“A Long Road Home”: Russian Prisoners in France, 1799-1801
Eman M. Vovsi
There were several reasons – economic, practical and personal – why Russia participated in the Second Coalition. First, Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition 1798-1801 threatened Russia’s exports at the Mediterranean to market in Europe and elsewhere. Second, Russia had been excluded from the Second Congress of Rastatt, opening in December 1797 (where Russia, since 1779, traditionally should have had a seat), which followed in the wake of the Treaty of Campo-Formio, 17 October 1797, regulating some territorial questions between France and Austria (as part of the Holy Roman Empire). Finally, the seizure of Malta by the French at the end of June 1798 – where Tsar Paul I had been the Protector of the Order of the Knights of the St. John since 1797 – was seen as an additional expansion of the French hegemony in the Mediterranean. Thus, Russian armies were sent to Europe – mainly to collaborate in the restoration of the old pre-Revolutionary order.
According to the treaty with Austria – a major initiator of the Second Coalition against France’s encroachment in Italy – Russia sent her forces under overall command of Field Marshal Alexander V. Suvorov to support the Habsburgs. However, these troops did not come to Italy all at once. The corps under General of Infantry Diedrich Arend von Rosenberg (originally 21,976) arrived in mid-April 1799, while Lt.-General Maxim Woldemar von Rehbinder’s corps (10,489) – only in June. Additionally, a corps under Lt.-General Ivan Hermann von Fersen (17,736) was sent to assist the British in their invasion of Holland, where the French had established a satellite Batavian Republic. Finally, Lt.-General Alexander M. Rimsky-Korsakov’s corps (32,399) was sent to join the Austrian troops under Archduke Karl against the French army commanded by General André Masséna operating in Switzerland.
While the victories of Field Marshal Suvorov’s in North Italy over the French Republican armies of Generals Jacques Macdonald and Jean Victor Moreau are well known, the fate of the Russian soldiers who fell into captivity during the unsuccessful operations in Switzerland and Holland, remains little known and therefore merits an in-depth look. The following article will try to consider the following three basic questions: how many Russian prisoners were there? what was their experience of captivity, and did this captivity correspond with the existing norms of international law? finally, what was the fate of these prisoners in the wake of France’s First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s sudden rapprochement with the Russian Emperor, Paul I, who agreed to reestablish Franco-Russian diplomatic relations?
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of documents and studies on this topic. French archival documents dealing specifically with the Russian prisoners are yet to be discovered. By far the most comprehensive source on the subject is Istoria voiny Rossii s Franciei v tzarstvovanie Imperatora Pavla I v 1799 [History of Russia’s War against France during the Reign of Emperor Paul I in 1799], a vast multi-volume study undertaken by the Russian general officer and historian, Dmitry Milyutin, in 1852-53 and 1857. Utilizing Russia and some French archival documents, this work offers detailed analysis of military operations but has only a brief discussion of the fate of the Russian prisoners taken in Switzerland and Holland. By contrast, General Frédéric Koch’s Mémoires de Masséna (1849) provides only general observations and imprecise numbers on operations of General André Masséna in Switzerland in 1799. Equally disappointing are British sources assembled by Edward Walsh in his The Expedition to Holland in the Autumn of the Year 1799 (1800), which concentrates primarily on military operations, the aftermath and following Anglo-French-Dutch (Batavian) peace negotiations.
However, with the help of an integral approach and ‘microhistory,’ we may glean sufficient information from existing primary and secondary sources to allow for a reconstruction of the experiences of the Russian POWs and the subsequent work of the Russian and French governments towards their release.
In September 1799, according to the new war plan, Field Marshal Suvorov – fresh from his great victory over the French at Novi in North Italy (15 August) – advanced through the St. Gothard Pass with some 28,000 men into Southern Switzerland to relieve the army of Archduke Karl which was supported by the Russian troops under Lt.-General Rimsky-Korsakov (about 27,000 men). Suvorov ordered Rismky-Korsakov to block French troops under General Masséna (over 35,000 in close proximity) by attacking them frontally between Zurich and Glarus – until the main Russian army could properly deploy and take the French in rear. However, Massena anticipated this maneuver and, on 25 September, he attacked Rimsky-Korsakov in strength and routed his force.
The two-day battle had cost the Russian army nearly 3,000 killed and wounded; 26 guns, 51 artillery wagons and 9 colors were also lost.
