Alone, already so alone (introduction to Volume XIII of the Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte)

Author(s) : BRANDA Pierre
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This is the English translation of Pierre Branda’s introduction to Volume XIII of the Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte.


Alone, already so alone (introduction to Volume XIII of the Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte)
Correspondance générale de Napoléon Bonaparte. Tome XIII © Fayard, 2016

The surroundings of the palace seemed deserted. Soon the Tuileries lamps would be lit grandly for the last time, while the sentries came and went in silence. The night of 18 to 19 December 1812 was cold and dreary, so like any other, when suddenly, a carriage disturbed the serenity. Under the eyes of stunned grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, it raced under the Carrousel triumphal arch, an honour only reserved for the Emperor. Who would possible dare to do this? Nobody, however, rushed to stop him. In the sedan, was heard the murmur: “That’s a good omen.” Arriving at the palace gates, the driver reined in the horses disturbed by their mad dash in the capital. The duty guards in the Pavillion de l’Horloge approached the carriage window. So as to be recognized, a passenger unbuttoned his battered greatcoat. Seeing the embroideries on the uniform, the chief gave the order to open the heavy gates leading to the garden. Probably a bearer of despatches, he thought. The carriage then drove slowly up to a back door leading to the Empress’s apartments on the ground floor of the imposing palace. When he saw these special night visitors, a barely awake footman marched out to meet them, very surprised they had not gone to the great hall. In the flickering light of his torch, the valet was struggling to recognize the first guest, dusty as he was and sporting a fifteen-day beard. The one following him, with his fur hat was also unrecognisable. The man with the dishevelled hair then declaimed his identity: “I am the Grand Ecuyer Caulaincourt.” Taken aback, the valet who did not believe a word ran to call his wife to help identify these singular visitors. He had to be exceedingly careful. The month of October had seen a conspiracy by General Malet almost overthrow the regime. “It was not without difficulty and not without having well rubbed his eyes, that the servant and his wife, holding a light under my nose, recognized me” later remarked the Grand Officier [Caulaincourt, Mémoires, Paris, Plon, 1933, t. II, p. 350]. In a small procession, they all then went to the sovereign’s antechambers. And as they walked through the rooms, the domestics finishing their service scanned the face of the Ecuyer’s mysterious companion. Then they recognized him. Immediately a cry rang out in the palace: “It is the Emperor.” Immediately the atmosphere was transformed. Everyone was suddenly excited. The Empress who had just retired was roused by the sudden effervescence. Napoleon’s plan had failed. Returning incognito and in silence, he had hoped to surprise his wife in bed, plagued as she was by anxiety since she had learned the disasters of the Grand Army in far-off Russia. This was a touching and remarkable act by a man who had just escaped from a snowy hell. Accompanied by a joyous tumult, the serving women let Caulaincourt and then the Emperor enter the sovereign’s apartments. In the recess of the chamber of Marie Louise, Napoleon dismissed his Grand Ecuyer: “Good Night, Caulaincourt. You too need rest”. [Ibid, p. 351] He himself had little time to regain strength. He had an empire to save and an army to rebuild.

The scale of the problem looked appalling, and yet the Emperor rose to the challenge. Via this volume of the correspondence devoted to the first half of 1813, we are let into the “heart of secrecy”. [Napoléon et ses hommes-La Maison de l’empereur, Paris, Fayard, 2011, pp. 174-181.] Alongside his secretary Baron Fain, we witness his prodigious efforts of reconstruction. His sharp words reflect his incredible energy. In both his private and official correspondence, the emperor is almost always an open book, barely masking his emotions. It is the man that appears to us here, in all the nakedness of his feelings and sometimes in the naivety of his hopes. He had never before dictated so many letters, repeating, insisting, scrutinizing every detail and seeming more determined than ever. It is true that the cracks in the Empire could not be ignored, but he did not seem to falter; it was as if the bad news could not shake him. Indeed, it seemed to galvanize him. He was in fact so confident that in the first days of January, he hid nothing of what had happened to his army. Even today, it is difficult to put an accurate figure on the losses during the terrible Russian campaign, but it was probably in the region of 600,000 men. In a recent study, Jean-François Brun reported a terrible statistic: only 4% of soldiers of the line came back unharmed from the terrible campaign. [Jean-François Brun, L’économie militaire impériale à l’épreuve de la VIe coalition, PhD thesis under the direction of Poitrineau, Université Blaise Pascal (Clermont Ferrand), 1992, p. 34 and after] The word “debris” is often used to describe the remains of the Grand Army, and here it takes on its full meaning. Debris. Only 12,000 men, clinging to anything available, rivers, large cities or fortresses, in their attempts to stem the Russian torrent. With his allies, the emperor apparently opted for openness, as evidenced by his letter to King Frederick VI of Denmark: “On 7 November, the cold became excessive; all the roads proved impassable; 30,000 of our horses perished between the 7th and the 16th. Some of our baggage and artillery train were broken and abandoned; our soldiers, unaccustomed to guarding against the cold, could not endure a cold varying between 18 and 27 degrees. They left their ranks to seek shelter at night and, since they had no cavalry to protect them, many thousands fell successively into the hands of light troops of the enemy. […] My losses are significant, but the enemy cannot take the credit. My army has suffered and is still suffering; this calamity will cease with the cold “[À Frédéric VI, n° 32212]. Reading between the lines, the emotion is palpable. The portrayal is almost moving, and the Emperor was probably still a little shaken by what he had been through. But that being said, in his writing there was always an element of calculation, whether political or diplomatic. Reading Napoleon, you would think he had been defeated by a single enemy: the cold. And following this logic, once spring arrived, his military supremacy could not but re-emerge. And as for the Tsar of all the Russias and his hordes of Cossacks, they counted for little in the tragic, indeed appalling, events that his army had just endured. The reality was, we know different. In truth, the French Emperor had been defeated by a better strategy and by a more effective organisation, day by day, of the Russian enemy, as shown by very recent studies. [See in paticular Marie-Pierre Rey, L’effroyable tragédie, Paris, Flammarion, 2012 and Dominic Lieven, La Russie contre Napoléon-La bataille pour l’Europe (1807-1814), Paris, Edition de Syrtes, 2012.] Even more worryingly, at the end of the campaign, Czar Alexander’s reserves in both men and horses appeared infinitely superior to those of the French Emperor.

On 18 January, Napoleon wrote to his brother Jerome: “Your Majesty, I’m sure, can appreciate that Russian bulletins spread falsehoods, should they be brought to your attention. There was not a single encounter in which the Russians took even one cannon or one eagle; the only prisoners they have taken in a formal encounter have been sharp shooters, and you always take a certain number of these, even when you lose. My Guard was never engaged; it has not lost a single man in action, so she could not have lost eagles, as the Russian bulletins assert”.[To Jérôme, Correspondance générale, n° 32332.]. In the same vein, whilst the famous XXIXth bulletin of the Grande Armée revealed to the French nation the appalling reality, it concluded on this note: “The health of His Majesty has never been better”. It was as if the loss of a whole army was of little importance as long as the captain had survived: “Families, dry your tears: Napoleon is doing well” snickered Chateaubriand. [Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-tombe, Paris, Gallimard, 1951, t. I, p. 832.] But the subtext of the remark was that the man Clausewitz nicknamed the “God of War” was in excellent shape and therefore ready both to regain control of his destiny and to repair the ravages that in the end had only been inflicted by “General Winter”. In the first days of January, Napoleon had first therefore to calm any disquiet. He did it by replacing the traditional New Year’s greetings with a series of reassuring messages. To hear him, you would think (with the exception of the Russian accident) his power had barely been touched. “As for France, it is impossible to be more satisfied than I am: men, horses, money; everything is on offer. Fortunately, I took action in advance and I do not need any extraordinary efforts. My finances are in good condition. The 1813 budget I have just approved provides me with 1.1 billion francs in cash, and I have summoned the legislative body for 1 February, during which it is customary to publish all accounts. If, as I expect, Austria, Denmark, and Prussia’s systems do not change, I can wage war with my regular income.” These were his words to his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria. [Letter 7 January to François I, Correspondance générale, n° 32230.] There had to be no uncertainty, and Napoleon, the skilful propagandist, had the matter in hand.

Any lover of Napoleon’s correspondence will know his passion for small things, and his incredible ability to construct grand designs, whether military, political, dynastic or diplomatic. He could define simply and precisely each of the systems that he wanted to apply, while at the same time striving to fine-tune every detail, a bit like an artist ceaselessly adding touches here and there to his painting. In January, the most urgent matter was to build up the army. “Give orders”, “Instruct”, “Take action”, or “Direct”: these are the words that come most often from his pen. The energy he was to deploy to prepare an army ready to fight in Saxony speaks for itself. He had never before dictated so many letters than during the first six months of 1813: 2,925 letters [The Fondation Napoléon and the editor are very grateful to all the people who worked on this book, including Michèle Masson, Patrick Le Carvèse and Jean-Pierre Vérité for their proofreading work. Jean-Pierre Pirat for the realisation of the maps, Bertrand Fonck and Michel Roucaud for their work on the index, as well as the curators of the French Archives Nationales, the Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Service Historique de la Défense.] including 707 alone for the month of June. This record shows that his capacities, far from being affected, were on the contrary not only intact but possibly sharper than ever. Every page shows a brilliant architect at work. Pouring out endless streams of words to his secretaries, he moves, subtracts, assigns, affects, reassigns, adds or readjusts both men and supplies throughout his empire. Facing an enemy across the Vistula, he organizes the defence. In order to resume the offensive, and once again to create a surprise, however, he had to find fresh blood. All he had left was 60,000 men beyond the Elbe, and all the conscripts of 1812 had been used up (it was difficult to find 1,822 soldiers ready to take to the road) and the conscripts of 1813 were only just beginning to enter the barracks (137,000 men). [See on this topic the excellent study by Commandant Lanzerac, La manœuvre de Lützen, Institut de stratégie comparée, EPHE IV Sorbonne, p. 22-23] To rebuild his army, Napoleon had to resort to exceptional conscription. On paper, 647,000 men were called up, and a further 80,000 were taken from earlier conscription years, and these latter were combined to create auxiliary troops called “cohorts”. They were assigned to depots and garrisons within the Empire, thereby making it possible to free up tens of thousands of trained soldiers in barracks to fight in Saxony. On 20 April, the Grande Armée was divided into six infantry corps of 210,000 men – of which 175 000 were French. Of these, the vast majority (more than 100,000) has more than one year of experience, which belies the commonly held view that the 1813 army, at least in the first part of the campaign, consisted of conscripts who had never seen action. But, whilst the artillery was excellent, the cavalry (about 15,000 men) was understaffed on the eve of the coming campaign. And yet, even with this shortfall, Napoleon’s army appeared formidable. And it would also prove its value in the coming battles. In a few weeks, the “God of War” had performed a miracle, recreating regiments and divisions after having returned to his capital in the manner that we know.

Having seen him reconstitute his units, we can easily imagine Napoleon bent over his maps, coloured pins in hand, advancing his paper units all the while calculating each unit’s ration, each distance and the qualifications of the commanders. The human factor, however, random by nature, worried him. To combat the uncertainty, he took great care in appointing those who would command his units, constantly questioning his Minister of War, Clarke, about one general or another. As for provisions, Daru the Intendant and the Minister of War Administration were also constantly solicited. Maths was one of Napoleon’s favourite pastimes, and he used and abused it in an attempt to control everything. I could cite a thousand examples from this book, such as the letter addressed to Eugène, dated 24 January: “My Son, I received a letter from Count Daru, dated 17 January. I see that there is at Stettin 1.5 million rations of flour, 500,000 rations of biscuit, 800,000 rations of rice and pulses, 11 million rations of salt, 300,000 rations of spirits 300,000 rations of wine, 300,000 rations of beer, 300,000 rations of vinegar, 1 million rations of salt meat, 400,000 rations of hay, 400,000 rations of straw 200,000 rations of oats or barley, 1 million rations of wood. This provision seems to me very satisfactory. Count Daru bases his calculations on a garrison of 2,800 men and 800 horses: that basis is false. You cannot have a garrison at Stettin with fewer than 4,000 men, nor supplies for less than a year. However, 2 million rations of biscuit or flour, at 5,000 rations per day (because a garrison of 4,000 men requires 5,000 rations), are sufficient for 400 days; 800,000 rations of rice and vegetables for 200 days; wine, water spirits, beer and vinegar for 300 days; 1 million rations of salted meat for 200 days. Besides, if needed, the commander could pick up around 5 or 600 oxen; in this way, we would have no anxiety about supplying this place”. [12] We will never know precisely whether officers or stewards were able to check his endless calculations. Regardless, this expression of everything in numbers clearly reassured Napoleon, giving him the impression that he was in control of men and material. Mastery of everything, again and again: this is one of the key words of this correspondence.

In order to develop his mathematical models, the Emperor was thirsty for information. We know that he especially nourished his reflection by reading police reports or reports of the military situation. But being naturally suspicious, he always checked the official information against other sources. In this volume, here and there we come across several examples of this method. Ordinance Officers and aides-de-camp received several official but nevertheless discreet missions. Whilst human or material data was essential for him in order to meditate offensives and manoeuvers, geography was a key element in his strategy. He had to have a perfect understanding of the terrain as evidenced by this letter to the aide-de-camp Atthalin: “You will find enclosed a map of Minden. In Paris, go straight to Monsieur Bouthillier, sub-prefect of Minden, (you will get his address from Count Molé), and have a conversation with him on the following questions: Is the bridge made of stone? Was the enclosure made of stone? Is there water in the moat? Are only the parapets destroyed? How far away are the mountains which overlook it? See also the officers at the engineering office to find out if they have any better plan than this one and if they can give clarification. Yourself, have you not been to Minden?”[At Atthalin, 14 March 1813, n° 32214]. The activity in his office was of a rare intensity. One can easily imagine his secretaries exhausting themselves with the task. [The greatest days of activity within the Imperial cabinet were the 16, 17 and 18 June with respectively: 66, 51 and 61 letters dictated, copied and sent] On 22 June alone, there were 43 letters written from his dictation. As usual, the Emperor thought of everything, imagined, redeployed, vituperated or reprimanded his subordinates. He appeared to be the only one in control, leaving very little initiative to his marshals and generals. Let us consider some examples from the day of 22 June. Hoping to better defend the place of Koenigstein, he ordered, for example, the fortification of the heights of Lilienstein, describing with amazing precision what he required, such as one would expect of a senior commander of genius. Then, a few letters later, after having sorted out what to do with a few other strongholds, he concerned himself with the pension of the widow and daughter of Duroc, skipping on no details as to what to do. Then, concerned once again by the war, he began to form and recompose regiments and battalions before expressing his surprise to the intendant Daru, over the shortcomings of his administration. A short letter to Marie-Louise gives a glimpse of his mood that day. He concluded it thus: “My health is very good. I love you with all my heart. All yours “. [ibid, n° 34343.] It could not be less telegraphic. Finally, Napoleon did not forget his spies as evidenced by this letter to spymaster Lelorgne d’Ideville: “Your agency does me very few services. You have not yet given me even one report from Bohemia, where everyone gets in so easily. You have not given me any either from Berlin nor from Mecklenburg, nor Poland. You did not even know how to find out where the partisans were, despite them being in Saxony itself. You supply us merely with the translation of newspapers, it is something, but it’s not enough. It seems that your business is not well organised, because you do not succeed in anything. Never have I been so badly served in a campaign”. [At Lelorgne d’Ideville, 22 June 1813, n° 34941]

Throughout the 2,925 letters that make up this volume, the recurring theme is: he was poorly served, hence the incessant warnings to his generals, marshals and ministers. In his mind, he was now cruelly missing the more capable ones. It is true that fate seemed to have dealt a cruel hand to the young officers who had surrounded him since the First Italian Campaign. Governor of the Illyrian Provinces, Marshal Junot, went mad in June, and was found walking naked but for the Grand Cordon of the Légion d’Honneur. On the 22, Napoleon wrote from Dresden to Clarke: “Dear Duke of Feltre, I send you a dispatch from Trieste which seems to me quite extraordinary. Get it checked. Write about it to the Commissioner-General and the Duke of Abrantes himself. If it were found to be true, it would be necessary to remove the authority of a man who has become degraded to this point “. [ibid, n° 34931] Death had already taken so many of his companions in glory. In May, he lost one of his closest officers, maybe his only friend, the great Maréchal Duroc. Then there was also the loss of Bessieres. On each occasion, Napoleon seemed overwhelmed by so much misfortune. In his letters to Marie Louise, his pain is palpable: “My good friend, I was very sad all day yesterday over the death of the Duc de Frioul. He has been my friend for 20 years. I have never had to complain about him; he only ever gave me reason for consolation. This is an irreparable loss, the greatest that could happen to my army “. [ibid, n° 34314]

