With Napoleon in Russia

Armand Augustin Louis, Marquis de Caulaincourt in his own right, was a French aristocrat who lived through the Revolution because he was serving in the army, where he had been promoted on his own merits in the revolutionary government’s struggles with invasions by French aristrocrats and the royalist governments they had rallied to their cause.

Once, on his way to rejoin his regiment, he was actually denounced as an aristocrat and thrown into prison, but the gaoler’s wife was “a woman whose poverty Caulaincourt’s mother had relieved.” He escaped and made it back to his regiment. To make a long story short, he served as Napoleon’s ambassador to Russia from 1807 to 1811.

He then became Napoleon’s master of horse, basically the number two guy in the empire. By then Napoleon had divorced Josephine (big mistake; it was all downhill from there) declared himself emperor and married an Austrian princess.

Anyway, after serving as an ambassador to Tsar Alexander and actually forming a personal friendship with him, Caulaincourt had to oversee all the logistics of the invasion of Russia.

He tells us all about it in his memoirs With Napoleon in Russia, which, for complicated reasons, was not published until 1933.

Caulaincourt had argued vehemently against the invasion — Napoleon’s subordinates were encouraged to speak their minds — and advanced carefully reasoned arguments that it was the wrong thing to do from every angle. The Russians would simply withdraw, he predicted, and rely on the severity of the winter.

But Napoleon was not to be persuaded. Using as a pretext the fact that Russia was allowing American ships to enter the Baltic ports and violating the embargo he was trying to impose on England, he invaded that Russia with about 400,000 men, who were later reinforced by about 100,000 more. And Caulaincourt, despite his opposition to the idea, had to arrange all the horses and transport and oversee the emperor’s household and run the communication systems and all kinds of other things.

That’s why it came to pass that Caulaincourt was with Napoleon throughout the campaign and even accompanied him in the famous Berlin coach when he abandoned the army and headed back to Paris. They did a lot of talking in the coach, all of which Caulaincourt wrote down, and it’s very revealing about the emperor, and about Caulaincourt as well.

Here’s what Dorothy Canfield had to say about this book: (Canfield was a best-selling author as well as an education reformer who brought the Montessori method to the United States. She was on the Book of the Month selection committee.)

“I base on four facts my claim to be the right person to report on this book: I am one of those people who, because they never can keep Russian names straight are never quite sure who is who among the characters in Russian books.

“I have always been incapable of reading a tactical description of a regular battle. As soon as ‘the right wing was drawn up on such-and-such Heights with the cavalry deployed in such-and-such formation,’ I painlessly fade from the book.

“Thirdly, having ruefully observed how hard it is for human beings to tell the truth about what happened to them personally, I am invincibly sceptical about the accuracy of any author’s account of what happened to him.

“And lastly, detesting war as a relic of savagery, I am apt to feel that military affairs and details are of no more interest or importance to civilized people than the names of mediaeval armor.

“Such being certain infirmities and mental habits of mine, it can be imagined with what lack of enthusiasm I began this account of the Russian campaign written by Napoleon’s Master of Horse.

“The quality of this book can, perhaps, be judged when I report that (after a slight difficulty in getting started) I could hardly lift my eyes from the page before I had read much more slowly and with closer attention than is my usual habit, every word of the volume.”

That’s why I haven’t posted for a while. I picked up this book to look for a passage I was thinking about, and I have had to reread the entire book.