As in late autumn of 1812 the snows of Russia disgorged the remnants of his once magnificent army, Napoleon, with only General Caulaincourt and Rustum, his faithful Mameluke servant, left his broken regiments and took sledge and coach for Paris. He knew only too well that the Royalists and Republicans in Paris were honing their blades, ready to stab him in the back. Already an eccentric general called Malet had staged an abortive coup.
On 18 December 1812 Napoleon alighted from his coach and strode into the Tuileries while the Guards changed into their salutes. He seemed almost unaffected by the Russian catastrophe, one that would have crushed most other commanders. From an army of half a million disciplined soldiers- numbers that the Western world had never seen before- only some 85,000 demoralized men had managed to stagger out of Russia. Napoleon, however, believed it to have been the forces of nature, hunger, and famine that had defeated him, not the Russians. And indeed at the Battle of Borodino, the great battle of the campaign, the Russians had conceded him victory and abandoned Moscow. Nevertheless he had lost about 400,000.[this is an all together figure, not merely this battle] It had been a reserve of tremendous proportions; the Napoleonic myth of invincibility had been badly mauled.
But in December 1812 the situation looked far from hopeless. Many Russians, including their celebrated commander-in Chief, Field-Marshal Kutuzov, saw no good reason to pursue the war beyond their frontiers; Frederick William III of Prussia had no desire to sample once again the perils of armed conflict with the French; many Italians thought of Napoleon as a liberator from Austrian thralldom, and the King of Saxony regarded him as savior from the sinister attentions of Prussia. The Emperor Francis I of Austria, Napoleon’s father-in-law, considered that the aggressive intentions of Russia and Prussia might threaten him more than the French; to the Poles, ambiguous as his actions might be, he enshrined their one great hope of freedom. Had Napoleon agreed at this stage to withdraw to the natural borders of France-the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees- the war would have ended.
The Emperor, however, could not bring himself to abandon either his feud with Britain or his empire, still large enough to rival that of Charlemagne. His faith in his ‘star’ remained unshaken. France had remained loyal. Austria would surely stay neutral. He saw no good reason why he should not dictate a triumphant peace on the banks of the river Neman that would wipe out all recollection of his Russian debacle. Possibly a little trading in territorial advantages would be judicious. Austria might be restored some territory. The Tyrol might be bandied about between Austria and Bavaria, ensuring their mutual hostility. Europe hide surely been riven by to many ancient feuds to unite against him.
With amazing resilience Napoleon shrugged of the memories of Russia, and set about organizing anew Grande Armée. By the spring of 1813 he proposed to take the field with 600,000 men. Perhaps it would be enough for this great force to do nothing more than how itself to the rest of Europe. This, however, was not to be. The Tsar Alexander I, a chivalrous idealistic, but somewhat wayward young ruler, was determined to avenge the burning of Moscow. What was more, a strange new spirit, a sense of national identity, seemed abroad in Germany. General Yorck, commanding the Prussian contingent in the Grande Armée, a force of about 18,000 strong, contrived to get himself cut off by the Russians. On 30 December 1812 he concluded the Convention of Tauroggen, binding his men from carrying out any hostile act against the Russians until 1 March 1813.
When he left Russia, Napoleon had handed over the command of the army to Murat; but the Gascon, caring little for his duties, had passed them on to Prince Eugéne Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson and Viceroy of Italy, while he departed without orders for his kingship of Naples. Prince Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrians in the Grande Armée, viewed these changes with some distain; ’We had been transferred from the Emperor to the King; now we are down to the Viceroy.’ Soon after assuming his new role, Prince Eugéne ordered Schwarzenberg to take up positions on the Vistula, whereupon Schwarzenberg quietly disappeared with his troops into the Austria Empire. It perhaps was a measure of France’s weakness at that time that no immediate breach followed with Austria. Prince Mitternich, the effective political ruler of Austria, remained free to wait on events.
Other who did not at this juncture know which way to turn were Bavaria and Saxony. The former knew perfectly well that Austria was bound totry and recover the Tyrol, which Napoleon had given to Bavaria as a reward for support in the Campaign of 1809. Fear of Napoleon was also a strong motive in keeping a Bavarian contingent with the French Army. More over Count Maximilian von Montegelas, the Bavarian Minster deeply distrusted the Prussians.
Saxony, too, was torn by doubts, King Frederick Augustus I was well aware of Prussian hostility. Bewildered the king too refuge at Ratisbon, ordering General Thielmann to keep the Saxon Army out of the way at the fortress of Torgau on the Elbe. Eventually, overriding his people, who favoured the cause of liberation from France, the King of Saxony threw his lot with Napoleon. So did a dozen other German states, belonging to Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. The Scandinavian powers were divided; the Danes supported Napoleon and the Swedes sent a contingent to join the allies.
It was to be the Tsar, though, who took the decisive steps. He dispensed with the services of the ailing Kutuzov (he died shortly after) and appointed Count Wittgenstein Commander-in-Chief of the Russians. It was curious appointment, for without having distinguished himself in an outstanding fashion Wittgenstein thus superseded several generals senior to him, men such as Barclay de Tolly, Count Langeron, and Milhailovich. At the same time the Tsar intended to keep the reins of power in his own hands when hostilities were resumed.
Soon the Russians began to advance and Prince Eugéne fell back before them. He could not do little else. He abandoned the line of the Oder, leaving behind garrisons at Danzig, Thorn, and Modlin near Warsaw-all on the Vistula- and at Settin. Kustrin and Glogau on the Oder, they were at once blockaded. The Russians surged up to the Elbe, and Cossacks entered Hamburg. Now, as the snows melted and massive new armies emerged from France, it was clear that the decisive battle had yet to be fought.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE:NAPOLEON: The last Campaigns 1813-15
BY: James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins