Steel construction resulted in a hull lighter by some 35 percent. (The all-iron hull of Warrior absorbed some 52 percent of its entire weight.) Steel was considerably more expensive than iron, but improved production methods made steel cost-competitive by the 1870s. Here again, the French took the technological lead, laying down the first capital ship constructed completely of steel, Rédoubtable. (By contrast, wrought iron was far more long-lasting than steel, which undoubtedly accounts for the remarkable preservation of the surviving nineteenth-century ironclads more than 100 years after their completion.)
Redoutable was a central battery and barbette ship of the French Navy. She was the first warship in the world to use steel as the principal building material.
Compared to iron, steel allowed for greater structural strength for a lower weight. France was the first country to manufacture steel in large quantities, using the Siemens process. At that time, steel plates still had some defects, and the outer bottom plating of the ship was made of wrought iron.
All-steel warships were later built by the Royal Navy, with the dispatch vessels Iris and Mercury, laid down in 1875-1876.
When the Rédoutable was launched from the Lorient Dockyard in 1876, she was one of the most advanced composite-hulled (iron and steel) battleships in the world; her launch provoked more powerful copies in England and Italy. While the full square rig gives her an archaic look to our eyes, the radical hull shape and advanced Creusot process compound armor placed her on the cutting edge of technology in her day.
Brought into existence as an improvement of the 1870 Colbert, France’s last wooden-hulled ironclad, and modeled on her predecessor’s design, Rédoutable combined central battery mounting with some barbette-mounted guns. The central battery comprised a huge ironclad box (redoubt) protruding from both beams; exaggerated tumble-home created a “tunnel” form (right) allowing the central battery guns to fire either dead-ahead or -astern; or, theoretically, both at once.
The three barbette mountings were on either upper-deck corner of the central battery boxes (concealed by light-colored hangings in our top photo), and on the centerline aft, clearly visible in the photo below. French naval design was already becoming fixed as high-sided ships with a hull shape featuring extreme tumble-home. Generations of seasick French sailors could testify to the poor seakeeping characteristics of ships so shaped. But the tumble-home convention would continue long after the central battery disappeared. So would siting elements of the main armament in beam positions, either in wing turrets or in barbettes sponsoned over the sides. A gigantic plow ram disfigured Rédoutable’s bow; a single enormous flat funnel dominated her superstructure. Huge anchors with wooden stocks swung from her bows, and the ship featured a haughty raised forecastle. The overall effect was grotesque and homely, with many outsize features juxtaposed.
Her design was copied and enlarged in the sister-ships Courbet and Dévastation of 1878-79 and other combination central battery/barbette ships in the French Navy through the early 1880s, but preference shifted to all-barbette ships with their lighter-weight mountings. The Rédoutable had her sail rig removed in the early 1890s and replaced with armored military masts of the Neptune type. The ship was present during the negotiation of the 1901 treaty penalizing China for damages suffered in the Boxer Rebellion. Following the great extortion of the Celestial Realm, the venerable ship spent the rest of her days stationed at Saigon in the French colony of Indochina. Jane’s Fighting Ships of 1906-07 sourly noted Rédoutable was “of no fighting value” and assessed: “Rédoutable is worn out, also unseaworthy, and is to be dismantled …” (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1906, 152). After a very long career, the old ironclad was decommissioned and broken up in 1910.
Specifications for the Rédoutable:
Dimensions: 330’5″ x 64’8″ x 25’8″ Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 10.6″ BLR, (6) 5.5″ BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 14″ torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 13.75″ belt, 9.5″ battery, 2″ deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 6,071 HP, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 14.66 kts. Endurance: 2,800 nm at 10 kts. Crew: 706.
Dimensions: 100.7m x 19.7m x 7.8m Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 27 cm BLR, (6) 14 cm BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 356 mm torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 35 cm belt, 25 cm battery, 50 mm deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 4,527 kW, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 27.1 km/hr. Endurance: 5,186 km at 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 706.
On 3 August 1805, Napoleon had arrived at Boulogne. Three days later he summoned his élite shock formation, the Imperial Guard. His deep hatred for the English then far transcended anything he felt for his other enemies. Day by day his stocky, impatient figure paced the coastal heights gazing in frustration at those famous white cliffs just visible in the distant haze, waiting impatiently for Admiral Villeneuve and the Combined Fleet to appear in the Channel. Today, as that narrow strip of water presents a rather less imposing obstacle, those white cliffs an altogether less alluring goal, it is hard to avoid the parallel between Napoleon and that other warlord of 135 summers later. Both had risen meteorically from lowly station to head a nation not their own, and to command, in a short space of time, the world’s most invincible land force; both were restlessly daemonic men of small stature and both were at the zenith of their power as a commander; it was almost the same time of year; the grand design was approximately similar; and each would end, in frustration, by turning his great war machine eastwards instead. For Hitler too, with Europe then at his feet, the omens for the grand project (which had occupied Napoleon’s fantasies intermittently over the previous seven years) had never seemed more propitious.
Experience had taught Napoleon that, even with the added strength of the Spaniards, there was still no prospect of his matching the Royal Navy, ship for ship. Therefore he would aim, as he had intended the previous year, to obtain local superiority in the Channel, just long enough for him to load and discharge on to British soil his overwhelming land force. To achieve this, in his third and final Grand Design issued on 22 March 1805, Napoleon ordered his scattered fleet to take to sea and make for the West Indies. By threatening British possessions there, and recalling how mistakenly Pitt had reacted to the threat in the previous decade, Napoleon reckoned he would draw Nelson and the main weight of the British battle fleets after him. Villeneuve and Ganteaume would then elude the British in the Caribbean, and double back with all speed (about 5½ knots) and force, to appear in the Channel in July with the Combined Fleet of nearly sixty battleships.
It was with considerable misgiving that Villeneuve, driven by fear on the one hand of his master, on the other hand of interception by Nelson’s blockaders, left Toulon for the Straits of Gibraltar. Already that January his fleet, with its inexperienced sailors and unbattleworthy tackle, had nearly met disaster when making a sortie in a storm. Nelson and the Mediterranean Fleet narrowly missed Villeneuve off Majorca; and then the French had disappeared, according to plan, into the Atlantic. Napoleon’s expectations also appeared to be fulfilled by Nelson following his quarry, westwards. Although he made the trip from Gibraltar to Barbados in the record time of little over three weeks, misled by faulty intelligence Nelson proved equally unable to overhaul the French in the West Indies. Obeying his orders, Villeneuve headed back eastwards for the Channel, but, pursuing him, Nelson was still able to make the return Atlantic crossing in a fortnight less than Villeneuve. What was even more fateful for Napoleon’s Grand Design, however, was that Barham and his admirals had not been taken in by the French fleet’s ‘deception play’. The Duc de Decrès, Napoleon’s able Minister of the Marine, had warned him that – whatever the crisis – the Royal Navy would never be enticed to disperse its effectives so as to leave the Western Approaches unguarded. It was a tradition that was to run through to the 1940s, and Decrès was to be proved right, Napoleon wrong. As if by radio communication, in an era when the fastest and farthest-reaching signal was the flag and the swift sloop, but in fact as a consequence of years of superlative training, the British admirals seemed to know instinctively what to do without waiting for orders from above. When Nelson left for the West Indies, reinforcements were mustered in readiness to bolster the Channel Fleet – just in case.
The danger, for Britain, remained extreme. The enemy had all but succeeded in concentrating a superior force at the decisive point. Nelson, still off Cadiz, beating northwards on the day that Napoleon had arrived at Boulogne (3 August), wrote gloomily in his diary, ‘I feel every moment of this foul wind.… I am dreadfully uneasy.’ In England the invasion alarms were sounding again; the Volunteers were on alert; Walter Scott galloped a hundred miles in a day to attend the muster of Dalkeith, while Sir John Moore’s men practised combating invaders breast-high in the sea. On 18 August, the Victory brought Nelson back to England on his final homecoming. After hunting Villeneuve for 14,000 miles with total lack of success, he had hardly expected a friendly reception; as it was, he was quite overcome by the affection and admiration he encountered everywhere. When he re-embarked less than a month later many were in tears, recorded Southey, and ‘knelt down before him and blessed him as he passed’. Returning to his weary ships, en route for Trafalgar, Nelson remarked simply to Hardy, ‘I had their huzzas before. I have their hearts now.’
By this time, however, the immediate threat to England had passed, though it was by no means apparent at the time. A brig carrying Nelson’s despatches, the Curieux, had sighted Villeneuve heading for the Bay of Biscay and reached London with this vital information on 9 July. Naval reinforcements were rushed to bottle up the Channel off Cape Finisterre. On 22 July Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Calder with fifteen battleships joined battle there with Villeneuve’s twenty. An elderly officer apparently concerned at his inferiority in numbers, Calder did not press the attack and – after an inconclusive action – Villeneuve was allowed to escape. Although Calder had only acted with a circumspection which would not have shamed Admiral Jellicoe at Jutland a century later, all England cried out for his blood and he returned to a court-martial and disgrace. Nevertheless, the Battle of Finisterre was enough to have a decisive influence upon Villeneuve’s subsequent moves. In sharp contrast to Nelson’s forces, after the summer’s arduous sailing Villeneuve’s ships were in poor shape, his crews reduced by scurvy and dysentery and those of his Spanish allies verging on mutiny. ‘Our condition’, he reported to Decrès, ‘is frightful.’ He personally had also never held much faith in Napoleon’s invasion scheme. Thus, after the brush with Calder, instead of continuing northwards, Villeneuve retired nervously into Ferrol. On 13 August he sailed southwards again, for the greater safety of Cadiz, where he was promptly sealed in again by Nelson’s returning fleet, ultimately to be driven out to his doom off Trafalgar two months later.
Meanwhile, unaware of what had happened to Villeneuve, Napoleon was pursuing his plans to their climax at Boulogne. One hundred thousand men were drawn up on parade in a single line along the shore, an awe-inspiring spectacle. But time was not standing still. Napoleon – well informed by spies – was aware of the ponderously mounting threat of the land forces of Austria and Russia, combined under Pitt’s Third Coalition. Yet he still considered that he had time to invade England, then return to deal Austria a crippling blow. Back and forth across the cliffs he strode, waiting impotently for the change of wind (which would never, in any event, bring Villeneuve). Reproachfully he wrote, on 13 August, to his Empress, absent at a spa:
It is not often one hears from you. You forget your friends, which is wrong. I did not know that the waters of Plombières had the same effect as those of Lethe. It seems to me that it was drinking these same Plombières waters that once made you say, ‘Ah, Bonaparte, if ever I die, who will there be to love you?’ That was a very long time ago, wasn’t it? Everything passes, beauty, wit, sentiment, even the sun, all but one thing that is endless; the good I wish you, your happiness. I cannot be more loving even if you laugh at me for my pains. Goodbye, dear friend. I had the English cruisers attacked yesterday; everything passed off well.…
Summer would not last for ever. The letter to Josephine coincided with fresh orders to Villeneuve to hasten with all forces to the Channel, Napoleon being unaware that it was also the same day that Villeneuve was setting his sails in the opposite direction, for Cadiz. Uncertainty about Villeneuve’s movements threw Napoleon into a terrible rage. Grossly calling the unhappy admiral a ‘Jean-Foûtre’, he accused him of little short of cowardice and treason, charges which drove Villeneuve to despair and, later, to suicide. The three days, 18–20 August, marked the period of Napoleon’s highest expectations for the Channel crossing, although he was constantly receiving fresh warnings from Foreign Minister Talleyrand of Austria’s warlike preparations to his rear. On 22 August, still ignorant of Villeneuve’s true movements (of which the latter had not dared inform him), Napoleon wrote again to him at Brest, commanding; ‘Sail, do not lose a moment, and with my squadrons reunited enter the Channel. England is ours. We are ready and embarked. Appear for twenty-four hours, and all will be ended.…’
It was perhaps significant of Napoleon’s own waning confidence that the six hours’ mastery of the Channel he had required of Admiral Latouche-Tréville the previous year had grown to twenty-four by August 1805. On 23 August a letter to Talleyrand reveals his restless thoughts already beginning to move elsewhere. If Villeneuve were suddenly (and magically) to appear, then there would still be time to launch the invasion; otherwise ‘I shall raise my camp and march on Vienna.’ An abject letter from Decrès assured him that Villeneuve had sailed to Cadiz, and urged him to regard this as a decree of Fate and cut his losses. ‘It is a misery for me’, he lamented, ‘to know the trade of the sea, for this knowledge wins no confidence nor produces any effect on Your Majesty’s plans.’ For several days longer, Napoleon remained in a state of indecision, intolerable to his nature. Then, abruptly, he set to preparing orders for the new operations. On 26 August he instructed his chief staff officer, Marshal Berthier, to move the Army of Boulogne against Austria. On 5 September, amid early-autumn sunshine after a long, cold summer a captured schooner revealed to England the joyous news that the enemy had marched out of Boulogne, ‘because of a new war with Russia’. England was saved.
Napoleon’s decision to march east in 1805, and abandon (forever, as it was to turn out) his dream of leading a victorious army through the streets of London, looks to have been extraordinarily precipitate. But historians continue to argue over whether he did seriously intend to invade England in 1805. Among other indications, however, the arrival of both the Imperial Guard and the cavalry suggest that it was more than a bluff. Equally, shortage of horses, and the far-from-complete marching array of the French Army when ordered to about-turn, indicate that there was little premeditation about his change of plan. Could an invasion have succeeded? Given the overall superiority of the Royal Navy in seamanship, if not in ships, it would have been a highly risky operation. But if Villeneuve had arrived in the Channel according to the Grand Design, and if the Third Coalition had not begun to menace France’s back door, the risk might have seemed an acceptable one to the arch-gambler that Napoleon was. On the other hand, Arthur Bryant may not have been wrong in his estimation that ‘Only the prudence or timidity of his admiral had saved his fleet from a fate as awful as that of the Spanish Armada.’ As it was, his abandonment of the much vaunted invasion project constituted perhaps the most serious strategic reverse in Napoleon’s career up to that time; therefore, all the more did he who lived on success need a stunning victory elsewhere. Had the invasion aborted, however, as Thiers remarks, it would:
at least have exposed him to a sort of ridicule, and would have exhibited him to the eyes of Europe as in a real state of impotence in opposition to England. The continental coalition, furnishing him with a field of battle which he needed … drew him most seasonably from an indecisive and unpleasant situation.
