Sunday, September 16, 2012
Bonaparte Book 14. The Coldest Winter
“Man is but a shadow of his dreams”…Hannibal
The violation of the Continental System was something that Napoleon could not tolerate. Since his defeat at the hands of Nelson (now dead) in the Battle of Trafalgar, economic victory was the only way he could hope to cower Britain, and now his “allies” Russia was ruining his dream. When he confronted Tsar Alexander of Russia about this, the latter simply asserted his sovereignty while claiming that no man could have true monopoly over the world trade. Such was the anger of Napoleon that the Emperor vowed to make the tsar pay for the transgression to his face. The friendship between France and Russia had come to an end.
Soon, Napoleon recreated the French Royal Army, and it was to invade Russia with all French and allied soldiers. Basically, Russia would now face the wrought of almost all of Europe, which was under Napoleon’s command. Those who were not, Napoleon could hire. Such was his power and wealth. Even the Spanish, who had just overthrown his brothers, sent in their mercenaries. Ironically, the leader of the Spanish mercenaries was the patriotic viceroy Jeminez!
The Austrians too, now bound to Napoleon by his marriage to Marie Louise, sent its army led by Archduke Charles Louis John, his former nemesis and now brother-in-law. The second-in-command of the Austrian army was Karl Mack. The Prussians did not aid him, but most of the German states did. The leader was none other than Napoleon’s brother Jerome. Even the Belgians and Dutch, who were traditional enemies of France, hired out their mercenaries to Emperor Napoleon in this battle, for not all Dutch and Belgians were in favor of Wellington. Some remained loyal to Napoleon’s brother, Louis, who was an able ruler.
Then, there were the Neapolitans led by King Murat himself, and the Swedes led by the untrustworthy Bernadotte, who likewise owed his throne to Napoleon. Finally, a large number of grateful Poles led by Count Walewska, husband of Marie Walewska (once Napoleon’s lover) also came to his aid. All in all, the great army assembled that day was the greatest army in European history, comprising of more than 200,000 men. Russia was indeed doomed.
In that battle, I served as artillery commander to Marshal Ney, while Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, now grown strong and handsome and who was my protégé, would serve as artillery commander to Marshal Messina. Marshal Berthier was put in charge of overall logistics. King Louis of Holland was assigned to the task of protecting the motherland in Napoleon’s absence.
It was a splendid sight to behold, as Napoleon made this speech.
“Men of France, allies in the brotherhood of Europe. My only enemy, in truth, is Brittania, but Russia, a nation which swore friendship to me, has betrayed the Continental System which we hold dear. Britain and Russia stand alone against all that France and our glorious alliance holds there, so march with me, my friends, and put the serfdom and madness of the rash Tsar Alexander behind us.”
The French and allies cheered Napoleon wholeheartedly. We were set forth to conquer the largest nation in the world. It is said that the Russian empire stretched all the way from the cold north to the borders of China. Berthier once said it could not be conquered. When he joked that France should invade China, Napoleon himself looked shocked and said, “China is like the Sleeping Dragon! We must not awake it.” Russia too was the lumbering bear, but it was a risk Napoleon was willing to take. Now, he would take the war directly to Russia’s doorsteps.
And so, all of Europe followed Napoleon’s lead and marched against Tsar Alexander of Russia that year. It was a magnificent sight. The Russians sent Prince Mikhail, one of Alexander’s cousins against Napoleon, at Kosovo. Technically, this was in the Illyrian Provinces, one of the French territories. The Russians wanted to show that they had the initiative, but it was sheer madness for Mikhail had with him only 20,000 soldiers but France and our noble allies had ten times that amount.
Prince Mikhail’s army fought like lions, but before the more disciplined French Royal Army led by Napoleon, they were more like kittens caught in a bear trap. The combined firepower of our allies gunned down the Russians led a flock of dying swans. Soon, Kosovo was back in French control with Mikhail fleeing.
But the Prince was a brave man, that much I grant him. He decided to make another stand against France in the Battle of Borodino even though his cousin, the Tsar, had not yet come to his aid.
With less than half his man, Mikhail fought hard, for Borodino was part of his homeland, and he did not want to lose it. But Russia was no match for France. In the final moments, Joachim Murat, king of Naples, led the cavalry through the Russian lines and cut down Mikhail himself. Charles Louis John also led the butchering of many a Russian braves. The Austrian Archduke was an adversary Napoleon had always respected, but now they were brother-in-laws and allies, and one that Napoleon would value indeed.
With two victories behind us, it was clear that France would of course be victorious. However, Tsar Alexander refused to give combat to us. We met the main Russian army only once, and defeated them quite easily. After that, it seemed they kept melting away as we advanced. However, once in a while, a small group of Russians and Cossacks would appear out of nowhere and attack us. They did little harm to the French Royal Army physically, but it was demoralizing. The attacks would often come at night to isolated French groups, and rumors spread that they were ghosts. Napoleon, despite his charisma, could not quash the rumors. Such was the way men’s minds wandered.
