This new Grand Army is certainly not only made up of willing soldiers. Far from it. All over Europe – even from faraway Naples where Napoleon’s glamorous brother-in-law Joachim Murat is putting his lazzaroni and released convicts into exceptionally colourful uniforms – all unmarried 18-year-olds who haven’t been able to afford to pay for a substitute to go and get killed for them and who’ve drawn the recruiting sergeant’s shortest straw – all, that is, who haven’t fled to the hills and become ‘bandits’ – are being accompanied to the outskirts of their towns or villages by weeping relatives who never expect to see them again. As usual, desertion en route for the depots is wholesale. Most of the reluctant peasants whom Lieutenant Heinrich von Brandt is seeing co-opted into the 2nd Vistula Regiment at Posen have never in their lives worn boots or slept in a bed and ‘only knew of white bread and coffee by hearsay’ and are having to be kept to the colours by a combination of good food and lodgings and, for deserters (‘almost all were caught’) 50 to 60 strokes of the cane on their backsides. After fetching a whole route-regiment of deserters from the He de Ré to Lübeck Joseph Guitard a tall chestnut-haired captain in Coignet’s regiment, is having to go back into Prussia and fetch another. The equivalent of a whole division of the Grand Army consists of such would-be deserters.
Napoleon, of course, knows perfectly well what he’s about, and whose interests he’s serving. The French nation’s of course. But who are the ‘nation’? The middle classes, of course, as opposed to le peuple, whom he one day boasts to Narbonne that he has “pacified by arming it”. Adding as a corollary: “In my hands war has become the antidote to anarchy.” As for the old aristocracy, those of them who’ve rallied to the cause of an upstart throne “borne up”, as Napoleon himself realized, “on the bayonets of the Imperial Guard, all sons of self-owning peasants”, some are really devoted to his cause, if not always, like Caulaincourt and Narbonne, to his policies. Others, perhaps most, are decidedly ambivalent: “A blue is always a blue, a white always a white,” he’ll ruefully tell his First Ordnance Officer Gaspard Gourgaud one day on St Helena.
Among aristocratic officers wholeheartedly devoted to his cause is General Count Philippe de Ségur. One day during the Consulate this son of a distinguished father, both bitter enemies of the Revolution, had been loitering outside the Tuileries gates in a state of such deep depression that he was contemplating suicide, when a troop of Chasseurs of the Consular Guard had come trotting out. On this scion of France’s ancient military caste the sight of their brilliant green and red uniforms and other accoutrements had had an effect only comparable to that of St Paul’s vision en route for Damascus. Throwing in his lot with the new Caesar, the young Philippe de Ségur had gone and joined up; and like his fellow aristocrat Montesquiou Fézensac had of course been swiftly promoted. After various exploits he is now an officer at Imperial Headquarters, where his special task as Assistant Prefect of the Palace is to supervise the pack mules which, on campaign, transport the imperial gold dinner service and other domestic chattels. If half of de Ségur’s mind is deep in military matters, the other is no less deep in classical literature; and it’s by no means impossible that he’s already contemplating a great historical work – not that either he or anyone else, in this spring of 1812, can envisage what it will be. Filled with what will turn out to be a passionate, if, in the event – in Gourgaud’s eyes – altogether too ambivalent admiration for his idol, he is already well aware that of all the allies being pressed into service in this gigantic expedition ‘only the Italians and Poles were really enthusiastic for our cause’.
Of none of the Grand Army’s officers is this truer than of a certain Elban officer, by name Césare de Laugier (or Loggia). Setting out from Milan in February with the rest of Prince Eugène’s IV Corps, the adjutant-major of the Guards of Honour of the Kingdom of Italy, each company of which comes from a different North Italian city and has a different-hued facing to its green-and-white uniform, has crossed the Alps and gone into cantonments in Southern Germany, where he’s sure the inhabitants ‘love’ them. Inside its new-fangled Grecian-style helmet, whose huge plumed and combed crest culminates in an agressively beaked, rapacious and gilded eagle’s head, Césare de Laugier’s head is full of notions of antique military exploits. Not a little naïve himself, he paints a touching picture of his compatriots’ mentality:
‘They know no other divinity than their sovereign. No other reason but force. No other passion but glory. All is levelled out in discipline and passive obedience, the soldier’s prime virtue. Ignorant of what’s in store for them, they’re so convinced of the justice of their cause that they never try to find out which country it is they’re being sent to. Having heard it said at each war’s commencement that they’re destined to deal the final blow to the Englishmen’s tottering power, they end up by confusing all existing powers with England. They assess the distance separating them from it by the number of marches they, for several years now, have been making from one side of Europe to the other, without ever reaching that country which, goal of all their efforts, vanishes before their eyes.’
Reviewed on 14 May on the esplanade at Glogau outside that town’s fortifications, the adjutant-major will write in his diary:
‘The whole of IV Corps is under arms. The Viceroy got here yesterday. The Royal Guard, occupying as of right the right of the front line, which is very long, finds itself situated in the town cemetery. Only the graves interrupt our regular alignment. Some superstitious minds are trying to extract a sinister presage from this circumstance, and are complaining of our being put here. The Roman legions would certainly have sacrificed to their gods to exorcize such sinister auguries.’
But evidently Prince Eugène, a somewhat stolid but very capable soldier, is above such fears; and, in an order of the day expressess his satisfaction with IV Corps’ turnout. Nothing could make the Guardia d’Onore’s adjutant-major feel more ecstatic.