Thus there was little doubt that, to some extent, Napoleon was himself relieved by what his despondent Minister of the Marine termed a ‘decree of Fate’; certainly the new course of action imposed on him came as the most welcome kind of relief after all the months of frustrated inactivity facing out across the Channel. A brave new world of military possibilities in his own element (which, indubitably, the sea was not) opened itself to Napoleon – now, at last, the supreme warlord of France. ‘For the first time,’ says Thiers, ‘… he was free, free as Caesar and Alexander had been.… All Europe was open to his combinations.’
As it was to evolve, Napoleon’s new plan of operations indeed seemed hardly less audacious than the one he had just abandoned. For six unbroken hours he dictated it to Daru, Lieutenant-General of the Army. The fact that he should have utilized so eminent a dignitary as a mere scribe denoted the extreme secrecy with which Napoleon prepared his campaign; for secrecy was absolutely essential to its success. Thus only Daru and Berthier – Napoleon’s Minister of War and chief staff officer – were kept privy to the master-plan.
On the other hand, the total lack of secrecy of the Allies presented Napoleon’s excellent intelligence service with as clear a picture of their intentions as if Napoleon himself ‘had been present at the military conferences of M. de Winzingerode, the Austrian Chief-of-Staff, at Vienna’. A great mass of 300,000 men (with more to follow) was mobilizing against him. Heading from south to north there was first of all Archduke Charles facing across the River Adige in northern Italy with some 100,000 troops. Next was Archduke Ferdinand, with roughly another hundred thousand, heading westward for Bavaria and already on the River Inn. Dividing the two archdukes, however, was the great mountain massif of the Tyrol, with its few viable and easily blocked passes, held by a small linking force under Archduke John. Then, far away to the east were three ponderously moving Russian armies totalling another 100,000. Under Kutuzov and Buxhöwden, two were already on the borders of Austrian Galicia and clearly intending to join up with Archduke Ferdinand. Finally, further north, there was Bennigsen’s army sitting on the eastern frontier of Prussia so as to exert pressure on its wavering king, Frederick William III, and with the (rather distant) ambition of awaiting Swedish and English reinforcements to move through Pomerania on Hanover and Holland.
Thus there would be three main Allied efforts developing across the continent of Europe: south, centre and north. All this was evident to Napoleon. It was equally evident that the gravest threat to France would come in the centre, once Ferdinand was joined by the Russians. His extraordinary intuition, aided by a comprehension of the rigid traditionalism of the Austrian military mind and its passion for fortresses, led Napoleon to calculate that Ferdinand would aim to establish himself in the Bavarian stronghold of Ulm on the Upper Danube Valley (a favourite standby of past Austrian tacticians). There he would wait for the Russians, then thrust into the French flank at Strasbourg with crushingly superior forces. With what was to prove uncanny accuracy, Napoleon predicted the positions the Austrians and Russians would reach several weeks ahead, and the routes they would take.
Above all, however, his genius for the coup d’oeil immediately revealed to him the essential flaw in the Allied strategy. The enemy forces were widely dispersed over Europe. Because of the obstacle of the Tyrolean Alps, the Austrian archdukes would have extreme difficulty in supporting each other. But what most attracted his gaze was the immense distance that separated Ferdinand, pressing on aggressively westwards towards Ulm, and the slow-moving Russians coming up behind him at a snail’s pace. They must inevitably be several weeks’ march apart. (Kutuzov had in fact already started ten days later than reckoned; it appears, unbelievably, that one of the problems of the Allied timetable was the unallowed-for fact that the Russians were still using the Julian Calendar, which was twelve days behind that of their Western confederates!)
Here lay the key to Napoleon’s hopes. He could reckon that at Boulogne he was closer to Ulm than was Kutuzov. If he could but move quickly enough he could isolate Ferdinand from his allies, and smash him before the Russians arrived, then hasten eastwards toward Vienna, to deal with Kutuzov. The campaign would be decided by two battles of annihilation in the Danube Valley. Everything would depend on speed – and this was a predominantly Napoleonic quality.
In a series of staccato orders, letters and decrees, the Emperor poured forth his campaign plan to the overworked Daru. Napoleon once claimed, ‘I never had a plan of operations.’ It was quite untrue. He was, recalls Baron Jomini (the Swiss military historian, the Liddell Hart of the era):
in reality his own Chief of the Staff; holding in his hand a pair of compasses … bent, nay, often lying over his map, on which the positions of his army corps and the supposed positions of the enemy were marked by pins of different colours, he arranged his own movements with a certainty of which we can scarcely form a just idea.…
Aided by an elaborate card-index system, every detail, down to regimental level, came out of this one voluminous mind. Once when Napoleon came across a unit that had got lost during the approach march to the Rhine, he was able to inform its astonished officer, without consulting any orders, of the whereabouts of its division, and where it would be on the next three nights, throwing in for good measure a résumé of its commander’s military record.
The essential component of Napoleon’s strategy was that the Austrians at Ulm must not be attacked frontally; otherwise they might simply fall back on their Russian allies advancing from the east. ‘My only fear’, he confided later to Talleyrand, ‘is that we shall scare them too much.…’ The Austrians would expect him to approach, conventionally, from the west via the Black Forest; so, instead, he would swing his armies southwards through Germany to throw an unbreakable barrier across the Danube downstream from Ulm, then roll up the enemy from the rear. Marlborough had followed roughly the same route, to Blenheim, a century earlier with 40,000 men; but to transport an army five times as big with all their cannon and impedimenta from Boulogne (500 miles as the crow flies) in an epoch when the fastest speed was that of his slowest grenadier’s feet, and still take the enemy by surprise, presupposed no mean feat.
Thus, for speed and secrecy (and in conformity with his axiom of ‘separate to live, gather to fight’), Napoleon split his forces into seven ‘streams’. From the north Bernadotte, already stationed in Hanover, would push almost due south, through Würzburg. Next to him, Marmont’s corps from Holland was to cross the Rhine by Mainz, and then wheel south; on his right came Davout, then Soult, rated as ‘the most skilful at moving large masses of troops’ of any European commander, and with the largest force (41,000), Ney and Lannes, later famous names of the Empire – all performing a similar manoeuvre at intervals lower down the Rhine. Finally, Augereau, hurrying all the way from Brittany, would constitute the army reserve. Ahead of them all was to hasten the world’s most formidable cavalry force, 22,000 strong, under the impetuous and dashing Murat, with the task of providing a screen to hide Napoleon’s true design. Once across the Rhine, Murat would move ostentatiously through the Black Forest. He departed immediately to reconnoitre the way himself, under the nom de guerre of ‘Colonel Beaumont’. On 25 August, General Bertrand was despatched to Bavaria to make notes of all he saw, particularly the Danube crossings in the area around Donauwörth; and then to study the terrain all the way to Vienna. ‘Everywhere his language is to be pacific,’ ordered Napoleon; ‘he will speak of the invasion of England as imminent.…’
In fact, only a minimal covering force consisting of the third battalions of a few regiments was to be left on the Channel in the role of guard against any English diversionary raids. As part of the grand deception plan, Napoleon himself would remain at Boulogne to the very last; rigorous censorship was applied, with post offices occupied and newspapers muzzled. To all but the handful conversant with the plan, Napoleon declared that he was sending only a defensive contingent of 30,000 men to the Rhine: and Talleyrand was instructed to spin out negotiations with the Russians and Austrians as long as possible.
Finally, down in Italy with only 50,000 men, Napoleon’s most reliable tactician, Masséna, was instructed to pin down Archduke Charles’ vastly superior army by adopting a defensively aggressive stance.
Already on 27 August the great machine, nearly 200,000 men strong – or roughly half of all the effectives of the Empire – began its immense march. By any standard the plan was one of the most brilliantly conceived, and speedily executed, of all time. There was little time left in the campaigning season. However, of the many risks it entailed there hovered one above all others: Prussia. As with the two great encirclement strategies by which Germany nearly defeated France in 1914, and did succeed in 1940, Napoleon’s plan depended on an infringement of neutrality. The Blitzkrieg-speed marches of Bernadotte and Marmont could not be made without traversing the Prussian state of Ansbach. Napoleon told Talleyrand to soften Prussia’s indignation by offering her Hanover as a sop. Talleyrand was thrown into despair; as he once sighed, ‘the most difficult person with whom Napoleon’s Foreign Minister had to negotiate was Napoleon himself’. Opposed to the new war in the first place, he had admitted to the Prussian Minister in Paris that if he were able to prevent it ‘he would consider such an action the most glorious event in his tenure of office’; now, by marching through Ansbach, it seemed inevitable that the nation of Frederick the Great must sooner or later range itself with the rest of Napoleon’s enemies.
To Napoleon it was a calculated risk; if he violated Prussian territory to inflict a terrible blow upon the Allies it would probably serve to frighten the hesitant Prussians on to his side. In fact Prussia was outraged; the following year she would declare war on Napoleon, but too late; and it would only lead her to defeat at Jena. Had Prussia fought at once, Napoleon might have been defeated in 1805; as it was, though only Hardy’s ‘Spirit of the Years’ could then have seen the prospects of Blücher and Waterloo shimmering in the distance, Napoleon’s act of arrogance was to contribute to his ultimate downfall.
The Army of England now became designated the Grande Armée, heading for eastern Europe and the unknown instead of Kent and London. After all the months of intensive training put in while waiting at Boulogne, it was, in the Emperor’s own view, ‘the finest army that has ever existed’. Indeed, his confidence that it could execute so phenomenally taxing a manoeuvre seemed indicative of its quality.
Ethnic and administrative organization of Western Europe around AD500
The Birth of France
Date Spring, 507
Location Vouillé, 15km (9 miles) north-west of Poitiers, Aquitaine
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The most important historical development of the fifth century in western Europe was the emergence of the Germanic kingdoms, which had already absorbed the former western provinces of the Western Roman Empire. The main groups that can be identified were the Western Goths (Visigoths), who dominated south-west Gaul and Spain, the Burgundians in the upper Rhone valley, the Salian Franks who were emerging in northern and central Gaul, and the eastern Goths (Ostrogoths), based in Pannonia through the third quarter of the century, who were to take control of Italy at the end of the fifth century.
After the death of the Roman general Aetius, the victor of Chalons (Catalaunian Plains) in 454, imperial power in Gaul rapidly disintegrated. The emergence of the Kingdom of Soissons in northern Gaul (later, Naustria) as a Roman remnant state under Aegidius, a former magister militum of Roman Gaul appointed by Emperor Majorian (reigned 457-461) before his murder in 461, increased the chaos of contemporary Gaul, as he maintained his power against Franks to his east and Visigoths to his south; his son Syagrius succeeded his father to the rule of Soissons in 465.
After the middle of the fifth century, the king of the Salian Franks, Childeric (ruled 457-481), became a major power in northern Gaul, and his victories against the Visigoths, Saxons and Alemanni established the basis of the Salian-Frankish State in northern Gaul. He further supported Aegidius in the latter’s victory against the Visigoths at Orléans in 463. But it was Childeric’s son Clovis (ruled 481-511) who would go on to unite most of Gaul north of the Loire.
By 481, the major geo-political clash in western Europe would be between the three peoples that were competing for predominance in the territory of Aquitaine: the Visigoths in south-western Gaul, the Burgundians in the south-east, and the Franks north of the Loire. Clovis, who had succeeded his father as leader of the Salian Franks of Tournai in 481, gradually brought under his control the territories between the Loire and the Somme; by around 486 he had defeated Syagrius and effectively dissolved the Kingdom of Soissons. This victory provided Clovis with a strongly fortified base – Soissons, a substantial arms factory, and the Roman units that had served Syagrius and were being integrated into his following.
After he gained full control of Neustria (the territories under the former Kingdom of Soissons, between the Loire and the Somme), Clovis turned his attention against a small group of Thuringians in eastern Gaul, just north of the Burgundians, winning a battle in 491. It was quickly becoming apparent that Clovis’ expansionist strategy was directed against the Burgundians and the Alamans of the Upper and Middle Rhine. Eventually, he won the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Cologne, against an Alamanni invasion of Austrasia and the Lower Rhine.
Although the exact nature of the battle remains obscured in legend, according to Gregory of Tours, Clovis adopted his wife Clotilda’s Orthodox (that is, Nicene) Christian faith, having undergone some sort of a religious experience during the battle. Or perhaps it was mere diplomatic manoeuvring that pushed the Frankish king to denounce his pagan past, which always entailed the danger of losing him the support of his pagan followers; historians have emphasized a letter sent by Remigius, the bishop of Rheims who eventually baptised Clovis, in which he pointed out to the Frankish King that `he would find it advantageous to have the support of the Gallo-Roman church.’
The later 490s saw a series of poorly attested Frankish attacks upon Visigoth Aquitania, which were boosted by an alliance with the Arborychi (`Armoricans’) from modern-day Brittany who, probably, provided Clovis improved access to the Visigothic kingdom south of the Loire. But the Visigoths eventually repelled the Frankish attacks, with Gregory of Tours reporting a sixty-day siege of Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire, by the Franks led by Clovis himself; he was put to flight by the Visigoths. The latter also regained control of Tours, on the south bank of the Loire, and Bordeaux – the capital city of Aquitaine – by 505; these cities had been captured by the Franks in the previous decade in what seems to historians to have been more of a raid than a campaign of conquest.
Around 500, Clovis made the unwise decision to be drawn into the Burgundian civil war on the side of the Burgundian king Godegisel. The latter’s defeat was a political and diplomatic setback for Clovis, with Frankish captives sent `in exile, to Toulouse, to King Alaric’, while the Visigoths, who had supported Godegisel’s rival Gundobad, even gained control over Avignon for their troubles. Nevertheless, Clovis continued to have designs on Aquitania. He planned to improve his standing in western Europe by strengthening his alliance with other Germanic leaders; thus he married his sister Audefleda to the ambitious Ostrogothic king Theoderic.