No doubt, however, infiltrates the Napoleonic prose, the Emperor appears as sure of himself as ever. And yet, there was plenty of bad news. From the beginning of the campaign, he lost his commander in chief. Murat, the King of Naples, had been at the head of the remnants of the Grand Army since the departure of Napoleon: he was a hesitant and erratic chef. Worried about his kingdom, he left his command without orders in the first few days of January. Then in turn, several generals, faced with a reduced workforce, surrounded and deprived of support, were forced to give up and lay down their arms. And among the civilians administering the new departments anxiety was palpable, even overwhelming. Some of the Caciques [local political chiefs] in their comfortable homes, even packed their bags: “My cousin, the rumour spread here is that your daughters and nieces are leaving Amsterdam and will sound the alarm throughout Holland. I cannot believe such imprudence. Take care that no Frenchman or -woman leave Amsterdam, and that they exhibit no sign of anxiety”, Napoleon warned Governor General Lebrun, for example. [At Lebrun, 22 March 1813, n° 33388] In Holland and in Germany, anguish and panic was spreading even to the most hardened. Even within the ministries, there was doubt. And around Napoleon, including among his most loyal, certitudes appeared to evaporate. Sometimes, some even wondered aloud, at the risk of facing the imperial wrath, such as the minister Savary, despite being considered the “minion” of the Emperor. Napoleon’s response to his questions sounds like a disavowal: “The tone of your correspondence does not please me; you always bored me with your need for peace. I know better than you the situation of my Empire, and the direction that your correspondence is taking does not produce a good effect on me. I want peace, and I’m more interested in it than anyone: so your speeches on that subject are unnecessary; but I will not make a peace that would be dishonourable or which would bring us an even more bitter war in six months. Do not reply to this; these matters do not concern you, do not get involved”.[At Savary, 13 June 1813, n° 34639] A dangerous idea maybe even fatal for the French Emperor nevertheless began to appear; what if he was the only obstacle to peace? In their proclamations as well as in their acts, his opponents made him responsible for everything. The argument was clever and likely to cause trouble. To isolate the Emperor was surely the best way to bring him down.


At the beginning of 1813, the defections began, Prussia leading the way; much to Napoleon’s distaste. In the first days of January, General Yorke’s Prussian auxiliary corps lined up alongside the Russian army. This “betrayal” was followed by many others. King Frederick William moved cleverly away from the French troops, dropping his mask in March, when the country went to war against France. While the French eagles receded throughout Germany, Napoleon’s allies were in disarray, hence their timid resistance against the Prussian and Russian invaders. The Saxon troops capitulated almost without fighting, leaving the French regiments facing the enemy alone. On 4 April, writing to Maret, Napoleon pretended to be surprised: “It is incredible that the King of Saxony abandons his country in this way to a few Cossacks and does not use his cavalry, who could defend him. The Saxons really behave badly”. [ibid, n° 33632] Was he even aware that the advance of Russian troops beyond the Vistula was causing a panic among the elite whilst being welcomed by part of the population? He appeared to ignore it, obstinately believing that the sedition, far from general, only concerned a few felons able to rally supporters here and there and against whom, he required the utmost severity if they were to be captured. For him, desertion and abandonment could only be caused by the cowardice of one or another senior officer. Letter after letter, he also laments the lack of vigilance by kings or princes of the Rhine Confederation who were, in his view, guilty of allowing from time to time the publication of articles hostile to his rule in their newspapers, as though it were enough to silence here and there any malicious pens to remove any contestation. On 18 January, he confided to his brother Jerome: “If these men can maintain, as they strive to do, informers within the Confederation and instil in it the spirit that animates them, then innumerable evils will melt away. Both the tranquillity of the people and the existence of houses that rule over the various Confederate States depend on the energy that sovereigns will develop. I guaranteed the existence of their princes, both against their external enemies and against those who, inside, would try to injure their authority. I will fulfil my commitments; the great sacrifices that I impose on my people, the major measures I have just adopted, have no other purpose than to fulfil them. But while I will do everything for the Confederated sovereigns, I have hope that they will not abandon themselves and will not betray their own cause. They will betray it, if they do not compete along with me with all of their possibilities, if they do not take the most effective measures to put their infantry, artillery, and especially their cavalry into the best condition, if they do not do everything they can to distance the war from Germany and so that all the enemy’s plans are foiled. They will betray it again, by not preventing the agitators of all kinds from causing harm, or by letting public broadsheets lead opinion astray with false news, or by corrupting it with pernicious doctrines, or by not monitoring with anxious vigilance, both the preaching and the teaching, and all that can exert some influence on public tranquility “. [to Jérôme, 18 January 1813, n° 32332]