Many Russian wounded found a shelter at a nearby monastery and the farm houses of Einsiedeln (north of modern Schwyz), where monks and local farmers, hostile to the French soldiers, attended to their needs until victorious French entered the city and declared all wounded as prisoners of war.
Meanwhile, some eight hundred kilometers northwest of Zurich, the Russian corps under Lt.-General Hermann von Fersen supported the British expeditionary force commanded by the Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, in a joint invasion of North Holland. After two indecisive battles at Bergen (19 and 21 September 1799), the Allies went on the offensive, on 6 October 1799, against the Franco-Batavian army, commanded by General Guillaume Brune, at Castricum. After several unsuccessful assaults, the Allies were forced to retreat losing over 3,400 men. Disheartened by this setback, the Duke of York informed General Brune of his readiness to negotiate an armistice. By the convention signed on 18 October at Alkmaar, the Allied forces returned the French and Dutch prisoners and evacuated Holland, the Russian contingent being taken aboard the British vessels to the islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
As of April 1800, there were 11,238 Russian soldiers and officers on those British islands, all that remained of the 17,736 soldiers and officers who had originally set off on this Dutch misadventure.
The defeat in Holland, which had a profound effect on Emperor Paul I, was blamed on the British failure to cooperate, just as the Russian setbacks in Switzerland was explained by the “treacherous” behavior of Austria. Field Marshal Suvorov personally wrote to the Austrian Emperor Francis II requesting the proper exchange of prisoners, including the Russians taken by the French in Italy and Switzerland. Yet, responding on behalf of his master, the Austrian Director of Foreign Affairs, Baron Johann Amadeus Franz de Paula von Thugut, had refused to take part in it. He wrote that the Russian troops in Switzerland were acting while placed under British financial subsidies and that therefore Britain should shoulder responsibility for these prisoners. Further discussions between Russian and Austrian officials proved to be in vain.
On 22 October 1799, Emperor Paul I, incensed by the Austrian behavior, announced his decision to withdraw from the coalition and ordered his armies to return to Russia.
But for Russian soldiers and officers who had been captured in Switzerland and Holland, the road home soon took an unusual turn.
The precise number of the Russian prisoners of war remains debated. Field Marshal Suvorov’s report stated that “no more than 300 men were taken prisoners in Italy and about 1,000 in Switzerland” but this document is most definitely incomplete.
Dictating his reminiscences during his exile on St.-Helena, Napoleon claimed that there were between 8,000 and 10,000 Russian military personnel of various ranks taken prisoner during the Italian, Switzerland and Holland campaigns in summer-autumn 1799.
More reliable are Russian archival documents that list Russian prisoners being held in France (along with wounded and those who died in captivity), as of January 1801:
Lt.-General Fabian Gottlieb von der Osten-Sacken; five Major-Generals: Markov, Likoshin, Nechaev, Garin and Kharlamov (died in prison);
16 staff officers (4 of which died in prison) and 150 company grade officers (14 died in prison);
6,628 NCOs and rank-and-file, including 2,459 wounded
Thus, the total number was 6,800 general officers, officers, NCOs and soldiers.
To this should be added Lt.-General Hermann von Fersen, who was taken prisoner along with his staff, and some 1,500-2,000 Russian POWs taken after the two battles of Bergen in September 1799 (total losses killed, wounded and missing in action estimated at over 4,000). Furthermore, an unknown number of Russian soldiers and officers were also taken prisoner after the final Anglo-Russian defeat at the Battle of Castricum, 6 October 1799. At a local town –now Egmond aan Zee – the Russians left 216 of their wounded who, most likely, were also declared prisoners by victorious Franco-Batavian soldiers.
The majority of them was imprisoned on the territory of the Batavian republic. Therefore, the total number of the Russian prisoners including wounded could be estimated well over 8,000 men of all ranks.
How did the French treat their prisoners of wars during the numerous campaigns against the forces of European monarchies? If toward the last decades of the Old Regime the treatment of prisoners among the major European countries was more or less civilized – albeit captured officers were often treated more “nobly” than the rank-and-file – that the outbreak of the war in April 1792 changed the French attitude towards the first prisoners, such as Austrians, Prussians, Croatians, etc. Attempting to apply ideals of the Enlightenment to the harsh reality of war, the French government called for humane treatment of prisoners. One of the first regulations, issued in early May 1792, called for gathering prisoners in specially organized localities some thirty miles from the frontier under “the safeguard of the nation against violence and rigorous treatment.”
