Volume seven of the General Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte: an introduction

Author(s) : MADEC Gabriel
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“[…] Officers on the General Staff, [our] colonels and officers have not removed their clothes for over two months; for some of them it has been four (even I went a fortnight without removing my boots), in the middle of all this snow and mud, with no bread, no wine, no eau-de-vie, living on potatoes and meat, marching and countermarching for long distances at a time, without any sort of relief, fighting at bayonet, and often under a hail of bullets, the wounded forced to retreat fifty leagues in the open air. […] Having destroyed the Prussian monarchy, we fought what remained of the Prussians, and against the Russians, the Cossacks, the Kalmucks, and those tribes from the North who once invaded the Roman Empire. We are making war in all its fury and all its hardship. Amongst all these great exertions, everyone is, to a greater or lesser extent, sick […]”

Napoleon to Joseph (Osterode, 1 March, 1807)
With the publication of volume seven, covering the year 1807, we find ourselves exactly halfway through the construction of our grand epistolary monument to Napoleon. This feels, therefore, an opportune moment to offer our grateful thanks to those who have contributed to the great advances that have been made on the project.

This volume may only cover a single year, but what a year it was! Understandably, Eylau, Friedland and Tilsit stand out as three events that left a profound impression on 1807 and its protagonists.

The theatrical meeting between Napoleon and Alexander at Tilsit is the pivotal moment of 1807, effectively dividing the year into two distinct periods: the first semester, cold and uncertain, followed on naturally from the war-torn December of 1806, which was marked by the bloody and inconclusive battles of Golymin and Pułtusk. On the other hand, the second half – post-Tilsit – seemed destined to usher in an era of lasting peace. There would be nothing of the sort: with no end in sight to the Franco-British war, the two sides continued to develop new plans for intervention further afield.

The first days of 1807 paint a sobering picture. The Grande Armée, having fought a furious campaign against the Prussians, found itself in Poland, confronted by a determined adversary fully capable of both executing a strategic retreat and, when necessary, fighting to the bitter end on the battlefield. Nor was “General Winter” about to miss out on the action either: freezing rain gave way to snow, mud surrendered to the ice before the thaw struck again. The weather, the great stretches of forest and swampland, the absence of roads, and a lack of provisions – caused by problems in the supply train – all weighed heavily on Napoleon's strategy. For once, his method of waging war – reliant on rapid enveloping manoeuvres – was ill-suited to the theatre of operations. The enormity of the territory in question, coupled with the number of fortified towns under siege and the sheer distances involved, meant that Napoleon could no longer see and control everything: subsequently his dominance took a hit. With the Cossacks disrupting his lines of communications, as well as any isolated convoys or detachments they happened to come across, the emperor's on-the-spot intelligence, concerning both the enemy and the terrain, frequently proved flawed. If orders arrived at all, they were rarely on time. Transport, becoming lost or stuck en route, could no longer get through: Breidt's company – “that band of rogues” charged with seeing to such logistical concerns – copped a large part of the blame, and the order to militarise ten battalions of the baggage train was issued. Fatigue, hunger and sickness swept through the army, leading to indiscipline across the board and at every level. Cases of desertion, plundering and pillage increased. In retiring to the army's winter quarters, Napoleon hoped not only to limit his losses but also to give his troops some breathing space. The respite was to prove brief: by the end of the January, the Russian general Bennigsen was back on the offensive, in a campaign that still had another six months to run. A lightning war this was not.

Unsurprisingly, military correspondence dominates the first semester, but it also continues, to a lesser extent, after Tilsit. For the most part, the letters concern the organisation and administration of the occupied territories in Germany and Poland, although Napoleon still found time to address issues on the Italian peninsula and in Dalmatia, the Ionian Islands and early operations in Iberia. 1807 then becomes a flurry of diplomatic activity. Besides the treaties of Tilsit with Russia and Prussia, France also signed alliances with Persia, Saxony (concerning the Duchy of Warsaw), Denmark and Spain, as well as treaties outlining the incorporation of minor rulers from north and east Germany into the Confederation of the Rhine.