Throughout the first half of 1813, Napoleon underestimated and belittled his enemy, hence the deep misunderstanding between him and his subordinates. He responded to their concerns with contempt and was furious against those who recoiled. His letter dated 25 June, which was sent to Berthier is in this respect edifying: “Write to general Laplane that he does not know what he is talking about. He believes that the enemy has 45,000 men encamped at Kalisch. These are fairy tales that he has been told: there is not a single man on the operating line, not even at Kalisch. Tell him that those who have sent him such reports can only be spies who deserve to be shot”. [ibid, 34991] Since his knowledge could only be exact, the Emperor hated when anyone disturbed his calculations by what he believed to be misinformation; he appeared to be imprisoned by a mathematical system from which he could not or would not extract himself. Winner on paper, any defeat or abandonment before the enemy could only be caused by cowardice when put to the test. In this volume, the instances of anger by the Emperor faced with what he considers to be pure cowardice abound. Among the dozens of capitulations that filled this campaign, the one at Spandau was, like many others, judged severely by Napoleon. On 24 April, in the square, all was lost when the explosion of the powder magazine destroyed a wall. About to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, the commander of Spandau, General Baron Bruny had no choice but to negotiate his surrender. On 2 May, from Lützen, the Emperor uncompromisingly ordered his immediate arrest, declaring that “presumption is against the Defence Council” [Letter to Berthier, n° 34091]. Napoleon was a severe prosecutor, accusing, sometimes against the evidence, so many of his generals, but once his anger had dissipated, the military authorities were reluctant to condemn their brothers-in-arms and almost no career was broken. The Empire was not at all totalitarian. It is still unclear if even one soldier went before the firing squad for having retreated before the enemy. Even when severely affected, the French army did not resort to terror, either by putting the so-called cowards before the firing squad or by systematic violence to civilians. Yet concerning the latter, almost everywhere in Germany, the enemies of France were rather well received and even cheered when they entered towns and villages. No resistance was mounted to thwart the march of the Russian troops. It was rather the opposite; supporters rose up in numbers to support their movement. Instead of punishing them harshly when he took back the advantage, ultimately Napoleon played the card of moderation. The best example was in the city of Hamburg. During the few weeks when the city came under Russian control, evidence of collusion between former subjects of the Empire and enemy soldiers was legion. In response, on 7 May, the Emperor seemed at first to have decided to make an example. Through Berthier, he ordered Marshal Davout: “This is what has to be done. He will stop on the spot all the subjects of Hamburg who took service under the senators of Hamburg. He will have the five most guilty court-martialled and shot, and he will send others under guard to France, to be held in a state prison […] He will disarm the entire city, shoot the officers of the Hanseatic Legion, and send all those who have taken jobs in that company, to France, to be sent to the galleys […] He will make a prescription list of 500 individuals from the 32nd military division, the richest and who have conducted themselves the worst; he will have them arrested, and will have their property sequestrated, to be taken possession of by the domain”[ibid, n° 34152]. Then over the course of his correspondence, he forgot a little his resentment against the “rabble”, requiring nothing more than financial penalties and became interesting primarily by the armament of the city. The price to pay was certainly considerable: 50 million francs, equivalent to several tax years, but nothing compared to the horror of blood tax. It was better indeed to save the city so that it became both a highlight of the French defence system and that it be able to bail out the imperial finances, which were becoming increasingly complicated.