Furthermore, the law of 25 May 1793 established modes of the prisoner exchanges, excluding from it all émigrés and deserters. Another document, issued a year later, organized the first special depots, which were to receive, organize and manage prisoners. Finally, on 3 May 1799, the Directory issued a decree regarding treatment of enemy prisoners detained in France: each soldier and NCO was to receive a food ration and a monetary stipend according to his rank as if he was on the active duty; officers were to receive payments in the amount equivalent to an inactive French officer’s payment of corresponding rank. Additionally, this decision called for establishment of a commission on exchanging prisoners, though it was limited to the Austrian prisoners only.
Where were the Russian POWs detained? By 1800, all French field forces – and all French field forces – and their prisoners, taken in numerous campaigns – were dispersed amongst twenty-six divisions militaires (military districts) that stretched from Brussels to the Eastern Pyrenees, and from Paris to Marseilles – and soon, beyond. Since March 1790, the entire French territory was divided, administratively, into départements (102 by 1800/1801) presided over by civil officials; the military districts, which usually covered from two to five départements, were commanded by experienced general officers and members of military administration appointed directly by the Consular government. They were to act as liaisons between the civil and military authorities, a task that included observation of territorial administration and postal services, supervision of conscription and military command in towns and fortresses, controlling units either stationed in or marching through the territory; they were also responsible for prisoners detained in their respective districts in special depots (soldiers) or under house arrest (officers).
Commanders of military districts corresponded directly with the Bureau of Prisoners and Foreign Deserters at the War Ministry in Paris, which oversaw the situation by furnishing necessary funds, selecting depots and residences, organizing exchanges of POWs or administering the parolees.
Regarding the Russian prisoners detained in France, the Fourth Military District, led by sixty-six year old General of Division Joseph Gilot, bore the brunt of responsibility.
With its headquarters in Nancy, his district included north-eastern départements of Meurthe and Vosges where most of the POWs were gathered as a result of military campaigns in Italy and Switzerland. Additionally, Lt.-General Hermann and some of his officers were imprisoned at the Lille fortress (modern département Nord). Being desperate, he requested from General Brune’s permission to leave on parole; the French commander, in turn, forwarded Hermann’s request to First Consul Bonaparte. In response, Bonaparte’s Minister of War, General Alexander Berthier demanded the release of general officers Emmanuel de Grouchy, Catherine Dominique Pérignon, Louis de Colli-Ricci and others, all taken prisoner during Suvorov’s Italian campaign in 1799.
The formal exchange of prisoners began in summer 1800 when First Consul Bonaparte firmly secured his position after victory at Marengo, 14 June; the French General of Brigade Joseph Julhien, in the service of the Cisalpine Republic (Milan), was put in charge of this mission, but his authority was limited to Franco-Austrian exchanges. After the armistice, Austria was neutralized and the First Consul, feeling the change of political climate and, no doubt, planning to enforce the Franco-Russian rapprochement – one of the foundations of his early foreign policy – took this issue further. Thus, in a letter to the commander of the Fourth Military District, General Gilot, dated 24 June 1800, the new French War Minister Lazar Carnot, writing on behalf of the First Consul, outlined the following instructions regarding the Russian officers in captivity:
“The intention of the First Consul is that all Russians, who felt victims by the destiny of our arms, shall be looked after for their unfortunate fate and courage. You shall personally seek to uphold the French conduct in this regard. The officers of this nation now are coming under special consideration of the First Consul. Their bravery, loyalty and delicate situation, which they undertook while in detention, shall be held in high esteem.
He does not make distinction [between the French and Russian officers – E.V.] by allowing them to settle in Paris and hoping that they would find it pleasant; he also would like to grant an audience to those of them who wish to request so.
You shall deliver contents of this letter to the Russian officers who are detained within the borders of your military district and order the issuance of traveling documents to those who would request it.”
Soon, as an ice-breaker, Lt.-General Osten-Sacken received a personal letter form the War Minister Carnot on a free lodging in Paris while on parole, which confirmed First Consul’s good will and a hope that “the French people would express their trust and good intentions toward the Russian officer.”
