Russia and France – the messy break-up…

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Peter Hicks offers a brief overview of the build-up to the Grande Armée's invasion of Russian territory in June 1812. As agreements, alliances and diplomatic relations between Russia and France slowly crumbled, both the French emperor and the Russian tsar sought to outmanoeuvre one another. With the two behemoths drawing up plans for military action, Austria, Sweden, the Duchy of Warsaw, Turkey, Finland and Prussia were all drawn into a power game that would have a momentous impact on the European continent and would ultimately mark the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

War: an extension of politics

Given the drama of the campaign of 1812 – the huge European-coalition Grande Armée crossing the Niemen, the Russian's strategic retreat, the deathly cannonades at Borodino, the taking and burning of a religious capital, Moscow, the retreat in the snow, the crossing of the Berezina, the Cossacks… – we often forget why this Franco-Russian conflict started. And also given that we view the events of that summer, autumn and winter through our contemporary eyes, we tend to dwell on the suffering, the bloodshed and the futility of war, forgetting that war for late 18th-century and early-19th-century politicians was simply another move in the game. So we are perhaps misled into attributing more emotional resonance to campaigns which at the time were considered simply as an extension of politics. In May 1812, Napoleon is reported as having referred to his intentions in Russia during a session of the Council of State as follows: “I shall tame Alexander; I shall win two battles and I shall go to Moscow or to St Petersburg: there I shall dictate peace. I shall be away no more than three or four months.” What he was referring to was the waging of a 'political war', a limited decisive conflict that would bring Russia to heel and force her to apply a stricter version of the continental blockade aimed at destroying the growing British empire and its naval supremacy. In other words, the campaign of 1812 was to be a better version of the campaign of 1807, which ended with the clinical strike at Friedland followed by gentle but firm dealings resulting in a (for the most part) mutually beneficial treaty. Whilst it is true that Russia was the loser in 1807 and Napoleon the victor, the cordiality of the post-conflict summit was designed to augur a new kind of relationship in which a certain sort of political goodwill might flourish – though naturally not going against the dictates of Realpolitik. The treaty at Tilsit did not punish Russia in the same way that it punished Prussia – there were no reparations to pay or even any serious loss of territory. Russia was, it is true, 'down', but as the Tilsit treaty shows she was not 'out' – hence her ability to negotiate from a stronger position than the military defeat might imply.

The break-up

But regardless of the apparent 'marriage of minds' created at Tilsit and supposedly cemented at Erfurt, Russia found herself commercially hamstrung when she respected the Continental System, respect of the which was supposed to bring Britain commercially to her knees, thereby giving France victory in the second Hundred Years' War. The problem was that Russia could not survive without British trade – indeed her finances were already severely stretched after Friedland – hence Alexander's ukase of 1810 easing the continental system and allowing Russia more import flexibility. However, the financial crisis was not Alexander's only bugbear with Napoleon. Extreme French dominance in continental Europe also played its part. It did not please Russian politicians that France should control and occupy Spain, Italy, the Balkans and satellite states in most of the German-speaking lands from Austria to Hamburg, not to mention, Scandinavia and more importantly Prussia's Polish lands which had been organised as a Duchy of Warsaw under the king of Saxony but which Russia saw as a significant step in the recreation of the kingdom of Poland. Now, a French-influenced Polish kingdom on Russia's doorstep was a disaster in Russian foreign policy terms. And in addition to irritating Russia on her borders, France had encouraged the Ottoman Empire to resist Russian encroachment to the south. Napoleon had famously received Persian diplomats in the spring of 1807 at Finckenstein enshrining Franco-Persian cooperation, notably against Russia, and Russian negotiations with the Sublime Porte were not to be brought to a conclusion until the days preceding the Grande Armée's crossing of the Niemen in June 1812. Austria's forced rapprochement with France – as cemented by the treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809 and the following marriage to a Habsburg princess – further perturbed Franco-Russian relations. All told, these geopolitical developments put so much pressure on the alliance that it finally cracked. Russia could not tolerate French extreme dominance nor find financial salvation within the Continental System, and France could not find success against Britain without a subservient Russia. The break-up of the relationship and the descent into another 'political war' (à la 1807) was in the end just a question of time. Indeed, it was just another move in the political game, trying to use coercion where collaboration and persuasion had failed.