Finally, we marched over the hills of Ukraine and into the heart of Moscow itself. It was said that all power of the Tsar resided in this capital city. In fact, many centuries ago, a Tsar far greater than Alexander known as Ivan the Terrible hath founded Russia from this single principality. Surely, by conquering Moscow, victory would be guaranteed upon us. Surprisingly again, Tsar Alexander did not give a good fight. After being easily defeated, he retreated from Moscow itself.
Napoleon was now in possession of the Jewel of Mother Russia! As he inspected the armory, however, fire burst out. Soon, all of Moscow was in flames! Now, the Emperor could see through the wisdom of Alexander. He did not want to waste too many of his men fighting the invincible French, but there were no food supplies for our immense army outside Moscow. The Russians had destroyed most of the field in between. It was Alexander’s intentions to starve France and it allies.
As food prices rose steeply and yet there were still nothing to be found, Napoleon did the unthinkable. He ordered a retreat. When our allies heard this, one by one they deserted France and returned to their own countries. Archduke Charles was the first to come up and confront Napoleon, “This is not our war. I will not let my men starve for the cause of France, my brother Emperor.”
Napoleon nodded in understanding. Their brotherhood was over. Next was the Spanish commander Jeminez, who said, “We were enemies once and shall remain so.” I was so angry, for the French losses in the Peninsular War was steep indeed, and I would have attacked Jeminez had Napoleon not ordered me to stop.
Then, there was Bernadotte, whom we all despised. He deserted us and returned to Sweden without saying a word. Napoleon mused about Bernadotte to his brother-in-law Murat, “I wonder if the Swedish crown would be his today had it not been for French soldiers.”
But Murat only looked at the white ground that stretched to eternity and replied, “I am sorry, Emperor. I too must return to Naples.” And this hurt Napoleon above all other betrayals, but he realized that with food supplies so low and his hopes of winning next to nothing, it was best for Murat to go. Lannes and Jerome, Napoleon’s brother, were angry at Murat calling him a traitor.
Once again, Napoleon stopped them and said, “Lannes, you will respect his dignity, for Murat is now a king and not your equal. Go Murat, before the peace be broken amongst us, brothers.”
And so, the conquering France marched back as losers, and the snow seemed to stretch forever. I wept for our defeat, but the tears quickly turned to ice. Such was the numbing cold of Russia that some men would lose their ears and fingers. The coats we wore had tin buttons, and many would crack in this ungodly cold. One day, Prince Eugene would drop into the snow, too weak from the cold to march further.
Though Eugene was not Napoleon’s son, the Emperor loved him as such. Napoleon II was too young to have spoken to his father in like manner, but Napoleon did not want to show weakness. It was I who picked up Prince Eugene, for I knew he was dying. But Napoleon’s heart was stronger than iron, and he refused to keep Eugene’s body, for he said other men died and were left behind. That day, I cursed the Great Man, for there was little else I could do.
Not long after the death of Eugene, we heard of the great betrayal. For the Austrians had returned this time under the command of Karl Mack, but they were not here to help us. They had allied themselves with Prussia and were marching to finish off the cream of France, now crippled by the cold. They had also informed Alexander, who even then was leading the Russians in pursuit of France.
Napoleon decided to make a stand against his enemies at the Battle of Dresden. Napoleon realized that his men were in bad shape, but he was determined to win. So he inspired them with these words.
“Men of France, Long have we come from Bourbon rule. Many wars have we fought against the monarchs of Europe and won, but if we lose today, then all our hopes and dreams come to nothing. You know I do not drink while France thirsts. I do not bury my own son (Eugene) when you leave yours in the snow. Yet, Bernadotte and two of my brother-in-laws (Murat and Archduke Charles) betray me. Will you turn your backs on me too or will you fight for France but once more?”
The fearless Marshal Lannes was first to shout “We fight for France!”, and Jerome followed suit. And so in this manner, we went against the great armies. Alexander and Frederick (king of Prussia) were probably expecting France to cower in the defeat, starvation, and cold, but this was not the case. We fought with our hearts. That day, Lannes and Desauix fought like lions. Jerome was injured, and I rescued him myself. Dispirited by the sudden surge of French strength, the allies retreated. For a moment, Dresden was ours. We had marched through much of Germany, and I dreamed of returning to the hot baths of Paris.
As the red blood of France and our enemies colored the immense white snow, I realized it was the coldest winter I had ever experienced. Yet, Emperor Napoleon looked at me and Lannes with a pained smile. “One more march, lads, and we reach Liepzig. Surely, the borders of France are not beyond our reach.”
Perhaps, it was a trick of the sun, but through that veil of snow, I thought I saw tears in the Emperor’s eyes, but I said nothing of it, and then we marched forward to Leipzig and France.
The irony of the situation was not lost upon me. Napoleon Bonaparte, the Little Corporal, had fought his way up to greatness like no man in the history of France to become master of Europe, and yet today, at the height of his power, all we were trying to achieve was the return to Paris. We had beaten the Russians tens of times, but no man could fight the Russian winter. And it was as though Providence decided to work against us, men who were keen to determine our own fates rather than leave it in the hands of the gods.