All through the spring and early summer of 1812 Europe’s roads resound to the tramp of marching boots as no fewer than seven armies march northwards. Each division sets out after the one ahead of it at two-day intervals. With a distance of 100 paces (70m) between battalions, its regiments march ‘in two files sharing the road whose crown they leave free’. Halting for ‘five minutes in every hour and at three-quarters of the day’s march for half an hour’ and with a day’s rest every fifth, they tramp on northwards at an average speed of 25 miles a day. Every second day they pick up rations, provided along the route by Count Daru’s16 administration. ‘The step of the NCO who marches at the head of the regiment,’ explains that amusing raconteur Captain Elzéar Blaze (who is himself lucky enough not to be sent to Russia),
‘must be short and regular; for if the right advances at a regular pace, the left will have to gallop. The least obstacle on the road, even if it’s only a runnel to cross, and if the first man to encounter the obstacle pauses for even half a second, the men in the last battalion will have to run for a quarter of an hour to catch up. All this an experienced officer sees at a glance; orders a brief halt; and everything resumes its wonted course. After we’ve marched an hour there’s a five-minute halt, to light our pipes. This is known as la halte des pipes. The soldier must never be deprived of any of his pleasures. Everyone dines on what he has in his pack, and then off we go again, breaking each league with five-minute halts.’
Looking out of his window in Dresden, capital of the kingdom of Saxony, a nine-year-old boy, Wilhelm von Kügelgen, watches them go by:
‘The long dark columns of the Old Guard with their proud eagles, tall bearskins, and martial faces hovering like gloomy dream-pictures. The warlike sound of drums and pipes; then the ghostly figures of the pioneers with glinting axes and long black beards, and behind them the endless transport columns. Day after day they passed under our window, man by man, brigade after brigade. I saw almost all the arms of the Grand Army: the tall carabiniers with plumed helmets and gilded cuirasses; the light chasseurs, hussars, voltigeurs; all types of infantry and artillery with good horse-drawn vehicles. And, lastly, long columns of pontoon-bridging and other military equipment.’
It’s at Dresden, namely, that the new Charlemagne has ordered the kings and princes of a conquered Europe to come and do him homage. Since few if any – the King of Saxony apart – are sincerely attached to his cause, perhaps a festive display of political and military might will impress on everyone the futility of stirring up trouble behind his back? His father-in-law the Emperor of Austria is to be guest of honour and his young daughter, Marie-Louise, Empress of the French, leading lady – Prussia’s king and queen have to beg to be allowed in and even then are only grudgingly admitted.
What, one wonders, are the 47-year-old upstart emperor’s thoughts as, with his young blonde empress seated at his side, the imperial cortège leaves Paris at 5.30 a.m. on 9 May, for ‘the supreme effort, the most difficult task of all?’ – namely, by crushing Russia to crush Britain and secure for himself and for France the domination of the world? Is he perhaps even hoping the Dresden event may, in itself, suffice to bring the Tsar to heel? Otherwise what was the meaning of his rueful aside to his police prefect, just before leaving:
‘Well, one must finish what one has started!’
No previous campaign, as far as we know, had been preluded by such a remark.
Von Kügelgen goes on:
‘One stormy night when the torches would hardly burn he arrived like the Prince of Darkness. Flashes of lightning lit the sky, and peals of thunder mingled with the populace’s half-hearted cheers and the ghostly ringing of churchbells. There was a good deal to be seen in Dresden at this time. The presence of so many armies filled the town with martial pomp. Bells pealed and cannons boomed to welcome the princes. Grand parades and manoeuvres entertained them. At night the town shone under the magical glare of a thousand lamps. A broad rainbow of gay paper lanterns arched the sky high above the Elbe, which reflected every colour of the spectrum, the prettiest light-effect one could possibly imagine. Fireworks crackled in the air. Every house was filled to the brim with soldiers who talked, laughed and swore in almost every European language.’
The romantic poet Heinrich Heine, too, sees him
‘high on horseback, the eternal eyes set in the marble of that imperial visage, looking on, calm as destiny, at his guards as they march past. He was sending them to Russia, and the old grenadiers glanced up at him with so anxious a devotion, such sympathy, such earnestness and lethal pride: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!
Among the princelings who are anxiously waiting here to placate him, two of Duchess Augusta’s sons have every reason to be worried. For a third brother has been so imprudent as to take a commission in the Russian army, causing Napoleon, like an angry landlord, to threaten to ‘chase’ their father out of his duchy. But at the festivities what impresses them most is
‘the contrast between the very human Emperor Franz, with his friendly courteous bearing,17 and Napoleon, decidedly curt and rude, though possibly not intentionally so, merely over-elated by his extraordinary luck and cleverness. The adulation and sickening flattery with which he’s everywhere received further increase the contemptuous, harsh attitude peculiar to him.’
An assessment certainly not shared by Napoleon’s First Secretary. Baron Claude-François Méneval has
‘many opportunities to observe these august assemblies. In the vast apartments of the Dresden palace I contemplated the procession headed by Napoleon. The Empress of Austria’s health being too feeble for her to stand the fatigue of walking through all these apartments, the Emperor walked ahead of her, hat in one hand, the other resting on the door of her sedan chair, as he talked gaily to her. All who witnessed these social events agreed that by his affability, intellect and seductive manners he exerted an irresistible ascendancy over his noble guests. He was the most amiable and charming man in the world when he wanted to be.’
Napoleon may be invincible, the Duchess concedes in her diary: but at what cost in human blood and suffering?