Again, and again, Napoleon questioned the attitude of Austria, trying to interpret the slightest sign from Vienna. His initial optimism gradually gives way to a certain suspicion as the attitude of “Papa Francis” [To Marie-Louise, 25 June1813, n° 35022] appears every day more suspect. On the ground, the Austrian auxiliary corps, despite being strong with 40 000 men and situated in such a way as to threaten the rear of the Russian army, remains surprisingly with its arms on the ground, content only to protect Galicia. On 17 March at Kalisch, a secret agreement is even signed between the two powers, regulating in great detail what must be called a sham military campaign. The commanders and the Austrians then agree to operate together retreats and offensives as if on parade. All this had only one aim: to occupy the desired positions and above all, to dupe the Emperor of the French. Certainly no alliance yet formally bound Austria and Russia, but on all levels, their agreement was real. In addition, Austria was rearming itself, powerfully. Enough to worry Napoleon even if for a long time, he refused to be defeatist: “Duke de Feltre, answer the general Vignolle that our political situation with Austria is most amicable, that all these alarming rumours that are being spread in Italy are propagated by the English on all sides of the Empire. It would be fitting that you write on this subject to all the commanders of maritime military divisions, to let them know this tactic of the English”, wrote Napoleon, especially to his minister of war. [To Clarke, 18 February 1813, n° 32821] Everything indicates that he thought, or at least hoped, that Austria would long remain an ally. On 5 April, he told Marshal Ney that he was still “very sure” of Vienna’s loyalty. [To Ney, 5 April 1813, n° 33662] But after some frankly disappointing talks with the newly-appointed Austrian ambassador, Schwartzenberg, he understood that Austria was wavering dangerously. Thereafter he deemed it more prudent with this power to prepare for the worst as evidenced by the letter to the Minister of War dated 24 April: “I have reason to be pleased with the intentions of Austria. I do not suspect their dispositions; However, my intention is to be capable and not to depend on them. The vulnerable party in respect to Austria is my kingdom of Italy: it is my intention as soon as possible to send the viceroy back there. Make it your job, by all possible means, to form an army in Italy “. [To Clarke, 24 April 1813, n° 34377.]

Despite the pervasiveness of the military thing in this thirteenth volume of Napoleon’s correspondence, diplomatic letters are numerous. Reading them, Napoleon the diplomat appears to us as conciliatory and reassuring as he does imperious or threatening. Politics is not completely absent, either. On 15 April, when the Emperor left Saint-Cloud to go to battle in Saxony, he entrusted the regency of the Empire to his wife, the Empress Marie-Louise. Not having forgotten the Malet affair, which almost toppled his regime in October 1812 by spreading the rumour that he had died in Russia, he wanted to avoid a power vacuum, hence the responsibility entrusted to Marie-Louise assisted by the Chancellor Cambacérès. In reality, he delegated few powers to his young wife. From his bivouac, he continued to ensure the smooth running of his business, taking care himself of even the procedural details of the regency council. In addition, we know the Emperor practiced without hesitation a policy of “divide and rule” to consolidate better his power. Far from Paris and always suspicious, he seems to have wanted at times to oppose the two heads of the executive in order to prevent any understanding that might be made to his detriment. On 30 May, from the Bivouac at Rosnig, he openly criticized the attitude of Cambacérès in this note to his wife: “My friend, I received your letter of 23 May. I am sorry that you have not pardoned, before going to the Te Deum, the man condemned to death. This trait of clemency would have been well placed on a day of rejoicing; the Chancellor was too severe in this case”. [To Marie-Louise, 30 May1813, n° 34377] A month earlier, he had written to the Chancellor to restrict the freedom of action of the Empress without even warning her: “My cousin, it is necessary that the Regent would sign nothing relative to the guards of honour, except in case of an emergency. You will send all the work directly to me; Otherwise, the minister of war will withdraw men who are required by me in the army in order to place them there”. [To Cambacérès, 21 April 1813, n° 33966] Even more severe, on 7 June, he regrets that the Imperial representation is so badly served “My cousin, I do not agree that the Empress go to Notre Dame. These large ceremonials should be rare otherwise they become trivial. If the Empress went there for the victory at Wurschen she would be obliged to go for all the other victories. Whereas it was well to go there for the victory of Lützen, an unexpected victory that changed the position of our business, this time on the other hand it would be useless. With a people like ours, we require more handling than that”[To Cambacérès, 7 June 1813, n° 34511]. But beyond these few hiccups at the highest peak of the state, it is striking that the Emperor on campaign seem concerned at the political level only by the Te Deum played at Notre Dame or by matters of etiquette, as if now only Imperial imagery and court theatricals counted. Beyond the palace, the Empire was nevertheless troubled by the fate of the Pope that Napoleon had put under house arrest at Fontainebleau. The intransigence of the Emperor regarding the Pope even revived a royalist opposition that had been believed definitely eradicated. On these matters, Napoleon could not care less. Relying on nothing but his genius, he became more blind by the day. Almost a shame when one expects to rule the world to this degree.

Pierre Branda (translation P.H. and R.Y, November 2016).


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