I took up Armand de Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia last year and cited a few passages. It’s a day-by-day account of the Russian campaign by a guy who was with Napoleon every day and who rode with him in the famous Berlin coach when Napoleon deserted the army and went back to Paris.
Here was a guy who (if we credit his account, which I do) did everything he could to talk Napoleon out of attacking Russia in the first place, urged a withdrawal when it was still possible — in short did everything he could to prevent Napoleon from making these incredible bonehead mistakes that cost more than a million human lives, soldiers and civilians, and hundreds of thousands of horses, and laid waste to nearly all of European Russia, not to mention France itself, later.
I quoted his chronicle of the disastrous retreat in “To Sleep is to Die” about the thousands of men whom he saw freezing to death. There was another passage I didn’t quote — because it was too gross — about the horses who fell and were cut up and eaten on the spot by desperate men without anyone having the decency to bonk them on the head.
What I don’t get is that the freezing dying minions are standing up and cheering when the emperor’s coach goes by. And even Caulaincourt, who lost his brother in the battle before Moscow, shows this fauning adulation for the bonehead who has just initiated all this needless destruction.
I just couldn’t figure it out.
This war caused the destruction, not just of Smolensk, the Holy City, and Moscow, the ancient capital of the Russians, but also of Napoleon and all his grand schemes. France was invaded and occupied by foreign powers. It was tragic, sociopathic self-destructive stupidity.
Napoleon could have allied himself with Russia and the United States, then on the verge of war with England (War of 1812). Instead Napoleon gives as his pretext for war, the admission of American vessels into Russian ports.
So there’s something I don’t quite get. I believe it has to do with the fact that Napoleon did not make a single intelligent decision after his divorce from Josephine. For one thing he reversed his position on human slavery from “against” to “for.”
But I have to say that reading Caulaincourt’s memoir is like eating potato chips. The whole panorama of this hellacious debacle is set forth in crisp, dispassionate prose. You get to see it happen right before your eyes.
Even down to that last scene in Napoleon’s palace in Paris, the Tuilleries, when they finally get there, where lines of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and sisters and brothers and friends were all lined up to find out what had happened to their loved ones and the answer for all, 600,000 men, was the same – never coming back.
You’ll be glad to know, I am sure, that neither Caulaincourt nor the Emperor got downhearted about the loss, in its entirety, of the largest, best equipped army in history and the miserable, horrific deaths of all its soldiers and horses. Caulaincourt reports they had a pleasant trip.
You can’t let that kind of thing get you down. I’m planning some future blog entries about their jolly trip that will show what sick bastards these guys really were.