More overtures followed. Since Russian foreign ministers were forbidden from directly engaging with Republican France’s representatives, French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice Talleyrand used his alternative diplomatic channels in Hamburg to deliver, on 18 July 1800, an official letter to Russian Vice-Chancellor Nikita Panin. This letter, besides placing blame on both Britain and Austria for the previous conflicts, served as a chivalrous gesture. First Consul Bonaparte offered, without any compensation, to return all Russian prisoners held in France. At the same time, the Russian mission in Berlin received a proposal from the Batavian Republic in which its government expressed willingness to release Russian prisoners captured during the Holland expedition.
This offer of prisoner exchanges marked not only a formal end of the War of the Second Coalition but, as far as Russia was concerned, it led to a veritable diplomatic revolution. Tsar Paul I, who felt embittered towards his erstwhile allies, was won over by this sudden show of empathy from his former enemy. Starting in August 1800, Berlin was chosen as a place for negotiations between French and Russian representatives whereas the Prussian Foreign Minister Christian August Heinrich Curt von Haugwitz acted as a general mediator. During its sessions, the French minister plenipotentiary in Berlin, General of Division Pierre Riel Beurnonville confirmed that since both Austria and Britan refused to exchange the Russian POWs, First Consul Bonaparte was willing “while paying respect to the brave Russian troops,” to release them without any conditions or obligations from the Russian Tsar.
At first, Bonaparte’s original offer to release the Russian POWs was met with a rather cool response from the Russian tsar who replied that he could only accept it on the understanding that these troops would swear not to fight against France. He wanted to avoid any imputation of an unconditional gift.
However, this response marked a good start for the negotiations; the Tsar soon communicated, through his minister in Berlin, Baron Burghard-Alexis Krüdner, that he was grateful for the French offer and that he would send Göran Magnus Sprengtporten, a Russian general of mixed Finnish-Swedish origins who was well known for his pro-French sympathies. Sprengtporten’s mission to Paris was not limited to just negotiating the return of the Russian prisoners; Sprengtporten was, in fact, instructed to try to improve Franco-Russian relations, as well. The Russian Tsar’s state of mind is well illustrated in the instructions which were given to Sprengtporten:
“… [T]he [Russian] Emperor participated in the coalition with the aim of giving tranquility to the whole of Europe. He withdrew when he saw the powers were aiming at aggrandizements which his loyalty and disinterestedness could not allow, and as the two states of France and of Russia are not in position, owing to the distance [separating them], to do each other any harm, they could by uniting and maintaining harmonious relations between themselves, hinder the other powers from adversely affecting their interests through their envy or desire to aggrandize and dominate.”
Besides technicalities regarding the Russian POWs, General Sprengtporten was also told to to form two infantry regiments out of the prisoners of war; it was generally understood that in the event that Malta fell to the English, the island would be occupied by Russian, English and Neapolitan troops. But when British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson took Malta on 4 September 1800, he announced that he intended to hold the island until a peace conference could determine its future. A senior Russian officer was dispatched to take over the newly formed regiments who, freshly armed and accounted, were to be used to garrison Malta once the island had been recovered from the British.
This, however, did not happen, and Malta remained the apple of discord which eventually led to the rupture of the Peace of Amiens and the formation of the Third Coalition.
Meanwhile, Tsar Paul issued new instructions to General Sprengtporten, who was told to lead former Russian POWs back to Russia; all generals, staff and company-grade officers were to be reassigned to their respective units while preserving their previous ranks and seniority. While in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon reminisced that all Russian officers received their swords back; Russian prisoners were reunited at Aix-la-Chapelle/Aachen where they supposedly received new uniforms, equipment and armament made at local manufactures.
However, until today, no precise information has been retrieved from the French archives that such new uniforms (subject to Tsar Paul I regulation issued in mid-December 1796) along with new elements of equipment and flags had been, in fact, made. Furthermore, there is no information regarding the exact departure of the Russian POWs from France. General Sprengtporten’s diary, which he submitted to the Topographical Department of the War Ministry, stops after the 6 March 1801 entry when the column was probably already on the march to Russia. Some of these soldiers and officers would eventually return to France – either as new prisoners of the 1805-07 campaigns or as victors, such as general officers Osten-Sacken and Markov, in 1814. They certainly remembered the humane treatment by the French inhabitants and officials during their days of misfortune and tried to pass these good memories on to their soldiers.