It has been argued that the Battle of Vouillé was the opening military encounter of a campaign to destroy the Visigothic kingdom in Aquitaine and to conquer the southwestern region of Gaul. Bachrach, however, has raised serious doubts as to whether this military campaign was the initiative of the Frankish king. He speculates that:
… an imperial policy intended to strengthen the position of the Franks, now Nicene Christians with the support of the episcopal hierarchy in the north against the Arian Visigoths and Ostrogoths, surely would have been attractive to [Byzantine] Emperor Anastasius.
In fact, the primary sources report of Emperor Anastasius’ envoys who met with Clovis, probably at his capital in Paris, and promises were made by both sides. 2 The role of the Nicene bishops in Aquitaine, who worked as mediators between Paris and Constantinople to support the cause of the Roman-Christian king of the Franks against the Arian Visigoths, should also be considered a strong possibility, although the sources are silent on this issue.
In 506, the year before the battle, Clovis agreed a non-aggression pact with the Visigoth king Alaric, after a meeting on an island in the middle of the River Loire – the symbolic border between the two kingdoms. And it is probably at this time that Alaric handed over to Clovis the fortress cities of Nantes, Angers, Tours and Orléans, which controlled the lower Loire valley with its immense agricultural and commercial importance; people in the aforementioned cities were Roman-Catholic Christians who despised, or even hated, the Arian Visigoths.
However, we will never know whether the two leaders negotiated in good faith, or if this was a ruse perpetrated by Clovis to throw off the Visigoth king from his real intention of invading Aquitaine. Finally, the Frankish king arranged for a military alliance with the Burgundian king, Gundobad, which involved Burgundian troops mounting operations against various Visigoth cities and strongholds in the south-east, perhaps acting as a `shield’ army to intercept a possible Ostrogoth invasion by Theoderic to support his son-in-law, Alaric.
THE PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE
In February or early March 507, Clovis issued orders throughout the regnum Francorum for the mobilization of the army. Shortly after, in early spring, he crossed the Loire into Aquitaine. Clovis’ campaign strategy was to invade Visigoth-controlled Aquitaine and move south as fast as possible, hoping, no doubt, that he would be welcomed by the Catholic Gallo-Roman socio-political élite of the region, who opposed Visigoth domination. Some historians have added that Clovis probably believed that he could integrate the militia levies of the fortified cities of Aquitaine into his army.
On the other hand, it is clear from the History of Gregory of Tours that Alaric’s strategy was reactive, ordering his troops to concentrate at Poitiers to intercept the invading Franks. It also points out the fact that the Visigoth king had intelligence about the invasion early enough to allow him to order his units drawn from the civitates of Aquitaine and Auvergne, to concentrate at the strongly fortified city of Poitiers, some 100km (60 miles) south of the Loire.
Poitier’s importance lay in its strategic location at the junction of old Roman roads going north to south, and the crossing of a navigable river. As would be the case twenty-two centuries later, when Charles Martel invaded Aquitaine to intercept a Muslim campaigning army, the River Vienne was a major obstacle to overcome – especially in April, a period when the early spring rains and the melting snows had swollen the river. Poitiers was also the site of an important religious centre, the late Roman basilica of St-Hilaire, which would be restored and adorned with golden mosaics and precious relics by Clovis shortly after his victory.
After fording the Vienne where wild animals were seen crossing it, Clovis placed his encampment in the environs of Vouillé to the north-west of Poitiers, at a place where the distance between his army and the city of Poitiers was about 15 kilometres (9 miles). He had sent his scouts the day before the battle to find out about the whereabouts of the Visigoth army, thus having ample time to position his soldiers on a field of battle of his own choice.
THE OPPOSING FORCES
There is very little evidence of what might be thought of as typically `barbarian’ equipment, because there was very little standardization among, or even within, the various tribal armies that had infiltrated the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. The only exception is the francisca, a Frankish throwing axe that had an average weight of 1 to 2kg, the wooden handle measuring some 40cm in length, and the iron head some 18cm.
Similarities between `barbarian’ and Roman weapons in post-Roman Europe came as a direct result not only of the enormous cultural and economic influence of the empire beyond its frontiers for many centuries, but also because of the vast quantities of manufactured arms and armour in the local fabricae that supplied the `barbarians’ who fought with/for the Romans. In fact, the arms utilized by the late Roman army remained the basic weapons of fighting men in the period up to and through the rule of Charlemagne (ruled 768-814).
Soldiers fighting on foot largely used the short sword and the spear. As it is to be expected for this early period, there was no standardization in spear design, and archaeological findings point to the conclusion that each smith produced his own style and size of spearhead, with no official guidelines. A possible exception was the Frankish angon, a throwing spear that resembled a Roman pilum and was modified (in the seventh century) by three points attached at the end of the shaft where the iron staff was fixed, and were turned backwards like hooks to get stuck on an enemy warrior’s shield and put it out of use.
Numerous `barbarian’ gravesites point to the assumption that the Germanic peoples in pre-Carolingian Europe were carrying both long swords (75-100cm long, 6cm in width) and short ones (40cm long, 4cm in width), both straight and twoedged, and the scramasax – a long (20cm) dagger used by peoples in northern Europe (Vikings, Saxons, Franks), either as a primary edged weapon or as a side arm. Probably the most common weapon of the period, however, was the spear, which varied enormously in shape and size. Mounted troops carried the lance and long sword, although most mounted fighting men had short swords as well.
The most basic defensive armament would have been the wooden shield, either round or convex, and some 80-90cm in diameter. Manuscript illuminations support the idea that helmets between the late fifth to seventh centuries were commonly of a type called Spangenhelme, where the bowl of the helmet was made of several parts, held together by reinforcing clasps, which covered the joins. Contemporary written sources imply that metallic armour (both mail and lamellar) was also common, though far from universal.
Where metallic armour was not available, warriors probably made use of boiled leather or padded protection. Nobles also owned a helmet, usually produced from a single sheet of iron, and chain mail body armour, both lavishly decorated and similar in construction to late Roman military equipment.
Alaric’s military forces were composed of an unknown number of both Visigoths and Gallo-Romans. The former were the descendants of the victorious armies that had defeated Attila and the Huns fifty-six years earlier; the more affluent who were able to support a horse and armour were fighting as cavalry, while the poorer levies were conscripted to fight on foot, with either a spear or a bow.
The majority of the campaigning army, however, was largely composed of the local Gallo-Roman levies, who lacked both horses and sophisticated military equipment because of the low level of the minimum wealth requirement. Finally, there was a rather small élite of well-armed and well-trained mounted troops among the men serving in these armies, who were the household troops of the Gallo-Roman aristocrats.
Clovis’ forces were also drawn from a wide variety of sources, although again, their exact numbers are not known. These were mainly troops from the military household of the king and his aristocrats, a group of élite warriors of either Frankish or Gallo-Roman descent, or foreign mercenaries from neighbouring countries. Other sources that contributed to the early Merovingian army were the landholders of military lands who owed military service, and the regular troops from the late Roman institution of the laeti – defeated enemy troops who were settled in Roman territory and owed hereditary military service to the late Roman state.
There are no surviving eyewitness accounts of the battle, hence there is no way to ascertain the battle deployment of either of the armies, or the ratio between mounted and foot soldiers. Nevertheless, Gregory of Tours recounts that the battle promptly opened with the ordinary exchanges of missiles – arrows and probably lances as well, thus firmly conforming to the Roman battle practices that had been in place for many centuries. This was followed by a mounted charge by the Visigoths against the Frankish phalanx of foot soldiers, who held their ground despite the ferocity of the attack, reminiscent of the Visigoth mounted charge at Chalons fifty years earlier.
Our sources do not give any more details on the course of the battle, or the tactics employed by the two opposing armies. However, there is a reference in Gregory of Tour’s History of a possible feigned retreat conducted by the Visigoth cavalry in the face of the Frankish phalanx, apparently in an attempt to break their solid formation. This effort failed. Regrettably, Gregory is silent about what followed the Visigoths’ retreat, and he notes simply that `king Clovis won the victory by God’s aid’. This comment could very well mean that Clovis counter-attacked with a cavalry unit he may have kept in reserve, but this is mere speculation.
The end result was a complete victory for the Franks after Alaric was killed in the final stage of the battle; tradition has it that Clovis was directly responsible for Alaric’s death.
Following the successful outcome of the battle, the Frankish king swept south to take the Gothic-ruled cities of the northern, central and western Aquitaine (Gallia Aquitania), including the fortress city of Bordeaux. The Visigoth capital at Toulouse in south-eastern Aquitaine (Gallia Narbonensis) was also captured, along with the royal treasure, while Clovis’ Burgundian allies took Narbonne. Further Frankish advances to the south and east, both along Carcassonne and Arles, failed because of the intervention of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric, who shortly thereafter captured both Narbonne and Toulouse. It would be another two centuries before the Franks gained access to the Mediterranean Sea.
When Clovis returned to Tours in spring 508 to celebrate his triumph, he received both the patriciate and the honorary consulate by Emperor Anastasius. These honours qualified Clovis to serve as an imperial governor in southern Gaul, while recognizing his de facto status as king in the northern half of Gaul. He had won a decisive victory at Vouillé against another emerging superpower of the age, a victory that settled once and for all the future of continental Gaul. King Alaric was killed, and his army was in tatters and unable to withstand the further conquest of Aquitaine. The future history of Gaul was to be written not by the Goths but by the Franks, who also gave it a new name: France.
The stunning speed with which Napoleon overthrew the much-vaunted Prussian army in the fall of 1806 was dramatic, even by the standards this great captain set. Following on from his decisive defeat of the Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz in December 1805, Napoleon now established himself as master of central Europe with the Jena- Auerstädt campaign, ending attempts by Russia to play a significant role in European affairs for several years.
Since the Treaty of Basle of 1795, Prussia had maintained a policy of neutrality with France, but the incessant expansion of the Napoleonic Empire caused friction in government circles in Berlin and led to increasing calls for war with France. The war party in Prussia grew in influence.
When war broke out between Britain and France in 1803, General Adolphe Mortier occupied Hanover and disbanded its army. Prussia, supposedly the defender of north Germany, did not oppose this act. Effectively, the Treaty of Basle had ceased to have force. King Frederick William III did everything he could to avoid giving Napoleon cause for a confrontation and ignored suggestions that he should mobilize a corps of observation. When the War of the Third Coalition of Austria, Russia, Britain, and Sweden began in 1805, Napoleon sought to ensure Prussia’s neutrality by offering it Hanover. Frederick William was tempted but rejected this offer, as Napoleon made recognition of his conquests in Italy a prerequisite. Russia also put pressure on Frederick William, demanding the right of passage through Prussian territory for its forces. Caught in the middle, part of the Prussian army was mobilized that September.
Hardly had this mobilization begun when a French corps under Marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte violated Prussian neutrality. This corps marched from Hanover southward through the Prussian enclave of Ansbach on 3 October, looting and pillaging as it went. This caused considerable outrage in Prussia and led to calls for war. The Russians were finally allowed passage through Prussian territory. Around 180,000 Prussian troops were placed on a war footing.
Napoleon needed to act quickly, and act quickly he did. His rapid maneuvers caused an Austrian force in southwest Germany under Feldmarschalleutnant Karl Mack Freiherr von Leiberich to capitulate at Ulm. While Prussia was trying to negotiate an armed peace, the French moved on Vienna. By the Treaty of Potsdam, concluded on 3 November, the Prussians agreed to enter the war with an army of 180,000 men, including contingents from Saxony and Hesse, should Napoleon refuse to make peace within four weeks of the departure from Berlin of the Prussian envoy Christian Graf von Haugwitz. Napoleon kept him at arm’s length until after his victory at Austerlitz on 2 December. The strategic situation now having been so fundamentally changed, Haugwitz agreed to an exchange of territory with Napoleon, ceding the Prussian possessions of Ansbach, Cleves (Kleve), and Neuchatel (a Prussian enclave in Switzerland) in return for Hanover. But peace had come at a price. The acquisition of Hanover led Prussia into a dispute with Britain, its only potential ally in Europe now. Prussia was now isolated.
Seeing his chance, Napoleon started to goad Prussia into war. Joachim Murat, a French marshal and the Grand Duke of Berg, seized Prussian territory at Verden and Essen, in western Germany. French troops massed in Berg, threatening Prussia. Napoleon had suggested that Prussia should form a North German Confederation, but he then prevented it from carrying this out. Having induced Frederick William to accept Hanover, Napoleon then commenced peace negotiations with Britain, offering to return this territory. He did so without Prussia’s knowledge, but the Prussian ambassador in Paris discovered it. This was the final provocation and the immediate cause for war.
Despite the gravity of the situation and the obvious, growing threat from France, Prussia entered this war ill prepared, and it lacked unity both in the government and in the higher command of the army. Frederick William did not have the strength of character or the authoritative demeanor necessary to impose his will on the arguing generals and politicians. The constant bickering hampered all operations. Nevertheless, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, irritated by the failure of his negotiations with Napoleon, promised to help, but his forces were far away. Britain too offered aid but moved slowly. Sweden declared its support but could do little. All that joined Prussia immediately was a contingent from Hesse and the reluctant Saxon army.
On 9 August 1806 the Prussian forces were ordered to mobilize. They entered this conflict with great expectations. Although the army had not been to war for ten years, its leaders had observed the development of warfare in the ensuing campaigns and had introduced a number of reforms. However, these attempts at modernization were underfunded and achieved less than was necessary. Napoleon’s army had been fully trained at the camp at Boulogne, and its veteran cadres were flushed with the great victories of 1805. Napoleon’s well-honed forces faced the army Europe respected above all others. The stage was set for the forthcoming War of the Fourth Coalition.
Strategically and politically, Prussia’s position was not straightforward. France was one of Europe’s most populous countries at this time, with a population of nearly 30 million. Prussia had the resources of only 8.7 million people, 2.5 million of whom were Poles, many of whom had only become Prussian subjects through the recent partitions of their country. Russia’s support was essential, but Russia was considered an unreliable ally. There were rumors it was discussing peace with Napoleon, but these rumors were quashed on 3 September when a report arrived in Paris that Alexander had rejected Napoleon’s overtures. As a result, Napoleon now refused to remove his troops from southern Germany and began his preparations for war.