Both sides prepare for war

It should therefore not surprise us to learn that both Napoleon and Alexander were reflecting upon, and indeed preparing for, the possibility of armed conflict as early as 1810. With Austerlitz, Eylau and Friedland fresh in his memory, Alexander started from the bottom up with a complete restructuring of the army, a re-organisation of recruitment and training, the construction of fortresses and training camps, and the systematic production of materiel, in particular horses and wagons. As has been underlined by Dominic Lieven in his 2010 prize-winning book on the Russian campaign, horses “fulfilled the present-day functions of the tank, the lorry, the aeroplane and motorized artillery […] in other words, the weapon of shock, pursuit, reconnaissance, transport and mobile firepower”. The availability of carts and haulage animals available to Russia (because they had been prepared in advance) were to provide Russia with a significant advantage in the pursuit of the campaign – not just to the end of 1812 but right up to 1814, the real end of the war begun in June two years earlier. France likewise was not slow to get organised for the coming conflict in 1810 and throughout 1811. Indeed, Napoleon's correspondence for the year 1811 is filled with letter related to the organisation of the Grande Armée, notably with the preparation of troops from throughout the Empire, the organisation of stores and ammunitions in important cities and fortresses liable to be involved in the coming conflict.

The conflict

When the conflict finally came, both sides were well prepared, the crucial difference being that whilst the troops of the Grande Armée weres fighting far from their different homelands in a loosely bound multinational force with only vague political aims as far as they were concerned, Russian forces were fighting at home, on behalf of their homeland and families, and in a national struggle for survival. And Napoleon was to make his life even more difficult by extending himself too far. His initial plan for a political war is revealed to us in Metternich's autobiography: “'My enterprise is one of those of which the solution is to be found in patience. Victory will attend the most patient. I shall open the campaign by crossing the Niemen. It will be concluded at Smolensk and Minsk. There I shall stop. I shall fortify these two points, and occupy myself at Vilna, where the chief head-quarters will be during the next winter, with the organisation of Lithuania, which burns with impatience to be delivered from the yoke of Russia. I shall wait and see which of us tires first: I, of feeding my army at the expense of Russia; or Alexander, of sustaining my army at the expense of his country. Perhaps I myself shall pass the most inclement months of the winter at Paris.'” As we know, he did not follow this eminently sensible plan, preferring rather to seek the decisive encounter, which the Russians sought at all costs to avoid. Napoleon was not to get another perfect battle like at Friedland. In fact, this yearning for a final encounter which would decide everything was to drag Napoleon and the grand army into the disaster of the retreat, when the devastating Russian winter joined the battle. This is not to say however that Russian action was inconsequential in the final defeat of the invading forces. The plan of systematically retreating and avoiding battle and letting the Russian geography make the difference had been formulated as early as 1810, citing the success of this tactic in 1709 against Sweden's Charles XII. As the military governor of Moscow, Rostopchin, was famously to note: “the emperor of Russia will be terrible in Moscow, terrifying in Kazan and invincible in Tobolsk”. And the systematic burning of key parts of captured Russian cities, bridges and ammunition depots, notably at Vilna, Vitebsk, Smolensk but above all Moscow, was to be an integral part of the strategy.
We should then take Napoleon's proclamation made to the Grande Armée on 22 June as an expression of his policy. For him, the preferable outcome must have been for the Russians to make a stand at the camp at Drissa and to be soundly beaten. This Friedland II would have been followed by a Tilsit II, with the screws tightened a little, just as the Treaty at Schönbrunn in 1809 (after Wagram) had been much harsher than the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 (after Austerlitz). Why should Napoleon have thought that could not put the cap on Franco-Russian relations in the same way as he had done for Franco-Austrian relations three years earlier? But in the end, he was not able to follow his own common sense. He allowed himself to pursue the idea of the single decisive battle (as his opponents knew he would), until it was too late and he had overcommitted himself.

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