Armand Augustin Louis, Marquis de Caulaincourt, wrote an account of Naploeon’s Russian campaign called With Napoleon in Russia that did not appear until the twentieth century, because a lot of people had to die first, but when it appeared, it was clear that this was one of the most important works of history ever published.
To make a very long story short, Napoleon led the largest army ever assembled in Europe into Russia, about 500,000 men, later reinforced by another 100,000. And that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of magnificent horses.
Caulaincourt had always been opposed to the invasion of Russia, but as Napoleon’s Master of Horse, he was obliged to carry it out. The crucial scene takes place when Napoleon is waiting at the gates of Moscow for the city fathers to bring him the keys and money from their banks.
He sits and waits for a while, hmm hmm hmm, and after a few hours he realizes, they’re not coming. And then, on the next windy day, Moscow burns down around his ears and he realizes that the Russians are not like his other European opponents. They’ve grown up fighting with the Mongol hordes, and they play for keeps.
Marshal Kutuzov, viewing the French troops lined up in battle array, vowed, “I will make them eat horsemeat.” And he made good on his vow. During Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, a bag of gold would not buy a loaf of bread.
I’ve posted an excerpt about the retreat called To Sleep is to Die.
When Napoleon decided to abandon his army and ditch it back to France, Caulaincourt rode with him in the famous Berliner coach, and they had lots of interesting discussions.
So Caulaincourt’s book is a very interesting perspective on the Russian Campaign. Neither man seems too concerned about the loss of life and horseflesh, until they got back to the palace, which was surrounded with wives and children and parents and girlfriends concerned about their loved ones and the answer for all was the same. They had all had the opportunity of dying for their emperor.
So I pick up Caulaincourts wherever I see them, and I actually had some extras which I happily bestowed on some old college chums, Mark and Vince, both of whom enjoyed them immensely.
Just the other day our bookkeeper plonked this heavy package on my desk. Vince sent me a new translation of War and Peace, another perspective on the same war by Count Leo Tolstoy. Vince says the squabbles among Russian nobles reminds him of the Kardashians, and I do not think this is a coincidence. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.