The Prussians feared Napoleon would strike first. France’s occupation of the left bank of the Rhine left General Gebhard von Blücher’s men in Westphalia out on a limb. The fate of Mack’s Austrians the previous year must have been fresh in everybody’s minds. Plans were made to withdraw Blücher’s men over the river Elbe, but this would have left the Hessians in an exposed position and caused the Saxons consternation. Blücher also considered that his Westphalians would be reluctant to leave their home area, and he feared many would desert. Instead, the Prussians decided to concentrate to the fore, furthest away from the Russians. This would exacerbate the general strategic weakness of their position.
The Prussians raised a field army of seven corps of varying strengths: the Westphalian, the Hanoverian, the Magdeburg, the 1st Reserve, the Silesian, the West Prussian, and the Pomeranian. The fortresses of Magdeburg, Hamlin, and Nienburg were placed in a state of defense. To increase the mobility of the army, much of the heavier artillery pieces were left behind and the baggage train was reduced to a minimum. However, these measures were taken too far, for large parts of the army ran out of ammunition. The East Prussians were not mobilized, as they were needed to keep an eye on the Russians.
After some deliberations, the main part of the Prussian forces, around 65,000 men, were placed under the command of Charles, Duke of Brunswick, while Friedrich Ludwig Fürst Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen (known as Hohenlohe) was given command of a Prusso-Saxon corps of around 45,000 men. A corps of 34,000 men was left to cover Westphalia and Hesse, and 18,000 West Prussians were left in reserve. Brunswick and Hohenlohe were deployed facing Napoleon’s forces concentrating in southern Germany.
On 26 September 1806 Prussia sent an ultimatum demanding the immediate withdrawal of the French armies across the Rhine and Napoleon’s assent to the formation of the promised North German Confederation under Prussian leadership. Napoleon did not bother to respond, so on 8 October Prussia declared war. Napoleon was better prepared for this eventuality, having kept the Grande Armée in Germany for that very purpose. He concentrated his 180,000 men on the river Main, determined to strike at Berlin before help could arrive from Russia.
Napoleon was now assembling his IV (under Marshal Nicolas Soult), VI (under Marshal Michel Ney), and VII (under Marshal Pierre-François-Charles Augereau) Corps in Franconia. On 3 October Marshal Louis Davout’s III Corps arrived in Bamberg and Marshal François Lefebvre’s V Corps was moving to join them. The Prussians moved into Saxony to meet them. Napoleon’s plan was simply to locate and destroy the Prussians before any assistance from the Russians could arrive. An advance from southern Germany on Berlin would isolate the Prussians in the west, forcing them to withdraw.
The Prussians, only 145,000 strong, decided to seek victory alone rather than fall back toward the east and await the arrival of the tsar’s forces. The difference in numbers was not in itself decisive, but there is only one thing worse than dividing one’s army into two before the enemy, and that is dividing it into three, which is precisely what the Prussians did. Frederick William had not been able to get Brunswick to collaborate with Hohenlohe, so each was allowed to take the measures he considered appropriate. A third force of 15,000 men under General Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm von Rüchel was also formed. They faced 180,000 of Napoleon’s veterans under a unified command. The resulting confusion diminished the chances of a successful outcome.
Napoleon now moved into Saxony marching in three columns. Soult (IV Corps) led the right column, about 40,000 men strong, with Ney (VI Corps) and the Bavarian contingent following him. It moved via Hof on Plauen. Bernadotte (I Corps) led the center column, about 70,000 men, with Davout (III Corps), much of the Reserve Cavalry, and the Imperial Guard following him. They moved from Kronach in the direction of Schleiz. The V Corps, now under Marshal Jean Lannes, led the left column, about 50,000 men, followed by Augereau (VII Corps). They moved toward Saalfeld and crossed the frontier on 8 October.
Fortunately for Napoleon, the Prussians had neglected to block the passages through the Thüringian Forest. The Grande Armée’s three columns formed into a bataillon carré (battalion square), which would allow it to counter any offensive actions from the Prussians. The column attacked would simply fight a delaying action, falling back if necessary, allowing the remaining columns to swing into action against the Prussian flank. That day ended with Lannes’s column moving toward Saalfeld and Soult’s moving toward Hof. Matters were going well for Napoleon. The unity of command and the greater experience of recent warfare gave the French a considerable advantage.
The lack of a single command and of a clear objective hindered Prussian countermoves. The first sign of what was to come took place at Saalfeld on 10 October. Here, Lannes overwhelmed and defeated an exposed Prusso-Saxon force of around 8,000 men under the youthful and impetuous Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was killed in action. This body of men was the vanguard of Hohenlohe’s corps. It had been outnumbered 2 to 1 in this combat, so the result was to be expected. However, the death of the popular prince at the hands of a French hussar caused consternation in both the army and the nation. The frictions between the Prussians and the Saxons increased. The rot began to set in.
Expecting the Prussians to fall back on Gera to cover Leipzig, Napoleon marched north in the hope of catching the Prussian corps individually. His cavalry patrols located the main Prussian force further to the north or west, not to the northeast. No Prussians were sighted in Gera or on the river Elster. Napoleon concluded that the Prussians were to the west and would offer battle around Erfurt, so he ordered his columns to wheel to the left.
Brunswick declined to hold the line of the river Saale. Hohenlohe fell back on Jena, while Brunswick advanced on Weimar. Bernadotte wheeled toward the center column, while Davout passed through Naumburg. By taking this crossing at the river Unstrut, the French had cut off the Prussians’ intended line of retreat and their communication with Berlin. Their council of war now decided to fall back on Leipzig via Auerstädt, the Kösen Pass, Freyburg, and Merseburg. Hohenlohe was ordered to protect the flank of the main body, occupying the village of Kapellendorf, halfway between Weimar and Jena.
Not expecting to face the Prussians in battle for a few days yet, Napoleon reacted quickly to news of sightings of their actual positions and movements. Believing the main body of the Prussians was on the far side of Jena, he decided to strike, calling in the support of parts of the right column to join the left and center.
The battles of Jena and Auerstädt were confused affairs. At Auerstädt, Brunswick, with 50,000 men, bumped into Davout’s force of 27,000 men blocking his line of retreat. Davout’s successful defense of Hassenhausen is legendary. He repelled Brunswick, who was mortally wounded, leaving his men leaderless.
Napoleon met what he considered the main Prussian force at Jena. He started the affair with around 55,000 men against Hohenlohe’s 40,000 Prusso-Saxon corps. Another 40,000 men had joined Napoleon by noon, and weight of numbers told. Rüchel’s force of 15,000 men arrived too late to play much of a part other than to get caught up in the confusion of retreat. Although driven back in disorder, the Prussians had not disgraced themselves, but Napoleon pursued with vigor, turning the retreat into a rout. Napoleon considered that his victory at Jena had expunged the stain of the French defeat at Rossbach during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
This painting of Pierre Vafflard (1777-1837) shows the removal of Rossbach columns by the French, four days after the battle of Jena. The symbol is one that cannot be clearer: Napoleon avenged the defeat that Frederick II of Prussia had inflicted on the army from Louis XV to this meme place 49 years earlier. One of the two columns will be taken to Paris.
The destruction of the Prussian forces in these twin battles caused considerable demoralization. While certain battalions and squadrons did everything possible to hold together, the army no longer had a leader to reverse its fortunes. What made matters worse was that the great fortresses that might have checked the French advance and given the field army a chance to rally and reorganize capitulated without so much as firing a shot. Spandau, Stettin, Küstrin, and Magdeburg surrendered, breaking Prussia’s back. On 25 October the French entered Berlin.
The painter Charles Meynier represents, four years after the events, Napoleon’s entry into Berlin, October 27, 1806. Surrounded by Chasseurs of his guard and followed by his marshals, the Emperor passes under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd displays very various emotions from pain to curiosity and admiration. No resistance is registered. The real awakening of the Prussian patriotic feeling will occur several years later.
Three days later, the remnants of Hohenlohe’s force, 10,000 men, capitulated at Prenzlau. The only force that had shown much spirit was one that gravitated toward Blücher. It fought its way to the Baltic coast before being forced to surrender at Rackau near Lübeck on 7 November. Only East Prussia and some fortresses along the Baltic coast now held out against Napoleon.
Prussia was now utterly broken. The losses the Prussians suffered in the two battles are difficult to determine exactly. However, the Prussians lost around 10,000 killed or wounded at Jena, along with 15,000 prisoners, 34 colors, and 120 guns, against a loss to Napoleon of around 5,000 men. At Auerstädt, the Prussian losses were around 15,000 dead and wounded, 3,000 prisoners, and 115 guns, while the French lost 7,000 dead and wounded. After the whirlwind pursuit, the Prussians no longer had an army and had lost control of all their territory west of the Oder River.
Immediately after the Battle of Jena, Napoleon had demanded the cession of all Prussian territory west of the Elbe River. However, after the ignominious capitulation of so many key fortresses, he further demanded that Prussia accept French occupation of all Prussian territory up to the Vistula River and that all uncaptured fortresses should surrender. Frederick William refused these terms and fell back into East Prussia, hoping to secure the help of Russia.
The Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (Friedrich August) III who had supported the Prussians previously, now submitted to Napoleon. In return, he was made king of Saxony as Frederick Augustus I and joined the Confederation of the Rhine.
Napoleon now entered East Prussia, having gained a large number of Polish recruits by promising the restoration of their country’s independence. He besieged the important fortress of Danzig (now Gdansk) at the mouth of the Vistula. It held out until 24 May 1807. The Pomeranian fortress of Kolberg under General August von Gneisenau successfully resisted until the end of the war.
In the Battle of Eylau of 8 February 1807 Napoleon lost 35,000 of his veterans in a bloody stalemate with a Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen, supported by a corps of Prussians. The relatively easy victories of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns were not to be repeated. The Allies undertook to continue the war by the Treaty of Bartenstein of 26 April. However, Prussia was too weak to do much, Britain was committed to various colonial adventures, and Sweden hardly got involved. As Austria remained neutral, Napoleon now concentrated on dealing with Russia. His victory over Bennigsen at Friedland on 14 June ended the military phase of the war. It was concluded with the Treaty of Tilsit of 9 July 1807.
Napoleon took the opportunity of reducing the nation that had once been his greatest threat to the status of a second-rate power. Prussia lost all its territory west of the Elbe, which was included in a new Kingdom of Westphalia with Napoleon’s brother Jérome Bonaparte as king. Much of its Polish territories were included in the new Duchy of Warsaw under the king of Saxony. Prussian ports were closed to British commerce, extending the Continental System established by the Berlin Decrees of 21 November 1806. The tsar could have argued for more lenient treatment for Prussia, but secret clauses to the treaty allowed Russia to gain territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. That compensated for Napoleon’s gains in central Europe.
This peace settlement was payment to Prussia for its pursuit of a policy of neutrality with France. For over ten years, Prussia had allowed the burden of the defense of Germany to fall on Austria’s shoulders. Even then, it was not too late to change this. Had Prussia wholeheartedly committed itself to supporting Austria and Russia in 1805, then Napoleon’s empire may well have ended then. Even in 1806 Russia was considered a potential enemy, so an inappropriate strategy of an aggressive defense was implemented, allowing Napoleon to strike first, quickly and decisively. Prussia played into Napoleon’s hands and paid the price.
The Treaty of Tilsit marked the zenith of Napoleon’s power. Russia and France had effectively divided the continent of Europe between them. Only Britain, master of the seas, remained opposed to Napoleon. As a result of its folly, Prussia was to suffer several years of humiliation and was not to resume its opposition to France until 1813.
The Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia, with its capital at Berlin, was a central European state, part of whose territories were included in the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of Brandenburg was a prince elector of the empire. As well as the core provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia, the king of Prussia also ruled over enclaves in western Germany and acquired substantial gains during the Partitions of Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century. Ruled by the House of Hohenzollern, Prussia had risen from relative obscurity in the early eighteenth century to become a great power, thanks largely to the wars of conquest undertaken by Frederick the Great. This increase in status put Prussia in the position of being a rival to Austria for hegemony in Germany.
Prussia’s population in 1795 was around 8.5 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million Poles. Following the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, Prussia was left with around 5 million inhabitants. Territorial gains after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 increased this to about 10.3 million. The population was largely rural; the capital and principal city, Berlin, had about 172,000 inhabitants. The economy was largely agrarian based; some three-quarters of the population were farmers. Prussia was devastated by the costs of the war and the indemnity demanded by the French after the defeat in 1806. The national debt increased from 55 million taler in 1806 to 206 million taler in 1816.
The territorial gains made in western Germany in 1815 changed Prussia’s strategic position in Europe, taking it from being a central European power with an eye toward the East to one leaning more to the West. As well as sharing a border with Russia and Austria, Prussia now had a common frontier with France. The new territories in the Rhineland were economically more advanced and rich in natural resources but did not enjoy a territorial link with the main part of Prussia to the east. The settlement made in Vienna in 1815 determined the pattern of European politics for the coming hundred years.
Although Prussia enjoyed considerably fewer resources than its larger neighbors, it was nevertheless one of Europe’s great powers and able to raise substantial military forces when required. The Prussian Army had a good reputation for its effectiveness on the field of battle, its professionalism, especially of its officer corps, and its aggressive spirit. Other armies copied its methods. Despite that, the Prussian Army suffered the most devastating defeat of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the campaign of 1806.
Prussia committed substantial forces to the earlier campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars. An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded France in the fall of 1792. It took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun before being halted at Valmy on 20 September. Prussian forces fought in the Rhineland for the next three years, acquitting themselves well against the invading French, with their light forces performing particularly well. The costs of this war drained the Prussian economy, and because there were easier pickings in the East, the Prussians withdrew from the war with the Treaty of Basle in 1795. This separate peace with France began a decade of Prussian isolation that ended with the catastrophe of 1806.
