a cowardly conspirator shut up in England, rather than serve the man who pulled France from its post-Revolutionary quagmire. One must have the indelible rancor of the representatives of foreign monarchies at that time; often defeated after provoking war, and the most avaricious among them, the most despicable—let us not mince words—being the British monarchy. One must have the mercantile churlishness of the pamphleteers (they know who they are) who misuse the arts for the sole purpose—never admitted—of selling their publications, in order to advance the thesis that Napoleon was responsible for the bloody carnival of battlefields.
By a sneaky trick of sleight of hand, Britain, the chief supporter and financial backer of these vindictive and arrogant monarchies, has managed to make Napoleon alone seem responsible for the waves of blood that inundated Europe between 1805 and 1815.
It is therefore obvious that Napoleonic history as it is taught and recounted is nothing but a gigantic swindle that, because of inertia if not outright complicity, has been perpetuated for many years by certain specialists or supposed experts.
Consider the truly indecent cheerfulness of the royalist refugees at Ghent, in Belgium, during the Hundred Days. The French defeat at Waterloo was celebrated by a grand banquet, presided over by Louis XVIII, forming the ultimate, most eloquent, and yet at the same time most sordid manifestation of this attitude.
In such a context of dishonesty, it was easy to conclude that any action by the Emperor in any field of endeavor should automatically be regarded as a crime.
Still, it would seem that someday “they”—whoever had the courage to be “they”—would also have the minimal decency and honesty to reestablish the truth, so that this prodigious man would not be treated in our scholarly works as a “dictator” or the “butcher of Europe,” and that in our epoch, which places such great store (in words) on the “human person,” would remember that it was Napoleon, and no one else, who wrote that beautiful phrase that I cite so often because it defines him so well:
After the final combat, the desperate blows,
All of which horrified you, and without seeing his wound
You, like a woman, betrayed him,
Like the slaves you have sold!
Deprived of his rights, deprived of the rank of citizen,
He, being conquered, laid down his crown
And left for you in trust the son whom he cherished.
This son you delivered to his enemies!
Then, loading the hero with infamous chains,
You separated him from his men in tears,
And beyond the seas, on a foreign rock,
Forgotten by all, he died, alone.
(“The last resting place”)