After an absence of ten months, Napoleon returned to Saint-Cloud on 27 July. Throughout this period, arch chancellor Cambacérès had kept him abreast of current affairs, receiving his master's frequent directives and scrupulously reporting back to the French emperor. Financial affairs were settled directly with his two highly competent ministers, Mollien (Treasury Minister) and Gaudin (Finance Minister).
Napoleon's orders were, in essence, primarily preventative measures: economic activity and employment continued to receive support – hence the directives to maintain production in the arsenals and manufactories, issued to Champagny, Minister of the Interior, and his successor, Cretet, as well as his construction projects. Nor did he overlook matters of town provisions or grain storage.

However, public order also relied on the constant surveillance and repression carried out by Fouché's police force. On average, Napoleon dictated a letter to Fouché every two days. In many cases, the letter concerns the interception of royalist agents and their sympathisers. And lastly, there was the management of public opinion, built on a close scrutiny of the press.

Every day saw a stream of Council of State officials and dispatch riders flow up and down the Paris-Poland route, transporting the various letters and their replies. On average, a letter took between ten and fifteen days to arrive at its destination.

During the course of the year, we can sense Napoleon's irritation at his brothers – whom he had personally placed on the various different vassal thrones across Europe – intensify. Louis, King of Holland, is reprimanded for the poor organisation of his army and his lax application of the Continental Blockade. Joseph, King of Naples, is constantly scolded for his less than energetic military operations in Calabria, but also entreated to participate in the provision and defence of the Ionian Islands, returned by Russia after Tilsit. Lastly, Jerome receives the Kingdom of Westphalia, although his rule was a closely controlled regency. Nevertheless, the initial proclamations and early measures introduced by Napoleon's younger brother soon put the French Emperor's nose out of joint. The only family member to escape is Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon's viceroy in Italy, whose government of the territory proved, on the whole, satisfactory. 

Napoleon's return to the capital also results in a not insignificant ministerial reshuffling (on 9 August). Talleyrand, dissatisfied with the role he was forced to play by Napoleon during the campaign, informed the emperor that he needed a break: what he got was effectively a voluntary disgrace. Whilst he traded in his functions as Minister for External Relations for the title of grand dignitary, Berthier – who could no longer do everything – relinquished the office of Minister of War to Clarke, but still held onto his role as Major-General of the army.

Reassured by the “compliant spirit” of Tilsit, Napoleon felt able to turn his attention to Britain. The final days of 1807 were marked by increased intensity in the Continental Blockade (the Milan decrees of 11 November and 17 December), as well as the invasion of Portugal, born of the same desire: to control every inch of the European coastline. Such unbridled ambition was to prove merely the beginning; this move into Portuguese territory opened up the possibility – we already begin to sense it in some of his letters – of intervention in the Iberian Peninsula on a far grander scale. Such projects are not laid out explicitly, however, and any such plans that there might have been remain strictly preliminary. The hints are there, though: Napoleon's veteran Grande Armée troops, stationed out in Germany, were not to be repatriated. Rather, the invasion armies for Portugal and Spain were to be made up primarily of young, untrained conscripts and foreigners (Germans, Italians, Neapolitans and Swiss) divided into provisional regiments and régiments de marche. This inconsistency – pointed to in the correspondence – was to prove costly.

Nevertheless, 1807 still remains the Napoleonic Empire's almost mythical apogee. It may have begun badly, with thousands of dead and wounded at Eylau and Heilsberg – two battles so violently contested that the word “victory” seems inappropriate – but success was to follow. The decisive Battle of Friedland, the unprecedented spectacle on the raft in the middle of the Neman, and the alliances turned upside down at Tilsit helped banish all memory of the heavy price paid for such triumphs, not to mention the fact that nothing was certain whilst the maritime war still raged around them. On the contrary, the new possibilities opened up by the alliance with Russia only served to unleash the full force of imperial ambition, as 1808's events would demonstrate all too quickly.

(Tr. H.D.W.)

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