The Prussian Army did mobilize its forces toward the end of 1805, but the planned intervention in the War of the Third Coalition did not come to fruition because Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on 2 December preempted this. Having conquered Austria and thrown Russia’s army out of central Europe, Napoleon next turned his attention to Prussia. He goaded Prussia into a war in unfavorable circumstances in the fall of 1806, the Prussian army suffered a severe defeat at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October, and any chance of continuing the war vanished in the wake of the highly effective pursuit undertaken by Napoleon’s forces and the capitulation of several important fortresses. The Treaty of Tilsit concluded the following summer reduced Prussia to a second-rate power subservient to Napoleon’s wishes.
The years that followed were marked by economic devastation caused by the reparations demanded by Napoleon and the costs of supplying an army of occupation. Patriots such as Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, Heinrich Freiherr vom Stein, Gebhard von Blücher, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and August von Gneisenau plotted and conspired against the French. Secret societies prepared the country’s intellectuals both mentally and physically for an uprising.
The unrest became apparent in 1809, with a regiment of hussars commanded by Ferdinand von Schill staging an uprising in support of the Austrians, who were now at war with France. Frederick William III considered it untimely to risk all for a confrontation with Napoleon and did what was necessary to suppress the discontent. A group of dissatisfied officers, including Karl von Clausewitz, left the army in protest in 1812, when a contingent of 20,000 Prussians marched under the command of General Johann von Yorck with Napoleon into Russia. Fortunately for the Prussians, they were allocated to the left wing of the Grande Armée, so they did not suffer the fate of the main body on its retreat from Moscow. Yorck allowed his corps to become separated from the French at the end of 1812 and withdrew it from the war with Russia with the Convention of Tauroggen (28 December 1812). This act of rebellion sparked the uprising in northern Germany that developed into what became known as the War of Liberation.
Having signed an alliance with Russia at Kalisch on 28 February 1813, Prussia went to war with France a month later. Although outnumbered by Napoleon’s forces, the Prusso-Russian army acquitted itself well in the spring campaign of 1813, fighting the battles of Lützen and Bautzen. Joined by Austria that fall, the Allies were overwhelmingly victorious at Leipzig in October. With Napoleon now driven out of Germany, the Allies pressed on to Paris in the spring of 1814. An army of Russians and Prussians under Blücher played a significant part in these events, fighting battles such as Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Craonne, Laon, and Vauchamps.
In 1815 the lion’s share of the fighting was to fall on the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, which fought three battles in a whirlwind campaign, at Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo, before blazing its way to Paris, taking a number of French fortresses in its path. Appropriately, it was Blücher’s Prussians that first entered Paris in 1815, marking the end of the Napoleonic era.
On 18 October, as Napoleon was setting out from Moscow, Marshal Gouvion St Cyr, who had taken over command of the 2nd Corps from the wounded Oudinot, was attacked outside Polotsk by overwhelming Russian forces under General Peter von Wittgenstein. In a fierce battle lasting two days his emaciated force of 27,000 French, Bavarian, Swiss, Italians, Poles and Croats held off Wittgenstein’s 50,000 Russians, inflicting heavy losses. But when the city was set alight by the Russian artillery bombardment, it became indefensible. ‘No battle has ever appeared more awful,’ wrote Captain Drujon de Bealieu of the 8th Lancers. ‘It made me think of the fall of Troy, as it is recounted in the Aeneid.’ Fearing encirclement, St Cyr abandoned Polotsk and fell back to the river Ula, along which he took up defensive positions.
Napoleon did not hear of this until he reached Viazma on 2 November, but he was confident that Victor, who was marching to St Cyr’s support, would assist him in retaking the city. He was more preoccupied with the slowness of Davout’s retreat, complaining that he was deploying for battle every time a few cossacks appeared on the horizon, and himself marched briskly on towards Smolensk. But when he heard of the fighting outside Viazma and realised that Kutuzov was hovering a couple of miles to the south, he decided to give battle himself.
As he began to muster his forces on 4 November, he became aware of just how disorganised they were. ‘You want to fight, yet you have no army!’ protested Ney, who had replaced Davout in the rearguard. Since Davout had now got free of Miloradovich and joined up with the preceding echelons, Napoleon decided to make for Smolensk and take winter quarters. He ordered Junot and Poniatowski to head for Smolensk itself, Davout to take up positions outside the city in the Yelnia area – ‘They say the country is rich and abundant in victuals,’ he assured him – and Prince Eugène to march to Vitebsk and take winter quarters there. He dictated these orders at Dorogobuzh on 5 and early on 6 November, before setting off towards Smolensk.
He soon found himself driving through a blizzard, and as the temperature dropped he was forced to accept that he had got his timing dangerously wrong. That was not the only disagreeable reality he had to face that day. When he reached Mikhailovka that afternoon, he found an estafette from Paris waiting for him with the astonishing news that a couple of obscure officers, headed by General Malet, had attempted to seize power in a coup d’état. Napoleon could hardly believe it. The plot had been far-fetched in the extreme, but the very fact that it had got off the ground at all raised alarming questions about the solidity of Napoleonic rule in France. ‘With the French,’ he quipped to Caulaincourt, ‘as with women, one should never stay away too long.’ But he was shaken by this revelation of the fragility of his authority.
The following morning he wrote to Victor, instructing him to join up with St Cyr and retake Polotsk. A note of real alarm is detectable in the letter. ‘Take the offensive, the salvation of the army depends on it,’ he wrote. ‘Every day of delay is a calamity. The army’s cavalry is on foot, the cold has killed all the horses. Advance, it is the order of the Emperor and of necessity.’4 He himself made for Smolensk with all possible speed.
The cold had become so intense that Napoleon abandoned the traditional grey overcoat and small tricorn which made him instantly recognisable to all at a distance, and from now on wore a Polish-style fur-lined green velvet frock-coat and cap. He had also taken to warming himself by getting out of his carriage at intervals and tramping alongside his grenadiers, with Berthier and Caulaincourt at his elbow. It was while he was walking unsteadily on the slippery ice at noon on 9 November, with a temperature of – 15°C (5°F) accentuated by a bitter north wind, that he caught sight of Smolensk. The thick blanket of snow that lay across the city, concealing the charred ruins, allowed him to forget what it had looked like when he had left it, and to entertain for a while the feeling that he had reached a safe haven.
As soon as he had set up quarters in the city he began dictating orders detailing the reorganisation of the cavalry into two divisions, one of light cavalry and one of cuirassiers and dragoons, each of which was to be divided up into picket regiments which were to cover the Grande Armée’s winter quarters. He then ordered every unit to concentrate at specified assembly points in order to allow stragglers and detached elements to rejoin. But within a few hours grim reality had begun to bring home to him the futility of his plans, with a succession of painful blows.
Napoleon had given orders for large stores of food and equipment to be built up at Smolensk. But those who tried to implement them found that obtaining food and forage from the surrounding countryside was an unrewarding struggle, while supplies coming up the road from Vilna had to be sent on to Mozhaisk and Moscow. There were some 15,000 sick and wounded soldiers left over from the storming of the city and from Valutina Gora who had to be fed, while a constant stream of reinforcement echelons moving through on their way to Moscow, as well as Marshal Victor’s 9th Corps which had been operating in the area, had been drawing on the stores as well.
At the beginning of October Napoleon had issued urgent orders for the magazines to be restocked. One of those entrusted with carrying out these orders was Stendhal. ‘They expect miracles,’ he complained to a colleague as he set about the business, adding that he wished he could be sent to Italy. Substantial stores were in fact built up, and there was certainly enough there to feed the Grande Armée for some time. But not enough to last through the winter for more than a division, and the idea of even a single corps taking winter quarters in the city was out of the question.
A more serious blow to Napoleon’s plans was the news brought by Amédée de Pastoret, whom he had named intendant of White Russia, based at Vitebsk. Pastoret had built up a magazine there which could have fed one corps through the winter, and Napoleon had already assigned it to Prince Eugène’s 4th Corps. But following the fall of Polotsk the Russians had moved down the Dvina and thrown Pastoret and his insignificant garrison out.
Another unwelcome piece of news waiting for him at Smolensk was that General Baraguay d’Hilliers, who had been sent out with his division to meet Napoleon’s intended retreat along the Medyn road at Yelnia, had met not Napoleon but Kutuzov’s main forces, and one of his brigades, General Augerau’s, 1650 strong, had been surrounded and forced to surrender.
As his own columns trudged into Smolensk from Viazma Napoleon could see how depleted they were. Estimates of the forces at his disposal in Smolensk vary wildly, but most sources agree that he had lost at least 60,000 men since leaving Moscow three weeks earlier, and that there were no more than about 40,000 left with their colours.7 And this included several thousand cavalrymen who were of no use without their mounts. ‘Horses, horses and more horses, whether for cuirassiers, dragoons, or light cavalry, or artillery or military caissons, that is the greatest of our present needs,’ Napoleon wrote to Maret in Vilna on 11 November. On the same day he heard of the disaster that had befallen his stepson.
He had ordered Prince Eugène to leave the main road at Dorogobuzh and make in a more or less straight line for Vitebsk. After a day’s march he came to the Vop, an insignificant river no more than fifteen or twenty metres wide at this point, and his sappers set about building a bridge across it. The best they could do with the materials to hand was not good enough, and the bridge collapsed. The entire 4th Corps had by now come up, and a two-mile-long tailback formed as the troops waited for it to be rebuilt. As they stood patiently in driving snow and freezing temperatures, Platov’s cossacks had time to come up and unlimber their guns, and began shelling the queuing Italians. With no possibility of rebuilding the bridge Prince Eugène decided to ford the river, which was nowhere deeper than a metre and a half. The Royal Guard led the way, and although the water came up to the chins of the shorter men, they got across without much difficulty.
Prince Eugène himself followed, and ordered the artillery to be brought over so it might deploy on the western bank and cover the crossing with its fire. But although it is not deep, the Vop flows between steep banks some three metres high, made slippery by the snow. After only two guns had been dragged across and up the opposite bank, a caisson got stuck and then overturned. The vehicle behind it also became wedged in the river’s bed, and the one behind that slammed into the back of it. Other guns and caissons trying to bypass the jam also got stuck in the softened ooze, and soon the riverbed was a mass of vehicles whose wheels had sunk into the mud, and of horses desperately thrashing about trying to free themselves from the freezing water. ‘I can still see those brave soldiers of the train, obliged to spend whole hours with their teams in the water and, after having managed to drag one cannon or caisson out, go back in and double the team on another vehicle and start the struggle all over again,’ wrote Colonel Griois, who spent the whole day trying to get the guns across.
He succeeded in dragging a dozen to the other side, but as night began to fall and the cossacks crept nearer, he realised that he would have to spike the rest. As soon as it became clear that the carriages and wagons would have to be abandoned, pandemonium broke out. Trunks were hauled down and broken open as men hurriedly transferred their most precious possessions and as much food as they could carry onto the backs of the unharnessed horses or their own before plunging into the river. Others seized the opportunity to rifle through the abandoned luggage of others before following. As they struggled to get across, many of the men and horses, gripped by the shock of the icy water, went under and drowned. Many more died of hypothermia as they huddled round bivouac fires in their wet clothes that night. ‘It is impossible to describe the situation of the men after this crossing, or the physical torments endured and the pain resulting from this icy bath,’ wrote one of them, and the Italians dubbed it ‘la notte d’orrore’.
Prince Eugène lost around 2500 men at the crossing, about a quarter of his force, as well as a large number of civilians and stragglers who had balked at the cold water. He also left behind fifty-eight spiked guns and his baggage train, which meant virtually all his rations and ammunition. He was now in no position to march as far as Vitebsk, and had to make a dash for Smolensk. This was just as well, since Vitebsk had fallen to the Russians. But the experience of the Vop crossing had demoralised many of his men and, notwithstanding his fine leadership qualities, there was not much he could do about it. ‘I ought not to hide from Your Highness,’ he reported to Berthier, ‘these three days of suffering have so crushed the spirit of the soldier that I believe him at this moment to be hardly capable of making an effort. Many men have died of hunger or of cold, and others, out of despair, have gone off to get themselves taken by the enemy.’
In Smolensk, Napoleon vented his frustration at the course events had taken by blaming all his marshals and accusing them of not carrying out his orders. ‘There’s not one of them to whom one can entrust anything; one always has to do everything oneself,’ he complained to Pastoret in a long diatribe which covered many subjects. Everything was somebody else’s fault, even his presence in Russia. ‘And they accuse me of ambition, as though it was my ambition that brought me here! This war is only a matter of politics. What have I got to gain from a climate like this, from coming to a wretched country like this one? The whole of it is not worth the meanest little piece of France. They, on the other hand, have a very real interest in conquest: Poland, Germany, anything goes for them. Just seeing the sun six months of the year is a new pleasure for them. It is they that should be stopped, not me. These Germans with all their philosophy don’t understand a thing.’
Rant as he might, the retreat would have to go on. And it would have to be rapid, for St Cyr and Victor would not be able to hold back Wittgenstein for much longer, while Kutuzov was already overtaking Napoleon on his other flank. And an altogether new threat was developing in the south, where Schwarzenberg and Reynier had been obliged to give ground before the combined forces of Tormasov and Chichagov: instead of falling back towards Minsk, where they would have joined forces with Napoleon, they had gone off westwards, back into Poland, leaving Napoleon’s line of retreat through Minsk dangerously exposed.
Napoleon’s disappointment on reaching Smolensk was as nothing compared to that of his troops. The last stages of the march had sapped not only the physical strength but also the spirits of the bravest soldiers. ‘Morale nevertheless held,’ according to Dedem de Gelder, ‘the majority of the army believing that Smolensk would be the term of their misfortunes.’ On 7 November the front echelons passed a substantial convoy of food moving the other way destined for Ney’s rearguard and this lifted their spirits, as it seemed to endorse the image of plenty at Smolensk. Soldiers hurriedly rejoined their units in the expectation of regular distributions of food. They somehow managed to forget that the last time they had seen the city it had been a smouldering ruin, and as they approached they had a picture of warmth and abundance in their minds. ‘The idea that the end of our travails was nigh lent us a kind of gaiety,’ wrote one, ‘and it was with many a joke about our prolonged slitherings and frequent falls that my comrades and I came down the hill and up to the city walls.’
But while the Guard, which entered the city with Napoleon, received a distribution of food and spirits, and settled into the ruins for a welcome rest, the units marching behind it were less fortunate. The Guard had been preceded by a rabble of fleeing deserters who had tried to storm the stores, with the result that those in charge of distributing them became even more fussy than normal in following procedure. After the Guard had entered, the gates of the city were shut, and the gendarmes manning them admitted only armed units marching under the command of an officer. But as well as excluding the stragglers, this measure punished those who had fallen behind through no fault of their own, the wounded, and the cavalrymen whose units had quite simply dissolved through the death of their mounts.
Even those who managed to regroup outside the town and present an organised appearance received a less than satisfactory distribution. As Napoleon did not want news of his setbacks to spread, he had not warned the authorities in places such as Smolensk of his impending arrival, let alone of the real state of affairs. With prior warning, the local administration could have baked bread and divided stores up into rations which could have been distributed quickly and easily. As it was, companies were simply issued with sacks of flour which, as they lacked the means of baking bread, they boiled up into a thin gruel, an ox which they had to set about slaughtering, and a barrel of spirits, half of which would be wasted as it was decanted.
All attempts at maintaining order were nullified by the deserters and stragglers who managed to infiltrate the city and set up dens of brigands in the cellars of burnt-out houses, from which they sallied forth to steal and raid the magazines. Fights kept breaking out in the stores, officials in charge of distributing them were beaten up, those carrying away rations for their units were waylaid by those who could not obtain food through regular channels, and a vast amount was wasted in the process.
The Guard was accused by other troops of having stolen the supplies, and there was much grumbling against it, but in effect most of those still with their colours did receive distributions of rice, flour, spirits and in some cases beef.15 The Guard also aroused envy and anger as it appeared to take control of the great bazaar which sprang up at one of the main crossroads in the town.
The conditions of the retreat had turned out to be very different from those envisaged as they left Moscow, and as a result everyone was trying to adapt their arrangements by trading one kind of booty for a more manageable or transportable variety. ‘Here a suttler-woman would be offering watches, rings, necklaces, silver vases and precious stones,’ recalled Amédée de Pastoret. ‘There a grenadier was selling brandy or furs. A little further on a soldier of the train was hawking the complete works of Voltaire or the letters to Émilie by Desmoustiers. A voltigeur had horses and carriages on offer, while a cuirassier had set up a stall with footwear and clothing.’ Those who had failed to get a regular distribution of food sold whatever they had in order to buy some.
The civilians, who did not qualify for military distributions, had no other way of obtaining it, and when they ran out of money or things to sell they were reduced to begging. In this, the women had an unenviable advantage, as Labaume records. ‘Mostly on foot, shod with cloth bottines and dressed in thin dresses of silk or percale, they wrapped themselves in pelisses or soldiers’ greatcoats taken from corpses along the way. Their predicament would have wrenched tears from the hardest of hearts, if the rigours of our position had not been such as to strangle every feeling of humanity. Among these victims of the horrors of war, there were some who were young, pretty, charming, witty, and who possessed all the qualities capable of seducing the most insensitive man, but most of them were reduced to begging for the slightest favour, and the piece of bread they were given often required the most abject form of gratitude. While they implored our help, they were cruelly abused, and every night belonged to those who had fed them that day.’
The misery was compounded by the fact that on 12 November the temperature fell sharply, with readings as low as – 23.75°C (–10.75°F). On the night of 14 November it was so cold that the men on picket duty around Ney’s bivouac had to be threatened with the direst consequences to keep them from coming in to find shelter. Marshal Mortier took a more relaxed view. Seeing a sentry standing outside his lodgings, he asked him what he was doing and received the reply that he was on guard. ‘Against whom and against what?’ Mortier asked. ‘You won’t prevent the cold from coming in or hardship from attacking us! So you may as well come in and find a place by the fireside.’
A large proportion of the army was camped out in the open outside the city, and they struggled desperately to escape the cold. ‘Around our bivouac there were some huts in which officers and men had sought shelter from the cold and in which they had lit fires,’ recalled Sergeant Bertrand of the 7th Light Infantry in Davout’s corps. ‘One of my good friends had gone inside as well. Foreseeing what was bound to happen, I begged him to come out. At my insistence, the officers and several soldiers, who were already numbed by the warmth and incapable of making a decision, did come out, but he would not hear of it and found his death there. As I had foreseen, crowds of other men soon began to assail these huts while those inside tried to defend their haven, a terrible struggle began and the weaker men were crushed mercilessly. I ran to the bivouac to get help, but I had barely reached it when flames engulfed the huts with all those inside them. In the morning there were only ruins and corpses.’ Sergeant Bourgogne, who had himself tried to get into one of the buildings, stood by helplessly as he watched screaming comrades being devoured by the flames.
What made the conditions so hard to bear was the blow morale had suffered from the disappointed hopes. ‘A bivouac set up in deep snow in the ruins and the courtyard of a burnt-out house, a few meagre victuals, for the possession of which we had to come to blows at the entrance to the stores with thousands of ghosts enraged by hunger, and one single day of rest, with a temperature of [– 22.5°C (– 8.5°F)]: that was all we found in Smolensk, in those much-vaunted winter quarters,’ recalled an artillery officer of Ney’s 25th Württemberg Division.
‘In an attempt to prevent the men from losing heart, the Emperor affected impassivity in the face of all this bad news, in order to make himself seem above all the adversity and ready to face any eventuality,’ noted Louis Lejeune. ‘But this was wrongly interpreted as indifference.’ The fatherly concern the troops used to sense in Napoleon was not in evidence. Auguste Bo net, a simple soldier, wrote to his mother from Smolensk on 10 November. ‘Ma chère maman, write to me often and at length, it is the only pleasure, the only consolation that remains to me in this wild country that the war has turned into a wilderness.’
Perhaps the most unfortunate were Prince Eugène’s Italians who, having lost all their possessions and supplies at the crossing of the Vop, survived their icy bath and finally struggled into Smolensk, only to find the gates closed. After three hours of pushing, shoving and arguing they were at last admitted, only to discover that the supplies had been thoroughly pillaged. They camped in the streets, and the few wounded they had managed to bring along on their remaining wagons died in the night without shelter. ‘Many of us lost what was left of our spirit, of that spirit that kept hope alive,’ wrote Cesare de Laugier, while Bartolomeo Bertolini felt that ‘every soldier had lost the hope of ever seeing his motherland again’.
The Italian Guardia d’Onore, a kind of cadet force made up of the scions of the nobility of northern Italy who held officer’s rank but served as simple soldiers, elicited general pity, for they lacked all the skills of the regular soldier. They had lost their mounts and tramped awkwardly in their ungainly top-boots instead of cutting them down, they had been too pampered to know how to fix their footwear or sew up a tear in their uniforms, let alone how to cook up a stew from whatever might be on offer; and they had been too well brought up to stoop to pillaging or even pilfering from dead men. Only eight of them survived out of a total of 350, which was low even by the standards of this campaign.
Cavalry were particularly vulnerable, as every time a horse died another man was left behind. They were gradually dispersed, and therefore denied any mutual support system. So even while they had plenty of able-bodied men, cavalry units tended to disintegrate. On 9 November General Thielmann wrote to the King of Saxony that he must regard the two cavalry regiments which had been under his command as completely lost. But there were exceptions, and the lancers Dr La Flise had teamed up with rode into Smolensk with unfurled colours and music, and managed to get food for themselves and fodder for their horses.
It required a strong hand to keep any regiment together, as the kindly but gruff Colonel Pelet of the 48th of the Line in Davout’s corps attested. Not without effort, he had managed to obtain a quantity of flour, a barrel of vodka and four live oxen from the stores, but before he could set about feeding his men he was ordered to turn them out on parade before Davout. He was determined not to let his precious victuals out of his sight, so he took them along to the parade. Luckily, Davout was late. ‘I kept an eye as constantly as I could on the regiment and the barrel,’ Pelet wrote, ‘and suddenly I noticed that it had been broken open. I ran over to it, but it was too late; nearly all the spirits had been pillaged, or at least distributed without measure or order. I hastened to overturn the barrel, but my men were already tipsy, and a number of them dead drunk. In order to hide this accident from the severe eye of Davout I tried to make the regiment manoeuvre, but this proved beyond them.’ He managed to lead them out of sight of the dreaded Davout’s quarters and then came back to clear up. ‘More than eighty knapsacks, muskets and shakos were strewn about as after a battle,’ he added.
Despite the general demoralisation, there was still a nucleus of disciplined men in most units, and many regiments found reinforcements in Smolensk, in the shape of echelons sent from depots in France, Germany or Italy. Pelet’s regiment, for instance, had shrunk to six hundred men but found a couple of hundred uniformed and armed men waiting for them. Raymond de Fezensac’s 4th of the Line was down to three hundred, but was joined by two hundred fresh men. The only problem with these men was that they had not been through the same tempering process as their comrades, and they were not up to dealing with the conditions. The 6th Chasseurs à Cheval received 250 recruits from their depot in northern Italy, but the shock to their system was such that not one of them was alive a week later.
The loss of up to 60,000 men and possibly as many as 20,000 camp followers since leaving Moscow could, theoretically, have been to Napoleon’s advantage. Caulaincourt was one of those who believed that if a couple of hundred cannon had been thrown into the Dnieper, along with the wagons carrying the trophies from Moscow, and all the wounded left in Smolensk with medical attendants and supplies, liberating thousands of horses, the slimmed-down but more mobile force of 40,000 or so men could have operated in a more aggressive manner and fed itself more easily. He blamed Napoleon for failing to take stock of the situation. ‘Never has a retreat been less well ordered,’ he complained.
It is certainly true that Napoleon’s unwillingness to lose face prevented him from taking drastic measures and making a dash for Minsk and Vilna. He put off every decision to fall back further until the very last moment. ‘In that long retreat from Russia he was as uncertain and as undecided on the last day as he was on the first,’ wrote Caulaincourt. As a result, even the march could not be organised properly by the staff.
But the real problem vitiating any attempt to reorganise the Grande Armée was that at every stop along the line of retreat it picked up fresh troops, who were often more of a liability than an asset, as well as commissaires, local collaborators, wounded and sick who had been left behind on the advance, and all the riff-raff who had been infesting the area under French occupation. As the Grande Armée retreated, it pushed all this dead weight before it, and had to march through it, losing resources and gaining chaos in the process.
Napoleon still entertained hopes of halting the retreat at Orsha or, failing that, along the line of the river Berezina. After four days in Smolensk, he sent the remnants of Junot’s and Poniatowski’s corps ahead, and left the city himself on the following day, 14 November, preceded by Mortier with the Young Guard and followed by the Old Guard. Prince Eugène, Davout and Ney were to follow at one-day intervals.
The going was hard, through deep snow which became slippery when compacted by the tramp of feet and hooves. There were many slopes in the road testing men and horses, and a number of bridges over small ravines causing bottlenecks. On the evening of the first day out of Smolensk, Colonel Boulart with part of the artillery of the Guard got stuck at a bridge which was followed by a steep rise. There was the usual jam of people, horses and vehicles, all vying for precedence, and every so often cossacks would ride up and cause panic. The Russians had now placed light guns on sleighs, which meant they could be brought up, fired and pulled away before the French had time to unlimber their cannon and fire back. Boulart realised that if he did not take decisive action, his battery would disintegrate in the midst of the jam. He therefore forced a passage for himself, by over-turning civilian vehicles or pushing them off the road. He got his men to dig under the snow on either side of the road until they found earth, and to sprinkle this on the icy surface of the road leading up the slope, which he also broke up with picks. It took him all night to get his cannon across the bridge and up the slope. ‘I fell heavily at least twenty times as I went up and down that slope, but, sustained as I was by the determination to succeed, I did not let this hinder me,’ he wrote.
While Boulart struggled with his guns, Napoleon, who had stopped at Korytnia for the night, called Caulaincourt to his bedside and again talked of the necessity of his going back to Paris as soon as possible. He had just heard that Miloradovich had cut the road ahead of him near Krasny. He could not rule out the possibility of being taken, and his close encounter with the cossacks outside Maloyaroslavets had unnerved him. In order to arm himself against capture he bade Dr Yvan prepare him a dose of poison, which he henceforth wore in a small black silk sachet around his neck.
The following morning, 15 November, Napoleon fought his way through to Krasny, where he paused to allow those behind him to catch up. But Miloradovich had closed the road once more behind him, and when Prince Eugène’s Italians, now not much more than four thousand strong, came marching down it the following afternoon they in turn found themselves cut off. Massed ranks of Russian infantry supported by guns barred the road in front of them, while cavalry and cossacks hovered on their flanks. Miloradovich sent an officer under a white flag to inform Prince Eugène that he had 20,000 men and that Kutuzov was nearby with the rest of the Russian army. ‘Go back quickly whence you came and tell him who sent you that if he has 20,000 men, we are 80,000!’ came the reply. Prince Eugène unlimbered his remaining ten guns, formed up his corps into a dense column and forged ahead.
The Russians, who could see how few of them there were, once again summoned them to surrender. When this was rejected, they opened fire, and a fierce and bloody fight ensued. ‘We fought until nightfall without giving ground,’ recalled one French officer, ‘but it fell just in time; one more hour of daylight and we would probably have been overpowered.’ The Russians were nevertheless still between them and Krasny, and would easily crush them on the following day. In the circumstances, Prince Eugène could see no way out other than to fall in with the plan of a Polish colonel attached to his staff. When darkness fell, he formed up his remaining men in a compact file and, leaving behind all unnecessary impedimenta, marched off the road, into the woods, and across country round the side of the Russian army. When challenged by Russian sentries, the Polish colonel marching at the head of the column brazenly replied in Russian that they were on a special secret mission by order of His Serene Highness Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov. Unbelievably, the ploy worked, and in the early hours, just as Miloradovich was preparing to finish it off, the 4th Corps marched into Krasny behind his back.
Napoleon was relieved to see his stepson, but he was now in something of a quandary. He ought to wait for Davout and Ney, in case they too had difficulty in breaking through Miloradovich’s roadblock, but he was in peril of being stranded himself, as Kutuzov had turned up a couple of miles to the south of Krasny, and could easily cut the road between him and Orsha. In order to gain time, he decided to take the field himself at the head of his Guard.
Walking in front of his grenadiers, Napoleon led them out of Krasny back onto the Smolensk road and then turned them to face the Russian troops who had massed in a long formation to the south of the road. ‘Advancing with a firm step, as on the day of a great parade, he placed himself in the middle of the battlefield, facing the enemy’s batteries,’ in the words of Sergeant Bourgogne. He was vastly outnumbered, but his bearing, standing calmly under fire as the Russian shells struck men all around him, seems to have impressed not only his own men but the enemy as well. Miloradovich moved back from the road, leaving it open for Davout to march through. And Kutuzov resisted the entreaties of Toll, Konovnitsin, Bennigsen and Wilson, who could all see that the Russians were in a position to encircle Napoleon and overwhelm him by sheer weight of numbers, ending the war there and then.
Napoleon was alarmed to discover that Davout had hurried on westwards without waiting for Ney, who was still some way behind. But he could not afford to wait any longer himself, as Kutuzov had by now turned his wing and threatened his line of retreat to Orsha. He left Mortier and the Young Guard to hold Krasny and cover Davout’s retreat, and himself marched through the town and out onto the Orsha road, at the head of the Old Guard.
It was not long before he came up against a horde of civilians and deserters who had gone on ahead and, finding the road cut by the Russians, come rushing back in a panic. Napoleon steadied them, but not before they had caused chaos in the ranks and among the wagons following the staff, with the result that some careered off the road and sank in the deep snow covering the boggy ground on either side of it.
As the French resumed their march, they were caught in a murderous enfilading fire from the Russian guns. The last of Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry struggled to keep cossacks and Russian cavalry at bay, while the dense column of men and vehicles made its way down the cluttered road. Colonel Boulart, who had managed to keep all his guns thus far, had a terrible job getting them through here too. The civilians and men who had left the ranks were getting in the way, and their skidding vehicles obstructed the road. Boulart cleared some ground at the side of the road, and, one by one, led his gun teams round the jam. But the chaos increased as the Russian artillery were now shelling the bottleneck, and when he went back for his last gun he found it impossible to move it among the exploding shells, so he spiked and abandoned it. As he struggled free of the mass of civilians with his last team, he saw a harrowing sight. ‘A young lady, a fugitive from Moscow, well-dressed and with striking looks, had managed to free herself from the mêlée and was moving ahead with great difficulty on the donkey she was riding, when a cannonball came and shattered the poor animal’s jaw,’ he wrote. ‘I cannot express the feeling of sorrow I carried away with me as I left that unfortunate woman, who would betimes become the prey and possibly the victim of the cossacks.’
In an effort to push back the Russian guns, the infantry made a number of exhausting bayonet attacks through the deep snow, in which hundreds perished. Colonel Tyndal’s Dutch Grenadiers, whom Napoleon used to call ‘the glory of Holland’, lost 464 men out of five hundred. The Young Guard was virtually sacrificed in the process of covering the withdrawal. The Russians kept out of musketshot and merely shelled them, but in the words of General Roguet, ‘they killed without vanquishing … for three hours these troops received death without making the slightest move to avoid it and without being able to return it’.
Luckily for the French, Kutuzov refused to reinforce the troops barring the road once he heard that it was Napoleon himself who was marching down it. Many on the Russian side felt a deep-seated reluctance to take him on, and preferred to stand by in awe. ‘As on the previous days, the Emperor marched at the head of his Grenadiers,’ recalled one of the few cavalrymen left in his escort. ‘The shells which flew over were bursting all round him without his seeming to notice.’ But this heroic day ended on a less solemn note as they reached Ladi late that afternoon. The approach to the town was down a steep icy slope. It was utterly impossible to walk down, so Napoleon, his marshals and his Old Guard had no option but to slide down it on their bottoms.
The Emperor struck a more serious tone the following day at Dubrovna, where he assembled his Guard and addressed the dense ranks of bearskins. ‘Grenadiers of my Guard,’ he thundered, ‘you are witnessing the disintegration of the army; through a deplorable inevitability the majority of the soldiers have cast away their weapons. If you imitate this disastrous example, all hope is lost. The salvation of the army has been entrusted to you, and I know you will justify the good opinion I have of you. Not only must officers maintain strict discipline, but the soldiers too must keep a watchful eye and themselves punish those who would leave the ranks.’ The grenadiers responded by raising their bearskins on their bayonets and cheering.
Mortier made a similar speech to what was left of the Young Guard, which responded with shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ A little further back in the marching order, General Gérard applied more summary methods when a grenadier of the 12th of the Line dropped out of the ranks announcing that he would not fight any more. He rode up to the man, drew his pistol from the saddle holster and, cocking it, announced that he would blow his brains out if he did not return to his place at once. When the soldier refused to obey, the General shot him. He then made a speech, telling the men that they were not garrison troops but soldiers of the great Napoleon, and that consequently much was expected of them. They responded with shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur! Vive le Général Gérard!’
Later on that same day, 19 November, Napoleon reached Orsha, where he hoped to be able to rally the remains of his army. The city was reasonably well stocked with provisions and arms. ‘A few days’ rest and good food, and above all some horses and artillery will soon put us right,’ he had written to Maret from Dubrovna the previous day. He issued a proclamation giving assembly points for each corps, warning that any soldier found in possession of a horse would have it taken away for the use of the artillery, that any excess baggage would be burnt, and that soldiers who had left their units would be punished. He himself took up position at the bridge over the Dnieper leading into the town, ordering excess private vehicles to be burnt and unauthorised soldiers to give up their mounts. He then posted gendarmes there to carry on in his place and to direct incoming men to their respective corps and inform them that they would be fed only if they rejoined the colours.
Watching the men streaming into town can only have heightened Napoleon’s anxiety over Ney, who seemed irretrievably lost. That evening he paced the room he had occupied in the former Jesuit convent, cursing Davout for not having waited for Ney and declaring that he would give every one of the three hundred million francs he had in the vaults of the Tuileries to get the Marshal back. His anxiety was shared by the whole army, which held the brave and forthright Ney in high esteem. ‘His rejoining the army from beyond Krasny seemed impossible, but if there was one man who could achieve the impossible, everyone agreed, it was Ney,’ recorded Caulaincourt. ‘Maps were unfolded, everyone pored over them, pointing out the route by which he would have to march if courage alone could not open the road.’
Ney had been the last to march out of Smolensk, amid harrowing scenes, on the morning of 17 November. He had been ordered by Napoleon to blow up the city fortifications, and his unfortunate aide-de-camp Auguste Breton was given the job of setting the charges and then visiting the hospitals in order to inform the inmates that the French were leaving. ‘Already the wards, the corridors and the stairs were full of the dead and dying,’ he recorded. ‘It was a spectacle of horror whose very memory makes me shudder.’ Dr Larrey had put up large notices in three languages begging for the wounded to be treated with compassion, but neither he nor they had any illusions. Many of them crawled out into the road, begging in the name of humanity to be taken along, terrified at the prospect of being left at the mercy of the cossacks.
Ney’s corps by now numbered some six thousand men under arms, and was followed by at least twice as many stragglers and civilians. He marched along a road strewn with the usual traces of retreat, but beyond Korytnia the following morning he found himself crossing what was patently the scene of a recent battle. And that afternoon, 18 November, he himself came face to face with Miloradovich, who, having failed to capture Prince Eugène and then Davout, was determined not to miss his third chance.
He sent an officer with a flag of truce calling on Ney to surrender, to which the latter answered that a Marshal of France never surrendered. Ney then drew up his forces, opened up with the six guns he had left, and launched a bold frontal assault on the Russian positions. It was carried out with such élan that it nearly succeeded in overrunning the Russian guns barring the way, but the French ranks were raked with canister shot and a countercharge by Russian cavalry and infantry sent them reeling back. Not to be deterred, Ney mounted a second attack, and his columns advanced with remarkable determination under a hail of canister shot. It was ‘a combat of giants’ in the words of General Wilson. ‘Whole ranks fell, only to be replaced by the next ones coming up to die in the same place,’ according to one Russian officer. ‘Bravo, bravo, Messieurs les Français,’ Miloradovich exclaimed to a captured officer. ‘You have just attacked, with astonishing vigour, an entire corps with a handful of men. It is impossible to show greater bravery.’
But before long the French were beaten back once again. Colonel Pelet, who was in the front rank with his 48th of the Line, was wounded three times and saw his regiment decimated. The neighbouring 18th of the Line was reduced from six hundred men to five or six officers and twenty-five or thirty men, and lost its eagle in the attack. Fezensac’s 4th lost two-thirds of its effectives. Woldemar von Löwenstern, who had been watching the proceedings from the Russian positions, galloped back to Kutuzov’s headquarters and announced that Ney would be their prisoner that night.
But this forty-three-year-old son of a barrel-maker from Lorraine was not so easily accounted for. Touchy and headstrong, Ney was furious when he realised that he had been left to fend for himself by Napoleon. ‘That b—has abandoned us; he sacrificed us in order to save himself; what can we do? What will become of us? Everything is f—ked!’ he ranted. But it would take more than that to shake his loyalty to Napoleon. And if he was not the most intelligent of Napoleon’s marshals, he was resourceful and certainly one of the bravest. After some discussion with his generals, he decided to try to give the Russians the slip by crossing the Dnieper, which flowed more or less parallel with the road some distance away, and then making for Orsha along its other bank, thus bypassing Miloradovich and putting the river between himself and the Russians.
While he made a show of settling down for the night, Ney sent a Polish officer to reconnoitre the banks of the Dnieper in search of a place to cross. A place was found, and that night, after having carefully stoked up enough bivouac fires to give the impression that the whole corps was camping there, Ney led the remainder of his force – not much more than a couple of thousand men – off the Smolensk – Orsha road and into the woods to the north of it. It was an exhausting and difficult march, particularly as he was still dragging his last few guns and as many supply wagons as he could through the deep snow. ‘None of us knew what would become of us,’ recalled Raymond de Fezensac. ‘But the presence of Marshal Ney was enough to reassure us. Without knowing what he intended to do or what he was capable of doing, we knew that he would do something. His self-confidence was on a par with his courage. The greater the danger, the stronger his determination, and once he had made his decision he never doubted its successful outcome. Thus it was that at such a moment his face betrayed neither indecision nor anxiety; all eyes were upon him, but nobody dared to question him.’
They soon got lost and disoriented, but Ney spotted a gully which he assumed to be the bed of a stream. Digging through the snow they found ice, and when they broke that they saw from the direction of flow which way they must follow it. They eventually came to the Dnieper, which was covered with a coating of ice thick enough to take the weight of men and horses spaced out, but not to support large groups or cannon drawn by teams of horses.
The men began to cross, leaving spaces between each other, prodding the ice in front with their musket butts as it groaned ominously. ‘We slithered carefully one behind the other, fearful of being engulfed by the ice, which made cracking sounds at every step we took; we were moving between life and death,’ in the words of General Freytag. As they reached the other bank, they came up against a steep and slippery incline. Freytag floundered helplessly until Ney himself saw him and, cutting a sapling with his sabre, stretched out a helping limb and pulled him up.
Some mounted men and then a few light wagons did get across, encouraging others to try but weakening the ice in the process. More wagons ventured onto it, including some carrying wounded men, but these foundered through the ice with sickening cracks. ‘All around one could see unfortunate men who had fallen through the ice with their horses, and were up to their shoulders in the water, begging their comrades for assistance which these could not lend without exposing themselves to sharing their unhappy fate,’ recalled Freytag; ‘their cries and their moans tore at our hearts, which were already strongly affected by our own peril.’
All of the guns and some three hundred men were left behind on the south bank, but Ney had got over with the rest and soon found an unravaged village, well stocked with food, in which they settled down to rest. The following day they set off across country in a westerly direction. It was not long before Platov, who had been following the French retreat along the north bank of the river, located them and began to close in. Ney led his men into a wood, where they formed a kind of fortress into which the cossacks dared not venture. Platov could do no more than shell them with his light field-pieces mounted on sleigh runners, but this produced little effect.
At nightfall, Ney moved off again. They trudged through knee-deep snow, stalked by cossacks who sometimes got a clear enough field of fire to shell them. ‘A sergeant fell beside me, his leg shattered by a carbine shot,’ wrote Fezensac. ‘“I’m a lost man, take my knapsack, you might find it useful,” he cried. Someone took his knapsack and we moved off in silence.’ Even the bravest began to talk of giving up, but Ney kept them going. ‘Those who get through this will show they have their b—s hung by steel wire!’ he announced at one stage.
Unsure of his bearings, Ney sent a Polish officer ahead. The man eventually stumbled on pickets of Prince Eugène’s corps outside Orsha, and as soon as he was informed of Ney’s approach, Prince Eugène himself sallied forth to meet him. Eventually, Ney’s force, now not much more than a thousand men in the final stages of exhaustion as they stumbled through the night, heard the welcome shout of ‘Qui vive?’, to which they roared back: ‘France!’ Moments later Ney and Prince Eugène fell into each other’s arms, and their men embraced each other with joy and relief.
Had Napoleon known what was going on in Kutuzov’s mind, he could have advanced boldly and made for Medyn, where he would have found victuals and forage, and from there to Yelnia, where he had a division under General Baraguay d’Hilliers waiting to meet him, and on to Smolensk, which he would have reached in fairly good shape on 3 or 4 November. But taking into account the strong positions the Russians had taken up, he decided otherwise. That evening, he ordered the retreat, through Borovsk and Vereia to Mozhaisk, and from there along the main road to Smolensk. In one of the more bizarre episodes in military history, the two armies were now moving away from each other.
Two days later, as he reached Mozhaisk, Napoleon met Mortier coming from Moscow with the Young Guard. He also had with him two prisoners, General Ferdinand von Wintzingerode and his aide-de-camp Prince Lev Naryshkin, who had unwisely ridden into Moscow to verify reports that the French had left, only to be captured by a patrol. On seeing Wintzingerode, a native of Württemberg in Russian service who seemed at that moment to epitomise the internationale that was forming against him, Napoleon erupted into a violent rage, the like of which none of his entourage had ever witnessed. ‘It is you and a few dozen rogues who have sold themselves to England who are whipping up Europe against me,’ he ranted. ‘I don’t know why I don’t have you shot; you were captured as a spy.’ He took out all his frustration and mortification on the unfortunate General, accusing him of being a renegade. ‘You are my personal enemy: you have borne arms against me everywhere – in Austria, in Prussia, in Russia. I shall have you court martialled.’
Even this tirade did not succeed in venting all his pent-up anger, and on seeing a pretty country house that had somehow escaped destruction, Napoleon ordered it to be torched, along with every village they passed through. ‘Since Messieurs les Barbares are so keen on burning their own towns, we must help them,’ he raged. He soon countermanded the order, but that hardly made much difference. As they stopped for the night the troops would dismantle houses to feed their campfires or crowd into them for warmth. They would light fires inside or overheat the mud stoves, which often led to them catching fire, and in villages or small towns in which every building was of wood, this usually led to a general conflagration.
The order to retreat had a depressing effect on the army, which instinctively felt that something had gone wrong with the infallible Emperor’s calculations. But, ironically, it was when they began to feel threatened that the troops rallied to him and took comfort in his perceived greatness. On the day the retreat began, General Dedem de Gelder reported to the Emperor for orders. ‘Napoleon was warming his hands behind his back at a small bivouac fire which had been laid for him on the edge of a village one league beyond Borovsk on the road to Vereia,’ he recalled. The General disliked Napoleon, partly because of the way he had treated his native Holland, but he could not help being impressed by him now. ‘I have to do justice to this man hitherto so spoilt by fortune, who had never yet known serious setbacks; he was calm, without anger, but without resignation; I believed he would be great in adversity, and that idea reconciled me to him … I saw then the man who contemplates disaster and recognises all the difficulties of his position, but whose soul is in no way crushed and who says to himself: “This is a failure, I have to quit, but I shall be back.”’
The spirits of the army were further lowered when, shortly after rejoining the Moscow – Smolensk road at Mozhaisk on 28 October, they found themselves marching across the battlefield of Borodino. It had never been cleared, and the dead had been left where they lay, to be pecked at and chewed by carrion crows, wolves, feral dogs and other creatures. The corpses were nevertheless surprisingly well preserved, presumably by the nightly frosts. ‘Many of them had kept what one might call a physiognomy,’ recorded Adrien de Mailly. ‘Almost all of them had large open staring eyes, their beards seemed to have grown, and the brick-red and Prussian blue which marbled their cheeks made them look as though they had been horribly sullied or luridly daubed, which made one wonder if this were not some grotesque travesty making fun of misery and death – it was odious!’ The stink was indescribable, and the sight cast a pall over the passing troops.
At Mozhaisk and at Kolotskoie they saw thousands of emaciated wounded, barely surviving in dreadful conditions. Colonel de Fezensac went into the Kolotsky monastery to see if there were any men from his regiment. ‘They had left the men there without medicines, without rations, without any form of succour,’ he wrote. ‘I was barely able to get in, so encumbered were the stairs, corridors and the middle of the rooms with ordure of every kind.’
Napoleon was annoyed to find so many wounded still there, and grandly determined that they should all be taken along. Against the advice of Larrey and other doctors, who had left medical teams to care for them, he gave instructions for them to be placed in carriages, on fourgons, on the wagons of the cantinières, gun carriages and every other possible conveyance. The result was predictable. ‘The healthiest people would not have stood up to such a method of transport, or been able to remain for long on the vehicles, given the way they had been loaded on,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘One can therefore judge the state these unfortunates were in after a few leagues. The jolting, the exertion and the cold all assailed them at the same time. I have never seen a more heart-rending sight.’ The owners of the carriages in question were far from happy to have extra weight laid on vehicles which their horses could barely draw as it was, and faced with trepidation the prospect of having to feed their new charges. Realising that they were unlikely to survive anyway, they mostly decided to precipitate the inevitable. ‘I still shudder as I relate that I saw drivers purposely drive their horses across the roughest ground in order to rid themselves of the unfortunates with whom they had been saddled and smile, as one would at a piece of luck, when a jolt would rid them of one of these unfortunates, whom they knew would be crushed under a wheel if a horse did not step on him first.’
After giving the orders for the evacuation of the wounded on the afternoon of 28 October, Napoleon rode on to Uspenskoie, where he stopped for the night in a devastated country house. But he could not sleep. At two o’clock in the morning he called Caulaincourt to his bedside and asked him what he thought of the situation. Caulaincourt replied that it was much graver than Napoleon thought, and that it was unlikely that he would be able to take up winter quarters at Smolensk, Vitebsk or Orsha, as he still hoped. Napoleon then said that it might be necessary for him to leave the army and go to Paris, and asked him what he thought of such a plan and what he thought the army would make of it. Caulaincourt replied that going back to Paris was the best course of action, though he would have to choose his moment well, and that what the army thought was of no consequence.
Napoleon’s position was indeed very bad. Ten days after leaving Moscow, he was only three days’ march down the Smolensk road. This not only represented a dangerous delay, it also meant that his army had used up ten days’ rations. At the rate it was now moving, Smolensk was still over ten days’ march away, and the only sustenance to be found before that was a small magazine at Viazma. And, with no intelligence and not enough cavalry to send out scouting parties, Napoleon had no idea of what the Russians were up to.
When Volkonsky had reached St Petersburg and handed Alexander the letter Napoleon had sent through Lauriston, the Tsar had hardly bothered to read it. ‘Peace?’ he said. ‘But as yet we have not made war. My campaign is only just beginning.’ In fact it would be some time before it began.
It was only after a couple of days’ hurried retreat that Kutuzov turned about and began gingerly to follow the retiring French. He sent Miloradovich on ahead, and himself followed at a more leisurely pace. Having marched north to Mozhaisk, the French were now marching west along the Moscow road in a wide arc that curved southwards. Kutuzov was therefore excellently placed to cut across their line of retreat. But while he could not resist writing to his wife that he was the first general who had ever made Napoleon run, he made no attempt to intercept him.
The only enemy the French saw were cossacks, who followed them at a respectful distance, like hyenas stalking a wounded animal. The regular cossack regiments they had met hitherto were now outnumbered by irregulars from the Don and the Kuban. ‘Dressed and hatted in a variety of styles, without any appearance of uniformity, dirty-looking and scruffy, mounted on mean raw-boned little horses with unkempt manes which kept their necks stuck out and hung their heads, harnessed with no more than a simple snaffle, armed with a crude long pole with a sort of nail at its point, milling around in apparent disorder, these cossacks made me think of teeming vermin,’ remembered François Dumonceau. The cossacks were supplemented by bands of Bashkir horsemen armed with bows, who amazed the French by firing arrows at them.
These wild horsemen were of no military value in themselves. Their principal tactic was to rush forward yelling ‘Hurrah!’, hoping to terrify the enemy into flight, at which point they would catch a few fugitives and pick through whatever booty the others had left behind. If a soldier stood his ground and levelled a musket at them they would invariably run, but he was wise not to fire it, as they would return and get him while he was reloading. The cossack pike had a thin round point which could only prick and not sever tendons or muscles, so unless it found a vital organ its wound was not serious.
On the advance, the French had ignored the cossacks, making fun of their shameless unwillingness to expose themselves to the slightest danger. ‘If one were to raise a regiment of French girls they would, I believe, show more courage than these famous cossacks with their long pikes and their long beards,’ commented one soldier. But in the conditions of a retreat, and in the absence of adequate numbers of cavalry on the French side, they were to exert an influence quite beyond their potential. ‘The French soldier is easily demoralised,’ remarked Lieutenant Blaze de Bury. ‘Four Hussars on his flank terrify him more than a thousand in front.’
On 2 November Marshal Lefèbvre harangued the Old Guard on the subject with his usual directness. ‘Grenadiers and Chasseurs, the cossacks are there, there, there and there,’ he said, gesturing to the four points of the compass. ‘If you do not follow me, you are f—d. I am no ordinary general, and it is with good reason that in the army of the Moselle I was known as the Eternal Father. Grenadiers and Chasseurs, I say to you again: if you do not stay with me you are f—d. And anyway, I don’t care a f—k. You can all go and f—k yourselves.’ The Guard did not disappoint, and the ranks remained steady throughout; but the same could not be said of other troops. Once morale began to crack on the retreat, an irrational fear took over, and the mere shout of ‘Cossacks!’ would send old soldiers scurrying for cover.
The French were retreating in echelons, with Napoleon leading the way accompanied by the Old Guard, the Young Guard, the remains of Murat’s cavalry and Junot’s corps, and reaching Viazma on 31 October. Next came Ney, followed by Prince Eugène’s Italians and what was left of Poniatowski’s Poles. Bringing up the rear was Davout with his 1st Corps.
Progress was slow, mainly due to lack of horsepower. Shortage of fodder had debilitated the horses, which were growing too weak to pull the guns and caissons. Guns normally drawn by three pairs were now having teams of twelve or fifteen horses hitched to them, and even these could not manage to pull the heavy pieces over the muddy rivulets and up the many inclines in the road. Passing infantry would be enlisted to help push the guns, but the exhausted footsloggers did not relish this task and did everything to avoid it. Powder wagons were blown up and surplus shells jettisoned to lighten the load. The private carriages and booty-laden wagons of individuals were seized and burnt by the artillery, who commandeered the horses. At Gzhatsk on 30 October Henri-Joseph Paixhans, an aide-de-camp to General Lariboisière, passed a column of wagons laden with wounded men whose horses had been taken. ‘These poor unfortunates implored our pity with their hands joined in prayer,’ he recalled. ‘They called out to us in heart-rending tones that they too were Frenchmen, that they had been wounded fighting at our side, and they begged us tearfully not to abandon them.’
Part of the problem was that Napoleon saw himself as carrying out a tactical withdrawal rather than a retreat. Several of the corps commanders wanted to abandon a proportion of their guns, which were of no use to them. This would have liberated horses with which to draw the rest and saved much time, but Napoleon would not hear of it, maintaining that the Russians would claim the abandoned guns as trophies. This determination not to lose face would cost him dear.
Along with other unnecessary impedimenta, the French had with them some three thousand Russian prisoners. Even though their presence cost nothing in terms of supplies – the unfortunate wretches were given no food at all, so they fed off the dead horses they found by the wayside and ended up, by some accounts, eating their own dead – they were an aggravating encumbrance to the Portuguese infantry detailed to escort them, and took up valuable space on the road. And space was at a premium.
A major drawback of retreating in echelons down the same road, as Napoleon had elected to do, was that only the leading unit had a clear field of march, while all the others had to move through the mess left behind by the preceding ones. Their path was laboured by tens of thousands of feet, hooves and wheels – into a stormy sea of mud if it was wet, and into a skating rink of compacted snow and ice when it began snowing. Such supplies as there might have been along the way were devoured, and even the available shelter was dismantled for firewood by those who had gone before. The road was littered with abandoned carriages and wagons, dead horses and jettisoned baggage; and, worst of all, the following columns kept coming up against a slow-moving mass of traffic.
Apart from the tens of thousands of civilians following the army there were commissaires and other functionaries attached to it, and officers’ servants. They were mixed up in a throng of booty-laden deserters, some on foot, some in wagons; cantinières with their laden vehicles; and wounded officers travelling in carriages, tended by their servants. There were also some lightly wounded from the transports which had left Moscow in the days before the evacuation who were caught up and eventually overtaken by the retreating army. Their numbers were swelled daily by those wounded in the fighting along the way.
There were a large number of soldiers who had fallen behind and become separated from their units, which they sought, and occasionally managed, to rejoin. But it was difficult for them to catch up, as they had to push their way through a compact mass of people, horses and vehicles. There were others who, having fallen behind, threw away their weapons and were absorbed into the mass of stragglers, demoralised and guided more and more by herd instinct.
This swelling throng of people moved along the same road as the army, using up whatever resources were left and cluttering its path. It encumbered the approaches to every bridge and defile, as the absence of discipline coupled with a desperation verging on panic invariably produced chaos at such places. ‘Men, horses and vehicles would press forward pell-mell, pushing and shoving without any mutual consideration,’ wrote Dumonceau. ‘Woe betide those who allowed themselves to be knocked over! They could not get up, were trodden underfoot and caused others to trip and fall on top of them. In this manner mounds of men and horses, dead and dying, gradually piled up, blocking the way. But the crowd kept coming, banking up and cluttering the approaches to the obstacle. Impatience and anger would come into play. People quarrelled, pushed each other away, knocked each other over, and then one could hear the cries of the unfortunates who, knocked over, trampled, were caught and crushed beneath the wheels of carriages or other vehicles.’ And if a cry of ‘Cossacks!’ went up, the ensuing panic would multiply the number of those crushed to death.
As well as slowing their progress, all this had a demoralising effect on the following troops, who marched down a devastated road and saw only abandoned equipment, human and equine corpses, and men who had thrown away their weapons. The situation was worst for the rearguard, which not only had to march over a veritable obstacle course, but also to roll before it a snowballing mass of stragglers who impeded its movements and even impaired its ability to fight. Colonel Raymond de Fezensac, who found himself in the rearguard with his 4th of the Line between Viazma and Smolensk, would have his bivouacs crowded by cadging or thieving stragglers, who refused to make use of the night to move ahead but would try to march with his force when it set off in the morning. He would chase them off with rifle butts and warn them that he would not let them take refuge inside his squares if he was attacked. But still they hung about his regiment, getting in his way and making it easier for his men to desert.
The constant sight of disbanded men thinking only of themselves weakened the resolve of those who were still trying to do their duty. ‘The soldier who remained with the colours found himself in the role of a booby,’ explained Stendhal. ‘And as that is something the Frenchman abhors above all, there were soon only soldiers of heroic character and simpletons left under arms.’